Prof P Sriram speaks to the Chennai36 team about his experiences in IIT and about how times have changed since his time here as a student.
Experiences as a BTech Student:-
This place was very different from what I was used to. One thing that I fondly remember is cycling down to the gate and walking to the Aavin Circle. There was no traffic those days, so it was like walking in campus. We also had a lot of fun, going to the movies in Thiruvanmiyur. There was a graveyard near Tidal Park. Of course, it used to fun cycling through those places at night. But you do that.
Every so often, people used to cycle down to Mahabalipuram. One of our friends was from Kalpakkam. We cycled there, stayed there for the night. I remember my cycle pedal broke and it was raining. We had to push it for a few kilometres.
OAT movies were a lot more popular. The snack counter at OAT had just been opened. One day, me and a few of my friends decided we would go there in lungis. We bought something at the snack bar and we were walking back to the other side, when suddenly everyone started clapping, we didn’t know what was going on. We simply waved and kept going on. After sitting down, we realized that there were two security guards walking behind us and it looked like we were being kicked out for stealing. The OAT people cheered the guards for catching us.
Suicides were very uncommon those days. There was an Electrical Engineer who did take that step. It took them more than a day to remove the body and we all went to take a peek. For almost a whole day, the lab was locked but the window was open. The police didn’t turn up to clear the place out. It was horrible.
What has changed since those times?
Ragging was pretty severe those days. It was not physical but people would still humiliate you. I didn’t get ragged since I was a day scholar, I kept going home. The whole class had to take an English diagnostic test. A bunch of seniors gathered outside the hall and marched a 100 of us NCC style, all the way back to hostel. Marching in a big group was fun. By the time we were seniors, there was more social consciousness and people wanted to cut back on ragging. A couple of classmates of mine were punished. But then, the punishment was a big joke because they had to stay at Taramani guest house.
Special memories of your professors?
We had a very colourful physics professor – Prof. Swaminathan, who used to shout a lot. He always wore a dhoti to class. One time, he had a scooter accident but still came to class on crutches. He taught us, showing us the x-y and the y-z plane with his crutches. They had really high levels of commitment.
Those days there were no bars on the windows. Every so often, some of us used to jump out, and some of course, used to get caught doing so. We had a different kind of relationship with our professors, and some of them would have a smoke with us. I still remember knocking on professor’s houses saying I don’t understand some important concept and asking them to postpone the exam. They would actually entertain us.
Difference in students:-
These days information transfer has been taken out of the education system. You have google and Wikipedia, and so, it’s a different playing field. Those days, we just took whatever the professor said. These days, the students ask why they have to learn something and we have to be ready with an answer. The other unhappy thing is that people are not interested in learning but are just here for the degree. We are now recruiting more and more people. I hope we get more people like Prof. Nagrajan who do stuff other than Maths, Physics and Chemistry. Those days, people would laugh at you if you did anything different. The economy was very different. Even in IIT people used to be scared about jobs.
These days you don’t need to work for anybody. You can start-up when you want. It’s a good thing, really. Also now students are given more strength in governing affairs. Those were the days when there were strikes. But it was very rare in IIT simply because students had a lot of power.
How did you get into IIT?
I didn’t know about IIT until the middle of the previous year. I didn’t do well in 11th. I worked really hard in 12th. So halfway through the year, I found people working out problems for the entrance exams. Out of curiosity, I went up to them and I said I can do that. They were struggling with things I could handle. One of my teachers took me aside and said you can prepare if you put your mind to it. We had a couple of months to prepare for JEE after boards. I would sit on my mother’s sewing machine. My brother’s classmates would hang around and they would make fun of me saying “study, study”. I knew that I always had an aptitude for engineering, so I liked it, and it paid off.
Is there any co-curricular you pick up?
My interest was in social service. I got involved with NSS, eventually becoming the secretary. I lost interest after some time. I went abroad after that, but there were many of my classmates who pursued a lot of co-curricular activities. People would just come and start playing football every day and in their fourth or fifth year get into the insti team. I learnt to play Bridge. Of course, we didn’t have any attendance rules, and we grew quite thick skinned. Recently we also had an Alumni bridge Tournament. It has its own appeal. There was also a very active Bridge club. They would play at the National level. There were whiz kids like that.
Something you would like to change:
My worry is that we don’t have enough humanities in our education system. I’m of course outnumbered on this. We will always learn technical stuff. We need to broaden our mind, and we’ll be better human beings if we learn humanities. Even in school there’s too much emphasis on science. Our university should allow us to do everything. You should try out 5 different things and figure out what we want to do. We should be open-minded. We owe it to the nation.
Prof P Sriram graduated from IIT Madras in 1982 with a B.Tech in Aerospace Engineering. He is currently the Dean of Administration at IIT Madras.