K Subramanian, a BTech of Mechanical engineering from the batch of 1995, speaks of his experiences in IIT Madras.
When I was about to join IIT, they told me that there is no ragging at IIT Madras and the moon is made of green cheese. My first visit to the hostel before the semester opened, was with my parents as a recent high school 12th pass student. We went to the hostel office to understand what room I would be allotted and what purchases needed to be made in order to equip the room with the basics, which was not much beyond a thin mattress and a pillow in those days, pre-inexpensive computers. Two very nice students introduced themselves to my parents near the hostel office and believe it or not, requested their permission to “show me around” the hostel. They dropped me back at the same location 2 hours later with a smiling statement that I was privileged enough to be integrated into the hostel practices well before the institute opened. So yes, there was no ragging at IIT Madras and the moon is certainly made of green cheese.
The experiences above continued in full measure for the first month or so until people got busy. One of the most memorable events in this category was when I met a first year student named Chockalingam. I had good conversations with him as a co-first year student – only to find out later that this guy was neither first year and nor was he named Chockalingam. He was an enterprising 3rd year student who liked to play these games with the freshies and played them well. The good news is that he became a wonderful friend later in college and in life and career. We kept in touch at IIT, in the US and back in India many years later. The rendezvous with Mr. “Chockalingam” has laid the seeds for an everlasting friendship, not just between us but between our entire families.
By the end of the first year, we were all veterans of the IIT system. The first summer vacation was exciting – another student and I begged a Professor to give us work and we created one of the first fully computer simulated experiments in the physics lab. So if any of you readers complained about an electron beam experiment on what was then an advanced PC-XT machine, you know who to blame. Our excuse is that we at least tried to make it interesting by making it GUI based (a rarity in those days where the meaning of GUI was known in selected circles only!) and by introducing random errors in the measurements to ensure that every time the experiment is performed the user gets a slightly different answer. I heard the experiment ran for several years in the lab before it was retired. I also heard that students these days who do “free” work are hard to find thanks to the many internship opportunities around.
But the work wasn’t exactly free. What we earned in return was tremendous goodwill through our mentor. He helped us get some external and even international visibility for our work and wrote some fantastic recommendations for higher studies. He has visited me and stayed with me in the US and even helped shovel snow from my driveway. The Professor-student relationship has blossomed into a fabulous friendship. We drop in at each other’s offices and discuss anything under the sun today. Such is the nature of ever-lasting bonding among like-minded people that one gets to meet at IIT.
My second year was the year of Roja and its after-effects where the new future-Academy-Award-worthy music director had created waves throughout India. IIT was no exception and every cultural event and every hostel room carried those waves in the air. The exact reason I mention this is a reverse culture shock that I experienced when I returned from the US back to India in 2010. In those days a cassette player was expensive and a “two-in-one” that had both a radio and a dual-deck cassette player was the greatest gadget you could have in your room. This was called a “system”, short for music system. As I went through life in the US, “system” became a powerful word in a different context in industry – roughly speaking, a combination of several components whose sum total is more than the sum of its individual components. System thinking was extremely important in industrial practice and would make or break projects. The joke was on me when I returned to India and found the word “system” still in use as a computer system rather than just a music player. When someone came to my office and asked me how many systems we had, I was just blinking until I could figure out the new slang!
I am now a “system” who is more than the sum total of all my experiences. The delta comes from the fact that my experiences in IIT (including the one with green cheese) and after have instilled a confidence in me that any problem in the world can be tackled and solved – this confidence is what takes the sum total of my learnings and moves it forward . If there is one thing you take-away from your time at IIT, I hope that this be it.