Fifty-two years ago, in 1962, my father dropped me off at the Narmada hostel. The Asst. Warden, Mr. Saha, sat in the quadrangle assigning rooms. I was surprised to find that the hostel was still not complete: no electricity, no water, rooms still being painted, etc. I had a friend from my school days who was a year ahead at IIT. He invited me to stay in his Krishna hostel room for a few days till the Narmada hostel was ready. I foolishly accepted his offer only to become the target of seniors trolling the hallways looking for freshmen. I had to sing and dance for many senior groups but fortunately missed more embarrassing ragging like having to jog around campus in the moonlight in your underwear!
Soon thereafter, I became part of a group of very interesting classmates with a wide range of interests. Our discussions ranged from the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle to the uncertainties of understanding the fairer sex. Too much socialization led to my missing a First Class in the first year by one mark. Never having experienced academic failure before, this was a great shock to my ego, making me a little more studious. I managed a Merit Scholarship award the following year.
Scholastic life in those days was tough. Initially we had surprise periodicals and most of us fared poorly. Then the authorities relented and decided to announce the Saturday periodical subjects the previous evening at 5 pm. Students waited anxiously for the attendant to post the periodical announcement on the notice board and then rushed off to cram for the tests. I remember fighting sleep as I enviously watched from my hostel window the lights of the faculty quarters go off, one by one, between 10 pm and 11 pm, knowing that I still had many more hours of study. Every alternate week was workshop week. I remember we had to keep filing a huge block of steel till it became a flat plate, watched closely by the no- nonsense workshop instructor, nicknamed Baldy, who allowed us no rest breaks. I also remember carpentry workshop and my unsuccessful attempts at camouflaging my shoddy workmanship by filling gaps in joints with a mixture of glue and sawdust. I remember our having to clean the lathes in the machine shop meticulously under the watchful eye of the German foreman.
In our time at IIT, there were no supplementaries and one was held back a whole year for failing in even a non-engineering subject like German. Talking about German, reminds me of the time Prof. Klein was absent for about a week. A substitute teacher, Frau Inge Srinivasan, was deputed from Max Mueller Bhavan. Frau Inge, in her mini skirt, had the habit of hopping on to the table to teach. Classmates of other sections would cut their classes to religiously attend every single German class of Frau Inge.
As great was our trepidation in waiting for the clerk to post the weekly periodical notice on the board, so great was our joy at seeing the waterman on the hostel terrace in the evening opening up the water supply. One morning, there was absolutely no water in the bathroom. Instead of heading to classes, a large group of us marched towards the administrative building in our night suits, towels slung on our shoulders with toothbrush and paste in hand. Fortunately, the authorities realized our plight and water supply was restored without any punitive action.
I still remember some of the pranks perpetrated by our batch: A goat was found wandering around the hostel. It was fed a lot of water and locked up in Madhavan’s room. When the unsuspecting Madhavan entered his room, the goat charged him knocking him into a puddle of urine. From then on, he was known as Maaaaa – dhavan! We had a number of Sardars in our batch. Once, a Sardar, who had never used shaving cream previously, was literally foaming at the mouth. Someone had squeezed shaving cream into his toothpaste tube! Surgeons who perform minimally invasive surgery are known for their skills of operating through small keyhole incisions. We had similarly skilled classmates who could rearrange the contents of any hostel room without entering it, by skillfully manipulating the contents with mosquito net rods through an open window.
In our time, life’s pleasures were very simple. We had no TV, no Internet and no video games. Our common room was modest with just a table tennis table, a carom board, a music system and a few magazines. In the quadrangle of Narmada hostel we played tennis ball cricket, volleyball, badminton and tennikoit (ring tennis). Cultural events like the hostel day and intercollegiate cultural competition were great fun. I recall the foot-tapping rhythm of the aptly named student band, the Beat-X. I played the role of a bailiff in a play spoofing Erle Stanley Gardner with characters like Perry Madison and Della Sweet. The bailiff kept falling asleep, his snores interrupting court proceedings. I also remember scripting a show called Radio Jumble, where a restless student is surfing various radio stations, the audio tracks of these stations getting jumbled with humorous consequences. We took part in quiz competitions, wrote for the student magazine Campastimes, and cheered at the Pan-IIT sports meet presided over by the famed Tiger Pataudi.
As we had a few days off before this sports meet, a group of us went on a bike trip to Mahabalipuram, about 50 km away. I remember our attention being divided between the contours of the rock sculptures and those of the young ladies touring the ruins. I also remember witnessing a fantastic sunrise over the ocean. Speaking of the ocean, reminds me of weekend trips on our bikes to Elliots’s beach with its beautiful clean sandy beach, manageable ocean waves and foreign women in their attractive swimsuits. I also remember a catamaran trip that a group of us took into the Indian Ocean, hardly any of us knowing how to swim, yet naively braving the huge waves that broke over us as we pushed off from shore. On this trip we landed at a leper colony run by Christian missionaries. It was a heart-rending sight to see the disfigured inmates.
NCC attendance was compulsory. After the drill, we were given a Fruitnik (fruit drink) and biscuits. Some came to NCC because of this treat. In our last year, instead of the NCC drill, we were set the task of digging the campus swimming pool. Years later, on a visit to IIT, I was thrilled to see how well the swimming pool had turned out.
My parents lived in Madras and on Saturdays, after the stressful periodicals, I would take the campus bus to the main gate on my way home to Ayanavaram. One of the bus drivers was nicknamed Stirling Moss, because of his reckless speed and sharp cornering which terrified the timid deer. My suitcase would be full of the week’s washing and I looked forward to home-cooked meals. However, I always made it back to campus for the OAT movie on Sunday night. No matter how bad the movie was, the experience was great fun with the wise cracks of fellow students, cat calls at opportune moments and pelting of frontbenchers with orange peels.
A treat we cherished were movies at Safire on Mount Road (Anna Salai), a 70 mm wide-screen theater. I vividly remember its first movie showing, Cleopatra (re-named by us as Cleavagepatra). Other memorable Safire movies were Sound of Music. My Fair Lady and Lawrence of Arabia. After the movie, we would head for the Woodlands drive-in restaurant to savor masala dosas, vadas and filter coffee in green sylvan surroundings.
How were our teachers at IIT? We had brilliant gold medalist teachers, but many of them lacked good communication skills and the ability to gauge the interest and comprehension level of their students. I’m sorry to say that students often ragged some of the younger teachers mercilessly. However, we did have some memorable teachers like Prof. Koch of the Physics department who mesmerized us with his practical demonstration of concepts like the gyroscope and Prof. Krishnamurthy of the English Department who effectively communicated his love of literature as well as his affection for his students. Much of our learning came from books, classmates and the challenge of periodicals, especially the open book tests. Rote learning was discouraged and conceptual learning encouraged through such testing. Project work and laboratory exercises also helped clarify these concepts. I fondly remember the solar project that our group took up, generating steam from a parabolic reflector. I also remember the final year project of designing a hybrid IC engine that could run on diesel as well as petrol. There were no computers at IIT then and the closest we came to computers was the privilege of examining a punched data card after a lecture by a ‘foreign-returned’ faculty member. In spite of these drawbacks, the environment at IIT Madras was a learning environment in many ways.
After my graduation from IIT, I had the privilege of being mentored by a spiritual giant, Swami Rama of the Himalayas. However, the seeds for the spiritual journey were probably sown at IIT. There was a small temple behind Taramani Hostel. The temple priest would light an oil lamp, lock the temple and go away. Before dinner, I would frequent this temple, enjoying the peaceful vibrations, while contemplating the light flickering in the darkness. Unbeknownst to myself, the journey of inner exploration had begun.
Dr. Prakash Keshaviah graduated with a B.Tech in Mechanical Engineering from IIT Madras in 1967. After his graduation, he went on to do a Masters in Mechanical Engineering, a Ph.D in Biomedical Engineering and a second Masters in Physiology. You may find Part 2 of his article, describing his life after IIT Madras, on this link – https://chennai36.iitm.ac.in/life-lessons-learnt-after-graduating-from-iit-m-dr-prakash-keshaviah/