Desmond Nazareth is a Mechanical Engineering graduate of the Batch of 1981. Here he talks about his memories from his time here at insti.

With about five years’ worth of ‘rich’ experiences during my stint at IITM, I really have to pick and choose some to write about, which is not easy… In fact, there are several matters about which I will not write, as they unlikely to ‘pass muster’ for publication in an Institute that is rightly concerned about possible impact on its students, governed by  well-meaning (but possibly overplayed) ‘surrogate parent’ kind of thinking.

Let me start with something that was character testing and building for me. It’s an incident from my first year when, along with a group of other ‘freshers’, I was playing volley-ball in a court shared between hostels… suddenly, a group of seniors, led by a ‘foreign student’ (an aside – in those days, the campus boasted of quite a few of this ilk, and several of them had a outsize reputation for being ‘toughs’), interrupted the game and attempted to oust us from the court. I insisted that they wait for our game to complete and then they would have their chance, but they wouldn’t listen and asserted the ‘rights of seniors’. My fresher companions left but I stood my ground and refused to move out of the court, standing right in the middle of their game, disrupting it ‘non-violently’ and not allowing fear to govern my actions. Tiring of my obstinacy and my lack of response to their threats, they thankfully left.

My first year coincided with the Institute just permitting and encouraging the use of electronic calculators to replace log tables (and, if I’m not mistaken, a drafting machine to replace the T-square, etc. for engineering drawing.) Most of my classmates went in for what was then a roughly Rs 1500 – 2000 scientific calculator of ‘Casio’ or local make. I was (and still am) a big fan of ‘Scientific American’), and in the IIT library, I had just read, in a 1976 issue, about a new ‘programmable’ scientific calculator recently introduced in the US, the Texas Instruments’ SR-56, and on sale for the next month or two for USD 100 (This beauty allowed for a 100-step program, and had no permanent storage – look it up, it is now a collector’s item.) I wanted to leverage my then ‘big expenditure’ to maximum effect so I wondered how I could do that. A thought occurred to me – there was this US based post-doc scholar from Johns Hopkins, who was working on some sponsored project at the Computer Centre, and stayed in Alakananda. He was a quiet and solitary person who would return a smile. He distinguished himself by ‘dressing for the weather’ and could be seen cycling around campus in just shorts (and once, witnessed by me, with a bucket on his head to shield his head from the bright Madras sun.) I introduced myself and asked him if he received packages on a regular basis for his project work. He indicated that he did, on a monthly basis. So I asked him if he could get an SR-56 sent in his next monthly package, for which I would pay him, in rupees. No problem, he said and a month or so later, there was my shiny new powerful programmable, as far as I know the first such on the campus to have one. About five years later, leaving for the US myself, I sold it to a student for the same price that I had bought it for, all of Rs 1100!

I was lucky to make long-lasting friendships among my batch-mates, several of whom actually have invested in my Agave India project, along with a few of my IITM seniors and juniors. Among them, I must single out Kannan Iyer, who I got to know sometime in first year, and recognized as a fellow explorer of ‘ideas leading to action’. Being of like sensibility, we decided to collaborate. We started several initiatives in IITM, some successful and others not, which kept us both engaged in ‘extra- curricular’ matters of certain ‘weight’. Kannan is currently a respected writer/director in Bollywood. To hear about his adventures in that ‘never-never land’, the Institute should consider inviting him to give a talk. We are still the closest of friends and, in fact, collaborators on a 3D CGI international feature film project, ‘The Dance of the Monkey King’, which is partially along the way to getting made.

In our second year (of the then 5-year BTech program), Kannan and I joined hands and spent around four months trying to introduce major academic reform in IITM, based on a feeling that the structured curriculum of the time was stultifying and inflexible — not sufficient challenging to, and accommodating of, some of the bright people around. We wrote up a reform document, canvassed for it and convinced every one of our 60-odd BTech (Mech) class-mates, along with most of the key Institute professors and admin officials, to allow us to be an ‘experimental ‘ batch starting in the third year, for a very flexible BTech (Mech) program, emphasizing flexible, inter-disciplinary approaches and opportunities. What happened? A conservative, ‘closed-door’ Institute Senate meeting voted down our proposal, indicating that it was too advanced for IITM. The very next year, a new Institute Director came on board, the estimable and refreshing (late) Prof. PV Indiresan from IIT Delhi, who wasted no time in implementing a system that roughly approximated what we had tried to propose, and the powers that be in the Institute quietly accepted this without so much as a murmur! When the new ‘Diro’ was being feted by the Institute staff, Kannan and I gate-crashed the function and eventually met him, to share what we had attempted unsuccessfully the previous year. Down-to-earth man that he was, Prof.Indiresan commiserated with us but suggested that we save our ‘reformist’ ideas for when we became ‘bosses’, allowing for a ‘top-down’ approach rather than the ‘bottom-up’ one that we had attempted. So we missed the reform band-wagon by one year, but not for want of trying!

In our early years at IITM, there was considerable student unrest, and even active strikes (this during the now infamous ‘Indira Gandhi Emergency’) conducted by students concerning the classroom attendance rules, which we felt were too stringent. There was no Student Constitution to spell out student rights and concomitant responsibilities. While not being ‘politically inclined’ ourselves, Kannan and I saw the opportunity to promote a certain candidate for the post of Institute Gen Sec, whose views and plans we liked (in comparison to another more flamboyant candidate, who wasn’t as ‘serious’ in our opinion about campus reforms). We did this by suggesting to our preferred candidate that he campaign on implementing a Student Constitution, but establish his complete support for this in writing, before it could be claimed by the other candidate. We did this by formulating a Draft Constitution, getting provisional approval from various campus ‘heavy-weights’ among students and staff, and having an article/interview published in the Campus Times, in which our candidate established the primacy of his platform. Luckily for us, he was elected Gen Sec and saw the matter through… and Kannan and I basked in the private glow of being campus ‘king-makers’, while achieving our goal of having a meaningful Student Constitution.

In our fifth year, taking advantage of the sympathetic ear that personal friend and adviser Prof.Indiresan always saved for us, Kannan and I came up with, and got implemented, another ‘win-win’ scenario for both the Institute and a certain ‘sad’ group of students. There were quite a few so-called ‘lifers’ at the time, who could not clear required courses in their disciplines for want of interest (or ability) and seem to be stuck in a ‘limbo’ scenario, without any meaningful exit. The Institute did not know what to do with them and the students themselves had no idea how they could ‘get out’. Our winning and rapidly implemented solution was to give those who had cleared a certain number of credits a BSc. degree and let them exit with ‘dignity’. Several students took advantage of this offer, much to everybody’s relief.

In the years betwixt, Kannan and I decided that the weekly OAT movies, typically standard-issue ‘Hollywood’ fare then, were not stimulating enough for some of us, who were tuned into world literature, music, and film. We decided to form a Film Society, under the auspices of the Federation of Film Societies of India, which would showcase non-commercial films from around the world, made by renowned film-makers. This would enable us to procure and show films from the National Film Archives, various embassies and consulates, etc. It took months of convincing the Institute authorities concerned but eventually we were able to start this society (with 400+ members that could fill the CLT) and show on the average two or three films a month (at a cost of Rs 1.00 per member!) Perhaps one of the unspoken inducements to members was the prospect of seeing foreign films that were not subject to ‘censorship’ – which is probably also the reason why selling the concept to the Institute was not easy!  I understand that the IITM Film Society thrived for many years after it was founded in the late 1970s.

In fact, both Kannan and I (as well as several other mavericks on campus) were hugely influenced by this sort of exposure and rich ‘start-up’ experience. Both of us studied at the Master’s level, with full University Fellowships, film and TV production at Temple University, Philadelphia (me, immediately on graduation from IITM, in 1981, and Kannan in the late 1980s.)

There are many interesting stories I could share but I will desist. However, Kannan and I gratefully acknowledge the guidance and support we received from some terrific mentors – including Prof R. Rajagopalan (Industrial Engineering), Prof Klaus Schleusener (German),  Prof TT Narendran (‘Mama’, Management), (late) Prof  S. Swaminathan (Physics) and Dr. Gangan Pratap (Aeronautical Engineering).

All said and done, my years at IITM served as a training and testing  ground for charting my own path in life – as it turned out, I built on the interests and passions that took root there, some of them quite entrepreneurial. It is only now, with the Agave India project and the building of the ‘DesmondJi’ brand, that various strands have come together, in an unexpected and delightful way.

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