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We built a nation, but what did we learn?

By C B Dasgupta
December 15, 2006 17:21 IST
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Pausing now at the keyboard, about to start, I cannot help savouring a somewhat ill-defined sense of revenge.

Remember all the debaters who tortured us over the years with their 'Webster's openings? 'Mr Chairman Sir, according to the Webster's dictionary, a sloth is an arboreal, tropical American creature, blah blah blah. . .'

Well, after all these decades, I am going to unleash one of my own. 'Learning,' says, is 'the act or process of acquiring knowledge or skill.'

And with that nailed down, let us consider the question -- just what knowledge, if any, did we really 'acquire' (meaning, 'to gain for oneself through one's actions or efforts')?

Surely it was not our perusal of Piskunov (1st year calculus) -- aided, sometimes, by various means, sometimes to be forgotten within months?

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And yet, something does cause the world to value us. Brand IIT now encompasses CEOs and millionaire entrepreneurs, brilliant researchers and pathbreaking NGO activists -- and assures untrammeled respect just about anywhere on the planet.


But is that how it felt on your first day? Somehow I doubt you felt like much of a world beater back then -- whatever the nostalgic recollections you may have managed to build up since.

No, you were confused and worried. About your luggage, your room, being polite to your new friends, seniors, studies, the rumors you had heard about the food. (An aside, on that last point: Some say that reality is always better than our worst fears. Not always).

But remember what happened next? And how, one day, you realised that -- compared to some of your non-IIT friends -- hadn't you become a different, more confident, person?

This, I submit, is NOT a trivial issue. No, friends, this is serious business. Looking at India's incredible growth over the last decade, I would assert at least SOME of it started with those first timorous steps that all of us took in the classrooms, the corridors, the mess halls, and the playing fields.

Nobody can build a nation merely by reading the collected works of Gandhiji. As Piskunov (he of the calculus textbook) might have put it, that may be 'necessary but not sufficient.' No, a nation is built by the collective acts of those who tackle the unknown -- because they KNOW that they can tackle the unknown. And that is us. But just how did we GET to be that way?

Join me, and let's try and have fun finding out!

How big is a 'desh?'

On August 14, 1947, almost all Indians identified their country (desh) in terms of language boundaries. Even now, in 2006, many still do.

So try and imagine how unique was our experience when we found ourselves rubbing shoulders with people from Pudukottai to Silchar. In just a few weeks, they were no longer exotic strangers with possibly purple eyes and green teeth, but people with whom we shared classroom, bathrooms, mess-rooms, and common rooms.

This is an experience that not many of our non-IIT friends share with us. And not only did it broaden our minds then -- surely it must have helped when we started venturing abroad to study and work surrounded by foreigners.

No light matter

I'm not sure if youngsters are aware of the appalling ignorance of the physical world prevalent in India in the fifties and sixties -- and not just in the proverbial 'common man.' Even luminaries from the fields of arts, music, sports, and politics would have been hard pressed to coherently explain how a steam locomotive worked -- let alone a computer or a nuclear plant.

Not only did this fog up their vision in trying to understand an increasingly technological world, but one can imagine it triggering a certain level of diffidence while traveling abroad. Surely they would not have felt totally comfortable surrounded by ATMs, vending machines, call boxes, and more.

We, on the other hand, would KNOW that, no matter how many lights blinked, and how many beeps sounded, deep in the bowels of these beasts, there operated the same Piskunov-ian processes that we had already come to know and love! When the time to conquer these worlds as well, it became merely a matter of just figuring out the details.

Ohmward bound

Technology, for centuries, was something outsiders imported into India. From Babur's artillery, to the noisy and infernal engines brought by the brash Europeans, it was something most Indians wanted no part of. Some fervently performed Pujas to make it go away. A great many stayed away from it as much as they could. Few dreamt that it could possibly have anything to do with them.

But we -- well we understood clearly, early on, that Ohm's Law was not the exclusive preserve of the Caucasian race -- or of any other race.

Ohm's Law, we realised, belongs to just about anyone smart enough to pick it up and bring it ohm. And with that realisation, the world was ours!

Degrees of freedom

An eighties best-seller (I believe it was In Search of Excellence), the authors identified a 'fast loose' trait in some of the best companies. Roughly speaking, employees were allowed enormous freedom -- but also held tightly to incorruptible standards -- or shown the door. Their observation reminded me a lot of our IIT experience.

We were essentially free to study -- or not. We free to party all night. 'Bunking' classes -- with or without arranging roll call 'proxies' -- was the easiest thing in the world! There were no fences, no gates, no wardens enforcing lights out, no barriers.

And yet, the exams were serious business. For those destined to not make it, the fact became brutally apparent -- generally before a year was up. The rest of us quickly learnt to 'manage,' as it were.

We also learnt to prioritise. No longer were we slaves to the mandate to strive to be 'first in every subject.' There were, we realized, less useful subjects, less than competent teachers, and a variety of workarounds for the truly enterprising. Along with exposure to the broad-broad syllabus (Macroeconomic theory to Planck's constant), this alone prepared us for the real world as perhaps no other college course could have done.

On our own

No one would ever confuse an IIT residence with a five-star hotel. But ever stop to think just how Spartan it was? The system led to seventeen year olds - in effect - managing mini households -- even as some of their contemporaries were being served elsewhere by servants, cleaning maids, chowkidars and mistris.

But there we were, struggling with one tough syllabus -- and simultaneously cleaning our rooms, managing our laundry, servicing our bikes and vehicles, doing our social planning, scheduling baths around the water supply. About the only service the establishment provided -- and made some of us wish it hadn't -- was the meals.

Our contemporaries sometimes learnt basic housekeeping with their first job. Many never had to -- ever. But for us it started from day one -- I have this vivid memory of arriving in mid '71 in Azad Hall, KGP' -- to discover a room with one cot, and two wires sticking out where the light bulb should have been!

In doing this, we made another priceless discovery -- ourselves. None of us are born with our instruction manuals. But under the impetus of the unstructured IIT lifestyle, we were able to discover that we like to rise at twelve and work till four, or that we could live on omelets (or that flashing blue lights and psychedelic posters greatly aided our concentration!).

We were able to enumerate, in short, our most efficient modes of operation.

Dough -- so dear

This is not a 'what we learnt' section. It is a tribute to the foresightedness of the founders -- for spending the money.

We paid, perhaps, a bare ten per cent of the true cost of our education. The rest was allocated, in an immense act of faith, by successive governments of a dirt poor country. Seeing the results, ladies and gentlemen, a round of applause does seem to be called for!

It does not matter a dam

Let me share a parting thought. Back 'then,' dams were some of grandest symbols of engineering achievement, their builders the giants of the profession.

But today, should the country require a dam, it may not matter -- not one dam bit - whether we know how to build it. We can, instead, just go down to Uruguay and hire some engineers (by all accounts some of the smartest engineers in Latin America, and presumably among the most Civil) to build it for us.

We can hire the technical skills. What we cannot hire -- because that is only us -- is the ability to see a dam where none exists, figure out workarounds and shortcuts -- and to make it happen.

So -- all together now -- 'IIT ka tempo high hai.'

The author, an IIT Kharagpur graduate, is a consultant for various Silicon Valley, California-based companies.

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