Ravi Mohan's Blog

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Mardigras, Mood Indigo And An Outsider's View of the IITs

My last post about the IIT folks in the software industry seems to have kicked up a ruckus with some bozo accusing me of "a personal crusade aginst the IITs". Nothing could be further from the truth. This is the story of an outsider's encounters with the IITs.

I never wrote the IIT entrance because I knew I wasn't bright enough to get through. To this day I am bad at solving puzzles and doing very abstract stuff in my head. I managed to get into the local Engineering College and that was good enough for me.

I encountered IIT when I landed up at IIT Madras for an arts festival named MardiGras.I was a fairly accomplished Public Speaker and at the time Mardigras was one of the biggest youth fests in South India. I used to make most of my pocket money winning these contests (Compared to other events, public speaking/debating is the most energy efficient. you don't need to prepare , you get a topic, think about it 3-4 minutes, speak about it 5 minutes and if you win, you get a lot of money. Partcipants in other events like Dramatics or Charades would spend endless hours preparing.Poor them) .

The Hindu sponsored the debate that year(the Editor, N Ram, was one of the judges) and the crowd favorite was Anand Sivakumaran from IIT Bombay, who had apparently been winning the debate effortlessly for many years. Well I guess I needed the money more than Anand, because I made one of the finest speeches of my life, buried Anand (who spoke very well indeed) and pocketed the prize money. It turns out that Anand was the Cultural Secretary of IIT-B at that point in time and extended an invitation for the IIT-B arts fest,'Mood Indigo', which, he promised, was "bigger and better " than 'Mardi'. Now that the money was safely in my pocket I could focus on more worthwhile endeavors - girls.

Girls in IIT? well, yeah. The IIT had a horrendous ratio of women to men(one of my friends in the IIT calculated it as something like 1:96) but there used to be these busloads of girls from Bangalore (especially from Mount Carmel in Bangalore), who would walk serenely through the double line 'welcoming committee' of IIT-M folks (who all had their tongues hanging out). We local yokels had never seen a mini skirt in our lives and now all of a sudden there were these killer babes dressed very umm .. micro lite, and acting accordingly, thus cementing the notion forever into our heads that Bangalore was "Sin City".

And once you managed to win something you were ...ummm.. popular. Most of my team mates were pretty good and used to win their events. So no one slept for 5 days. The days were a blur of contests and the nights were full of.... err... Evil.

I didn't make too many friends in IIT Madras. There were people who would study while a week long party roared on outside their doors. It was all a bit disconcerting for us mortals. I heard that the teachers at IIT-M disapproved of (and fined!!!!) students giving lifts to girls !!(Practically everyone had a bicycle). Coming from a college where any teacher who attempted to do something like that would get lynched, there was this huge cultural disconnect between us and the IIT-M folks. And my college team (Mujib, 'Oolan', Joseph,Kanchi - guys, it has been a while) was always hyper busy (well raising hell is a better description, but I digress) and there was always something to do.

A few months later Sridhar Manyem from IIT-Bombay landed up in Trivandrum to do a project with a local company, writing code in a mysterious language called LISP (the most advanced language we knew then was C++ - heh heh how the world turns). Trivandrum being a teeny-weeny-everybody-goes-to-sleep-at-eight-in-the-evening kinda place, poor Sridhar was bored out of his skull and called me up in utter desperation. At that point of time, I was runnng this youth club which used to meet up every weekend to do weird things like play wargames and we folded Sridhar into it, thus saving his sanity till he escaped back to Bombay.

So next year when I went to Mood Indigo (I went alone, the consensus among my college mates being "Bombay is too far and Mood Indigo is not winnable") I already knew people there. And while the Bombay IIT campus was much smaller than Madras (no deer poking their heads into your room in the misty dawn) the festival was way better than Mardigras.

Since I was alone, I couldn't attend the debate - the format required two speakers-so I joined up for somee minor events and a weird 'Personality Contest' which Anand was running and just hung around with Sridhar and made a lot of friends and enjoyed myself thoroughly. Without the pressure of competition, I took the time to wander around IIT-B, talking to people (I even visited the tiny Women's Hostel. The IIT girls quite enjoyed the skewed men:women ratio!) spending time in the massive library (well massive compared to our college's anyway) and flattening my nose against the computer centre's glass walls. Of course the nights were one long party with stoned girls jumping into Powai Lake (or the swimming pool) with the rest of us regularly pulling them out. There were some nice concerts as well and the thoughtful organizers always dimmed the lights in the "mixed" seating section as soon as the concerts started(Nice!). I even made it to the finals of the "personality' thingie before losing (I never even figured the rules out) by a whisker to Sean Mendiz (of St.Xaviers,IIRC).I shudder to think that Sean and I were the best and second best 'personalities' there.

I spent the last day just wandering around Bombay with a bunch of people from St.Xaviers, IIT-B, Sydenham and Sophia. Bombay is the best city in India, possibly the world, if you have a good bunch of people to hang around with. Bangalore is cool but Bombay Rocks.

A drunk policeman almost hauled us into jail (my friends from IIT-B went into a long recitation of our constitutional privileges, which really irritated the cop, and it was left to the guy from Trivandrum to cool him down). And after one last party and long existential conversations, as the paraphernalia of the festival was taken down around us, it was time to go home.

I believe Sridhar went on to do his MBA in Chicago and is doing some Wall Street-y Stock Trading thing.Of Anand Sivakumaran , I have no trace. We've all grown older and greyer I guess.

I hear, these days, MOOD-I is much tamer. If so, that is really too bad.

Anyway the point of this long post is that to me, the IITs, especially IIT-B, has a resonance with a melange of ultra brilliant people, clockwork organization, awesome facilities, music, youth, parties and endless fun. To suggest I have some kind of personal mission to denigrate the IITs is the most incredibly stupid thing I've heard in my life (Yeah I mean You, Mr "Anonymous").

Even today, when I meet someone from IIT, I expect him (or her, though I never met a girl from IIT in any workplace, or for that matter in Banglore! Do girls even get through to IIT any more? :-)) to carry a whiff of that magic with them.

Of course that doesn't mean I believe that anyone who passed through IIT is automatically a good programmer ;-).That is a different thing entirely.

I guess something has changed. I remember the folks from IIT as being super bright with razor sharp intellects and no pretensions. From the reaction to my post, I detect both a kind of smug condescension in at least some IIT ians, and a kind of sullen hostility on the part of some non IIT ians.


I never envied the IIT students. Sure they'd get a visa marginally easier,get scholarships for further study in a snap, and maybe get a higher starting salary, but they paid for that by being cooped up in isolated campuses for four years with (practically) no girls around and kowtowing to teachers (at least in Chennai).[Note this is a long time ago.Things may have changed, though i suspect the "no girls" part is till true]. Fair exchange, but I would have been climbing walls if I had to live four years like that.

IIT/non-IIT who cares? What matters in the end is who you are, what you stand for and what you do.


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