Sunday, September 25, 2005

The IIT Dream

A couple of weeks back, Prof. Gautam Sinha (Training and Placement-In-charge of IIT Kharagpur) held a meeting with the students to discuss the changes in the the Training and Placement schedule commencing this year. As major changes have been introduced, he wanted to take the students in confidence by meeting them in person.

Here's the jist of the change...Starting this year, the training and placement process of all IITs will begin in December.

Definitely, if there's smoke there had to be a fire. So what was the collective 'fire' in all the IITs that resulted in this collective decision? The answer is obvious to the insiders, but hardly guessable to any outsider.

It was observed that IIT students (regardless of the IIT they study in) have been making the T&P process an excuse to miss classes. Regulations allow students to miss classes provided the timing of the Test/GD/Interview of any company clashed with the lecture hours. But it was observed that many a times the students start skipping classes even a day before the event, and missing all classes on the day in question is considered a birth-right. If the students were really serious, there would have been no problem, but the truth is that the students hardly utilized this time to prepare. What most of them do is spend the time on their computers, looking for new movies to watch, or just spend it playing LAN games.

And this wasn't difficult for the T&P section to find it out. With a majority of students flunking the tests, one doesn't need a sixth sense to guess. There is one very famous incident about the student's attitude that many of us know. It so happened that Tata Motors came for an interview last year for jobs, and majority of the students (including the department topper) flunked scoring less than a score (20) per cent. And what more, the guy in question argued that its not possible for him to get so bad marks and challenged the integrity of the Tata Motors selection panel. What happened next brought shame to all of us. Tata Motors sent back his copy to show that his answer-script has been graded according to the established norms and standards. What more, they pulled up the T&P section for having such mediocre and arrogant students, and claimed that the same question paper in other colleges like Jadhavpur had plenty of students scoring well above 80. The reprimanding trickled down the level and our Head of Department scolded us for being similar to him.

And this was another issue that Prof. Gautam Sinha discussed with us in the meeting. He told us how the times are changing and the IIT stamp is losing ground to the NITs faster than expected. He told is how the other colleges have started scoring better than IIT Kharagpur in the placements.

Companies are fast realizing that the IIT stamp is fame and no longer valuable as it used to be. Many companies have even started to avoid coming to IITs as they believe that IIT students are usually aloof, don't work hard enough, expect higher salaries and leave companies early. Even those who come to the IIT campuses have felt that the IITians are no longer the material they used to be.

But what has changed over the last few years that has spelt doom on the IIT dream? Here's the things that have changed.

IITs have emerged like a brand, brought popularity by the strong alumni, and over-hyped by the media. But IITs are not soap-making factories that can churn out good soaps given the quality of the raw material remains the same. The IITs have been based on discipline that has been inculcated in successive batches given the competition they faced from their peers. Getting into the IITs was tough and then competing with the 'chosen few' made the IITians strong as a rock when they went on to face the world. All the IITs strived to keep themselves out of politics and set aspirations for higher standards. This created the IIT brand as we know it and the recruiting organizations knew they would get the gold if they came to recruitment here. But what the media did was a doomsday spell. It created an atmosphere that made people feel that cracking the JEE was the final frontier, and failed to account for the IIT system and the real value addition. This had a very bad effect. People who aspired for IIT felt that once inside, the IIT will take the trouble of giving them good jobs regardless of whether they are serious or not. And this was apparent from my very first year in IIT Kharagpur and the same experience continues till date. And it has been this attitude that has spelled doom. As years pass by, more and more companies are realizing that judging a batch based on its predecessor is getting more and more illogical.

Even the assumption that the raw material is the same is no longer valid. With centres like Bansal's that make the student mug their way into the IIT, the proportion of mediocre students in the IITs is increasing.

Another major change that the IIT system has seen is the introduction of free internet facility for the students. While originally meant for education, it is hardly used for what it was originally established. This started some four years back in most of the IITs, and the result is obvious. Instead of reading in libraries and playing outdoors (read:enhancing their personality), people glue onto their computers and do all sorts of activities, even bringing their IIT into the news for the wrong reasons. And today, the LAN of IIT Kharagpur boasts of 10 TeraBytes of data, most of which is pirated softwares/videos obtained from the net.

A person who joins an XYZ college knows that the world is tough. And throughout his education, he is reminded that if he has to survive, he will have to improve himself. Its a different story about those who don't have any inclination to succeed, but those who want good, do good. And at the end when they emerge out of the college, they are prepared to handle the world. An IITian on the other hand, feels that he already has success stamped on his back and need not stress himself any further. In the IITs, there are many people who want good results but refuse to stress it out. And the trouble is, this tribe is fast increasing.

Then how come we still have IITians among the successful in business world and even in IIMs, etc. The reason is similar to the gambler's world. Only those who make it big make the news. Only the alumni who are successful will come back to his alma mater with a head held high, giving us the false impression that all IITians are successful.

So is it the end of the story? The end of hope for all those who pursue IIT as a brand? Thankfully, the answer is "No". And there are enough reasons for this.

Ironically, it will be the media again who will bring back the glory to the IITs. And this process has already started. One regularly gets to see news that a certain college student has achieved something big and then the newspaper claim "and he isn't an IITian!". The stories of NITs and other colleges doing well will also find welcome approval with the media as this is "News". Slowly the horror of these details will trickle into the minds of the IITians and they will stop seeing themselves as special. The technologies that made the IITs elite (like the internet) will reach these colleges pretty soon and establish a level playing field. And this will happen before a student freshly out of school starts to choose an NIT over an IIT giving the IITs an edge with a better raw material. Amen.

Monday, September 05, 2005

A Treatise On Mess Food

For those who have had the fortune to eat mess food, it is an unforgettable experience. And moreover if you belong to a place where mess workers are government employees and not contract laborers, the experience is moreover linked with nightmares that you will try to forget as soon as you step in the world outside. But for us who still live in the hostels, eating lunch or dinner is the last thing that can be looked forward to.

In IIT Kharagpur, most of us feel the situation is as worse as it can get. With the mess workers being government employees, backed by CPI(M), there is hardly anything that we students can do to improve the situation. As the mess workers are neither willing nor bound to cook well, the situation goes from worse to worst. But unfortunately this topic has been so thoroughly talked upon, I feel that you will have no inclination to read any further without any incentive. So I hope to enrich this with my assortment of PJs.

When debating on whether Dual Degrees (B.Tech+M.Tech in 5 years) are better or the traditional B.Tech(4 years), I am usually confident of my success. We save 1 year of studying time by stressing a bit more for a couple of years. And on top of that, we get to sit in for interviews of companies that are here to take B.Tech as well as for those here for M.Tech. Without losing much modesty, I can claim that in M.Tech batch, those coming through JEE (the Dual Degrees) fare a lot better that those from GATE. This leaves us with an extra edge over our M.Tech friends. And even while comparing to the B.Tech batch with which we will be competing, the fact that there are very few people in my junior batch ahead of me as compared to my own batch leaves me with a sense of satisfaction that I took Dual Degree (as though I had any choice). But this brings us back to the topic that we were supposed to be discussing. While I try and convince my batchmates of the advantages of being a Dual Degree, there is always a guy who smiles and says:

"We won't have to eat mess food for one extra year (in KGP)."

This leaves my arguments shattered. I have to skillfully change the topic as I hate to admit that this truth hurts.

But interestingly, the mess food inspires in us creative language talents. During the dinner, the wingmates take turns to compare the food with different types of shits. And if someone says that the mess workers can do a PhD in making shit out of mess food, someone quips that they actually guide researchers in doing doctorate in Shit-making. The source of this observation is also an interesting tale.

It is said that initially an unemployed person enters the R.P. Hall as a cobbler. Then he goes on to be a cycle stand worker, followed by mess helper, then mess worker and finally a cook. As you can see there is no qualification required by a person to be a cook in R.P. Hall. We have seen the rise of people who worked as cycle stand worker into becoming cooks here. And to see the person who had just been cleaning grease off the bicycles to make rotis for you is a horror tale that you can never forget. Things had been easy for me, though. In the first semester itself, the doctor at the local hospital diagnosed my frequent stomachache to be caused my uncooked rotis. So she suggested me not to eat rotis in mess. And from that day onwards, I have lived on rice. For those whose stomach are fit enough to eat the rotis so uncooked that flapping two such rotis would create so much suspended-particulate-matter to block vision and enough to make another roti out of it, the only respite is in remembering the days in M.S. Hall where we got coloured! rotis even two days after holi.

The problem of hopeless mess food can be divided into two parts, one the procurement and other the processing (it would be derogatory to call the process 'cooking'). Unfortunately for us, there is suffering from both sides.

The problem of procurement can be felt be consuming food that are usually not cooked when they are served. These include breads, onions, etc. With breads whose ends show signs of fungus ever so often and which is as rubbery as rubber itself, it doesn't require an expert to conclude that the bread that is served is at least 4 days old. The only theory that can explain it is that once after two days the unsold bread arrives back in the bakeries, they are sent to R.P. Hall and served the next day. The situation is worse for things like onions. The onions served during the lunch are extremely dry and have patches of black colour on them indicating clearly that they are from a stock several months old and/or maybe the stock left unsold as no sane minded person would buy them. The cottage cheese bought for the special dinners is also rubbery as it is not made from cow milk, but soy-milk, which is cheaper. And the same story continues for other such products.

When a guy in Desperate Housewives claims that no-one can screw up Macaroni and cheese (before eating the hopelessly cooked Macaroni made by Susan Meyer), he seemed to have missed the fact that in a far corner of the world stands the mess workers of IIT Kharagpur. Let alone the dexterity in cooking, even the place where things are cooked are as unhygienic as the sewer line out of hell. Seeing the pieces of food that fell down on the floor being taken up and served to us, seeing that a mess worker using the same knife to cut vegetables from which he has just scraped the sweat out of his skin, are all common observations. And the most frustrating part is that we can't do anything about it. At least as long as there is a communist government ruling in West Bengal.

Now I remember another tit-bit that emerged from the talks between my wingmates.

I once noted that even if we bring the suffering hungry people of Somalia to R.P. Hall, they would plead to go back than eat this (so called) food. But then I remember that these people are suffering and to bring them into such cheap conversation is very improper. But then I also realize that we too are suffering and the same thing goes for us too. So such a comparison is improper for both sides. I was about to delete this paragraph as I concluded it to be improper, but then realized that as a whole it showed well what kind of emotions we typically feel during having our food. Many people take it as part of the grooming that goes on to make IITians.

If you can eat this food, you will never have any problem with eating habits at any point in life.

When I see people praying before eating food, I know that they are praying from the bottom of their hearts imploring God to give them the strength to let this pass. Leaving food on the plate is not something I relish, but many times they manage to make it so bad that my initial estimate of how much I can suffer goes waste. It is said that leaving food in the plate is considered an insult to food. But I believe that it is applicable only when the thing in question fulfills the criteria as being labeled as 'food'. I feel that cooking something so badly is even more insult to the food.

Another incident that comes to my mind while eating in the mess is an experience with Ankur (my brother). While we were in M.S. Hall, one day during lunch a guy comes over and sits opposite to us. After looking at the container on the table, he asked: "Yeh daal hai kya? (Is this a cereal?)". To this Ankur replied: "Banane se pehle thi. (It was, before it was cooked)".

Its just by stories and anecdotes like this are we going about in our life, facing lunch and dinner one at a time.

"Just one next time....just one more day...."

And living here I start thinking about the qualities that I will seek in my wife. Cooking skills will definitely be high among my priorities.