For My Readers: Some part of the content of this post is very IIT Bombay specific, related to the internal dynamics of Undergraduates (UGs) and Postgraduates (PGs) in IIT Bombay and to an ongoing event in the campus called the PG Cult and my personal experience with it. Apologies if the post doesn’t appeal to all….
Prologue: Three years ago when I joined IIT Bombay as a researcher, I was starry-eyed and full of stuffs of which dreams are made. Lot happened with me and by me in the past three years, lot of things changed including the fact that I got “tamed” to a certain extent, but still the wild-wacky passionate spirit is very much a part of my personality. There are certain things which intrigue me, anger me and trouble me deeply, the most apparent one being — who is interested in a Phd? Do PhDs need to be “pretending” perennially that they are nerds and geeks — are they not supposed to be witty, fashionable, academic and versatile? The mentality of the general public about research, research in India is extremely dicey.
Let’s begin by questioning, who is into research? People who want to get a promotion in their jobs? People who did not find a suitable job and decided to try their hands at academics? People who are so impatient that they cannot wait for one year rigorous research to get a degree? People who fret and sulk about “jobs”, “partners” and a “hung” life?, people who take research as integral part of their lives, as a commitment and a luxury, who feel research should make them a little more insightful and enrich them (romanticism and idealism to some extent)? All these “kinds” comprise the fraternity of researchers in any place (may be around the world, am not so sure).
Whatever it is, for the last three years, my personal endeavour has been to win respect and admiration for that “job” called “research” through our group activity called “Research Scholars’ Forum (RSF)” at IIT Bombay. Time and again our team is confounded by the same question: who is interested in a PhD? Sometimes this question is posed by research scholars who are groping in the darkness of finding a suitable topic, adjusting with the IIT ecosystem and finding a suitable supervisor; sometimes by institute authorities some of whom are divided between making IIT a place for Undergraduate excellence or Postgraduate and Research excellence; sometimes by some non-academic staffs who think researchers are being unnecessarily paid higher scholarships when they are “good-for-nothing” creatures and are just “students”; sometimes by “friends” who claim that they are being paid such-such amount in X-X organization; sometimes by parents, society who worry that these are outcasts who may not get a bride/groom; and sometimes painfully by a part of the Undergraduate IIT population who think that researchers are “second-class senior citizens” of an institute which has been basically formed for them and by them.
The list can go until an nth point but still research thrives and survives. Mysterious? Yeah…
The Story: This rather long prologue was meant to be the backdrop for a story of my personal experience, something that happened on 31st Jan…
There was a huge publicity campaign a few weeks ago regarding the “First PG Cult” (cultural) event of IIT Bombay. Many were excited as the event was meant to be for PGs (which includes the PhDS, Project Staffs, M.Phils, M.Techs). The title of the event in its promotional was: “Are you a PG I am interested in you…”. Many PhDs had never got such an opportunity to showcase their talents because the scale of Mood-Is and Techfests are too large and noisy for the quieter population of IIT. There were enthusiastic discussions, planning and gossip about the forthcoming event at our hostel mess tables. The rules were: (a) More the number of entries from one department, the more the points that are awarded to that particular department. (b) The competition is open for all PGs, M.techs, Project Staffs and PhDs.
Some of us decided to participate in all the major competitions so that we win maximum points for our department. There are two stages of this competition: (a) Stage 1: (30th and 31st Jan) Elocution, PG Idol (prelims), Paintings, Quiz, Ms. and Mr. PG (prelims); (b) Stage 2: (7th and 8th March) Dance, Dramatics, Ad Making, PG Idol (finals) and Ms. and Mr. PG (finals). I sent my entry for the on-line elimination of a speaking event called Ms. PG. Only 15 could make it for the prelims, including me. The schedule for the competition was 8pm of 31st Jan. My intention and expectation from the event was high as some of us (can speak for some friends from PhD) thought that it will give a chance to rediscover our selves and our talents. However, as often is the case in IITs, that all fun is followed by deadlines, 31st Jan was a deadline for me for a major submission. I have very high opinion about my own capabilities of multitasking and kept reminding myself that I will be able to complete my submission procedure and reach the venue of the competition on time as 8pm was far off. Kept working on the paper from morning, had a meeting with my guide in the afternoon with the pre-pre-final draft.
In the afternoon, I got a call from adviser asking me if I can reschedule the meeting for 6.30pm in the evening as he was caught up with some urgent work. I said a “yes, of course” to him and gave up the idea of being able to make it to the competition. But, some part of me kept telling me “oh we can make it”. Reached sir’s place dot at 6.30pm (he stays away from campus), had a rigorous discussion with him on the paper for the next one hour fifteen minutes and kept marking my hard copy with his suggestions, modifications and corrections, and simultaneously kept looking at my watch — 6.45pm, 7.00pm, 7.15pm,7.20pm….Finally, at 7.21pm just as we were about to finish the last dot mark on the reference page, gathered the courage to tell him, “sir, there is a PG cultural competition going on in the campus. My entry has been selected for Ms. PG, the competition begins at 8.pm. Can I go for it? I will definitely incorporate the changes suggested by you by tonight and send it to them.” Seeing me nervous and fidgety, he smiled and said, “you should have told me before…I would not have kept you so long.” He went inside quickly and got an idli and some chutney for me on a plate, gave it to me and said, “have it…you may not have had anything for tiffin. Eat this and go and remember everything is important, if academics is important so is your personal life. Go for the competition it is a very good event to prove that researchers are capable of a lot of things.” I just mumbled a “thank you” …ran down the three floors of the staircase as the lift was held up somewhere on the 7th floor…almost toppled a gentleman down on the street, vehemently stopped an auto which was being stopped by another lady (she must have thought this is a medical emergency), jumped into the auto and shouted at the autowallah with one finger raised like a shot into the air :): “bhaiyaa jalddiiii! IIT campus…!” Poor chap he panicked seeing me panicky, looked helplessly at three different routes, and then drove like mad through the shortest possible route. The clock kept ticking 7.35pm… 7.40pm…7.45pm…we entered the back gate of IIT Bombay…7.52pm we were there at SAC. I offered the autowallah a twenty rupees extra, but he replied :” na didi it’s allright…aaplog ishstudent ho…zaroor kuchh kaam hoyega tabhi hum itni jaldi aye” . He scooted away and I ran to the SAC yoga room.
Congratulating myself on my diligence and punctuality, I entered the place to find no one around. The yoga room was pitch dark and latched from outside. I had no clue if the event was happening at all — I was dressed up in a slightly formal fashion as a mark of respect for the competition that I was entering into. At 8.05 pm a young gentleman came, introduced himself and said that he was both an organizer and a participant. We opened the room, switched on fans and lights and sat…sat…sat…8.45 pm…no trace of a single soul…9.00pm one or two participants turn up…9.15pm I start getting worried about my paper and there is a slight hustle-bustle, someone announcing — “judges are here!” We got alert, enter the judges. Most of them know each other, they give me an astonished glance (a PhD here? :0 ) I smile back…concealing my nervousness. We wait for some more time…some organizers call up the participants who had yet not turned up. Lazily people sit chatting, enjoying and cracking jokes….
Finally at 9.25pm the event starts, judges casually discuss their strategy to judge these participants.There was no tailor-made format to judge the participants, that’s what appeared from their body language. There were seven girls and eight boys in all. The judges were introduced as “Mr. X.and X…JEE rankers, CAT cracks, winner of many national competitions, B.Tech 3rd year/4th year IIT Bombay….” I couldn’t believe my ears. Cracking JEE or CAT is no doubt great, but that does not mark the end of competition and life. A PG event where PhDs have chosen to participate is being judged by UGs? Anyway, I will compete in the game, doesn’t matter who judges, who wins and who loses.
The first round was announced: a GD round! I was not clustered in the first group. The topic that was given to the first group rhymed with the predicament of the judges: “Should UGs judge PGs?” Majority in that group kept saying that “UGs are better and more talented than PGs” . The pain of not being able to make it in the the JEE seemed to shadow the debate. Each one, had the same opinion. Then came the turn of my group in the GD, the topic that was given to us was: “should co-ed hostels be setup in IITs?” Honestly, I found the topics clever but unimpressive. However, the group was divided between men telling that a co-ed hostel is necessary and women claiming that co-ed hostels destroy “Indian” culture. I was the only female in the group who supported the idea of a co-ed hostel not because of any implicit sexual need but because co-ed hostels are a necessity considering the infrastructural limitations of IITs. I tried to tell them that the philosophy of a co-ed hostel is not to “share” rooms or “bathrooms” but to share a living space. If we think that “Indian” culture is so flimsy that it is destroyed by a co-ed hostel, then we are mistaken. Many Defence academies, IAS academy, TIFR have co-ed hostels. No one’s modesty or cultural values are outraged because you share a wing or a living space with someone from the “other” sex. Anyway, I made it to round 2 after an elimination of the 15 to 12 and it was 10.00 pm by then…
The second round was something which went completely against my personal ideologies. The round was named: “Quote-Unquote” where you have to speak for a topic the moment judges give the signal and change your stance in no time as judges clap for you to speak against the topic. We used to have this competition in school when our English teacher taught us “conversation skills” in class. I myself had used this tactics as a Lecturer in Communication Skills class for first year B.Techs. The format showed the apathy of judges and their gross disregard for the competitors who are of PG level. But, I decided to fight back, now it was an intoxication rather than a competition for me and I thought if that’s what it takes to prove that we are good (researchers) then I will prove it. I was given the topic “Valentine’s Day goes against Indian culture” … managed to do a fairly good job of it. The judges went on with each participant for more than 7 minutes with each participant….I had not thought the event will go on for so long.
Now, I felt helpless,looked at the watch and it was quarter to 11. Thought, better give it up, nothing is more important than my deadline. I told a “quit” to the judges and organizers, voiced my opinion that even though I did not like the format, yet I tried my best to keep competing, and finally came out of the venue. I was hungry and sad…. The competition was not merely a “cultural” competition, but it meant a lot for some of us. I had no friends with me to cheer me up. There were tears in my eyes — tears of my stubborn ego, tears of frustration, tears of loneliness and tears of ageing. Yeah, I felt I am growing old for the first time in my life…my spirit doesn’t go with the content of the world….I asked myself: “is there anyone who is interested in PhDs, their lives and their activities?”
I walked to Gulmohur, ordered for a Dal-Khichdi…fortunately was just on time for the last servings of Gulmohur. Had my dinner, walked to Hemant’s lab (I was afraid of this loneliness), borrowed his laptop and started with the editing job of my paper. The moment I saw my paper, I was jolted back and cheered up — yeah this is my life! Cleared the clouds of desperation and typed vehemently until 4.30 am, when I finally sent the paper to an international destination. Came back to room, slept barely for a few hours, woke up by 8.30 am to check for any revisions in the sent draft. Found some errors and retyped and resent the paper once again. I went finally to a peaceful sleep at 10.00 am and woke up at 4.00 pm in the afternoon when my guide called up saying: “good morning! I realized you haven’t slept through the night as I got the copy of your paper at 4.30 am. So how was the competition? Did you make it? ” My throat choked and I had only half a line: “sorry sir…I couldn’t…”.
Epilogue: I still did not give up. Wrote feedback mails to the organizers, to the present coordinator of Research Scholars’ Forum and the PG Nominee acad. Some fellow researchers who went for other competitions like elocution and painting had similar experiences. Some of them used my mails as rejoinder mails. But, who cares for the real “aamjunta“? Neither the RSF co nor the PG Nominee bothered to reply even in a one-liner. One of the organizers replied with a non-committal “we will take note of your points” kind of answer. But, there was no concrete response. When I met the RSF co he said that “this involves all PGs and not just researchers, so I can’t interfere.” I don’t understand the politics involved in choosing between UGs and PGs, I don’t understand the “procedures” of approaching, all that I understand is unless researchers whether Postgraduates or PhDs understand and respect themselves, no one will respect them or their position. Research doesn’t mean only academics, research means life and love…we are the ones who can bring the real small/big changes.
And here, the change is big, coming in small packets though. The initial fight might seem insignificant to some, but the fight has gathered momentum down the line in both the number and arguments. Looks like the second phase of the event will no longer be judged by the UGs. The more the number of the RSs participating, the more vigorous will be the change, not only in PG Cult, but also in other institute activities.
But, one thing I learnt from the entire episode, “don’t give up, fight till the end for justice. It will come some day, sooner or later” 🙂