Apologies for this long-long break from the blogosphere. I share with you today an article which I had written in December 2008 for the National Education Day essay competition held at my parent IIT. The essay originally had the title “Twice Born: What Makes Me an IITian”. It had won an award for the best essay. Hope you all enjoy reading it.
I came out on the chariot of the first gleam of light,
and pursued my voyage through the wildernesses of worlds leaving my track on many a star and planet.
It is the most distant course that comes nearest to thyself,
and that training is the most intricate which leads to the utter simplicity of a tune.
(“Journey Home”, Gitanjali, R.N.Tagore)
When I started my journey through the “wilderness” of research and practical rigours of training in Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IITB), I hardly knew that my life was poised to change forever. Ruminating on the events of the past three years and ten months, I am confounded by the changes in my personality and life.
I joined IITBombay in July 2005 as a Research Scholar in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences. It was an unconventional choice for a humanities researcher to choose a technical institution rather than the University system for intensive research. People whom I meet in conferences and seminars have asked me this question several times: “Why IIT system for a humanities person and that too a researcher in literature?” My answer has been; “Why not?” I wanted to learn at least a little of both humanities and technology. In the 21st century analysts working in any field of humanities have to deal with global terrorism, cyber crime and fragmented individual and cultural systems. It becomes imperative in this context for researchers to be well equipped with a working knowledge of latest technological developments. In IITs, we get ample opportunity to understand the subtleties both of technology and humanities. IITs give flexibility and free-flow of knowledge ecosystems to individuals who have the will and curiosity to learn. After joining IIT, not only did I get deeper insight into the nuances of my own field, but also got a working knowledge of many other disciplines like sociology, economics, philosophy, computer science, electrical engineering and physics. Today if someone queries me about the relation between visual and verbal, a Kantian worldview, Wittgensteinian concepts, a dragon economy, subaltern in Gayathri Spivak and Partha Chatterji, Dhrut and Madhyam in Hindustani classical music, I would probably not sound so lost. Similarly, I do also understand to a certain extent the significance of Wireless networking for rural India, WCDMA phones, biological research in computer sciences, Quark gluons, General and Special Theories of Relativity and particle physics – something that seem absolutely incredible considering my limited understanding of these subjects. Coming from a completely different knowledge system, I must confess that I was not aware of these research modules earlier. IIT gave me a peer group of research scholars who have given invaluable insights into different facets of research. Whether it is a formal seminar of interdisciplinary nature or an informal session in the hostel mess or a chai meet in any of the canteens, we share and enrich our existing knowledge base.
Earlier during post-graduation days, we used to get our dissertations typed by small DTP shops in our town. At school, we were given theoretical computer knowledge in terms of DOS, MS Office and some elementary know-how of C language without ever being allowed to touch the “real computer”. I had not learnt to use a computer on my own. Back home, when I was struggling to go out of the state for research, some mails that I typed and sent to Professors through the only mail id (which a friend had opened for me) in a Cyber Cafe, were either rejected or not replied to. I had not realized until I came to IIT Bombay that I was coming to a world which runs on a virtual web of email communication.
“Someone should give me a chance to prove myself”, I dreamt. Finally, IIT gave me that chance, but when I went into the course-work phases, my Quixotic romanticism vanished. The most painful part of the coursework phase was to come to terms with my own ignorance. Here, I was competing with some of the well-trained people of India, each one coming from unique educational systems. I was slow – in fact very slow in that pace. While I did not know how to type files in MS Word, how to prepare a PPT, IIT confounded me with LINUX, MATLAB, HTML and other computer related programs. Previously I had only one mail id, at IIT we had five major mail ids and all needed to be thoroughly checked at regular intervals for mails from guides and Professors or for assignment discussions. While my typing speed was pathetically slow, we were given fifteen assignments to be typed and submitted within a month’s time. There was the course seminar report additionally and the power point slides which had to be “perfect”! This was the toughest phase of my career where I was learning to unlearn many things that I had learnt in the past. IITs are special because they motivate the researcher to compete with himself/herself first before competing with others.
It was not all that easy, especially after one comes from a different work place to reinvent oneself. Many researchers come here mostly in their mid-twenties or even later and have to start from scratch. Sometimes our learning, ideologies and age inhibits us from easily accepting a system or jelling ourselves with a new system. However, the grueling process taught to me to be faster and clearer not only in my written work but also in my thoughts and in goal seeking. From lengthy confusing statements, that was a part of my writing style, I was taught to be curt and analytical. I was taught to question even if it were my own course instructors and my own work. Today when we present our paper in international conferences and seminars, this experience gives our presentation an edge over many others. I learnt to have confidence on my work, to defend it as and when required and to be patient, the last one being the most difficult part of my learning process.
Academically, there are a lot of things which if described can very well become a “self-help” treatise. I was being educated on the personal front too – starting from hostel manners to email etiquettes, from research intricacies to changing nature of personal friendships and equations. My association with Research Scholars’ Forum (RSF) and hostel life played an important role in giving insight into the psychology of people and fellow researchers. Single rooms in hostels give us that personal space where we can work and think. In the mess, it is a social gathering where people meet, talk and discuss. However, there is one aspect of researchers residing in the hostel that is slightly disturbing — the level of competition at least until the Presynopsis phase. As researchers, we need to understand that research is not just a degree which can be competed for. Of course, competition gives an incentive to work but “unhealthy comparison” is different from healthy competition. Research is a process and an individual endeavour where we cannot survive if we continue to compare ourselves with peers who seem to be “doing better”.
As a female researcher after coming to IIT many things changed. IITians take a pride in their casual style and an unkempt easy aura. When I had read the IIT lingo in the set of documents distributed to us during the Orientation program of the institute, I was amused by the definition given to girls’ hostels H-10 and H-11 as the “endangered species of IIT”. I often chuckle at the thought of being “endangered” and take a certain amount of honest pride — only an endangered species has something special in itself that demands attention.
As far as my experience of Mumbai is concerned, it has changed in these years from a culture shock to a fond liking of the campus and the city. 26th July 2005 – my first day in Mumbai and also the day of the flash floods. Our batch was a victim of the floods and some of us spent three days in the TV room of Hostel-11 while others chose to live in their labs until the flood subsided. I have sadly witnessed three major disasters that affected Mumbai in the past years – flash floods of 2005, Mumbai local train blasts in 2006 and the recent hostage crisis in CST, Taj, Oberoi and Nariman House in November 2008. The need to be accountable towards our own people acquires foremost significance. Though IITians have succeeded in career goals, we have a long way to go learning to be responsible citizens of a country that puts so much hope on IIT products. I still wonder as IITians when will we learn to pay back our people, not just in terms of money but in terms of services and intellect (which we are so proud of).
IITs are respected so much because they contribute in the overall making of an individual. Each individual has his/her own experiences, work styles and stories to narrate on the theme “how my days in IIT have helped me develop as a person”. If I were to summarize my days in IIT and all that I learnt here in three statements, it would be as follows: (a) I learnt to be humble; (b) I learnt to love my world; and (c) I learnt to forgive others and forgive myself.