A Day Trip to My Alma Mater

By Namit Arora | Nov 2006 | Comments


I got a B.Tech from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur (IIT, KGP). Sixteen years after graduation, I visited it again from Kolkata during Puja 2005.

Most students had gone home but the institute, though fairly deserted, still evoked a flood of memories. But this felt different from nostalgia (it's been a while since I felt any nostalgia for the IIT), which I find plentiful in most IITians I meet ("the best four years of my life", they typically say). This gap may be because I have long viewed my IIT stint as, at best, a passage to a richer life in more ways than one (for which I feel fortunate but not nostalgic; for me most four year periods since have been better), and, at worst, a relative waste of time that played only a trifling role in my intellectual and moral development. I went again partly because places from our past teach us something about our present.

For an elite college that attracts some of India's "sharpest" kids, its near total lack of liberal education now seems like a deprivation to me. That the IITs see no value in leavening technical instruction with the humanities should give us pause about the quality of its graduates. In my former department, only three non-professional courses are on offer today in four years, including English for Communication, which comes with eight other courses in semester one. The incoming freshman must take nine courses in the first semester and eight in the second! And all that while negotiating life away from home. How can he learn anything well? UC Berkeley averages three or four each semester. The IIT KGP curriculum offers nothing even on the history of global science and technology, nor on the unique challenges of technological development in India.

The institute is still run by uninspiring men who cannot intelligently address an alumni gathering to save their lives. I recall it more as a site of stress and confusion than of joy and learning. Faculty teaching skills were abysmal on average; there was no recourse or accountability. The program was rigid: four years, minimal departmental mobility, poor choice of electives; one couldn't attend courses in other disciplines out of interest. Exam-related anxiety dreams haunted me for years afterwards. For most of us, the main reason to study was not any love of learning but grades, so we could land financial aid from US universities (facing a shortfall of engineers)—what better validation was needed for its impoverished idea of education? Barring exceptions, it has fostered a generation of insipid, incurious men who are little more than glorified plumbers of the US economy.

So it is hardly surprising that my fondest memories relate to the wacky, inventive, and taboo things we did—as college boys are wont to—and some of the friendships I made then, the kind that are so hard to acquire later in life. Is it true that the most unaffected bonds between men are the ones formed when they are young and stupid? I also pleasantly recall what was rare in the 80s: a diverse student body from all across India, which helped me shed some of my provincial, small-town ways. Here I honed a more analytical outlook that has helped me in other walks of life. Here I learned to live independently. But I suspect that my own poor self-awareness, likely poorer than many of my peers, blocked me from making the best of the extra-curricular opportunities we did have. I regret not picking up more Bengali.


Nehru Hall, where I lived for four years, looked fairly unchanged, except the TV room is now a provision store and the canteen on the catwalk has moved below, near the mess. The rooms were exactly the same with their iron cots, open shelves, wobbly door latches, and the green flap doors that have withstood many a sutli bomb and late-night Floyd sessions. Every room now has a desktop PC and 3 Mbps fiber-optic net connection. I wondered what new marvels 19 year old boys—what with the IIT's sorry gender ratio of 20 boys to every girl—find on the Internet today. Trading "pondies" must be history. Are they still as physically playful with each other as in my time? The water-tanks (aka s---tanks) in the bathroom area remain. I noticed some improvements in the plumbing and tile work by the washbasins, but the toilets are still the squatting kind. A few trees, once far below my second floor wing, C-top West, had grown quite tall. Recent rain had accentuated the withering of the cheap, yellow wall paint. The common room and the mess were closed for Puja. Pradeep, the provision store owner from the old days, is still around but was out that day.

Several new and slick halls of residence have come up (most for freshmen). A new all-AC building in the institute, with rows upon endless rows of desktop PCs on two floors; another architecturally bold building has lots of seminar rooms; both have nice, modern toilets and water coolers with AquaGuard. A new library is searchable online, said to be the largest technical library in Asia. Strangely, there were lots of security guards at the institute entrance but as soon as I said I was an alumnus they waved me in with broad smiles. A few Nescafe kiosks now exist inside with stone benches strewn about. The Tagore Open Air Theater was like before.

The Tatas have built a sports complex in light of which Gyan Ghosh looked positively derelict, its grass overgrown. The only person I recognized was the Surd at Sahara restaurant. Nair's has changed beyond recognition into another restaurant. Waldies was closed that day but its exterior looked the same. Anarks has been turned into a relatively upscale hotel-restaurant by its owner. The Tech Market has grown to at least twice its former size, as has the student body (they admit many more these days; lots more compete for it too). I saw several ATMs and banks. Rollicks ice-cream is still ubiquitous (my travel partner remarked, "gosh, such simple taste you had in ice-creams back then!"). Bimala Sweets lives, as does Thackers Books. The Surd’s joint outside Nehru Hall, where we occasionally splurged on a chikan dish, had morphed into a basic canteen and travel agent plus courier service.


It doesn't take a genius to see that the IITs lack a holistic idea of education. To be sure, India needs them and the skills they teach, but the IITs are definitely over-rated as centers of learning. Without roots in a vibrant university, they are more like the best "engineer training" institutes of India. What would Tagore have said? They're the holy grail of the entire urban school system, where too many middleclass Indians (including my own family) equate education with success in competitions and acquiring skills and degrees that promise plush jobs or a life abroad. Their all-too-pragmatic attitudes are understandable of course, if also less than admirable.

Most IITians continue their game after graduation. The great Indian middleclass now cheers their adult achievements: job titles, salaries, stock options, tenures, timely marriages and issues, houses and cars, but above all, money. Nothing is sexier than an IITian who makes his millions in America, or leads a multinational corporation. Achievements on this track leave me cold. I see in them little independence of mind (one can reasonably argue that it's too late to inculcate this at the IIT. It needs to start much earlier in school and at home, for which middleclass ideas of education must evolve). Barring exceptions, I find most IITians to be a thoroughly conventional and self-satisfied bunch. As immigrants in the US, in particular, they seem to embody some of the most unflattering stereotypes of the Marwaris of Calcutta.

It struck me afresh that the campus is so large, green, quiet, and pleasant to wander through. Many roads are wider; the Scholar’s Avenue was shadier than ever; the walk past the gymkhana and the swimming pool brought back memories of inter-hall competitions. Faculty housing still looks straight out of the 80s though: derelict verandas with lush tropical creepers, leaky pipes running down the back, green moss on the walls. But on the whole, IIT KGP, the first Indian Institute of Technology, has become a bigger institute since my time. India Today ranked it the #1 engineering college for three years running (2001-03) and it continues to hover near there. A shiny new management school is named after a philanthropic alumnus. It has more funds and projects, departments, teachers, researchers, labs, new halls, and a devoted alumni network. The cycle-rickshaw ride back to the impressive Kharagpur train station felt pleasant, with the area still sparsely populated and unhurried.

(Click here for pictures.)

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