IIT Bombay: Kal, Aaj aur Kal

IIT Bombay in 1958

A distinctive view about IITB and its life exists amid the student society of the 80s and today. It is very apparent that the situations and the resources available are very different, but it is human tendency to still venture into that line of comparison between the times then and now. The fact that the Institute Alumni Reunion every year provides a platform for these discussions to resurface is virtually unexplored, and in fact if made proper use of, can bring about radical changes in the thought process of both the alumni and the student.

Let me first start with what I learnt last year, when for the first time, I had a long and deep interaction with the Batch of ’85. As part of a highly interactive email thread, I came to know of the views of various alumni in a very organised and logical way.

The conversation started with the following masterpiece:
“As much as the IIT of the past gladdened the heart, the IIT Bombay of today seemed unrecognizable and alien.
1) The hostels are so dilapidated, they look practically decrepit. The much vaunted Indian economic boom evidently by-passed IITB’s hostels. Our rooms were a place where we regenerated and recovered, reflected and dreamed. Each room was a unique expression of the inhabitant’s persona. Stuffing 2 students in such a small room robs the space of its dignity and violates the individual’s privacy.

2) The focus of the few students I met (who may not describe the population) was around academics and getting ahead in life. All very relevant in today’s world no doubt. But very different from what I recall of the IIT of the 80s and before. The focus during our times was mostly about discovery and exploration. The coming of age amongst a sea of brilliance; of being inspired by classmates and hostel mates who wanted to try out as many new things as possible; and being amazed at the repeated ingenuity, inventiveness and sheer guts of so many around us. Academics were important and taken in stride, but rarely was it the primary reason for being. That’s what made IITians special. In its current avatar, IITB seems no different from the countless other engineering colleges in the country. It’s hard to digest this new reality and to acknowledge being a part of it.”

Amid all the opinion sharing, I joined the discussion with great enthusiasm, trying to give a current student’s view:-.
1) Of course, putting two students per room is atrocious, but the IITB authorities have no other choice. Infrastructure facilities cannot be changed overnight, while the student intake has. In fact, academics itself, the prime concern of our being, is suffering. Lectures in the LT are still OK, but given the quality of acoustics in the Convocation Hall, they should never be held there. No doubt the faculty and labs are among the best available in the country, but there too there is significant room for improvement, which is evident from IITs ranking amongst other colleges in the world.

2) Social behaviour has changed with the advent of technology – personal laptops, music systems etc. Seclusion has definitely taken in, life is more individualistic. Virtual life on the internet limits social interaction. But I believe this has more to do with the generation. Parents of older IITians who didn’t even have a radio would also have said how children wasted their time on radios listening to cricket instead of playing it in the streets. It’s the same as how we teens look with disgust at present day’s cartoons on TV. The fact that kids today enjoy it and find our stuff boring reflects how our likings are different from theirs. Agreement on what’s interesting and what’s not cannot be made across generations.

But when I discussed all of this with the batch of ’85, I got the unanimous answer that most alumni agreed that they gained significantly from their STAY at IIT, and NOT JUST from the LECTURES they attended at IIT. “We too had more than our share of good, bad and indifferent professors. Most interaction was limited to tutorials, instead of on the spot discussion during lectures. The lab equipment varied from good to terrible. Most lab results and graphs did not even correlate to theory. We certainly didn’t have state of the art facilities. Getting computer time involved begging, pleading and sometimes even stealing.”

“Students usually stayed in the same hostel for the length of their stay in IIT. Hostel, Institute and Gymkhana events, including Mood Indigo, were organised and coordinated without email or cell phones.  External dialling from the hostel was limited to PCO/hostel… And each student had the liberty of finding the location of one that worked!
But, we still took the pains to maintain our hostels a lot better than the situation today. And, we still managed to reach the external market for buying vegetables at the cheapest rates for the hostel messes.” After all that, it was these students who went on to establish IIT’s brand globally.

In fact, the snail mail was all that existed to keep in touch with friends, contrary to plethora of means and resources today. They did not have Google to do research. People used engineering indexes in the library and hoped that the journal they were looking for would be where it was supposed to be. “We didn’t like this inefficiency. So our generation invented internet to make your life easy. What are you guys going to do and tell folks like you 25 years later?” There was silence!

“What we learned at IIT was a lot more than academics. We learned leadership. We developed a very high adversity quotient. We developed positive attitude. We learned innovation. We learned to think. We learned to take action. We learned to control our own destiny. We learned to fight. We learned to stand up on our own feet. We learned to succeed! And none of this is taught in any classroom at IIT!”

IIT Bombay today

The IITB of tomorrow has to be shaped in this particular spirit. The willingness, the strength to fight, the capability and the potential to make things work in even the most dire situations is what an IITian is known all over the world for. It is this uniqueness that needs to be built upon so that the motto of IIT Bombay: Gyanam Paramam Dhyeyam (Knowledge is the ultimate goal) be held high.