This is something I wanted to write about for some time now. It has been almost 1.5 years since I came over to Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh in one of the country’s most prestigious institutes – the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur. Amidst a huge internal storm on which institute I should attend, I finally arrived here at Oasis-e-Kanpur. For the first time, I was going to live somewhere completely different, with completely different people, in a completely different atmosphere. I did not harbour much expectation, but what I got was something I did not expect – a culture shock.
I was insulated in Bengal all these years. I had little idea about the ground realities in the rest of the country, especially the densely populated portion of the Hindi-heartland. I did not expect to get through much of the realities, as I felt people here at IIT would be the same academically motivated, liberal-minded group I was lucky enough to be a part of at school. I felt I would find well meaning people with high aims and great visions. Non-prejudiced and eager to learn.
The first few days saw me disappointed. Traumatized even. I found a group of excited individuals ready to enjoy life after a grueling time spent preparing for IIT, with little higher thoughts than packages, I found people strutting about declaring average pays after four years, and looking down upon their colleagues, I found some parents even going the same way (or maybe it should be the other way round – the children going the parent’s way). ( I wish to emphasize here that not all people I met were like this, and some who were like this subsequently changed. ) This left me shocked and even more remorseful for not having gone somewhere else – I was facing a huge existential crisis, and all of this 1200 km away from the place I called home and from the people I held dearest to me. I found no-one to talk to, who shared the same point of view, the same language (literally and figuratively) as I did.
I felt even more disappointed on seeing the so-called culture here. All in good humour is fine, and increasing bonhomie by getting people to open up is fine too. But what if someone is not comfortable that way? What if my idea of increasing bonhomie is not by mouthing expletives or invoking one’s mother or sister? What if my culture and upbringing makes this a great shock for me? A huge moral blow? Defenders may say people always had the option to back off by saying they were uncomfortable. But what can a boy, not yet rock-solid in spiritual power, feel when he sees his contemporaries easily accepting something he couldn’t or rather can’t? How can he back off without feeling like a left-out being? How can he feel comfortable when discussions regarding obscenity (obscene even with the free-est and most liberal of minds) are rampantly going on and people are actually enjoying it?
Even more shocked was I when I learnt about the prejudices some of my friends harboured. Some talked of caste, some of religion and their differences. Some talked so passionately of regionalism! North Indian prejudice for South India and general lack of historical/geographical/cultural knowledge. I had never expected people here in the temples of learning to be so prejudiced! Some talked of superficial religion, of the greatness of everything Indian and the futility of everything in the West. Some talked of impossibilities of religious tolerance! And people were not ready to accept other views! The greatness of ancient India is fine, but the USA till the mid 1900’s is a spectacular example of human endeavour. The philosophy of Kant and Hegel are masterpieces. Likewise, Nehru was not the cause of partition! People of South India speak primarily one or more of four languages – Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada – all different and with extremely rich cultures. Bengali is my mother tongue, not Hindi. Islam is not the cause of all evil. Hinduism has its wrongs. It has immensely beautiful philosophical literature. I am not elitist or non-nationalist if I speak English (though a certain club has made the image as such). Hindi is not and should not be our national language. >60% professors at IIT Kanpur are Bengalis and, guess what, that is not the reason of my high marks (as I once heard people saying). You are talking to the least regionalistic among Indians. I do not eat fish perpetually. I wish to go for higher studies and not go for a job. I have no idea (still don’t) how high or low a x lakh per annum ‘package’ is. Materialism is not in my blood. The International Mother Language Day is “International” – duh – it’s not a “Bengali” thing— These are the things I have had to explain.
Then came the studies part. So few people actually studied! So few. People spent the time and the invaluable resources doing what the country needs the least, and studying only when their backsides were afire. And people interested in studies were looked upon as outcasts! People also had so little knowledge of what went on in the scientific world! This, in an IIT, should be sacrilegious!
And the environmental consciousness, mostly abysmal. Social consciousness – worse. Some talked of dowry system, harassment of women with a casualness that was spine-chillingly scary. I was scared. Of the generation I was a part of. I don’t generalize, but statistically most of the people who scared me constituted a category our Government has assigned and were mostly from the North and West of our country.
Within the depth of winter, however, I saw within the institute, some oases of pragmatism, some great friends, who restored my faith back in my generation time and again. I had some awesome friends – people who made me proud that I knew them – passionate coders, lovers of academics and science and technology. But they were exceptions, not the rule. Extremely unfortunately, I have also seen friends, good people go to the dogs once they are given the freedom here at IIT. They made me very very sad. But, all in all, IIT inside turned out to be similar to the culture outside. I did not expect that.
But I refuse to give up. I blend and twist and turn, but my philosophy remains the same. I have learnt tons from the traumatic experience. I have grown, understood and my culture, my spiritual studies have received a boost, an impetus. I have gained happiness from misery. Exasperation continues, but I have learnt to keep hope.
Because though the night is still not over, I am not yet dead.
I have a dream. I wish to transform IIT Kanpur into a world class institute. And its student body into a human-class body. People have told me it is impossible. Let us see. I was reading the history of MIT. It too started extremely humbly. For the first 70 years, it too was a ‘technical institute’ doling out engineers. But always maintaining great independence. Then the golden era of great directors came – Karl Compton and Vannevar Bush – who reemphasized basic science and research and MIT became what it is. IIT Kanpur is still young, yet it is well down that path. Its research is strong. It needs just that little push from the students, the researchers and the faculty and one good leader to get it home.
That day too shall come. And I shall be there to witness it. With moistened eyes.