Penning down IIT Bombay
by Prof. Rohit Manchanda
We had recently written a piece on the Institute’s history recently which was received quite nicely by the readers. Today, we bring to you an interview with the man who is behind carving out the history into a beautiful treatise of IIT Bombay ‘Monastery, Sanctuary, Laboratory: 50 years of IIT Bombay,’ which was released on the golden jubilee of the Institute almost 10 years back. Prof Rohit Manchanda is a professor of the BSBE department of the Institute and an amazing author. Read on to know about his thoughts and his experiences in writing the book, and his take on the Institute.
1. What was the inspiration behind writing this book? Where did you start with for all the research that has gone into it?
The stimulus, to begin with, came from a lateral source. It had been the long-standing wish of Prof SP Sukhatme, former Director of our Institute between the years 1995 and 2000, that the formative years of the IITB be chronicled. When the golden jubilee of the Institute’s foundation began to creep up on the horizon (the jubilee year was 2008, and I am speaking here of the early to mid- 2000’s), he urged IIT to set the ball rolling on it. He and a few others who were overseeing the endeavour knew that I had written a book of fiction before, and they asked me, amongst a few others possibles, if I’d take up the project, and eventually zeroed in on me.
But the real rush of inspiration came once I started delving into the Institute’s years of conception and infancy. I should say here in parenthesis that I had wavered quite a bit to start with as to whether or not I should take up the writing of IIT’s history, chiefly for the reason that institutional histories hadn’t interested me much in prior years. When, however, I began to comb through some of the documents the bore on the Institute’s early years, I found myself fascinated. Fascinated by the very idea of the IITs; by the big part played by chance in having IITB assisted by the then Soviet Union, which extended its aid in kind as well as expertise over the Institute’s nascent years; by the often daunting odds against which the Institute had to chart its course over its first few decades (IITB had to face some pretty grim times between, roughly, the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s); and not least by the grit and resilience of those that built up the Institute in the face of those odds.
These just-mentioned early documents became the anchor and the fillip for the research that I then plunged into. One of them, a memoir written in anectodal vein by IITB’s first Director, Brigadier B. Bose, and titled simply “The Early Years”, was a trove of engrossing insight on how the fledgling Institute was birthed, nurtured and groomed. There were other books and brochures, some in the form of reports, that opened up avenues of highly fruitive exploration: I recall with especial vividity one put out in the early 1960s by UNESCO, the UN agency through which the Soviet aid had been channeled. Of pivotal interest were the Institute’s own reflections on and appraisals of its own journey, enshrined in its Annual Reports of the sixties, in the minutes of its Board of Governors’ meetings, in the reports of sundry committees and taskforces charged with setting up IITB’s infrastructure and its academic programmes... the list can go on. And while much of this may sound as if it makes for reading that is dry as dust, apt to make one go bleary-eyed with tedium, it was anything but that. For these accounts told me of the whys and the hows that lay behind a multitude of things around me that I had often wondered about, they told me also of how I myself, having trained in the medical sciences, ended up in an Institute of engineering and technology: but those are strands of thought that I cannot here go into.
Nor must I omit to mention how vastly I enjoyed wading through the accounts left behind by the pioneering generations of IITB students, too. Of particular note are those to be found in the former student magazine, Technik by name, dating back to the late 1960’s and the 1970’s. Many of the articles in those remote pages are astonishingly well crafted and a joy to read in themselves; on a more utilitarian level they furnished for me a singularly enlightening observation post from which to peer into the students’ psyche of the time, their hopes and their travails, what made them tick and what got them to gnash their teeth (let us in passing recall: these were times fraught with interest, for it was in the mid-70’s that IITB’s now celebrated festival, Mood Indigo, was conjured up and launched; and it was in the early 70’s that the warp and woof of IITB’s academic curricula were revamped, comprehensively and enduringly: much of the academic scaffolding that one sees today was laid down then).
2. Asking the clichéd, what do you think have been the major (monumental) changes in the typical IITB student and campus over the years?
I find the typical IITB student of today to be a whole lot less deferential, and by corollary a whole lot more assertive and self-confident, than in my early years here. Students are vastly more questioning now of what is proferred them by way of organized instruction—lectures, tutes, labs, and so forth—or of informal academic counsel.
Present-day students do feel themselves to be subject, on the other hand, to a lot more psychological stress than did students some twenty-odd years ago. The reasons for the heightened sense of pressure are very many, and I suspect they have as much to do with the world without IIT’s walls as with the world within. Since the IITs now enjoy a truly sensational branding, students I think feel under a great deal of pressure to live up to the brand’s cachet, tending to lose sight, in the thick of things, of the fact that each of us needs to find their own zone, chisel out their own niche.
Were the students of 30 or 40 years ago more keenly interested in the academic life than they are now, as is from time to time alleged? To my mind, this is hard to say. I there have always been those that took books and exams less seriously—at times, far less seriously—than their professors might have wished, and equally those that were too bookish for their own wider good. Perhaps some proportions have here and there shifted, but the continuum in all its variety persists.
As were the students, so was the campus: a quieter, more retiring entity in times past. Just fifteen years ago the stillness and the serenity on campus, during weekend afternoons for instance, could be near-uncanny, and it was easy to feel you lived at some remote edge of the universe, untouched by the “real world”—a world that in fact went about its hurly-burly not ten kilometres from us. Powai itself was quite emphatically cut off from the city proper, and sported an atmosphere close to desolate. You had no Hiranandani Gardens here, nor did you have any of the other enclaves of high-rises that now line the Adi Shankaracharya Marg. The Marg itself was no more than an unlit, scrawny, two-lane road that at points sloughed off one of its lanes, and was eerily dark and lonely at night, so much so that traversing the road at an hour later than nine or so was not free from the danger of being held up and robbed. And in point of commerce, one just had a small, rackety market across from the IIT gates, in a rather rudimentary avatar of the one we have now.
The campus was an extension, and indeed an intensification, of the solitude outside it. Its spaces were a byword for tranquility, and for those qualities that had been reckoned over centuries together as being of the first importance to an academic life: tranquility, self-absorption, contemplation. All in all, a perfect cocoon: picture, if you can, a campus with barely any vehicular traffic (no Institute buses, no autorickshaws, scarcely any cars or motorbikes, scant visitors), bestrewn with acres and acres of woodland and wilderness, no high-rises (the highest edifice was a grand six storeys high), all structures nestled in and shrouded by foliage: that was the campus of 20-odd years ago.
But it was between and betwixt the buildings that some of the campus’s most delectable charms lay: those of its riches of wildlife. So abundantly stocked was the campus in flora and fauna that you couldn’t help but take note of some of the denizens. As an example: each monsoon you were pretty much guaranteed to catch sight of, on average, a snake a day; so common were snakes that they excited no particular remark or reaction, and you left them to wend their way about their business just as they left you to wend your way about yours. Mongooses too were a common sight, as were giant centipedes, wolf spiders, paradise flycatchers—plus a raft of other species equally uncommon elsewhere.
Some of the campus’s prodigious holdings of animal and plant life have been whittled away by the rash of construction that has taken place since around the late 1990’s. The heartening thing, however, is that much still remains that can be spotted by the alert eye and relished.
3. There must have been funny or unusual incidents while hunting down and talking to professors and alumni. Would you like to share any of them?
Here’s one that comes powerfully to mind. I had heard a great deal about an alumnus, Anuvrata Roy ((monikered “Dunu” Roy), who did his B.Tech. in 1967 and his M.Tech. in 1969, in Chemical Engineering. After he left IITB, he took as his chosen calling the field of social activism, and had blazed an extraordinary trail in it.
Late in 2007, just ahead of that year’s Techfest, I spotted amid the bill of fare a talk to be given by Dunu Roy, and in keen anticipation went along to it. That talk was a revelation. Pretty much without ado, he launched into a censure of the self-centredness of IIT students, their alleged indifference to the interests of society and the nation at large. In very short order the censure blossomed into an inflammatory harangue, in the course of which Roy left the student audience going russet in their cheeks, cringing in their seats, as he proceeded to call them, straight to their faces, ‘big fools’ with ‘swollen heads’, unable to look beyond their noses, smitten only with snapping up the most lucrative management and financial engineering jobs going.
Dunu Roy’s Distinguished Alumnus citation says he has ‘played the role of an engineer away from the beaten track. His work has been path breaking as it has shown how an engineer who works at grassroots level needs to combine understanding of social, cultural, environmental issues with technological issues.’ The ‘Vidushak Karkhana’ founded by Roy in the 1970s in Shahdol, M.P., is legendary in circles knowledgeable about the creative work it has done. What struck me most about his stance on things was his penchant for publicly opening up that vexatious Pandora’s box that asks: what exactly do IIT students owe their nation, their society? Do they owe anything at all, or do they not? Equally striking was his intensity in playing the role of provocateur, of setting the cat among the pigeons, and of calling some of the best technologically agile brains in the country names that made them flinch and writhe. Evidently he delivered his rant in the hope of stimulating students into turning their minds to India’s teeming social and ground-level engineering problems, from which he felt they were lamentably detached. To interpose a quick aside here: are things much different now?
4. What is the importance of a helping alumni community for an Institute like us, according to you?
It’s immense, and its importance cannot be overstated. In material terms, it’s all too apparent that alumni can help the Institute in any of a cohort of ways, including the bootstrapping of R&D programmes, of fresh academic initiatives, and of infrastructure refurbishment where governmental funds may not be forthcoming.
The real value however of alumni lies in, if I may so put it, bringing the world to IIT-Bombay’s doorstep. Graduates of the Institute fan out into a marvellously varied panoply of disciplines, vocations, places. Those that feel a strong bond with the Institute can give back in ways that are perhaps less tangible than the purely monetary, but can be equally invaluable. For one thing, they have been IITB’s envoys wherever they have gone: and since a great many of them have done glitteringly well in their respective walks of life, this has redounded to IITB’s credit in no small measure, earning for it an enviable repute in spheres that matter—be it in academia or industry both within India and overseas, be it in corporate and government circles at the highest echelons. With their fingers on the pulse in a large number of domains, they let us in on, for instance, what’s getting dated versus what’s still hot and happening, in what direction corporate or government policies are likely to veer over the near future and how this might affect the Institute’s interests and those of its graduates... In short, they are the best crystal-ball gazers we could wish to have on our side, and our best counselors. And the really inspiriting thing in all this is that very many of our alumni can be admirably selfless in their zest to help the Institute and its current students along. Here are some traits I’ve noticed in alumni across several generations of them: their staunch loyalty to their alma mater’s interests, their gratitude for all that their stint at IITB has given them, and their solicitude to, in their turn, give back as best they can. It’s a mix that has stood IITB in splendid stead ever since the time alumni started “looking back”, as it’s termed, around the mid-1990s, and I’m sure will serve the Institute just as well in time to come.
5. After having a close look at the shaping of the Institute, what is your message to the students studying here today and our alumni?
To students: what you see today at IIT Bombay, all the facets of it that you partake of, be it in the way of academic offerings, of hostel life, of campus amenities, is the consequence of enormous amounts of effort put in by legions of past students, faculty, and staff. If you have enjoyed what IIT Bombay has offered, it is to past generations that thanks must be given. But if you’d like future generations to profit equally from IITB’s exceptional provisions, the responsibility for this falls at least partly on you. Please do what you can to make IITB an ever more vibrant and fulfilling campus, academically and otherwise.
To alumni: What current students do helps largely to strengthen the Institute from within; how the Institute is viewed from without is impacted to a lesser degree. The latter mantle, that of getting the wider world to take ever more notice of IITB, and to hold it in esteem, falls squarely on the shoulders of alumni. You have already brought profound and far-reaching credit to the IITB banner; we look forward to yet greater things from you as we go along.