A Prodigy vs Some Messed-up Grading
‘He was the best student I have seen’, quotes Prof. Narayan with extreme conviction, ‘the very best in all these years’ as he amorously reminisces the prodigy standing out so distinctively in his illustrious teaching career that spanned multiple decades. Hailing from a small middle-class Marathi family in Gwalior, Narendra Karmarkar forthwith soared to eminence on the dint of his unrivaled intellect, celebrated as the brightest of the bright and arguably a genius with compelling evidence.
Professed to have crash-coursed his B.Tech curriculum in electrical engineering a full year earlier during his summer holidays, Karmarkar unsurprisingly was bestowed with the President's Gold medal for graduating with the highest GPA of the batch of 1978. In a batch whose median JEE rank used to be somewhere near 60, Karmarkar was in such a hurry that he urged his teachers to go faster and believed that attending classes instead slowed him down! Studying with astute seriousness, he would effortlessly make connections between unrelated concepts and distill the essence in them. To quote Prof. Swamidasan ‘When I used to give a problem in Symbolic Logic those days, they’d have to deduce something and I’d give them points for it. I’d hardly have written the problem, and the rest of the class would be working at it, and he’d have finished it.’
Accomplishing the distinction of getting an algorithm named while working for Bell Laboratories at the ripe age of 27, just six years out of college, the “Karmarkar’s Algorithm” formed a cornerstone in the field of Linear Programming and made headlines not only in scientific publications but also the mass media, earning him the highly prestigious Paris Kanellakis Award.
However, if Karmarkar was celebrated as the embodiment of ingenuity and smarts acting as a paragon of an archetypal student, nailing every subject and churning out perfect grades unremittingly, then in a complete disparity and to counterpose this balance were Prof. M.S Kamath of the same department. Attaining in the eyes of those who have passed through his hands a legendary and almost mythical status, Prof. Kamath’s grading system was a “punch in the nose for students who fancied themselves as the best and brightest in India.” Notorious for his hellaciously excruciating papers that warranted every last morsel of one’s intellect, and bequeathing grades more parsimoniously than a miser parting with his pennies, Kamath rose to the prominence of being one of “the most dreaded professor.” Capable of humbling his students in a matter of minutes, regardless of their sharpness, his nothing short of a draconian grading could be easily exhibited by the fact that only one student per test got an A, the top scorer. The second-best scorer got a B. Everyone else got Cs, Ds, or Fs. Paraphrasing the distinguished alumnus Victor Menezes, the co-CEO at Citicorp, “Facing Prof Kamath’s paper, all you could do is pray, there’s nothing else you can do.”
Nonetheless, Kamath was one of the most zealous and creative professors, whose devotion to teaching was as legendary as his ruthless grading. Known for spending weeks for just formulating his question papers that featured very intricately linked questions warranting deep contemplation to unravel, Kamath’s passion and commitment to teaching even assumed greater paramountcy in his schedule than his research. Often enjoying bouts of “Bridge” and with a taste for theatre, Kamath did enjoy locking horns with students, which included Karmarkar as well!
Recounting his experience with Kamath’s course that he, fortunately, succeeded to secure a B-grade in, alumnus Kamal Sinha remarks that he and Karmarkar were virtually neck to neck, with Karmarkar just edging by a couple of points before the finals. Despite performing exceptionally well in the finals, and scoring almost perfect scores in the tests, Sinha still couldn’t outmaneuver Karmarkar though their scores were almost indistinguishable. Elucidating his rationale behind awarding just one ‘A’ grade even for almost identical scores, Kamath remarked that there could be only one genius in his class, and since IIT was a center of excellence, he didn’t want his pupils to be “third-rate products.” Enquiring what would happen if hypothetically Einstein and Newton were in the same class, Kamath elected to be mum to the rebuttal.
The reason for his sensational popularity indeed was two-fold, not only did his tough papers and stringent grading contribute, but his flair at teaching added volumes as well. The sheer diligence with which both these icons dedicated themselves to academia exhibited acute dichotomy. While Karmarkar championed the grading system and engraved his name eternally in research and academia, Kamath was as reclusive to relinquish lenient grades and prioritized teaching over research! Their extraordinarily successful lives are riddled with prestigious accolades, the sheer number, and splendor of which surpasses the humble domain of this blog.