Monday, September 26, 2011

Picking sturdy buffaloes

"All right losers, I am off for a day!" That is what Pradeep would say to us on Saturday evenings. Before retiring with a bottle of cheap alcohol, a couple of packs of cigarettes, and sometimes, rolled up "cigars", that contained various types of  leaves. Of disputed legality, that God has been kind enough to share with His creation. His room would stay locked from the inside on Sundays. And on Monday mornings, he would emerge, metamorphosed, and rejuvenated  -- like a butterfly from the cocoon. And then, he would go straight to the class, since Fluid Mechanics as a subject, had never looked so good.

Those were the golden years. In my undergraduate days, in my IIT, which too, is on that terrible list.  The list of IITs, that have contributed to ten student suicides this year. Since this topic is very close to my heart, I decided to write about it -- in a non-political way, that does not do creative accounting with the blame. If there is blame to go around, there are ten fingers for every person that wants to point them. 

During my four years at an IIT, we did not have a single student suicide. There were a couple of unfortunate deaths, from accidents and disease. Young lives cut short, by things we had little control over. But, most of us, spent a happy set of four years, unaware of the various problems in the scary world out there. And completely aware of the power of intoxication and camaraderie, and how the two can get you through the toughest times in life.

So, why are we seeing the disturbing trend of young people killing themselves in the IITs? We too had tough times, during our times. How come we survived?

I have thought a lot about this, and I have come to a simple conclusion. Perhaps, the problem is with one word that is so prominently showcased in the names of these institutes -- technology. When we went to school at the IITs, there were no cellphones and no Internet. To call home, you would need to walk up to the telephone exchange, and make arrangements for a trunk call. Google, Facebook and Twitter were yet to be invented -- we would trade gossip the old fashioned way. Sitting around on the mess-rooftop and smoking our cheap cigarettes, with promises to send each other cases full of Marlboro, after we had made it. Some of us did make it, but the cases never arrived. But that, is beside the point.

I was recently appalled to find that the IITs now have Internet access in every hostel room, and the students spend most of their free time, surfing the web. Locking themselves up in their rooms, with no immediate support structure to fall back upon -- if someone gets the cold shoulder from a romantic interest on Facebook. Thousands of miles away. If someone lands a million buck job, there are tweets about it, that everyone can get on their mobile phones. Gone are the days when the promise of a good job, was followed up by the promise of a good bottle of alcohol, to be shared till the last drop was washed out with water. Celebratory intoxication made our bonds stronger. Than ever.

We too had tremendous academic pressure in our times. We didn't have the latest marvels of technology to engineer the natural world. Some of us were still using log-tables during our initial years -- to predict when a motor would overload, or an engine would blow. But, good friends, good times and the dreams of a good life, never let us blow our engines, or overload our motors.

The strangest, and the the most hurtful thing that I have heard of, in this sad situation, is IIT-Kanpur's decision to get rid of the ceiling fans in the hostel rooms. So the students would not be able to hang themselves. Of all the people in the world, the professors at these IITs should know, that if someone wants to kill himself, he can find a hundred different ways. And I am pretty sure that one can use Google to get the necessary information.

An obvious solution here is to completely stop Internet access in the hostel rooms. The students, should have down-time, specially, if the curriculum is one of the toughest in the world. And one more solution, is to force people out of their rooms for a few hours every evening, no matter how reclusive they are.  It doesn't matter what they do in that time, they can get drunk if they want -- a drunk student, even a dead drunk one -- is  much better than a dead student.

One more thing that can be done in this regard, is to change the selection process for these institutes. The joint entrance examination has now become so stressful, that students are half broken by the time they get in. For someone sitting at the edge of a cliff, sometimes, the temptation is very high. To jump off it.

As you know, Desi Babu likes to make use of his Desi philosophy on serious matters.

So, I need to tell you a story from my childhood, when I had a conversation with the local milkman, when he was showing off his latest acquisition -- a sturdy buffalo, with a shiny coat. When I had asked him if he had selected the buffalo based on its shiny coat, he had remarked, "Babua, chamdi ki to palish aur malish ki ja sakti hai, par asli bhains ke to daant acche hote hain. Maine daant dekhkar kharida hai apni bhains ko. (Child, the buffalo's coat can be polished and massaged for a good shine, but a good buffalo has good teeth. I selected my buffalo, based on its teeth.)"

For years now, the IITs have preferred an entrance examination, that tends to choose the shiny skin over the healthy teeth. Let's hope that they can change -- to select sturdier buffaloes that can stand the test of time. Based on healthy teeth, and not shiny skin.


  1. babu: sarkari iits wiil do nothing. kyon bhains ke aage bean bajate hain aap?

  2. Dear Desi Babu,
    I do believe the problem starts well before, and internet access etc. at IIT, only divert from the real problems. Let me use my son to give a few examples.

    My son (in class IV) has unrestricted internet & TV access. Neither is misused, because both are used to see more things related to his hobbies. I am surprised to see that most of the other children around us do not have anything called a hobby, so what do you think they will browse for when they go on the internet? Or, what do you think they learn from the Hindi serials, which they all watch, and which only show dysfunctional families and society.

    Studies and the examination system is a total mess (the buffalo example is excellent). Do you know, for e.g. that CBSE marks English answers based on keywords – so a student can write a totally incorrect answer with wrong grammar and get full marks because he/she got the keywords right? Would that ever have happened when we were young?

    By the time you reach IIT stage, it is too late – the rot is already set in too deep. There has been much talk about how the people who just miss the cut-off are no worse than those who make it, but the same process has already happened several times in school, and many good people have already been knocked out. My point is that what you are seeing at the IIT’s is a small (much publicised) window to a far deeper malaise all around us.

    People commit suicide not because of the internet, but because they have been taught to work hard, but not how to handle pressure and failure. Children are no longer children, but trophies, which parents want to show around in society. Look at all the school ad’s – how to make your child a leader. Did we even think of this when we were kids? Children today are being turned into pressure-cookers, without a safety valve. Coming back to hobbies, that is one great way to remove stress, but how many people (IIT’s or otherwise) have hobbies they are interested in (as opposed to hobbies for showing-off)

    The mess at higher education (IIT & others) cannot be sorted out, till the mess at school/societal level is sorted out.

  3. It is true that people of an older generation could handle pressures & failures better. On TV and elsewhere in the media, the focus is always on winning. Maybe, in some way it has crept into people's lives.
    Often, I tell kids who haven't scored well - that what one does with the marks one gets is more important than the marks!

  4. May I share it on FB?

  5. Dear Sudeep: You make excellent points! I do sense a cause and effect situation here, spanning several decades. Before these "pressure cooker" based entrance examinations became important, schools used to be for "real" learning and fun. Somehow, primary education got changed to accommodate the need to succeed in entrance examinations, not to address the needs of a new workforce. If the entrance examinations are stripped of the meaningless competitive components, may be, education will be fun again. At least, we have to try an alternative, or, there will be more sad news in the coming days.

    Dear Soumya: That is an awesome comment about marks. "Winning" has come to be defined in very narrow terms, and unfortunately, it takes a lifelong toll on people, who just cannot accept the fact that they have grown up, and chasing meaningless targets does not make sense any more.

    Dear Vandy: Absolutely!


  6. A dead drunk student is better than a dead one. You got me there Desi Babu!