By Abhishek Jha:
I was reading a book of essays on Indian writing in English – “The Girl Who Ate Books” – when a nasty idea struck me. The nostalgia with which the author narrates her early development of a fondness for books had taken me back to my own childhood, when I used to be hungry for stories. It also reminded me of a stone in my shoe that continues to chafe and hurt, the very anti-thesis of the idea of stories- my alma mater. The nasty idea was that perhaps stories were the right kind of instrument to pull the stone in my shoe out.
As a primary school student, I had wanted to be a pilot, because “TaleSpin” was a cartoon show I liked. At different points in my childhood, I also desired being a locomotive driver, Mowgli, Spiderman, and maybe a dozen other characters that pop-culture offered me. Some of it was probably the bye-product of an idle mind that preceded the days of an easily accessible world wide web. Catching butterflies, building toy-houses, and day-dreaming was what I was occupied with on a Sunday afternoon. Then I was introduced to books.
These story books (as opposed to real books) were far more fascinating than the bed-time stories or the ones I cooked up in my head, because they had stories right there for consumption – readymade and inexhaustible. I consumed scores of them every chance I got, making up for a lack of friends. But it was made known to me that I could not keep reading them all the time. There was also Mathematics, Science, and other subjects. Although it was a pain studying for exams, a pat on the back in school or the inducement of a prize would be enough to beat oneself to it. As I grew older, I couldn’t fail to notice that people who cracked another PCM exam were on the television. Everybody seemed to appreciate and adore them, and, on the whole, they seemed to be living the good life. It’s then perhaps, when I had just started doing Mathematics and Science of any significance, that I learned about IITs.
To make things more exciting, I had a smart group of people around me at boarding school. Years later, I would learn that this ‘smartness’ was just assiduously hoarded privilege based on other people’s oppression and look back with horror at all the oppressive ideas I had developed in school. But for now, a first rank was a thing worth seeking. This is not to say that I found Mathematics terribly boring. In fact, a couple of good teachers had made me feel that poring hours over numbers, matrices, and long equations was something I could do for a living. The early camaraderie I had built with stories notwithstanding, I fell for those subtle mathematical manipulations and landed at an IIT.
But stories are not just that – stories. There were also ideas in them and, by way of reading stories, I had inculcated some of them. A good reading habit also meant that there was some naughty non-fiction, usually the preserve of Humanities students, that I chanced upon just when I had joined college. I had even befriended some of these Humanities students. In no time, from an obedient and well-behaved student, I transformed into a sort of unapologetic nuisance at college, protesting and petitioning against the administration for reasons that a semester or two in an IIT will teach anybody who does not like patriarchal, corporate and brahminical ideas.
That IITs are insular institutions, uninterested in people outside of their four walls except to talk down to them, didn’t help. Whatever interest I had in science or technology evaporated with the realisation that the whole institution is designed to sustain centuries-old relations of power, not only inside the campus but also outside it. There were a few friends with whom one could work to challenge all this, but being associated with a profession, where one would mostly be at odds with the people one would encounter, was not an encouraging idea. It had to be given up.
Meanwhile, I had also learnt to tell stories somewhat, which was helpful in getting out of that hell-hole. But IITs exist and there are several hundred students in each of them still struggling with it. Some of these are students who are genuinely interested in Science or technology and are good at it, but still wince at the thought of having to participate in an institution which, a former professor of one IIT told me, are like extraterritorial embassies. Some of them have access to the society outside like I had; others do not, for no fault of their own. As it happens, IITs are not only insular institutions, they insist on keeping them so and, through the trident of merit, discipline, and excellence, actively encourage being apolitical. This effects a rigidity on campus against social transformation. Change, if any, is aimed at furthering the interests of the socially powerful.
This does not mean that there aren’t people at IITs trying to dismantle what those bunch of colleges represent as of now. A pessimism with respect to where the IITs will go in the future would be disrespectful to the thousands of students who make it to them despite its inability to create an accommodating atmosphere. Hopefully, with the social upheavals that surround them, it won’t be long before their stony exclusive edifice crumbles, and imaginative inclusive stories take over.