An anthropologist-like among the engineers-like ..

The doyen of Indian anthropology, M. N. Srivinas, said that an anthropologist is born thrice. Once, when she visit the field to study the ‘tribe’ she is curious about, second when She started seeing their ‘rituals’ from their eyes and starts appreciating it in someway. Very few are born twice. Third birth is when she comes back to her adobe after developing some-sort of unbiased world view. Getting the third birth in this sense is the second most difficult thing for a young scholar, and arguably for all the of the scholars. The most difficult is to figure out ‘what to do in her life’ which generally is asked by someone or other-one like this is a maths question. One could appreciate the confusion once in a while! Its a good thing to be confused!

Confusion in able-indians is way too much. If you give an Indian choice you will know how easily she’d get confused. An unlimited choices makes her unlimited conunfused. Though as Prof. H Narayana, alwasys insists that its good to be confuced, one would miss his point. He generally means getting confused in things, not in life. But that is probably not true. He does not make distinction but the way lectures in classed, one would get this idea.

Plurality, in thoughts, in this ‘professional’ world is very hard to find. Nonetheless, in this world there are examples which shows the plurality of engineers. The diversity of field they are able to excel is excellent. There is not a field, whether applied or pure, where engineers did not leave their marks. And if you include Osama bin laden, the list become more interesting.

If one browses the oral-history of Princeton university, Math department, about 1930, one get the idea that it is the plurality of the group there which was the most significant elements in there university success. The German and Hungarian contribution toward building this university has been immense. Bardeen interview in which He was remembering his colleagues that time a good read. You can search ( and  This plurality India lost somewhere in this improvement kind of stuff. Once the great university of Bombay, Delhi, Bengal, Lucknow are now, nothing more than some regional colleges taking a very homogeneous pool of students and not to mention the rise of factions among the faculty. Even in IITs which used be as diverse as India, now this diversity in student pool is much reduced. There is a significant correlation that this much of student this IIT will get from this city, this much will be from that city. In some sense, reservation-quotas provides much more plurality that Rajasthan Kota. And the LAN and internet has already taken a toll on the campus life. Fewer students are exchanging and debating ideas these days though they are picking up them really fast from all kind of sources.

Lack of plurality is obvious in the worldview of fellow student-engineers. If you do chi-square test on the data, you can say with 95% of confidence that this rank will choose this. Almost everything is predictable about indian-genius. If they are good in math, send them to Kota-concentration camp. If they are good in Biology, send them to become a doctor. These are the two type of stream I am familiar with. This may be equally true about other streams. Even on the campuses, when they are on their own, the choices of career is someway or other is fixed by the society. One must not fool oneself with that this has to do with the individual. There is something more significant lies in deep. Two observations are worth consideration. First is by my most beloved scholar Andre Beteille about Indian middle class. Most of the engineering students in India are from this category only, no matter how much reservation is there. Second is by Ramachandra Guha, . These two articles speak a ton. However, wandering along, one would like to hear what Arundhati Roy said in “God of small things” – “… they decide whom you should love and how much you should love.. ” You can replace ‘love’ with ‘think’ and reformulate the sentence. This’d also make sense, and if you are born as a girl or a dalit or a minority, both the sentences will sound very familiar.

My first encounter with this world was in Chennai, though very hot and has the least tasty food for a north Indian, is a city I ultimately I fell in love with .It might be the ‘common people’ goodness or the vibrating art-culture. Or the people stopping and telling you that the stand of your bike is not in proper place. Or the seats for the ladies in buses are occupied by ladies only. However one of my friend (not the-girlfriend) does not like Chennai, reason she gives, while sitting in a mall in NOIDA with me, “Yaha achcha lagta hai, gaure chitte log dekhkar, chennai main to sab kaale kaale anna log.”  One of the faculty in chennai college tells the tale, “Once a little boy hurled a stone on the city bus. That made the government to make the bus free-of-cost for children. It was very disturbing for the city that what kind of thinking was there in that kid’s mind.” These kinds of tale are not prominent in the place I have grown up. Children in north India!!! hmmmm….. Remember Rathore in yesterday newspaper and civil society who was protecting him (even his wife..)

Recently there has been a strong but one-sided battle between value and success. The success is taking precedence over values on our educational campuses. A gold coin speaks in Orhan Pamuk ‘My name is red’ extolling his virtues. The coin argues that it is him who brings harmony in this world, else these scholars would be cutting each other throat deciding whose work is better. The coin further argues that It is him who decides who is doing a better job. If someone wants to be a famous scholar/artist, She should gets her hand on him. Well, this coin make more sense these days. Its the pay-packages which decides the worthiness of the mind among students. But a new thing has crept in after this coin has spoken. We have developed ‘grades/marks/ranks’ to judge the intelligence of a person. May be now, a degree (paper) will speak, “If you want to be knows as  a famous scholar, get your hands on me.” This is evident by the increasing number of degree producing assembly line. That is justifiable if the economy is able to absorb them, they argue.

Mostly my ‘tribe’ has the pathetic sense of plurality and can not appreciate anything which is not in their syllabus because It’d not give them success (worse, they seem not to appreciate what is there in their syllabus). It is heroic to be Gandhian in North India. Before Munna Bhai it was ‘lunatic’ and nothing less a crime in Gujrat these days! Gandhi is the personality who is most hated in hindi-belt if you ask me. It started when Gowalikar came to supplant Gandhi. In educated circle at the same time Bill Gates came to supplant Marx who has been demonised by Indian gen-X. Most of them has very obscure idea of him and most of them can not distinguish him from Maoist. Anyway..

We need to formulate our world view. Media is of-course is the most trusted and prevalent instrument in this regard. Recently, It has been abused a lot. P. Sainath has already exposed disturbing details about it. He is easily googable. also is a prominent voice in this regard. The leading newspaper in southern peninsula is The Hindu. It wouldn’t take much time to compare your beloved newspaper and this one. And if you can not appreciate it, take it from me, you are in a mess. However, it also give jolts to its reader. Sometimes, If its editor-in-chief (N. Ram) daughter tops some exams in 20 people class of Columbia University, It’d make a news (though on the last page). Or sometimes It takes U-turn. If Prakash Karat would not like the N-deal, it’d change the stand. The next day, an article from Editor-in-Chief would appear with all the explanation. But one must not take the wrong idea. People say that it is left bias. Seriously I doubt that. N. Ram may be leftist but TheHindu is not. It is run by a trust. Its editor and owner are not same. Its editorials are not used to separate the advertisements. It has dedicated science and agriculture reporter. Not to mention, its wonderful Sunday Magazine and readers-editor. The best newspaper, if you ask me is ‘The Guadian’.. TheHindu is ‘Guardian’ of India.

  I am a trained engineer according to papers I have come to posses. My first ‘field work’  was in Chennai for 4 years. I was doing my UG in engineering. It was a wonderful experience, it was the first time I came in contact with so many ‘kinds’.  The ‘dhoom gang’, in my college, in which everyone owns a motorbike is from Bihar (lately the most fertile land to produce brains, now providing cheap labourers). One of them always has his finger high in the sky and used to say, “Salla jante nahi hai students main kitna power hota hai.. is college is building dhool mian mila doonga..” and other kind of stuff. Second group is from Bengal. I used to get irritated in a situation when another Bengali used to chip in and started speaking to the Begali to one whith whom I was talking. Interestingly, my acquaintanceship will forget me and start conversing with the fellow Bengali in Bengali leaving me alone, trying to make out what they are upto. Third one is of course no group, it was the group of no-group, The malyalis or The malloes, who were just like Arundhati Roy were too polite and had no or few friends. One of them would go to the extreme of politeness while visiting my place, “Can I sit on this chair da!!” He would ask one of us! It was hard not to get surprised. And harder, not to appreciate their culture. So different from my own where … Well, Tamil culture is the longest surviving culture in the world. And the way it is taking modernity may make any non-traditionalist take a note.

I believe that two kind of people make groups. One is of course who feels insecure, like people from Bihar/UP making groups in other states. Other who does not like different voice and have some sort of chauvinism, like (not all) Bengalis. The latter is however less worrisome.. The Bengali intellectuals are generally feel hurt and never forgiven Gandhi for thwarting ‘Bose’ attempts to take over the congress leadership. The British act of replacing Kolkata by Delhi -placing the command of Indian politics in the central India – as the capital was already hurting. Probably that is why in Bengal, one find the only ‘democratically’ elected longest Left rule as an act of assertion of  their political sentiments.  Anyway, as Ramachandra Guha says in his “An Anthropologist among the Marxist and other essays” that in “every Indian, Gandhi and Marx are always trying to take prominent position”.. A good read!Not to mention the contribution of Bengalies intellectual in India. Indian science is literally controlled by Bengalies, and if you like euphemism for that, “Indian science is literally controlled by Presidency College.” !! It’d like to comments about other groups in India some other day.   

My second field study is known and ‘Indian Institute of Technology Bombay’. I got the admission after passing through some ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’,’D’. This exam, very strangely, made me genius, just in 30 minutes! This only shows the obsessiveness of Indians with the persons who knows how to full-fill the norms. People generally wonder about the intellect of the person who cracked these kind of exams. I used to tell them now they will worry about the worthiness of the exam. “Toppers aise hote hai!!” One of the lab-member of mine remarked after asking me what was my grades in ‘Physical electronics’. Its gets harder and harder to be yourself in so-called center-of-excellence or perhaps I still have to see one. Any institute of civilization which can not appreciate the differences is hardly an Institute or a civilization. They must perish.

What makes an Institute, an Institute? Is it government funds, then the university of Dubai would have been the best Institute around. Is it the vision of the Institute, IIT-B has ‘gyanam pramam dharma’.. (Dare you say that again!).. Or is it professors? This one is worth a consideration. Its the people around you who could make you see things the way you have never seen. I found Prof. Narayanan (HN) lectures worth more that that all of my 2 years stay in IIT. I’d like to take this chance to comment about HN. He does not get angry, he only gets irritated! Same thing is with MPD but he does not bother what the hell you’d feel. HN’d close his eyes and after a while will ask you that uou should read more. Anyway, He is a mathematician working on networks. He has developed certain theorems which are useful in partitioning the big network in smaller networks. In his lectures, he’d tell stories about Tutte, Green, Sheshu and Reed.. He admires W. Tutte very much. He is concerned about the JEE that it is loosing its discriminatory power. Well, he might be right! Not my cup of tea anyway. After chasting a student that he does not know some fundamentals and wondering how he’d survive, then closing his eyes for a while and again He’d say, “I know all this but I do not know how to cross the road. Everyday its a narrow escape.” Other Prof I like is Prof. Vasi. In class He’d urge students to attend the lectures of invited speakers as not to make them felt embarrass by empty coference rooms. Once in a while he would make remarks in class, “Most of you have taken Microelectronics because of good jobs..” (During physical electronics lecture). Quite disturbing if you ask me! He voice generally gets grim when he passes these kind of remarks. One of his early student – was taking part time course of VHDL – recalls, “He used to take long lectures. If we’d complain he’d say, “go and take a cup of coffee and come back”.” That time I was a student He had the administrative duties in IIT, still he’d come and take the class. A rare feat to be found in Indian University in which not taking classes is justifiable by some means or others. He was relieved when he came to meet Prof. DKS, DKS asks him, “So they have relieved you.” Vasi said very happily, “Yes!!”. I was in DKS room discussing about my thesis. Later I came to know what he means by relieving when the director of IIT was not Prof Vasi. Other personality is Prof. Gadre, about whom a prof in school of bioscience remarked, “Achcha Prof Gadre, woh to signal processing ke Bhism Pitamah hai!”  A very polite and a dedicated teacher. Remembers most of the students by name and worse, at what day they were not present in the classroom. Asks everyone to meet him personally. Even DKS will tell me, “If you have doubts in signal processing, Guruji se poonch kar aao fir mujhe batana.” In terms of genius, no body is as great as Prof. Agashe. Simple, wonderful and cheerful. Once He asks in extra class of Linear Algebra a guy who was sleeping, “What were you doing in the night.” Then he chuckled and said, “Since there is no girl in the class, I can say that!!” Most ‘matkas’ were surprised in the room, however B.Techs were appreciating. There is something only a UG can understand about her college. How bad or good!! Others come and go, few remains to excel. The only bad thing about IIT UG, they do not come back in large number even though DKS asks them in his class that “promise me 20% of you will return!!” He did not ask for “when”.. Still the numbers are not that much. Again one may turn to the characteristics of Indian Middle Class. And for worse, to the Hindu ritual of burning their dead. We burn our dead!! or We burn our past!!

Third of my fieldwork right now is in my Job. Best part is that hierarchy is way too much flat here. It was started by IIT-D. The structure is well founded and ‘infy lukhkhagiri’. Here the difference among the plural and not-plural thinking is more obvious. People who generally stayed at one place tends to react more to the situation rather than responding. But the worst part is that a  few appreciate the other forms of knowledge. Some even scorn at it. That is very non-engineer like.

Once in a while I visit some places, I was in IMSc for my Ph.D. interview in mathematical sciences. I met one of my orkut-frient there who however broke her leg and could not met me second time. There I had a informative conversation with a professor ( The prof would argue that the hindi-belt prodeces fertile minds but…. I’d like to quote Premchad, “A fertile mind is like a fertile land, The weed grows much quickly in fertile land than in fallow land. In a same way, bad thoughts flourish more easily in fertile minds.” That is what Premchad thought true and if you are not close to this field, the crop and weeds both look green, the same. Keep an eye, Its you!

(modified on Dec 29, 2009)


Author: Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.

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