“The Three Idiots” and I

January 17, 2010

The Making of an “Idiot”:

I have kept away from the reviews of “3 idiots” as I always do when I plan to see a particular movie; it has been a few weeks since the movie was released. While I could keep myself off the printed reviews, I could not prevent my friends’ and colleagues’ impromptu reviews and the masses of unsolicited emails. Not to mention the recaps of the movie from my sons whose friends had seen the movie in the very first weekend while the family kept away from it as son-the-elder was writing his 10th pre-boards and we decided to abstain from movies in that period. (Now, having seen the movie, I think I was championing the very system the film was trying to denounce). May be I should have allowed my elder son to keep practicing on his fledgling guitar knowledge or his general mastery in computer games instead of focusing on academics.

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I have been a product of a system very similar to that of Imperial College of Engineering, the Institute of technology of Banaras Hindu University (IT-BHU, Varanasi). Not one of the IITs, but it was then one of the only two colleges outside the (then) five IITs which admitted students based on the much awe-inspiring JEE, the great IIT Joint Entrance Exam.

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Those days, for a reasonably bright student in a middle-class family, there were just two options for further studies, engineering or medicine. Arts and commerce were not in consideration. Commerce, maybe, if you were from a business family or a family of Cost Accountants and Chartered Accountants. Arts was the last resort for all, though your parents would conceal their general disappointment by telling all those who would care to listen that their child was aiming for the IAS- that Holy Grail for the middle-class families. The large majority could at best hope to become a probationary officer in a scheduled bank. Most landed up learning typing/ stenography and hoping to become a clerk somewhere. Courses like Computer Applications (BCA, MCA), Journalism, Hospitality, Aviation et al just did not exist!

Coming now to selection of engineering versus medicine: it was mostly a negative choice; if you did not like- or did not do well in- Maths, you were destined to pursue medical entrance. Likewise, lack of fondness for Biology made you pursue the engineering stream if you were otherwise a bright chap.

However, like Madhavan who wanted to be a wild-life photographer, I had these romantic notions of being a journalist. My father, a college professor, on realizing that I doth protest too much, plotted with my elder brother and sat me down for some “advice”. They convinced me into pursuing preparations for the engineering stream. They remarked that to be a successful in life- even as a journalist- I needed to have intelligence. That was a motherhood statement, I had to agree. If one exam does prove relative intelligence, they continued, it is the JEE. That kind of sealed my “fate”, as it were. If thought I was intelligent I needed to prove to my family and the world at large, that I indeed was brainy. That made sense to me and I decided to take a shy at the much-feared JEE.

Pitaji was a Hindi professor and he had no idea about matters-science. But he knew a trick-or-two about education. He consulted his colleagues in the sciences departments of his college and was advised that whatever I may want to pursue in life, excellence in mathematics was essential. “Santosh”, they advised, “needs to be a year ahead of his class in math.” So, off I was, attending tuition classes in trigonometry while my friends were struggling with algebra. I was learning Calculus while my classmates were learning the rudiments of sin squared+ cos squared= 1. I hated all this. I even bunked a few of these classes to see the latest film releases.

With some hard work and lots of luck, I did pass the JEE. Never mind the rank. I had the consolation of being in the “exalted” list of something like 2000 qualifiers from among 1.5 lakh applicants. I do not know the stats now, the number of applicants has increased manifolds since, and so has the number of IIT seats as there are many more IITs now. The ratio remains somewhat unchanged even now.

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The Myth of Rancho, the Great:

I have a fundamental problem with the character of Rancho. I do not agree with the premise that a Rancho can be a comfortable topper without investing time and effort in academics. Sure, Rancho has a thing for machines and can tear them apart and fix them back. Sure he can get the aeroplane-like contraption to fly. But topping the class? I have my doubts. The bindaas Ranchos I have seen during my five years of engineering were at their  best middling in academics or often at the bottom of the class. A true engineer is more than someone who can repair machines, there is a lot more to engineering than just fixing nuts and bolts in the right places. You are not training at the local polytechnic to be a mere mechanic.

(I have one more crib with Rancho, he had the IQ of Einstein- or maybe more- and also was a great friend. He should have realized that his two room-mates did not have matching IQs and should have advised them to pack-in some studies instead of indulging in sundry extra-curricular activities all the time.)

The guys in my Institute who really did well academically were a mix of fun and studies. Of the two toppers in my class, one was into movies of all types while the other was a solidly-built football half-back. The rival teams dreaded him! Sure they studied, but not at the expense of fun. The film guy, by the way, is now a global nano-material scientist with tons of papers published in the coveted journal “Nature”. But in no way I can describe him as a uni-dimensional character, a nerd. The topper in the batch senior to ours was an ace drummer and the Institute cricket captain. And he too studied hard.

Of course, there were enough Chatur’s lurking around, but I cannot remember anyone of these ever making it to the top of the class. Rare was a nerd who topped. To that extent I agree with the portrayal of the character.

The fact remains that the Institute was a great place to gain knowledge and meet and make friends with some supremely talented folks. Music, theater, sports, arcane hobbies; the range on display was breath-taking. A few did kind of drift-off and lose all sense of perspective (I have known seniors who spent 7-8 years to get their 5-year engineering degree.) But most students were intelligent folks who managed to mix work and fun. After all, these were some of the brightest students of their times who occasionally indulged their sundry other interests with like-minded folks.

Like I mentioned earlier, I had no great interest in engineering but having qualified for studying at the Institute I made sure my grades were reasonably healthy through those five years. I may not have been in the top quartile, but what-the-hell, I had my share of fun. Directing plays, editing the campus magazine for a couple of years, picking up cryptic crosswords and going on- what some considered crazy- a 800 km cycle trip from Varanasi to Delhi. I never aspired to top the class, not that aspiring would have helped given the general IQ levels floating around. But I had my fun and passed out much richer in terms of skills learnt, friends made, and generally knowing a little bit more about what all a human can do. And by the way, my CGPA was Ok and I had a coveted campus job as well in the bag when I graduated. It is another matter than I was fortunate enough not to take up the job.

But that is another story!

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