Idiots and IIT

After seeing the Three Idiots, I felt I should blog about my experiences with IIT. I was always more interested in science than in engineering, and was put off further after seeing (and hearing) how my brother lived at IIT, Powai where he then was. I shuddered at the thought of spending five prime years of my life there. (Those days the course was five years.) I gave the IIT entrance test under parental duress, and on the explicit condition that I would not be forced to join if I cleared it. I spent about a week preparing, and did clear it, but did not join. (Since, today, people readily tell lies, they may not believe me, so my call letter is given below.)

Later on, I did join IIT: Delhi for PhD, in 1976.

IIT Delhi ID card

But my experience of the faculty there was very different from the striking character of Virus that the film shows. During the entrance interview it was clear that the faculty did not know the subject. (In answer to a question “What do you know about normal operators”, I had written a very abstract form of the spectral theorem on the blackboard, when someone asked me about a very naïve form of it, and I blurted out, “What do you think is written on the blackboard?”) Anyway they not only selected me, but put my name on the top of the list, and I joined IIT: Delhi a while later.

The first seminar that I attended there was by M. P. Singh. It was on the “Passage of Air Through the Lungs in Pathological Cases”. He had got a big defence grant, and was all the rage in IIT. However, I did not understand a peculiar mathematical claim he made, and I asked him to explain it. He said it was “standard”. I admitted my ignorance and asked for a reference, and he repeated that it was “standard”. And he wouldn’t budge from that! A little later he mentioned with some histrionics how his theory had extended the work of J. L. Lions, but he had got a different result for the variation of a parameter due to atmospheric pressure. He was careful to point out that the parameter could not be measured, so there was no way to verify the theory. I asked him how he could be sure about changes in a parameter which could not be measured, and his answer was that if a theory is right on three counts, it must be right on the fourth count! After this, he stopped looking in my direction. When I raised my hand for a question he ignored it. Eventually, when question time came, I got a chance. By now it was clear to me what sort of answers I would get, so I merely said the following. “Professor Singh, you have done an excellent job of studying passage of air through the lungs. Why don’t you generalise it to passage of air through other parts of the body?” One student (from outside IIT) who was next to me burst out with uncontrollable laughter, and hastily exited the classroom from a french window. There was dead silence in the rest of the class.

After this my fellow-students would berate me daily that I had insulted the teacher by asking questions. This went on for some time, but I ignored it. Eventually, they told me that I must attend the graduate courses, which I was not doing. I said that I was not aware that there were graduate courses, and I would surely come. To this day, I don’t know that they had schemed up, but they told me to come a few days later at 10.30. I reached about 15 minutes late, to find that the class had started 45 minutes earlier at 10.00 a.m. The teacher got nervous on seeing me. He would write one sentence and look at me, write another sentence and look at me. I found this very shabby. To put him at ease I asked him a simple question. Unfortunately he had no answer. Then a student (one Mittal, nowadays on the faculty at IIT, Roorkee) suggested an answer. The teacher was relieved, and he told me I had come late, and hence had missed the background. However, I pointed out that Mittal’s answer was wrong. In fact, I knew the right answer, but could not reveal it, else he might think I was pulling his leg, when my intention was only to put him at ease. I expected he would soon spot the right answer. But the teacher immediately suspended the class.

A couple of days later, as I was walking in the corridor, past his cabin, he came out and pulled me in. Very candidly he said, “OK, so I don’t know the subject, and you do. So what! Don’t I have a right to earn a living?”. I was flabbergasted and did not know what to say. Of course he had a right to earn a living; but why as faculty in IIT? Soon I left IIT, for I was convinced that staying there would not add anything to my knowledge. However, I shifted only next door to ISI, and kept coming to IIT, regularly over the next three years to visit some friends and its I-floor canteen with a spectacular view (now closed).

The IITians succeed because of their intrinsic capability, and ambition, and not because the institution adds any value to them. Besides, for most of them, success is defined in terms of a job abroad or with a multinational company in India. Why, then, should the country spend money on them? Presumably the intention of the Indian government is to subsidise the multinationals, and help them make a profit, while benefiting a small segment of the middle class. That is exactly how the East India Company functioned.

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