Q. When do you say that the student has “successfully” done this course?
I feel that a student has done well when they start thinking. Grades don't matter; grades can be obtained in any exam because there will always be something that you can memorise and vomit out in the exam. I always give one question which requires thinking, and if some student has done that well I immediately understand that this guy is good and has understood. If you understand ideas, you’re doing well. Grades and all are just statistics. There could be multiple reasons why someone didn't get a good grade. It's very difficult to judge in the current environment because you have to stick to the syllabus and timelines. A good student is just a learner. I am also a learner and I make mistakes which I admit. Always analysing, ready to learn and curious, this is what makes a good student, nothing else matters. If the teacher is not humble, then everything else is irrelevant, that is why I always use the term ‘discussions’, I never say ‘instructions’. There is an open discussion, it’s a two way thing and there has to be mutual respect.
Q. Everybody finds themselves in this rat race for the best grade and best internship, in such a situation where one is inevitably forced into the rat race at one point - a “Karo ya maro” type situation, how does one stay put to his chosen path and not go on a path that their peers and society has decided for them? Alternatively, how does one keep themself away from the craze for grades in such a hyper-competitive cutthroat environment and curb this anxiety and stress about the uncertainty of the future?
This is a very insightful question. I can feel that stress in people; during the course I also felt it. It was being thought of as a make or break situation. Grades are made to be the cutoff everywhere so there’s a bit of a pressure. But it really doesn’t matter in the end. First you have to prove your credentials in academics. Not everybody can top and be a ten pointer. I myself was never a topper in BTech but I was still known as Mr. Fundoo and people knew that I knew stuff. Marks don't matter; people can see the quality. This DR1-DR2, Dean's list etc, I look at it and laugh. I never did one internship in my life, never! All my friends who are doing MBA now have two or three internships in tech things. Internships don't suddenly improve your knowledge, it’s just an experience. I did take one internship under peer pressure. I went and sat in their office and waited for an hour and left. I thought to myself that these guys don't even value my time! So I ended up not doing any internship. However, I enjoyed my time and played cricket. When studies came, I studied. I wanted to learn the subject and go deep into it, that’s it. Internships don't teach you anything new. If you do an internship under a faculty member, it will not be any new problem that you’re solving as it’s simply not possible to do so in one summer. A problem requires enough time and patience to solve. So these are mostly handcrafted problems. If you don't do an internship, you can use your time to do something else productively. The thing is, CV pe baat ajati hai, CV bharna hai sirf ek page hai kya karu.
The saddest part is that you guys are in it and thinking about CV. You’re in the Ivy League of India and thinking about writing a CV, it’s very funny. Here faculty are approachable, go and give them an idea and tell them you want to work on it. That is the kind of internship you need. People are pushed and brainwashed into this world. Being in the Dean’s list and doing badly in life is more dangerous because then people will say “ye toh Dean's list mei the iska itna kharab jaara hai life”. Imagine the tense situation then. And people’s lives go bad. Being in any list doesn't guarantee success in life. This is one thing that you must realise is that life is not by numbers, life is by your actions and how passionate you are. If you don't have passion, nothing can help you. Even if you have average marks, you can make a mark on the world. Having an average personality is another thing. Someone with an average personality is just a guy who doesn't want to work. This is one attitude that people have to develop otherwise they’ll remain in the rat race for grades. Keep pushing the boundaries for yourself. You have to fail to realise the value of success. Being worthy is not about getting good grades, it is about the skillset. Otherwise you’ll be taking a cut off everywhere in life. I have gotten all grades from 4 to 10, but I don’t think about that, I always think forward.
Q. Looking at the big picture, we are all aware that India has a massive brain drain problem, yet we have failed to reign in this mass exodus of qualified undergraduates and graduates who seek to settle and make a life for themselves in the states.
A) What according to you are the major reasons for this brain drain?
I believe the Government has also been very concerned with this problem for the last few years. Brain drain is very complex. India has several advantages. Very cheap education, for one, which Prof. Rao also talks about, and also it’s the survival of the fittest. The second thing is that you have so many people, it's unlikely that you’ll get depressed because you have so many friends around all the time. The Indian-ness, the culture we grow up with, all these things are definitely huge advantages.
Where we lack is that inherent dislike for business. People don’t trust businessmen, they believe that profit-making is a bad thing. Here’s the thing: businessmen have to thrive. Businessmen are the only way we’re going to survive in the next century. They’re the ones who create jobs, and they’re the ones who push the envelope higher, for salaries. If they don’t survive then India won’t survive. The general dislike for businessmen has to go. You have to allow them to come into the market, you have to allow open markets. Let the businessmen do what they want to, why do you have to control everything? The problem is, this distrust came from the time of Independence. Since the British, we believe that business only leads to bad outcomes. In fact, Nehru even said to JRD Tata, “profit is a dirty word, don’t use it”. That’s not the right way. Ambani, Tata, these guys are heavyweights who built India. They’re the biggest employers after the Government of India.
The young generation, especially IITians are the ones who can bring a change. But you also have to make it easy for them. If one has to fill 20 forms and bribe 20 people to get the smallest of tasks done, how will things work?
So make laws easy, make them straightforward. We have to have a system that promotes business, because it’s ultimately businesses that create jobs.
Something that is also continuously being lost is the taxpayer’s money. The biggest problem within India is that there is no bang for the buck. If you’re earning and paying so much money to tax- 60% if you count indirect tax, what facilities are you getting? That’s the question that’ll inevitably come in. Quality of life suffers. Every city you go to, Delhi, the problem is pollution, Bangalore, the problem is traffic, Chennai, the problem is heat, Bombay, again, there’s overcrowding. With all this, there needs to be an element of patriotism in order to make people stay back here.
And the third thing is merit. Merit, in India, is not rewarded to the same extent that it is rewarded in other countries. In some places, we do have merit at the entry points. JEE is a good example of that. In other places, however, merit gets diluted. Merit is not recognised and that’s what people keep complaining about. ‘What am I getting?’ ‘What has the government done for me?’, they ask. Government, of course, will always ask what you’re doing for India. But we’re paying 60% tax! That has to account for something. And then disaster fund comes, they again ask for money! These kinds of things will hurt the taxpayer, definitely. Government jobs, again, have the same problem.
We can do all these “thank you” things, it doesn’t matter. Our decency has to change, our respect has to increase. A guy who cleans the sewer should get as much respect as a doctor. We have to be thankful, we can’t take things for granted. Every person in India thinks that they’re being taken for granted, which is what they don’t like. You go to The States, there is value for labour. You have to support individual excellence. And this is where our country is lacking.
B) What are the steps we can take at various levels to curb this problem
The Govt. has started a nice thing in the IIT system called the Prime Minister Research Fellowship. I think that is a good fellowship that you can write to right after your BTech. This, I believe, is good because you are the brains that are getting drained. Some students do so well. What I’m trying to say is that there’s some hope. Some schemes are coming up, so not all brains are going to get drained. I’ve had students come up to me and tell me that they want to go abroad, learn things and then come back. I hope they retain that. They want to give back, that is great. The IITs gave you good facilities and good teachers, you should feel the need to give back. We need good people and good minds because we gain nothing if useless people come back. Unless they’re Vijay Mallya (*laughs*).
When Parag Agarwal became CEO, our director said that the US should fund our education system. We need a push. We need good people. We need endowments. The IIT system is where the mark of excellence starts. This is where we can make a difference, where we can punch above our weight. This is why I say the faculty job is such a great job for me. I’m always at the cusp of thinking that one of my students is going to make a big difference one day. That gives me goosebumps; one day I can say that these guys were in MLL100. So as a teacher also you have to have that awe and niceness. Same thing with universities; they thrive on people coming back. That should be encouraged. People go for defence services only because they have a love for their country. Similarly, engineers can come back if the system slowly changes. And for the system to change, everyone has to be a part of it. For example, I’m doing memes now. This might inspire some other faculty to try it out. If someone now sees my methods and starts thinking that this is effective, then they might also push themselves. This results in a chain as more things change and more people get inspired. Same thing you guys also have to think. That I can bring a change in the system.
We have to work in unison with our government, our policymakers to understand what they want and how a change can be brought about. Its a long process, definitely, but it can happen. Once very bright people come, they inspire trust and belief too. Take Raghuram Rajan, for instance. No one knew what policies he had in mind, but because of his credentials, people trusted him. That carries some weight. So you are the people who can bring change because you’re at a step where people take you seriously.
There are two schools of thought, one is wanting a comfortable life which is all well and good. The second is wanting to give back to your grassroots. That attitude will have to come; you owe it to the system and the system will appreciate you too.
Q. Is there anything that bothers you here in IITD? Did you, at any point in time, feel dissatisfied or let down? If given a chance, what changes would you like to make in the current system, right from JEE to here in college?
JEE, I wouldn’t change. Some exams need to be conducted on a large scale, and this one makes education accessible. After JEE, students face the grind. Of course, courses need to be evolved and made interesting. However, the one thing I really want to change is the grading system. CGPA is just too linear. Perhaps, we should have other considerations too. If there is another person who can contribute then they should be included. Avenues should be provided to people even if they fall below the cut-off. I really don’t know how this can be done, but we shouldn’t disappoint people. CGPA can fall for the smallest reasons but giving appropriate avenues can help us make world-class individuals.
As for disappointment, it was there initially. Prof. Rao was supportive but other than that there was no faculty mentorship system and we were just thrown into the arena with no idea of how things work. The processes, too, are complex. For the first couple of years, it was a struggle. We come from the most high ranking institutes, but due to the complexity of things, in the initial years, one would inevitably think “when am I going to do any research?”. We need to grow as a system, and we need to hire more faculty because they’re the ones who make things more robust and give ideas.
There’s also our seed funding. We get 25 lakhs compared to which IISc gets 1cr and above. Despite this, we’re pushing hard and doing as well as IISc Bangalore. So the government has to support us and provide funding and most importantly, they have to support the young faculty. Younger faculty get lesser grants because they have to prove themselves but the system needs to trust us. We’ve learned about cutting edge technology, we’ll apply our knowledge now and capitalise. We’ve already proven ourselves. The wait in the system is frustrating, and IIT faculty have to constantly push themselves.
At the end of the day though, my passion for teaching and interaction with bright young students makes up for all of it. So I’d say, for any job, even if you have passion, you’ll still dislike 30% of it. Just grit your teeth and do it. Develop patience. Live with it, it's okay.
Q. What according to you are the unique challenges that face our generation?
What life advice do you have for young men and women of our age?
Distractions are the main challenge for you people. That, and competition. The margins for you are very very thin. You’ve to deal with that, that too with 100 other things to distract you. Your passion is not in education and you prefer leisure. That’s a problem. Education sets a base. It’s a well-known thought that life main kuch karna hai, usse pehle engineer bano. Engineering itself in India is so highly professional, the quality of education comes to the fore. This, because you’ve already been developed into a good product.
You have to survive this phase, do well, become a good person and then find opportunities for growth, wherever they are. So, the main challenge is to get through this process with your heads held high and to maximise your interest in any subject you like.
My main life advice is to be nice, be kind and have integrity. Being honest has a lot of value. One thing I noticed is that guys who cheated never came up to me and spoke to me. That hesitation is bound to be there. Students who did come up to me, might not have been 9 or 10 pointers, but their conscience was intact. And all of them had beautiful personalities; they were all students I would’ve wanted to be like in my BTech years. People who are known cheaters will always have a hard time coming out of that shell. To maintain this integrity, be ethical and have an open mind. Be passionate about whatever you’re doing. Even if it’s something you don’t like, you’ll develop some skill out of that. Don’t expect instant gratification. Work hard and wait for results. Finally, understand the value of margins. If you’re below the grade boundary, that’s good because you’ll understand the value of margins. Grading is not important, it’s just one metric of your performance. In the end, it’s all just a lesson. Think about how you can do better in the future.
Q. In a sentence or two, what according to you is being successful in life?
Sentence or two! That is a tough one. Being successful in life is having inner peace and having the satisfaction that you’re doing something you enjoy doing (for 70% of the time, that’s a good ratio). That and having people who value you. Nothing else is success.
Interviewed by: Stuti Lohani and Adhiraj Goel