How has the “new-normal” treated you?
Very well, excellent, in fact. My schedule is twice as hectic as before, I am stuck to my chair for the most part of the day. And I do get to accept many more lecture invitations- four times as many as I used to. I see it as an opportunity, that I have been given an excellent push; a push in the right direction.
Post-COVID, all my students are now just-a-click away. Formerly, there were inhibitions and hesitations amongst them to come and meet me or to talk to me; but now I get to talk to a lot of students who just drop me a message and we have a good conversation.
While we know about your journey at a broad level from BITS Pilani to IISc and then to IIT Delhi, tell us about some key turning points for you?
What have been some of the defining/turning moments in your life?
That is a very difficult question actually. The profession I chose is a profession that favours extroverts and I am a private type of person. I am never happier than when I am with my books, or in a library or doing what I like. So, being forced to go out and enjoy teaching has been a turning moment in life for me. Even going to a class and talking and interacting with 300 students and then feeling a sense of connection developing with my students has definitely been a turning moment in life for me.
What are some of your hobbies that you enjoy indulging in?
I have a set of very personal and very intense hobbies. I used to teach sculpture, clay modeling, batik, and wax modeling. I still like doing a lot of these things whenever I find time. I paint, I paint Madhubani, write and read books. Almost all my hobbies in life have been single man hobbies. I play the hawaiian guitar as well. I mostly play Hindustani classical music, because, though I like Mozart, Strauss and Bach, I do not formally understand or read Western music.
On your webpage you thank Prof. S.C.Sahasrabuddhe of IIT Bombay for 15 minutes of his time that changed your life. I am curious to know what happened in those 15 minutes.
When I had just joined IIT Delhi, I had all the arrogance of somebody who had had a first-class academic career in top-class institutes and had been told by their supervisor that “This is what the world is coming to in 20 years”. Like most of you believe that if you know ‘Machine Learning’, that’s it; you don’t need to know anything else in the world. There were people like that in my life too, who told me that in 20-years ‘this’ is all you would need.
I came to IIT Delhi as an Optical Communications Person- thinking that everything in the next 30 years would be going my way.
Prof. Sahasrabuddhe had come to speak at a conference (NCC). Professor S.D. Joshi asked me if I could go to Professor Sahasrabuddhe’s ongoing session and let him know that it was time to wind up the lecture because we were late for lunch. I went there, and he was talking about ‘Telecom Protocols’ and robbed-bit signaling. I figured it would be very brash of me to just interrupt him and ask him to cut short his lecture for lunch. So I just sat down in the last row, and listened to what he was talking about.
In those few minutes, I turned from an Optics-only person to a Telecom-aware person. All because, I appreciated what he was trying to say instead of saying that “Telecom was nothing but Optics”- which is the sort of arrogant vision I would have normally subscribed to.
I do trace the foundation of my association with the Bharti School of Telecom back to that lecture. Since then, I have often told Professor Sahasrabuddhe that he was very instrumental in something which happened to me, but being the polite person that he is, he never enquired why.
Everybody has an ‘aha’ moment, mine may have been late in coming, but thank God it did !
More on the previous question, you have also thanked Sri Bala Mukunda Panda for teaching you Sanskrit despite it not being a part of your School Curriculum. What led you to study this subject?
In my entire childhood, my parents never ever forced me to study. My father, in one of his rare excursions into my study room, came and asked me about the subjects I was studying then. This was about in class 7th or 8th. So, I told him the subjects I was studying and he was surprised to find that I was not being taught Sanskrit at school. He said that I must learn Sanskrit whether or not I had it as a subject being taught at school or not. I think I was the only student in my class who had a tuition master coming at home, seven days a week to teach me Sanskrit. My mother kept telling my father that I had other important things to do like Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics but my father never budged. “No, he must learn Sanskrit. How can he go into the world without Sanskrit ?”, he used to say. And honestly, learning Sanskrit was fun. And also, the man my father chose to teach me Sanskrit (Shri B.M.Panda) was a peculiar man. He said let's not ‘learn’ Sanskrit, let's just read the Panchatantra and in Sanskrit.
Your LinkedIn profile shows you as a trained listener. Now that is something new that most of us have never heard of. What does a trained listener do? And how has your experience as a trained listener been?
A trained listener is supposed to talk with people having problems. For eg with people having anxiety problems, neurosis, and all sorts of other problems. Talking from a factual point, there are actually many types of training you can undergo involving all sorts of things. My expertise is listening to the teenage segment.
Being a listener is somewhat challenging. Whenever you start a conversation with someone who is disturbed, there is a certain way you have to deal with it. You cannot ask him/her certain questions. You have to let the words come from the other side. You have to be extremely careful, because the person on the other side can be suicidal, or depressed. So, unless you are certified, you are not allowed to talk. You have to know how to keep the confidence because the person on the other side would be talking about very very intimate issues and problems. So that is what a listener does.
Being a listener has taught me to empathise. It has taught me to walk a very fine line between what my students call as dictatorial and understanding. I can come across like a tyrant in class, but I also have students who come and spend 4-5 hours in my office, keeping on talking about problems which come from. They say that they are talking to someone about the problem for the first time.
This has not at all been an easy experience for me because at a personal level, I have always been a very private and introspective person.
Life has become a hustle for most undergrads, there is always a race- a race for assignments, exams, internships, projects. What is your take on this?
Yes, because you don’t like to slow down. You don’t lie down on the lawn on Sunday afternoons to spend two hours looking up at the sky. You will not do it at home, you wouldn’t speak to your grandmother, you will not listen to her talk away for hours. You would rather be doing Machine Learning projects, reading something on the web or applying to universities abroad. You would rather use Whatsapp than to sit by yourself for 3 hours without speaking, the attitude of zen is very important. When you are 50, you will have to pay through your nose to go to a ‘retreat’ where they will make you do much the same thing.
But I’ll tell you this, when you hit 90 and look back at what has been important in your life, you will find those 15-minutes spent with your father, just sitting silently while he is reading the newspaper, were worth a lot -- they were the really golden moments of memory.
There are very few golden moments, and you need to be able to recognise when they come and go.
I manufacture my golden moments. Like it is 17:01 right now, at around 17:30, there is a pair of peacocks, who will stand outside my door and start vocalising because they expect me to come and feed them. Similarly, I have parrots, who have a schedule of visits. All these are my ways of slowing down time.
All those multi-million projects and inter-university programmes are important, but so are my parrots, and my peacocks.
I think I am funny that way, because I give my garden the same loving attention that I give to my PhD students.
The kind of rat-race we have today, was the situation similar during your college days?
That is a question you have to ask rats. If you were not a rat, you wouldn’t know that at all. I have never been a rat; never entered the labyrinth actually. Nobody ever forced me to do anything. Nobody told me to be an Engineer. I wanted to take up History, could have done English,-- and I almost took up Physics. I still love to visit museums, whichever city I am in.
The rat-race never touched me; nobody ever told me that “if you don’t do this” or “don’t study at this institute” or “don’t get this degree”, I would be unhappy or out of a job or sad or anything. People said if you do the right things, the right things will happen and they will be the right things for you, the things you will be happy with.
If you fix your target to be something like “Unless you are a software engineer for XYZ Company you will be unhappy” you will find yourself always shooting for it. But if someone tells you, “Do you want to become a Geography teacher at School, you will be very happy”, and you become a Geography teacher, and you will think you did a wonderful thing and your parents are applauding; I don’t think you would ever know what it means to miss working as a Computer Engineer for XYZ Company.
My parents always said that whatever you do, it is fine, whatever happens therefore, is fine too.
You have been at IIT Delhi for a long time,do you see any changes in the undergraduates today vis-a-vis that of your time?
They are only getting better I think, more smart.
I am surprised at how vulnerable your generation is, even though you pretend to be encased in nickel-vanadium steel. You are actually pretty brittle inside. I think my generation was a ‘softie’ generation, we were soft outside and soft inside- like gelatin. But you guys are like eggshells, you seem very hard but are actually very crumbly.
Most of the students I see are victims of their ranks in JEE. What else can I do if I am rank 20 in JEE- nothing but discipline ‘X’ in institute Y. It is as if the JEE Rank 1 cannot pursue Leather Engineering from Calcutta; of course he can but that’s not what the world allows him to do. The world blinkers him, whitewashes him and mind washes him till he can only do discipline X. More than the ranking system, all our Chachus, Mamas and parents and neighbours know exactly which IIT is better than which IIT, and how, and for what. Even I don't know how these rankings come about, even that IIT may notknow but our neighbours know it all.
What are your takes on the online semester and the classes happening online?
When we are teaching in class even in online mode, we are actually not away from you. Even in the physical class, we could have been just 6 metres apart physically. But, mentally the students could be miles away from us. With the lectures being recorded and made available to students, learning has definitely become better for certain students.
At the same time, I quite like the freedom that the online mode of teaching gives me. For instance, take the case of the laboratory course I am taking this semester. It is a course of about 200 undergraduate students. Normally, there would be five sessions per week and each session would have been taken by a different professor. I would only have had to interact with some 30-40 students taking the lab on my assigned day. I would see the other 160 students only when the time of grading used to come around. But now, it's just me. I am able to control students much better when they start complaining about certain course policies. There is nobody else to moderate it now. Earlier, the screaming used to persist for five lab sessions which is now being dealt in just one. It now just takes one person to withstand that onslaught of student feedback. Alone, I can just hold the forte against two hundred students very successfully, but with colleagues I could not. So, the online semester does seem to be treating me very well in this regard.
That’s it from our end, would you like to leave a message for our readers?
You know the difference between a horse and a mule? A horse has blinkers on and it is focused on running a certain amount of distance in a certain amount of time. A mule is a much more powerful and free spirited animal. It is considered a stupid animal because it carries loads far in excess of what it should. But when Steve Jobs said “Stay Hungry, stay foolish”, he was talking about the mule- not the horse.
I have never really believed in the concept of ‘studying hard’. I have never ever ‘studied hard’ in my life. That is a very big problem with me that I cannot bring myself to agree with my colleagues when they say he/she is a very studious person. I keep on asking if he/she is having fun or not and that is not a question that my colleagues take seriously.
When I see students complaining of having learnt nothing new in ELL100, of not seeing the meaning of what is being taught in the course, that is when my antennae just go up and I see that here is somebody who is not having fun. There is no point in studying if you’re not having fun. And this has nothing to do with how hard one is studying or the number of hours one is studying. If you learn how to have that fun, you basically don’t need a teacher. You become self driven, just like Eklavya. That is something I just don’t see much of in my students. My students keep groaning about credits, that 1.5 credits mean 3 hours a week, and you have taken 15 minutes extra -- I can’t understand this concept, because for me it’s just an obsession, not just a course to study actually. I have to be obsessed with a subject to study. I would encourage a student to study for fun, to enjoy and appreciate the beauty of what is being taught. To not restrict yourselves to the domains of the coursework and rather be free spirited and explore whatever interests you. As Mark Twain said, “Never let school interfere with your education”.