Saturday, January 3, 2015

Flawed Stories, Fallen Idols and Coming of Age

There was a time when I was in love with newspapers. I loved reading newspapers, as many as I could get my hands on, reading everything I could, even if I was repeating a story from another newspaper. I'd love to tell you that this was about trying to see a story from every possible angle and get the richness of five viewpoints in my little pre-teenage to teenaged head, but the honest truth is that I just got drawn to them automatically. There was a point when we used to get six newspapers at home. Except for the Hindi newspaper, I used to read all the other newspapers cover to cover. Of course, I couldn't read all of them altogether at once. So that's where I developed that habit of screening and making mental notes on signals that each piece sent up. To this day the habit helps me get through articles without actually reading them. It also helps understand article and story structures in intimate ways.

Anyhow, digressions aside, newspapers were my windows to the world. That was till I grew sick of them. Again, I'd love to tell you that there was a rational process to it, but the truth is that I had had enough.

Stories are never made in a linear fashion. Never, ever, in the way newspaper articles or books or history texts make them out to be. Causality is never unmuddled and highly debatable. Grey is the colour history texts need to be written in. Black should be reserved only for tombstones, which have an obligation to present only one version of the story. Newspapers, ironically, with the colour they add superficially, tend to take everything more towards black and white. Consider the story of Tesla, for instance. The most popular version of the story is that Elon Musk was the one who had the greatest role in getting the company to where it is. The truth is probably more debatable. Here is that story, or atleast the best version I know of it. Another case in point is the story of Twitter.

These are more popular stories that I've picked up to highlight a point. Imagine stories which don't have stakeholders willing to get things right at the source because it is expensive, difficult to understand and just not in tune with the news cycle format or the simple linearity that books and texts are faultily designed to follow.

A result of all of this has been a slow and disappointing realization - my version of the world is flawed by my standards. Deeply flawed. The idolization and adulation I have for certain people is based on such linear, uncomplicated stories which might be written by not-so-thorough writers. It's almost like I'm collecting filtered water at the end of the tap, with full trust that everyone along the way has done the best job to keep it drinkable and that my act only adds to its quality, while the truth might be that the source itself is highly contaminated, to say nothing of what else might have happened along the way.

Maybe this is what they refer to as "growing up" or "coming of age". Thankfully, it also comes with a realization that trust can rarely be unconditional. In a sense, it is a beginning of a new kind of way to understand the world, where the storytellers are subject to as rigorous an examination as the story itself. It's a little more difficult - newspapers, books, people, everything and everyone has to be critically seen in that light. With people, it becomes more muddled - when an act is committed, it has consequences. The idea is to backtrack and assign trust based on intentionality.

So how does it work in the real world? Friends don't get it. Partners go bonkers with the fastidiousness and obsession with trivial details. But it helps calm that thing inside which is always pushing me to do the right thing, whatever it is at that point in time, to the best of my understanding. Of course, it might be wrong later. But everything I'd do will be praised or criticised, and with me at the helm, there will be extreme reactions. The only thing that'd help me get closure on anything is the knowledge that at the time the act was committed, I did the right thing.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Genuineness, Machine-Gun Fire, Writing and Fraud

I've stopped writing. This. This is one of the reasons. This machine-gun fire style of writing that I used to go back to wh...wait, no no no, this is not it. This is what I don't like in others' style of writing. The act of composition is not and should not be riddled with full stops, it's not a plot sheet for a shooter. A composition, especially so in our times, is an equivalent of a painting. It has always been the equivalent of a painting, but far more than that. How else do you explain the idea of finding a book of four hundred pages containing ink splashes in the name of a script being more riveting than paintings?

What, in my view, should be true of every composition coming out into the public domain, is that they should be rich in thought, especially genuine strands of it. It shouldn't be a reactionary piece, like this one that you're reading. That shows that there is nothing genuine in the inspiration - you've used another's set of thoughts as springboard to unleash a polemic and garner applause and comments.

I stopped writing because I started seeing similarities in every composition of mine. If they're boring when done by another writer (Think Sidney Sheldon), imagine how boring and sapping they'd be when they come out of your own mind and hands.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Jairam Ramesh and the World Class argument

Do IITs and IIMs, our premier institutions, promote a culture of excellence? Jairam Ramesh's controversial comments about the students being excellent and faculty being less than �world class� created quite a ruckus. A cross-section of students and teachers from these institutions give their views on whether the research and teaching are of international standards. Do we as a society value excellence and have the wherewithal to actively pursue it?
Mohit Sharma

I wish Jairam Ramesh had not made that statement. It is excusable and ignorable when it comes from fashionably cynical kids on campus. But when a man of his standing and experience makes such an oversimplified and scathing assessment, there is the very real danger of people taking his word at face value, given how he has been a part of the system here at IIT. In one stroke he labels faculty members as incompetent and the students as world-beaters. If only the world was as black and white.

Photo: Manas Ranjan BhuliNo one would disagree with him on the major premise of the IITs not being world-class research institutions. For an institute with such name and pull our research output in terms of research papers and patents is far too low. How do you decide whom to pin the blame on? Top institutes around the world have two common features: access to funding and autonomy. The world class institutions that the minister refers to, one among which is University of California at Berkeley (a state university), have budgets running into hundreds of millions of dollars. Stanford University, a private university, has a multi-billion dollar budget, in addition to a Goliath-sized corpus. In comparison, our research budgets rarely exceed a few million dollars, and we have, at best, a pittance for a corpus.

What the students Think :

Arundhati Anand Velamur, A gross generalisation only undermines the abilities and efforts of the few people who do make a difference to the institute�s research output.�A comment like this shouldn�t come from a person of such high standing in Indian governance, an alumnus, no less. He is in a position to influence the direction the IITs and the IIMs take.
Arundhati Anand Velamur,
an alumna of IIT Bombay, Class of 2010

Vinay Sharma, Jairam Ramesh himself said that his ministry is doing a PPP to come up with that centre in Jamnagar on marine biodiversity. He also said that in a governmental set-up, it is not possible to do world class research. I guess he made a fool of himself by making contradictory statements, unless he really believes that the IITs are completely autonomous.
Vinay Sharma,
an alumnus of IIT Bombay, Class of 2008.

Pritika Goyal, As far as the faculty goes, I feel that we could do much better with some newer and younger faculty members. This would not only help solve the problem of shortage of faculty but younger faculty generally seems to have enthusiasm towards research. Our faculty is involved with some world class research, still, that is more in spite of the system than because of it.
Pritika Goyal,
a final-year student at IIT Delhi.

Misha Pratap, IIMs definitely derive a lot of respect in industry and community due to the extremely competitive entrance process. There are a few world class faculty members in IIMs who have a sharp influence on the journey of a student at an IIM and thereafter. Any blanket labelling would be inappropriate.
Misha Pratap,
an alumnus of IIM Lucknow

Ankit Sukhija,The first reaction is to be defensive and question the claim. We must take it as an opportunity to introspect. Jairam Ramesh is not completely wrong but criticism is different from critiquing, which we must do.
Ankit Sukhija,
an alumnus of IIM Calcutta, Class of 2011

Research needs money. Research needs a lot of labs and facilities. And most of all, research needs a culture. We are better equipped on all three counts than most other Indian universities, but we need a lot more if we are to compete with the big boys and call ourselves world class.

On the question of autonomy, we need to ensure that our institutes have enough of it. Give the IITs and IIMs more control over the donations made to them. Let them choose how many students they want and how they wish to admit them. Stop controlling their merit lists with quotas. Free them from the clutches of the government. But the minister already knows all of this and does not need a college student to lecture him on it I would assume.

Let us get to the elephant in the room then. Are our faculty members world class? Dicey question. I had asked a senior the same thing in my first year. His response, �Look, you are going to have good professors and bad professors in universities all over the world.� In a way, that sums it up. I could reel off names of professors who have been masters of their respective specialisations and attending whose classes has been an absolute pleasure.

The other extreme then - do we have people in our institute doing Nobel Prize-winning work? I took this question to our mess tables and the consensus was a resounding �no�. Nobel-winning research, one must understand, is a lot about the environment you work in and this is where the importance of a research culture kicks in. The world�s top universities, apart from having generously funded and well-equipped laboratories, have highly competitive lab groups with a motley mix of undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral students. They compete against each other and against researchers from the rest of the world for rewards in the form of more funding, journal papers and patents. The environment is such that everyone around you aspires for those rewards and good ideas are in abundance. This is one area we can work on. But to pin all the blame for a less-than-average research culture on faculty members is unfair.

Which brings me to the other part of the Hon�ble Minister�s assertion - are our students really world-class? Are we potential somethings waiting to explode, given the right encouragement and facilities, and inhibited only by less-than-world-class professors and the system? Most students here are brighter than average, true. Sadly though, there is a whole huge bunch of us who are just not enthused by engineering. Quite a few of us were driven to IIT and engineering only for the brand and because it was not fashionable in our cities and towns for high scoring folk to get into liberal arts. The result? A lot many of us put in just about enough effort to scrape through our exams every semester and channelise our energy elsewhere � clearly not ideal raw material for a good culture. Which is not to say that there are not students in the institute who are not passionate about science and research, I know a few of them myself. But then, they are exceptions rather than the norm.

The IITs are not really thriving. We barely seem to be surviving, as the minister rightly points out, and it is more on reputation than anything else - a reputation built up by our more illustrious alumni from the last 50 years. In that sense, the students we had at the time (the Hon�ble Minister was a student here) were, in all probability, world class. The sense of this system�s future that I get after being a part of it for five years, however, is not a very positive one.

I believe the minister would be serving the country better by directing his broadside towards his own government than his alma mater. He is smart enough to know what needs to be done without any one of us telling him. Simplistic, fatalistic demagoguery is okay when it spews forth from the mouths of his less illustrious peers. But you, Mr. Jairam Ramesh, we believe in you enough to hold you to a higher standard.

(The writer is a final-year student of civil engineering in IIT, Bombay)

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Present

Suppose that you started out this new year, promising yourself that you'll have fun. Lots of it - uninhibited, unadulterated and guilt-free fun. Now assume that you even did (no, I'm not passing judgment on your sad lives :)) Today's the twenty sixth of February. Today, you're feeling all down and in the dumps. As happens with prolonged low periods, you tend to twist and corrupt every good memory of yours so that it suits your purpose. For instance, in a sad state, you'd tend to look at the sad parts of all those memories. Or, when you're accusing your spouse of cheating (I hope it doesn't come to it) you'll tend to look suspiciously at everything you guys have done together.

Similarly, with sad states, you'd tend to look at everything through that lens, and you'd feel that you never had fun. Now turn the situation on its head. Assume that you've had a super sad year so far, but today, for some reason, is super happy, optimistic and so on. Won't you have a positive outlook about everything in life?

I know it sounds somewhat simplistic, but do think about it - whatever we do today, does it have such strong a connect with the past or the future as we make it to have? My guess is that putting it at even the tenth fraction would be overstating it.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Closet Patriot

I'll say it out loud - I really don't like standing for the national anthem sometimes. The entire thing is in a dialect I only half-understand, and even the parts that I do understand, they sound rather hollow at times. Then there's the entire business of realism and objectivity - the national anthem is a paean to our great nation and, let's admit it, we don't always feel the love. I, atleast, don't.

There are times when I want to protest, when I want to make a statement and times when I simply find the entire process of mechanically standing up to the national anthem and the accentuated action of saluting the national flag boisterous and showman-ly. It's not the way I want to pay respect to my nation.

But, ironically, that's exactly what I'm not only supposed to do, but also compelled to do (by law).

True respect can never be forced, or so I think. Only when you have people standing up for the national anthem and saluting the national flag, when they could have been doing anything else at the time, do you and those people themselves feel the genuineness of their respect and pride.

There should be nothing wrong with flag-burning or wearing the three colours on your person. Or the point of the tricolour standing for freedom (of speech and expression, amongst other things) becomes somewhat moot.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Acquired Taste

Recall the first time you had alcohol. I'm willing to bet my right hand that you thought it had a horrible taste. It was probably a similar situation with wine (if you had it early on during your transition from a teetotaller to a social drinker or general drunkard) There's a pretty good chance that your mates would've backslapped you, with the unsaid comment - you'll start liking it soon enough. And not long thereafter, you're not only a regular drinker (social or, well, unsocial) but you even have a favourite drink!

For those of you wannabe cheese connoisseurs, most varieties of cheese taste like shit. And yet, you have all the experts fretting over it.

Implicitly or explicitly, either you're told or you realise for yourself that it's all about acquiring that taste.

What is an acquired taste all about? Correct me if I'm wrong - you're subjected to (or you subject yourself to) a vile practice or pursuit. Initially, it feels horrible. But once your worldview gets limited to this practice, you start finding positives in it ; the same way a quadriplegic tells you that not having limbs was the best thing that happened to him. If your world was to be mapped on a scale of 100 and alcohol came in at 5, you forcefully rescale your 100 scale over the 5 rating points of the original scale. And in that universe, alcohol is heavenly.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that it is bad. I'm just trying to understand how it works.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Free Choice

We've all had times in life when we've been told - Choose X or Y. Not choosing is simply not an option. In fact, your silence/inactivity is taken as an affirmative answer towards one of the choices - "My lord, is aadmi ke paas is aadmi ki chuppi is baat ki gawah hai ki khoon isi ne kiya hai". Then there are times when all choices suck so bad that you won't want to any of them - like when your mom asks you to choose between karela, bhindi and jackfruit for dinner. (I despise bhindi)

What is freedom? For most of us, freedom would be the existence of choices. After all, what's not free about being able to choose what you like and doing it? Oh wait, what if you don't like the choices on offer? What if the choices that have been put up are really just a sham intent on shifting the blame of choosing from a bad set upon you, which would grant a moral caveat of sorts to the provider-cum-executioner of your supposed wishes? For instance, if my mother really wants to make one of her three favourite dishes, all three of which I despise, and she asks me to choose from the pack, would that really be a free choice?