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HindustanTimes Sun,23 Nov 2014

Non Fiction

Not just engineers
Samrat Choudhury, PTI
March 02, 2004
First Published: 09:23 IST(20/2/2004)
Last Updated: 10:50 IST(2/3/2004)

The IITians
Sandipan Deb
Penguin
2004
Techology, Memoirs
Pages:
Price: Rs. 425
ISBN: 0670049867
Hardcover

Deb’s book looks at the famed technology institutes, and more interestingly, at some now famous people who studied there
The IITians is the story of the Indian Institutes of Technology, and of people who studied there. Some of these alumni are now disgustingly rich and famous. They live in mansions. Sandipan Deb, ex-IITian and now managing editor of Outlook, meets with them and takes them back to their impoverished hostel days.

This makes the book readable and interesting. All the usual poster boys are there to tell their anecdotes: Kanwal Rekhi, Gururaj Deshpande, Rajat Gupta, and Purnendu Chatterjee, among others, in the US. A more eclectic mix features in the India contingent: Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar and the Congress party's Jairam Ramesh, Infosys bigwig Nandan Nilekani, Tata Sons Executive Director R Gopalakrishnan, and others. Toymaker Arvind Gupta and activist Dunu Roy get a chapter each.

Deb asks them what they learned from IIT, and whether their memories are more of the classroom or out of it. The answers are surprising to those who view these institutes as geek factories.

The author looks at IITians in all walks of life. Not all the stories are success stories. His classification includes a chapter each on "The Wastrels" and "The Weirdos". Yet by and large, an IIT education prepares students for success in any field, says Deb, because it imparts immense confidence, problem-solving skills, and a taste for competition.

Nilekani, for example, says, "We had some really brilliant professors" but goes on to add that, "I am not the right guy to talk about them because I hardly met them". He rarely attended class and claims he doesn't remember a thing he was taught.

Jairam Ramesh says he has no classroom memories "except maybe seeing guys wearing full-sleeved shirts with formulas written on their wrists" during exams. Chatterjee says, "Whether academically IIT teaches you much, God only knows", but as an afterthought says that, to be polite, he would say, "the IITs do teach a lot academically".

The author looks at IITians in all walks of life. Not all the stories are success stories. His classification includes a chapter each on "The Wastrels" and "The Weirdos". Yet by and large, an IIT education prepares students for success in any field, says Deb, because it imparts immense confidence, problem-solving skills, and a taste for competition.

His book is especially relevant given the current controversy over the Human Resource Development minister's interventions in India's institutes of excellence. In a chapter called "The Bad News" Deb writes about a McKinsey study on "Shaping the Knowledge Economy in India". This study, submitted to the Prime Minister in 2000, had recommended that IIT directors be given more autonomy with accountability. Making them sarkari is a sure recipe for disaster.

The anecdotes apart, the institutes' history and an analysis of their contribution to India are threads in this well-woven tale. Elements of autobiography, too, creep in, as the author recounts his student days at IIT Kharagpur, where he had loads of out-of-class experiences.

Photos of some of this may have enriched the reading experience. Few readers would have seen images of life inside the IITs. There is a coffee table book on the institutes called India's Intellectual Treasures, but that was published in the US.

There's not much else to quibble about. Yes, one thing. There's some repetition. Most people are introduced every time their names crop up. The text could have been leaner, but then, would anyone dare edit the editor?


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