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Lessons in reality

For those who flounder a bit, or are inclined to do things a little differently, the IIT/ IIM world can be a very cruel, harsh place that can scar a young mind severely, writes Vandana Vasudevan.

india Updated: Feb 02, 2010 23:40 IST
Vandana Vasudevan

Sagarika Ghose’s critique of 3 Idiots in her HT column Idiot is as idiot does (Bloody Mary, January 16) portrayed a wide-eyed view of our institutes of higher education, as though they are full of inspiring professors and students brimming with sadhna. The truth, however, is quite uncomfortably different.

In India, the decision to study engineering and/or management, is a function of parental pressure to secure an easy employment ticket and has little to do with aptitude. Among Tam Brahms, for instance, typically the IIT-IIM/US university path is etched in stone from senior school. A potential mridangam maestro or a brilliant writer, will die at the altar of Brilliant Tutorials and do a B. Tech. India is a sea of mediocrity precisely because most people are not inspired by their jobs. It is just something they got swept into doing and now find themselves stuck with.

The movie isn’t undermining the concept of sadhna as Ghose fears. It urges students to follow their passion, so that sadhna can be directed towards a profession that you enjoy which can then bloom into something more fulfilling. Is that such a bad thing?

Fear and humiliation are very much part of the IIT/IIM environment. The campus placement scene, where a student is given high-fives for landing a job while his friend walks back to the dorm alone, is a harsh lesson on the starkness of success versus failure. But, as the movie rightly shows, failure doesn’t have to be publicly paraded. Because sometimes it isn’t even failure.

There are ways to make your life into something meaningful even if you are a bottom-ranker in a couple of courses. The perpetuation of fear and shame serves no purpose except for some dubious claim of “coping with the pressures ahead.” Personally, I found the corporate world, for which the IIMs were allegedly preparing us, a much finer place than it was made out to be.

And lastly, the portrayal of the cynical, indifferent professors was one of the things the movie got just right. While there are bound to be learned exceptions, a majority are just doing their job in an uninspired way. They are distant, authoritative figures, legends in their own departments, which means little to the average student who’s grappling with a course he has no background in. Public humiliation of students is a perverse feature of Indian teachers at all levels and the professors in revered institutes are only slightly more sophisticated about it.

For those who flounder a bit, or are inclined to do things a little differently, the IIT/ IIM world can be a very cruel, harsh place that can scar a young mind severely. The sad part is that it really doesn’t have to be that way. It’s just a status quo that has been sustained. It has taken a Bollywood movie to ask some tough questions about one of middle-class India’s holy cows.