By Dinesh Wagle
On his chin, Anand sports a Lenin-cut beard and a compromise. He wanted to be a bearded man, perhaps like Marx, but his girlfriend hated that. Thus the compromise.
Occasionally, the compromise is breached. This past week, Anand didn’t get time to trim his beard. The young Indian who left Delhi last Monday (15 June) aiming to reach Nepal spent his days bicycling on the sizzling roads. The juicy updates about the international cycle journey have been popping up in Twitter (@kaargocult) and his website rega.in frequently. “i hve a frnd named gautam who is into chakra meditation. Claims to have power over weathr. I requsted him for clouds n here they r,” says one post, called Tweet, in the micro-blogging site. “Sitting besides ganga watching others washing their sins away.” One guy says, ‘saare paap dhone hain bhen@&od‘ (Have to wash away all the sins, sister @&od).”
After a round of interview in a crowded eatery in Lajpat Nagar, I invited Anand to my apartment where he got a Chandra Surya! [रातो र चन्द्र सूर्य जगी निशान हाम्रो…]
Not that you have to be a geek to flood the Internet with details of the highway journey, but 28-year-old K.A. Anand is a product of one of the finest monuments of the Indian technical education system called the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). A graduate of IIT Bombay in Metallurgical Engineering and Material Science, Anand learned cycling outside IIT, on his own, and that’s his hobby. For a living, however, he works as a designer. Therein lies the paradox of the passionate craze for IITs.
Many Indian students share a dream of getting into an IIT that provides higher education in engineering and technology. The certificate of world-class knowledge that IIT provides almost guarantees a life with a well-paid job. That is why, each year, hundreds of thousands of students take part in the Joint Entrance Examinations (JEE), called the mother of all entrance examinations, for 13 IITs spread all over India. Seven thousand talented and lucky get through and choose the faculty based on the rank they get in the exam. In 2000, when there were only seven IITs, 300,000 including Anand had participated in the JEE for 3,000 seats. “It was a big thing to get through the JEE,” Anand remembers. “We invited the neighbours for a party to share the happiness.”
Yes, the National Flag of Nepal was handed over amidst a grand ceremony that saw third participant in Satish bhaiya who took this picture (the blurry image is a proof of that).
That gathering happened in the Durg district of Chhattisgarh, a state in central India where the poor are in a majority and the Maoists are waging an insurgency. With industries including a big steel plant, Durg is a prosperous town where, one website noted, people “have a great tendency towards adopting new trends and life styles”. Its another name is Garibrath, chariot of the poor. The Maoists are still far away, but not very far. (A few years ago, Anand’s maternal uncle was briefly “detained” by the rebels who released him immediately after they found out he wasn’t feeling well.) Anand’s father works at a steel plant there, and that partially influenced him in choosing metallurgical engineering.
“That was a wrong choice,” Anand said. “Later, I realized I was interested in a different subject.”
That subject is a combination of “art” and “design”. Today, he is a user interface designer who tries to make products easy to use. Anand is not the only one to study one subject at IIT and pursue a career in another. He shares an apartment in south Delhi’s Kalkaji with three other IITians. Two of his flatmates studied computer science and electrical engineering and switched to banking while the third has remained faithful to his subject: architecture.
What’s the point of going to IIT by cracking such a rigorous competition when you are pursuing a career in a field that is different from the subject that you studied at IIT? The media has raised this question once again in India after results of the JEE were announced last month. “Art can’t exist without engineering and vice versa,” says Narayan Parasuram, an IITian who is a musician, in this week’s Outlook magazine. “Is the Madhurai Meenakshi Temple an artistic marvel or an engineering feat?”
Both, in fact. Another fact is that these IITs have a major role in India’s technological advances in the past few decades. These marvellous institutions, better known by the names of the cities they are located in and independent of each other, are universities in their own right. The first one, IIT Kharagpur, was set up in 1951 by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who, at the first graduation ceremony in 1956, spoke about what the institute meant to India. “Here… stands the fine monument of India, representing India’s urges, India’s future in the making… symbolical of the changes that are coming to India.”
In that year, the Indian parliament declared IIT “the institution of national importance”. Despite being state-owned, IITs receive no political interference and no bhansun works to get through the entrance exam. This has received praise from even the Americans who feel that their leadership in technical education might be coming to an end soon. “In the 50 years since [the first IIT],” writes Thomas Friedman in The World is Flat, “hundreds of thousands of Indians have competed to gain entry and then graduate from these IITs and their private-sector equivalents… Given India’s one billion-plus population, this competition produces a phenomenal knowledge meritocracy. It’s like a factory, churning out and exporting some of the most gifted engineering, computer science and software talents on the globe.” Friedman quotes a Wall Street Journal article that says it’s more difficult to get into IIT than Harvard or MIT.
Like in many other Indian educational institutions, quite a few Nepalis join IITs every year. Having anything like an IIT in Nepal is perhaps a dream for now, given the current state of affairs that sees the education system being plagued by political interference and endless strikes. The best we can do right now is talk more about an Indian IITian who is cycling in Nepal.
Oh, poor Anand, a victim of the ongoing economic recession, who after losing his job, freelances from his flat while he is not cycling. But he is not complaining. “In a way I am taking advantage of the recession,” he said. “If there was no recession, I would still be with my company that wouldn’t have given me a 10-day leave every now and then for bicycling.”
Having said that, Anand has a meeting to attend on June 29 in Delhi in which he will be talking business with a client from London. If he can’t make it to Kathmandu in time, Anand said he planned to return from Pokhara. The desire to go to Nepal came to him during a trip to Rishikesh a few weeks ago where he spent time with some “hippies”. Then he Googled and discover that “Nepal is after all not so far. Only around 350 km [to] the nearest border crossing that is, Mahendranagar.” He planned to return in a bus. His latest Tweet, posted on Thursday, said he got a Nepali mobile phone number in Mahendranagar. One Tweet says, “First impression of Mahendranagar, lots of hair saloons and fashion stores. Also lots of ladies on bikes and motorbikes.” How was the entry into Nepal? “It was more like a railway crossing, and my first thought was, ‘Am I in? Really?'”