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The Most Unforgettable 5 Years (1969-74) of My Life
By Commander Debashis Mukherjee (retd.)


I joined IIT Kharagpur in 1969 and passed out in 1974. The intervening 5 years, arguably, were the most educative ones in my life and also the most exciting and unforgettable. A brief account of this most crucial period in my life is presented in the following paragraphs.

Ragging

The first few months in LLR Hall were most traumatic for me due to severe ragging. When I joined IIT in 1969, I was a proverbial 'good boy' - brought up traditionally in the small towns of Ranchi and Jamshedpur by typically Bengali bhadralok parents. But before joining IIT I did have the experience of staying away from home in a hostel and going to college as well and I did not consider myself as the sort who would be 'devastated' by ragging. But I was.

As I landed up in LLR Hall and was greeted by the calls of "Hey fresher, come here" from seniors, I thought ragging was going to be fun! It was indeed fun when I was told to climb to 'Mussoorie', sing a song, etc. But I soon discovered that there was another very ugly face to ragging. To cite an example, a group of seniors asked me to imagine my mother in the nude and describe her. When I refused, they got violent with me. I was filled with a strange revulsion and fear. When these seniors saw that they had succeeded in terrorizing me, they seemed to derive a strange sadistic pleasure by specifically targeting me and continuously keeping me under pressure day after day by devising ingenious means to strip my dignity.

On the positive side, some seniors were very supportive and I learnt a great deal from them. I also got acquainted with most of the seniors in my Hall during the prolonged ragging period. But the bottomline is that personally I don't believe that I benefited significantly from ragging or emerged as a better person due to it.

I never ragged any junior during my tenure in IIT. When I recently came to know that ragging has been completely banned and the freshers are initially accommodated in a different Hall, I was glad. I am sure they won't emerge as worse citizens than us due to their non-exposure to the 'notorious ragging of Kha-Rag-Pur'.

The thrill of belonging to IIT Kgp

As a fresher, as I used to enter the portals of the Institute main building everyday, I was filled with both awe and pride at belonging to this magnificent institution. The wide corridors, sloping lecture theatres, high-funda professors and the classes going like clockwork had a magical effect. On 20th July 1969, soon after I joined IIT, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. Interest in technology was at its peak and nothing seemed impossible anymore for an engineer as long as one was armed with the right kind of engineering education - just the kind Kgp promised to provide.

One of the main secrets of success of institutions like IITs, IIMs, etc., is that they constantly keep the students under pressure and spur them on to perform. I remember being under tremendous pressure, especially during first to third years. Most of the professors were thorough specialists in their respective fields and expected us to understand the concepts as soon as they explained them to us. The tutorials were extremely useful - though some of the research scholars and junior lecturers taking our 'tutes' were greenhorns at teaching, the individual attention one received at the tutes was very useful. The thing I appreciated the most about academics at Kgp was the emphasis on fundamentals - I remember to this day many of the basic fundas of physics, chemistry and maths I learnt during my first year.

Things I used to particularly look forward to were the practicals. Kgp has the best laboratories, workshops and equipment and I made the best use of them. We didn't have PCs then, but Kgp was the proud owner of an IBM 1610 (if my memory serves me right) - one of the early 'mainframes' using semiconductors. It used punched cards, gigantic tape drives and hard drives (that two people used to lift together). These huge hard discs used to store just a few MBs! I felt myself extremely fortunate to be able to train with some of the best practical facilities in India.

Examination time was always a problem time for me during the initial years as I did not put in adequate regular effort. Panic used to build up as the exams approached and almost every exam was like being led to the slaughterhouse. Even after 30 years I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat after a nightmare about I staring at a question paper and realizing that I know very few of the answers!

Many of the students today would be surprised to know that during our days electronic calculators did not exist. We used 'slide rules' for the most complex calculations. Of course, calculations using slide rules were time consuming and lacked accuracy. Also, one had to keep track of the decimal point separately. But we managed pretty well.

Hostel and campus life

An undergraduate student spending 5 years (no, I didn't fail - B.Tech. used to be a 5-year course in my time) in the same Hall is an excellent system. Not only does one find in every Hall a cross section of students from all Departments and Years, a unique bond is created among Hall-mates which lasts a lifetime. In Kgp, all competitions are Inter-Hall, so every Hall has a distinct identity and most students are ever ready to do anything for the sake of their respective Halls.

LLR Hall used to be one of the newer Halls during my time. Belonging to a new Hall had its pros as well as cons. On the positive side, lack of maintenance had not yet caught up with the building and furniture. On the other hand, we had the responsibility of creating the Hall's reputation as there wasn't much past glory to fall back on. Guys from older Halls used to call us 'Lallus' in a derogatory manner. However, the system of randomly allocating Halls to the first year students ensured that talent was evenly distributed among the Halls and we, being from a newer Hall, probably strived harder ("LLR ka tempo high hai") to make our mark on the campus.

Out of all the IITs, Kgp is the only one which is located in a 'one-horse town'. Since the town of Kharagpur doesn't have too much to offer by way of recreation / entertainment, campus life is the most vibrant in Kgp. Kgpians have traditionally excelled in the fields of sports, music, dramatics, debating or virtually any extra-curricular activity - mainly due to the 'TINA factor' (there-is-no-alternative to campus life). When I subsequently did my M.Tech at IIT Mumbai, I found that the Powai campus got virtually deserted during the weekends because the students either went home or to relatives' / friends' homes in Mumbai. IIT Kgp, on the other hand, concentrates on extra-curriculars during the weekends and that is what sets Kgpians apart.

During our time, there was no television transmission in India! As a matter of fact most of us hadn't ever seen a TV. The Hall common room had a radio - that too one of those huge valve sets with 8 bands. Our chief contact with the world outside Kgp was through the daily newspaper. Communication with our parents used to be through letters. In an emergency, one could go to a telegraph office to send a telegram or to book a 'trunk call' and wait endlessly for the call to come through. E-mail and fax machines hadn't been invented yet and STD / ISD facilities didn't exist. If we missed classes, we had to painstakingly copy the notes by hand from our classmates - you see, the photocopier hadn't been invented!

When I joined IIT in 1969, the Naxalite movement was very active in West Bengal. Academic activities in most of the educational institutions in the state got disrupted and students suffered. IIT Kharagpur was the only shining example of defiance amidst this mess in West Bengal. IITans have traditionally been apolitical and have successfully warded off undesirable external influence. I recall an occasion during my first year when we found posters and slogans (such as "Mao Tse Tung lal selam", "Ho Chi Minh amar rahe", etc.) defacing our Hall walls overnight. But we promptly cleaned the walls with wire brushes and set up vigilance parties to ensure that no outsider could enter the Hall at night. I distinctly remember a huge poster on the IIT Main Gate in 1969 which stated, "PATEL HALL WALLS ARE CLEAN NOW. PATEL HALL DEFIES ANYONE TO DEFACE THEIR WALLS AGAIN". That was the kind of spirit which kept Kgp out of the Naxalite movement.

The Mess

To survive one needs to eat, even if one is an IITan! The Mess in every Hall, therefore, occupied a very central place in our lives. We used to queue up hungrily (and noisily) before the two counters (veg and non-veg) holding our recessed stainless steel thalis during every meal and gratefully accept whatever was doled out by the mess workers. We in the non-veg queue used to pester Banerjee Babu to honour us with a 'leg piece' or a 'rocket' whenever chicken was on the menu. All of us used to look forward to 'semi-special' and 'special' dinners.

Though the mess was managed by a Manager and an Assistant Manager, students in every Hall played a proactive role. Every day two students were on 'Mess Duty' and used to oversee every activity inside the mess such as weighing of all provisions received, issue of ingredients, keeping track of the coal consumed in the chullahs, ensuring hygienic practices, etc. I remember measuring the fat content of milk supplied to the mess whenever I was on mess duty. This involved adding an acid to the milk sample in a test tube with a stopper and then centrifuging it in an electrical centrifuge. If the milk had been diluted with water, its fat content would proportionately reduce and we would pull up the milkmen and pay them a reduced rate.

Though Naxallites could never disrupt the academic life in Kgp, 'mess strikes' often did. During my student days there were several strikes by mess workers which would throw a monkey wrench into the otherwise smooth academic life. Some strikes failed with the cooperation of the students with the management - students took on the task of cooking and running the mess all by themselves. During such periods there was almost a picnic like atmosphere in the Halls and academics took a back seat. Surprisingly, many of the preparations cooked by the novice volunteer 'cooks' tasted quite exotic! For the 'mess volunteers' it was a truly gigantic task - lighting up the coal chullahs, cooking huge quantities of food, serving the food and cleaning the cooking utensils. Of course, each student had to clean his own plate. However, during certain prolonged strikes, students could not manage indefinitely and faced with no option, the authorities had to close down IIT.

Spring Festival

Except for the diehard muggoos (bookworms) Spring Fest was a time to take a break from acads and let one's creative juices flow. The entire student community used to be supercharged with a single-point agenda - my Hall should come out on top! The star performers, i.e., the talented musicians, singers, artists, debators, directors, actors, etc., held centrestage no doubt but it is really the huge fleet of 'volunteers' that enabled Spring Fest to rise to the lofty heights that it did. Night after night of practice sessions, making of the huge 'backdrops' inside the Hall common rooms, gathering 'intelligence' on which Hall is doing what, numerous meetings of the Hall Committee, etc., would finally build up to a crescendo as Spring Fest approached. And the 'Hall tempo' would finally peak on the days of the various performances when volunteers would carry, antlike, gigantic backdrops and other props to the stage, set them up and cheer lustily during the final performances by the 'Hall jewels'.

I have seen several performances during Spring Fest bordering on the professional. But the quality of the performances apart, the sheer team spirit and camaraderie that Spring Fest engendered will remain etched in my mind forever.

In conclusion

I entered IIT Kgp as a boy in 1969 and passed out as a man in 1974. The intervening 5 years changed me in very many ways, mostly for the better. The most important thing, of course, was the excellent engineering education I received from a dedicated faculty and with the help of state-of-the-art practical facilities. I have spent most of my professional life as a hardcore engineer and my IIT education always stood me in good stead.

The unique campus life in Kgp and excellent facilities for extra-curriculars there helped one to evolve as a more complete man. I saw some of the best films ever made at the Netaji Auditorium. I saw several excellent plays, debates and musical performances - many by top notch professionals. I could indulge in my hobby of photography to me heart's content.

Last but not the least, one made some excellent friends during the 5 years at Kgp - we laughed and cried and literally grew up together. The bonds of these friendships can never weaken. Even today, 27 long years after graduating, when I come across a hallmate or classmate for the first time since passing out it feels as if one is meeting a long lost brother from whom one never really separated.

 

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