A long dreary fight for responsibility

The interview with Nari has been surprisingly popular for a blogpost of its length. Thanks are due, I suppose, to people who shared the thing with their friends. I am done with the IITM thing for now, except to say that I’ve noticed that this has been a recurring theme in my writing, a fight I’ve picked more than once, only to lose every time.

Among my very first posts was a crib about why my parents had to sign a form that said I won’t rag juniors or drive a vehicle on campus. I made the point that parents weren’t in charge, or even in the know, of what their children are up to. In fact, if you read the post from July 2008 (!), the arguments we’re going through now are eerily similar.

I remember almost having a spat with a former Dean of Academics about why somebody had to get his father to sign a form for change of branch or conversion to dual degree. (Ravikanth was there, I remember.) He said something like “I don’t know what relationship you have with your father, but I am answerable to him if he asks me tomorrow why his son is no longer in Aerospace Engg.” I didn’t have the cheek then to ask him why it was any of the Institute’s business what relationship I had with my father, and there the matter was left.

I actually did pick the fight at JNCASR – my graduate institution. Why, I asked, did I have to get a parent to sign something that said they would be responsible for my conduct at the Centre, when several people who enter the Centre are themselves parents? It became enough of an issue here that I’m told a reasonably high-level meeting of people happened. And the only effect was that the JNC student guidelines were modified to say explicitly that students will not be allowed admission into the Centre without having their parents sign the form. It is quite silly to ask my parents to be responsible for my actions. Such a document isn’t even enforceable legally – if I kill somebody, will my father get put in jail?

It is an argument I attribute to Christopher Hitchens that this sort of thing is beyond silly. It is, plainly, immoral. It would be immoral of somebody to offer to take responsibility for my actions, and it would be immoral of me to accept. My responsibility is mine, and mine alone.

The worst part, surely, is that my professor doesn’t remember having to do any of this when she went to IIT or did her PhD.

Talking to the Devil. Or N.S. Narayanaswamy, Warden, Tapti Hostel

I hinted at the end of the previous post at the possible dangers of reading (and reading into) private conversations of other people without bothering about context. Like I added in the update to the post, however, I sent my blogpost to one of the people involved and asked him if I had got anything wrong, if there was context I was missing. I must have been the only one to do this, because in the hour between my sending him the email and returning from lunch, he had sent me two replies on email, and had then actually tracked down my phone number and called me. We talked for slightly longer than half an hour then and a few times after.

Narayanaswamy, or Nari as he prefers to be called, is the warden of Tapti hostel. He isn’t one to shirk away from debate – you may remember that the last time I asked him for an explanation about some rule he made at Tapti, he copied the emails to the student council at Tapti. I commented at the time that he seemed to me to be genuinely interested in the welfare of his students, if a bit paternalistic. I was surprised, therefore, that he seemed to be proposing the most stringent of regulations to be imposed on hostelers.

First, and this is apparently the complaint brought up most often in the meeting with the Director at CLT: ‘Why are you telling students when to wake up? Do you really think everybody has to wake up every day at 6 am?’

“It was a small thing to be done once a week – somebody would knock on your door and clean your room”, Nari laughs. “I am surprised that this is what students have the biggest problem with. I grew up in a lower-middle-class family where I had to wake up at 3 am on most days because that was when water was supplied in my locality. 6 am to me is like the middle of the day… In any case, this was discussed in the hostel. Most freshers were happy with it; about 75% of second years and about 50% of third years were fine with it. The final-years kicked me out of their wing when I tried explaining myself to them, which was fine too…”

“I have a nephew who asks me to buzz off if I try and tell him that waking up early is good”, he adds.

So does he agree that values change with time, that trying to impose one generation’s morality – falling at elders’ feet, let’s say – on the next one is silly?

“All the mails are exhorting ourselves to put a system in place where students can live in peace, and we can administer the hostels, in a reliable way.  Most arguments were headed in the moral direction, and I showed them an analogy in that mail that this is a generation whose value system is different compared to, for example, mine. Such a basic difference of what is inculcated to kids since childhood. I wasn’t judging or moralizing.”

What about privacy? The emails paint a sinister picture of what he would do to students’ right to privacy. Does he really want even the notion of privacy to be abolished? He did say ‘the demand for privacy is a shocker’.

“Of course not… privacy is shocker, because we discussed this with HAS etc. and people were ignoring this point”, he says. “Forget everything else. Isn’t this battle for privacy in a public space ‘How much privacy can students – adolescents, let’s say – be given while still letting the guardian – the parent, the warden – know enough to know if the student is in trouble and needs help?’ I am not recommending surveillance, just open windows with a curtain. I am surprised that the student community has not protested proxy authentication.”

Why the open windows? What could they possibly achieve?

“…my suggestion is not [to] see what you are doing, it is a definite deterrent against putting up a noose at 12noon.”

It is a wonderful metaphor, ‘an open window with curtains’, but how exactly will they prevent a suicide? At this point, I feel like he is grasping for straws:

“[You] can imagine rigging a noose with semi-open windows. You need to start by closing the windows”.

I don’t really think IITM is going to bulldoze every window from every hostel room at the suggestion of one warden. But it is an interesting thought.

What he wants to achieve, he says, and has been working at for two years is to help students live their lives outside their rooms instead of being cooped up in front of a computer. He sent me to his blog, where he isn’t bound by the same constraints of brevity that email forces upon one. The nicest thing about what he says about setting up an ideal hostel is the nuance. Yes, he ultimately has to take a concrete stand and propose a solution which you may or may not agree with, but that doesn’t stop him from recognising the issues involved.

Well, if the aim is to ensure that people live social lives, aren’t the rules the institute has made barring women from men’s hostels after 9pm counter-productive? If the aim is to ensure that men learn to treat women like people first, shouldn’t the administration try and ensure that there is as much as possible of men and women talking to each other, and not say things like ‘prevention is better than cure’? If men learn to treat women as people first, wouldn’t that automatically solve the problem of violence against, and harassment of, women?

“I agree that the rules about women not being allowed in men’s hostels after 9pm are silly. Nobody should be told who their friends can be, or who they should spend time with or when or where. I am still trying to learn more about this, but unfortunately, it seems to me like nobody bothered to bring this issue up when they had a chance to talk to the Diro. The students were all too hung up about having to wake up at 6 am…”

At this point, he tells me he has to take my leave because the Director of IITM has summoned him to ask him why he is making people wake up at 6am.

This is actually not all of what Nari and I talked about. Ask me what Nari thinks about the council of wardens. Ask me what he thinks has to happen for the system as a whole to become more liberal. Ask me why he thinks IIT Madras is in danger of becoming irrelevant. In fact, go ahead and ask him. I am sure he would welcome open minded criticism – which is more than I can say for the rest of IITM’s administration.

Postscript: I also asked him what on Earth he has against bunjee-jumping. Well, he went and wrote about it after I asked him. Go read. He’s also written about privacy.

Disclaimer: Large chunks of the conversation above were written down from memory of phone conversations. I may have ended up putting words in Nari’s mouth, for better or worse. Everything here is only my impression of what Nari is like. I will obviously stick by my impression of him until proven wrong, but that’s no reason for you not to talk to him yourself and make up your own mind.

The Last Hurrah

IIT Madras was home for five years. If that sounds corny to you, I can only say that you are less sedentary than I am. A month after presenting my project report to the department, getting no-dues certificates from a dozen people, and coming to Bangalore, I was back at IITM for the convocation. I was home.

IITM has seen extensive renovation and a spate of new buildings – a changed landscape. What is it, then, about the place that makes one feel so comfortable? Is it the friends who show just the right amount of surprise every time you see them after a while? Is it the room you’ve lived in for four years? The hostel you’ve spent the majority of your post-adolescent life in? The lab you’ve been in at every possible hour of the day, sometimes celebrating, sometimes despairing, often hoping? The teachers who seemed to understand what you were going through, probably because they’ve been through the same things? The fellow at Gurunath who remembers your face even a month after you’ve been anywhere near his store? Even four years after?

At IITM, I’ve gained much knowledge – some good, some useless; many memories, many experiences – some good, some bad; seen many places, most of which I’ll long to go back to; met many people – some I’ve said too much to… some, not nearly enough.

IITM has made me who I am today.

I’m in Bangalore after the controlled frenzy that was the convocation. This is it. I am officially no longer part of IIT Madras.

Freshies and their Parents

This is freshie season at most colleges in the country. Being a residential institution, it’s also open hunting season on freshies at IITM. Sure, seniors here will wait till the parents of these freshies are gone before they begin having ‘interactions’ with them, but hunting season it is, and I kinda think it should be.

Something I saw today makes me even surer that these entrants into an adult world need to be jolted out of their ensconced existences. I saw not one but three idiot-freshies at Saras getting their mothers to do their cleaning for them; sometimes the father joined in, which meant the idiot-freshie joined in too, making it a joyous family event.

What the heck are these morons doing getting their mothers to clean their crap for them? Surely they’re old enough to do this themselves. Or old enough to realise that paying somebody 50 bucks will get this done. I felt like slapping one or two of them and asking them if they planned to hold their mother’s hand when they crossed the big-bad road.


I have, since writing this, been told that the fellows I saw weren’t freshies. They were second-years. I gave up.

The 47th Convocation of IIT Madras

So yeah, I’m here at IIT Madras, the alma mater, the mothership, for my convocation. Unlike a large bunch of my friends, I’m NOT graduating at the Golden Jubilee Convocation; I’m graduating at the one just after the Golden Jubilee Convocation.

Five years, I’ve spent at this place. I’m going to my room at Saras right now, actually. I’ll also be getting a gown made of what I think is nylon… you know, because standing in a group of 1000 graduands, in front of every relative imaginable of the said 1000 graduands, and every prof you’ve ever studied under, and a thousand other people who’re just watching for fun, especially when all this is happening in Chennai, isn’t stuffy, dehydrating, or terrible enough.

Come say Hey!