"Stop, take a breath, look at the world and ask yourself - what kind of person do I want to be?
Who do I want to be? Do I just want to be ticking and scoring or do I want to stop and start caring for other people and doing things that make a difference to other people’s life?"
Courses offered and Research interests:
For undergraduates, I teach Data Structures. In the past, I have taught Introduction to Programming and Discrete Mathematics. In advanced courses, I have typically been teaching Special Topics courses focused on probability and networks. I also took a course on Mathematics of Data Science in spring, 2015. That was a new course. My research is basically mathematical involving probability and graphs. So, there is some work around networks as well. I am interested in data analytics and data modelling. This is my core training and so I try to apply this to settings where there is a lot of data involved.
As an undergraduate, what dilemma did you face while choosing your career path? Why did you end up choosing teaching as your career?
I was actually quite lucky in the sense that I didn’t face any dilemma while choosing my career path.Unlike many, I knew it very early that I wanted to go for teaching. In fact, when I was in my fourth year, all my friends were filling the CAT form and they assumed that I too would be doing the same but I kept on delaying it till the day when I again said that I would be getting it the next day and that was the last day. So, I never appeared for CAT. I took GATE to keep another option open if I wouldn’t be able to get into a US university but I could get into one and the rest followed.
(The answer was unexpected given he is a novelist and a professor so the further clarification follows)
Writing was always my hobby but I felt that being a professor lent you more time and space for pursuing it. You don’t have a boss and that’s the most important thing. You make your mistakes and you suffer the consequences of your own mistakes. You don’t have to suffer the consequences of someone else’s mistakes if you don’t have a boss. That’s the best thing about teaching.
How do you compare the environment at IIT at present and at the time when you were a student?
There are a couple of factors which are responsible for the differences in the environment. The first one being the amount of exposure that students have these days. We, as students, were not as aware of the world. The culture didn’t have much exposure to the rest of the world. As a result, several groundless fundae would circulate within the campus and would gather approval merely by circulating. That still happens today but now students have no excuse because the facts are easily available.
The other thing is that the social pressure, rather the pressure to be social, is much higher today. The only people I would interact with were my classmates, hostel-mates and people involved in the same activity (quizzing) as me. But today, you have WhatsApp groups of even your nursery school friends and so you are constantly in touch with people. I was invigilating the major examination the other day and someone’s phone started buzzing with "Vikram uncle" written on it. As a student, I never had to worry about some uncle calling me during my data structures examination. This is a kind of pressure and it makes your life harder because you always have a social life to keep up-to-date with. Just the thought of it tires me. We, as students, would exchange the day’s gossip in the hostel canteen which is usually vacant these days because you prefer hanging out online.
On the other hand, the present state can be called better because nowadays students do a lot of cool things like start-ups, projects, robotics etc. owing to the prosperity in the society coupled with awareness. I was surprised when I saw floodlights in stadiums in the States but now two out of the three big fields in IIT have floodlights.
Any specific memory from IITD that you would like to share.
There is one specific thing which you don’t experience now: load shedding leading to complete blackout. I was in Kumaon and when the electricity would be out, everyone would go towards the balcony facing Jwala and hurl abuses at the residents – and they would do the same to us. Once it so happened that a guy put a cracker in a mess water glass and launched it towards Jwala!
There was a guy whom we would call Brahma because during his raging days he once said, “Tujhpe Brahma ka shraap lagega”. In 1994, there was an outbreak of plague and people wanted the hostels to be shut but the institute denied. So, Brahma took some CloseUp, foamed it up, lied down on one of the courtyards of Kumaon and started pretending as if he was suffering from plague. That was just to introduce Brahma. Now, Kumaon had a great rivalry with Karakoram and Karakoram had once won a trophy. They were going from hostel to hostel having hired a "dhol wala” and people from the other hostels were throwing water and garbage at them. This was a usual tradition in those days. So, the Kara guys came to Kumaon and a fist fight started. All the present CEOs of big companies were fist-fighting with the Kara guys! Brahma was really upset. He dipped a rag in kerosene, lit it up and chucked it into the middle of the crowd from the third floor. This ended the problem altogether and so we named it the “Brahmastra".
Having done your PhD and masters abroad, what is your take on the Indian education system?
The problem with the Indian education system is that the feeder structures are not robust. The training at the lower levels is not healthy. There are some really good institutions but their number is not enough. We have a few elite institutions comparable to the west but to sustain the institutions at the top of the pyramid, the bottom of the pyramid to be strong which is unfortunately not the case. Any quick fix that is applied without strengthening the base will not take the nation beyond a certain mark.
What motivated you to write your first novel “Above Average” (which is set in IITD)?
How do you manage writing alongside teaching?
I was a writer by temperament. When I was in the States, I wrote something set in Mayur Vihar about a guitarist and that sounded right. As I started building on that, I realised that the story that I was interested in telling was of people aspiring to be something more than they thought they were. Also, the reason why this theme had struck me was because I had been a part of IIT which is a funnel for social mobility for talented people. IIT provides one with the possibility of social movement, of becoming something more than what your parents were, but with a tremendous cost and that is what I have tried to explore in my novel. It is based on my time in IIT and the people I knew. The main character shares my history and my point of view. In fact, it is a good idea to start with a semi-autobiography because the autobiographical character helps one clear one’s own perception of life.
I was managing things alright till I had a child. Right now, I am struggling between writing, research, teaching and family life. I have been writing my fourth novel since the last three and a half years.
Since you are both an author and a professor, what is your take on more students taking up non-technical career options?
The problem is that there are just a few good institutions in our country and so every child is encouraged to go to IIT irrespective of his/her inclination. The lack of fine institutions across various fields coerces people to refrain from following their interest right after school. When they come to a place like IIT, they go out and do something else. Some say this is waste of an IIT seat. Well, this has changed my take on teaching. I know my students can go wherever they want and hence, I try to instill in them a logical way of thinking which might help them in their respective fields. This is a natural process. Our culture has to change, parents need to stop pushing their children and this will take a generation.
Sometimes people ask me - “How come an IITian turned into a novelist?”. Why don’t they ask me how did a novelist turn into an IITian?
You once mentioned that you hate it when people wear T-shirts with “I am what you dream to be” written on them. Could you elaborate on that?
Humility is the most basic quality for people of capability and talent. I would never wear one of those T-shirts. Someone who needs to wear such a T-shirt to feel like something, certainly has problems which he/she needs to think about.
What are your retirement plans?
(Laughs) I don’t have such plans. When you think of retirement, you think of your medical bills. Hopefully, the pension will take care of that. Those people retire who are doing something that they don’t like to do. As long as I am capable, I will keep doing research and writing. Teaching is more rigorous so I am not sure of that.
A couple of fun rapid fire questions:
What is more difficult: penning down a chapter of a novel or getting students to understand AVL trees?
(After laughing for a few moments) AVL tree is easy. (After laughing for another few moments) Let me just say pass.
If you ever have to choose between writing and teaching, what will you choose?
Oh, don’t make me do that. (A pause) I think I would choose writing.
When I am in a teaching situation, I do enjoy it, I’m present in it and I want to do the best possible job but I like being on my own. The quiet, calm is my preferred thing. So, being in a situation where 300 people are looking at me stresses me out a little bit. I don’t mind it but I would rather be on my own with my laptop.
What is that one thing which you hate the most about the students of IIT?
I think the one thing that I hate about them is their selfishness, their lack of consideration for each other and their environment. That is what gets me.
For the limitations placed from outside, one gets used to them but for the limitations that come from within, which if someone tried they could get over, are the ones that get me. I hope for a world where people, rather than seeing the world being centred around themselves, care about each other, care about how the other person is feeling and how their actions affect others . People request me to re-grade their major for a second time because then they might get a 9 rather than an 8. That person should understand that re-grading a major is done uniformly for everyone whether that person is going to go from an 8 to 9 or stay within E or F. I feel that the problem in our world is that there are too many people breaking the rules not because they don’t understand the rules, but they break the rules for they own selfish benefit and that is something that at least the next generation leaders of our society, our students, shouldn’t do. I can tell you that I’ve seen people like senior professors who are respected, instead of going round about the roundabout, cutting the wrong side U turn and I lose all respect for them immediately. Another time, one of my colleagues was parking in front of the No Parking lane. Our students are watching and they learn from us. If I don’t do right by my environment then I can’t expect the students to do right by their environment .Do right by your environment and that’s very important because you are going to be the leaders of the society in a generation’s time .You need to appreciate that the rules are there to help you care for others and to appreciate their situation. That’s the only reason I don’t like teaching undergraduates at times as after every exam there is a delusion of selfish requests. I don’t have the bandwidth to talk to every student but they come and show me their paper considering themselves more special than all their other friends who have the same problem. So, the end of semester time can be a little bit painful
(On being pointed out that the education system is shaped in such a way that things happen that way)
Absolutely it is and it is very unfortunate. You people have already reached a certain level and now you can stop running that hard.
Stop, take a breath, look at the world and ask yourself - what kind of person do I want to be? That is the question to ask.Who do I want to be? Do I just want to be ticking and scoring or do I want to stop and start caring for other people and doing things that make a difference to other people’s life? That doesn’t mean that you have to go to a village and build an electricity line like Shah Rukh Khan did in his movie. You can make sure that you park in the parking zone, that you take what is your due and no more and that’s it. You don’t have to go around and explicitly show off how much you care for other people.
-Interviewed by Aditi Jha