Down memory lane

Down memory lane

Madhouse: True Stories of the  Inmates of  Hostel4, IIT-B Edited by Urmilla Despande and Bakul Desai  Westland 2010, pp 335 295

Getting into an IIT is no mean task, and various post-mortems have been conducted on the ‘system’. But the goggle-eyed groove of ex-boarders who lived in that hostel during their IIT days decide to ‘do’ a book on the kind of hostel life they shared. It was a life lived in hilarity, often on a diet of practical pranks and bravado and in a spirit of chummy togetherness.

The primary purpose of the book, aptly titled Madhouse: True Stories of the Inmates of Hostel 4, IIT-B edited by Urmilla Deshpande and Bakul Desai must surely not be just to indulge in nostalgia. The pieces by various inmates of the hostel during the 1970s and the 1980s cobbled together in the book, therefore, evoke not only some rambunctious laughter worth sharing, a la the chartbusting Indian English novel Five Point Someone — What not to do at IIT! by Chetan Bhagat, followed by the spectacular box-office success of the film 3 Idiots,  but also lend an insight into the making of ‘world-class’ students who are now ‘captains of industry, science and technology’, ‘prominent in the political and social arenas’ but who, as students, were “some rowdy and rude young men.”

There was no internet, no mobile, and yet, it was a hostel life that in the true IIT fashion, was never short on highly inventive, even risqué mischief, and warmth of lasting friendship.

Reading the book you could say that it is the story of any boy living in a hostel — and one need not essentially be an IITian — to steal cigarettes and pornographic literature (‘pondies’ for them), raise a false alarm, or invent new ways to impress one from the fairer sex, or seek new ways to improve an insipid hostel meal or con the public coin phone system in the hostel.

But imagine a student swimming across a crocodile-infested lake, or trying to cross it in a self-built raft, or bringing an elephant to the campus for the H4’s EP (entertainment programme) renting it out from underworld don Varadaraja Mudaliar who lived in Antop Hill, or going to attend a lecture on horseback, or take this — driving local trains during the All India General strike in 1974 (front-paged in the Sunday edition of the Times of India, Bombay dated May 12, 1974) and you get an idea of some “world-class” (with due apology to Jairam Ramesh) pranks played by the IIT-Bombay H4 inmates.

Nandan M Nilekani, a former co-chairman of Infosys Technologies, author of Imagining India, had to say during a convocation ceremony at IIT, Bombay (and on other occasions as well) that IIT played a seminal role in shaping his attitude and his value system. While organising ‘Mood Indigo’ and other such events at the IIT, he recalled, he came to recognise his skills for organisational authority.

My personal grouse is that the hostel inmates and illustrious IITians who register their memories have nothing to say against ragging. This is the nightmarish process of acclimatising a newcomer into a herd mentality which claimed quite a few promising lives and maimed more, with all its brutish frills and inventiveness, all in the name of ushering him into a ‘community’ situation. “The way I see it,” says Bakul Desai, who graduated from IIT Bombay in 1982 (having spent five ‘best’ years of his life in IIT Bombay), and who happens to be the contributing editor of the book, “ragging was actually an aid to acclimation and assimilation”, firm in the belief that “ragging changed many lives forever for better or worse, mainly better.”

Recently, Sandipan Deb, author of The IITians, and an IIT alumnus, rued in a column that though there is cutting-edge research going on in several Iives, these projects are the exceptions to the rule. In the book no inmate provides us an insight into any research — useful at least for the chemical industry of Bombay, if not for mankind — they might have been swotting over in the hostel. But, despite the shortcomings (some pieces are very shoddily written), the book, with all its mirth-filled levity, is sure to be popular to fellow IITians.

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