[2007-12-22] IIT Kanpur

I had a chance recently to visit my alma mater IIT Kanpur. It has been over 11 years since I graduated from that place. This is the first time in all these years that I got to visit the place, though I had been yearning to do so all the while. It turned out to be a mixed experience - I found IIT Kanpur to be familiar and estranging at the same time.

One of the speakers at our convocation, an alumnus of the institute, remarked that we would be longing to come back even though we hated the place then. I remember being incredulous at the time, since I spent all my four years there hating the place and looking forward to getting out of it. After all, the academics was stressful, the food in the hostels was bad, the bathrooms in the hostels were pathetic, there were some pretty weird people I would constantly run into, the climate was extreme and the city of Kanpur was utterly disappointing. And yet, just as the speaker had predicted, I wanted to go back to the place almost as soon as I started working on a job.

I cannot point to a single reason for the longing - the memories of the time spent forming some of the best friendships of my life, the memories of the many (mis)adventures we had together, the memories of some of the best fun I have had yet in my life, the memories of working with (and competing against) some of the most talented people I have ever seen in my life, the realisation that the place was responsible for shaping much of my character and my tastes, etc. - all of these played a role in making me want to go back and see the place again.

The city of Kanpur still looks and feels the same - it is still dirty, crowded and polluted. The people still chew lots of paan masala and spit everywhere with abandon. The traffic is still chaotic and makes you fear for your life. The tanneries that used to pollute the river Ganga are still present with all their effluents. About the only changes I noticed were the CNG-based three-wheelers called "vikram" and a new mall-with-a-multiplex called "Rave3" that seems to be the place where the kids like to hang out.

The first thing I noticed about the IIT campus was how good the roads looked. I don't remember them being bad during my time there, but I don't remember them being this good either. On the sides of these roads are lovely manicured plant beds and neat pavements. Combined with the distinct architecture and look of the buildings in the campus, these make the campus look quite beautiful.

The second thing I noticed about the campus was how it seemed to be a congested place. New buildings have come up in almost all the empty areas of the campus I knew - even the old football field has now been sacrificed to build a new girls' hostel. Several new buildings have come up in the academic area, the spaces behind Hall 3 and next to the swimming pool have been used to construct new hostels for students and there is a separate building for the Students Placement Office (SPO) and alumni relations.

The third thing I noticed about the campus was the pervasive presence of private security guards. These are not the old, bored-looking and benign security guards clad in khaki that I remember from my time. These are young, alert and clad in dark-green. They look at you suspiciously as you approach a building guarded by them. You in turn lose confidence as you do not have that all-important "alumni card" that opens doors for you and you give up on the idea of exploring a building from the inside rather than confront these guards.

I talked to some of the current students as well as some recent graduates. The hostels and the food have improved a lot. Even the bathrooms are tiled and much cleaner. The students have many, many more distractions these days - almost all of them have mobile phones, almost all of them have computers in their rooms, many of them ride a motorcycle, many of them listen to Radio Mirchi, many of them hang out at Rave3 and some of them even have girlfriends! They however seem far more reclusive and far less social. The new rules barring them from forming "wings" in hostels and the computers in their rooms seem to be the main reasons for this change.

The institute is now connected by a high-speed Local Area Network (LAN) and every room in a hostel has an access point for the network. The institute also has a much better connection to the Internet now. Now that desktop and laptop computers are available at extremely attractive prices, almost all students have computers in their rooms. This means that they don't have to wait for computer-time at the Computer Centre the way we had to. Unfortunately, this also means that they fall prey to the distractions of LAN-gaming, pornography, downloadable films, social networking, etc. The result is that many students barely come out of their rooms to socialise with their peers.

Ragging, even in its benign form of our times, is now banned outright. This means that freshmen do not get introduced to most of their seniors and there seems to be fewer inter-batch interactions now. The inter-hostel cultural competition "Galaxy" has also been scrapped now, after it led to a particularly nasty fight among a couple of hostels some years back. The Hall 2 and Hall 3 tradition of trading curses across the tennis courts during the end-semester examinations is still alive though. There is now even a new tradition of taking out an elaborate baraat to one of the girls' hostels.

The Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) department has a swanky new building of its own thanks to a generous donation by an alumnus. It is no longer at the mercy of the Electrical Engineering department for its connection to the Internet. It has grown its faculty considerably and now offers many more courses. It also offers a five-year dual-degree programme now where the students get a B.Tech. and an M.Tech. degree after completion. Many of the old faces in the faculty are still there. I did notice that the current crop of students has a very different opinion of some of the professors when compared to that of our class.

One of the unfortunate changes that I noticed was that the Principles of Programming Languages (PoPL) course is an elective now and is not mandatory. This was the course that taught us functional programming along with the lambda calculus, logic programming and object-oriented programming. I consider this unfortunate since the students are now very unlikely to be exposed to alternate methods of programming. Even if you never end up using such alternate methods in your professional life, the exposure to them broadens your outlook and makes you a better programmer on the whole. A Subramanya Sastry or an Ashok Kumar Gupta would have very likely missed the joys of programming in SML and Prolog respectively were it not for the PoPL course.

In my time, almost all the undergraduate CSE students would opt to study abroad (mostly in the US) and very few students would take up the jobs offered to them in campus. That trend seems to have been reversed now, particularly due to the fantastic salaries on offer. The students also have much better internship opportunities now, especially in universities abroad. Campus recruitments are now restricted to the period between the semesters in the final year instead of being spread out throughout the year as in my time. The current darlings seem to be investment banks and other companies involved in financial trading since they offer astronomical starting salaries when compared to the other companies. The SPO allows companies to come during the campus placements in the decreasing order of the salaries offered by them and each student is allowed to accept only a single job offer. I think that this process sacrifices efficiency for equitability. It also sends the wrong message to the students that the starting salary is the all important factor in picking up your first employer.

Unfortunately for me, I could not take proper photographs this time. Being the time of the year when the days are short and foggy, the lighting was not good for taking photographs. To make matters worse, I did not have much time either. I will try to make up for this lapse on my next trip, whenever that might turn out to be.

(Originally posted on Blogspot.)

Other Posts from 2007