Monday, March 24, 2008

Let's welcome criticism

When I started this blog, it was with the grand design of exposing hypocrisy and lies. Thus the grandiose name, "The Truth about India". I have not always covered what I think is significant, and I am not averse to cheap pandering either. I have also held back discussions on some topics that are critical, but are bound to get me death threats. All in all, I'm a pretty average guy with a pretty pointless blog.

Yet, the one entry that consistently gets comments are my post on how IIT Bombay sucked so damn hard. A small aside: I would appreciate if people flaming me wrote in English, Hindi, Marathi, Urdu, Spanish, or Japanese. You're only proving my argument if you write in half dead SMS, which makes you come across as a drunk chimpanzee.

Back to the criticism, which falls cleanly into two piles.

  1. Now that I'm abroad, I criticize.
  2. I must be jealous of everyone else at IIT.

The first issue comes up repeatedly. Not just in this post, but my entire blog. It is central to my entire point, so I'm going to sharpen my knives for this. Yes, I am abroad, and yes I do criticize, but those are the plain facts. What is missing is that I criticized and challenged when I was in India, and even before I joined the IIT. This criticism is not a feature of my location. At IIT Bombay, I once gave a piece of my mind to the security guard at Main Gate, with my last statement being, "come by my Hostel sometime: I'll set you right" (of course said in spicy Hindi for maximum effect). There are countless incidents that I could relate that support my nature.

Since people aren't aware of all this, I hope this prompts smarter criticism. Further, I haven't achieved anything spectacular in the years that I've been away from IIT, so success surely isn't getting to my head. If it isn't success, it might just be failure! So this leads to the second criticism, that I'm a failure.

This second point is subtle: it is that I have an MS, a Dual Degree, or an MTech, thus immediately making me inferior to all those that came in through JEE. For the confused: there are a few types of entrance tests at IIT. The JEE is the all-important test that gives you a rank called the All India Rank (or AIR). Apparently, because I'm not full of AIR, I am jealous of the people who did better at the JEE. The implication is that my not getting through the JEE disqualifies me from constructive criticism.

Yes, I did not take the JEE. My route was to take the entrance test that the Mathematics department administered; which has since been made a national test. And I admit I didn't do well in this test either. If only fifteen people had been admitted in the program (instead of twenty), I wouldn't have fit. Sadly, I'm a failure, and jealousy keeps me from appreciating IIT Bombay for the cherub infested heaven that it is.

Even if the JEE was the definite test of a pure-bred IIT Aryan, this argument is very weak. There is nothing special about the JEE. Students who get in through the JEE were housed alongside us failures. We ate the same food, and suffered under the same professors. I did not take identical classes as a four year track B-Tech student, but I did have some classes in common. If anything, it gives me great relief that I was not in the asylum for four years. Two was plenty for me.

Even if I was jealous --- does this invalidate my concern? Are all the B Tech students thrilled to bits? Do you all think that the teaching at IIT Bombay was super? Did you enjoy your living quarters very much, with two students to a monk's cell, the water seeping through the walls, and the mud outside? How much fun were the summers, with the mosquitoes, and how did you find the bathrooms? If you truly enjoyed them, will you want to live in a similar arrangement all your life?

Why is criticism so hard to take? Why can't we just admit that IIT Bombay has a bit of a cow problem, that poop gets in the way of a walk, and that the official campus bird is the mosquito? Why can't we admit that the administrative staff in the main building are apathetic and unhelpful? And when a professor is a poor teacher, why can't we admit it? Why maintain this façade, this front of perfection?

Instead, it is easier to say the Indian Economy isn't doing so well, that it is fine by Indian standards, that in some way it is sufficient. That Indians are fine with this particular institute, because it is the best in the country. Why are you comparing it with other universities, why are you making our jobs tougher? Look at how much better we are than Nigeria and Ghana. Somehow the IIT itself is above criticism. The blame might lie with me, because I'm the guy who was herding all the cows perhaps. Or maybe the mud was all my doing. The broken toilets were my fault too, perhaps. Things should have immediately improved after I left.

Excuses, excuses, without admitting anything is wrong, without seeking to fix the broken parts. Let's congratulate the Emperor on his fine clothes.

Rohinton Aga, the founder of Thermax, wrote in his book "Changing the Mindset" that Indians have a crab mentality. When there are eight crabs in a hole, and one of them tries to escape, the other seven pull it back down. (For the record, Rohinton was an Indian businessman, who achieved more than I can ever dream of.) I was a young child when I read his book, and I have always agreed with this evaluation. Rather than looking outside our tiny hole, and seeing the wonderful possibility, we rather look at each other, and continue congratulating ourselves on our collective condition.

This is not how things change. This is not how we make our education system accountable. This is not how we aspire for a better education for the next generation. This is not how we can advance research in India.

Flinging dung at me is not the best way of getting clean. -- with apologies to Aldus Huxley