Who was your LG?

The first person that I met in Rourkela after a thirty-four hour journey from Madras, through godforsaken towns and villages that don't find a mention even in railway timetables, was the person that would eventually sign up to be my "local guardian" (LG).

My LG, Dr V Prasad (name changed for his own safety), was a decent gentleman and a professor at a local college.

He, and his wife, were brilliantly hospitable people. They fed me well and took good care of me. Dr Prasad even drove me to the college, in his Bajaj Chetak, and helped me through the college enrollment.

Dr Prasad was related to our landlord in Madras.

"Behave decently with him, or the house owner will have your mother evicted from the house" Ramana mama, my maternal uncle, had warned me, before I left town.

The concept of LG (which had initially sounded like a brand of asafoetida) was intriguing.

Per college rules, every student had to have a person with a local address that would take responsibility for the student's conduct during their time at college. The college could summon the LG to complain about the students' misdemeanors, incomplete assignments, unpaid mess fees, unsolved police cases, and so on. The LG could be a relative, an acquaintance, "a temple priest, or a thug - so long as they had a local address, where nasty letters could be sent", my senior, RK Ramesh told me, during our first meeting.

It sounded like an ominous responsibility to take. I doubted if Ramana mama. himself. would have signed up for it, let alone someone seven seas and fourteen mountains away.

Most of us ended up piling on to a friend's LG or cooked up an imaginary name and address at a faraway sector in Rourkela so as to keep the communications from the college away from our parents. For the lucky few that did have an LG in flesh and blood, it often meant great food, a hideout to escape ragging (and pungas in later years), a potential marriage alliance, and what not.

But one had to strike the right balance and not kill the goose that laid the golden eggs, in a manner of speaking.

My friends, Ganesh and Naresh, did just that, within a few months into first year. Ridden with gastronomic temptation and famished by weeks of bland mess food, they ravenously gobbled up eighteen idlis and nine vadas each, accompanied by four katoras of sambhar and a large bowl of "getti" coconut chutney, and washed it off with one-and-half tumblers of filter coffee, at their LG's place.

The belching of the two satisfied stomachs was heard kilometers away, and was mistaken for sounds from the blast furnace at Rourkela Steel Plant.

The LG's household was so traumatized by the raid on their kitchen that they immediately packed up their belongings and transferred to another town, leaving no trail of their whereabouts.

I have heard of other stories where REC students overinterpreted the hospitality of the LG and sought to solemnize the guardianship with a marriage proposal to their daughter. They had killed the golden goose again. After all, the seamless conversion of "dosti" to "rishtedaari" worked only in Sooraj Barjatya's movies.

As for my LG, Dr Prasad, in order not to render my mom homeless, I maintained a safe distance from him and his two marriageable daughters. After my first meeting, I perhaps, met with him on a couple of occasions.  The sacrifices one had to make, in those days, to keep family safe!

Did you have an LG? What were they like? Did they help you traverse the tough world of REC? Feed you with good food? Or did you cause them to quit their job and leave town overnight?!

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How was your first trip to college?

It was the longest telegram that I have ever seen.

The news that it carried, however, was underwhelming. BITS, Pilani offered me a degree in science - not engineering - and gave me till end of July to register, failing which, the seat would be forfeited; the telegram warned me.

I threw the telegram to the ground for dramatic effect.

"Ishwara! Why are you torturing our family?" my mom exclaimed, looking skywards. We were a pretty filmy family.

I was not sure if Ishwara had anything to do with the contents of the telegram. The professors that had gone on a strike for higher wages, refusing to evaluate the IIT entrance papers, perhaps did. The ripple effect of their actions was felt on admissions to every college in India that year.

"So, is there a chance that there will be a second list?" my mom asked, with hope. I shook my head.

"Why don't you just go in person and see if you can sort this out?" Ramana mama, my maternal uncle, suggested. "There is nothing you cannot sort out in person. Plus, the registrar seems to be a Tamilian. Maybe he will help" he added, glancing at the name of a Mr Gopalan on the telegram.

Not a bad idea, I had thought. Maybe I could go in person and explain, to Mr Gopalan, my passion for engineering, show him the "engineering line" on my palm, chant a verse of Thiruppugazh, and get the mechanical engineering seat that I, so desperately wanted.

As I was leaving, Chechu mama, my mom's cousin,  came by to our home.

"Yennada, where are you going?" he asked. Chechu mama was the quintessential comedian of the extended family. He was, for sure, searching for fodder for his joke of the day.

Chechu mama's once sharp wit had now blunted with age, and due to repetition. But the family didn't care; they wanted him to be funny.

"Pilani" I said. He puckered up his face, his forehead folded up in creases, intersecting with the lines of the vibhuti pattai that he had smeared on his forehead, as he rummaged through his brain for the repartee. He found it.

"Everybody is going to Pazhani" he remarked, referring to the temple town in Tamil Nadu, "you are going to Pilani aa? Be careful, lest they tonsure your head, like they do in Pazhani. Anyway, see if you get panchamritham, when you come back" he guffawed.

My mom was enraged, "this useless Chechu mama...him and his Iyer dry wit" she scolded him, after he left.

I went on a forty hour trip to New Delhi, crossing the Vindhyas for the first time in my life. It was quite an enjoyable train journey from what I remember. I even managed to strike up a conversation or two in English and broken Hindi. See, these chapati-eaters are not all that bad as you said, Ramana mama, I thought to myself.

The fervent anticipation of the meeting with the registrar of admissions was, of course, nagging me in the back of my mind. I rehearsed my two-minute pitch to him, several times, adroitly mixing the engineering passion with the right Tamil intonation.

I took a further four-hour bus trip through Haryana and Rajasthan to alight at a small village bus stop, and was spellbound by the spectacular campus that Birla had stood up in the middle of nowhere.

The purpose of my visit, itself, proved anti-climactic. Mr Gopalan met me for a minute, cut my pitch off midway, and said curtly "this is all you are going to get. Either register now for the M.Sc. or go back home."

"Must be a Malayali" my uncle surmised, when I would relate my experience with Mr Gopalan to him.

I wandered around the campus, aimlessly, for the entire day, thinking thoughts, fantasizing about hostels and classrooms, eating sparsely, and even visiting the campus temple.

Then, I caught a bus to Delhi, right on time to make the trip back to Madras, and then to Trichy to attend my REC counseling. The rest, as they (mostly my mom and my sister) say, is engineering history.

So, how was your first trip to whichever college you went to? Was it your final destination or did you take a couple of hops before you landed where you did?

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"Why do people go to engineering colleges?" - PART DEUX...Why do we have so many of them?

I read somewhere that India had over three thousand engineering colleges - three times that of the United States. There are over 1.5 million men and women graduating, every year, from these institutes! These are astounding statistics.

But what do these engineering graduates come out and do?

Here is a somewhat sobering fact based on a recent admission by the Indian HRD ministry. It said that only 7-8% of the Indian engineers graduating every year are employable.

Assuming that the number is legit, it doesn't entirely surprise me. If you have a system that churns out engineers predominantly on mechanical, electrical, and civil disciplines and then you push them into coding and testing on Java, of course, they will be unemployable. (Wait a minute! Did I just sound like RaGa there, talking about the "system" and all?).

So, Mr. HRD Minister or whoever it is that cited the statistic; rather than release press statements, how about you generate jobs to make the other 92% employable? What? Oh, that is not your department? OK.

Anyways, why do we have so many engineering colleges in India?

The first REC's were instituted in the 1950's, through the Indian government's Soviet-style five-year plan, close on the heels of the IIT's. It was to realize Nehru's grand vision of an Industrial India, manned (yeah, and womaned) by home-grown engineers. The REC's were expected to fill an anticipated shortfall of about two thousand engineers.

What has changed so much since then, that has made that supply shoot up seven-hundred fold in 55 years, when our population has increased only three-fold, during the same period (not that I am complaining about the latter fact!)? How did we become this "engineering nation"?

Even when we had graduated from college back in the 90's, India was still producing less than two hundred thousand engineers. I am inclined to believe that it must be something about people like me graduating that made a million more, take this up as a career option!

"I don't know about you but I create such revolutions!" my friend, Seshu, had once joked, in another context.

A more legitimate reason, for the sudden spurt in numbers, had to be the liberalization policy of the 90's, architected by the "silent jodi", PV Narasimha Rao and Dr Manmohan Singh.

This led to India breaking out of the "Hindu rate of growth", into something that was more..."Christian"! Lays came in sixteen flavors, pizzas were introduced with embedded paneer, there were suddenly six hundred TV channels with saas-bahu mega serials,...and other national necessities were fulfilled just like that. OK, I am being unbelievably truculent here. I know it has brought in more useful things - like, Foster's beer and Fashion TV.

Oh, it also led to the advent of that much-despised species - the call center specialists and software engineers; or as Indians (the jealous ones) call them, the tech coolies.

Engineering became a misnomer and a minimum barrier for entry for college education, especially to those that sought a serious job after graduation, leading to the exponential growth of engineering colleges.

Whether it was to pour hot metal into a ladle, sell a cake of soap, make a bhel puri, or reverentially turn on an IBM mainframe computer, engineering became the passageway to future prosperity. (Now, there are exceptions. If you aspired to inherit your dad's business and run it to the ground, be a hamming actor, head the Khap panchayat, or pursue seditious activities, you could always go to JNU!).

Twenty years after India opened up it's markets to the world, our engineering college factories are making engineers like Russia makes Kalashnikovs.
So, that explains the supply of 1.5 million - led by chips, call centers, and corrupt politicians (my boss used to say, "there has to be a 'three C's' for everything").

Coming back to the question, do we need these many engineers? Why should students learn "Fluid Mechanics" and "Applied Geology" to eventually code in Java or test programs written by our grandfathers in COBOL? Should we orient their education more towards what they are going to be doing in the future, thereby making them more "employable"?

Someone told me that would be missing the point. The whole idea of engineering education was to teach us logic, problem solving, working as a team, and good things like that, the person said. This would have been such a brilliant explanation, if only it had been true. I don't remember a single course in college, where we were taught to do things like that (If they had, "Three Idiots" wouldn't have been such a big hit, you know),

So, that is the question our policy-makers and people at HRD need to solve for the nation. Not issue press statements.

Let me end this essay with another passionate subject among faculty, parents, and grandmothers; which is the ratings of colleges.

My grandma, for a sub-matriculate, had possessed sagacious knowledge of Indian and US universities, armed with which, she provided critical input for a million matches, till her last breath.

"That fellow has a 'saada' engineering degree. Look at him walk away with that beautiful girl...and here you are plucking flowers!" she said, exhorting her daughters to be more competitive in the marriage market.

The other sources for engineering college ratings, much like my grandma, have always been questionable. My college was consistently rated as "Top 10 in the country", by our Principal, to thunderous applause by soon-to-be unemployed engineers.

Recently, someone sent a congratulatory note, saying we have been rated as the twelfth in the nation, by UGC. I told my juniors, "hang your heads in shame...we were already 'top 10' twenty five years ago". Kids these days...

So do you think we have too many engineering colleges in India? What is the alternative? Are fresh engineers of today ready to face the real world?

(I will feed all your answers back to the HRD ministry and get you coupons for engineering colleges...I promise).

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Why do people go to engineering colleges?

"Why do you want engineering?" a professor acquaintance of my high school friend, "Jim" Rajesh, asked him. Dr Devireddy  (name changed...because, well, I don't remember it!), a veteran professor of mechanical engineering, hailed from the maiden batch of engineers of the first Regional Engineering College (REC) ever established in independent India, at Warangal.

What did it feel like, at that time, being from the first batch of home-grown engineers, sir? I had wanted to ask the professor. But Jim broke my stream of consciousness.

"My mind is calibrated for engineering" he proclaimed sonorously, at the ripe old age of seventeen. His father nodded at him in approbation.

Jim didn't get his name cheaply. He had earned it. During seventh standard, he had passionately espoused the cause of saving tigers and various other animals, in the process, copiously quoting Jim Corbett and earning his sobriquet, after the author of "Man-Eaters of Kumaon".

Jim believed what he said, whether it was about tigers or about engineering.

When he made that statement, in the pristine campus of BITS Pilani on a hot monsoon day, after somewhat cavalierly rejecting an M.Sc. course, to eventually take electrical engineering, in REC Kurukshetra, he earned an additional admirer. Me.

I had always dreamed of being an engineer. I had no idea why.

My neighbor's engineer husband, from REC Trichy, bestowed with multifarious talents other than keeping a steady job, while practicing amateur palmistry on a bunch of bored children, had once, decisively stated that I had the "engineering line", on my right palm, instantly lighting up my dreams. I would look for its whereabouts, often, in the coming years, especially during trying times in third year in college. That line, if it had ever existed, had completely faded away by then.

My brother-in-law, an REC alumnus as well, made engineering a fait accompli for me. He warned, nay cursed, me a lifetime of miserable typistry (what? that's not a word?) and stenography, and would onomatopoeically mimic me typing away, "tak-tak-taga-tak-taga-tak-tak, sitting in the Accountant General's office", if I didn't pursue the engineering ambition with singular focus.

So, I pretty much stumbled upon engineering, in order to avoid becoming a typist.

So, what is your story? Why did you pursue engineering? Was it to uphold a familial tradition? Or were you "calibrated" for it, like Jim? Was it a call of duty from a higher voice, to invent a water pump in your native village like Shah Rukh Khan in Swades?  Or was it just for "time pass for four years", as my friend Ajit used to say?

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Sorry. I am looking for an alternative. 

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