Mid-way through my B.Stat (1973-77) years someone asked me to describe what life on the ISI campus was like. I replied that it was like living in a monastery.
Looking back, thirty five years later, I think I got that pretty right1. Those days – and perhaps even now – ISI recognized only one faith: embrace the faith enshrined in proving theorems and lemmas and you were venerated, but if you were a bit of an outlier, you were shunned … or even ridiculed.
It was this “zero-one” reaction that always bothered me. But when you choose to reside within a monastery, you have to adapt; you have to let the faith overpower you. And there were indeed moments2 when it appeared that I was getting converted …
Fortunately, I stopped short of becoming a total convert; I learned to occasionally cheat on the sly. Such unworthy deeds diminished my grades; but they also offered glimpses of a new world that was truly alluring.
In this magical world, Eden Gardens was erupting with joy as Chandra’s mesmerizing spinners vanquished Clive Lloyd’s West Indians, Satyajit Ray’s Jana Aranya was triggering passionate debates in coffee houses and in the columns of The Statesman, and 38 trams were nonchalantly being set on fire on a single day when the minimum fare was hiked from 13 paise to 18 paise.
Nearer home on B T Road we were discovering the joy of seeing Sholay at Anandam after another exasperating periodical exam; and of drinking lassi at the sardarji’s Dunlop Bridge dhaba after stormy overnight encounters with iid random variables.
Best of all, we discovered ourselves. Staying together in a hostel, preparing for the same periodical examination, playing sport together, falling in love with the same girl, rooting for the same cricketer or film actor …all this helped us understand what real bonding was all about. That’s why within our monastery there was cooperation – and compassion. If some mathematical proof defeated me, I just had to knock on the next door to obtain the most illuminating tutorial. If I was going to miss my dinner after the Anandam night show, someone next door would most thoughtfully collect my thali for me to eat later.
Our ISI years also taught us humility. We learned to respect and admire greatness and exceptional ability. Of course, living in the ISI monastery, the only achievement worthy of admiration was getting the A (Hons) grade3 in the mathematics and statistics papers. The ultimate encomium was reserved for someone who (a) completed his three-hour measure theory examination in one hour, (b) got at least 100 marks out of 100 – at ISI you could get 125 marks out of 100! – and (c) wrote the least number of pages in his answer script to obtain the most marks. At ISI we worshipped marks the way today’s capitalist worships green dollar bills.
Capitalism was of course a very ugly word in the Calcutta of the 1970’s, but I remember we still talked a lot about political ideology. Memories are fading with age, but some images still linger: we are sitting in a thatched hostel room filled with cigarette smoke on a cool December night, we are sipping tea wrapped in a black or red shawl … and we are talking of the “leadership of the proletariat”, and the perils of bourgeoisie. Conversations often become very animated and intense, and abuses fly from every direction. If you are guilty of only a minor misdemeanour, you are ridiculed for being “illogical”. But if you cross the Rubicon, and merit the ultimate invective, you are called a “reactionary”.
One consequence of living within the precincts of a monastery is that you are almost completely isolated from the rest of the world. On the very rare occasion when ISI had to interact with the outside world – for example, with another national institute like the IIM – we always came off second best. I vividly remember representing ISI at an inter-institute quiz at IIM with a friend. We could answer exactly two questions: the first about the music director of a Hindi film song and the second about why painters used a maulstick. We sheepishly left the auditorium feeling extremely low and frustrated; on the way back to 206 B T Road, in an L9 trailer bus, we consoled ourselves by saying that nobody else would have known how to prove Kolmogorov’s zero-one law or, for that matter, even get the spelling of Carathéodory right.
We did indeed get many things right at ISI. For instance, we acquired wonderful analytical and – what would now be called – programming skills. While ISI students lack the gift of the gab, their training allows them to very easily look at big problems and, patiently and inexorably, drill down to the basic elements. ISI students, to this day, analyze problems with panache and sophistication. Where lesser mortals are daunted by intricacy, ISI students relish refinement and complexity – and have often been known to dismiss trivial problems with that scornful epithet: paati. At ISI, one aspires to be a Sherlock Holmes, but only has sneering contempt for a Dr Watson.
In fact ISI could even be downright cruel to a poor dear Dr Watson lacking the intelligence or acumen to cope up with the rigours of the monastery. I know of several B.Stat. students who were expelled after spending 2, 3 or 4 years on the ISI campus. Many of these students now spend their life in penury; others became victims of mental illnesses and have withered, disappeared or died.
This seems terribly unfair; yet I would associate ISI with a strong sense of fair play. Our teachers were always fair in their evaluations or feedback. I got my share of B grades at ISI and while I have sometimes fantasized about causing bodily harm to professors who gave me poor grades, I have to admit that they were scrupulously fair and worthy. If I failed to scale the highest peaks in the monastery, it was because I wasn’t good enough, or didn’t try hard enough … but the monastery was never less than honourable.
If I had to quibble at all I would say that most of the teaching – and exams – was very strait-laced, and rather predictable. We weren’t particularly encouraged to read books, undertake experiments, write computer programs, make presentations or even debate aloud. Far too many classes started with the teacher writing: “Let X1, X2 … Xn be iid rv’s …” on the blackboard and continuing in that vein without even looking back to meet the class’s eye. Many exams also favoured the student who had memorized every theorem, every lemma and every proof that appeared in his notes; we had a name for such question papers: “magga paper” – and secretly liked them because they made exam preparation easier, and the final marks more predictable. This also led to amusing situations. Here’s an example:
A: “Question 3 was completely from the notes!”
B: “Oh, really? No … no, it can’t be from the notes!”
A: “It was, except that the s in the original notes was replaced by s”.
Such mishaps unsurprisingly led to much merry laughter, with B feeling completely miserable. The hostel etiquette of course required that you rub it in further; for example, by asking B to host a treat at the K C Ghosh mishti shop to celebrate the “s vs s” confusion. It was this sort of cheerful banter within the thatched walls of the Boys’ Hostel that allowed us to retain our mental equanimity – because it was otherwise a tough life as we kept fighting off examinations, power cuts, mosquitoes and traffic jams. I think we survived because we really cared for one another. We were still innocent; the rat race still hadn’t corrupted us.
That’s why I am surprised that today’s management schools make such a big hue and cry about the virtues of team work. At ISI, team work came to us almost naturally … without even trying. We had study teams, football and cricket teams, computer programming teams, mess management teams and even teams to buy railway tickets before leaving for vacations or training at Delhi’s CSO. Teams functioned efficiently, and I can’t remember any sort of rancour or unhappiness within groups. More than anything else, I think it was ISI’s absolute marking scheme in exams that promoted team spirit. Across at IIT Kanpur, for example, they had relative marking: so A wouldn’t share his proof with B, and B was secretly hiding an important book from his rival C. In fact such was the spirit of camaraderie at ISI that we even shared that banned copy of Playboy which somehow found its way past the Alambazar post office.
ISI offered other charms too: the pleasure of assembling for the midnight coffee in the mess before the Monday morning exam. What happened during those brief and intense sessions, holding a mug of steaming coffee, would today be called brainstorming. So many derivations, proof ideas and algorithms were discussed, so many matrices were inverted, so many predictions were made on the likely exam questions … there was such tension and intensity! Occasionally this tension would find more creative outlets: an impromptu theatre group would emerge and soon a 5-minute play would be staged: in this play, there would be an evil statistics professor, there would be group songs, usually adapted from Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, and there would be a desperate, but futile, search for Sholay’s Basanti: “tumhara naam kya hai, Basanti … aur tum kahaan ho?”
The periodical exam was, without a doubt, the watershed of our ISI years. As B.Stat. students, our life was just a bittersweet journey from one Monday exam to the next. Thirty years later, the most enduring, and unnerving, dream in our lives still involves waking up in a pool of sweat worrying about the next day’s exam. The one big advantage of having survived this weekly ordeal is that no challenge fazes us today: when faced with a major career challenge we always re-assure ourselves by saying that this task can’t be more difficult than preparing for a complex analysis exam. On the downside, it has made many of us procrastinate: we tend to put off work till the very last moment – just as we used to put off the painful task of preparing for the next exam till it could be put off no more.
And even as the memories of those magical ISI years fade, some sounds and some smells will linger forever: the smell of the water of the 206 pond as you jumped in for a swim, and that unceasing clatter of a Facit machine4 as you struggled to calculate the first four raw and central moments of some depressing data and swore at the teacher for throwing in the Shepherd’s correction too in the problem statement!
Would I return to the ISI monastery if I were to miraculously turn 35 years younger? I think not, unless the monastery is willing to shed its smock. I have gained a lot by giving my most youthful years to ISI – most of all, the most wonderful set of friends – but I might have lost a little more. Life inside this monastery is far too rigid and demanding. It is time for the monastery to throw open its doors to let in the fresh air.
1Of course, I got many things wrong too: for instance, when I first saw the Boys’ Hostel on 206 B T Road, I called it the “black hole of Calcutta”; something that failed to amuse my seniors, for reasons that I can now appreciate very well.
2In a memorable 1975 quote, I ridiculed a – now very successful – friend by saying “he can’t prove a single theorem, he’s all gas!”
3More commonly called “A-star”.
4“Facit” machines were our most frequent companions during the hands-on sessions and exams. A good Facit machine offered a time advantage of almost 10 minutes in a 180-minute exam. Facit machines made the most extraordinary jingles and sounds and, when treated with insufficient respect, they could disintegrate into an ugly mess of coils and keys and leave you poorer by a dozen marks in the exam.