Book Review: The IIT-ians

Book: The IIT-ians — The Story of a Remarkable Indian Institution and How its Alumni are Reshaping the World
Author: Sandipan Deb

I loved my days at IIT and care deeply about my alma mater, IIT Kharagpur. So the first book on IITs, authored by a fellow KGP-graduate, was automatically of great interest to me. The book has over 350+ pages and thirty-four chapters. Many of the anecdotes described in the book, and the hearsay (of which there are plenty in the book) are largely based in IIT Kharagpur. If you are an IIT Kharagpur gradute from the early to mid 80s and are in the mood for some serious nostalgia this book is a safe bet. Of the thirty-four chapters in the book, I found the one covering the author’s long car ride with Desh Deshpande and Prof Subra Suresh the most interesting. Towards the end of the book, the author offers some valuable recommendations for improving the IITs and highlights the competition from China –both of which are useful for policy makers and influencers (like the alumni) alike. There is no doubt that the IITs are one of India’s great achievements, and I want to commend the author for being the first person to publish a book on IITs.

The book offers a perfect “nostalgia trip” for those interested in one. At the same time, the book also has several shortcomings. There is constant ranting and raving about IIT and how great IIT-ians are throughout the book. While this might be acceptable to the reader who is an IIT graduate (though personally, I thought it was a huge overkill), I am not convinced about the non-IITian. I suspect that most would give up quite early on in the process of reading this book.

Given the authors background, the book definitely has a strong journalistic style, that is, reporting style to it. The book is full of “he said so, she said so”. In fact, a handful of individuals have been quoted endlessly throughout the book. One chapter is completely dedicated to a bilious outpouring by one alumni! There are others which capture long emails from friends of the author.

The author, despite being married to an IIT woman seems to have done little research to find out if there are any woman IIT-ians who have become hugely successful. Instead, he chose an easy option and described his meeting with a woman friend from IIT KGP and wrote a chapter about it. After 50 years of IITs, so much for the woman IIT-ian’s perspective. (No offense to the woman IIT-ian mentioned, who I understand was very popular in her times at KGP). It would have been a lot more purposeful had the author done the required research to identify a woman IIT-ian who has had significant success in her career.

“If I had another chance I would spend a lot less time in class,” the second topper from 1986 batch IIT Delhi apparently said. “I learnt very little in class,” said another. Throughout the book, there is an obvious glorification of not focusing on academics, and of this being portrayed as cool. This sends a completely wrong message to new entrants to the IIT system. Besides, there is a “Profs suck, while students are smart” message throughout the book. My personal view is that some Profs were good while some were mediocre. This is common in most institutions. A detailed discussion with one or more IIT grads who are currently successful Profs to gather their insights on this topic and what can be done to improve the system, would have been far more helpful than repeated criticism of IIT faculty, their motivations in clamping down on students, and so on.

“A lot of people just copied in the exams and got through.” This quote attributed to Purnendu Chatterjee (PC) was outright insulting. Firstly, I am surprised that PC even said this. Besides, even if he did, I am surprised that the author did not exercise some editorial restraint and refrain from mentioning this, because it is insulting to thousands of IIT-ians the world over and it is simply untrue.

Finally, the author says he was approached by the publisher and agreed to write the book primarily because he was an IIT-ian and he writes for a living. With the hype about IITs catching on, especially with the CBS show, articles in the media, etc. perhaps the publisher thought that this was a good time to grab the infamous “first mover” advantage of the dotcom days. Unfortunately, the result is a book trying to ride on the hype, with a generous mix of nostalgia that will appeal to die-hard IIT-ians, but still falling short in effectively showcasing India’s best technical institution.
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