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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

My Meeting with Ranjan Kumar

Today is Holi, the festival of colors. Frankly, not my favorite festival even in best of the times. Not that I lock myself up inside my home. But today I will avoid Holi. You see, I have to meet Ranjan Kumar in the evening. He is coming from New Jersey, in the direct non-stop flight of Air India to Mumbai.

Ranjan has been a friend ever since I joined IIT Kanpur as a young under-graduate student over three decades ago. He was in the same batch, and in the same hostel. We became excellent friends, and we decided to live in the same wing from 2nd year onwards. He was a good Phatta cricketer, an asset to our wing, but more importantly, he was the conscience keeper of the wing. If you were ever in doubt whether something is right or wrong, he was the man to approach. His enthusiasm was infectious. One fine day, he just decided that it was a good idea to go to Lucknow on our rickety bicycles, and off we went. You couldn't question Ranjan, you still can't. He has always been different from the others. Engineering for him meant building things, and he loved Mechanical Engineering, since it gave him freedom to spend hours in the Workshop. Of course, later, he will switch to building software, but he never forgot his first love. We used to spend hours chatting about problems in the world, ranging from who should America vote for in its presidential elections, to how we could use science and technology to solve the real problems of the disadvantaged sections of our society. If one wanted to showcase a patriot, it would be Ranjan Kumar. If one wanted to meet an idealist, it would be Ranjan Kumar.

We have kept touch all along. His joining IIT Madras for an MTech, and then joining Citicorp Overseas Software Ltd. I recall the day I reached London airport around 1990 without a visa, and somehow managed to get a 24-hour visa at the airport. His mission was to get me to experience the best of England in 24 hours, starting from the Greenwich village to London, the Westminster, the Buckingham Palace, the London Bridge, Madam Tussauds museum, a walk along the Thames, a small pizza at the Pizza Hut for 10 pounds, to a pub in the evening where he asked me to taste a coconut drink (since I couldn't take the alcohol), and the bull session through the few remaining hours of the night, before sending me off to Heathrow in the early morning. He was the perfect host. Of course, the discussions had to be about the society, and how all of us - the privileged few to receive an IIT education - must do something that will uplift the life of the under-privileged. He hadn't changed a bit.

Soon most batchmates settled down, got busy in their careers, got married, and all that. All that happened to Ranjan too, but there was no change in that idealism. I recall his wedding in Patna, where for some reason I could not spend as much time with him in the day as he had wanted to. He was keen to know how I was doing at IIT Kanpur as a faculty, and how could my position at IITK could be leveraged to do something in the education space for the masses. So after all the ceremonies were over, he and Sayali, his newly wedded wife, came to my hotel room, and he wanted to spend the next few hours chatting till I leave back for Kanpur. I knew the topics. I was sure he would have a lot of new ideas, he is always full of ideas, and very practical ones at that. But I insisted that they leave my room. They left, of course, but not before informing me that it was important to discuss those ideas at the earliest, and hence their honeymoon location would be the IIT Kanpur Visitors Hostel. Sayali knew him well, and supported him, and they came to IIT Kanpur after a couple of days of ceremonies and festivities in his home town of Gaya.

Our next interaction was in Japan. He was working in Tokyo when me and Rashmi (my wife) decided to have a tour of Asia in three weeks. The maximum number of days were to be in Japan. He made all the arrangements, which train we will go by to which city, when, which hotel we will stay in, what local bus we will take, which places we will visit. He gave us a paper with standard English phrases and their Japanese equivalent, just in case. His attention to details has always been impeccable. Shinkansen took us to Osaka, Kyoto, Hiroshima, and so on. Tokyo was seen with Ranjan around. Again, a perfect host. And again, a lot of discussions on what we should do.

He soon moved to Pune, and we met a bit more frequently, about once a year. He became passionate about improving technical, skills based education in India. He had found his calling. He became a member of the Pan-IIT group called, "IITians for ITIs."

Our batch is special and is different. We celebrated our Silver Jubilee twice - silver jubilee of joining IITK and Silver jubilee of graduating from IITK. And he came both times, with his usual enthusiasm. He would make sure that our batch reunions are not just about having fun and nostalgia. They must include serious discussions of what we as a batch can give back. He is the prime mover behind the batch agreeing to support the setting up of the tinkering lab in IIT Kanpur. His passion for engineering and building things would never die or even fade.

Where did my thoughts wander. I am getting ready for my meeting. It is actually a mini get-together of the batch. Many of us would be meeting him at the airport. He does not know about it. It is going to be a surprise for him. Today, we will take our revenge. We will be speaking continuously, and not let him speak a word. In all the batch get togethers, he has been setting the agenda, he has been leading us, forcing us to think, forcing us to get out of our comfort zone. But today, we don't want to think.

Ranjan is used to travel between New Jersey and Mumbai, must have done this scores of time. But this journey will be a different experience for him. He would not be sitting in the passenger cabin. He would not be telling his co-passengers how they can change India. He would be sleeping throughout this journey in a casket, which will be placed in the cargo area of the plane.

Yes, my dearest friend is no more. This act of God proves that God too is not perfect. What is the justification for taking away a person who is only helping others, who is an ideal rarity in this Kalyug. Can we try God in a court of law. Can He defend himself.

All that remains is a body, which too will be consigned to flames soon. But, no, he leaves behind tonnes of memories. Memories are no substitute for the real action. The only hope is that he will upgrade God's communication system soon, and one day, I will receive a skype call from up there. He also leaves behind a lot of his writings, some of which are available at his blog. Such beautiful writings. I am sure can remain a source of inspiration for long.

When I think about him, a face which is always smiling comes in the front. I can almost hear him crack a joke, a subtle one, he had that gift of language whereby he could turn a difficult situation into a lighter environment, makes everyone feel part of what was being done.

The family is shattered. But then these are the times when they come closer, to give each other strength to withstand this unbearable loss, to wipe the tears of each other.

But who will wipe my tears.

Note: If you knew Ranjan Kumar and would like to say something, please don't write that here. His family has set up a page in his memory. Please visit this page and write your thoughts and memories there so that they reach the family.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

GATE 2013: Demand for MTech (CSE)

The result for GATE 2013 is out. The paper in Computer Science was given by 2.24 lakh students. Overall, 13.88 percent students were declared eligible for pursuing higher education. Some media reports say that for CS, a smaller fraction is eligible. One can safely assume that there would be around 25,000 students who have cleared the GATE hurdle for doing MTech in Computer Science. It is probably safe to assume that almost half of these would be more interested in jobs, IAS, MBA, going abroad, etc. So we need to take care of about 12,500 students who want to study MTech in Computer Science.

The number of students that we will be able to handle in our existing programs is just about one tenth of it. As a nation of 1+ billion people, where IT is one the largest foreign exchange earner, we do not have the resources to handle just about 12,500 students in our MTech programs.

Fortunately, this can be done overnight, at least a program of the quality similar to those MTech programs which are not in top 20.

We could start a course-based MTech program. For this purpose, a university could be set up (or an existing university could take the proposed initiative). The university would get into an agreement with top 10 institutions, say old IITs, IISc, and a coupe of more. These institutions would promise to offer just one course every semester in MOOC format. The university would let students do self-study and only conduct exams. Why would IITs agree to offer courses? Well, they are anyway thinking of doing something in the MOOC space, and this university could provide some technical/platform support and an obscene amount of honorarium. The university could also have a tie up with industry to offer such courses, and may also join hands with external platforms like coursera, etc.

Certainly not the same quality as a full-time, residential, research based program, but would be better than what is being offered by everyone other than the top 20 places.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

My SSB Interview

Two things have happened that encouraged me to write this story. One, I was telling this story to my friends a couple of days ago, and they encouraged me to write it. Two, I read the blog post by Dr. Kaneenika Sinha where she mentions a few goof ups during interviews. My story includes a series of "deliberate" goof ups (if there exist a phrase like that). Statutory warning: Very long.

A few decades ago, when I was in 11th class, I decided to fill in the form for admission test for National Defense Academy. The reason at the time of filling up the form was certainly less than honorable one. It was to get practice of giving competitive exams, and to travel to a place far away from Delhi for the SSB (Services Selection Board) interview. I was sure that I could go to the exam without a single day of preparation and do well enough to be shortlisted for the interview. So I was looking forward to a free vacation, and UPSC (Union Public Service Commission) did not disappoint me. I received this call to reach Bangalore on a specified day in May.

The farthest that I had ever gone from Delhi till then was Jaipur, and my dream of traveling to a far away world was coming true. The KK Express, with the two Ks standing for Kerala and Karnataka, was the only fast train to Bangalore at that time (half the train went to Bangalore, while the other half went to Trivandrum) and plied only 2 days a week. It wasn't running on the day I had to leave Delhi. So I decided to first go to Chennai, and take another train from there to Bangalore. I took Grand Trunk (GT) Express to Chennai and a summer special from Chennai to Bangalore. The journey was so eventful that I would rather keep that a secret for now in order that I may sell its movie rights to someone later on. So let me focus only on the SSB interview.

Recall that my purpose behind all this was to travel far away from Delhi, all alone, and enjoy. My father wasn't particularly happy with this plan, since he felt that it was cheating, and the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE)) for admission to IITs was only 12 months away, and I had not even started my preparation for the same. And since I did intend to start preparing for JEE soon, I was hoping, well, actually trying, to fail in SSB. And I did a lot of things to succeed in my mission to fail.

The most interesting part of the interview was where a group of us were given a particular situation and asked to prepare a plan. I still remember the situation. I am the leader of this small group of 4-5 persons, and we have to nab a couple of criminals who are in the forest. We are sitting on the side of a small rivulet at the edge of the forest, planning our moves. While we are planning, we notice a hut a short distance away, on the other side of the rivulet on fire. We were informed that there is no one inside the hut. What will be our plan to nab the criminals.

Each one of us had to write down our plan, and then read it out one by one. Everyone had ignored the fire in the hut and justified that by saying that there was no one in the hut anyway. I also thought on exactly the same lines, but remember my goal was different than others. I had to fail. So I wrote that I will split my group into two, ask one group to go to the hut and help in putting out the fire, and then come back and join us in the forest. And I argued that saving innocent lives had to be more important than nabbing the criminals. This party which went to the hut would quickly realize that there is no one inside the hut, and would immediately come back and join. But sitting at the place so far away from the hut, we would not be able to notice that the hut is empty. And the bombshell hit me when the officer told me that that was exactly the intention of giving the information that the hut has no one inside. I wanted to ask, can I change my plan and make it same as everyone else. But it was too late.

Another component of the interview process was that we would be given a topic to speak on for 3-4 minutes with just about 30 seconds of thinking. Real extempore stuff. My topic was, "Is Democracy better than Dictatorship." Now, my father is an MA in Political Science, and I would have read pretty much every book that he had on political science. I could have given, if I wanted, a very philosophical talk quoting every great thinker in this domain, and I could have really impressed people. But, I had no interest in impressing people. So I thought of a strategy to fail. I just stood up, gave a list of 20 countries where some elections had taken place in the last couple of years, and a list of 20 countries where the leader was a dictator. And I said that considering these 40 countries, it should be obvious to anyone that democratic countries are dong better in every respect, and hence democracy must be better than dictatorship. Took just about a minute to speak, and then just told the officer who was listening to all this that I had nothing else to say. Everyone else was trying hard to make sure that their speech lasted more than 3 minutes. Many of them were from Sainik Schools (schools run by armed forces for kids of people working for armed forces) and had apparently been trained in all this. I was very happy with myself till the officer told me that I had amazing general knowledge, and that he was suitably impressed.

In yet another part, we were supposed to do a series of 10 physical things, e.g., climb using a rope, jump through an obstacle, cross an obstacle through a monkey bridge, etc. And one could repeat those things after completing all 10. My group folks, who as I said were mostly from Sainik Schools could do all 10, and repeat another 5-6. I did only 9 and told the officer that I could not climb the rope. So I could not repeat any of those 9 either. This was very satisfying, though after the interviews were over, on the last day, one of the officers told me that they do look at the background of the person, and someone not from military background doing 9 was considered very creditable. May be I should have done 8.

On the third day, a few cadets from National Defence Academy (NDA) showed up on their bicycles. I went to talk to them. They must have been nuts to travel on bicycle from Khadakvasla to Bangalore. I told them my frank opinion, which they had not asked. But they still patiently explained to me that the life in NDA is so tough that bicycling from there to Bangalore, a distance of more than 800 KM, was actually an act of leisure. Boy, this was scary. I had to fail. No choice was left for me.

I was getting increasingly scared that I might actually pass. I had to do something in the personal interview so that they don't select me. On the 4th day afternoon, I was told that my interview with Major A C Dutta would happen at 2:30 PM. I reached there well in time, but I was called in only at 2:35 PM. After greeting me and asking me to sit down and relax, he asked me, "I hope you did not mind waiting outside." Hell, I sure did. I had heard that officers of armed forces were very punctual, and I was disappointed. I am sure Major Dutta had never faced such an interviewee. He apologized profusely, and continued the interview. What do I do at school other than studies. I am the captain of the school hockey team, I told him. And then a series of questions on whether I would include someone in the team under pressure. What if a teacher asked me to do so. What if a local strongman had asked me to do so. In reality the team was always chosen by the Physical Training Instructor, and I had no role in it. But for a few minutes I had forgotten my goal. I was actually trying to impress. I would, of course, ignore all pressures, ignore all threats, and select only the deserving players in the team. Hockey was my passion in those days, and I could go on and on in any discussion on hockey. And then he changed the topic. What have I been doing in Bangalore. Of course, tourism. I had visited all he gardens and walked end to end of the MG Road, seen the Legislative Assembly building, the cricket stadium, everything was within walking distance from our barracks. What impressed me the most. That a "small" city like Bangalore has 104 (or was it 108) cinema halls, much more than the large Metro city of Delhi, was the most unusual and impressive fact about Bangalore. Had I seen any movie. Well, I had never seen any movie in any cinema hall in any city till then.

Major Dutta suggested that I see a particular English movie which was playing in a nearby theater. He further added that there were only two shows at 12:30 and 3:30. That immediately gave me an idea to fail. I told Major that I was sure they would fail me the next day morning, and I would be asked to leave the barracks immediately. So, if he thinks that this movie is really that great that I begin my movie watching career with this one then he must close the interview right away, and let me go and watch the movie. It had been less than 15 minutes since I had entered his room. I am sure he had many more questions to ask. But as I said above, Major A C Dutta would have never faced an interviewee like me, and he thought it fit to get rid of me.

I came back to barracks. I had no intention of watching an English movie when I had difficulty in speaking and understanding English myself. And once you are alone, the bad thoughts start controlling your brain. And I once again started thinking whether I had done enough to fail. Even this interview could have shown me in some positive light. After all, I answered all the questions about the selection of hockey team so well. I had to do something before the next day morning when the result of the interview will be announced.

Major was always going out in the evening and do some brisk walking on the Cubbon Road. And we had been told on day one that we were not to approach any officer at any time for any reason other than as part of the interview process or in an emergency situation. Any contact with any of them would cause failure in the interview. I collected the Railway pass to go back from Bangalore to Delhi, and waited to Major Dutta to start his walk. As soon as I saw him I went to him and told him that I had not gone to see the movie. Now, no one could possibly pass me. And I pushed off to the Railway Station.

I was determined to make use of this trip to do as much tourism as possible. I had seen Chennai on the way to Bangalore. On my return journey, I planned to spend a few days each in Pune and Bombay (now Mumbai). So I go to this counter where one got the "Extra Fare Tickets" (EFT) and told the person behind the counter that I wanted to go by the longer route and wanted the EFT for that. He computed the extra distance and found the difference between the telescopic fares of the shortest distance and the actual distance, and it would cost me about thirty rupees more. He asked for Forty Five rupees, fifteen rupees were his bribe. I argued and argued that when I am agreeing to pay the proper fare, and am asking for no favors, why should there be a bribe. But he was adamant. He told me to come back some other time when there is someone else on duty. He could not make an EFT without a bribe. I had never paid a bribe in my life, and my father would be very upset if he came to know that his son has bribed someone. So I kept requesting him to do it without a bribe. He eventually reduced the price to ten rupees. He said that this is his business and in business, there are certain principles that cannot be violated. When I saw that I was talking to a very principled man, I suggested that he gives me at least a student discount on the bribe portion, and accept a token amount of five rupees so that his principles are not violated. I don't think anyone had ever haggled so much on a bribe with him and with utter contempt for me visible on his face, he made the EFT.

With the pass and EFT with me, I went to the reservation counter. It was 7:55 PM, and the counter had this sheet of paper with "closed" written on it. (In those days, there were different counters for each train. No computer terminals.) A young lady was behind the window counting cash. Even though, the clock was saying that there was still five more minutes left in the reservation time, you could not demand your rights at that time. With manual reservation, the ticketing clerks were like Gods. They could create seats out of thin air, and could make them vanish just as easily. I asked the lady if there was reservation available for the next day evening train to Pune. She scolded me. The counter was closed and in any case, how could I even think that in summer time I could get a reservation for the next day. Indian Railways had not heard of "Tatkal" service till then. "Didi, do you think a small boy like me would be even allowed to enter the unreserved compartment, not to mention allowed to actually sit on the floor." I was 16, but did not look even 12, and once you call a young lady a "Didi" (sister) she will do anything for you. She was in the age group where 12-year olds would have started calling her "aunty" and she would be hating this elevation of status from"Didi" to "Aunty."

She opened her huge register. One always wondered how those registers could actually hold all the reservation information with torn pages, with poor handwriting, and what not. She could give me a berth in the two-tier. Now, two-tier were interesting coaches where three persons sat on a berth in the day time. But in the night, one of these three passengers would have the right to sleep on the upper berth, and the two passengers would have to sit on the lower berth. So I was going to get that upper berth. It would cost me two rupees for the reservation and five rupees for the sleeper charges. As I said, the booking clerks were Gods who could create berths out of nothing.

There was no separate "sleeper class." There was no difference in the fare of the seat and the berth, except the passenger having the berth paid five rupees per night extra for that privilege, with night time counted as any part of 9:00 PM to 6:00 AM. She gave me this small cardboard reservation ticket (of size 1" by 2") with the seat/berth/coach numbers written on it. Another interesting thing about this train journey was that I had to travel by a Meter Gauge train from Bangalore to Miraj and then change over to a Broad Gauge train from Miraj to Pune. The two trains would have the same name, and my reservation would be in the same numbered coach and the same seat number on both the trains. I profusely thanked her and came back to the barracks to have a peaceful sleep. The stress of the previous days was completely gone since I had met Major Dutta on the Cubbon Road.

Next day morning, I packed up, eager to leave the place, and then went to the hall where all of us were asked to collect and they would announce the names of the future officers of the Indian Armed Forces. I wasn't paying attention, but then suddenly it sounded as if someone had called my name. I was sure there must have been another "Dheeraj" in the set of people collected there. But the officer called my name again, and this time the full name. And it became abundantly clear that I had failed in my mission to fail.

Now, I would have to stay back for one more week for a very extensive medical check up before I am given the letter of admission to NDA. I came back to barracks and unpacked my stuff. But a strange thing was happening to me. I started comparing the perceived NDA life with the next 12 months of JEE preparation. Would NDA be really as bad as JEE preparation. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that NDA was actually a good career. Any career where you don't have to study even for a day to get in must be an excellent career. There was only one problem though. Those cadets from NDA whom I had met in Bangalore, I was sure that they had taken a mental picture of mine, and if I ever entered the Academy, the first thing that I will be taught there would be how to address your seniors in the armed forces, and I was very sure that that address would not include words like "nuts."

But I had other worries to handle. First of all, I had to cancel my reservation, and get a fresh reservation for the next week. So I go back to the station, and my good luck that I met the same lady on the counter. I requested her to cancel my reservation and give me a fresh one. But the chart had already been prepared. So I would have to go to meet some other official to get my ticket (which was really my pass) cancelled. This alarmed me. We were told very strictly that under no circumstances will we be given a second pass. So if we managed to lose it, or if we got it cancelled, SSB had no responsibility for our transportation. And I did not have enough money with me to even buy a ticket from Bangalore to Delhi. No ATMs in those days.

I went and met the station master. He told me that there is no option for me but to get the pass cancelled. (I realized much later that they were all unaware of proper rules.) And finally after a lot of requests and a bit of crying, I told him to do whatever the rules required him to do, and handed over my pass and the EFT receipt to him. He passed on both the things to a guy sitting on the next table asking him to cancel the pass. This guy looked at the EFT, and asked me if it was impossible for me to travel the same evening. The way he asked that question, I guessed that he was up to something. I quickly took the pass and the EFT back from him and said that I will try to go that day itself and came out of the station master office. This guy walked behind me.

He advised me to meet the person who made the EFT and told me that he must help me. But why and how he could possibly help me. This guy asked me how much I bribed him. This was a very uncomfortable question. I wasn't quite proud of that act. But he did not wait for my response. He further told me that this guy is a very principled guy and had never made any EFT in his life without a bribe. So he must have taken a bribe from me also, and if he had taken a bribe, it is his moral responsibility to help. He asked a coolie to find out where he was, and asked him to take me to him.

So I see this guy who had made my EFT. I explained my problem. He saw the pass. He saw the EFT. He saw the reservation ticket. And he just tore away the reservation ticket, and asked me to get another reservation. I was not understanding anything. So he explained. There was no mention on the pass or on the EFT that I was traveling that day, or that any reservation had been done on that pass. So I should just go to the reservation counter as if no reservation had ever been done, and get the fresh reservation. It was that simple, and just imagine, I was about to get my pass cancelled. (As I said above, later on I found out from the SSB office that this was perfectly legal. They should have just cancelled my reservation without cancelling the pass.) And "Didi" obliged me once again.

From next day onwards, we would walk a few KMs every day going to Command Hospital and back, and having all sorts of medical tests. I had completely forgotten about JEE. But I learnt an important lesson. God is never on your side. When you want to fail, He passes you, and when you want to pass, He fails you. On the last day, they announced that a person with my height and age should have a minimum of 46 KG of weight. They could give a 10 percent waiver considering all other medical parameters were excellent, but a 39 KG boy could not be allowed to enter the Academy at Khadakwasla. If they had told me the minimum requirement at the time of taking weight, I could have drank two litres of water and ate a bunch of bananas, the standard practice apparently taught to those kids from Sainik Schools, not that many of them needed this trick.

The return journey was also very eventful, but some other time.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Time to Choose the Board for your Ward

This is the time when parents will be thinking whether they should let their wards continue in the same school or change school (and more importantly, change the board).

If we go back to all the discussions we had last summer on the new admission process for IITs and other CFTIs (Centrally Funded Technical Institutes), including NITs, we had said that the primary assumption behind the new scheme of admission is that the academic preparation of the students of different boards has identical distribution across all boards in all subjects. We had challenged this assumption by pointing out that if this was indeed the case then CBSE students would not out-perform state boards in every entrance exam. We had also pointed out that a board with greater percentage of better endowed schools and students coming from middle and upper class families with better environment for studies must lead to better academic preparation of its students. We had pointed out that the syllabus in various subjects is different across the board, and that too would lead to different levels of academic preparation. But the sycophancy had finally won.

The decision was too late for the parents to react for 2013 admissions. But now what should parents do for 2014 and beyond.

The obvious impact of the decision to consider academic preparation as identically distributed across all boards is that the student in a board with better academic preparation would face some discrimination. It could be having to work harder for being in the top 20 percentile for admissions to IITs. But a much worse situation is in NIT admission where the two students with the same academic preparation will be at different relative level if they are in two different boards, and will get different normalized marks. The student in the better board will be at a lower relative level within his/her board, and hence will get lower normalized marks and hence would be strongly discriminated against in the admissions to NITs.

If we accept all this, and if this is indeed what is going to continue in 2014 and beyond, then it makes sense for the parents to put their wards in schools which are affiliated to the boards where students have had poorer academic preparation. In particular, this implies that it would be beneficial to join a state board over CBSE for most states. (I am not aware of any state board whose students perform better than students from CBSE schools in various competitive and other independent exams.)

Of course, I would want the parents to read this and all previous articles carefully to convince themselves that the CBSE students will be discriminated against in the new admission schemes, and then take a decision on their own, and not blame me later on. The entire admission process situation is very fluid, and we don't yet know whether the same admission process will continue in 2014 and beyond. If there is a different admission process, that may or may not be discriminatory against CBSE students. So there is obviously a risk because we do not know all the information and what future decisions may be taken. But as of now, it seems to be that giving 12th class exams from a state board will be better.