I failed to get into an IIT—and 10 years later I could not be happier: Story of Akshat Rathi


After a failed attempt to get admission in IIT, Akshat was glad to have been admitted to UICT for B.Tech in Chemical Engineering and later in the doctorate program in organic chemistry at Oxford. The most valuable thing he took away from Oxford was not the degree. Instead, he found himself. At 25, for the first time in his life, he felt free, not burdened by his parents’ expectations to get a good degree, the pressure of Indian society to make something of his “valuable” bachelor’s or doctorate. But his heart was to become a journalist. That is what he ultimately became!

Rathi Story(Photo by Maria Corte for Quartz)


The University of Oxford accepts one out of five applicants. IITs take in just one out of 50. So it is little wonder that for any Indian child with ambitions of becoming an engineer, getting into an IIT looks like the pinnacle of achievement.

It certainly looked that way to me. Growing up in the 1990s in Nashik, a city of about 1.5 million people, I looked up to my dad—a mechanical engineer from one of the top regional engineering schools. I wanted to be like him, or even better. The only way to do that, my little brain thought then, was to go to an even more prestigious school: the IIT.

Things didn’t go exactly as planned. To be precise, I failed. But the years I spent working towards the goal changed me forever. More than 10 years later, I could not have achieved more success or happiness. And, most importantly, my parents could not be prouder.

A single-track mind

When I was growing up, you couldn’t go many days without hearing or reading about how IIT graduates were changing the face of the country and having an impact even beyond. They had in their ranks the likes of Narayana Murthy (a founder of Infosys), Vinod Khosla (a founder of Sun Microsystems), and Raghuram Rajan (governor of the Reserve Bank of India). Newspapers never missed an opportunity to tell the world about the top salaries that were being offered to IIT graduates. Among doting parents and aspiring kids, IITians were treated with the kind of reverence that Indians only gave to players in the country’s cricket team. (Things aren’t much different today.)

The way into the IITs is to succeed at the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE), and in the last few decades a whole industry has been set up to find ways to crack the JEE. In class 8, four years before I was due to take the entrance exam, my mother bought me a subscription to an IIT coaching service.

Every few months I received thick textbooks that covered advanced physics, chemistry, and mathematics. With the help of a college professor, those advanced textbooks served me well till class 10. Then, when I was 15, my parents enrolled me in a coaching class in Nashik.

Coaching classes for JEE were compulsory. They were an antidote to the rote-learning culture that state board education promoted. The JEE was designed to test your understanding of the subject, not your memory of it. The questions challenged you to use the many concepts you’d learned and put them together to arrive at the answers.

The next two years were tough. Preparing for the JEE became an all-consuming task. As I became more focused on achieving the goal, I had already given up sports, music, and video games. Soon I also stopped socializing with other students.

So, those who attended the IIT coaching class formed a tight group. We spent hours, often late into the night, solving problems. Despite becoming very good friends, we were competitors. Only a tiny fraction were going to pass the JEE, and our competitors were the smartest minds of our age in the country.

There was also a psychological cost. Thoughts of failure often crossed our minds. I worried about getting sick; another friend imagined getting in an accident on the way to the exam. One friend ran away from home the day before the exam. He was eventually found near a local dam, considering jumping down into the river. (He now lives in a monastery.)

Industrialized coaching

In 2004, I passed the first stage of JEE but failed in the second (about one in 10 people pass.). No one from Nashik I knew got through both stages that year. At the back of our minds, we all knew that we could face failure. But I wasn’t really prepared for it. Who knew that an exam result could cause stomach-wrenching pain?

It was the first major failure of my life. For weeks, I was depressed and felt stuck in limbo. My parents assured me that it was OK, but I couldn’t get rid of the deep sense of shame.

Fortunately, depression turned to anger and then resolve. I wanted another go. Now that I was 17, my parents felt comfortable sending me to Kota, a small city in the state of Rajasthan, whose handful of coaching centers were consistently producing results many times better than those of any other coaching class in the country.

There I would spend another year preparing with even more intensity.

The first week in Kota was exciting. Staying away from my parents for the first time was wonderful. The freedom felt like power. But the joys quickly disappeared.

Although I was still in India, it felt like I had come to a place with an alien culture. Students didn’t mix very much. When they did, they only talked about that day’s problems, next day’s classes, or something else academic. If there were any non-academic discussions, it was gossip about other coaching classes (or about the rare girl someone had in their class). The only recreational activity was to play computer games at an internet cafe, and even that was frowned upon.

However, what affected me the most was the constant discussion about failure. Every so often someone would share a tale they had heard about some student who committed suicide because he had failed at the JEE. (Suicides in Kota are no longer a rare phenomenon. Nine students have committed suicide in the last five months.)

The final straw was when I started to hear about friends being admitted to other engineering schools. I had come to Kota resolved to forget failure and do nothing but prepare for the JEE, but I was so focused on my studies that I had almost forgotten about this important event in my friends’ lives. And, though I should not have, I felt jealous that they had a better place to be than Kota.

There is usually a delay of a few weeks between getting results from various entrance exams, including the JEE, and starting at an engineering school. In 2004, because of some bureaucratic mess, the delay had been stretched to a few months.

These other entrance exams were supposed to be an insurance policy against failing at the JEE. For me, however, they were just an additional burden, and I didn’t take them too seriously. The All India Engineering Entrance Exam (AIEEE, now scrapped) was one of them, and I slept in the exam hall for the last 30 minutes, having finished one of the papers early.

So it came as a surprise when, in the middle of a class in August, I learned that I had been accepted at the University Institute of Chemical Technology (UICT) based on my AIEEE results. Among those in the know—mostly chemical engineers—UICT was the IIT of chemical engineering. It boasted some big names as its alumni, and to my delight it was among the few engineering schools based in the heart of Mumbai.

I had come to Kota because I wasn’t ready to settle for anything but the best. Suddenly the equation had changed. Would it really be worth spending an extra year of my life to get into an IIT when UICT might just be good enough? I wasn’t so sure, but the possibility of a life in Mumbai among happier teenagers broke my resolve.

“Akku, please think carefully before you decide whether to leave Kota for this,” my mum said. But my mind was made up and my bags were packed.

Dogged focus

Though many of the students at UICT had, like me, failed to get into an IIT in their first or second attempt at the JEE, the mood among them was optimistic. It took me six months to figure out why.

Education at UICT was slightly different from those in other Indian engineering schools. There was an unusual amount of stress on research, something that even the best of the IITs couldn’t compete with. Most professors were actively involved in research and often had many PhD students working for them. This was unusual for India, which, despite producing the world’s largest number of engineers and doctors, ranks among the lowest in the world in terms of research output.

Many students at UICT of course wanted well-paid jobs in the chemical industry. But there was also great interest in pursuing research at undergraduate level and beyond. By December, we had started hearing news about final year students getting PhD places at some of the world best universities: MIT, Cambridge, Caltech, Stanford, and others.

This exposure to a new way of thinking about my career changed my dreams. Perhaps it was not being under the shadow of my parents that gave me the freedom to think for myself, but more likely it was the effect of my professors and their exceptional research students. I no longer wanted a corporate job, but a PhD. The intellectual thrill of discovering something new was inspiring.

And so I was soon consumed by the desire to find a place at a top-notch university for a research degree. The Indian education system is too exam-oriented, but it also trains you to put on horse-like blinders and focus single-mindedly on achieving a goal. Looking back, I can see that my failed attempts of getting into an IIT enabled me to excel when it came to pursuing this new ambition.

In the ivory tower

After UICT, I got a place at the University of Oxford to get a doctorate in organic chemistry. Soon after I got to Oxford, the limitations of India’s education system truly became clear. The Indian system mints students in highly specialized institutes, such as the IITs and UICT, with great abilities in the areas we choose to study, but little knowledge of other critical subjects.

Although I knew that Western universities offered students courses in all subjects under the sun, I wasn’t quite prepared for socializing with, say, a student of literature. In hindsight, what probably saved me was my curiosity. I must have looked stupid to some, asking basic questions that probably only high-school students would ask. (I asked a historian: what is the point of studying history anyway?) Yet every conversation taught me a bit more about the world I had missed out on while studying chemistry and physics.

Finishing my doctorate was the toughest thing I had ever done. And yet, the most valuable thing I took away from Oxford was not the degree. Instead, the open academic environment, world-class researchers, and brilliant students had peeled away the blinders put on me by the Indian education system. At 25, for the first time in my life, I felt free. I was not burdened by my parents’ expectations for me to get a good degree, the pressure of Indian society to make something of my “valuable” bachelor’s or doctorate, or the hopes of my 12-year-old self to become “better” than my dad.

Of course, I could not have gotten the doctorate without the skills I had acquired in India. But Oxford enabled me to see a bigger world. After finishing my PhD, I chose to become a journalist. Three years into that career choice, and more than 10 years after I had failed at the JEE, I could not be happier.

Who knows what would have happened had I made it into an IIT. But I am happy today that I did not. From my core group of friends at UICT, all four of whom failed to get into an IIT in their first attempt, only one is still doing something related to engineering. One is an actor, another is in advertising, and I’m a journalist. Failure enabled us—forced us—to truly discover ourselves.

Source: http://qz.com/551881/i-failed-to-get-into-an-iit-and-10-years-later-i-could-not-be-happier/


RathiAkshat Rathi is a science and health reporter for Quartz. He also runs Curious Bends, a weekly newsletter that collects intriguing science, tech and data stories with an Indian connection.

Previously, he was the science editor at The Conversation, an online news and commentary website. Before that, the deputy editor of RSC News, a Royal Society of Chemistry publication, Richard Casement intern at The Economist and Marriott intern at Chemistry World. 

You can read more about his interest in science writing here or here. You can also listen to a story about how he became a journalist here.  He has a PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Oxford, and a BTech in chemical engineering from the Institute of Chemical Technology in Mumbai.

Akshat welcomes your comments at ideas.india@qz.com or contact him at rathi.akshat@gmail.com   https://akshatrathi.com/

Rajeev Motwani: There wasn’t a startup he didn’t love

Rajeev Motwani, wanted to study mathematics and become another Gauss! His father, however, persuaded him to study computer science. Little did he know how closely the two are related? He graduated with B.Tech. in computer science from IITK in 1983 and PhD from Berkeley in 1988.  Rajeev was a wise theoretician that had the rare knack and desire to turn theory into practical applications. Whenever you use a piece of technology, there is a good chance a little bit of Rajeev Motwani is behind it.

Rajeev played an important role in the founding of Google 15 years ago. He was snatched away from us on June 5, 2009, at the age of 47, in a drowning accident in the backyard swimming pool of his Atherton home after a party celebrating the end of the school year!

Growing up

Rajeev Motwani was born on March 24, 1962 in the Indian city of Jammu to Lt. Colonel rajeevHotchand Motwani, an officer in the Indian Army, and Namita Motwani. His family included brothers Sanjeev and Suneev. Given his father’s army career, Rajeev’s family moved often and lived in various parts of India before settling down in New Delhi.

When Rajeev was seven, his father was stationed in the scenic town of Devlali near Mumbai, India. His family would walk a kilometer to the local library to get books, and the seven-year-old Rajeev would be seen reading the books they had borrowed from the library as they walked home! His brothers recall that not a single day would pass when he did not read a whole book.

Young Rajeev wanted to be a mathematician, like Gauss. “This was partly shaped by the books I had at home. My parents for some reason had a lot of these books – 10 great scientists or five famous mathematicians – their life stories and so on. As a child, whatever heroes you read about you want to become,” adds Rajeev. Rajeev would read books of all types, including novels, comics, autobiographies and scientific books. Rajeev also loved music, particularly rock music. One of his favorite bands was Indian Ocean. His friend from Berkley days, Rathin Sinha recollects Rajeev’s love for books by Asimov, music by Pink Floyd, and canned chili and rice meals!

A turning point in Rajeev’s intellectual development came when his family moved to New Delhi in 1974. Rajeev’s father wanted to send his children to the prestigious St Columba’s High School in New Delhi. St Columba’s High School administered a difficult entrance exam to admit students, and Rajeev studied hard the night before taking the exam. Not only did Rajeev pass the exam, he did so well that the principal admitted all three brothers into the school!

Reluctant Computer Scientist

After 11th grade (in the 10+2 program) in 1978, he appeared in JEE earning third place in the northern zone of India. He did not stay at Columba’s to finish the 12th grade instead joined I I T Kanpur, which at that time had just started the undergraduate program in computer science. “I truly wanted to be a mathematician, and my parents were hesitant because how do you make money as a mathematician, how do you support a family. I was basically forced into going into computer science even though I did not want to, but it turned out to be a wonderful surprise that computer science is actually quite mathematical as a field,” recalls Rajeev in an interview.

Even though IIT Kanpur had an outstanding computer science faculty in the late 1970s, formal computer science education at the undergraduate level was still in its infancy in India. Rajeev was a member of the very first cohort of undergraduate computer science students at IIT Kanpur. Rajeev often recalled that IIT Kanpur had attracted an amazing group of people, and there could not have been a better environment for studying computer science in India. As a student, Rajeev was inspired by Professor Kesav Nori, who taught Rajeev’s first class on programming — TA 306: Principles of Programming. Rajeev recalls, “Wonderful thing about Prof. Nori is that he was a very inspiring person. He did more than just teach. He created such a wonderful ecosystem and developed a personal connection with his students.”

Prof. Nori thinks Rajeev gave him more credit than he deserves. It has been 35 years but he is still so enthusiastic talking about Rajeev – the chubby, smart boy. In a recent phone conversation one could sense enthusiasm in his voice when he said, “Rajeev knew that purpose of programing is not just coding; it is to formulate the problem. Rajeev’s thinking was clear; his expression direct. No unnecessary stuff.  Rajeev had a knack for creating the most elegant and brief answers to the hardest of programming problems. It was a joy to read his papers.”

Another instructor at IITK recollects, “Anyone who had taught Rajeev could not but be impressed by his class. At the same time, he was not at all competitive — if he did well, which he did, it was because doing well was so natural for him.”

Gautam Bhargava, a classmate of Rajeev at IIT Kanpur remembers him, “As a fun loving, rock-n-rollin’ party guy, a super-smart classmate. Hardly anyone in IIT-days called him Rajeev. To us he was, and still is, Mots, which was not short for Motwani, as you would expect, but rather short for Motwayne!  After the younger brother of the movie star John Wayne! But this alleged younger brother of John Wayne was never seen wearing a 10-gallon Stetson; rather he was most often seen in a kurta, jeans, chappals, with a cloth book-bag slung across his shoulder!

Rajeev’s amazing brilliance might lead you to believe that Rajeev was this immensely studious type who spent all his waking hours studying and hitting the books hard. On the contrary, Rajeev was an incredibly fun loving guy always ready for a party! In his dorm room, next to his bed would always be a stack of science-fiction books waiting for eager consumption. Rajeev would spend endless hours solving the hardest crossword puzzles, playing bridge or volleyball, and hanging out with friends — then he would show up for the tests and magically ace them! Now if a course were “crazy hard”, say, like the one on Number Theory, Rajeev would effortlessly breeze through, with amazingly elegant answers to even the toughest of problems.  However, if the class were “easy”, Rajeev could easily lose some interest.  Rajeev thought time could be better spent listening to music or hanging out at the canteen eating hakka chowmein or anda parathas.”

Gautam continues, “Rajeev was also quite a music lover with a particular fondness for Rock’n’Roll. During IIT years Rajeev was also the “Audio Club Secretary”. This was indeed a prestigious job as the Audio “Secy” controlled the keys to the Rock’n’Roll kingdom – and decided when and where the amps and the speakers and the other equipment would be made available. As usual, Rajeev took great joy in running that club and recruited a bunch of his friends to lug those heavy amps around! When this got too much he decided it was more fun to play the bass … his favorite tune for riffing on bass was “Badge”! Later he started doodling on the keyboard … and as our friend Madhavan recalls, they only played songs in the key of A-minor so Rajeev could just play on the white keys!!! Rajeev could also create musical wonders with another “instrument” – you just had to hear him use a wine glass and a fork to play the tune for the Bollywood hit Chura Liya Hai.”

Rajeev’s undergraduate thesis (joint with Chilukuri K. Mohan and Amitabh Shah; advised by Professor Somenath Biswas) was quite theoretical: “Specification and Verification of Computer Communication Protocols.” This simultaneous interest in theory and programming percolated through Rajeev’s career. Rajeev’s friends recall that in college he was not only brilliant, but also incredibly fun-loving and always ready for a party. There would always be a stack of science-fiction books waiting for eager consumption in his dorm room, and he would spend endless hours solving difficult crossword puzzles, playing bridge or volleyball, and hanging out with friends. He never lost this undergraduate spirit. Through his time at Berkeley and as a faculty member at Stanford, Rajeev approached research and entrepreneurship with joy.

Never do work today that you can defer to tomorrow

Everybody else was coming to the US for PhD or Masters or whatever. Actually Rajeev did not want to come to USA for some unexplainable reasons. He got a job at DCM Data Products because getting visas at that time (1983) was a big problem. He was also interviewed by the top three guys at Wipro – a small enterprise then. The interviewer said we would love to give you a job looking at your track record but isn’t every one with your kind of back ground going to the US on a scholarship? So have you applied to US? Rajeev said, “Yes I have an offer from Berkley.” He asked do you have a scholarship. Rajeev said, “Yes, but I am not sure if I will get a visa.” He got the visa and landed up at Berkley.

In 1983, Rajeev became a PhD student at UC Berkeley. He found Berkley to be a very politically charged university – he would call it the JNU of the US. For 3 years Rajeev had a blast. Did not do any work and fully enjoyed the environment. His advisor was Prof. Richard Karp, who won the Turing award – which is like the Nobel Prize in computer science in 1985-86. When Rajeev had finished those 3 years without publishing any papers, he thought that he was not doing anything and letting this man down. So from then on he worked really hard and was quite productive for the next two years.

In an advanced course on algorithms taught by Prof. Richard Karp the class was asked to solve a homework problem. With a fellow student and Prof. Karp, Rajeev developed this problem into a theory of deferred data structures: data structures that are built-up incrementally. This resulted in Rajeev’s first published paper, and he summarized it jokingly as his philosophy in life, with the words: Never do work today that you can defer to tomorrow.

This is how Rathin Sinha remembers his days with Rajeev at Berkley, “Rajeev was perhaps my closest friend in UC Berkeley. We arrived in the same August of 1983 and I remember spending countless evenings at his Durant apartment going through his full collection of Isaac Asimov, having tea and ending the evening with fried chili and rice. …and then we went our separate ways. I discontinued my PhD program, took up a job, but lived in the neighborhood.

When I got laid off in 1986, he helped me with my resume, in job search, and most importantly kept me motivated. He even gave me his answering machine in case an interviewer calls and I am not there to take the call. He was always smiling. Very mellow and soft spoken. I never saw him getting frustrated or rattled in spite of his heavy work load. He never complained about life, teachers, tests, or grades. He knew how to enjoy himself.

10 years later – one email and we were connected again. His first request to me was to see if I could help a budding entrepreneur who was looking for some technology. So was Rajeev. For me it was like growing up with Greatness. Rajeev was always ready to help. ”

In 1988 Rajeev was about to graduate from Berkley with PhD (His Dissertation: Probabilistic analysis of matching and network flow algorithms) and was wondering what to do next. Go back to India or stay in the US. Again other people made the decisions for him. Don Knuth, one of the founding fathers of computer science, came over to meet Rajeev’s advisor and told him that they wanted to hire someone young for algorithms at Stanford. So Karp suggested Rajeev’s name. Rajeev was then invited by Knuth at Stanford for lunch. Rajeev was wondering why this great man wants to have lunch with him. Anyway, Rajeev went to Stanford and met him at a restaurant near the church at the quad. He then told him to be with Stanford for a year and see if they liked him and vice versa after which if things worked out well they would hire Rajeev.

He was offered a visiting faculty position at Stanford. He did not want that job as he was getting better offers and permanent jobs at other places but since it was an offer by Knuth it was hard to turn down. Rajeev thought, “It’s the like Einstein inviting you to Princeton for a job!” He joined Stanford and taught several courses and had a very good time.

Stanford liked what they saw and he was appointed as tenure-track faculty. Based on his thesis work at Berkeley, Stanford realized that it was getting an extraordinary and promising theoretician in this 27 year old man. However, everyone underestimated the incredible scholar, teacher, advisor, colleague, entrepreneur, and friend that Rajeev would become.

3 – 4 months after his first year at Stanford he got married. Rajeev met his soon-to-be wife Asha Jadeja in May 1989. Asha graduated from the University of Southern California and relocated to the San Francisco Bay area. Rajeev and Asha were married on March 22, 1990 in Delhi. They liked living in Stanford, and decided to stay. Asha started graduate school at UC Berkeley in 1991, studying urban planning and urban transportation, and joined the department of political science at Stanford in 1994. Two daughters were born from their marriage, Naitri (b.1991) and Anya (b.2003). In their tribute to Rajeev, Asha’s younger brothers, Yashwant and Yogi said, “Rajeev, who we called Jamaisaheb, was to the world a famous scientist, entrepreneur, and mentor. For us, he was the rock star of an elder brother that we never had. When our dear sister Asha married Rajeev, we used to pinch ourselves and wondered how we ever got so lucky — that this brilliant, humble, and incredibly handsome man entered our family and immediately became part of a large, cantankerous family — with such ease. In our 20 years of close association, we never saw Rajeev ever lose his cool, was always generous even to people he did not know, and became the darling son of our parents, and all aunts and uncles in the family. He will be with us forever.”

Robots Taught Him Something Special

Rajeev enjoyed teaching at Stanford. Since so many people were retiring or leaving Stanford there were a lot of courses to be taught. Rajeev ended up teaching variety of courses. He even created and offered his own courses such as topography and algorithms and complexity theory. Since he did not know a lot of these areas but he learned a lot by teaching these courses.  He did not get enough sleep! He used to say, “I am a perfectionist and I still get nervous to talk before a class even today. I get nervous, what if someone asks me a question and I find myself unable to answer it. So for this reason I always over prepare.”

The nervousness taught him more than what he learned as a student. He landed up working in many different areas and it broadened his thinking, knowledge, and experience.  It also helped not get bored. He used to say, “I have tendency to get bored easily and so if I stay in one area for too long I quickly move over to another area. My threshold of working in one particular area is about 5 years.”

Jean Claude Latombe from France, in robotics area, inspired him to see robots from a very different angle. He told Rajeev that there were a lot of algorithms in robotics which are needed to plan the actions of the robot. Robots require very high dimensional planning. It is like having a starting point A and end point B in space, and moving from A to B without being hit by any obstacles. The same task would be easier with 2 points on the table. Rajeev worked on solving robot related problems for 5 years, putting high dimension geometry and randomization together. Seeing the robots move and perform using his algorithms, he realized that he could do something mathematical but practical. He realized that his ideas, his work could have practical implications.

He could now move over from the paper pencil world to the real world. He gave lot of credit to Stanford for creating an environment where people in different areas could work together making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. He spent one third of his time in doing his work in a theoretical and mathematical way and the rest in collaborating with people.

Pfizer wanted to fund research on computational drug design. And while finishing the work on random motion planning in robots he realized that molecules and robots actually behave in a very similar way. His team came up with software based on his theory and they added some new theories. The project was called RAPID (Randomized Pharmacophore Identification for Drug Design). It went very well. Rajeev learnt a lot. He said, “It was an intriguing experience. I had to go back and learn my high school chemistry and biology and the other fun stuff.” The software is being used by Pfizer labs for their drug design.

There wasn’t a startup he didn’t love

Rajeev was fascinated by the transformation of academic ideas into commercial ventures. To quote his friend and coauthor, Madhu Sudan from MIT, “Having worked with Rajeev at an early stage of my career I knew how smart he was, but it really took Stanford to bring out his true talent, which was the ability to recognize the importance of ideas quicker than anyone else around.”

Rajeev was active in the venture industry, and had a reputation of being extremely helpful to entrepreneurs. Rajeev’s students and industry colleagues remember him for his uncanny ability to connect people: he was a catalyst in bringing teams together and getting companies started with an element of inspiration and strategic guidance. Through Deutsche Bank, to which he had been an advisor, he became one of the first investors in PayPal, and Rajeev and Asha started a venture fund called Dot Edu Ventures in 2000. He was also a special advisor to Sequoia Capital, and was active in entrepreneurial student groups at Stanford, including Business Association of Stanford Engineering Students (BASES) and Stanford Student Enterprises.

Sep Kamvar, a student of Rajeev who later became an entrepreneur recalls, “Rajeev had a selfless heart. At one point early on in our company, I had a conversation with somebody who told me he thought our company wouldn’t succeed.  Upset, I called Rajeev the next day, met up with him at the University Cafe, and told him about this conversation. After he listened to me rant for half an hour about how I was going to prove this guy wrong, he smiled and simply said: “Yes, you will.  That’s why you’re an entrepreneur.  Now your challenge is to use that energy to do something good for the world.”

Another former student and now an entrepreneur remarked, “His ability of porting ideas from one to the other was unparalleled.” Jennifer Widom, fellow faculty from Stanford in her tribute to Rajeev said, “In entrepreneurial circles, many call him “the world’s greatest connector.” He had an uncanny ability to recognize that by bringing together certain people, magical things would happen. On a smaller scale, I recently realized that’s exactly what he was doing in our research enterprise. He clearly had a knack for matchmaking. deeply thought-out insights on most any issue, a willingness to help anyone anytime, and an understated but ever-present sense of humor.

We faculty have a tendency to blather on. Rajeev, on the other hand, would sit quietly and then get right to the point. Rajeev left one hole that simply can’t be addressed. He forged a unique connection between the department and the entrepreneurial world—a connection that was broad, deeply technical, and full of integrity. That is something we simply can’t replicate with any other human being known to us.”

Ram Shriram, a family friend remembers, “Rajeev had a photographic memory and seemed to have a limitless capacity to remember people, numbers, events, companies and the like. He was always accessible and approachable. His business acumen rivaled his technical prowess which made him a unique and potent force in the venture community.”

Gaurav Garg noted, “Rajeev was one of those rare people who operated at the highest level of excellence in multiple disciplines. He was exceptionally observant, practical, thoughtful, yet decisive, with an unerring instinct for the right questions or issues around any topic, be it the game of cricket or a startup. I was always impressed by his kindness, fondness, and open door policy with young entrepreneurs.”

Rajeev was a nurturing force for many startups, according to a close friend and GigaOm editor Om Malik. As an investor and advisor, he sat on the boards of Google, Kaboodle, Mimosa Systems, Adchemy, Baynote, Vuclip.

Then Came the World Wide Web 

Around this time the world wide web was coming up and Rajeev got sucked into it. Rajeev in his interview with Shivanand Kanavi in 2002 recollects, “There was this guy Jeff Ullman, another one of the grand old men of computer science, who retired this year. He was in the office next to me and was in database. I was talking to him and a new student – Sergey Brin, and I remember at that time we were using Mosaic, and we were looking at the web and I was sitting there and thinking that we could randomize the web in some way because that was going to grow and become big and randomness was going to be important; though I did not know how and why. So I thought about doing random walks on the web and there was this problem of crawling on the web. At that time a search engine called Inktomi had just come out of Berkley. Excite and Yahoo had come out from Stanford so we had seen the first signs of all of this.

I remember going to Inktomi and searching for the word Inktomi and it could not find itself. I don’t know if that is still true but at that time if you went to Inktomi and typed in the word it said no results found. My Godelian past induced me to do these self-referential queries but what amazed me was that this is a simple thing that people screw up on. So in the context of all this I was listening to some people from IBM talk on Data mining and Ullman had just introduced me to some problems in databases. I broke them down with a student and was getting pretty excited about the concept of databases. Ullman took me for this talk on data mining which sounded very interesting to me. So Sergey and Ullman and we decided to do some data mining on the web because it sounded like a nice mix. We then formed this research group called Midas which stood for Mining Data At Stanford. We did a lot of good work on data mining. Then there was this guy called Larry Page who wasn’t really a part of the Midas group but was a friend of Sergey and would show up for these meetings. He was working on this very cool idea of doing random walks on the web.

When I understood what the World Wide Web would look like, I knew I had to somehow force randomness into it. When Larry showed us what he was doing, it was like a complete epiphany, we thought it was absolutely the right thing to do. So Sergey got involved and it became a sub group inside Midas. I was really a good sounding board for Sergey and Larry and I could relate to what they were doing through randomness. They then created a search engine called Backrub. It was running as a search engine from Stanford just like Yahoo ran till the traffic got big and the IT guys sent it off the campus. So these 2 guys would come to the office and say “hey we need some more disc space”. They were completely non respectful of me, which was a wonderful thing. They treated me like an equal. These 21 year old guys were demanding things from me. They needed more disc space because it’s getting bigger. So we need more disc and more money. There are still pictures around the building of how they used to use Legos, to create a box inside which the discs were being put. These discs were those cheap ones bought from the back of a truck and were generating a lot of heat. So they put it in Legos to allow for air circulation.

For me it was a fun research project. We had a lot of ideas which we shared. At some point this thing started getting very serious and we wanted a better name for this than Backrub. So somebody came up with the name Google. Google means 10 raised to the power of 100. It is actually spelt as GOOGOL but somebody miss spelt it and that’s how the search engine got its name. Of course the official story is we deliberately spelt it that way but my guess is we miss spelt it.

So Google started and pretty soon everybody in the world was using Google. The results were much better than all the other search engines going around. It was by word of mouth like I tell my brother to use it, he would tell his wife, wife would tell her kids and so on. At some point these guys said we want to start a company. Everybody said it was not worth it. There were 37 search engines already there. How would you raise money? How would you form the company? But they decided to do it and they did it. There were some big names which supported the company. Andy Bechtolsheim, an ex-Stanford guy who along with Vinod Khosla had founded the Sun Microsystems, put in a little bit of money. They managed to raise a million dollars. They started the company and it was right here in the university avenue. It used to be on my drive home so I used to go and hang out with these guys. It used to be wonderful.

Then they took over the world!

Right now the other search engines don’t even compare and I remember people who I don’t want to name saying why do you need another search engine? Today it is the most used search engine. Feels like I was part of a little bit of history and contributed to that history.”

Sergy Brin and Larry Page founded Google on September 4, 1998.

In his tribute to Rajeev, this is what Sergy Brin said, “Officially, Rajeev was not my advisor, and yet he played just as big a role in my research, education, and professional development. In addition to being a brilliant computer scientist, Rajeev was a very kind and amicable person and his door was always open. No matter what was going on with my life or work, I could always stop by his office for an interesting conversation and a friendly smile.

When my interest turned to data mining, Rajeev helped to coordinate a regular meeting group on the subject. Even though I was just one of hundreds of graduate students in the department, he always made the time and effort to help. Later, when Larry and I began to work together on the research that would lead to Google, Rajeev was there to support us and guide us through challenges, both technical and organizational.

Eventually, as Google emerged from Stanford, Rajeev remained a friend and advisor as he has with many people and startups since. Of all the faculty at Stanford, it is with Rajeev that I have stayed the closest and I will miss him dearly. Yet his legacy and personality live on in the students, projects, and companies he has touched. Today, whenever you use a piece of technology, there is a good chance a little bit of Rajeev Motwani is behind it.

This is how Larry Page remembered him, “Rajeev was a wise theoretician that had the rare knack and desire to turn theory into practical applications. Rajeev was always willing to lend an ear and a brain to anyone, even to me as a confused student. With his always open door and clever insights, Rajeev was instrumental in the early work that led to Google.”

Ron Conway, early stage investor in Google, Ask Jeeves and PayPal, recollects, “Rajeev was always so generous with his time. I was talking last night to Rajeev’s brother, Sanjay, and we concluded that there must have been THREE of him!!! ….one was always at university café and another was always at Stanford and the other one at google!!”

Humble to the Core

David Hornik of August Capital remembered Rajeev as a friend, “It is one thing to be friendly with someone in the business world. It is another thing altogether to consider them a friend. Rajeev genuinely liked people and people genuinely liked him.”

One of his instructors from IITK recalls, “I met him only infrequently since 1983, but I’d get in touch with him whenever any need arose, either for myself or for a student. Rajeev would render his help promptly and he’d answer e-mails without any delay. Only now I realize, reading about him, how busy though he had been all through. I recall that in 1999 June I went to his office to meet him. When I reached, an undergraduate student of his theory of computation course was there to clear some doubts. From the questions the student was asking, it was evident that the student had put in hardly any effort in the course. Most of us would be very impatient with such students. Rajeev, however, was not only patient but also friendly– I still remember how beautifully, without using the whiteboard, Rajeev explained, just through words, why the problem of checking if an input TM would ever make a left move when started on a blank tape is decidable. I could see that the student understood the argument, and he left the office very happy. It was a lesson to me — I realized that people of true excellence have no problems at all in accepting shortcomings in others.”

When Rajeev received Godel Prize in 2001, this is what he so humbly said, “I got the Godel prize for my theoretical work. In science it is said that one guy stands on the shoulders of another and another on his and so on. The guy on top gets the prize. In my case I was on the tip of the pyramid and so got the prize. Everyone forgets the pyramid.”

Rajeev was a school mate of Shahrukh Khan, the Indian film star, at St Columba’s High School in New Delhi and had great admiration for him. In his self-effacing style he would say, ‘that guy (Shahrukh) is brilliant and will be the No.1 in anything he takes up’. Pushing into background his own remarkable intellectual achievements.

Not feeling so lucky!

Prakash Tripathi met Rajeev as a 17 year old at IIT Kanpur campus in 1979. Rajeev spoke to Prakash, ironically, by the IITK poolside.

“Can you jump into the waters?,” Rajeev asked.

“Yes, I can,” Prakash replied.  Not because Prakash knew how to swim, but as a fresher in a campus of India’s engineering schools, in a hot summer afternoon in Kanpur, dying in a pool was a far dignified way to reject life’s conditions then to submit and surrender.

Rajeev didn’t tell Prakash whether he could swim. Nor Prakash had the courage to ask. But Rajeev inspired Prakash to convert our lies into truth as a homage to future. First thing Prakash did, after graduating from IITK, was to learn to swim in IIT Delhi pool. Prakash recollects, “It’s traumatic to me today that Rajeev didn’t. That was his failing as a human.”

Rajeev, 47, died June 5, 2009 in the backyard swimming pool of his Atherton home after a party celebrating the end of the school year. Rajeev’s blood alcohol level was .26 when he died, San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault said. The legal limit for operating a motor vehicle is .08. Rajeev did not know how to swim.

On June 6, 2009, day after Rajeev’s death, Deepak Nayar, wrote, “I was one year senior to him at IITK and when he arrived at Berkeley, I picked him from the San Francisco airport and had a run-down room ready for him (next to our run-down room above Pasand restaurant). Four of us lived above Pasand. He and his success were admired by so many of us. So many of us looked up to him and referred to him as an IIT Baap. We were proud of him. Sad it ended this way. This is not how it is supposed to be!!!!” In the classic American movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, the angel who has been sent to save George Bailey, says: “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

Rajeev’s life touched so many of us. His death has certainly left a big hole.

Every time you Google, you are in touch with Rajeev. 


Rajeev Motwani graduated with BTech in Computer Science from IITK in 1983 and PhD from Berkeley in 1988. He taught at Stanford till his accidental death in 2009. A fun loving highly accomplished theoretician who could find practical application of his ideas was an early investor in several start-ups. He helped Brin and Page in 1998 to found Google. He received Godel Prize in 2001 and Distinguished Alumnus Award from IITK in 2006. A Computer Science Building at IITK in Rajeev’s name is being constructed through generous donation from his family.

This story has been prepared from personal interviews and by cutting and pasting material found through, interestingly,  Google search! All credit to original contributors who are too many to be named individually.

Rahul Ram: Playing to a Different Note

After completing M.Sc. in Chemistry from IIT Kanpur in 1986 and PhD in Environmental Toxicology from Cornell University in 1990, Delhi-based Rahul Ram should have been a top grade scientist or an ace academician or both. But Ram chose to be lead singer and bassist of the band Indian Ocean.

It is very unlikely that you will come across another IITian like Rahul Ram. To begin with heRahul-Ram-339x310 has Masters in Chemistry from IIT Kanpur, a PhD in Environmental Toxicology from Cornell and has been involved in social movements like Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA). But he is most famously known as the lead singer and bassist of the band Indian Ocean.


Rahul Ram comes from a highly educated family. His parents were professors; as a result very high academic standards were maintained in the family. Rahul Ram decided to pursue chemistry and started preparation for IIT JEE but he didn’t like the intense preparation required and subjects like trigonometry, so instead he chose to join St. Stephens College, Delhi. While studying chemistry in St Stephens, he played guitar in various college bands.

After graduating from St. Stephens, Rahul joined IIT Kanpur for his Masters degree in Chemistry. At IITK due to the rigorous system he was completely engaged in studies. He was still uncertain about his career path. In the final year, students in his batch coordinated with each other to get to the best universities in US and he managed to get into Cornell to do a PhD in Environmental Toxicology.

Cornell was a happy time for him. The flexibility of education system there allowed him to take the courses he wanted to study. “I picked up the subject of my interest and spent the next four years (1986-90) studying social and development sciences along with my research work,” he says. Ram put music on hold but “heard a lot of it”. He completed his PhD in 4 years. With an all A score and strong research behind him, he looked for work with leading environment NGOs. But no good offer came his way. During his PhD, he also got married to Amita Baviskar who was doing PhD in Development Sociology from Cornell and was girlfriend of Rahul since Stephen’s days.

Return to India

Though Rahul thoroughly enjoyed his stay at US, he did not want to settle there. He hardly had a career plan and just followed his passion. He believed he had to be good in what he was doing and education is an asset. In September 1990, he returned to India and joined Narmda Bachao Andolan (NBA) Support Group in Delhi as an associate activist for Rs 2,000 a month. The experience of living in villages with tribal’s and in various jails completely transformed Rahul’s life. He realized that material pursuits and happiness were not related. Adivasis he met had no wealthy possessions but they were happy.

Indian Ocean

After the agitation he returned to Delhi and started playing music again to earn money. He had been playing bass guitar since junior school and continued to play by joining bands outside of Stephens and performed in events. In 1991, he took up his classmate Susmit’s offer to be a part of Indian Ocean for a show but continued to do his own things. Periods of uncertainty never bothered Ram as his parents and wife were extremely supportive. His sources of earnings were concerts, playing at jagrans and creating pamphlets for the NBA; Ram cruised through with ease. He enjoyed freedom more than money. While music continued, he started giving guest lectures in various colleges including the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi.

Money was tough for the band too. Though their music had grown its own strong following not being mainstream music, it was rejected by music labels in India and abroad. Slowly as media abroad started to appreciate Indian Ocean music, the conditions for them started to change in India too. With the release of its album Kandisa in March 2000, the band went on to acquire cult status and it changed the fortune of the band. Later, band worked on music for films such as Black Friday, Gulal, Peepli and many other projects. The international scene opened too. After their first concert abroad in London in August 2001 to touring the US thrice in 2005-6, there has never been a dull moment. The four-member band has held over 70 shows in the past one year.

From managing his day for Rs. 10 a day, today Rahul Ram earns in seven figures. But it was never the money; it always was about freedom and passion.

Follow Your Passion

A strong educational background, single mindedness and passion are usually the ingredients of a successful career. Even if the choice of career is unconventional, which may include no one fixed career at all.

In his own words at IIT Delhi, foundation day speech he says “Your notion of what makes you happy is what you need to figure out in your head. If you are willing to do what you want to do, I think there are some things which are very clear. You will be poor for a very long time but I don’t think that matters.”

Watch his very interesting hour-long IITD Foundation Day Speech. It is worth your time.


“I hardly had a career plan. My choice of subject to study and the career I wanted was based on my passion. Two things I was certain about—I had to be good in what I was doing and education is an asset,” says the bassist and vocalist of one of India’s premier bands, Indian Ocean.

Ram’s attitude to a career may not be conventional or ideal. But it may just be the sign of an emerging trend, where a tunnel vision to career doesn’t work. There are ways one can productively follow one’s passion and that’s by being sincere and hardworking in whatever you undertake.

Ram discovered his two passions— environment conservation and bass guitar—rather early in life. “I started learning to play the guitar in school,” says Ram, who was also a very vocal member of a local eco-group that even went to meet Sunderlal Bahuguna in Tehri. Influenced by the Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, he could hold discussions on impact of pesticides for hours. “I also honed my argumentative skills with facts and figures,” says Ram.

The environmental activist in him has taken a back seat as finally Ram has found a job he is content with. From an annual earning of Rs 30,000 in 1990 to a seven-figure yearly earnings, Ram considers his monetary success spectacular. On the career front, he is rocking.


Rahul Narasimha Ram graduated from IITK with M.Sc. in Chemistry in 1986 and Ph.D. in Environmental Toxicology from Cornell University in 1990. He is currently bassist and vocalist of one of India’s premier bands, Indian Ocean  This posting is based on published material that appeared in Business Today http://businesstoday.intoday.in/story/a-different-note/1/6513.html and IIT Stories http://www.iitstories.com/2012/04/03/rahul-ram-bassist-vocalist-of-indian-ocean-iit-kanpur-alumnus/

A Student Revolutionary and an Aspiring Mentor

An IITian who has worked for over four decades on issues of poverty, land and water, secure settlements, workplace safety, environmental planning, grassroots leadership training, and pollution control in both rural and urban communities. He has been a mentor to several generations of IITians – prodding them like Socrates to question the mainstream parameters of success to question the “should” and live a more “examined” life.

“I pity those who graduate from IIT’s just to sell soap in the US,” he says caustically. According to him, Indian technical education is geared to meet global demands. The courses taught in IIT’s today serve the US more than our own country. Earlier it was not the case when a more integrated approach was followed and humanities, ethics, history of technology, and logic were also taught giving their due importance. But today the education is producing unreal, disconnected technologists. He urges the young students to ask questions, and not just be receivers of “wisdom”, and to “learn the laws of motion of society and not just the laws of motion of science.” There is so much that is needed to be done in India.

The slightly frayed jeans and long silver hair tied into a ponytail give him the appearance ofDunu an aging beatnik, but unlike other aging beatniks, there’s still a spring in his step and an edgy excitement in his voice. In a  90-minute talk addressing a crowd of nearly a thousand IITians and other college students during the annual Techfest at IIT Bombay, he provokes his audience by calling them “big fools” who know nothing about India and its people. The IITians are victims of the politics of education and science. He goes on to say that environmental dynamics aren’t understood by engineers who seem to specialize in solving one problem to create another one, thereby creating a “sustainability for the engineering profession—and not for the people.”

No, it wasn’t a frustrated or failed aspirant but a former IITian, Anubrotto Kumar Roy popularly known as Dunu Roy who uttered these words. Dunu obtained a B.Tech in 1967 and an M.Tech in 1969 in Chemical Engineering from IIT Bombay. As a friend and a former mentee put it, “Dunu Roy is a chemical engineer by training, social scientist by compulsion, and a political ecologist by choice.” He has worked for over four decades on issues of poverty, land and water, secure settlements, safe work, environmental planning, grassroots leadership training, and pollution control in both rural and urban communities. And now he is trying to educate people about the Hazards of urban development and renewal.


Dunu grew up in Dehradun where his father S C Roy taught at the famous Doon School. During the Second World War Maria Montessori was stranded in India for several years. Latika Roy – Dunu’s mother was trained by Maria Montessori herself at Kodaikanal and for many years ran the first Montessori school in Dehradun. Dunu and his two elder brothers were also educated at both the Montessori and Doon School. In school Dunu won numerous all India awards in both English and Hindi elocution as well as in sports and theatre.

Latika Roy wanted one of her sons to become a medical doctor. This mantle fell on Dunu and he got into several medical colleges including the prestigious All India Institute of Medical Sciences and the Christian Medical College, Vellore. After cracking these tough exams Dunu rebelled and made up his mind to become an engineer. Next year he got into IIT Delhi where he had a severe attack of jaundice and had to return home and lost another year. Next year he was offered re-admission into IIT Delhi but again sat for the exams to get  into IIT Bombay from where he completed his BTech (Chemical in 1967) and MTech in1969.

Why Would Anyone Want to Work for a Company?

In the mid-sixties there was a massive earthquake in Koyna, Maharashtra. Socially conscious students wanted to do their little bit. As a student volunteer Dunu participated in building earthquake proof structures in Koyna. This motivated them to try extending the Green revolution technology that had just been invented. As enthusiastic engineering students they went to a village near Pune to teach the unsuspecting villagers about the benefits of hybrid seeds and chemical fertilizers. However, the villagers evinced no interest and remained skeptical because as practicing farmers they knew much more than what the students could teach them. But the students still wanted to help the villagers. In the morning they had seen many villagers squatting on the roadside and the women carrying their brass lotas. What the village evidently needed was a sanitary facility. Full of enthusiasm, the students once again fetched bricks, asbestos sheets, and a ceramic pot and constructed a toilet. They were proud of their social work.

The next year they wanted to do more “social service” for which they needed some funds. “Get a photograph of the latrine we constructed last year. This will be good testimony of our social work and then people will donate money.” So, someone was dispatched to click a photograph. The photographer returned back saying, “The latrine is not being used for its intended purpose but as a goat shelter.” After the initial outrage, someone suggested that maybe the enthusiastic students had misjudged the needs of the people. This was a great lesson in humility. The urban educated middle class could go totally wrong while assessing the real needs of the people.

“Those were heady days,” he says, talking about the 1970s. “The national dream was fraying; the Congress was, for the first time, being defeated; the wisdom of large-scale projects like the Bhakra dam was being questioned, and the increasing slum population in cities was challenging prevalent notions of development.” People’s movements were challenging the established order. Civil rights movement, anti-Vietnam marches, the environmental and feminist movements were impacting societal consciousness.

The student movement had spread in India, and the IITs weren’t immune. “Unlike today,” says Roy, “a national spirit and feeling of community was alive in the student population.” Students came forward in large numbers to work in rural areas and to revive the aspirations of the freedom movement. There were many heated discussions in the hostel rooms about how the youth could participate.

At this time, many Indian scientists who had made their mark in American Universities had returned to India to work or teach in the IITs. The notables were Prof. G. D. Agarwal (who joined IIT Kanpur and then became Member Secretary, Central Pollution Control Board) and Prof. P. K. Mehta (specialist in Cement technology who briefly worked at a cement plant in Sawaimadhopur) both from the University of California. They set up FREA – Front for Rapid Economic Advancement – an organization for the appropriate development of India. Their goal was to spur growth in small- and medium-sized industry.

The idea to work for FREA appealed to Roy. “After three successive years of monotonous industry placements during summer breaks, I couldn’t imagine why anybody would want to do something like that after IIT,” he explains. The idea of working long office hours for a MNC did not suit Dunu Roy and he gave up his career as a chemical engineer. Instead, he made a two-year commitment to FREA on a meager salary. The initial objective was to set up a strong institution that would provide solid professional assistance to aspiring entrepreneurs. But sometime after he’d started work, the group realized the solution to the problems of small- and medium-sized industries lay not in better technological inputs but in better credit lines and market development. In other words, it would be difficult for them to effect any change on the ground.

The programme then morphed into an effort to teach students about urban and rural development issues. The idea was to expose young minds to the larger reality of India – a reality steeped in poverty and exploitation. At first, IIT students were sent to remote tribal villages to experience the lives of the poor. They would live there for a few days and return back deeply stirred and devastated. The programme soon expanded into other colleges in Bombay and to students in other cities and towns. They would soon realize that people were poor not because they were lazy but because of the systematic exploitation of their resources by the elite. These intense experiences radicalized many young minds. The solutions to poverty were steeply rooted in economics and politics and could only be partially solved by technology or education.

Two years commitment with FREA turned into four. In the four years that he spent with FREA, they spread to 14 locations around the country, working with Gandhian organizations, church institutions, independent groups and more than 400 students were being sent out for short term assignments every year.

During those years, Roy worked all over India. The experience shaped his—and others’—future. “I realized,” he says, “that most developmental activities taking place in India at that time were micro-experiments, limited to either a cluster of villages or a few sectors like education and healthcare.” There was no understanding of the linkages between sectors; and the people who did work in villages, worked only to implement their own ideas of progress and development. “It was a top-down approach,” says Roy. “Nobody was asking the people what they wanted. They were talking to the people, not with the people.”

Knowledge as a Weapon to Bring Change

In the early 1970s the NGO model was heavily critiqued. The NGOs got their money from charitable trusts, the government or relied on foreign funds. They did not have to earn their living like ordinary people. Would people heed to such preachers? In 1975 Dunu, along with like-minded friends, started an experiment in the Shahdol district of Madhya Pradesh, “Kaam aur Kamai” – to do meaningful social work while earning a living within the community. The outcome was the Vidushak Karkhana – a small workshop to repair diesel pump sets and other rural machinery. It was a small commune where people lived and worked together while searching for a meaningful role for themselves. Dunu Roy

The Vidushak Karkhana slowly evolved into the Shahdol Group to carry out focused work on building a development model for the district and its implementation, in conjunction with local people. He was involved in this for 17 years during which he earned his income primarily out of repairing bicycles, pump sets, tractors, and electric motors in the district. Dunu led a highly disciplined life. Getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning he would wash last night’s utensils. Then he would light the “chulha” and cook lunch – rice, lentil and a vegetable. After that he would cook breakfast and make tea. As the tea got ready he would sing loudly to wake his other young colleagues. He would reply to dozens of letters every day, work for several hours in the workshop, and still find time to read books and discuss issues with his colleagues and the students who came to help with the surveys and research work. Discussions with Dunu and his colleagues helped many students to both understand society as well what could be their potential contributions to change.

It is in the Shahdol Group that Dunu and his co-workers got a glimpse of what the future might hold. Their studies showed that knowledge is power; that most conflicts in society were an attempt to control resources – land, minerals etc. They put together a framework that could be used by the people to analyze problems and come up with solutions, developed over almost two decades in the two studies on Environmental Planning and Environmental Education. It was a powerful participatory mechanism and people put it to a variety of uses, not only in Shahdol but also in other parts of India. As described by Roy:

  • Villagers in Shahdol always suspected the patwari for incorrect record keeping of their land. But they did not know what to do. We taught them the basics of how to measure land using the jareeb (an iron chain used to measure length) and calculate the area. The next time the patwari came they borrowed our jareeb and laid it alongside the patwari’s jareeb while busily scribbling their own notes in their copy at the same time as the patwari was recording his measurements. Later they came to return the jareeb and show us their copy which was full of meaningless numbers but, as they gleefully explained, this was the first time that the tables had been turned and the patwari did not know what they were doing and so the measurements were done correctly!
  • In the mid-80s, villagers from the Palamau district of Bihar wanted to see how the proposed dam on the Auranga river was going to impact on their area? We worked with them on how to measure the flow in the river, the silt load that it carried, and the slope of the land. With that, we said, you will be able to take on the project’s claims of projected irrigation, the life of the dam, and the extent of submergence. Villagers raised funds to purchase the equipment needed for measurement, collected data for a period of three months, and sent it to us for analysis that proved that the benefits from the dam would actually be less than the costs! People of Auranga took the report and propagated it all over the area through posters and leaflets, while the English version was duly sent off to the governments, the media, the courts, and even the World Bank. Till today, the Auranga river remains unbound.
  • In the mid-90s, villages and hamlets from the high ranges of Kullu district in Himachal Pradesh were being threatened by the declaration of the Great Himalayan National Park. A government commissioned study by foreign specialists concluded that only by declaring the Park as a protected area could the rare Western Himalayan Tragopan (a ground-dwelling bird) be saved. We suggested to the villagers to conduct their own study and compare their findings with what had been reported by the foreign experts. We explained them what to look for and the manner in which their findings could be documented. A detailed examination of the records collected by villagers – of, for example, the numbers of grazing cattle, the quality of the alpine pastures, the biodiversity of shrubs and grasses, the reproductive cycle of the pheasant birds, and the local extraction of herbs for domestic medicinal use – challenged every one of the findings of the government-sponsored study.

“We learned that people can fight for their survival based on what knowledge they can create. Each one of the reports and studies cited above and numerous others, that we helped produce, indicates that ordinary working people have the capacity to learn, to collect information, to look at it analytically, and eventually use it for bettering their own lives. And that is our goal and that should be the objective of education.”

Unfinished Business

After about 20 years Dunu moved to JNU, New Delhi where his wife Dr. Imrana Qadeer was a Professor at the Center of Social and Preventive Medicine. Imrana comes from an erudite family of scientists and scholars and is a known expert in the field of community medicine. She too left her Registrar-ship at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences to teach at JNU. Their son Ishan studied design at the National Institute of Design (NID) Ahmedabad and is now teaching at the Genesis School in NOIDA. They have a daughter Devi who is currently in school and aspires to be a psychologist (although occasionally she also wants to be a professional assassin!).

In Delhi Dunu did a brief stint with the World Wide Fund for Nature. There, he created a low-cost cell to monitor the effects of pollution on habitat and to build a bridge between the workers in industry (where pollution is created and has the maximum harm) and the farmers in the hinterland (who are officially the impacted people). “They shunted me out after four years, when my work started upsetting the companies that funded them,” he says candidly.

He then set up the Delhi-based Hazards Centre, a research group that “helps communities and organizations to understand and deal with anything that’s dangerous to their survival”. It works with marginalized groups all over India, mainly in urban areas now, helping them face challenges and adapt to changing circumstances. The Centre also gets 20-30 student interns every year from the IITs and other premier institutes. The Centre helps these students to understand how the other half lives, struggles, or dies.

In Gujarat, his small group of researchers assisted communities in making claims under the Tribal Rights Act; in Patna, they provided information to women’s groups in slums to enable them to lay claim to water, sanitation, and other services; in Visakhapatnam, they strengthened squatter groups to obtain proper resettlement from the railways; in Singrauli, they are giving technical expertise to citizens’ groups challenging the environmental degradation by thermal plants; in Hyderabad, they supplied designs for people’s critical analysis of urban renewal projects; in Bhubaneswar, they are helping vendors’ associations to understand the Vendor Act and Policy; in Delhi, they are guiding groups of waste-pickers, rickshaw-pullers, daily workers, and vegetable sellers in conducting studies that will provide them with entitlements under the Master Plan; and in Uttarakhand and Himachal, they are developing critiques of hydro-electric generation projects and their impacts on the local population.

More than anyone else in the country Dunu has been an aspiring mentor to several generations of IITians and students from many professional colleges and institutions – prodding them like Socrates to question the mainstream parameters of success, to challenge the accepted “should”, and conduct a more “examined” life. He has encouraged them to explore how their education can be put to socially meaningful use; how their M Phils and PhDs are more relevant for the people; and how research can have an objective that is greater than the acquisition of degrees and academic positions.

Purpose of Education

“The purpose of education should be to develop the capacity to learn, to collect information, to look at it analytically, and eventually use it for bettering lives. Instead, we have didactic instruction, memorizing by rote, and vomiting out useless information for futile examinations that constitute the fundamentals of what passes for education in our schools and colleges.”

To the outsider, it seems like Dunu has drifted a long way from his engineering days at IIT. “Not at all,” protests Dunu. “The IITs were meant to create solutions to national problems, which is why they were called Institutes of Technology and not Institutes of Engineering and Management, which is what they have become today. I am still very much an engineer, but I link the profession with an understanding of the politics of society and the imperatives of ecology.”

Does he think the film 3 Idiots is indicative of the changing attitude towards engineering? “Yes and no,” he says, after thinking for a moment. Dunu admits that the film raised questions about an engineering education, but believes that the answer it provided was flawed.

“It basically said you could succeed in professions like photography or music despite your engineering degree; but it never answered the real question – how do you make engineering relevant


Dunu Roy [IIT Bombay BT/67/MT/69] is Director of Hazards Centre, Delhi http://www.hazardscentre.com . He received the Distinguished Alumnus Award from IIT Bombay in the years 1975 and 2000. IIT Kanpur in 2008 conferred upon him the Satyendra K. Dubey Memorial award for his outstanding work in rural development and spreading environmental awareness. He continues to work for the causes of environmental protection, domestic workers, contract workers, rag pickers, jhuggi-jhopri walas, potable water, and urban India’s hazardous life. The challenges before him now are manifold and of gigantic magnitude but he is not the one to give up. Even if a part of the work he has undertaken yields results, it will be a big leap forward in service to the community. He can be reached at qadeeroy@gmail.com

[This article was prepared by copying and pasting material from various published sources. Their contribution is gratefully acknowledged.]

A Monk Who Didn’t Care for Ferrari: Teaching to Serve Society

With CPI of almost 10 in B.Tech. at IITK, he could have had any job or admission to any university. He declined all offers of job, admission, or scholarship to pursue one goal – Service to Society.

With 2nd All India Rank in JEE and his almost 10 CPI in BTech (he got only one “B” IITKAlumnusMonkgrade), he could have had anything that he wanted. He was all set to make a materialistically enriching life, which millions aspire. With three sisters, he is the only son of his parents, and the entire family along with many of his batch mates, begged him to study abroad. A batch mate on a blog wrote, “I occasionallymocked his convictions and told his parents that he would eventually succumbto the lure of dollars, just like several of his batch mates.” But, he couldn’t be deterred from his single-minded pursuit of serving humanity. He would explain, “Just like Silicon Valley, social sectors too desperately need intelligent people.” He declined all offers of admissions and scholarships from prestigious universities and continued his Ph.D. at IITK. His goal: Service to Society

After his B.Tech and Ph.D. from IITK some 25 years ago, Dr. Ramesh Misra, now Swami Ramananda or popularly known as Ramesh Maharaj, teaches at the Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda University at Belur Math [Name of the alumnus has been changed at his request]. Unmarried, he has dedicated his entire life towards a social cause – education for the masses. He continues to positively impact the lives of the poorest of the poor. Recently, he helped save the life of 12-year-old Sarita, who developed a hole in her heart. Ramesh helped raise funds for her operation. Though many were doubtful of meeting the goal of raising Rs. 3Lakhs, Sarita was back home after a successful surgery, making his IITK classmate and next door neighbor in the hostel, put his faith in Ramesh’s words that , “there are a lot of good people in the world, we just need to reach out to them.”


As a student at IITK, through Vivekananda Samiti, he taught several of the mess workers’ children, besides other poor employees. He also stood for the cause of mess workers for their rights which irked the administration that wanted to take disciplinary action against him. However, the support for Ramesh from Computer Science department was too much to take any action. It is believed that as a revenge for his actions he received the only B-grade of his student life in Sociology course, thus denying him a chance to win President’s Gold Medal. Once again in 1993 at IITK, a construction workers’ cooperative was fighting for the right of full minimum wages to workers and against the contractor system. Workers had decided to organize a fast since the administration was reluctant to take any action. A professor of Computer Science Department and Ramesh joined the fast in solidarity.

24 Karat Pure Gold

Ramesh is 24 Karat pure brilliant gold! This is how one of his batch mate and now an IPS Officer recollects, “In IIT Kanpur and later on in the police service as an IPS officer, I had the privilege of meeting many sharp and intelligent people. But no one ever came anywhere near the pure brilliance this unassuming and simple boy (this is the way I last saw him in 1989 when we graduated from Kanpur) had. To give an example, those of us from Engineering stream know what kind of problems in Physics by I.E. Iredov has. Very few of those who make it to the IIT and other Engineering colleges are able to solve more than 30-40% of these problems on their own without the guidebook. Ramesh could do them all at the time he entered IIT.”

Another batch mate wrote, “I consider myself lucky to have been Ramesh’s batch mate at IIT-Kanpur. Personally I have never met a more gifted person, intellectually and spiritually, in my life. He was able to produce outputs with minimum input and was able to solve problems from all the engineering disciplines (not just computer science). His approach to problem solving is very refreshing and he makes even difficult problems look absurdly simple. If he explains, everyone understands faster and better than what our professors could do.”

This is what one GSV, who was an MTech student when Ramesh was doing his PhD wrote, “Ramesh lived above my room at IITK. I was amazed by the flock of PhD students from all departments standing in line outside his room waiting to see him and solve their thesis problems. He would get up after a long sleep and when asked, he would answer that he was busy teaching and playing with children in the neighboring village previous night. What an outstanding selfless humble personality! Then some students would take him to the Hall 5 mess buy him food and meantime he would crack the students thesis problem (including Mech. Engg.). We all looked at him like a superhuman above every other living student at that time. I knew that time that he could get any job in any country that any other student would desire (including me) but he would not have got the satisfaction that he had right now. We will never understand the bliss and satisfaction that he has right now, because to understand we need to elevate ourselves to that level which is rare to happen. I am proud that a highly intelligent fellow Indian is using his skills to improve the quality of education and future of India’s children.”

Doing your Best is what Matters Most

 Ramesh never cared for any award or recognition. He did not get upset when he was denied President’s Gold Medal at IITK due to one B-grade in a course which everyone thought was due to no fault of his. He did not get up in arms when his B.Tech project work became a paper in ACM journal (ACM is the highest research society for computer science the EE equivalent is IEEE) but the reviewer of the paper, a renowned professor in computational geometry in Canada, without any contribution to the paper added his name as the first author and his student’s as the third author, putting Ramesh’s name in the middle. Nor he complained when his project partner was showered with accolades for best project in which  Ramesh did all the work. In recognition of his outstanding contributions to the society at large, Ramesh was conferred with the Distinguished Alumnus Award by IITK and is among the top 50 most influential alumni.

Childlike Simplicity

 Ramesh’s father was GM at  Bhilai Steel Plant and mother a professor of Electrical Engineering. Ramesh grew up with three sisters – all engineers. Ramesh was not only clear of what he wanted to do in life; he wanted to do it in the most inexpensive way. This is how a classmate of Ramesh from NIT Raipur where Ramesh did his 1st year BE after 10+1 before joining IITK remembers him, “He had only two pairs of payjamas and kurta. With a cotton hand bag on the shoulder, he used to go to the slum behind our college to teach students. Her mother used to request us to persuade Ramesh to buy some pants and shirts or at least few more payjamas and kurtas. But he wouldn’t listen.” He remained austere at IITK as well. A batch mate from IITK wrote that he managed to pass four years with just a pair of white kurta-pyjama. His child like simplicity still continues. On one occasion, a fellow monk’s computer was having some problems and he knew that Ramesh Maharaj could fix it. He called Ramesh Maharaj.  Ramesh Maharaj replied that he was quite busy. The fellow monk then told that he will give him a bottle of Thumbs-Up if he comes. Ramesh Maharaj was excited like a child to hear that and quickly turned up. The computer got fixed but, he forgot to drink the Thumbs-Up. “Ramesh is like a kid” – he told.

Courage of Conviction

 Many of us wonder but one of his batch mates from IITK point blanked asked Ramesh, “Did you know what you have done? How on the earth could you abandon all that and take up a monastic life?” He laughed. Throughout our discussion he maintained that it was not a sudden decision. It just grew over him. At the end of my direct question, he told me, “You know, I did not make much of renunciation. It is actually you, who did it. I left lesser stuff for something better and you left the better things to dwell over the mundane matters. Now tell me, who actually renounced?”

“Ramesh’s story is beyond inspiration, recalls his IITK class-mate and next door neighbor in the hostel. When I look around at my batch-mates, many of whom head companies, I consider Ramesh the biggest success story of IIT. His story should be a catalyst for all those who want to bridge the social abyss created by market forces and government inaction.”

Another visitor after meeting Ramesh, reflecting during his journey back home wrote, “Looking outside the bus window I could not help but reflect that Ramesh Maharaj is a wonderful example of an indomitable spirit, undaunted courage of conviction and above all, loftiness of character.  In a world where much of our activity these days is nothing more than a cheap anesthetic to deaden the pain of an empty life, Ramesh Maharaj stands tall with his head held high. Ramesh’s example is a testimony that while there might not be anything wrong inherently, in pursuing our goals, whether materialistic or not, at least some of our life needs to be spent for the upliftment of others who might not be that well-endowed or fortunate. Perhaps it need not always be with money but maybe some of our time, or maybe partially if not in full measure, no matter how small or insignificant the effort might be. I am reminded of Rabindranath Tagore’s quote – Life is given to us, we earn it by giving a part of it to others. It leads me to conclude that the opposite of love isn’t hate. It’s apathy.”



Alumnus featured here wrote to us, “I am usually very shy of any kind of publicity. I have to humbly say that actually I don’t like it at all. It increases one’s ego meaninglessly which is bad for one’s spiritual and psychological makeup.” Although this is a true story, to honor his wishes and to avoid unnecessary publicity we have changed his name. Please feel free to post your comment / questions on the blog.We will pass your comments/questions to him.

Gleam in the Children’s Eyes: Trucks to Toys-from-Trash

The educational terrain in India, especially for poor children, is very harsh – almost barren. Even a good seed will wilt away in the absence of any soil to nurture it. We should endeavor to prepare a fistful of soil every day to help these seeds germinate. Therein lies hope and this will lend meaning to our lives.

ArvindguptaAfter graduating from IIT Kanpur in 1975, Arvind Gupta took up a job with Telco, Pune, now Tata Motors, as an engineer trainee. Two years later he realized that he was not born to make trucks. There were too many questions plaguing him. “Why do people who toil the hardest, do the most back breaking work get paid the least? Why was the education system so rotten? Why did the poor have no access to quality education?” He wanted to experience life, participate in the struggle of workers, and instead of seeing the scorching headlights of trucks he wanted to see a gleam in the eyes of children – the joy of learning something new!

In 1980 when Arvind quit his job at Telco, his mother came to his defense stating, “Good, now that he has quit his job he will do something worthwhile”.

A prophetic statement from a woman who herself never went to school.  But she ensured that her four children went to the best school and excelled. Arvind has not disappointed his mother.  Every day he has worked with children – perhaps learnt more from them than he has taught. For the last 30-years, he has been demystifying and popularizing science among children with toys from trash thus preparing the fertile soil which will one day nurture young minds to germinate into eager, creative, exploring, questioning adults.


In 1972 a lecture at IITK by Dr. Anil Sadgopal recounting his experiences of teaching science to village children in Madhya Pradesh stirred him deeply. Dr. Sadgopal did a PhD from Caltech and worked as a microbiologist with the TIFR. He was barely thirty when he quit his job to start Kishore Bharati – one of the first NGO’s in the Hoshangabad District of Madhya Pradesh. He was disgusted by the horrendous way science was taught in village schools. The Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme (HSTP) attempted to make science interesting for village kids who had no access to expensive labs. Arvind looked at the possibilities of designing simple fun experiments using easily available local, low-cost materials like matchboxes, coins, broom sticks, newspapers, cycle tubes, old electric bulbs, rubber slippers etc. This excited Arvind enormously. In 1978, he took one year off from Telco and worked with the HSTP. There he designed many appropriate teaching aids. One was the Matchstick Mecanno which used cycle valve tube and ordinary matchsticks to make a series of 2 and 3-dimensional structures.

Another person that inspired him was Laurie Baker, a British-born Indian architect, renowned for his work on cost-effective energy-efficient houses. Arvind calls him,”my college day icon.” As a very compassionate architect, Laurie Baker touched the lives of the poor. He used local materials, local designs to build very affordable houses for the poorest fishermen. In 1978, Arvind spent four splendid months working with this great man and learnt that the solution to problems of the poor can be found by delving deeper into their reality – by understanding local materials, designs and skills. Arvind recalls, “Baker was an amazing man – all the time joking, laughing, drawing cartoons making fun of himself and the world around him, but simultaneously doing dead serious work.”

George Washington Carver – the black scientist’s life and work also deeply inspired him. Born a slave he struggled hard against racism and worked for the good of all humanity

Finally in 1980, Arvind left Telco to pursue his passion. He joined the Vidushak Karkhana – a commune run by a group of socially sensitized IITians (Dunu Roy, Sudhindra Seshadri and Sanjeev Ghotge) in the tribal district of Shahdol. There the inmates lived a Spartan life – cooked and worked collectively, ran a mechanical workshop, and dissected and discussed the whole world. Here the “personal became political” and he was able to explore some of his deepest queries.

From 1981-83, he worked with a trade union of miners in Chattisgarh. To him, terms like ‘contract workers’ and ‘exploitation’ were mere words, bereft of any deep meaning. He thought of experiencing the life of the marginalized to make sense and understand them better. The three years were tough but deeply enriching. Many times the only meal was rice with salt; and bed was the union office floor. He brought out the union’s newspaper “Mitan” – and sold it on the mine gates. He also helped the union run a garage for repairing trucks and taught in their schools. Through this he gained first-hand experience of the deep struggle in the lives of the poor. The mining township had 300 dump trucks ferrying ore from the mines to the railway yard. Children of the miners were very creative. They made improvised dump-trucks using just two matchboxes. They used a matchstick lever to lift the loading platform of their trucks. This was his first insight into the amazing world of children’s creativity. He documented this Matchbox Dump Truck in his first book – “Matchstick Models & other Science Experiments”.


Arvind was born in 1953, one of four children whose parents had never been to school. His father – a poor businessman was perpetually in debt. He greatly benefited from his mother’s wisdom. She gave him enormous self-esteem and high self-worth. His mother understood the value of education and made sure that all her four children attended the best English Convent in Bareilly (UP) – St. Maria Goretti School. When debts mounted she sold her jewelry to pay for the children’s school expenses. Arvind still remembers his math teacher, Mrs. Frey. “She was the best. She nudged us gently to relate things to real life. She realized that I was good in math but poor in English. So, she chatted with me for hours in English.  Because of her generosity I excelled in English and passed with distinctions.” As a child he didn’t have many bought out toys. In a sense this was a blessing – because now he had to improvise his own toys. When he was 6 years old a relative gifted him a Mecanno Set – which had steel strips with holes, screws and pulleys. He played with it for years and made many more things than were listed in the brochure.

Arvind did well in school and topped his district in the Intermediate Board Exams. After 12th he got into IIT with an AIR of 218. He was 28th in the North Zone. Which branch of engineering to choose? He had no clue. So he asked all the 27 boys ahead of him as they returned after counseling. All had opted for Electrical. So he landed up doing Electrical Engineering.

The Time & the Place: IITK and the 70’s

Coming from a poor family and small town, IITK opened up a new magical world for him. The swanky infrastructure, astounding facilities, enlightened faculty and elite peer group did sometimes instill a sense of awe. But there were great opportunities to be seized.

Together with his friend Akhilesh Agarwal he did a lot of tinkering – they made a compressed air engine, a Wankle Engine and repaired numerous aero-modeling engines. For full three years both of them ran the aero-modeling and auto-club at IITK.

As a child Arvind read little. IITK made up for it. The best thing at IITK was the library. It opened from 8 AM to midnight and one could issue 10 books. He used to read a lot – 6 newspapers every single day! He got addicted to the Economic & Political Weekly (EPW) and voraciously lapped up the Calcutta Diary by Ashok Mitra. This helped him see his own experiences in a perspective. All 5-years, he got the merit-cum-means scholarship. So, it was cheaper for his parents to keep him at IITK, than at home! This meant he spent a lot of time at IITK even in holidays.

The 1970’s were politically very volatile years. Students were out on the streets of Paris challenging authority. Anti-Vietnam, civil rights movements were rattling America. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring ushered in the environment movement. Intellectuals were swearing not to participate in war research. There was revolution in the air.

Arvind was drawn to political activism right in his first year. The Director had suspended Prof. A. P. Shukla – a distinguished physicist from Princeton for his left-leaning activism with the Karamchari Sangh. In protest the students decided to take out a march. He decided to join in. He was perhaps the youngest amongst the protesters. The rest were all MTech and PhD students. There were hardly any BTech’s. Students marched from one hostel to another. Some protestors carried placards and banners. As a young novice he was the only one shouting, “Comrades come out! Protest!” Some of the PG students got jittery at the word ‘comrade’ and asked him to shut up. He was too naive to understand the political ramifications of ‘comrade’. To him it simply meant a friend. The march ended by pissing in front of the Director’s House! This was Arvind’s first explicit political act!

A few intellectuals in IITK in 70’s were sympathetic to the Naxalite movement. They endlessly discussed the ideology of ‘class conflict’ and ‘seizure of state power’ over umpteen cups of coffee and Charminars.

Such empty talk didn’t attract him. They sounded vain. “Why don’t they do something about the plight of the mess servants?” Arvind would ask, “They serve us from early morning till late at night. Still their children don’t get admission in either the elite Campus School or the Central School.” Some of his class mates placed more faith in small positive action than in empty rhetoric. They were doers. So, he joined a group called SAHYOG – which helped teach the children of the mess servants.

They went from room-to-room collecting Rs 5/- per month pleading with hostel mates to “help a poor child go to school”. Some people were kind and paid. Others slammed the door on their faces and threw them out. He taught for a long time in the Opportunity School – a makeshift school for the underprivileged run in a Type II quarter.

In TA-204 Arvind and Akhilesh swore not to make a ‘silly’ project which would gather dust and ultimately mingle into rust. So they decided to do something ‘socially useful’ for the community. So, they made a ‘see-saw’ for the Opportunity School. They got the kids to do Shramdan. They dug two pits and finally grouted the ‘see-saw’ in place. Once a week he used to bunk classes to teach in the Opportunity School. They also held evening tutorials – helping children with difficult concepts or their homework. He spent the last 3-years in Hall V where he taught at least a dozen children from the Nankari village. They finally cleared their High School Exams.

Around 1970 Dr. Man Mohan Choudhary started the Le Montage – a film club. In five years the films club screened just about every film by Kurosawa, Bergman, Fellini, de Sica and Satyajit Ray. ‘Wages of Fear’ and ‘The Bicycle Thief’ was screened at least thrice. The student’s saw the world’s best cinema and listened to the country’s best musicians. All this had a profound effect on his sensibilities! There were extra-mural lectures by luminaries – Dr. Anil Sadgopal, Noble Laureate Gunnar Myrdal and Hindi writer Bhishma Sahni.

Arvind recalls, “A good institute does something to you without you knowing it. It slowly creeps and seeps under your skin – every pore of it. And that is what IITK did to me – it shaped my thinking, my character and prodded me to do something worthwhile than just make money.”

His first semester English teacher was the very enlightened Prof. Suzie Tharu and The Little Prince was his text book! The many social science courses – Philosophy, Political Science, and Economics challenged him to view issues from different angles – to look beyond the narrow ‘technical’ viewpoint. IITK certainly gave him a holistic perspective.

The defining political slogan of the seventies was:

“Go to the people, Live with them, love them,

Start from what they know. Build on what they have.”

 Mission – to get the gleam back into a child’s eyes

Arvind has attempted to put the joy back into learning science. He has designed 1000 low-cost teaching aids and toys for learning science. These activities have been documented in clear sequential photographs with crisp instructions into books and videos. His team has also made 470 short films (1-2 minute duration) on how to make these learning aids. These films dubbed in 18 languages show the whole process of making and playing with the toy. Currently he has 3400 short films on YouTube with over 40,000 viewers every day. In the last four years these films have been viewed over 15-million times. Friends and volunteers help in dubbing these films in many world languages. When children see a film in their local language it makes a lot more sense to them. All this educational material can be downloaded freely from his website http://arvindguptatoys.com/

gupta-5Over the years he has translated hundreds of books on education, peace, science, mathematics and great children’s literature into Hindi. He has also presented over 145 films for the NCERT science programme titled Tarang. These films have been repeatedly beamed on Doordarshan. He has conducted workshops in over 2,500 schools across the country – many of them with municipal and poor schools. This is how he describes his experience after each workshop, “After every workshop I see smiles on the faces of the children. There is gleam in their eyes. These have been my most fulfilling moments. I see hope.”

To reach far flung remote Indian villages with little internet connectivity a DVD titled Thegupta-6 Learner’s Library has been collated. It contains 1000 amazing E-Books on Education, Peace, Environment, Science, Mathematics and great Children’s Books plus 220 short videos on Toys-from-Trash plus 6000 photographs with instructions to make simple science models. All this is packed in a single DVD! This DVD (currently in Marathi, Hindi and English) has been shared with over 7000 schools for free. Apart from this, every week Arvind’s team holds two free science workshops for school children. In each workshop 50 children from a municipal school participate. They spend 4-hours seeing some amazing science demonstrations and also make 10 simple science models with their own hands. The children take back what they make.

In 2003, Prof. Jayant Narlikar (Padma Vibhushan) India’s most celebrated Astrophysicist invited Arvind to work at the Children’s Science Center of IUCAA (Inter-University Center for Astronomy & Astrophysics) located in Pune. Here, a small team of four – very activity202passionate and wonderful people work out of a 400-sq ft room. Surrounded by junk, the 59-year-old Arvind, in his corduroys and khadi kurta, walks around barefoot, creating teaching aids which he lovingly call “toys”. Gupta’s office/lab is littered with finds from the local bazaar, garbage cans, old bottles etc. There are broken CDs, used Tetrapaks, bicycle valves and tubes, film rolls, magnets, plastic straws, used refills of ballpoint pens, all types of paper, worn-out bathroom slippers, matchsticks and matchboxes, mirrors, bangles and combs. Hanging from soft-boards, wall nails, doorknobs and handles are Tetrapak butterflies, needle and thread acrobats, paper birds, spiders and skeletons.

Everyday 10,000 passionate books are downloaded from his website. All for free. His reward: a sense of deep gratitude to be able to do something meaningful for the poorest children of the world. The Science Center’s mission statement is – “Get the gleam back into a child’s eyes.”

He believes in Copyleft NOT Copyright

There are 400-million Hindi-speaking people who have little access to good reading material. There is a tremendous paucity of good books in Hindi. With over a billion people there are no decent public libraries in India. One of his passions has been to translate good books for children in Hindi. Every day he spends three hours translating books into Hindi so that they can reach out to a larger section of children.

In 1998, the Pokhran blast shook his conscience. The response to these nuclear tests was uniformly eulogistic. Politicians across the board lauded this feat.  Indian scientists vied for photographs dressed in military fatigues. This was deeply depressing for Arvind.  He looked around and there seemed to be no books on peace in India – the land of Buddha and Gandhi. It was then that he came across a Japanese story called ‘Sadako and the Thousand Cranes’ – a true story about a girl named Sadako Sasaki, who was diagnosed with leukemia after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Sadako knew about the Japanese legend that folding a 1000 paper cranes would grant her wish. She did fold a few hundred cranes but ultimately succumbed to the atom bomb disease. Sadako died at twelve for no fault of hers. This story brought tears to Arvind’s eyes. He knew he had to translate it. There are now a dozen anti-war books, amongst hundreds of other translated titles on his website. “Our focus is to make valuable world literature available to our children in Hindi,” says Gupta.

Lokmanya Tilak said, ”Swaraj is my birthright, and I will have it.” Arvind has similar views on the sharing of knowledge. He says, “Knowledge is my birthright, and I will share it. Copyrights laws were enacted in the caveman’s era – they make little sense in today’s digital world. The digital dream should be to bring every book, in every language available to every child on earth for free. And this is very doable.” He has digitizing thousands of out of print books on education and for children. He has been translating books that help children see new possibilities and expand their horizons. He claims, “The need to share knowledge is enormous. The response of civil society should be to share. Not for money, but for the love of sharing. Whatever I do is a small effort towards doing just that.”

Science is not about burettes or pipettes

Having visited more than 2,500 schools, Gupta observed that in most schools the lab apparatus lay locked in cupboards and gathered dust. It is a myth that science can only be done in fancy labs with gleaming glass burettes and pipettes. Science has been made out to be a bookish affair in which you simply mug up definitions and formulae and spit them out in exams. But this is patently untrue.

For children, the whole world is a laboratory – they are always making things. Children are often traumatized by expensive equipment alienated from their own daily life. His slogan is, “The best thing a child can do with a toy is to break it.”

Why do children break toys? Because they are curious and want to know what’s inside it. This is what propels them.  A well designed toy must welcome children to pull it apart, see its innards and put it back again. There is enormous possibility and potential in our children, if they are given a chance to discover things for themselves. “When children make things themselves, they gain a deep insight. They learn so much without being taught. For instance, the newspaper has a grain in one specific direction. Long strips can only be torn along the grain, not across it,”

The British Telcom ad sums the deadness of schools succinctly. “Children walk to school, children run away from school.” If we can link science to real life and real objects than it becomes magical. On Arvind’s website, one can find, for instance, a delightful centrifugal pump made from a drinking straw, a piece of a bicycle spoke and some sticky tape. Another is a totally unbelievable way of balancing ten nails on the head of a single vertical nail, which can be rocked. The nice thing about these toys is that they are made from absolutely low cost, locally available materials, with a strong recycling element.

We must not forget that most sacred and expensive thing in any “lab” is the child’s mind! Toys capture children’s imagination, teach them scientific principles, and encourage their curiosity. Toys from trash imbue another cardinal value TO DO MORE WITH LESS.

We need engineers to help those living on the ground

To encourage IITians to take up social causes, he suggests that first and second year students should spend a couple of days living in a city-slum or with a remote village community. This will directly expose them to conditions of depravity and dehumanization. Compassion and consciousness for the poor can come only through direct personal experience and not through lectures on poverty. These real experiences will make youngsters think, analyze and they will soon discover for themselves the real reasons for world poverty. Some of them will later on certainly take up more meaningful vocations then working for the war industry or destructive corporations. Arvind’s inspiration is a Young Oxfam Poster of the seventies:

“And somewhere there are engineers

Helping others fly faster than sound.

But, where are the engineers

Helping those who must live on the ground?”


Arvind Gupta has been conferred numerous awards for his work, including the inaugural National Award for Science Popularization amongst children (1988), Distinguished Alumnus Award by IIT / Kanpur (2001), Indira Gandhi Award for Science Popularization (2008) and the Third World Academy of Science Award (2010) for making science interesting for children.

Please feel free to contact Arvind Gupta (BT/1975) at arvindguptatoys@gmail.com

His website http://www.arvindguptatoys.com has FREE downloadable resources on education, environment, science, and toy making.  

I should have paid more attention to developing soft skills than worrying about CPI

I have now realized that happiness does not depend on CPI. There are many other things which affect happiness in life – health, relationship with spouse, kids, parents, friends and neighbors to name a few.

During B. Tech. days many of my classmates were extremely worried about their CPI. For many it was the only way to ensure access Sanjay Kumar 2to American universities and most importantly the scholarships there. I never had those aspirations and possibly because of that I never felt that type of pressure at anytime during B. Tech. program.

This doesn’t mean that I did not want to do well; I just couldn’t help it.  It was quite frustrating for me.  However, after so many years I have become wise enough to realize that life does not depend so much on CPI. There are many other things which affect happiness in life – health, relationship with spouse, kids, parents, friends and neighbors to name a few.

Honestly speaking, I did struggle with my CPI during B. Tech. which I passed out in 1989. It was in electrical engineering and my passing out CPI was 7.1. Am I a “success” story? I do not know. I consider myself to be a work-in-progress. I am still struggling (though I am doing reasonably well)   and trying to build my entrepreneurial business. I believe in efforts. Hopefully the result will take care of itself.

Humble beginnings

Before I talk about my views on CPI let me talk about myself first. I was born and brought up in a very small tribal village at a remote location in Jharkhand. My village had no electricity and the nearest all weather road was approximately 10 km away. In the absence of any public transport we had to either walk or ride on bicycle to go to the nearest small town, a block headquarter, and then catch a bus to go to Ranchi, Gumla or Lohardaga. During rainy season it was almost impossible to ride even on a motor bike. During these days even getting any medical help from nearby town used to be a project in itself. Because of lack of hygiene in our daily life, we used to get sick quite often and many a times our grandparents believed on the local “Ojha” (tantric) will cure us. Luckily my father was an educated man and believed more on modern medical care.

I started studying a bit late (about 6 or 7 years of age) that too at home. My grandfather had arranged one teacher of nearby village school to come to our house regularly and teach us. After fair bit of teaching I was admitted to a school of nearby village in class 4. The school was approximately 1.5 Km away and we used to sit on the floor on our jute sacks and were taught by teachers who used to do part time farming.

When I was about 11 years old my uncle took me with him so that I can study in town. He was a lecturer in Bhagalpur University. My secondary school education was completed there. By this time I had proven myself to be a good student.  I used to feel good at school because of all the recognition that I got for being a good and sincere student. However, I must admit, I did not quite enjoy the normal family and social life very much because of being away from my parents for a long time. I had clearly missed the parental love and guidance during those formative years.

My higher secondary education was done partly at Bhagalpur and then at Ranchi. At Ranchi I came in contact with some really good friends who helped me in preparing for JEE. I did not take any conventional coaching classes but relied on books suggested by my friends. However I could manage to get good AIR ranking securing a seat in Electrical Engineering B. Tech program at IIT Kanpur. Thanks to my friends Rajesh Ranjan and Manoj Roy for extraordinary help without which I could not have cracked JEE.

I had good AIR. I tried, but could not get A’s in courses at IITK

Now I was at IIT Kanpur, a shy person with no confidence to engage in good conversation in English and used to feel a bit awkward in many social occasions. Clearly my confidence was at its lowest which was compounded by just enough monetary support from my parents. Thanks to the Merit-Cum-Means scholarship which provided me extra support. I do not know what I would have done without it.

I tried as much as I could but could not get A’s. I had to contend with B’s, C’s and sometimes D’s.

The reasons for this are my failure in getting fully engaged during classes and, I must admit, not being able to comprehend many things being taught in classes due to poor listening comprehension in English in first two semesters. This was also because of my inability to interact and have conversation with my peers coming from different backgrounds which must have limited my ability to learn from them. Thirdly I used to take sports sincerely which, after so much of study, left very little time for social interactions.

Depression hit me once, but not because of bad grades

I used to get disappointed with my bad grades. Fortunately, I had no pressure from my family nor did I have ambition to go to US. I just wanted to do well in study and expected good grades.

However, I recall certain moments of my life in campus when I was really depressed. One such moment was in third year when my mother passed away after a long battle with cancer. The thoughts I had that time were that of despondency. I think some of my instructors did notice this and one of the Deans, Prof Raghuram, did have very sympathetic words with me. However, after those few moments of good words it was the same old harsh world again expecting me to show the similar performance as was expected had this bad event had not taken place.

I was able to handle this myself because of the strong value system that I had due to moral teachings and parental guidance. (I believed that whatever God does is for one’s good. One should do one’s best but should not have high expectations about its results.)

When I reflect about this incident and about similar moments of my life, I think my faith in the strong value system which was developed due to my growing up in traditional Indian society had helped to recover from those moments of sadness and melancholy.

The second incident that I recall is when I was in 2nd year and I could not appear in two end-semester exams because of illness. Thereafter, I was asked to reappear.   I failed in one of them. This was for TA (Technical Arts-2). The reason was the nature of the exam. In this exam the expected answers were supposed to be somehow mugged up to be reproduced during the exams. I thought it was so un-IIT like. Students used to guess the likely questions for mugging up the answers   and my guess turned out to be wrong. The instructor was also unforgiving. Due to this I had to repeat this course with junior students which I did not like at all and at times felt sad.

In view of this, I suggest that whenever an instructor fails some body it should be reviewed by someone independent and then only the decision to fail should be taken. In fact if students fail in any subject the matter should be investigated by higher authorities and the teaching content, teaching style etc of the instructor should be thoroughly examined.

One of the reasons that I never felt too depressed was because of my involvement in sports.

First sporting activity is always a very good stress-buster and so reduces the chances of getting depressed. Secondly my achievement in sports which includes gold medal in inter IIT meet made me well recognized in the institute and possibly because of which I never felt too isolated from others in the institute. Chances of depression are more if someone feels himself/herself isolated from others.

What is important is to identify your passion and run with it.

It has been more than 20 years since I graduated. I now realize that I should have paid more attention to developing soft skills e.g. conversational skills, relationship building, people skills etc. instead of CPI.

Many graduates do not pursue engineering as profession and extra effort put in by them at IITK to get high CPI, while neglecting to develop life skills, is a wasted effort.  The fact that CPI is not very important should be instilled in the mind of these young students, their parents and the faculty.

High CPI, may indicate that the person is goal oriented. However, low CPI does not necessarily mean that the person is not goal oriented or that he cannot become a successful person later on. I was goal oriented but my CPI was low because of intense competition and various other reasons. What is important is to identify your passion and run with it.

I think IITK should emphasize the importance of developing of soft skills among students. These are the skills a person will find very useful no matter what profession he/she chooses after getting engineering degree. The academic institutes should realize that they are not making students just an engineer but as fully developed human being who can learn whatever hard subject he is needed in course of his/her professional life. There is no need to force them to learn something which they may not utilize in their life later on. There is no need to teach heavy curriculum. The purpose of teaching should be to make students aware of concepts. If any student later on pursues career in engineering he can always do self-study to better his professional engineering skills. The campus should cultivate happy learning environment with emphasis on creativity and innovation.

Sneak out and experience “life”

I would say there should be more social activities, sports activities, and cultural activities in campus. The time for these activities should be provided by reducing some curriculum related stuff. I suggest frequent arranging of cross country races and other sports activities which enjoy wider participation. To facilitate social mixing occasional group lunches, easy seminars could be organized more frequently. IITK campus is isolated from the city. There should be more efforts to make sure that these young students go to the city/outside campus. Group visits to nearby parks, zoos, cinemas should be done frequently.  In short I suggest that the students should be encouraged to be part of the community, to have friends, to be engaged in sporting and social activities and the curriculum should be reduced to make sure that they have enough time for all these things.

IITD has the lowest suicide rates which I feel is because of the fact that it is not geographically isolated from the city which provides more opportunity for students to sneak out of campus and experience the life outside. IITD courses are also not heavy. In spite of this its students are no less capable or less successful.

Sanjay Kumar is a 1989 B,Tech. and 1991 M.Tech. in EE from IIT Kanpur. His new venture, Kumar Consultant Ltd is registered in UK. It provides engineering design and engineering management services to rail industry in UK and India. He worked with Indian Railway in its Indian Railway Service of Electrical Engineers (IRSEE) cadre and for Delhi Metro before moving to UK in 2005. He believes that this decade in India and possibly in many other countries is likely to be a decade of infrastructure in which railway will play a dominant role and his company could provide well-designed products for the rail industry. The mission statement of his venture is “affordable transportation and sustainable energy for all.” He can be contacted at Sanjay.Kumar@kumarconsultants.co.uk.