Studying Humanities in the country’s top technical institution is transformative and helps one evolve. Read what four students of Humanities and Social Sciences of IIT-M have to say.

Love for Economics sown by a “terrific” teacher took Vaishnavi Srivatsan to IIT-M. Namita Krishnamurthy reached there because of her dream of becoming a writer “ever since I was seven.” A science student in school, Ardra Manasi had the epiphany “Humanities was her true passion” and proceeded to IIT-M. Pranathi Diwakar was attracted by the “marginalised” courses “schools were reluctant to offer”. The opportunity to “study in an institution of global repute” was a common draw. Surprised? Don't be. All four joined the integrated five-year BA+MA in Humanities & Social Sciences that IIT-M introduced in 2006 — a full-fledged, stand-alone humanities course in a tech campus.

Getting there is no IIT walk, they tell you. As a first-batch candidate Vaishnavi knew little of the pattern and preparatory requirements. She always read beyond prescribed texts and for the entrance test included diligent reading of newspapers, non-fiction and magazines. “Those attempting the HSEE are well-prepared,” said Namita. “You need to be a notch above them.”

She enrolled in private coaching centre for online/crash course programmes. “The coaching centre helped me burn the midnight oil without burning myself in the process.” Tough, said, Ardra, “needed intensive preparation for a year. Familiarity with standard textbooks in Economics/History/Political Science and command over the English language are crucial factors, along with getting updated on current events.” Pranathi feels it's a question of general awareness, basic math-skills and the ability to write well.

Life at IIT, where Math/Science rules was ‘transformative’, says Vaishnavi. “It moulded me as a person, instilling values as well as useful technical insights. The rigour of the educational system, the flexibility to determine my future, freedom through on-campus accommodation offered learning’s for a life-time.”

During a period of constantly changing ambitions, the autonomy in choosing subjects helps see the larger picture of opportunities, the mentoring by professors and peers are invaluable to climb the learning curve, she sys.

Nervous

The first few days were bliss, said Namita, a fresher. The classroom had people who shared her ideas, and the professors simply amazing. “The campus is a city in its own, and all that greenery - I didn't miss my hometown in Kerala anymore.” “Initially, B. Techs didn't take well to MA students. It toned down a bit later, but never went away.”

The anxiety melted away, thanks to caring seniors and approachable professors, said Ardra. An interesting socialisation gambit, she points out, was getting used to the “IIT lingo”. You had to remember things like “Junta” (students), “god-level” (exemplary performance). Exploring the sprawling green of the campus (a pleasant surprise!) was one of my initial hobbies. The positive vibes in the campus inspired her to write and publish her début poetry collection Harbouring Silences (Cyberwit publications,2012).

Considering the confounding lengths and breadths of the campus, the orientation sessions were a smart idea, said Pranathi. Another quick lesson was buying bicycles to traverse the distances and not using them regularly. “Friends lost them (or was stolen) within weeks or forgot where they had parked them.

Own identity

The greatest challenge would be standing their own in the BTech atmosphere, I thought. “Oh, yes, we felt like fish out of water,” says Vaishnavi, who soon discovered a discernible streak of generosity in BTech students. Bright that they are, they saw how the distinction between engineering and humanities students narrowed down to the subjects they studied. The common management classes, arts and cultural programs (Saarang, Shaastra, inter-hostel competitions) became platforms for interaction. “We were a single student community, part of a larger experience at IIT-Madras.”

Felt intimidated initially, says Namita, by the sight of them cycling by, chunky book balanced in one hand, handle-bar in the other, clinging to formulae sheets/handouts in the mess, discussing equations frantically in the common room. They seemed to have little time to socialise. “Six months on, well, they aren’t bad after all! When they're free of quiz/home-work, they are quite jolly, even holding that perpetual book.”

Fruitful academic equations, says Ardra. They take “free electives” offered by our department, so classroom discussions with them brought different perspectives on the lines of an interdisciplinary framework. Thrown together in outside-classroom forums (Colloquium-debating club, cultural/technical fests), she found it “great to work with them, fun to reconcile our perspectives on issues. B.Techs look down on Humanities students, Pranathi had been warned. “This may not be totally untrue, but after several batches of MA students, things are less exclusive. Organising co-curricular activities breaks down barriers, and the hostel spirit makes everyone rather gung-ho about bonding.

Demanding schedule

Is IIT far removed from an arts college? Vaishnavi was candid. “It takes quite some adjustment to appreciate that there are and will always be people who are better at you consider your competency. But, a large part of the learning comes from understanding just that.” Namita looks at the basics.

The first thing that flies out of the window is sleep, she groaned. No more ten-hour stretches! Time management is crucial said Ardra, in the triple scenario — engaging academic schedule, co-curricular activities (music club to swimming) and the immense freedom that begets responsibility. “There's this need to smooth one's edges to fit into the cultural mosaic.” In Pranathi's view, it doesn’t take anything spectacular to be an IITian. Sure, you need to cope with what appear to be “strange timetables of operation”. “I got used to staying up to ungodly hours with cups of Tifany's coffee. Now sleeping before midnight looks tame!”

Their take-aways? Participating in the Golden Jubilee Saarang (2009) gave me unprecedented levels of confidence and ambition, says Vaishnavi. Namita looks at IIT-M years as transformers. “You evolve — not physically though — not with the hostel food.” Her days with IViL (IIT-for-Villages) were most memorable as a discussion forum/an action platform, said Ardra.

“Working at Natham village gave me a flavour of what social development meant.”

Want to know what they are planning to do? Vaishnavi will quit her current job with a consulting firm to head to a famous B-school in the U.S. After M.A, Namita hopes to take a year off to travel, do something “meaningful”.

She has plans to write, do MBA and if nothing works, will settle for a life with her 37 cats. Ardra is preparing for civil services exam and Pranathi is keeping her options open till she gets her MA degree in two-and-a-half years. Go girls!