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Remarks of a remarkable man

All work and no play make the IITians dull boys, Sandipan Deb tells SANJAY AUSTA in this conversation.

Sandipan Deb... an eye-opener on IIT. Photo: R. V. Moorthy.

ONE QUESTION thrown at Sandipan Deb all the time is - how come an IITian like him got into journalism. "Well, it really depends on who asks me the question. If it is my friends, I say I had some skin disease and I would never be able to wear the tie again," he jokes.

You know at once he is not the dour gentleman he looks in the picture on the blurb of his book, "The IITians" published by Penguin. It was perhaps this spirit of fun and adventure that made him switch from a bright engineering career to the uncertain world of journalism. Deb is a trained electronics engineer from IIT Kharagpur and PGDM from IIM Calcutta, but he knew writing was his first love. "I was working in advertising and financial services and doing fairly well, but I got bored. I was still 26 or 27 and I didn't want a situation where I would be a 40-year-old general manager selling chocolates, etc. and look back and say oh shit, have wasted my life," he says.

Deb jumped into journalism, ignoring the advice of all well-wishers including his father, who Deb says was already having visions of his son become the Chairman of Hindustan Petroleum one day. Today as the Managing Editor of Outlook magazine and Editor of Outlook Money he has come a long way. However there is not one moment when Deb regrets going to the IIT. "Education is about preparing you for life, and in this the IITs have succeeded extremely well," he says.

It was this knowledge that set him to spend 14 months writing his book - which as the subtitle explains, is, "The Story of a Remarkable Indian Institution and How its Alumni are Reshaping the World". The book not only documents the stories of many successful IITians like Rajat Gupta and Vinod Khosla but also tries to explore what makes the IITians what they are.

Sandipan Deb travelled to America to interview successful IITians heading giant corporations and leaving an indelible stamp in Silicon Valley. He also met black sheep like himself who chose to work in fields completely unrelated to engineering and yet made a success. Deb also gives a glimpse of the closed and village like IIT campus life, with personal anecdotes, the peccadilloes and the quirks of many IITians, including himself.

Deb firmly believes that IIT not only gives a world-class education in engineering but a well-rounded holistic education. "The extremely successful alumni agree that they learn a lot outside the classroom," he says. Therefore Deb is worried that the level of discipline in the IITs today is somewhat Orwellian in nature. He writes about the rules that forbid the students from giving a ride to a girl on their cycle and from staging plays that run beyond 10 p.m. Deb for whom the most vivid memory of his IIT days is playing cricket in the corridors, (something punishable with a Rs.500 fine now), these military rules are ridiculous. "At the age of 18 we can vote and elect the Prime Minister of the country and if you are asked to sleep at 10, then it's not right", he says. The worrying tendency to make the students academic workhouses to the exclusion of everything else makes him remark that the earlier generation of IITians were somewhat different than the present lot.

Deb can vouch for it as he is often on the interview board of IIM, Calcutta and meets IITians regularly. One question he always asks is, what do they read?. "One IITian from Madras like all good South Indians said that he read The Hindu. And when I specified if he has ever read a work of fiction in his life, he thought for a while and said in class VI he had read, `The Valley of Adventures (by Enid Blyton)', says Deb.

Deb however adds, "Engineering education gives you a fairly structured way of thinking. In doing a particular assignment I can actually see the entire algorithm in front of me - who should be sent where and how the assignment should be done etc."

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