On our love for engineering

He sold chai in Bangalore, backpacked across India to discover stories on engineers and crowd-funded for a book on the same… Adhitya Iyer on The Great Indian Obsession

June 27, 2016 03:23 pm | Updated September 16, 2016 04:40 pm IST - Chennai

Adhitya Iyer with his book Photo: Special Arrangement

Adhitya Iyer with his book Photo: Special Arrangement

Drive through the outskirts of Coimbatore and you can spot at least one new engineering college every year. Many of them are located on highways, with pathetic connectivity to civilisation. The quality of education is questionable — some colleges hire freshers as lecturers and lack basic lab facilities. And yet, students flock to these institutions. The situation is the same across India. What’s this obsession with engineering? Twenty-seven-year-old Adhitya Iyer set out on a backpacking trip across the country to find out. He encountered shocking stories of ‘prison hostels’ and campuses where boys and girls were forbidden from talking to each other.

Adhitya has documented these in his book The Great Indian Obsession: The Untold Story of India’s Engineers . The book was possible with the support of over 300 people across the world who crowd-funded it to raise 14,000 AUD.

Excerpts from an email interview with the author:

Did you study to be an engineer? Tell us about your education.

Yes, I completed my Engineering in Computer Science from Mumbai University. I did engineering because there is little else to do! I did my initial schooling in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, but later moved to Mumbai for a ‘better education’. There was a perception then (and still perhaps) that Indian schools are one of the sturdiest systems in the world, particularly for their emphasis on Maths and Science.

Why did you choose to write on engineering?

If Engineering were a religion, it would be the fifth most populous religion in India. The story is so ubiquitous, massive, and an integral part of our society, that we fail to see the absurdity of it.

Take us through your backpacking trip across the country.

The backpacking trip spanned a year. It drastically changed my perception about life and India. My experience in Hyderabad was heart-wrenching. There are places where boys and girls aren’t allowed to interact with each other, or have any form of contact with the outside world until they secure a seat in one of the IITs. It’s a prison, and parents spend a lot of money to send their child there.

How did the book come about?

I spent two years in Bangalore selling chai as part of my job and had the chance to interact with a lot of people. I worked for a start-up called Chai Point founded by a Harvard graduate and other IIT/IIM folks. I spent a lot of time in stores talking to customers, most of who turned out to be engineers. Bangalore is a city not just full of engineers, but engineers frustrated with their lives (one in every 20 IT employees in Bangalore contemplates suicide). Curiosity got the better of me and I just wanted to unravel the story of my life and that of millions of other Indian engineers like me. I quit my job.

Darshan, my childhood friend, wired me $1,000 initially, and when I was back from my first trip, I knew I had a massive story to tell and that it was worth dedicating time and resources to. I then wrote the book over two years.

How did you manage to raise AUD14,000 through crowd-funding for the book?

In a nail-biting thriller, we raised more than half of our funds in the last five days of our month-long campaign. Crowd-funding is still in its infancy in India and raising AUD 14,000 was always a long shot. Our campaign video did it for us. It was a story (not surprisingly) that caught a lot of people’s (engineers mainly) attention and the video did a decent job of telling it.

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