Back to IIT

I hereby regret to inform you all that Sri Gurunath Patisserie, and everything around it including the Gurunath Stores and Moon Lab, is no more. There is no sign of its existence. Some new building, maybe an extension to the “giga mess” next door is coming up there.

Until this part of my walk early in the morning on the 15th of August, I had been thrilled to be back at IITM. Thanks to the kindness o the IITM Alumni Association, I had managed to get a room at the Taramani Guest House there for the morning, after my train had deposited me in Chennai at 4:15 am.

Of all the “institutes of national importance” I’ve visited in the recent past (last 1-2 years), IITM seemed the most friendly (and IIMB the least). This is ironic since as a student it was absolutely the other way round – the administration in IITM didn’t treat students well at all but in IIMB they were rather nice. However, now, post-pandemic IIMB has become a terror to get into, with some insane protocols and rituals.

At the IITM gate, though, all I had to do was to show a mail that I had a booking in Taramani House, and my auto was waved past. Delhi Avenue looks exactly the same as it did two decades ago, though maybe some new faculty blocks have been added to the sides. The stadium now has a sponsor (some Watsa – no Prem), and Gajendra Circle was all lit up for Independence Day. Else it was a very familiar ride in.

Taramani House has turned around, though, with its entrance now facing the road between CLT and OAT, and not towards Narmada (my old hostel). The auto dropped me there, and I duly handed over the ?160 change I’d got at the gas station.

A security guard welcomed me and asked me to sit down as he went to fetch the night manager. It was “old style check in” as I had to enter details into a fat log book. The room key was “electronic” (the one you swipe), though, and was handed to me along with a bottle of water and a small cardboard box. Later I found that the cardboard box had a Medimix soap, a satchet of shampoo (hadn’t seen one of those in decades now!) and a toothpaste and toothbrush.

I set an alarm for 7:30 and crashed off. IITMAA had asked me to attend the flag hoisting ceremony “around 8am”, but hadn’t given me more details. I decided to go “in search of it”, and take a walk around campus while I was at it.

After failing to find the flag hoisting ceremony, I expectantly walked towards Gurunath to find that it was no more. And having gone all the way, I went to my hostel.

Again the security guard was rather nice, and just said “oh, visitor?” and waved me past. It was 8:30 am, and I walked through the hostel for about 10 minutes “completely unmolested”. I didn’t cross paths with a single student, or even see one within 20m of where I was. The room I used to live in was bolted from inside (indicating my room-descendent was there). However, when I knocked, there was no response.

This is what my room looks like now:

Where I lived between 2002 and 2004. The graffiti, I think, is a recent addition

Most of the daytime in the hostel was spent at the end of my wing, sitting on the ledge (I’d not yet developed my fear of heights then) and reading newspapers. This is that ledge area.

Again some graffiti

I walked all round the hostel. The mess has been demolished and rooms built in its place. There is a third floor now. Large parts of the notice board in front are behind a locked glass. Even the unlocked part of the notice board has NO GRAFFITI – I guess that’s reserved for the walls now. And I was sad that I didn’t meet anyone – I would’ve loved to talk to the current inhabitants and find out what life is like there.

I had planned to meet Mohan, the legendary quizzer who was one year ahead of me at IITM CS, for breakfast that morning. Not wanting to put too much fight, I asked him to come to the guest house itself, and we ate there. The pongal and vada were good, although the “independence day special kesari bath” (a weird pink colour) was gross. We didn’t even go near the orange white and green idlis.

And then we went off on a rather long walk across campus, mainly covering the academic sections. We saw the new computer science building, and debated on what was in its place twenty years ago. We found this rather interesting nook in that building  – at the end of a corridor, a simple table and stools, and a blackboard.

The nook in the new Computer Science Block

We then went to the Building Sciences Block, which used to host the Computer Science department back in the day. And then kept walking, exploring campus and talking about lots of fun things.

It was interesting going around the place with Mohan, since we were a year apart in college and hence didn’t have any particular shared experiences, though we had SIMILAR experiences because we did the same program. This meant there was a connection but not too much nostalgia, meaning we could explore lots of different things as we walked. Oh, he recommended this book to me.

After that I headed back to my room for a quick shower, and checked out. Once again, it was time to deal with Uber / Ola. That I was deep inside IIT meant that any cab that had to pick me up had to make the trek all the way inside, and the place where I was meeting Kodhi and Aadisht for lunch was not far away at all – implying a huge transaction cost.

At least 5-6 cabs (from both platforms) cancelled on me. The ones who would call would talk about some “distance” (what I could make out given my broken Tamil) and cancel. Finally, I got an Uber that was 14 minutes away (when I booked), and which actually arrived. Turns out it came with a passenger headed TO taramani house, and I got in as he got off.

I might have written here before – I quite like going back to IIT, even though it is in Chennai! I sort of feel at home when I go back there (unlike in IIMB, where I feel like I’m invading someone else’s personal space, unless I’m there to teach or for a reunion), though I’m still very sad that Gurunath is no more.

That was the one place where I had my best memories on campus, and kept me going through my last three years there. Most of the “network” I have from IITM consists of people I hung out with there. And it pains me that it doesn’t exist any more. I really wonder what misfit students do there nowadays!

Read Part One of my trip here.


As I continue my progress towards publishing the book whose manuscript I’ve completed, I’ve started to think about the acknowledgements section, which I’m yet to write. Each time I read a new book now, I make sure I read the acknowledgements, and see who all people have thanked. I’ve not gone to the extent of formally collecting data from these acknowledgements, but I must say the effort is underway.

Based on a recent discovery, though, I think all this research is moot. Recently I was cleaning up an old cupboard (the kind that comes embedded in a cot) in my grandfather’s house, and happened to stumble upon my B.Tech. project. I’d brought it home and kept it aside, and happened to open it today.

Overall, in hindsight, I seem to have done a better job of my project than I’d imagined. I’ve always remembered that rather than solving the problem I’d taken up, I’d constructed a proof to show why it couldn’t be solved (something my mother always made fun of). But reading the report, it appears that I’ve gone beyond that, and constructed some approximate and randomised heuristics to tackle the problem – so I’m happy about that.

The more interesting bit is the acknowledgements section. It pretty much encapsulates my life at IITM. Again, I remember having done some research looking at other people’s acknowledgements to see who all they’d thanked, and I followed the same process – guides, professors, lab mates, etc. And then I’ve mentioned some friends.

The first part of the acknowledgements section is not particularly insightful so I’m not pasting it here. The second part makes for fun reading though, in hindsight. I like the way I’ve been fairly informal (in such a “formal” document as my B.Tech. project report), with puns and all.


The key thing to note is the last paragraph. I seriously mean it (even now) when I say that the best part of my life at IITM was the time spent at Patisserie, and all the discussions I had there. The discussions were diverse, with lots of different people, and we spoke about different things on different days.

It may not be a stretch to claim that I learnt more during my discussions there than during the time spent in classrooms. And if I today considered well-networked in my batch (and surrounding batches) at IITM, it’s again due to the time I spent there.

Now to think about how to adapt this acknowledgements section to something that makes sense for the manuscript I’ve written!

Why You Should Not Do An Undergrad in Computer Science at IIT Madras

I did my undergrad in Computer Science and Engineering at IIT Madras. My parents wanted me to study Electrical Engineering, but I had liked programming back in school, and my JEE rank “normally” “implied” Computer Science and Engineering. So I just went with the flow and joined the course. In the short term, I liked some subjects, so I was happy with my decision. Moreover there was a certain aura associated with CS students back in IITM, and I was happy to be a part of it. In the medium term too, the computer science degree did open doors to a few jobs, and I’m happy for that. And I still didn’t regret my decision.

Now, a full seven years after I graduated with my Bachelors, I’m not so sure. I think I should’ve gone for a “lighter” course, but then no one told me. So the thing with a B.Tech. in Computer Science and Engineering at IIT Madras is that it is extremely assignment incentive. Computer Science is that kind of a subject, there is very little you can learn in the classroom. The best way to learn stuff is by actually doing stuff, and “lab” is cheap (all you need is a bunch of computers) so most courses are filled with assignments. Probably from the fourth semester onwards, you spend most of your time doing assignments. Yes, you do end up getting good grades on an average, but you would’ve worked for it. And there’s no choice.

The thing with an Undergrad is that you are clueless. You have no clue what you’re interested in, what kind of a career you want to pursue, what excites you and the stuff. Yes, you have some information from school, from talking to seniors and stuff, but still it’s very difficult to KNOW when you are seventeen as to what you want to do in life. From this perspective, it is important for your to keep your options as open as they can be.

Unfortunately most universities in India don’t allow you to switch streams midway through your undergrad (most colleges are siloed into “arts” or “engineering” or “medicine” and the like). IIT Madras, in fact, is better in that respect since it allows you to choose a “minor” stream of study and courses in pure sciences and the humanities. But still, it is impossible for you to change your stream midway. So how do you signal to the market that you are actually interested in something else?

One way is by doing projects in areas that you think you are really interested in. Projects serve two purposes – first they allow you to do real work in the chosen field, and find out for yourself if it interests you. And if it does interest you, you have an automatic resume bullet point to pursue your career on that axis. Course-related projects are fine but since they’re forced, you have no way out, and they will be especially unpleasant if you happen to not like the course.

So why is CS@IITM a problem? Because it is so hectic, it doesn’t give you the time to pursue your other interests. It doesn’t offer you the kind of time that you need to study and take on projects in other subjects (yeah, it still offers you the 3 + 1 months of vacation per year, when you can do whatever you want, but then in the latter stages you’re so occupied with internships and course projects you’re better off having time during the term). So if you, like me, find out midway through the course that you would rather do something else, there is that much less time for you to explore around, study, and do projects in other subjects.

And there is no downside to joining a less hectic course. How hectic a course inherently is only sets a baseline. If you were to like the course, no one stops you from doing additional projects in the same subject. That way you get to do more of what you like, and get additional bullet points. All for the good, right?

After I graduated, IIT Madras reduced its credit requirement by one-twelfth. I don’t know how effective that has been in reducing the inherent workload of students but it’s a step in the right direction. Nevertheless, if you are going to get into college now, make sure you get into a less hectic course so that the cost of making a mistake in selection is not high.

Gyaan From a Former All India Topper

CAT is less than a month away. Or more, depending on when you’re writing it. If any aspirants are reading this, I have just one piece of advice for you – which no one in any CAT Factory will give you. It’s about going for it. About batting like Sehwag. About reaching out far outside the off stump and playing every ball. I just want to assure you that percentages are in favour of this kind of a game.

In my zamaana, every correct answer in CAT gave you one mark, and every incorrect answer took away a third of a mark. Every question had four possible answers of which exactly one was correct. This negative marking had a completely psyching out effect on most takers, and people are afraid to go for it. And six years back, I liked it. For it made my own risk-taking strategy much easier – since I could now afford a larger number of errors.

The arithmetic is simple. Even if you have no clue about the question, and just put inky-pinky-ponky (or even better mark ‘C’, since years of research has proven that it’s the statistically most probable answer in CAT) you have one-fourth chance of getting it right – which gives a three-fourth probability of getting it wrong. And given the payoffs for correct and incorrect answers (1; -1/3) you can clearly see that the expected payoff of taking a completely random guess is ZERO!

So while this obviously rules out insane inky-pinky-ponkying, what it does tell you is that if you can eliminate at least one of the four choices, you are in the money! If you have to pick one of three possible answers, the expected payoff is 1/9 which is greater than zero. Yeah it doesn’t look very high but then the expected payoff is positive! So you need to go for it.

Back when I was in my 3rd year, there was some free mock CAT at IITM. And some of us 3rd years went just for the heck of it. I attemped 130 out of 150 questions, getting 90 right and 40 wrong. It still gave me a significantly higher score than any of my seniors (who were writing CAT that year) – most of whom attemped not more than seventy. Later that day a senior called me aside and told me that the art of CAT was about leaving questions. And that it was all about the questions that you left.

Leaving the ball makes sense in cricket where one mistake ends your innings. What if instead of ending your innings you were just deducted 2 runs everytime you got out? Would you still leave the balls outside off and play the waiting game? How on earth would you score runs if you were to leave every ball? It’s all about scoring, and you can score only if you attempt a shot.

I understand that CAT format has changed now and you have 5 possible correct answers for every question while the negatives are still at 1/3. Even then, if you can eliminate two out of the five answers (shouldn’t be too gouth), you have a positive payoff. And you must go for it. Keep in mind that you can’t score if you don’t play the ball.

I leave you with a video. The message is in the name of the song. Idu One Day Matchu Kano. This is a one day match dude. So you must go for every ball. And look to score.

Wagah Border

Ok this post is approximately one month late. Truth is that I’d thought this up almost a month back – in fact more than a month back, as I got my ass roasted by the hot concrete galleries while waiting for the flag-down ceremony to begin at the Wagah Border. My mind had then gone back to the old IITM chant “start the f***ing show”, but given that I couldn’t actually utter those words, I’d thought up this blog post instead. I had constructed each and every sentence of how I was going to write this. It was a maze of thoughts. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten most of it until I’d gotten back to Delhi two days later – which was when I had access to the net.

I attempted to write this post back when I was in Delhi, but couldn’t get beyond a paragraph. What I had written would never measure up to what I’d constructed in my head on that day at the Wagah, and I kept scrapping it. But then, there’s a story to be told, so I think it’s time I tell the story, “in my own words”.

Ok so now that I’ve gotten beyond two paragraphs, the rest of this should flow, hopefully. It was a hot and crowded afternoon. There were three stalls, and one had been kept closed. People were piled into the other two stalls – one for ladies and one for men. It was as hot as a Punjabi summer afternoon could get. The concrete benches were all heated up, and there were the military men who were exhorting people to sit down and get their asses roasted.

And there was the master of ceremonies. One man in plain clothes with a mic. Periodically he’d surface and shout slogans, which the over-enthusiastic crowd would complete. He would drag young women out of their stands and make them run around the place with the National Flag, which they enthusiastically did. He would wave his hands as if his repressed dream was to be a band conductor, and people would tone up or tone down their cheers.

And the people! It was incredible. I had never known that the Indian mango man could be so enthusiastic. There seemed to be something special in the air as everyone shouted and cheered, and danced and swung, as the patriotic songs blared and the master of ceremonies waved his hands around. People seemed to be remembering their mis-spent youths and trying to re-live it in the name of patriotism. It was like going back to one of those wonderful inter-school cul-fests. The kind of enthu seen at the Wagah Border would put the Saarang Pro-shows to shame.

Sadly, it had no effect on me. I stood by myself, in one corner, bored, and observing the people. Maybe it was a good thing that I was bored, since I managed to get my thoughts in order – though I was to subsequently forget them. Music was blaring, people were shouting, but it didn’t seem to make any sense to me. We were there to witness a military parade, which I thought was a fairly solemn occasion. And here you had people who were “letting go” like nobody’s business. Maybe I’ve become too cynical. Maybe a certain libertarian-leaning group that I’m part of is having too much of an influence on me.

I was a reluctant visitor to the border. I didn’t want to go. The reason I was at Amritsar was to see the Golden Temple and thulp the food that I’d heard so much about. Wagah wasn’t part of my plans. My mother, however, had other ideas. For some reason, she had happened to really enjoy the border parade when she had visited there six years back along with my father. And she wanted me to “experience this experience”. While we were driving back, however, she admitted that the show wasn’t as spectacular as it was six years ago.

In the beginning of the post, I had mentioned ot you that I’d wanted to chant an IITM chant. Once the “show” started, another favourite IITM chant came to my head. “STOP the f***ing show”. It was drab and boring. Say what you want, but I somehow don’t find the idea of a bunch of armymen marching and performing drills exciting. And it can be consumed in small doses only. To their credit, the show at Wagah wasn’t too long – it lasted only for about half an hour or so.

However, given the conditions (crowd, weather, etc.) it didn’t turn out to be a pleasant experience. The idea of going to the border to watch the ceremonies was so not worth it. Only a couple of days earlier, I had read about the Hillsborough tragedy, and given the way the crowd was pushing and jostling and continued to pour in after the stands were full brought up thoughts of an encore. At one point, I even left  my prized spot in one of the stands in order to go to the relative safety of the ground outside the stands. I only went back in after they opened the third stand (which had been closed till half an hour before the show) and could find a relatively peaceful spot to stand there.

I don’t think I’ve documented all that I’d thought of when I stood there in that relatively peaceful spot in that third stand. I’ll probably make a separate post out of all that if I do manage to remember it sometime.