Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The 26th June

The biggest surprise of the day came from the students in the lab. This was one such day when Her Highness makes sure that she stays ahead of others by wishing when clock strikes 00.00 hrs. Phone calls start coming early in the morning and continues throughout the day. And emails. Feel great to find a childhood pal remembering the day and making a phone call after long, long time. Apologetic call today for missing it yesterday. Assured that today is the day according to Bengali almanac and thus it was very much on time.

This time 26th June coincided with Bipattarini (a form of goddess Kali or Chandi) Puja and Rathayatra  week. Ma (Mother) was ready by 8:30 AM. Together went to local Shiva-Kali temple (Prof. G. S. Sanyal was very much involved with this temple's development in his final years). I was happy to find Ma in smile, "Khub bhalo pujo hoyechhe.(Puja was great.)"  Often, due to rush or otherwise short-cuts are adopted which leaves old timers like Ma unhappy. The other reason perhaps was her contribution in making a lotus bloom. The same was placed on the sacred pitcher in front of the deity. Me, all the while, was busy in attending phone calls, talking to a colleague who was associated with NSS and of course offering silent prayer.

An interview of me was scheduled at 11 AM in my office. Luckily it was not a test of my ability and pass a judgement on me (Hope so :-)). I saw my worth three days back sitting beside another IIT faculty at the other side of the table. I was astonished to experience breadth and depth of his knowledge. Long, long way to go to be considered remotely as wise. The correspondents wanted to feature few IIT faculty members in some article and I was picked up as one for being engaged in certain activities which touch common cord. Earlier I was interviewed by correspondents of national and international media but that used to be focused on certain specific research work. This one was more of 360 degree stuff and to be published in something which is very, very special and dear to all KGPians. Thus, I was little nervous to begin with. The correspondents were very professional to make me comfortable in no time. It was more of a friendly conversation where they were taking notes in between.

The lab. students did not know about this scheduled interview. At 11:30 AM, one of them took the cordless phone from my office. That was not unusual as they often take that for testing our voice signature based applications. At 12 noon, he comes and requests me to go to the lab. for a demonstration. I requested him to go ahead with rest of the lab mates as I was not done with the interview. At 12:30 there was another lab student knocking at the door. He is instrumental behind our virtual lab. related developments. He requests me to visit the lab. and check a new DSP experiment he has just finished on virtual platform. I was naive not to suspect anything at this point too. Requested him to wait a while as I was almost done with the conversation with the correspondents.

And then I entered the lab. Lo! what did the students do? I am no longer a child! But you do not actually complain to succumb to such wishes of students. There was nothing missed. Cake, candle, "Happy birthday" song and I was more overwhelmed than embarrassed. In my "Thank You" card I requested them to wish so that I become worthy of this love and respect. I narrated this to my 9 year old daughter while bringing her back from school. She was disappointed to miss the fun as she never saw his father doing some such thing like cutting a cake after blowing candles on birthday.

Back home there were rituals like taking payasam and other socio-religious activities associated with such a day. Of course, the lunch was special. Spent last THU-SUN in Bhubaneshwas for some official work. Could not take family to Rathayatra fair in the weekend. At 6 PM, we set off for the fair ground near Jagannath temple at KGP town. Enjoyed the fair very much and was ready for dinner by 10 PM.

Oh yes! Did not miss the work out for the day and am doing fine on that count. The other day one colleague wondered if I am visiting Gym. That I could shed 6.5 KG in 3 months just by free hand exercise broadened the grin! On another occasion I was walking along the corridor of a different Dept. when a senior faculty (who was our teacher too in a Basic Science subject) stopped me. Affectionately he took me to his room and showed one of my blog post on his computer screen. He appreciated the write-up and told that after retirement he would start writing his ideas. I thanked him and requested him to preserve the points in the form of bullets somewhere which can be expanded later. I heard that the author of 'Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna' (Link) used to keep notes in bullet form. Later he used to meditate on them to arrive at the full form. How much we are indebted to the author, Sri Mahendra Nath Gupta to bring Sri Ramakrishna live before us!

The correspondent asked in the interview how I pursue many different interests. I unhesitatingly told them, whether it is research or NSS, it is the team who deserve the kudos. For research, full credit to research students. I just try to make them see the opportunities and ask simple, obvious questions on result and justification given. I am proud to say that each of our research students who complete tenure in our lab. can do research independently anywhere in the world. The same goes for NSS activities. The field work in a particular village is done by one faculty colleague and his student team. I just lend a support and discuss opportunities to serve, the big picture and how our smallest contributions too get counted. It is all their hard work and they are the ones.

Let me end this post with some not-so-serious pictures of recent Bhubaneshwar visit. The work assigned in these 3 days stay was tedious, starting 9:30 AM every morning and there was no fixed time to end. One day we (myself and driver Tanmay) decided that 'enough is enough'. We started early in the morning and went around the city, visited famous Lingaraj Temple, Khandagiri caves. Few glimpses of this visit appear below. Camera was not allowed inside Lingaraj temple.

Added on 28th June : This evening got a sweet message from a junior which in Bengali is "bhawanipurer bari te j gaanta bijoydar sathe gaye tomar janmo din er subhechha janano hoy ni shei gaanta gaichhi.."TUM BAY SAHARA HO TO KISI KA SAHARA BANO.." SUBHA JANMO DIN ." He is in Railway service now posted at Southern India. He is remembering the function we used to have on this day at our Bhowanipur residence ... about 20 years back  and the song he wished to sing but could not ... today while wishing he remembers the same. Thanks Dipjyoti. Jaane kahan gaye woh din.... It used to be informal song, recitation, adda. At times, we used to have play. Just an opportunity to have a get together and lots of fun.

Monday, June 18, 2012

IIT JEE follow up

Since I posted 'Thoughts on IIT JEE' (Link) a lot of material has come into public domain. The opening statement of that post, "The decision making process for new IIT JEE appears more interesting to me than the proposals themselves. " appears more true today. There are quite a few articles in public space widening the discussion in which a lot of people - faculty members, students, alumni, educationist participated. To see PM lending ear and giving time to listen to points-counterpoints himself, shows the enormous value, respect IIT brand carries and also the importance given to it by Government of the country.

While most of the points I raised in that post is articulated better by various columnists and I learnt a lot from their arguments, I am yet to see any article which dwells on the purpose of education and admission process. " will do us a world of good to listen to him (Vivekananda) and direct policy implementation related to education on what he said as essence of education, "We want that education by which character is formed, strength of mind is increased, the intellect is expanded, and by which one can stand on one's own feet." We need not interpret the last point of the sentence as making enough money."It is too early but it may not be just weak correlation to see what I anticipated as "But the smarter among the population may try to migrate to certain boards which may appear to provide some extra edge." and what The Hindu finds here (Link).

Also, I do not see any worthwhile discussion on what happens to the students once inside IIT, specially the importance of first year. The non-performance of a student in IIT is very much linked to admission process. Overlooking this, the number of failures and psychological cases will rise. Outlook India reports (Link), "The statistics are shocking. In IIT Delhi, about 600 out of 853 students have gone through counselling because of excessive stress." The story is similar in other IITs. Coaching for objective type test, rather objective type test itself (students will be coached according to the exam.) is to be blamed when "Says Arjun Malhotra, Chairman, Headstrong, and an IIT alumnus: “Today, kids have been trained only in the objective method of answering questions. Ask them to write an essay answer and most of them just do not know how to do that. Subjective skills are just not there.” And that puts pressure when they are swamped by the IIT curriculum." Society, specially the parents should note what Einstein said, before subjecting a youngster to unrealistic pressure, "Everybody is a genius. But, if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it'll spend its whole life believing that it is stupid".

Now subjective type test for lakhs are not feasible in existing system. Objective type screening is to be followed by subjective type test. I suggested in my earlier post, an interview after that which may carry as little as 10 percent weight or so to have a test on attitude, extra-curricular etc. P. V. Indiresen in his article in Business Line (Link) says, "If the IIMs can have an interview after the CAT examination, if people for the central services are selected after an examination and an interview, if even a peon is selected after an interview, why should not each IIT have the same, independent system? " However, I have a different take on common understanding of autonomy. I am not worried much about who takes decision as long as the decision taken, takes us forward and does good to the people. Ultimately decision is taken by one set of people or the other. It all depends on their ability to read a problem, weighing various options through cost-benefit analysis and arriving at what is for the greatest good. Regarding constitutional right and its interpretation, the experts have already spoken in various forums and some of the links are shared in this post.

I would like to place here few articles available in public domain that I found interesting on this discourse. One IIT Director is very active in cyber space addressing various queries, has given what necessitated the change and what it tries to achieve in his blog available here (Link). To my knowledge the most comprehensive discussion where a lot of academicians from various strata participated and that includes one IIT Director, is this post (Link) and various other posts by Dean, Academic Affairs of IIT Kanpur. Please go through the comments section. The article by an IIT Delhi faculty member that appears in a leading national daily can be found here (Link). Outlook tried to put all the views together here (Link). View of different faculty members of different IITs can be found here (Link).

The blog (Link) by a UG student of IIT Kanpur is very, very well articulated. One may get perspective of an IIT-JEE cleared student there and also suggestions offered by him. There is an element of sarcasm in his writing but considering what he writes is valuable and his age, one may ignore that part and take the substance. The other student article I read and which is quite detailed is that of an IIT Kharagpur alumnus which can be found here (Link). This article is very inspiring which shows how a village boy scores only 39% in Class XII Board exam. but becomes a successful engineer from IIT to get as many as four scholarships from foreign universities for higher education. He can very well be a symbol of "IIT Dream." If you have in it, you can get it! The third student article that got published in a prestigious newspaper like The Hindu is from IIT Roorkee (Link). One 16 year old IIT aspirant's article appears in NDTV's web edition (Link).

I wish there was a more serious discussion on patriotism on the NDTV show 'We the people' on the topic 'Bonding doctors to duty' (Link). The national service was discussed from material plane and very casually. Even the anchor herself was skeptical if patriotism can be coded. A Delhi student talked about the pathological state of National Service Scheme (NSS) in the institute. The IIT JEE 2012 topper's brief presentation in the show spoke of himself. The fact is that love for country, love for humanity are already coded. The environment around tempts us to suppress it for short term gain. Money, comfort are more worshiped than character. Then why complain? Selfishness and unselfishness - both are there. We need that education, that mindset which nurtures and allows the noble qualities to flourish. We focus on falls. We do not see 'fall from what' and do not encourage people or create a condition which applauds a person if he / she tries to rise from a fall. "When Adam fell, he fell from purity. Purity is our real nature, and to regain that is the object of all religion. All men are pure; all men are good. Some objections can be raised to them, and you ask why some men are brutes? That man you call a brute is like the diamond in the dirt and dust -- brush the dust off and it is a diamond, just as pure as if the dust had never been on it..", says Vivekananda.

We know, "As you sow, so you reap."The policy makers need to decide whether investment in education means only preparing one for job market or it is something to do with total personality development. I have seen planning commission taking note of it in its Vision 2020 document prepared by Dr. S. P. Gupta (Link) which says, "We have to locate the hidden potentials of the country, its strong points at the base from which we have to build the foundation.  As has been quoted in the Report, it would be wrong to say that in 1947 India started to reconstruct a modern nation from the scratch.  Rather it began the process of rediscovering its rich cultural heritage and spiritual values that had formed the foundation of India in the past.  It is on this foundation that we seek to formulate the vision for India 2020.  To support this view, I quote Lord Macaulay’s presentation to the British Parliament “I have travelled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief.  Such a wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such caliber, the very backbone of this nation, which is a spiritual and cultural heritage”.  Preparing a vision for 20 years ahead is very difficult, especially if we look back at the fast changes that have taken place in India and abroad for the last 20 years, which are very fast and many of them could not have been predicted." (The image on  Macaulay quote was shared by a Facebook friend. There is a debate whether the quotes are actual or this is an impression on his doing) Coming back to NDTV debate, I don't know if Ramakrishna Mission monks, many of them are from IITs and I know one of them as Bhatnagar awardee (Link , Link), participate in such panel discussions or not. Wish they are there to have a 360 degree view of the topic.  

Referring to articles by others does not necessarily mean that I subscribe to their views. I find their takes on this issue interesting. I have shared my thoughts before (Link). Finally, this article (Link) titled "How will you measure your life?" was shared by one of my IIT Kharagpur batchmate commenting on demise of an American Dream (Link). One cannot ignore human values for long for arriving at real solutions to any problem.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Scaling Heights

Came a request to attend a project monitoring meeting which we are mentoring for long. The project is executed in one of the farthest of the North Eastern states. This was my first such assignment, belonged to a region which is trying to catch-up with the rest of the country also in terms of scientific R & D, and the problem definition had hundred percent correlation with what we do at our own research lab. here. Therefore, even if the meeting was scheduled during very important 7-10 days period of checking end-sem. answer-scripts, I was not in a position to skip it. Got prepared for a KOL-GHY flight and then 6-7 hours of road journey. Had been there before and liked that place. Suddenly, I was told that the meeting would take place in GHY itself, the project execution team was coming down there.

Had to prepare a contingency plan. This is the time where we need to make everyday, including weekends count. And I am awfully slow in checking scripts, average about fifteen per day. What to do?  Each answer-script is like a novel. Answers to questions are like chapters. Concepts are like characters. And there are so many shades of characters! In my mail to students when I asked them to come for checking their evaluation of end-sem. answer scripts I wrote, "... an answer-script tells lots of things - the strength and weakness of a student as seen by a teacher. It won't be possible tomorrow to address each of you individually. If you are interested, you may visit day after tomorrow or later by taking an appointment (you may try without appointment too but I may be in some other meeting)." Whether students like this or are more worried about grades .... whether they want to be treated as customers where we are service provides and the customer satisfaction is directly proportional to grades awarded, is a different issue which we can take up later. It is suffice to say that I am proud of our students. I understand their sentiments regarding inflationary tendencies seen at many a places and if 'no inflation' weakens their career prospect in anyway or if it is for greater good. At personal level, I find a lot to improve from the student feedback and each year is a different learning experience.

Coming back to where I was, the contingency plan was to carry answer-scripts with me and utilize slack hours during the journey or stay, for evaluating them. I do not find difficulty with concentration level as I am practising similar things from childhood. I remember waiting in long queues (which extended to main road from the shop and often one had to wait for hours) for weekly quota of kerosene oil in 'Fair Price Shop' pouring over a study book in my hand. This of course was no 'child labour' but sharing a responsibility; my father (link) was doing more than what he could do. ToI reports felicitation function of toppers by the state Chief Minister, Smt. Mamata Banerjee (Link), "She tried to inspire students by quoting Swami Vivekananda in relation to several spheres of life. "If there is no problem in life, how can you solve them and move ahead?," she asked. Adding," never lose heart or be disappointed. Do not feel depressed amidst the challenges that life throws at you. But, work hard to overcome them. " She further said that a needy student managing own study expense by offering tuition, was common place before. Now that very thought frustrates a young meritorious student. One should be always positive about life. I hope the student remembers what the state higher education minister said, "Behind your success, there are contributions of many people in this society - from your parents, to the cobblers who mend your shoes to the tailor who has tailored your school uniform. When you grow up and establish yourself in this society, do not forget them." Incidentally, after my Higher Secondary examination result, the felicitation was done by then Chief Minister, Shri Jyoti Basu. Surely, it is a overwhelming experience and gives lots of confidence to a youngster.

Compared to study in Kerosene Oil queue and standing, the study in crowded suburban train and sitting used to be a cake-walk. Thus, checking answer-scripts during the KOL-GHY flight was not at all a problem. And I was fully engrossed in it. Quickly finished snacks offered by flight personnel. And then was waiting for them to clear the space to restart. An elderly lady with N-E complexion was seated next to me. We had a language barrier. And I was sweetly surprised when she smiled at me and indicated to me to keep my food cutlery and  waste materials in her desk so that I can resume my work. Thanked God that I am in this noble profession and remembered the Chanakya Shloka studied in Class VII, "Bidyatwancha, Nripatwancha, Naiba Tulyam Kadachana / Swadeshe Pujyate Raja, Bidyan Sarbartra Pujyate." (My weak translation : The King and the Learned can never be compared. The former is worshiped in his kingdom while the later is worshiped everywhere.) This is not to mean I am being worshiped or so. Rather I worship the virtue, the gesture I saw in that lady and feel grateful. This is to place before all the respect society showers on us due to our profession, the care we provide and the responsibility associated with it. Interacting youth in the age group 18-24 years, for months and years where we are seen as teachers is a big, big responsibility and is much beyond customer-service provider relationship. If it is so required I would say that the nation is the customer and the students are the products and it is our duty to get a well-rounded personality of them who are ready to take challenges of life, nation, the humanity as a whole. The age group we serve makes men out of boys when they face important transitions in life - hope and pray I have the capacity to contribute by which the nation gets its greatest gift, youth as characterized in our scripture - Ashistha, Drarishtha, Balishtha, Medhabi i.e. hopeful / of positive attitude, resolute / confident, strong (in body and mind), and meritorious / intelligent.

Soon the seat belt sign was on. We started approaching GHY airport. I had an opportunity to look at the gentleman at the other side of my aisle seat, across the walking bay. He smiled very friendly. I also smiled. As we two stood up one after another to deplane, he started the conversation - where I am from, where I am going etc. He is returning from KOL after US visa interview and offered me to drop at my destination in his car (he has further 6-7 hours of road journey left). When I asked his profession, he said that he is in farming. What for US visa then? He said, "I want to climb the highest peak in US. I have already done that for three continents - Asia, Africa, Australia. I would like to do that for the rest of the continents." "OMG! Do you mean that you have climbed Mt. Everest?", I asked. "Yes", came his boyish smile. He is Tapi Mra. And he was proud to show his certificates which he took to KOL for visa interview. I felt proud for him and for myself to be acquainted with him, such a simple, down-to-earth person. We exchanged contact numbers. I inquired about the funding constraints he faces and if mainstream media highlighted his achievements (which can fetch sponsorships). Told that I have very little experience of mountaineering. In fact, I was under awe to go through a twelve day long adventure course when I was half this age, under supervision of Ms. Bachendri Pal (the first Indian woman to scale Mt. Everest). It was tough - staying in tents and sleeping bag in freezing cold, preparing own lunch after trekking more than 20 KM in the morning, rafting in mountain river and bathing in freezing cold water, acclimatization at scaling of every 2000 ft. to get used to lower oxygen environment, facing hailstorm when evening descended and we were short by 2-3 KM while trekking in narrow mountain trek - what not but worth such an experience. There were five ten-member teams to go through this course and I feel proud to say that our team came first and we got certificate of recognition from Ms. Pal. I shall try to locate some of those rag and tag pictures of that time and put up here.

Later I found several pages on him (Link1, Link2, Link3, Link4), none in national media though, one of which says, "He had to struggle against poverty and lack of sponsorship to give shape to his dream of becoming a seasoned mountaineer. Those who think that climbing Mt. Everest is all about grit and stamina are mistaken. Scaling the world’s highest peak also involves a lot of money and to meet his expenses and gather funds for the expedition, Mra sold off his four mithuns (bos frontals), semi domesticated cow like animals flaunted by Arunachalees as a status symbol in the tribal society. The government of Arunachal Pradesh and some local clubs in Arunachal Pradesh also provided substantial financial assistance to Tapi Mra to meet his expenditure to scale the dizzying heights of Everest." And when the expedition was about to be abandoned due to bad weather, "He felt like he had to abandon the expedition when an avalanche killed some members of the expedition. He was so terrified that he almost decided to return home. However, he thought of the faces of several persons whose help made the expedition possible and this spurred him on. Crawling over the bodies of members of earlier expeditions imprinted on ice and which still looked fresh, he remembered he went past somebody sitting in a meditative posture near the summit with a flag in hand only to discover later that it was a body lying there for several years. After his successful descent from the peak, when asked how it felt on the top of the world, he proudly said that it was a divine feeling and felt like standing on top of the world as for the final moment of the assault he felt that he had an out of body experience and he forgot everything. A grateful Mra on his return after conquering Everest presented the Governor and Chief Minister a piece of the rock that he collected from the top of the world and the photographs of himself with the tricolour atop Everest."

The last pic is  recent photograph gifted to me by Headmaster of a local village high school when I attended a function there. The second last picture is from our recent Mirik-Darjeeling-Kurseong tour. I may describe these experiences in subsequent posts.