/Vignettes of History: Abhay Bhushan reminisces (Part I)

Vignettes of History: Abhay Bhushan reminisces (Part I)

Starting with this post, Vox Populi aims to bring forth vignettes of beauty from the rich and vastly unexplored repertoire of IIT Kanpur’s history. An institute like IIT Kanpur, which holds a special place in the history of education in India, is bound to find a lot to cherish and a lot to overlook at even a cursory glance back. A slightly more scrutinizing look would reveal the familiar and the unfamiliar, the mundane and the extraordinary, the glory and the murky. As the conscience of the campus, we feel it is of vital importance to know about the legacy bequeathed upon us. And what better way to introduce the institute and the history than reminiscences from the first student of IIT Kanpur, the inimitable Abhay Bhushan. His article will be published in three parts, the first of which is given below:


My Undergraduate Years at IIT Kanpur – Part I


Abhay K. Bhushan, BT EE 1965, Roll No. 60001

My journey through IIT Kanpur began towards the end of July 1960, when I landed at Kanpur Central with a few Naya Paisas in my pocket. Yes, there were Naya Paisas then, worth only 0.64 of the old Paisa, a result of conversion to the metric system. To me these Naya Paisas came to symbolize not a loss in value, but the new currency of innovation and entrepreneurship, and a pioneering spirit that welcomed progress.

There was a little blue truck waiting at the train station with the legendary Shishupal, waiting for scores of dreamy-eyed boys who arrived from all parts of the country (there were no girls, not even one among the hundred who started). The truck took us to Government Central Textile Institute (GCTI) Hostel in Gwaltoli, where we stayed for almost three years, until our move to Hall 1 in March 1963. Shishupal, and the little blue truck, took all of us back and forth every working day, to Harcourt Butler Technological Institute (HBTI) campus, a few miles away, where we had our lecture halls and labs. After about a year, the Institute got a bus, and our bus driver was none other than Shishupal.

I have called Shishupal legendary, as he was perhaps the most colorful character at the Institute for forty years, until his death in 2000. He was immensely popular with the students, spoke a dozen languages, told great story stories, and was a man of many talents. He had a passion for theatre and mime, and was our stage prop manager and make-up man for almost all of our early plays. I remember at one time, just for fun he applied make-up on me and a couple of friends, to look like a Sadhu (Indian mendicant). I still have a photograph from that time with me. He was an intriguing personality, and the stories he told about his life were incredible and unbelievable. He used to tell us that earlier he had been with the Bombay Film Industry where he learned the art of make-up and theater. Later, when World War II started, he joined Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army, was trained in espionage and enlisted in the British Army as an undercover agent. He was awarded a medal by the British but soon disappeared as he feared he was being caught as a spy. He spent time in the Far East, and after India’s independence Shishupal drifted from one job to another, until he found his true home with generations of students at IIT Kanpur. In the premier issue of Voices, the IIT KanpurAlumni magazine, there was a memorable article on Shishupal, and carried a poem by Gayatri Natu,

The Jester comes forth as a Jack

A King, an Ace, the rest of the pack

I could’ve found out

What he’s all about

But I really haven’t quite got his knack

During our first year, we were the only class at the Institute. However, we did not escape ragging or hazing, as we were ragged by the Textile Institute seniors, who were not too happy with these brash IITians usurping their brand new Hostel. I have vivid memories of these ragging sessions, when a bunch of us on successive days, were woken up late at night and marched in front of a large group of Textile Institute seniors, who tried to intimidate us, by shouting at us and threatening to strip us and mete out other punishments if we did not obey them. I was a little scared but also somewhat amused, as they were holding court, with King Lingam, presiding. We were all asked to hail King Lingam by shouting, “L*** Maharaj ki Jai”. After that we were called one by one, and made to a special salutation, requiring us to be in a prone position, and raising our right hand in a salute. Then people were asked to sing a song, do some vulgar displays of AC-DC, and repeat some foul swear words pertaining to mothers and sisters. They often threatened to put Elgin Mill’s chimney up ours. I distinctly remember that a friend of mine was asked to hold his private parts and sing the old Hindi song, “Nanhe munhe bacche teri mutthi me kya hai? Mutthi me hai taqdir hamari” (Little children what is in your hands? In Our hands is our Destiny). I still get a few chuckles when I think of those ragging scenes.

On the first day our classes started, Dr. P. K. Kelkar, the first Director of IITK, welcomed us at the newly constructed wing of HBTI. He assured us that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and a great building starts with a mound of dirt. In 1961, we actually walked from Kanpur to the new campus at Kalyanpur, a distance of about 8 miles, giving a hand in digging the foundation for the Institute, and contributing that proverbial small mound of dirt. Dr. Kelkar symbolized the spirit of innovation and quest that has been a hallmark of IITK from its humble beginnings at HBTI and the Textile Hostel, to the beautiful campus we have today. Through my early experience at IIT Kanpur, I learnt that we don’t have to own buildings and equipment, or even have paid employees, in order to succeed. When we do something useful and worthwhile, these come later. Consider all the great enterprises that started in a garage or borrowed facilities with borrowed equipment, and people putting in sweat equity. And these include Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, Apple Computer, Cisco, Google, Infosys, and many others.

Dr. P. K. Kelkar, the first Director of IIT Kanpur, was a most remarkable man. He had all the characteristics of a great leader – imagination, boldness, resourcefulness, perseverance, integrity and humility. He was always prepared to meet any of us students at a moment’s notice, which was most unusual in India, especially in those days. When we had problems, he asked for our patience, and encouraged us to do our best, even in trying circumstances.

I remember that in the first year of IIT Kanpur, we had many professors borrowed from the archaic U.P. educational system. These professors believed in memory and rote, even for math problems. We had books by S. L. Loney (or Looney it might be, as I thought of Looney Tunes), and solved examples by S. L. Loney for our text book. In our final exam for the first year, we had some of these problems from the solved examples text books, to do. As memorizing the solutions verbatim to math problems was anathema to me, and I refused to do it by memory and solved the problems by applying principles. Naturally, this took time and I was only able to solve four of the six problems. Considering myself to be quite fast in math, I wrote in my answer book, that I challenged anyone to solve the problems in time allotted,. This comment of mine bothered the professor who called me to his office and chided me for writing rubbish in my answer book, and added that many of my classmates completed the problems in time, just fine. I asked him to show me one of the answer books, and I pointed it out to him that these were memorized answers, verbatim from the book, including statements such as “from here we can get the answer as on page 87.” I pointed to him that doing math by memorizing solutions without understanding or doing the steps was completely ridiculous. This incensed the professor, who told me that for being impertinent, he could get me expelled from the Institute! I walked out of his office angry, saying that truth is on my side and not even his father could get me expelled. I went straight to the Director’s office, and explained the whole situation to Dr. Kelkar. Dr. Kelkar listened very patiently, and then calmly told me, “Abhay, don’t mind this too much. Take heart, the Institute is hiring new faculty, and the second year will be very different. IIT Kanpur will be the best Institute in India with the most progressive education system.”

Dr. Kelkar’s words were indeed prophetic! In our second year in 1961, we had excellent new faculty. Dr. Kelkar had been able to attract some of the best young minds to come and join IIT Kanpur. Many of these teachers had obtained their doctorates in the United States, Canada and UK, and had experience of teaching there. Further, Dr. Kelkar gave full freedom to the faculty to discuss and decide the academic directions. The new professors gave emphasized original thinking and application of principles over memory and rote. What a refreshing change for me! In one of the first tests, I solved the test paper in less than half the time, while most of my classmates were still sitting there when time was up. They came out and complained how these problems were so difficult. Upon asking what the difficulty was, they replied that they had not seen the problem before in “solutions book”. As a result of these progressive changes I went from the bottom half of my class to the top five percentile!


Second installment can be found here.