I reached Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur (KGP) as a fresher with a great deal of trepidation. No, I was not worried about missing the comforts of home. The monster that scared me was – ragging.
I had heard many horror stories about the brutality of ragging at other colleges and had no idea what the IIT-KGP version would turn out to be. But I was determined to endure it because I was hell-bent on becoming an engineer.
Very soon, I found out three facts about ragging:
- Every senior was a boss, entitled to rag any fresher.
- Even touching a fresher was banned—unwritten law—let alone any physical violence.
- The purpose of ragging was to make you feel like a low-life, unworthy of breathing the same air as the seniors.
The last point was driven home early on, when all the freshers were lined up in my residence hall’s common room in front of a table at which sat five seniors. The purpose of this exercise was, ostensibly, to select the team for the upcoming inter-hall freshers’ quiz. But the real purpose was something else.
At this point, I should explain that every fresher thought quite highly of himself. He had, in all likelihood, been a topper at school, noted for his intellectual prowess and adulated for having cleared the impossibly tough IIT entrance exam. Unfortunately, our budding egos would soon come crashing down.
The format of the quiz team selection was:
- Each fresher would name a subject, any subject under the sun—from astronomy to zoology—regarding which he considered himself particularly knowledgeable.
- The panel of seniors would ask him five questions on his chosen subject.
- Anyone who could answer four or more questions would qualify for the freshers’ quiz team.
To our astonishment, nobody was able to answer more than three questions. Some poor chaps failed to answer even one! The seniors then told the fresher the correct answers.
We were shocked to find that a group of just five seniors could take on over 60 freshers on myriad subjects, chosen by the freshers themselves, and demonstrate their superior knowledge in each and every subject. We really felt like ignorant low-lives.
As you might have expected, I didn’t get into the freshers’ quiz team. I had to undergo another selection process.
Three seniors called me, “Hey, you!”
Next was a series of questions: “Can you play cricket?”
“Ahh, galli cricket…?” I ventured.
“No, nahin chalega (won’t do). Football? Hockey? Badminton?” I wisely demurred.
“Can you sing, at least?”
I shook my head.
“Bloody hell, another useless dumbo. Well, you can f…ing well talk, can’t you?”
There was no way I could deny the ability to talk, so I nodded – yes, I could talk.
“Put him in the freshers’ debate team, then,” was the verdict.
Thus, began my debating career in IIT. As it happened, I won the freshers’ debate, got into the IIT debate team where I stayed during all the five years at IIT, and won a number of inter-college debates.
Thus, was 'talent' identified in IIT in those days!
Yes, the bosses made us feel unworthy, but they helped us too. An example...
Seven freshers from mechanical engineering (mech engg), including me, lived in our hall. Naturally, we tried to stick together during the ragging days. One day, we returned from our first machine lab class with an assignment: produce a free-hand sketch of a huge lathe which had been shown to us in the lab.
We huddled together, trying to figure out how on earth we could draw a detailed picture of a lathe, simply from memory. Even if any of us could actually draw the damn thing, it would take hours.
A third year mech engg senior came to our rescue. He rummaged through a thick pile of papers lying on a shelf in his room and produced a beautiful free-hand drawing of the lathe in question. From its dog-eared appearance, it was clear that it had been handed down many generations of freshers.
We stared at the drawing in admiration. But the big question was: how to copy it?
One of us suggested tracing. The senior scoffed disdainfully and said, “That won’t work. Tracing always leaves impressions on the paper. The lab head will spot it in a jiffy.”
He paused, and uttered the magic solution: glass topo.
Seeing our blank looks, he smiled condescendingly and proceeded to show us how to do a glass topo.
He arranged two piles of books, about six inches tall and 1-1/2 feet apart. Next, he placed a sheet of glass on the two piles, and inserted a table lamp under the glass. Finally, he put the drawing on the glass, put a blank sheet of paper on top of the drawing, and switched on the table lamp.
The drawing showed through the blank paper. Now it was a matter of minutes to run a pencil along the lines of the drawing and thus reproduce it on the blank paper. Voila!
After three weeks, the ragging abated because every senior had ragged almost every fresher by then. We freshers began to feel somewhat liberated—the ordeal was nearly over.
Then, temptation arrived.
The first year mech class had a half-day off every Thursday. On one such Thursday, the seven of us were hanging around after lunch. The hall was empty because everyone else had gone to class.
Suddenly, a cycle rickshaw drew up carrying one young chap complete with bedding, suitcase and bags. Our eyes lit up! Fresher!!!
Yes, it turned out that he was actually a fresher named Sujit, set to join the BSc classes scheduled to start on Monday. We looked at one another. Hall empty, fresher at hand—why can’t we be the bosses?
We took poor Sujit to his room pretending to be third year students and ragged him for two hours, subjecting him to everything that we had undergone in the past three weeks at the hands of the true bosses. When it was finally 4pm, time for tea, we released him with an admonition to stand up, salute and wish us every time he saw any one of us.
We disbursed to our rooms and strolled to the dining room for tea a little later, in our little group as was our habit. When we entered the dining room, we saw Sujit sitting at a table with a group of fourth year students. On seeing us, he jumped up, saluted and said, “Good evening, Sir.”
In surprise, the seniors asked Sujit, “Hey, what are you doing?”
He replied, “They told me to do this, Sir,” pointing at us.
In a trice, the seniors caught on.
“You little twerps have been ragging this poor fellow, have you? Getting to be zyada hoshiar (too smart), huh? Aao, dikhatey hain ragging kya hota hai.” (Come, let us show you what ragging is.)
Then followed six full hours of unmitigated ragging, the works—National Anthem in Mussoorie, pranam in Andaman, pushing an eight-anna coin up the wall with your nose, etc, etc. The ragging ceased only when the seniors were exhausted. Any comment regarding our state would be superfluous.
Being the boss for two hours had turned out to be very costly.
(Deserting engineering after a year in a factory, Amitabha Banerjee did an MBA in the US and returned to India. Choosing work-to-live over live-to-work, he joined banking and worked for various banks in India and the Middle East. Post-retirement, he returned to his hometown Kolkata and is now spending his golden years travelling the world (until Covid, that is), playing bridge, befriending Netflix & Prime Video and writing in his wife’s travel blog.)