Elite institutions and mental illness

At the Aditya Birla scholarship function last night, I met an old professor, who happened to remember me. We were exchanging emails today and he happened to ask me about one of my classmates, who passed away last year. In reply to him I went off on a long rant about the incidence of mental illness in institutions such as IIT. Some of what I wrote, I thought, deserved a wider audience, so I’m posting an edited version here. I’ve edited out people’s names to protect their privacy. 

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<name blanked out 1> passed away a year and a half back. He had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was also suffering from depression, and he committed suicide. He had been living in Bangalore in his last days, working with an IT company here. I had invited him for my wedding a couple of months before that, but had got no response from him.
He was the third person that our 30-odd strong Computer Science class from IIT Madras lost. Prior to that another of our classmates had killed himself, and he too was known to be suffering from some form of mental illness. The third was a victim of a motorcycle accident.
I’m quite concerned about the incidence of mental illness among elite students. From my IIT Madras Computer Science class alone, I know at least six people who at some point of time or the other have been diagnosed with mental illness. I myself have been under treatment for depression and ADHD since January this year. And I don’t think our class is a particularly skewed sample.
I think this is a manner of great concern, and doesn’t get the attention that it deserves. I don’t know if there are some systemic issues that are causing this, but losing graduates of elite institutions to mental illness is I think a gross wastage of resources! I don’t know what really needs to be done, but I think one thing that is certainly going to help is to set up on-campus psychiatric and counselling services (manned by trained professionals; I know IIT Madras has a notional “guidance and counselling unit” but I’m not sure what kind of counseling they’re really capable of) , and to encourage students to seek help when they sense a problem.
Of course, there are other constraints at play here – firstly there is a shortage of trained psychiatrists in India. I remember reading a report somewhere that compared to international standards, India has only one third of the number of psychiatrists it requires. More importantly, there is the social stigma related to mental illness which prevents people from seeking professional help (I must admit that I faced considerable opposition from my own family when I wanted to consult a psychiatrist), and sometimes by the time people do get help, irreparable damage might have been done in terms of career. Having read up significantly on mental illnesses for a few months now, and looking back at my own life, I think I had been depressed ever since 2000, when I joined IIT. And it took over 11 years before I sought help and got it diagnosed. Nowadays, I try to talk about my mental illness in public forums, to try and persuade people that there is nothing shameful in being mentally ill, and to encourage them to seek help as soon as possible when they think they have a problem.
I’m really sorry I’ve gone off on a tangent here but this is a topic that I feel very strongly about, and got reminded about when I started thinking about <name blanked out 1>….
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I know that several universities abroad offer free psychiatric support to students, and I know a number of friends who have taken advantage of such programs and gotten themselves diagnosed, and are leading significantly better lives now. I don’t really know how to put it concisely but if you think you suffer from some mental illness, I do encourage you to put aside the stigmas of yourself and your family, and go ahead and seek help. 

MENSA

Vinod Ganesh is popularly known as MENSA, in Chennai quizzing and other circles. He attained his MENSA membership sometime in 2003-04. The exam (yeah, since it’s a high IQ society, you need to pass an exam to join) was sometime in late 2003 or early 2004, and the results arrived during Saarang 2004. Thinking back, there is a possibility that the nickname could have been mine (though “Wimpy” was well-established by then). I’d also taken the same exam on the same day as Vinod did, and had cracked it. It remains one of the turning points in my life.

I was studying Computer Science at IIT Madras, and was in my final year of the course. Most of the class wanted to go to the US to do their masters, and along came a rumour (possibly substantiated given how universities in America work) that membership of elite clubs such as MENSA was a good bullet point that might enable admission, and offers of aid. Most of my classmates had signed up enthusiastically. The rumour had misled me, in the sense that I had assumed there was little to the exam apart from a bullet point for foreign apps, and had stayed away.

It was a Saturday, and the entrance test was going to happen over three sessions. MENSA entrance is one of those tests where they “recycle” question papers – the papers are taken back at the end of the test, and given out to the next batch. The nature of questions allows them to do this – they are mostly pattern recognition, and are quite hard to “describe” in the absence of the question paper. Sometimes someone else who took the test prior to you would have made marks on the question paper, but it is best you disregard them, for you never know how well they’ve done.

Friends who had written the test in the first batch told me that it was a tough exam. That it was all about pattern recognition and stuff. They also mentioned that for the third session, seats weren’t filled up and they were still taking on-the-spot registrations. I think the entrance fee was a hundred bucks or so, and I made a spur of the moment decision to write the test.

IIT was a hard time for me. For most of my time there, my confidence was at an all-time low. Except for one term, I never did well in academics. Extra curricular activities also floundered, and I would find myself wasting phenomenal amounts of time. I had developed a fear that I wasn’t good enough, and it was feeding onto itself and making things worse. Given my indifferent performances both in class and outside, my peers, too, didn’t have too much respect for me (IIT is strictly meritocratic that way, I must tell you), and that only contributed to my self-doubt. Given that I was going to graduate soon, I knew I needed a stimulus to break out of my rut, and so far hadn’t figured a way out.

MENSA, the exam that I had enrolled for in the last minute, unexpectedly proved to provide the stimulus. It turned out that in my entire Computer Science class (most of whom were double digit rankers in the IIT-JEE, and half of whom had better CGPAs than me), I was the only person to have qualified the MENSA test. I remember a couple of others coming close. Most, including a number of the top rankers in class, hadn’t even come close to qualifying. If my confidence levels were higher earlier, I might have yelled out a “howzzat”. In the event, I didn’t require it, since the success in the exam was enough of a stimulus for me to do well in CAT, which followed, and generally break out of the rut.

In the event, I ended up not joining MENSA. I got a letter asking me to come for a welcome party, where I had to pay a fee to become a lifetime member of MENSA Chennai. I knew I was going to move out of Chennai in about three months’ time, and I thought it would be a waste to become a life member of the Chennai chapter. I remember writing to the Bangalore chapter after I moved back, but the responses were vague, and I never joined. That letter from MENSA which declares my success in the examination, though, sits proudly in my “certificates folder”. And for some three years hence, the fact that I had cracked the MENSA entrance test had adorned my resume.

I’ve never been an “RG” (IIT term for someone who doesn’t hesitate to pull others back in order to get ahead of them), but in this one situation, I had taken great pleasure in my classmates’ failure to qualify for MENSA. For a good reason, I think, since that was responsible in setting me off on a successful run that would last close to two years.

Card Games

So the other day, while playing rummy with the members of the in-law family, I figured why I suck so much at some card games despite having played them quite regularly when I was a kid. Back then, in family gatherings, it was common for the host to come up with a couple of packs of cards, and we would play either rummy or this game called donkey (some kind of variation of hearts is how I’ll describe it for those that don’t know it). Given how regularly we played it, I should have become rather good at either of them, which unfortunately is not the case.

Bridge was the first card game that I learnt “formally”, in the hostel blocks of IIT Madras. Soon after being explained the rules of the game, I was taught conventions, both in bidding and play. I was taught the math, the probabilities of various distributions and to make intelligent guesses. While I quickly became decently good at bridge, it didn’t help my game in any of the other card games that I’d learnt.

So while playing recently, I realized that I know little about the science of rummy. And then I realized the reason for it – we used to play with incomplete decks. The problem with old family-held packs of cards with which no “formal” games are played is that cards tend to go missing over the course of time (especially if there are kids around), and no one really bothers to check. And when you play with incomplete packs of cards, all the beautiful math and rules of probability go out of the window. And if you have learnt playing with such a pack of cards, it is unlikely you’d have figured out much math also.

Last night, while playing rummy with the wife, I tried my best to use math, to keep a careful note of discarded cards, the joker (for example, if seven of hearts had turned up as the joker card, that meant a six of hearts in hand was of less use than otherwise (we were playing with only one pack) ), mathematical probabilities of which cards are still available based on discards and stuff. Then, it turned out that there was too much luck involved in the distribution of cards, and I started missing the duplicate bridge games that we used to play back in IIT.

The wife has shown an inclination to learn bridge, and I’m trying to teach her. We’re also trying to learn poker (we’d bought this nice poker set in Sri Lanka last year but it remains unused since neither of us can play the game). Yeah, becoming really good at these card games is one of the aims of my “project thirty”.

Dropping out

Less than a semester into my undergrad (Bachelor of Technology in Computer Science and Engineering at IIT Madras) I wanted to drop out, and start work. I didn’t want to be an “engineer”.

I didn’t know why I’d to spend all my Thursday and Friday afternoons filing away at some piece of iron in the “fitting workshop”. I didn’t have the patience to draw three views of a random object in “engineering drawing”.

And I had the reputation of being one of the studdest programmers in my school. Apart from winning competitions here and there and doing well in acads, I had enormous respect from peers for my programming skills. Given that it was a “high-performance school” (which subjected its own 10th standard students to a test before admitting them to 11th) I guess this peer respect does carry some weight.

So, being good at math, and having the reputation of being a stud programmer, I didn’t know what I was doing studying “engineering”. I wanted to be a programmer, and I wanted to drop out and take up a job. My JEE rank counted almost as much as an IIT degree, I thought. I didn’t have the balls, and I continued.

In hindsight, I’m happy I didn’t drop out. By the end of my second year, I knew for sure that I DIDN’T want to be a programmer. While the theoretical aspects of Computer Science excited me (algo analysis and stuff), I had absolutely no patience for “systems”, or “computer engineering”. I was perhaps alone in my class in my love for Microsoft products (easy to use).

I realized then that I liked only the algorithmic aspect of programming, where one solves a (mostly math) problem and codes it up in a simple program. Huge complicated systems-intensive programming, making GUIs etc. didn’t inspire me at all.

Looking back, all that “major” (i.e. Computer Science and Engineering) stuff that I’ve learnt and internalized was learnt in my first two years of engineering. Of course several concepts that are part of CS&E are taught in the last two years, but I ended up not liking any of that.

Looking back, I do find it positive that I did all those “general engineering” courses. I do find it really positive that we had to do 12 compulsory credits in Humanities and Social Sciences, for that allowed me to discover what I was really interested in, and indirectly led me to doing my MBA.

I have only one regret. That I wasn’t able to switch streams sooner than I could. That IIT, being a one-dimensional technology oriented university, didn’t allow me to transfer credits to a course that I would’ve liked better, simply because it offered undergrad courses only in engineering.

There was a humanities department, where I discovered what I was interested in, but unfortunately it was a “minor” department. It’s been partly rectified now, with the setting up of integrated MA courses, in Economics, etc. (if that course existed back when I was studying, there’s a good chance I’d’ve transferred to it from CS&E). But it’s not enough.

Kids at 17 have no clue what they want to do. What we need are flexible full-scale universities, which allow you to switch from any branch to any other branch after two years of reasonably generalized study (the earlier branch can then contribute to “minor” credits). We need to stop putting our colleges in silos such as “engineering”, “arts and science”, etc. Only then would our universities be truly world class, even from an undergraduate point of view.

And looking back, I’m really happy I didn’t drop out.

Coding

Back when I was in school (11th/12th) I think I was an awesome coder. I think I was especially good at what they called as “logic coding”, i.e. coming up with algos. I used to experiment quite a bit (as much was possible with TurboC) and had a lot of fun too. I remember doing graphics in TurboC, making a “pong” game, brick breaker, and a lot of other cool stuff. For our 12th standard project, Hareesh and I built this totally awesome cricket scoring program, which we unfortunately didn’t take forward (and went to college instead).

It was my love for coding that meant I fought with my parents (who wanted me to study Electrical) and decided to study Computer Science at IIT Madras. And then I lost it. Somewhere along the way. I didn’t enjoy coding any more. Soon, I began to hate coding. I would love coding when I would write the odd program in “pure” C, or when I would participate in contests such as BITWise. But I’d completely lost it.

So over the last six to seven years (after I graduated from IIT) there have been occasions when I have thought I’ve regained my coding mojo, only to lose it again very soon. I’m still very proud of that Excel+VBA model that I had written in the very first week of my third job. But a couple of months later, I was hating coding again. And so it was while debugging a complicated piece of code at work this morning that I realize why I have this love-hate relationship with coding.

It’s simple – basically I hate coding for others. I hate writing code that others will read or use. I don’t mind writing code that others would use as a black box, of course. But I think writing code that others will read or use puts too many constraints on the way you code. My instinct is always to stop doing something when I’m personally satisfied with it, and with code it seems like I’m satisfied sooner than others would be satisfied with my code.

At a fundamental level, I like coding and I think I’m pretty good at it, so it isn’t something I want to give up. But then the formal processes and endless testing involved with writing code for others really kills joy (as does GUI, and Java). Code saves a lot of time, and helps “studdize” what might be otherwise fighter work, so I like doing it.

In an ideal world, I would be writing code that I would alone be using, AND profiting from it (I never intend to sell code; I intend to sell the results of the said code, however; that would mean no one else would read/use my code per se, so I can write it the way I want). Hopefully I’ll get there, sometime.

Pat

I’m not sure if I’d prepared this as an answer to a potential interview question but if I were asked if there was one part of my life which I’d’ve chosen to live differently, I’d probably pick my four years at IIT Madras. In many respects, it represents some kind of a void in my life. Nothing much of note happened during that. It was during that time that I learnt to put NED. There wasn’t much value added to my life in those four years, either in terms of actual value or even in terms of bullet points. There was not much “growth” in those years.

I did nothing of note in terms of academics (I ended up as class median) and apart from a bit of quizing not much in the lit scene either. I didn’t go out on too many trips, nor did I go out too much. You might be surprised to know that I’ve never in my life watched a movie at a movie hall in Chennai! I went to Besant Nagar beach thrice during my four year stay, and to the Marina Beach once. I played only a peripheral role in organizing Saarang and Shaastra, and that too only in the latter half of my stay there.

On several occasions I’ve asked myself what kept me going through those four years that I consider to be my “dark days”, and the only reasonable answer that I get is “pat”. Pat. Sri Gurunath Patisserie. The coffee shop of IIT. The life and blood of my life at IIT. Perhaps the only thing I really missed about IIT when I moved to IIMB. The venue for much discussion, and fun, and bitchery, and long nights. Open air. Bad chairs. Broken tables. Non-existtent umbrellas. Breeze. Cheap and horrible nescafe. 5 Rupis lemonade. Etecetera.

When bitching about my life at IIT, I usually lay most of the blame on the fact that I was put in a mostly PG hostel. However, one advantage of being in Marnad was that it was right opposite Patisserie, and so it took little effort to go park there. I suppose it was no coincidence that the most prolific Pat-ers (Bhaand, Shamnath and I) were all Narmadites.

It was really simple. All that one had to do when bored was to walk across and go buy yourself a cup of Nescafe for 5 rupis. And park. If you found an interesting gumbal, you would park with them. If not you would park alone, and an interesting enough gumbal would build up around you as time went by. People kept coming and people kept going but the conversation would go on for a while. And some time in the middle, Satcho would materialize and molest Mani, the dog that had been much fattened on the Patisserie leftovers.

It was at the Patisserie that the editors of The Fourth Estate would meet the correspondents and collect ideas for bitchy stories. It was at the Patisserie that plots were hatched to bring down The Fourth Estate and start the rival (shortlived) Total Perspective Vortex. It was at the Patisserie that campus couples announced themselves (though after a while action in this regard moved to “spot” near the girls’ hostel). It was at Patisserie that cheap treats were given and cheap bets were settled.

It was at the Patisserie that I first started making Pertinent Observations, and telling them to people around me. When I didn’t have access to Patisserie any more, I started this blog.

Earlier, when people told me about the crazy things they’d done in their undergrad and all the fun they had, I’d feel bad. I’d feel bad that I’d missed out on something. Now I just ask myself if I’d’ve traded my sessions at the Patisserie for the “fun” things that they’d done. And the answer, usually, is no.

The Swarovski Earrings

On Friday evening I tweeted:

Louis philippe best white shirt – rs X1
Swarovski crystal earrings – rs X2
Dinner at taj west end – rs X3
Proposal accepted – priceless

Now I must confess that there was a lie. Which I tried to mask by using variables for the various values. Of course, at the time of tweeting this, I didn’t know the value of X3; though I figured it out an hour later. The value of X1 is well known. The lie was in the X2 bit. The thing is I don’t know. Because the Swarovski crystal earrings weren’t bought; they were won.

Back in 2000 when I entered IIT Madras, I started doing extremely bad in quizzes there. It took me a long while to get adjusted to the format there (long questions, all-night quizzes… ) and a lot of stuff that got asked there was about stuff that I didn’t care much about so I didn’t really bother doing well. There’s this old joke that every IITM quiz should start and end with a Lord of the Rings (LOTR) question with two more LOTR questions in the middle, and all this is only in one half of the quiz.

In my first year there, there was also the additional problem of finding good people to quiz with. You invariably ended up going with someone either from your hostel or your class who might have attended their school trials for the Bournvita Quiz Contest, or sometimes quizzers you know from Bangalore. Still, the lack of a settled team meant that there was a cap on how well one could do. All through first year, I didn’t qualify in a single quiz, neither in Madras nor when I came home to Bangalore.

Second year was marginally different. There was still no settled team but the format wasn’t strange any more. And quizzes had started to get a little more general and less esoteric. I had started to qualify, or just miss qualification, in some quizzes. And around this time, while struggling with VLSI circuits and being accused by the Prof of being potential WTC Bombers (this was a few days after 9/11) I heard God and Ranga talk about some Dakshinachitra where they had qualified for the finals.

So Dakshinachitra is this heritage center on East Coast Road and they had been conducting an India Quiz. It was a strange format – three rounds of prelims with two teams (of two people) qualifying from each round. God and Ranga had gone for the first round of prelims and had sailed through. They had told me the competition hadn’t been too tough and so the following week Droopy and I headed out, taking some random local bus to the place.

We too made it peacefully to the finals and then found that it had turned out to be an all-IIT finals. However, they refused to shift the venue of the finals to the IIT campus and so all of us had to brave the Saturday afternoonMadras sun and head out again to the place. Thankfully this time they’d organized a bus from somewhere close to IIT.

I don’t remember too much of the finals apart from the fact that there was a buzzer round with extremely high stakes, in which Droopy and I did rather well. I remember one question in the buzzer round being cancelled because an audience member shouted out the answer. I remember there was this fraud-max specialist round where we were quizzed on a topic we’d picked beforehand. Thankfully the stakes there weren’t too high. It wasn’t a great quiz by general quizzing standards but what mattered was we won, marginally ahead of God and Ranga in a close finish.

The next morning Droopy and I appeard in the supplement pages of the New Indian Express, holding this huge winner’s certificate with Air India’s name on it (they took back that certificate as soon as the photo was taken). We were promised one return ticket each by Air India to any destination in some really limited list, but somehow they frauded on it and we could never fly. God and Ranga got a holiday each in some resort, and I don’t think they took that, too.

There were a lot of random things as prizes. There were some random old music CDs. Maybe some movie CDs too. I remember God and Ranga getting saris (god (not God, maybe God also) knows what they did with it). Droopy and I got coupons from VLCC. I put NED to encash them. Droopy went and was given a free haircut. And then there were these earrings.

Not knowing what to do with them, I just gave them to my mother. She, however, refused to wear them saying that since I’d won them, it was only appropriate that they go to my wife. So she put them away in the locker in my Jayanagar house and told me to take them out only when I had decided who I wanted to marry. And I, then a geeky 18-year old IITian, had decided to use these earrings while proposing marriage.

So early in the evening on Friday I went to the Jayanagar house and took the earrings out of the locker. What followed can be seen in the tweet. Oh, and now you might want to start following this blog.

PS: apologies for the extra-long post, but given the nature of the subject I suppose you can’t blame me for getting carried away