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Five points, paranthas and some friends

Investment banker-turned-author Chetan Bhagat takes on tech education's Holy Grail - the IIT



Chetan Bhagat: "I did think of my self-image a lot." — Photo: K. Gopinathan

CHETAN BHAGAT presented me with his first work of fiction, Five Point Someone: What Not To Do at IIT last week with a curious note: " Don't stop making friends." Dead Right. He said he knew someone who took his life because he did not make it to IIT. If that is success, it makes sense to write about why you should have anyone who will like or love you whether you make it or not.

Chetan's book, launched at Crosswsord, is all about bonding, not GPA, in IIT. Score nine on 10 and have no one eating paranthas with you, score five and have someone who does. Five and a friend is better than 10 and a vacuum. Hari, Ryan, and Alok make it to IIT.

Hari is fat, confused about sticking to books, likes a professor's daughter, and wants to be Ryan. Ryan is good-looking, confident, drinks and gets others to drink vodka, has parents abroad and curiously stashes away letters from there. Alok is fat, his father's ill, sister unmarried, family can't make ends meet — he wants to make 9 on 10. This is trouble: Alok likes time with both, but his own too, to make the grades; Hari partly goes with Alok, but likes to mimic Ryan; Ryan is vodka. Time for oneself to make it big and time together for fun: what's the take?

Alok and Hari give into Ryan. They talk shop, flirt a bit, crack jokes on gals they'd love to be with but can't, drink vodka on the insti roof, and guess what, mess up the quiz, land GPAs below six. At IIT, it means you are a nothing.

In between the "paranthas and vodka", Alok is worried about his family and scores, Hari, that he is not Ryan, and Ryan, confidence masked all the way: insecurities deep down, no confessions. They want to make it big, but think five GPA is OK.

Is Chetan then right? In the pits, the three do a C2D, Co-operate to Dominate — Ryan's idea. Meaning, they do different parts of a common project to save time and score decent. They don't. They're still friends, but the GPA is beginning to tell.

Ryan's second brainstorm: steal Prof. Cherian's papers, reproduce them in the tests, make the grades. They bungle. Things fall apart. Alok falls off from the seventh floor or so, takes 13-odd fractures, but lives. Ryan almost decides to. He scares the shit out of Hari when he tells him the fall is easy from the insti roof. Hari is in convulsions. The inquiry comes as the fear of being kicked out.

But someone tells Prof. Cherian that Hari is dating his daughter, Neha. Talk is suddenly about the prof and his daughter. To stave off scandal, Prof. Cherian makes an offer of a semester's suspension.

Meanwhile, Prof. Veera approves of a project Ryan thinks of on lubes. Alok recovers and they turn out a feasible one.

They get credits and make it through IIT in four years like it should be. Alok lands a job even with five-and-odd, Hari does, but Ryan doesn't for a month. Campus interviews don't take five pointers seriously.

Prof. Veera bails out Ryan again, this time as research assistant. Lucky Ryan's parents pour money into his project. They all make it, not really big, at five-and-odd GPA. But hey, the hitch is here: why would Alok want to fall off the roof and why would Ryan think of jumping when both are good friends?

Isn't friendship enough to stave off suicidal impulses? Apparently there's no substitute for better GPAs.

And Prof. Cherian's son, pressured to make it to IIT, wouldn't have gone under the train. Chetan's hearing?

The chat with Chetan was interesting.

Something personal got you to write this.

In a sense. Complexes about how I should look... I was 15 kilos heavier than what I am today. I did think of my self-image a lot... But I should tell you I knew of someone who took his life because he did not make it to IIT...

You are from IIT and IIM. Now in an investment bank in Hong Kong. You can't get there with low GPAs.

I know I am well off... But my point is IIT is judgmental. You grade yourself every moment. A five-pointer counts for zero. You may get into IIT, but you could carry vulnerabilities — from the past... And once inside, the grades could do you in...

This guy I know scored 10 all four years at IIT. Made it to Stanford, then Columbia. And he has friends...

Maybe there is a vacuum in him...

Not that I know of... And Sandipan Deb (who wrote The IITians thinks IIT gradation beats MIT. Do well here, the world is yours?

I am not saying IIT and its grade system is bad... I am saying having good friends matters even on low GPAs in an IIT... That life is not only about grades... You come with imperfections...

What kind?

Like Hari wants to be Ryan who is good-looking. We always listen to good-looking people more, we want to agree with them... This could be disastrous... You need to be comfortable with yourself...Ryan looks good, but has no love coming from his parents... Alok's family has problems that never end...

Why're you into yoga?

When things don't work out, it helps you let go... bhakti yoga, karma yoga, vidye helps you deal with the world...

But let's say a sweeper hopes for the better. No scores there. Yoga for them?

A sweeper would like to get somewhere too... I don't want to claim high moral ground, but a sweeper with six friends is better than a CEO with none...

* * *

Chetan began writing in June 2000, closed in September 2003. The manuscript was rejected 12 tiems. He did not worry that he never was a writer or that there were better writers. "I've given it my best. This is my first. I only want to reach out, to tell the story of imperfections we hide... "

The book is vaguely philosophical, but has a funny plot or two, and some IIT argot. Reads easy, but could have had more humour than slang. Not a bad first novel targeting twentysomethings. Appreciate the recognition of angst in the IITian. It must be there, but angst also sells. Just hope Chetan's angst — for friends — is for real. If it isn't, you know it's for sale. If it is, getting it out of the way is a priority.

Five Point Someone is priced at Rs. 95.

PRASHANTH G.N.

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