Meet an MITian

By Rajesh Vaishnav and Meera Ram

Meet an MITian column gives an insight into the life and experiences of an alumnus of MIT. This column is really a treasure of information which has given MIT a glorified past. We assure you a fun filled reading. You will never go wrong on this one.

A bright Sunday afternoon it was, seemed the best day to drop by and collect an interview. Take the first right from Chromepet bus stand and then the first left. You can find him residing at No.57. Dr Jackson Chandra, T.NO: 19, the then automobile student of the first batch of MIT, a native of Kanyakumari or old Travancore district of Tamil Nadu. Eighty nine and counting but he was as energetic and enthusiastic as we all would be. Paying our apologies for making him wait so long, we started with our questions and he just took us away to the time when he was a student at MIT. His astounding memory power was clearly evident in the casual flow of information and exact recollection of the happenings. We travelled back in time, fast-forwarded it, paused it at some points and made a note of some interesting things. Throughout his interview, there was a sheer respect to the institution which had “given him life“ as he says. By the end of our interview we realized that our trip did not end at his house but had only begun there. We are proud to deliver you a few excerpts from the interview

How was your educational career before MIT and how did you get an admission here?

Since my father was in a transferrable government job, I had to face the burden of changing my schools often. I did my intermediate course at the university college in Trivandrum. After that I did my BSc, Physics at the Madras Christian College from 1947 to 1949. After finishing my course at MCC I came across an advertisement in a local newspaper by Madras Institute of Technology inviting students to take up careers in engineering courses. My dad was very much insistent on me choosing MIT despite the fact that the college was started only then and it had not much infrastructural facilities. I was called for a personal interview. I presented myself before a committee headed by Mr. N.K.Renganathan, the first principal of MIT and Mr. T.N.Seshadri and later I was admitted into MIT.

How were your initial days at MIT?

By the time I got admitted into MIT, the classes had started. I stayed at hostel for the entire course. During the first year of our course we studied all kinds of subjects like applied physics, applied chemistry, applied mathematics and so on. We had to select a specific discipline only by the end of the first term. I was interested in Electrical engineering but I was offered automobile. Yet I accepted it with the same happiness and attitude. By the end of first year, MIT had recruited faculties from all over the world for all of its departments except automobile engineering. In the middle of the second term Professor S.P.Hore from the Michigan State University who had worked in the Damodar Valley project came to the rescue of the department. He was the architect of the entire department. He framed the curriculum and syllabus. He insisted on more emphasis being laid on practical approach. He focused more on the design and production side rather than on the theory side. Since there were lots of portions yet to be covered, we had to attend classes even after dinner. There were only four departments when MIT was first established. They were Aeronautical, Automobile, Electrical and Instrument Technology. Having an optimum strength of just 24 students per department the college later produced highly qualified and efficient engineering scientists.

How was Engineering portrayed those days? Was it difficult to get admitted into an Engineering college?

Engineering was a serious matter in those days. Most of the people were not aware of it. There were very few engineering colleges in India. The minimum qualification to get into an engineering college was a second class in an under graduate course. The validation of answer scripts was very stringent in those days. People had to work really hard to get a seat in an engineering college.

Why MIT and not any other institution?

MIT was offering post BSc programmes unlike any other institution which offered only under graduate programs that time. Moreover MIT was the first institute to start non conventional disciplines like Instrument technology and Aeronautical Engineering.

How was your hostel life?

We had a lot of quality time together in the hostel. The hostel was furnished in an innovative manner. But since we did not have access to dining tables we sat on the floor with “pandhipaai”s . The mess fee was Rs. 50 which was a great amount then. The hostels were constructed in the form a long block parallel to the railway track. There were three students per room. The best thing about the hostels was that the founder Rajam lived inside the campus. He used to visit the student hostels every night and enquire about the facilities and problems faced by the students. He’d always talk about a vivid picture of MIT emerging as a world- class institution and share his ideas and plans about bringing the institution forward. He was just like a grandfather to us. I could get a lifetime experience with him only because I was in hostel and I am so glad that I got the opportunity in spending some really good time with him.

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Did any world crisis have an impact on the college proceedings?

The World War II had created a massive impact on the entire globe that time. The nations which stood front in the war started repenting for their mistakes. The then leading countries of the world started surrendering their mass production of machines at a large rate. All the engines and motors were just given off for nothing. There was a huge stockpile of these machines that could be seen everywhere. At that time the college was in need of tools, machines and assembled parts for the students to undergo a practical and hands-on training. The management did not have enough money to buy machines from other sources. Professor Renganathan, professor of mechanics in CEG made the best use of the situation and acted wisely. He purchased the required machinery, electronic goods at a rate closer to only ten percent of the original rate of the goods. The best thing was that most of the machines were in a really good or repairable condition. This is how MIT got a lot of machines like military vehicles, material handling equipment, tractors and a lot more. The war massacre indirectly helped out MIT in creating a practical and skill oriented learning environment.

Did you have any experiences of ragging when you were studying here?

There was no such thing called ragging in engineering colleges in those days. The people were very friendly and well behaved. I think ragging came into existence only in the later 1990’s.

Did you bunk classes? How good were you in studies?

I have never bunked classes. I was always very firm on that. I stood sixth out of the twenty four students of our batch.

Which was your most favorite hangout spot during your college days?

In those days, Chromepet was not as much populated as it is now. It had MIT, Chrome Leather Company and only a few houses on the opposite side of the college. I would go along with my friends for evening walks on the trunk road. There would only be banyan trees on either sides of the road to accompany us. The road would be left abandoned by dusk and walking alone in that way after dusk would give you a strange feeling. We were so alone in those days.

What do you like most about your department?

More than just a department I’d call it a family. Since there was minimum number of students, the faculties were able to look after each student personally and take care of them. During weekends students would be carrying out design works with the faculties off the class and we got along with the staffs so well that we never hesitated to address our difficulties.

How fun was MIT at your time?

We had several college and department festivals. Every year we celebrated hostel day, sports day and we had lots of cultural events. There were national seminars on recent trends in automobile engineering as part of the department symposium.

Did you have any serious issue surrounding your educational career at that time?

When we were studying here, the institute was yet to receive recognition from the governing bodies. We all were really worried of what might happen if we had to leave this institution without getting a valid degree. The founder and his friends worked very hard to get recognition. There were recommendations from the Government of India and Institution of Engineers India for providing recognition. This really made us anxious about our future. It so turned out that the courses of the college got recognized only at the time of our graduation and the official announcement of recognition came during our convocation, which was presided over by the then Prime Minister, Pandit.Jawaharlal Nehru.

Name one interesting incident which happened during your college days which you’ll never forget.

It was our final year at MIT. We were afraid if MIT would get recognition. A committee headed by the education minister visited our college for inspection. The meeting was about to start. Just before the meeting started, my close friend K.Ganapathy was setting up the epidiascope. It was used by the teachers for projecting the images on the screen. When everything was ready and the meeting was about to start, he switched on the epidiascope. It displayed an image of a sinking ship with a caption “PLEASE SAVE US”. There was a moment of silence. Everyone was taken aback by that incident. He sent a clear message to everyone present there about the importance of the meeting. Only then the officials began to take up the issue seriously.

How do you portray Shri Rajam?

He was a visionary, a man who had worked really hard in life. Though he did not receive any formal education, he learned a lot of things in a different manner. He developed his own industries and earned a lot of money. When he thought that he had had enough for him, he got into contributing to the society. He invested all of his money, sold his bungalows, and took a huge amount of risk in starting this institute. He got a team of people to suggest him about the emerging trends. He was not convinced of the paperwork and wanted to see things happening of his own. In spite of his old age he visited Delhi many times regarding administrative matters and recognition issues. He was a man of substance and he always wanted to do what he envisioned and I must say he had succeeded.

Tell us about the exposure of engineering to girls and girls to engineering at your times.

The first girl student of MIT was a girl named Maya. She belonged to the electronics department. Later when I was working as a professor here, two girls Mrs. Saraswathi and Mrs. Vijayalakshmi came seeking my advice about taking up a career in MIT in automobile engineering. It was in the year 1989-90. I advised them to join, telling them that they’d make a mark. They went on to pursue M.E. in IC engines at CEG.

What has MIT given you?

MIT has given me my entire life’s educational and professional career. It is the place where my life started. Taking up a position at MIT as a teacher also helped me shape my teaching career. When I look back now, I feel immensely happy that I’ve taken up MIT and there are no regrets at all.

Dr. Jackson Chandra belonged to the first batch of Automobile Engineering, MIT. He also served as an Assistant Professor and Professor in the Department of Automobile Engineering, MIT for 20 years. He held the post of Principal in the Hindustan College of Engineering for 4 years. He resides at New colony near Chrompet bus stand.

Rajesh is a second year communication undergrad who is kind and optimistic. He is a casual, simple and expressive guy who likes to hit at challenges and opportunities.

Meera is a second year communication undergrad who likes to read and write. She has good elocution skills. She also has a black belt in karate. 

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