The New Indian Express | By Punita Maheshwari | 08th August 2016 |
..says Adhitya Iyer, author of The Great Indian Obsession, who left home for two years and travelled across the country to find out why Indian parents are obsessed with getting their children to study Engineering.
If 3 Idiots were to be remade, Adhitya Iyer would be glad to play Aamir Khan’s Rancho. For him, learning is more important than the college degrees and only logic does the talking. That’s probably why he didn’t like the idea of engineering from day one. What did he do instead? A start-up that sells T-shirts with lines from the average frustrated engineering student printed on them. And, ironically, that’s what exactly got him into the list of the country’s top 30 young entrepreneurs. But that’s just the beginning of the story. He then came down to Bengaluru, worked in another startup that essentially sold chai (tea), spoke to dozens of IT workers and quit that job to travel across 10 states to find the answer to one simple question — “How did I end up here?” This led to another interesting story which the world knows as The Great Indian Obsession — the book that became the highest selling crowdfunded book in India and the sixth highest in Asia. It was through this journey that Adhitya Iyer presents to you the world’s most interesting educational story. Excerpts from an extra witty interview…
How did you go from taking a trip to writing a book?
It was a series of experiences. Firstly, even I was tricked into getting into an engineering college because I was good with Maths and Physics. And as we know, this combination is pretty lethal, by default. During my college days, I realised that engineering is not my thing. So to vent my frustration, I set up this start-up while in college. This earned me a lot of laurels, including the tag of top 30 young entrepreneurs of the country. Then I moved to Bengaluru where I essentially sold tea. Ummm well, it was a start-up. Bengaluru has more engineers than all of Silicon valley. Not just engineers, they are engineers frustrated with life. Most of these customers I used to talk to, while at the start-up, had similar experiences about how they were tricked. That was the last straw and I wanted to write a book on this issue.
You said you sold tea? Really?
Yeah, it sounds weird, I know. But we are so intrigued by our lives that people fail to see the absurdity of it. For me, it was a start-up founded by a Howard graduate and I wanted to explore thigs. But for my mother, it was a nightmare. I had so many cousins and not surprisingly, they were all engineers. It is embarrassing to tell people that you work at a chai point. “Can you tell me something fancy about it or at least make it sound fancy in front of the relatives,” she used to tell me. Coming back to the book, the funds were all from random people?
I took to crowd funding and 301 generous people gave me money to write a book, so it turned out pretty well. My challenge was to make people understand what crowdfunding is and then make them pay. We had a good campaign video that helped. But the usual engineering student’s last moment brain did wonders and things fell in place. I could write another book on the crowdfunding experience.
Did your childhood play any role in writing this book?
I come from a TamBrahm family, so you can do the math (chuckles). We moved from Saudi to India just so that they could put me into engineering. It is just a natural thing in my family. Ever since a kid, I didn’t know anything else. Growing up, I wanted to figure out the cause of this obsession.
So, what do really think of the Indian Education system?
The Indian education system is India’s deadliest terrorist organisation. Even if you look at the numbers, the number of kids that have killed themselves due to the pressure of academics is just disturbing. But the only bright spot is the competitive environment. So, I knew there was no point competing with these people because no matter how hard I try, this is not something I want to do. It was not my thing and thus I started exploring other things, started reading, and then the start-up happened. That’s where I found my space.
Let’s talk about your 10-state tour. What was that like?
I quit in 2013 and thought a small tour will help me write the book. But my visit to Kanpur changed this. There were people shooting each other in Kanpur, there was a proper gang war. Unfortunately, these were not gangsters but educated coaching class teachers. That day, I knew that there is a larger story and I should spend more time travelling.
Let’s talk about the highest and the lowest points of your journey.
My lowest point of the journey was in Hyderabad. I basically call it the prison journey. Have you seen the movie The Shawshank Redemption? There are places in Hyderabad where students are locked inside a room and they are not allowed to come outside. They are cut off from the outside world. In that coaching institute, one boy had blood cancer. His mother did not know it, his father knew it, I knew it and the hostel dean knew it. He was still made to study in that institute. How crazy was that? For all we know that guy may not have lived till the exam and still, his father wanted him to crack IIT. That was the darkest point in my journey. To be very honest, the journey did not have many high points. It is just the way the book is written that people find it interesting and can relate to it.
There must have been something that kept you going?
It was curiosity. I wanted to know how I ended up like this. We are such a diverse country and we have been given so many choices in everything from language to food etc. How are we obsessed with this? In the process, I knew I was also catering to the curiosity of other people like me.
So, how is your super-traditional family taking it?
They were not really happy. But fortunately, I had awards, I had a good 10-minute coverage on TV. So, they had something to tell others. But now that I am 27, the alarm is ringing again.
What’s next? Another witty book?
The book has taken a lot of my energy, both emotionally and physically. But, I want this same story to come out from some other medium. I want this to reach people in every way it can. So, maybe it will be a movie or a short video. Well, I am an engineer, I will figure it out at the last moment somehow. (laughs)
On the indian trail
“There are places in Hyderabad where students are locked inside a room and they are not allowed to come outside. They are cut off from the outside world. In that coaching institute, one boy had blood cancer. His mother did not know it, father knew it, and I knew it and the hostel dean knew it. He was still made to study in that institute.” “There were people shooting each other in Kanpur, there was a proper gang war. Unfortunately, these were not gangsters but educated coaching class teachers.” His visit to a cram school in the city of Hyderabad was the darkest point of his journey. Boys and girls aren’t allowed to talk to each other and are forced to study 16 hours a day.Just days before his visit a young boy just escaped out of the window. He did not bother to take any of his belongings. When 301 people from all over the world contributed more than $14,000, crowdfunding history was created. The crowdfunding was for the book The Great Indian Obsession
The book happened because Adhitya Iyer, author of the book, left home on a backpacking trip across 10 states of the country to understand the obsession of engineering among the students and their families. The book is about his experiences while travelling, experiences of students that he met while traveling and how the Indian education system needs to be transformed from “the deadliest terrorist organisation to something people can be happy about” The book is inspired by his own childhood as well. Adhitya grew up in a Tamb-Brahm family. His family moved from Saudi to India just so that they could put him into engineering, something he says is normal for his family. Ever since then, he was desperate to find the cause of this crazy obsession with engineering. Adhitya wants people to hear this story through other media as well. He hopes to produce a short film someday. – Courtesy