A Prodigal Samaritan: Manas K. Ghorai
Being an academician and a humanitarian, and living up to both the roles perfectly is something not many can accomplish. Hailing from the same institute as our esteemed Director, Professor Animesh Biswas, this luminary has walked all the paths from rural to global. Professor Ghorai, who also leads the Counselling Cell at IIT Kanpur, was here on campus recently to enlighten the students with his words of worth. Team MM caught up with him for an extensive discussion about his life, his stories and stories about the lives that he touches.
MM: Going all the way back to the start, tell us your story from the very beginning.
MKG: My school days were very different since I went to a pathshala. I still vividly remember traversing the muddy roads to get to the pathshala every morning and playing with the rural boys. Then, I was sent to St. Xavier’s. Somehow, I had fixated on going for foreign services after graduation, and thus opted for B. Sc. Back in our days, every IIT would have a different entrance exam at that time, which I cleared and joined the B. Sc. course. Also every day I would measure my height and check if I was 160 cms tall or not, yet. (chuckles)
During my M. Sc., I met some IFS officers in Germany. Upon engaging in a career-related conversation with them, which mostly consisted of them persuading me not to opt for foreign services, I changed my mind. I then joined a company via the campus recruitment process and after working there for some time, I applied for PhD in NCL Pune. Then came post-doctoral studies. I vividly remember applying to Germany and getting a 20-page reply for my application from the professor.
After my post-doctoral studies, I landed a job. I then again decided to apply for the post of a post-doctoral research associate, but only in 5 premier institutes of the world: MIT, Harvard, Caltech, UC Berkeley and Stanford. I had made up my mind that if not for one of these five, I would pack my bags and go back to India. But fate had something else in store for me; I got accepted at both MIT and Caltech. So I went to MIT.
I came back to India in October 2002. As I had to get a job immediately, I joined Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories for 27 days. Now, my salary at Dr. Reddy’s was 1 lakh per month at that time, and when I joined IIT Kanpur as an assistant professor in the same year, I was being paid 19,000 per month! Even then, Kanpur’s atmosphere completely evolved me as a person, and it was all serious business from there onwards. I began my research career, and made a name for myself as a chemist.
MM: You joined IIT-K as an assistant professor in the year 2002, and have been successful in establishing yourself as an immaculate academician in these 15 years. You are also serving as the Professor-in-Charge of Student Counselling, IIT-K and are present here today to deliver a session regarding the same. What was the reason behind you opting to assume this additional position?
MKG: Apart from my research work at IIT Kanpur, I was also interested in students’ activities, so somewhere in the middle of 2007-08 I assumed the position of warden of one of the hostels of IIT Kanpur. I then went on to lead the counselling cell of IIT Kanpur as the Professor-in-Charge. Thus, I can proudly say that throughout my career, I’ve helped many students.
Although I’m no counselor or psychologist by profession, helping people deal with mental stress has been a passion of mine right from the very start.
I have always had a deep interest in philosophy, and take immense pride in practicing it in real-life for helping people. I had friends back in Jadavpur who suffered from similar issues. Since no professional counselling services were available in Jadavpur back then, I would take them to Dr. R. K. Banerjee.
The passion for helping people stayed with me, and I continued to counsel people on-and-off in my professional life too. I have always loved to talk on different issues, something I realised while raising my children. Although both my kids are grown up now and pursuing their studies in Boston and Germany respectively, I still love to talk to them. Same applies to my PhD students too. All my students are working in different corners of the world now, and yet we keep in touch. Whenever they are having a hard time dealing with an issue, they never hesitate to share it with me and seek my counsel.
Thus, I can proudly say that I absolutely love students, like students and am a pro-student person. I would always go to great lengths to help them harness their true potential.
MM: You obtained your M.Sc. from IIT Kharagpur in year 1991. How was college life for students back in those days? Was it just as stressful as it is now?
MKG: Back in those days, there were limited jobs. In colleges like the IITs, once you were placed in a company, you were exempted from appearing for other companies visiting the campus thereafter. Also, there weren’t as many engineering colleges back then as there are now. You can literally find an engineering college at every corner now! (chuckles)
But if you think about it, the monopoly of IITs has diminished in the present day. We now have not 6 but 23 functioning IITs. We have NITs, which are at par with the IITs, if not better. We also have other government-run and private institutions providing excellent education across the country.
One big difference between the educational scenario now and then is that students today have more career options. But then again, back then, even a CGPA of 4.0 would fetch you 4 jobs, but a student cannot land a single job with a CGPA of 5.0 today.
Although we have more jobs today, the complexity of the placement scenario has increased substantially, and bagging a job today is no cakewalk. Hence, students today suffer from more mental pressure than ever, and need proper mental health along with a healthy body to deal with all the pressure.
For people like me and Prof. Animesh Biswas, we are here partly because of fate and partly because this is what we wanted. But today, with all the parental supervision and interference, students are burdened with not only their ambitions, but also with those around them. These expectations, although sometimes a great motivation, sometimes becomes more of a burden than a gentle push towards a successful career. This only adds to the complexity of a student’s life.
Although I wouldn’t say students of our time suffered no stress at all, but with so much information around and science paving way for numerous new inventions as we talk, students today definitely are subjected to more mental pressure than we were back in our college days. Today, there are more opportunities but there’s tremendous competition too. You have to be really good at whatever you’re doing to make a decent living unlike old times, where getting into a reputed college itself was the golden ticket. However, all these factors have contributed in making the students more mature.
MM: You spoke about parental pressure, and how it has significantly diminished in present-day. However, there still exist parents who pressurise their children into opting for engineering and other popular fields such as medical. What is your take on this?
MKG: As for the parental pressure, I believe the parents today have become more matured and accepting towards their children’s ambitions. Take my case, for example, my father was a teacher, and I became a professor at IIT Kanpur. However, just because I’m an IITian, who is now working for an IIT, I did not force my son to prepare for JEE too. I noticed that his field of interest was different and hence persuaded him to chase his dreams.
But then again, even in today’s age, we have parents who only want their children to take up Computer Science. Needless to say, they feel that it will fetch them a huge package in core industry and that according to them is all that their child needs to lead a happy and content life. I say this behaviour of theirs is nothing but absolutely absurd and ignorant! While they as parents should be helping their kids realise their dreams, they are putting them through the agony of pursuing a career that they are not even barely interested in. Imagine the stress that they have to endure! It is still understandable when the parents aren’t as highly qualified; for them, their kids becoming engineers or doctors is the best thing that could ever happen. But educated people like you and me are expected to be more mature and understand our children. Talk to them, discuss their plans, motivate them and allow them to do what they want to do in life.
It’s unacceptable for us to push our children needlessly to appear for JEE and bag big jobs. Life is more than the “package” that you’re offered, and it’s high time we as parents realized that nothing is more important than the happiness of our children.
I always ask my friends from MIT, “Are you happy?” Turns out, an enviable job, a 40 lakh car and a big house does not ensure happiness. I own a Wagon-R and am leading a life that satisfies me.
However, at the end of the day, money cannot buy happiness, and you cannot change your life choices at my age.
MM: Before joining IIT-K as an assistant professor, you worked as a post-doctoral research associate with Prof. Michael Schmittel (1998-2000) at the University of Wuerzburg (Germany), as Alexander Van Humboldt fellow in University of Siegen (2000-2001 ) and as post-doctoral research fellow with Prof. Joanne Stubbe at the MIT, USA (2001-2002). How is the research culture in these institutes different from that in premier Indian technological institutes like IITs, IISc and NITs? How does student life in those institutes contrast with that of an average IITian?
MKG: The pressure, to begin with, is tremendous in those institutes. Research scholars in India do not even bear 10% of the pressure that the students in MIT have to endure. Apart from the research problem, you have to design 3 projects, which are not related to your area of research. The other thing that is really distinctive about their academic culture is their professionalism. This aspect too, I feel, is lacking in Indian research scenario.
Students who are doing an average job here in India go on to establish groundbreaking research work in those MIT and Harvard. The atmosphere and the sheer perfectionism of the professors do that to you. I would wake up at 5 AM and start working at 8. At 3 o’clock you would find me preparing for my presentation. That professionalism is missing from the research institutes in India.
We only ever highlight the bad aspects of western culture. In my opinion, their work ethics, commitment and professionalism are truly laudable. We Indians should imbibe these qualities of the West in order to excel in the research arena.
MM: Why do you believe counselling is important in the present-day scenario? How do you think students, particularly the ones pursuing engineering in IITs and NITs, can benefit from counselling? What according to you is the reason why students are unable to cope up with the pressure that college life thrusts upon their shoulders?
MKG: The basic reason why counselling is important in the present-day scenario is the exponential rise in peer pressure. There are two kinds of students: the top rankers, who are unable to perform well due to some mental, physical or personal issues, and the ones who are weak academically. Both suffer from their own set of difficulties and need a different kind of help. This is where counselling comes into play.
Counselling ensures that the students have someone they can talk to about any problem that they’re facing, fearlessly. This not only helps significantly reduce the stress of the students but also helps them improve academically in most of the cases.
However, at the end of the day, it’s you who has to solve his own problems. Nobody can change anybody, only you have the power to change yourself. Counsellors can only help you to change and orient yourselves in the correct perspective.
MM: As you mentioned about this professional environment, which is prevalent in foreign universities and then you talked about its complications, are we trying to move to a system of being completely professional by only sharing our personal problems with the counselling cell?
MKG: No, counselling service is entirely personal, even though there are professional people involved in it. I tell people that nothing is personal and that it's all professional, for example, if you're a singer you have to sing; if you're an engineer, you have to do your job. But when it comes to counselling service, nothing is professional. It's personal. Because if it wasn't, you wouldn't give your hand to me, right? You know, if something very intricate is going on in your mind, whether it's some sort of an agony, or some repercussion unless someone understands your problem, you won't share. This is why it is all very personal, so that we can reach out to people and be their helping hand.
I went to a Pathshala, a Xavier's, an IIT and then MIT. And I can say that I have seen all the spheres of being a student right from the muddy roads to MIT. I use my experiences to help people.
MM: What changes must be brought about in the present counselling services so that the students feel more comfortable seeking it?
MKG: Suppose there is a problem between two girls or a girl and a boy, and you don't know how to handle it and the relationship can't stand at all in the future. Counselling there, helps you to understand what you want. When you don't know which is the correct path and which way to go, it is then that the professionals will help you to know.
If you have a 30, a 40 and a 50 priority, they pick out the 50 and ask you to go ahead with that, otherwise, all the three will keep mixing up in your head and you won't feel like eating, you'll be sick and you won't be able to study.
MM: The system at IIT Kanpur includes a student team and a professional team, but at NIT-R, presently we have only one counsellor for some 6000 students. How many do you have at IIT Kanpur? Is there a separate hospital for it?
MKG: The thing is students don't need counsellors very frequently. Hence, we make sure that at least one counsellor is present in each of the 3 shifts in a day, i.e. morning, evening and night. There is no special hospital assigned for this purpose. These counsellors are our own employees. Only in extreme cases like when there is parental interference, do we admit a student in the hospital. But most of the times there is no requirement of medication. The counsellor understands a student's mental problem and acts as a patient ear to listen and give some sort of a suggestion. If you don't get what you want, you face disappointment which again leads to frustration, which in turn leads to perversion. Once you reach the state of perversion, it is very hard to roll things back. However, there is a possibility that things can be turned in the right direction before reaching that state.
MM: Talking of the student team, we tried to incorporate the Student Mentorship Program of IIT-B this year. From next year onwards, we are planning on forming a student body where each pre-final year student would be allotted some 10 students and out of those 100 mentors, 5 would be coordinators. However, as you said that in your system, the second year students would be the mentors. How do you think would that work?
MKG: First and foremost, you should gauge the priorities of your institute and accordingly debate, discuss, design and develop and then present a model to your Director. It's about what all of you want together. It's about which set of principles are the most feasible for your own institute. What works for IIT Kanpur might not work in your case.
A lot of the times, we pretend to be fine just so we could avoid the questions that follow. Even if we are going through some tremendous physical or mental problem, we generally prefer saying "I'm fine." But if there is some need actually, you should reach out to them.
Although the students only officially serve as “Bapu” (the official term for a second-year student counsellor in IIT-K) to the first years in their second year, the relation does not end there. The chain exists even beyond the four years of their education at IIT-K. It's like a paternal relationship that exists, and it's amazing. They are like his own kids and he can do anything for them.
Hence, even after passing his second year and moving on to the third year, a “Bapu” is not out of the team. He'll always be in the team and the student he had been mentoring can always report to him.
MM: Our readers will definitely gain a lot of insight from all of your words. What message would you like to leave for the NIT-R junta?
I would like to wish you all great, grand and magnificent success. You are lucky that you people are at an NIT because the Government changed the rules and they are now at par with the IITs. A lot of well-rounded individuals are now emerging from the NITs and you should excel by competing with the five main IITs. I'm happy that NIT-R is going higher and higher, students are placed at good institutions and that they are happy. Wish you all the best.