Memoirs Of The Rengcolian Life : Virinchi B. Srinivasan
Deepak Marandi | Jan 14, 2019
A charming personality, Virinchi B. Srinivasan is an engineer, a writer, an artificial intelligence, and microeconomics enthusiast, a closet musician, and a social commentator. One of the alumni of erstwhile REC, the batch of ’93, Mr Srinivasan returned to his alma mater for the first time in 25 years, all the way from New Jersey, USA.
During the Silver Jubilee, he launched his first ever book, ‘In the Whirlpools of the Koel River’, he captures the tales and personalities derived from his college life at REC, Rourkela.
Team Monday Morning got in touch with Mr. Srinivasan to have a long talk about his life and experiences, and the time he spent in the then REC, Rourkela.
MM: Tell us something about your life before REC.
VBS: I was born in a town in Tamil Nadu called Thanjavur, but pretty much spent all my childhood in Chennai. So all my memories, the belief system, and opinions were based in Chennai. Even in Chennai, my living was confined to a certain area. So I had a very limited upbringing, and I was happy with it.
So when I came here, I was a very reassured person, full of confidence, and ready to create waves.
MM: Why did you choose to come to REC?
VBS: I landed in REC because I didn’t get anything else. Because in those days there weren’t a lot of engineering colleges. I had applied for only three institutes at that time- I had given the IIT exams, I had applied for BITS Pilani, and then I had applied to RECs. I didn’t want to go to other colleges.
I was in fact, reluctant to join RECs even. And when I walked into the counseling session, I was certain I would get into Surathkal or something nearby with a good reputation then. Unfortunately, by the time it came to my rank, there were very few options left, so that’s the reason why I came to Rourkela. I had never heard of Rourkela before, but my cousin told me to choose it.
MM: Did you want to take Metallurgy in REC Rourkela?
VBS: No, I did not. I was always shooting for not Computer Science, not Electronics, but Mechanical Engineering. At that time, I thought it was cool. Again, adding to my reluctance to come to REC was the fact that I didn’t get Mechanical Engineering, and I didn’t want to go that far up north. There was a rumor during the counseling session that you can take Metallurgy, and go to REC and change your branch, so I ended up taking Metallurgy. That’s what happened. After the first semester, the branch change occurred. But due to there being very few options, and it was based on marks, I didn’t make the cut. So I couldn’t change my marks either. So landing both in REC as well as Metallurgy was kind of an accident.
MM: How would you describe the four years of stay in REC Rourkela?
VBS: The four years in REC were, in short, the best days of my life. Any life event at any other point in time is yet to surpass the four years I spent here. Period. That’s why you have all these people showing up from different parts of the world, 25 years later.
I think it is because of various reasons. It’s because of the kind of exposure it provides. I was also at the formative age of 16 or 17 years when one’s thinking gets shaped. Landing in REC just shook my entire belief system and changed it for the rest of my life. So I think, from that perspective, those were the best days of my life, not because I had a lot of fun, but there were life lessons we were able to learn. And these are the kind of life lessons I haven’t been able to learn anywhere else after here. I’ve worked for 25 years in different parts of the world now, but this was the best college I have been to, not from an academic standpoint, but in terms of life experiences.
MM: What were the extra-curricular activities did you take part at that time? How was the club culture at that point in time?
VBS: There were a few clubs, definitely not about as much as 70, as you have now. I remember being a part of the Rotaract club. I had some great time; I did some great work there. Other than that, I don’t think I was a part of any other club. There was the Reading Club, and they used to talk about the Astronomy Club, at that time. The club culture was not as vibrant as it is now.
MM: Were there any challenges you faced during your stay here?
VBS: Actually, a lot of this is actually in my book, I’ll be repeating this. But anyways, it was a culture shock for me. It is because upon coming here, thinking that I was already overqualified for REC, I was struck hard. I found out that I was not a very talented or intelligent individual around. Then there was the language barrier. Initially, I couldn’t speak a lot of Hindi, so it took me a while to pick up my Hindi skills. Then there were the more superficial things, like food and hostel, were always a bit of a struggle.
But I think at that time, the biggest challenge was ragging. It used to get very physical at that time. Added to it was the homesickness that I was facing, it bothered me for the first six months or so. It bothered me to a point where I thought, almost every day, that I should go back today. I had my suitcase ready, just in case I needed to leave. There were a lot of challenges, but once I got past that it was fun, a lot of fun.
MM: What are your thoughts on your department back then?
VBS: The Metallurgy department then, had some of the most eminent professors we had in college. Dr. Somnath Mishra was a brilliant person. He had done his PhD from MIT. MIT during those days was a big thing. He was a very accomplished professor. Dr. A.K. Mohanty was also very accomplished. The Principal was also from the Metallurgy department. There were a lot of talented and influential professors at that time. Whether I capitalized on it or not is a different thing.
For the first six months, it took me a while in getting used to the environment and get in the groove. I was pretty good in academics for the first two years. But after that I kind of lost interest in Metallurgy. I decided I wanted to be a computer programmer, which is not a natural decision you take at that time. Right now it’s pretty common to change branches like that.
Due to a change of heart, I didn’t like a lot of professors. It’s also about what I bring to the table; it’s a bilateral relationship. So if you ask me for one professor who influenced you, I have none, unfortunately.
MM: Was going into the software sector a new thing for you, or had you been doing this before?
VBS: Dr. Pakala used to teach us Fortran programming back then. Fortran was the cool programming language back then, especially for scientific programming. I already knew to the programme from high school, so I was kind of passionate about it.
The computer labs in our college were decidedly advanced for that time, and they were open for students of any branches to visit. So there was an opportunity for learning if you wanted.
MM: What was your professional life like after you graduated? What companies did you join?
VBS: I probably struggled for a year, without a job. But I was certain I didn’t want to apply for Metallurgy jobs. I was looking for a computer programming job to come my way, which was not easy to get at that time. There were enough computer engineers out there, and the outsourcing boom hadn’t happened yet. I did quite a few menial jobs for a while, where I was a misfit, wondering what I was doing there. After a year of good struggle, I landed a good job in Chennai. I liked it, and I stayed for a year. Then I left for the US, back in ’95. There I started my own consultancy company along with a few of my friends, which was doing well, until the dot-com bubble burst. So we had to wrap things up. Then I joined Accenture, who I work for now, and it has been going really well for the last 15 years. I currently work as a part of the Life Sciences Industry.
MM: What has REC taught you that you have applied in your professional life?
VBS: There are plenty of them. My belief system today, was all evolved during my time at REC, this I can say with certainty. It was an eye-opener for me. It helped put me in touch with incredibly smart people and allowed me to acknowledge their smartness, which I was very reluctant to earlier.
I think whatever I have now, I like to believe I have, like compassion, some level of open-mindedness, understanding and empathizing with other cultures and other people, respecting them for who they are, all have developed from my time in REC. Sure, I learned a lot of technical skills, but this was at the foundation level.
So REC was sort of the Bodhi Tree under which my mind opened up.
MM: Did you visit NITR after passing out?
VBS: No, this is my first visit to NIT Rourkela after graduation.
MM: How is your experience of NITR, coming back to it after 25 years?
VBS: It’s fantastic, But it’s sad that it’s about to come to an end. These were a fantastic three or four days. It’s been a great journey, re-living our experiences, meeting all our friends. I’m well connected with the REC friends, the gang, from our batch especially. We make it a point to visit each other, meet each other, a few times a year, in the US.
MM: What were the first changes you saw when you first entered the campus?
VBS: It looks a lot cleaner than what it was before. It has expanded too, looking at those big buildings, new departments that have been added. I was very impressed with how the hostels were laid out, as I walked into the hostels also. They had much better amenities than what we had before.
After all that it maintains that charm that REC had at that point, it’s somehow intact.
MM: What are your views about the role of alumni for the development of an institute?
VBS: Great question! I’m very passionate about this question. The contribution of alumni towards the institute is critical, I feel, as essential as the role as the students and professors play. This is because they are the ones who are going into the industry, building that brand image for the institute, building that network, across a much better surface area than what you’re able to within the campus. That what’s brings you the jobs, the investments, the endowments, the campus interviews.
If you look at the best colleges in India, they are that obviously because of the amenities and the quality of the professors that they have. But what people often ignore is the quality of the alumni, how vibrant the alumni network is if you don’t have that it’s difficult to build a brand image outside, in the industry.
Ours was sort of dormant for a very long time, and now it’s starting to pick up. I’ve recently been engaged with what’s called NITROAA(NIT Rourkela Overseas Alumni Association). I witnessed a NITROAA meet in San Francisco three months back, and it was the most well-attended alumni meet that we’ve ever had, at least in North America. It was a great event, both regarding sharing ideas and networking opportunities. People from various industries shared their thoughts, as well as discussions about how we can make this alumni meet to make a difference in NITR. The intention is already there, and now the college also has an opportunity and a duty to leverage the alumni better to build their brand image in the industry and the academia. I feel they’re starting to do it now. I think, what I’m hearing is that NITR is flush with funds. It’s about how it’s utilized now, to build that image. We’re probably better than some of the IITs; we need to develop that aura.
The other thing that we need to address is the accessibility to Rourkela; where it is, we cannot do a lot about it. The campus scene in the private engineering colleges in and around Bangalore and Chennai is better than what you have in NITR. It’s just because they’re only more connected. But I think the quality of people that we’re able to give to some of these big companies, would be differentiating, which they are not aware of. So building that awareness, building better accessibility to Rourkela, brings some very creative ideas, something that we would love to have.
MM: About the book ‘In the whirlpools of the Koel River’, what gave you this insight, was it the silver jubilee or something else?
VBS: The book wasn’t built around the Silver Jubilee, but it just coincidentally worked out that way. I could have published it earlier, but since the Silver Jubilee was coming, I decided to wait it out. (MM: Do you have other books you’ve authored?) It’s my first book. I am into writing though. I write blogs, I have written them for years. The inspiration for some of the chapters come from a few blogs that I had written about 15 years ago, about my college life in REC. Then I thought, I should build a story around it. This is what led me to fictionalize my experiences here and provide people, both of our college and outside, glimpses of what our college used to be life. It just sort of happened that the reunion came, so I chose to launch what I wrote during this time.
I like to think that the idea of REC is almost an idea of India. It’s about bringing people together. I think it’s a great concept to bring together some of the brightest minds of the country and nurture them in one place. That’s what I’m trying to capture.
When you bring those minds, there will be a bit of an explosion, an exothermic reaction, that led to a lot of pangas in our time. It was a completely different life back then. We had little outlets for entertainment. Maybe that’s why we fought with each other so much. Hopefully, you guys are not doing that anymore. We broke down the Konark theatre; I don’t know if it still exists.
So we did a lot of things, some we are not very proud of, but it’s still a part of our histories. So I tried to capture those incidents and also personalities, in my book. I’ve never met people like that before, or anywhere else. I decided to make a story around these interesting characters.
So yeah, whoever has anything to do with NIT Rourkela, or NIT in general, or anything to do with Odisha or even India, should read the book. I think that the theme and the characters are universal.
MM: Some people here confused about their branch and other, say unconventional choices. What would tell them?
VBS: This I can only tell from my personal experiences. I feel that whether rightly or wrongly, many of us take engineering, because we scored high marks, and we cracked the entrance. And we expect to be with other bright minds, our peer group. An institute like NIT provides you with an ambiance where you can interact with brilliant minds. If you’re able to focus all of that influence, it’s great — all power to you. If you can’t do it, don’t get too hung up about it. Amongst the group I came with, some are investment bankers, a filmmaker, and people who run businesses, and also a guy runs restaurants. If you ask them, all of them will tell you that they learned the lessons from NIT, from REC. And that’s helping them thieve in their careers. So I think that’s what’s more important the degree that you get in the college. That’s not to dilute the importance of the degree, but it expands your thinking.
MM: Any message that you would like to give to the readers?
VBS: I have a lot of things to say.
I’m proud of what you guys are accomplishing now. Keep doing what you guys are doing well. You guys are some of the best brains of India, and you’re all getting together in college which has a rich and accomplished history. You guys should build on that.
Along with that, you guys should look outward. You guys should improve alumni relations and through other sources, and bring some of that external thinking. That’s how these clubs are helping you. I have seen some of your magazines; you guys are doing amazing projects, which I’m impressed about. So you guys should continue to do that, and shake the world around you. People should start taking notice of Rourkela, which will help Rourkela, and the state, it’ll help the country.
This is something that’s going to be critical for our success in the upcoming years. And I would like to see, within the next 2 or 3 years, crack the top 10, probably go right through to the top. I think you guys probably deserve it.
After an insightful talk with him, Team MM wishes Mr. Srinivasan a happy and prosperous life ahead and great success of the book ‘In the Whirlpools of the Koel River’.