The Home Away From Home: ISI, Delhi

Going back to the institution where one studied is undoubtedly nostalgic. Associated with every corner in the campus there are memories-that was the tree where we had spotted an owl, that was the jogging track where I tired myself out to fall asleep after my break-up, that was where the steel glass was kept that led to the mess committee imposing fines…For me going back to Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi is all that and more. That was where I grew up, that was where I dealt with heartbreaks, that was where I learnt to be an independent woman, that was where I learnt to LET GO.

Like most decisions of my life, joining ISI was a random, spur of the moment decision motivated by the fact that it had a hostel within the campus that was a minute’s walk from the classroom! Yes, bizarre as that may sound, that was the reason I chose to come to ISI rather than Delhi School of Economics (even though I had enrolled for studying Sociology at the latter). Whatever the motivation, it turned out to be an amazing decision because there are absolutely no ex-post regrets.

ISI is a unique institution. It is one of those rare places that acknowledges that its students are adults and treats them likewise. I got a flavour of what ISI was all about when I came to take admission. Accustomed to the Delhi University office, which had a striking resemblance in its functioning to Pankaj Kapoor’s award-winning show Office Office, I was prepared for some lack of document coming in the way of taking admission. On one humid July afternoon I strolled into its campus solely for the purpose of figuring out what all would be required for admission. The lady in the office, Usha Ma’am, greeted me with a smile; a first for me since all I ever got in Stephen’s or DU office was a frown followed by “kal aana”. When I asked her what all was required, she told me to fill a form and pay the deposits (there were no fees, we were all on scholarship-the grand sum of 5k paid to us as stipend each month!). That done, I was informed, with a warm smile,that my admission was done. This was unheard of and simply unbelievable. How can a Govt. of India institute be so friendly and smooth in its working? Where was the red tape? There had to be a catch I thought. But there were none.

Orientation at any institute is about welcoming the students to the institute’s “family” and laying out the rules and regulations. That ISI was different I had sensed through the admission process. My belief was cemented when we were welcomed to the Orientation through words that said that the only rule in ISI was that there were no rules, which implied that we were to behave as responsible adults using our common sense and not becoming a nuisance for others. That pretty much laid the flavour for the two years at the institute.

To give the reader a flavor of the open atmosphere at ISI certain facts are worth mentioning. The hostels are co-ed with no gender separation across floors either. There is no in-time/out-time nonsense. Students can have guests over, for which they had to inform the Students’ Representative (SR) through mail. The fact that I received barely a dozen mails during my one year as SR speaks volumes about how seriously this rule was followed. The guest house on campus can be booked by the students for their friends and family (subject to availability of course).

ISI is a place that accepts you as its own the moment you walk in and the rest is completely on you. If you want to be a recluse then it will provide you with enough space and tranquility to ponder over your life and some other research problems. If you want to socialise then shoot a mail and organise a chill-maaro party in the mess or in your room. You are an ardent football/cricket/badminton/volleyball player, then the evening scene is pretty much set for you.

The conversations at ISI are extremely entertaining and more often than not border on the incredulous. Broadly, there are four kinds of conversation that happen at ISI. The first is the standard informal “Hi! How are you? I heard ….” kind. The second is the career prospect kind where discussions regarding PhD applications prevail. The third is the charged discussion on subject related topics. The fourth is the heated and super charged discussion surrounding the mess menu which metamorphoses into political debates regarding the distinct food habits of Bengal versus the rest of North India.

A standard day in ISI starts with complaints about either the breakfast getting over (if it was good) or about the breakfast being bad! This snowballs into personal attacks against the current mess-committee members (and the state they hail from). By then a few mails from some enthusiastic committee, and there is no dearth of them at ISI, would have conveyed information regarding some pest control or washing machine breakdown. At this stage, I think it would do to clarify that all these committees were essentially a one or two soul member committee to which some unwilling angel had graciously relented to get nominated. The Mess Committee was of course different. It was a multi member cohort that had under it the coveted post of Mess Managers who were “the Chosen Four” (on average) to run the Mess for a fortnight. Running the mess involved setting the menu for that fortnight, buying raw materials and of course the weekly early morning visit to Okhla Mandi to buy vegetables. The Veg versus Non Veg, Pancake versus No Pancake, the Oily versus Healthy debates occupied the old bean of budding economists and statisticians of the country in no small measure. Khaega India tabhi toh Padhega India; tell me about it!

The high point of my days in ISI was the Washing Machine committee. This very interesting committee sent mails at unearthly hours (sometimes as unearthly as 4 a.m.) informing us that a particular washing machine was either not working or that some bloke did not know how to use washing machines and hence the washing machine was not working! The Sports Committee would inform us of new rackets and nets. The SR would write to us about General Body Meetings which, no surprises there, were on food issues- should mess cutlery be allowed outside the mess premises? If yes, then till where exactly? Right into the rooms? But why? A man fighting for the cause would interject and raise the issue of “what if my girlfriend is visiting? Why should I dine with her in the mess? I want to dine with her in the privacy of my room!” Ignited minds of this country at their best.

Every location in ISI was special. The computer lab was the place where many a love story, real and fake, got made. The walking/jogging track was where many a love story, real and fake, took baby steps. The badminton court saw the clash of the titans. The mess was witness to some of the most articulate and vociferous debates. The field was where the faculty versus students cricket match took place.The mess foyer witnessed some intense ludo and teen patti. I remember this one occasion where eight of us were huddled around a ludo tracking a sublimely interesting game being played by four. A student’s parents were visiting and happened to pass by. On seeing the group they remarked, “Here is the nation’s brightest minds sitting and playing ludo.” Well I really cannot say much on the brightness, but yes ludo we were tracking (not playing!).

Evenings at ISI saw everyone, from the students to the Faculty and their kids coming out to play. People jogged, walked, played fottball or volleyball till it was time for dinner and everyone ran to the mess. The discussion would again come back to the quality of food. Post dinner some went to study, some went to socialise (with liquid and smoke for company), some went for “walks”and few, very few, extremely few, went to sleep.

In between organising our very own fresher’s party and the final thanksgiving party two years whizzed past. It seems like yesterday when I was a part of that beautiful campus. We fought, we chatted, we cooked, we played but above all we enjoyed. And in between all this mayhem and excitement we did our Masters of Science in Quantitative Economics.

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