My time at Joka

by apoorvmat

The months of April and May in the year 1997 were very tough for me. I was in the final year of college, and seemed to be struggling with everything. My final exams, rather predictably, were going badly. The residence (hostel) was practically empty as we Maths students were the only ones left on campus. There was hardly any water, and almost no food left. (Ok that sounds worse than it was!) Day temperatures were in the late forties – making the scheduled power cuts unbearable. But what was really killing me was that despite having ‘calls’ from all the IIM’s and XLRI, I hadn’t been selected for any of these to do an MBA. It was deeply distressing. If it hadn’t been for Vipul Malhan’s hospitality (my friend and our Eco HOD’s son – he was very generous with letting us eat and sleep in the comfort of a cooler in his house), and encouraging words from the likes of Saurabh Das (my friend and former roommate), I would have been a complete wreck.

Then one morning – a couple of days after my last exam – my Dad called to say that I had been selected for an MBA at IIM Calcutta. Apparently there was a waiting list and that I was on it. And that the waiting list had moved to a point where they offered me admission! I went numb. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I called Amrita who was more relieved than anything. Then I ran into Amit Wilson – our Principal’s son who was studying at IIM Bangalore at the time. He told me that getting into an IIM was relatively easy – it was surviving once you’re in that’s really tough. He then laughed and said that he’d back me to survive IIMC – they didn’t have compulsory attendance there!

Two weeks later I found myself in IIMC (or Joka – because that’s the name of the village in which it’s situated) where it didn’t stop raining for the first few weeks. The Rajasthani in me was genuinely uncomfortable! Add to that the misery that a course called ‘Financial Accounting’ was heaping in my direction, and I was ready to break. Anyway – I somehow survived the first term, and quickly moderated my academic target to being somewhere close to the median of the class.

I recognized three themes that dominated the landscape at Joka.
– RG
– CG
– Placements

RG was short for Relative Grading. Like most other b-schools, instead of being awarded absolute scores in each subject, we were ranked on a normal distribution, with the mean normally corresponding to a B+ or a B. This was interpreted by us students as: for someone to do well, someone has to do badly. Deliberate behavior which maximized one’s own chances while jeopardizing those of others was – for ease – referred to as RG. In my two years, I did come across a few examples of shameless RG. But for every jerk engaging in RG, there was a good samaritan who’d leave the entire term’s class notes at the photocopy shop for all others in the batch to benefit from. (You know who you are, take a bow!).

CG was short for CGPA – Cumulative Grade Point Average. A CG of more than 7 (on a scale of 9) made you a stud. If you were between 6 and 7, you were thought of as vulnerable, charming, and human. Anything below 6 would make you an easy target for unsolicited advice on how to redeem yourself, and somehow find a purpose in life. By term 3, we were wearing our CG’s on our forehead.

Placements. Make no mistake – for almost everyone – this was the ultimate purpose. All the hardship and toil was for these four days where you had a shot at landing a job in your target salary range, and for the more discerning ones, in the industry and function of your choice. Chebychev’s inequality, the McDonald’s case in Consumer Behavior, and LIFO/FIFO meant nothing in the end. It was about the short lists, the interviews, the GD’s. ‘Dream’ jobs. And OOPS (Out Of Placement Services – meaning you had a job!).

And what did I learn at Joka? Let me start with some regrets.

I wish I had attended more classes. I thought I was very cool that I cracked the system and graduated from IIMC without having attended too many classes. I now realize that the joke was on me. I wish I had attended Prof Munshi’s Sociology classes. At least I would’ve had a frame of reference for the world I was about to step out into. I wish I had attended some Money and Capital Markets classes – even if the prof taught them using really old transparent slides on projectors! Many years into work as a consultant, upon a client’s suggestion, I started reading Fabuzzi and Modigliani to brush up on financial markets and instruments. I actually loved it! I wish I had attended more classes in Marketing of Services – since that’s what (by and large) I have been doing for over 13 years now!

I also regret not investing in getting to know more people on campus. My life was pretty much my ‘wing’. And while they were sweet to me in general, surely they got bored of my company at times! (Responses in the inbox please, not here!). There’s a couple of folks from campus that I follow, and interact with, on Twitter. They are really interesting, and we have many interests in common. It would have been fun knowing them on campus. Also with professors – and there were some that were indeed approachable – I didn’t really make an effort to interact and learn. That makes me sad at times.

But there were some priceless things that I learnt as well.

I enjoyed being part of a community that was more diverse (though not in terms of gender) than what I had experienced at school and college (where most students were from the north of India).

I enjoyed being ‘me’. In college, I always felt pressure to be ‘someone’. And quite often this ‘someone’ was not who I was. At Joka, I felt like I could be myself most of the time. Firstly because I didn’t feel the pressure to be anyone else. Secondly nobody gave a damn anyway, and there was hardly any room for pretense.

Theatre! I was part of the annual production ‘Ten Little Indians’ in the first year. We practiced for more than 2 months! More than the play itself, I enjoyed the voice exercises, the team-building and trust-building games, and the jokes! The whole experience was very satisfying 🙂

Ok, I learnt a few things on the academic side as well. I really enjoyed the courses in Behavioral Sciences, and learnt a lot from them. The course on ‘Management of Self’ taught by Prof Leena Chaterjee was amazing. My individual project on the movie ‘Rangeela’ was an awesome learning experience. Consumer Behavior was well-taught and meaningful. And my paper on ‘Romance in the workplace’ as part of HR in R&D organizations was great fun to write.

Above all, I made some friends. Aditya Gupta and I have remained in touch – most recently through Whatsapp! His sense of humor is intact. I met Anhul and his wife Mayuri (only one I know who can give Aditya’s sense of humor some competition) in Singapore a few years back. Saumitra Sehgal (Saumi) was in Amsterdam a few weeks back, and we picked up the conversation from exactly where we left it 13 years back!

I am on holiday right now and all these thoughts came to my mind as I was trying to sleep off last night. I thought I’d write them down. And share them.