So, this week I am taking you to Trichy, the 2300-year-old, historic South Indian city that has been witness to dynasties like the Cholas, the Pallvas and the Hoysalas – not to forget invaders like the Moguls and the British and the French. Situated by the banks of the Cauvery, Trichy bears testimony to the rich learning and cultural heritage of the region. This is where we have the impressive campus of the National Institute of Technology (NIT) where we are headed today.
NIT, earlier known as the Regional Engineering College or REC, is where MindTree Co-founder Srinivasan Janakiraman comes from. This is where the son of a village postmaster, a young Janakiraman, took his graduate degree in technology before heading off to the Indian Institute of Technology for a master’s degree. Sometime back, Janakiraman (or Jani as we call him) was felicitated as outstanding alumni.
Today, we are visiting NIT with a purpose. We want to actually spend time with a group of NIT alumni who have established a primary school. It serves the needs of villagers nearby on whose land NIT was set up. The members of the alumni association have raised money to upgrade the makeshift school to an impressive building which is being constructed at an estimated cost of Rs. 70 lakhs. Jani and I are here to see how MindTree Foundation can get engaged with the school as our way of saying “thank you” to NIT for giving us the likes of Jani.
By the time we reach NIT, it is past nine in the night. After a quick meal, I lie down on my Spartan bed at the Guest House. I love the bare essentials in such places – University Guest Houses are clean, friendly and functional – sometimes very historic too. For all I know, a Nobel Laureate has slept on the same bed as I. That thought itself makes me feel wonderful and relaxed and before I know, I am asleep.
I wake up early in the morning. The Youngman who brings me tea explains that the Director would be coming over to meet us for breakfast at eight. Now that is a surprise, we came to visit a primary school and of course I am talking to a bunch of students and faculty of the MBA course in the afternoon, but that does not warrant a meeting with the Director. But what choice do I have now? He, Dr. M. Chidambaram, wants to have breakfast with me and Jani!
The NIT Trichy is one of the Nation’s 20 NITs, ranked among the best places of learning, is home to 5000 students and faculty on an impressively laid out and well-maintained 800-acre campus. I believe that managing such an operation itself calls for great capability. Jani fills me up with some details – despite its great past, the institution did fall into some feuding and decay until the current Director took charge. Under his leadership, NIT has seen the restoration of its past glory and gone further ahead.
I am getting curious, what mettle is Dr. Chidambaram made of, I want to know. As a student of leadership, I am always looking for answers on where such people get their capacity from – why is it that many people fail while one individual comes in and creates alignment and energy in offices, corporations and educational institutions. Sometimes that power comes from later-life experiences. But the foundational capacity to lead is often built through one’s early-life experiences.
At eight sharp, Dr. M. Chidambaram appears. For a man who has taught at several IITs before taking over as Director here in 2005 and for someone who has guided 9 PhD scholars, 4 MS thesis and 30 MTech projects, he looks very young, the salt and pepper hair not withstanding. Remarkably understated, the Professor has a child-like simplicity that makes him approachable and also gives him the capability to simplify complex issues. “Tell me your story”, I ask him over breakfast.
Dr. M. Chidambaram was born to a small grocer in Salem in Tamilnadu. He grew up watching his mother sell kerosene and rice and other such things from the storefront at the back of which was the living quarter. “I never knew what a full meal looks like until I became an engineering student and lived in a hostel. Because my mother had to quickly rush inside the house and cook something between two customers when the business was a little slow. So, invariably, it was just rice and one other dish”, he recounts.
Some distance away, was another small store managed by his father. Before he was born, his parents had four girls in succession and someone suggested that his mother do a penance – to tie her hands behind her back and eat off the ground to appease the Gods, only could that demonstrate her determination.
So strong was that determination that she was blessed with not one but four more children – all of them sons. Dr. Chidambaram’s education in life started as a little boy while helping parents at managing the two stores – running between the two stores and gradually learning to mind the storefront. “I remember selling small quantities of kerosene for twenty five paisa”.
As a juvenile businessman, he says, he watched the brisk transactions on the street; he got to know who is who – from the customers to the cart pushers who formed part of the eco-system. He liked the energy. From there, he grew up to one day to become not only the first engineer in the family but to become the first ever to graduate from any college.
I look at the man in complete disbelief. Doctorate from the Indian Institute of Science, authority on areas as vast as Controller Tuning to Relay Feedback Tuning to Multivariable Controller Design and Periodic Operation of Reactors.
Now I begin to understand where the quiet confidence comes from with which he builds speed without sacrificing harmony, how he prods alignment among students, teachers and staff who together constitute this sacred space called NIT, Trichy. We finish our breakfast and shake hands, it is time for me to visit the school where hundreds of small boys and girls are waiting for us and in them, I am praying a few more Dr. M. Chidambarams!
Write back dear readers and tell me what you felt. I will see you again next week. Until then, Go Kiss the World.