Heartbreaks & Dreams! - Indian Express Chennai, May 2010

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Pigtails are a thing of the 1980s. Even Rekha, the Bollywood actor who popularised this tad middle class-bubbly-prospective-romantic-girl stereotype in films, settled for more easy-on-the-eye hairstyles for her survival. In the 1990s, a woman wearing pigtails (at least in north India) would mean a protective, authoritative mother back home, who would use the overtly long, oiled strings of hair as a ward off charm for the men folk around.

So if you come across ex-IITian Parul A Mittal’s debut novel, Heart Breaks and Dreams, The Girls @IIT – with a woman in pigtails sharing a bench with a man on the cover, you would be curious to know whether Tanu, the protagonist in Mittal’s novel, manages to get an offer for a ride on a batch mate’s motor bike, or a movie date at least — a few pages down. But judging a book by its cover can be something as callous as judging a woman by her pigtails. “Each character in the novel is a mix of a few people I have known at IIT-Delhi. Tanu borrows a lot from me. But there is some fiction to her appearance, talent and her involvement with the people around her. Tanu knows Kathak and I don’t. I was rank 212 in JEE and so is Tanu,” says Mittal.

Eye-opener

Mittal, like Tanu had made for an ambitious, underestimated minority of girls in a “sea of men” at the institute between 1991 and 1995. Like Tanu, the author had come from a small town, Baroda, after slogging for JEE for two years. During the first day of her academic sessions she realises that making it to the IIT is way different and more difficult than surviving academically within the institute. “It was one of the most necessary and important realisations during that stage of my life. I had scored miserably in a Maths class quiz and had earned a bad assessment. Not only girls but many boys undergo this strenuous experience of seeing themselves as prospective misfits within the system. The only difference is that girls are made to feel dumb and boys are not,” she adds.

Though her book comes years after the resounding success of Chetan Bhagat, also an ex-IIT-Delhi student, whose debut novel Five Point Someone had inspired the film Three Idiots (released last year), Mittal really hasn’t minced the scenes, sounds and the subject of her book to make a repetition of sorts. Would another book on IIT interest readers?

Gender bias

Mittal whose book was launched on May 12 says, “Definitely. The book relates the reader to a woman’s life in a skewed ratio like you have at the IITs. There were around 25 girls in my batch at IIT-Delhi. Today, there are about 40 girls out of the 500 students. You are discriminated against by the professors and lab assistants. You have eyes following you, in and out of lecture rooms. The ratio is slightly better today, but I have met a few girls who have told me that they are gazed at the same way we were at the lecture rooms back in the 1990s. Some things don’t change.”

However, there are other things involving women at IIT-D, believes Mittal, which have changed over the years. Like? “Like girls move about freely in shorts, it was unimaginable back in the 1990s. Recently I tried connecting with a few women studying at IIT-Delhi presently. And I was shocked to see how freely girls were fluttering away in pairs of shorts. The student I had gone to meet smiled at me naughtily seeing how surprised I was. But I am curious to know whether the girls are made to feel comfortable academically. During my times, the lab assistants would not let women come near the machines. Even in the novel, Tanu, is expected to take readings on the machines from a distance. Women, during our times would mind the discrimination, but they had got used to being discriminated. We would crack smart jokes about it,” she recalls.

Love is in the air

Mittal who graduated in electrical engineering in 1995 had read Chetan Bhagat’s debut novel Five Point Someone a few years back. She adds, “Bhagat resided in the same hostel as my husband, Alok Mittal. He had signed a copy of Five Point Someone for Alok as a gesture. Interestingly one of the three friends in Bhagat’s novel is named after my husband. I had read the novel with an IITian’s mind back then. It had made for a fun read.”

Love beckons — people meet, hold hands and hook on to each other in the novel. But interestingly, Parul Mittal and her husband who was her senior at IIT had never “even known each other during college.” She says, “That’s the funniest part about being at IIT. Many times, you get to know people after you move out to other places for work – sometimes the overseas. The same had happened with me and my husband.”

Does she like the way life in IIT was portrayed in Five Point Someone?

“Well, most of the aspects related to the students’ lives were portrayed well in his book. But I feel there was a lot of sex in the book. On the other side, I had always been aware of people’s curiosity regarding the undergraduates’ lives at the IITs when most of them are exploring relationships while trying to adjust to the academic system,’ she reflects.

A scandalized Tanu

Well, Mittal’s Tanu is not running after hedonistic pleasures. In today’s scenario when condom machines at university campuses in Delhi are never really avoided like the tea/coffee vending machines, Tanu takes many turns at being scandalised by anything to do with sex. She “finds the whole episode unacceptable” when her friend Divya tells her that she “went all the way” with her friend Saurabh — using, well, ribbed rubber.

Her plaits go flying every time there’s a crank call for her or her friends over the hostel intercom. Nervous and sweaty, she gets, whenever the caller tweaks with the script and the game plan.

The pouting, sultry, the seductive lot, as per Mittal’s novel – are not the type to be living within the IIT campus — barring of course Piya, who steals away Tanu’s love interest in the end. There is a constant whispering of jealousy notes among the minority of girls at the campus at IIT whenever girls belonging to other campuses like Delhi University (DU) step in. She adds, laughing, “Yes, it’s true that girls from DU were given special attention by the IIT boys. Most of the boys like playing boys at IIT.”

Yet, her palms tingle in the high fives she exchanges with her favourite guy – Champ. She is not so much of a go-doer than a go-getter. Tanu, daringly continues with pigtails (just like the writer), well throughout the novel, and gets attention and admiration from her male batch mates and, eventually — love. No seductive moves, no intentional dress soaking frolicking games in the sea waves for Tanu to win over the cool dudes. It’s, well if you can relish, her long hair, kathak, and a strategically smart, subtly mathematical mind that works to make the guys “feel soft” for her. “Many people have said that they would have liked to see Tanu and Champ together in the end,” adds Mittal.

Travails continue

The classroom scenes in the novel are interesting. At a packed Girls’ Convent classroom in Dehradun, back in the 1990s, we were learning to use the anti logarithm tables with reluctant fingers. Our maths teacher — a fiery and feared figure in the school would pour out “morally inspiring” anecdotes from her life to fill nervous blanks during pleasant classroom quiz sessions — out of a really likeable habit.

Most of these anecdotes reflected our teachers’ undying urge to outdo “the boys” at her alma mater – IIT-Kanpur, where she had enrolled for a postgraduate course. She would narrate at length, the unforgiving night time ragging sessions that the girls, a minority (the number of girls in her batch at IIT-Kanpur, I had gathered from her conversations, would have been less than seven) would go through, besides a back breaking academic climb against the grand old gender prejudice.

At IIT-Delhi, Mittal, and her friends faced blatantly sexual riddles at fun quizzes. Mittal, can relate well with such anecdotes. “Your teacher would have passed out more than decade before we did. I am not surprised hearing it was the same back then. The travails remain the same. That’s the reason I feel that girls can relate a lot with my book.” concludes Mittal, who would want actor Deepika Padukone to play the role of Tanu, if someone from the film industry intends to make a film based on her debut novel.

Girls can’t stop dreaming. Can they?

—sumati.mehrishi@gmail.com

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Parul Mittal (maiden name Parul Agarwal) is the author of a national bestseller novel “Heartbreaks & Dreams! – The Girls @ IIT”. Her second book “Arranged Love” captured the hearts of Indian youth. Let's Have Coffee is her third novel and promises to be a humorous and fun light read.

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