On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of IIIT-H, we take a look at the early staffers, the unsung heroes who have equal stake in the progress of this institute, whose chests swell with pride when they talk nostalgically of their journey at IIIT-H where they went out of their way to put the institute on the map and who wouldn’t have it any other way.
Meet the behind-the-scenes staff from Gopi, the guest house caretaker, to Venu and Shekhar, the very first office assistants, the electricians and the ambulance driver.
Managing The Mess and Taking Care
Back in 1998, when the initial batch of students was all of 49, there existed one canteen (or mess). Gopalakrishnan says he came here first as a 48-year-old manager of the sole mess on campus. Fondly known as Gopi to all and sundry, this Kerala-born, Hyderabad-settled mess manager’s duties included liasoning with the food contractor and keeping the mess spic and span and tidy after meal times. But the unofficial duties comprised of shooing away wild boars, deer and the buffaloes that often wandered into campus due to the lack of fencing. He speaks of a Commodore who was the assistant, managing the institute in the physical absence of the Director, Dr. Narendra Ahuja. “The Commodore used to conduct frequent surprise checks on the kitchen and dining areas. And more often than not, these typically took place at odd hours of the night, like 12 pm or 2 am, necessitating my presence on campus round the clock,” says Gopi. An incident that stands out from his memory, that sometimes fails him now, is of the day when a group of belligerent students locked up the mess. “They came asking for lunch long after the official mess hours, when everything was shut. When I refused to budge, they hurled abuses at me and in a fit of anger, locked the mess,” he says. It took intervention by the Commodore to defuse the situation. “I was only doing my duty. I didn’t want to squeal but I had to tell which students locked it up. I didn’t retaliate and after this incident, the Commodore who was impressed with my behaviour became more friendly and respected me for it,” he says with pride. And of course, there has never been another situation on campus again till-date.
Alongside mess managerial duties in 2000, he was offered a chance to man and run an STD/ISD booth on campus. He did that for two years, but with the advent of the mobile phone, it proved to be increasingly unviable. By then, two more messes had opened up, providing greater gastronomical fare to the students. Meanwhile a chance to be a caretaker of the guest house was given to him by ‘Ramana sir’, who is now the Deputy Registrar. “The guesthouse was in shambles. There was no one to manage it. I had a previous background in hospitality and housekeeping as a manager of ITW guest house in Begumpet. And I stepped in to change things.” Among prominent personalities, he recalls Dr. Swaminathan, Dr. Surendra Gadgil “and all the ISRO directors” who have enjoyed the guest house hospitality. One of the perks that he continues to enjoy is being privy to the intellectual discussions of great minds that take place around the dining table. “Irrespective of who they are, each and every guest who comes here must be satisfied when they leave…that is my only concern,” says Gopi. His fondest memories are of students from the first two batches. “They were very disciplined and obedient…almost like school children. Later with larger intake came students who were more and more liberal..”, says Gopi, a little cryptically. If there is one thing on Gopi’s wish list, it would be an upgradation of the guest house facilities, which he laments as long overdue. Hanging up his boots is not an option, he says, looking bewildered at the mention of retirement. “After retirement, one gets old – mentally and physically. I will continue to work as long as it is physically possible and they are happy with me”.
Office Boy Turned Supervisor
Venu Gopal’s excitement is palpable as he shifts restlessly in his seat waiting for his turn to talk. He was an 18-year-old office boy at the IBM centre on campus when the institute kick started its operations. Impressed by his hardworking nature and endless enthusiasm, he was offered the role of a housekeeping supervisor in IIIT-H with a slight increment in salary. “I was not sure if I made the right decision initially. The work was hard, the hours were long, and to top it, I faced initial harassment by the housekeeping staff who wasn’t used to a supervisor breathing down their necks”, he says. But he persisted and gradually won over the hearts of all the administrative staff with his diligent service and friendly disposition. Venu currently manages a team of 30 but is quick to give due credit to his “Sir”.“For supporting me, bringing me up to this stage and having the confidence in me, I owe it all to Ramana Sir. He is my God. He has never shown any difference in treatment to housekeeping staff or administrative staff.” says Venu emphatically. Among old students that he fondly remembers are Vipul Kedia, Upendra and Soujanya from the first batch. He credits his philosophical leanings to the Jeevan Vidya classes then conducted on campus. These classes taught them human values and ethics.
Softspoken Shekhar too initially worked at the IBM centre as an office assistant. Before talking of his days as a library assistant in the initial year at IIIT-H, he speaks reverentially of Ajay Sawhneyji who he credits with the high reputation that the institute currently enjoys. He describes how the library had its beginnings in a small storeroom where books lay uncategorized and uncataloged. It had its fair share of teething problems with books going missing until the students were given the responsibility of supervising the checkout process by taking turns. After a year, he was asked to transition into the role of an office assistant which included communicating professors’ availability and classroom changes to the students, guiding new students through the administrative maze of forms, ID cards and so on. “In fact, in the early years, prospective students and their parents who came to the campus for the selection process used to ask us about the functioning of the institute, the facilities, future prospects and more!,” laughs Shekhar. In fact helping new faculty members and their families transition into the city and the campus respectively, continues to be one of Shekhar’s responsibilities. Interestingly enough, roles and responsibilities were not etched in stone then. They worked as a team and went beyond the call of duty to pitch in wherever and whenever required. “If Venu was busy somewhere else, I wouldn’t think twice about supplying tea or coffee for someone who needed it and nor would he hesitate to help out with photocopying anything urgent,” says Shekhar. The work hours are fixed now unless there’s an event scheduled or something comes up. But it wasn’t the case then. “No one could say with certainty that they got off work at xyz time!”, smiles Shekhar.
Umapathi came on board in 2002 as a driver. His role involved ferrying sick students and faculty to nearby doctors in a general vehicle. It was only a year later that an official ambulance was commissioned and he continues to be on standby 24×7 for medical exigencies. His calm demeanor belies the mental state of alertness he is always required to be in. “Fortunately I have never faced a serious situation so far. There are currently doctors who visit at different times during the day – from Homeopathy to Allopathy, from Ayurvedic consultation to even mental health, students are covered. It is only when someone is physically unable to go to a doctor in the absence of the consulting doctors that I take them to nearby hospital(s),”he says.
They ‘power’ful duo
The electrician duo of Mallesh and Naidu have been around since 2005 and 2006 respectively. While they’re currently on general duty on contractual basis, they say they worked initially in the night shifts. “Typically there is general maintenance or minor glitches like power outages in the server room, or something faulty in the sub station leading to the entire campus plunging into darkness. That is when we are summoned from our homes,” says Mallesh, the quieter of the two. When prodded to recount an unforgettable event from the past, Naidu speaks of the one time there was a fire on campus. “In 2007, when construction was going on near OBH. The workers had inadvertently damaged the cable running from the sub station to OBH and didn’t inform anyone about it. When I was entering the campus, some students told me there was a fire. Flames upto 6-7ft high were leaping..The first thing I did was to turn off the main panel. The fire was quickly brought under control. All the wiring had had melted away due to extreme heat. We informed our contractor who then got materials and we began the process of partially restoring power at 9 pm in the night ..it went on until 12.30 pm”. They both look bemused when asked if they plan on continuing in the same roles here. “There’s no one else who understands the electrical wiring of the institute as well as we do.”