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Breakfast with BS: Rajendra Pawar

A question of answers

Kishore Singh  |  New Delhi 

Rajendra Pawar

Among meals, breakfast is my favourite; among quick getaways, you can’t beat Neemrana: Put the two together and you have a combination that should be unbeatable. Why, then, am I feeling like I’ve been shortchanged, asks Kishore Singh.

Or maybe it’s just my brain short-circuiting from overload. For breakfast at Neemrana entails a two-hour ride from New Delhi, through Haryana to Rajasthan, a picturesque enough drive past industrial clusters and signboards advertising schools and colleges and institutions of learning. None of them points to NIIT University yet, but its pro-chancellor, Rajendra S Pawar, is with me in the back seat of a careening Honda Accord that is being driven with all the adrenalin-pumping thrills of an F-1 race. I have been warned that Pawar — Raji to his staff and friends — is an earnest man. I’m discovering that for myself now.

Small talk doesn’t interest the lanky IITian whose good fortune it is that we are driving past his alma-mater, giving him a chance to get immediately into his theories of a knowledge society where “learning”, not “education”, is more important. His teaching tools — a sheaf of papers, a booklet on the university campus we’re en route to see — make my heart sink: I’d imagined a lively tete-a-tete, a witty exchange about students and professors and co-ed living, instead I’m discovering, very fast, that Pawar keeps his sense of humour tucked well away, and the two-hour ride is going to be spent the way he has planned it: He will lecture, I will take notes.

By the time we arrive at Neemrana, the chauffeur having shaved 15 minutes off the drive, I’m ready for the distractions of breakfast. We’re expected at the 15th century fort-palace, and are quickly escorted to the breakfast room where a table has been set aside for us in a newly resurrected wing — a sizeable walk from where the buffet breakfast is laid out. There’s an interesting array and I am hungry, but any thought that we’re going to eat course by leisurely course is soon history: Pawar scoops up a bowl of cut fruit and orders a masala dosa to be served at our table. I relinquish cereals and pancakes in favour of a hastily put together plate of sausages, bacon and egg, with some limp toast. Pawar gets through his dosa almost as fast as it is served; clearly, he’s in information relay mode, and breakfast is, at most, a necessary irritant.

The reason we’ve driven all the way to Neemrana for the fastest breakfast I’ve gulped in my life is the NIIT University that is taking shape in the shadow of the Aravallis here, a 100-acre campus that though still under construction, will, insists Pawar, be ready to welcome its first students — for courses in BTech, MTech and PhDs in computer science and engineering, educational technology, and bioinformatics and biotechnology — in September this year. “We grew from a two-week course,” says Pawar — this was in 1981when NIIT was launched — “to a year-long course in 1989 as a need-based response and franchising model to grow HR practices, innovation and breaking fresh ground.” It rode the IT boom, creating opportunities for skill-sets in, besides IT, banking, finance, insurance and management. “The path to higher education was always clear,” Pawar now nods.

It was an idea he had nurtured since the nineties, a desire to found a greenfield university where “education” that had fed two centuries of the industrial economy would be replaced by “learning”, a place where knowledge is “integrated rather than specialised”, developing into “rebellion born from an intellectual fora”, aimed at “reviving curiosity in students who are badgered into conformity”. Phew! “Curiosity,” he says, “drives experimentation. Students,” he insists, “should go out with more questions than answers.”

The one word he uses often, sometimes not relevantly, is one that perhaps best explains his — and, he says, the university’s — driving philosophy: “Seamlessness”. He uses it to describe the processes of learning as well as living, with a four-layered faculty building a seamless synthesis of knowledge 24x7. This dream faculty, according to him, will consist of mentor professors who are exceptional educators, an industrial faculty to drive home practical learning, founding professors as visiting faculty to engage with students, and young PhDs who will conduct research with the help of students on the campus. “People would ask us to do something in the sphere of schools, but that space is more difficult,” Pawar has picked at his fruit and polished off his dosa while I’m struggling with my bacon, “because you get plasticine; in college students you find developed minds.”

The location at Neemrana was happenstance: Pawar was at a meeting where he insisted that the Delhi-Jaipur highway had the potential of becoming a great knowledge corridor, so the state government told him to put his money where his mouth was. “I must say I’m very impressed with the bureaucracy in Rajasthan, they’ve very keen that these things should happen in their state,” we’re now sipping rapidly cooling cups of coffee. A hundred acres was made available close to the Japanese park in Neemrana, and the Rs 100-crore, 500-students, first phase (scalable to 5,000 students over the next decade) of the university will launch with an inaugural lecture by chancellor Dr Karan Singh in September.

“Our curriculum at NIIT was always beyond just training in IT,” he is back to poring over the university prospectus, “and the university is not a departure from that, though it will occupy a different space.” An alumnus of the Scindia School in Gwalior, one of the practices he was most influenced by, and which he will import to the university, is “astachal” — observing, in silence, the sun going down. “It is a reason,” he says, “Scindian old boys are more rooted, closer to land” though, of course, this might be nothing more than mere fancy.

Pawar could speak endlessly — seamlessly? — about the university he is building, and we’re due to go on to the actual site now, but so far I haven’t edged in too many questions — surely a bad student by his reckoning of having gained only answers! — so I try rudeness. Does he have any life outside NIIT at all? “Yes,” he says, surprising me. A music aficionado, he likes listening to “semi-classical music of all types” and ghazals “with Mehdi Hassan being a reference point”. Oh, and “a lot of reading of diverse subjects”, his library recently reorganised so that books on traditional thought in societies are at hand’s reach, books on leadership line the shelves just above that, there’s space for “unread books”, others on masterplanning, given his interest in the contours of his upcoming university, while the shelves at the highest, most inaccessible level, now contain his former favourites on technology.

His three children, he says, reflect his interests: One daughter is training to be a psychoanalyst, the youngest is still in school, “like me, the hockey captain”, a prefect, painter, “very well rounded”, while his eldest, a son, also from IIT and a former employee of Microsoft, “has just backpacked through 14 countries, without even a mobile phone. Letting him do that was important.”

On the drive back — Pawar has stayed behind in Neemrana — I’m struck by the realisation that while Pawar actively seeks to promote curiosity, he exhibits precious little himself: We’ve spent upwards of four hours together, yet he has shown very little interest in anything outside the immediate ken of his focus. I’m going back with a lot of answers to a few of my questions, but cannot help wondering: Why is it that he had none of his own?

First Published: Tue, May 12 2009. 00:44 IST