It is exam season at the Manipal Institute of Technology, perched on a hill a few kilometres from the Arabian Sea, near Udupi in south-west Karnataka. Students in fashionable summer attire throng the long and winding corridors of Academic Block – 1 to pay their fees and settle other dues. Despite the impending examinations and the sweltering heat of the afternoon, the students are in high spirits. Two of the institute’s alumni, Satya Nadella, 47, and Rajeev Suri, 46, recently became CEOs of large global corporations, Microsoft and Nokia, respectively, in close succession. But why are Manipal’s students happy? “Nadella and Suri were both good students, but they were not top-of-the-class. So, exams and grades are not the only parameters for success,” says Nidhi Shetty, a third-year student of electronics and communication engineering. Her classmate, Ankit, says, “Suri didn’t pursue an MS or an MBA after graduating from here. He clearly thought a B.Tech from Manipal was enough.”
Unlike government-subsidised institutes, the Manipal Institute of Technology —abbreviated to MIT after the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — has a reputation for attracting affluent aspirants. And while Nadella and Suri are products of MIT’s academic culture and its permissive environment, their success is equally attributable to the upper-class society they lived in. “We have always attracted upper-middle-class students who are well-schooled and don’t have trouble developing soft skills,” says director Vinod V Thomas. “There are many more Nadellas and Suris in the making at MIT.” From about Rs 50,000-60,000 a year in the 1980s, the fee at MIT today is about Rs 2.5 lakh a year. The institute admitted about 800 students a year back then, and now has 1,800 enrolling across 16 B Tech courses and 460 across 24 M Tech courses. Nadella and Suri have instantly notched up the institute’s profile and brought it on a par with the IITs or even the original MIT in Boston, Thomas claims. “I am sure it will reflect in the admissions this year as well as in the placements,” he says.
But MIT does not figure among the top 10 engineering colleges in the country in yearly rankings by media houses. It also lags behind in research. Where the Indian Institute of Science published 12,951 papers between 1999 and 2008 and IIT Kanpur came in second with 6,234 papers, MIT was ranked 45th, with just 214 papers in these years. Like their alma mater, Nadella and Suri, who graduated with distinction as electronics and communication engineers in the years 1988 and 1989, respectively, were unremarkable during their college days. “You typically remember students from the two ends of the spectrum. They weren’t toppers and they weren’t laggards. There are no highlights from their time here,” says Thomas. By all accounts, Nadella was quiet, studious and keen on studying abroad. Like the students of his time, he made friends within his own community and made the long, gruelling bus journey to Hyderabad in their company. Suri, his teachers and friends say, was hard-working, had a charming personality and loved music and movies.
The sun-kissed sprawl of block – 1, the first of five academic blocks where they would have attended lectures back in the 1980s, is now an administrative facility housing offices and faculty chambers. Most of the hostel cottages, each with four tiny double-occupancy rooms, in D Block, which housed both Nadella and Suri, are now reassigned to non-teaching staff. Instead, there are now high-rises with airconditioned studio apartments where students pay up to Rs 1,30,000 a year for food and lodging. A short walk from the campus, Tiger Circle, the central junction in Manipal, has seen fads come and go — from video parlours to hookah bars and play arenas. It now boasts of, students say, the most happening bar in town. “The bars of our time cannot hold a candle to the new establishments. But Manipal has never run dry,” says Anand H, 44, a civil engineer from Manipal who recalls the weekend revelry at Bacchus Inn, an old-timers’ favourite. “As students, we gladly mingled with the girls at Kasturba Medical College across the street and came back drunk in the wee hours of the morning,” he says.
Vishal Swara, Suri’s hostel roommate and close friend at Manipal, says we played gully cricket in front of the hostel cottages. “After the summer vacations, Rajeev would bring the latest English pop music records and we’d listen to those. We would watch all the new Hollywood releases at Udupi theatres. We read Archies comics, ate out and rode on my bike and had a lot of fun,” he says. Swara, Suri and their big group of Delhiite and Punjabi friends called themselves the “crabs” of Manipal, for their self-professed crab mentality. Swara is now the managing director of SLV Security Services, Gurgaon. He says he was in touch with Suri till about 1995 and is looking forward to meet him later this year when he visits his parents in Janakpuri in west Delhi.
Swara rates Suri’s analytical ability and good memory among his greatest virtues. “Suri’s grasp of fundamental engineering principles was very good and that is, perhaps, why he did not bother with further studies after B Tech,” says Niranjan UC, his project guide in his final year. Suri struck him as being talented, vivacious and very friendly. “He was the most visible person in the team. They had designed an automatic quiz machine that kept time and generated questions and they had used the latest microprocessor. The prototype was impressive,” he says. Now a visiting professor at the institute, Niranjan also taught Nadella a course in telecommunications in 1986. “He would constantly ask me for recommendation letters to foreign universities, including to the Milwaukee School of Engineering,” Niranjan says. “People tell me I should have kept a copy of those letters.”
Nadella’s friend from his school days in Hyderabad, Arun Sharma, who also studied with him at MIT, says he was goal-oriented, rarely pursuing any hobbies outside of cricket and the occasional movie at the video parlour (today there is an INOX at Manipal). “He spent a lot of time in the library. He was not very well known on the campus due to his introvert nature,” says Sharma, who remembers digging into omelettes and cooking Maggi, the latest rage then, with Nadella. He also recalls ragging Suri, a junior and a fellow north-Indian. Nadella shied away from ragging, says Sharma, adding that he last met Nadella about six years ago, when he had visited Hyderabad.
Suri’s and Nadella’s paths may indeed have crossed at Manipal, perhaps between the two rows of cottages where gully cricket tournaments were conducted, or at the annual rock show where you had to be very close to the speakers to hear the music. But the two could not be more different.