Thursday, July 12, 2007

'Above Average': book review

My long promised review...

It is unfair to review a book by constantly comparing it to another one. But it simply can't be helped. Chetan Bhagat's 'Five Point Someone' (FPS) was such a definitive moment in Indian 'youth lit' that any book which is also about 'coming of age' and set on an IIT campus will only be referred to as 'Is it better than FPS?'

The answer is yes, and no. Amitabh Bagchi's 'Above Average' is a 'better book' but it is less readable. Bagchi is a superior writer, but Chetan is a great storyteller.

FPS is written like a screenplay, with the plot revolving around a few prominent characters. Above Average is more like life. Where you have 'building' friends, 'college' friends, 'wing' friends, 'department' friends. But in a book, that can get rather confusing.

The other key difference is that Five Point Someone was a book which focussed on the underdog whereas Above Average, as the title suggests, is about a guy who is superior to the aam junta. The underdog invariably captures the popular imagination - perhaps because there are so many who identify with that state of being.

Whereas 'above average' is almost like saying 'genius' but with a pinch of modesty.

Having said all this I would add: I liked the book. Or at least many portions of it. From the very first page, the words pitter patter, thoughts flow and dialogue is easy and natural. The first chapter captures the tension that the average IIT aspirant goes through. Right from the fact that few even know why they're taking the exam.

"I must have decided at some point in my time at school that I should try to get into one of the IITs. But when I made that decision, if I ever made it consciously, I could never remember."

Then there is the description of the fellow JEE toppers invited by Agrawal classes for an all expenses trip cum felicitation to Bombay (the book is set in the 'pre-Bansal classes' era). "Such shadys," is the verdict of our protagonist.

"We would measure ourselves against each other for years after we graduated, just like we would measure our grades against each others' in the four years we spent together. (how true!) But at that time I had no inkling that this bunch of shadys were my future."

The cover picture - a wide eyed, innocent looking boy with a measured indifference is very apt. Because this, is the underlying tone of the book.

"The battle for grades and academic achievement was just one small part of the larger war, the others being the battles to appear unconcerned, in control, well rounded, self confident. Accustomed all our lives to being lauded as exceptional, we were all scared that the true measure of ourselves, our unremarkable selves, would emerge one day."

Yup, IITians are as 'normal' as anyone else - but given the halo around their heads it would take another 20 books and movies for that idea to sink into the public consciousness.

But back to the book. Sadly, from page 25 the story slips timezones into the Mayur Vihar colony where the Chief Character grew up. As someone who's also grown up in a colony I'd say Bagchi describes the claustrophobia of that kind of life perfectly. But, perhaps that could have been the subject of a different book.

The rest of the book is devoted to Arindam (aka Rindu's) stay in IIT - and a little of what happens beyond. Forming a rock band is one of the high points. The fact that being a rocker is not just about love of music is captured beautifully by Bagchi:

From that first roll to the end of the song was the one time in my life when anything seemed possible, when everything I did seemed exactly right, totally in sync; the one time when I was not a bespectacled Bengali computer scientist sitting in a small room in Mayur Vihar, but Mitch Mitchell himself, the master of the drumset,the king of percussion..."

Then there are the small joys of IIT life like 'shagging contests'. The coolness of Hindi as lingua 'IIT' franca. And even a stab of regret at not being part of DU ('where your friends are growing their hair long and acquiring girlfriends').

The most interesting, sub plot revolves around a professor called Kanitkar. Every college has a professor who is revered and looked upto. Kanitkar was one such God. A prof who thunders: "You miserable dolts... you don't deserve to be in IIT.. you should all have gone to Roorkee. No, no.. you should get your computer science from NIIT!"

You see, Kanitkar's classes dealt not in ratta but funda. Which is what separates the men from the boys at an IIT.

"... Ideas mattered more than knowledge, of this we were fairly certain. There were classes in which learning by rote was the only challenge. Doing well in such a class was not a major achievement. In fact, there were people like Neeraj who made it a point to do badly in such classes.

But to do well in classes that required conceptual clarity, a funda class, was what marked you as smart and led people to say that you had clear fundas. And if you could do well in a funda class without having studied much, then you were in a league of your own. And no class was as much of a funda class as Algorithms taught by Kanitkar."

The friendship/ rivalry between Rindu (the 'above average') and Neeraj the 'genius') is the final moving force of the book. Neeraj, the guy from a government school who dreams are bigger than his Bata chappals... "There's no point in doing research incremental research. You can't get the Turing award by making small improvements to existing results."

But at the end of the day, Bagchi makes the point that 'success in life' is as much about talent as desire.

"We aren't what we do or what we achieve or what we acquire or about what we become, we are and we always will be what we want."

Amitabh Bagchi, a boy who grew up in Delhi, studied at IIT, did his Computer Science PhD and came back to teach at IIT D wanted to write a semi-autobiographical book. And he did.

It could have been more impactful, more memorable, if he hadn't meandered around so much.

In the final analysis, FPS, is junk food for the mind. Tasty at the time but quickly gulped down and forgotten. Above Average is a lovingly cooked meal, although some portions are too bland/ undercooked. Yet, provides some food for thought while chewing on it.

Above average but not outta-this-world

More opinions and reviews here.


  1. Good review.
    By the way, the 'review link' at the end is broken, you have added multiple 'http's.

  2. Exact and Precise Review!!!
    I'd felt exactly the same way you'd described the book. Preferably, Mr.Bagchi should have steered clear of Mayur Vihar and stuff.

    Sadly, comparisons with FPS are inevitable and this book has been labelled as "not-so-hip" by my friends and I would be surprised if anyone borrowed it from me when I get back to IIT.

  3. Hi Dear,
    Very good review..
    I will definetly gonna read it..
    Have to taste its flavour, as you made it so exotic..

    Take care

  4. Nice review. You penned exactly what was in my mind, after reading the book. I'd have liked the book better had the Mayur Vihar portion been shorter and had the focus on IIT and rock been stronger.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Nice post Rashmi, however, please get the author's name right.

    It is 'Amitabha Bagchi' and not Amitabh Bagchi. I hope you are not suffering from the Big B syndrome.

    As Sherlock Holmes might have said, "Elementary my dear Watson."

  7. Amitabha Bagchi is a professor himself at IIT Delhi Computer Science Department. The guy is definitely a genius and writes well too. I agree his book might not be extremely popular with the masses but for any IITian or anyone preparing for IIT, it is a must :)

  8. Interesting Review. The book as been queued in my 'Must Read' category.

    There has been another book on The-IIT-Life called 'Thank you Mam'. Its just another book that tries to achieve sales target not due to the content or the writing-style but due to the topic it covers - IIT. You can consider it clubbing it with the book on Call Centers by Neelesh.

  9. mhmmm, nice review, i think i'm going to enjoy reading it...but will probably wait for the movie....

    have been carrying the namesake around for 3 weeks now - and i know its a good book / have seen the movie - but i still havent read a single page...

    samay ka sakht aabhav...

  10. That was an insightful review..!! Looking forward to more such stuff!

  11. Anonymous5:54 PM

    Hi I really love this book for the kind of grip it had on me... Its a very different book. I also want to wish Amitabh Bagchi all the best as he is been nominated for the Indiaplaza GoldenQuill award. I have voted for him and i am sure he will will this award. Check

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