Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | The good, the bad and the ugly of alumni reunions

Every December, without fail, repeated invitations swoosh into my phone, followed by evangelistic tom-tomming in multiple WhatsApp groups. They are signalling the big annual tribal ritual of our times—alumni reunions. These always take place in winter, mainly fuelled by the diaspora flying down to check on ageing parents and soak in some winter sun while at it. On the menu is a couple of days of relentless partying. Be it a high school, university or B-school, everyone seems to be seeking sugar-coated nostalgia doused in alcohol (minus spouses).

Till recently, I wanted no part of it. I had moved on, grown up, made new friends, was already in touch with the school/college friends who mattered and so on. The old students’ club also appeared transactional (which it is, to a point), but I somehow never felt the urge to discover more. But then suddenly, it all changed, A few years ago, I showed up for my school batch’s silver reunion. Emboldened, I later attended a college reunion. Then my economics class, filled up with many able economists and bankers, got itself a WhatsApp group. We met once, twice... It was fun.

Why did I reverse decades of shying away from interacting with the very people that I had spent crucial and happy years with? I called up a few friends and realized that my behaviour was not atypical. Most people are known to wake up to reunions and the existence of old school/college mates when the idea of mortality begins to strike them. In general, there is divine justice in growing old with people who knew us when we were young. There has to be some context, you see, to the lives we lead, and who better to explain it than that girl you first met in Class IV D. Moreover, there’s only so much one can glean from Facebook et al, where “shiny happy people" abound.

Most people I spoke to insist that the best thing about meeting up with old school and college friends is that they don’t judge you. In other words, Oozie may be a balding venture capitalist now, with homes all over the world, but he understands your lesser existence because you shared plates of momos, tutorial papers and plenty of stories that have gotten wildly embellished over time. Of course, many people I spoke to for this column agree that there is a tendency to gravitate to the same groups one had in the past, in some ways reinforcing (for some) the brutal social status order, non-judgementalism be damned. However, by and large, everyone is in a good mood and willing to forgive and forget. Depending on how well you’ve done, they are happy to become your friend too.

As I said earlier, there is a benign transactional side to it too. The network helps in getting one’s children gold-plated internships or even job openings. If I had kept a 2,000 note for every time I overheard the line “I’ll open the door, and after that it’s up to him/her of course", I would have one of the largest post-demonetization stashes. You do catch some elevator pitches too, but that’s natural if one has old friends in high places. What are friends for if you cannot seek a little help from them?

However, not everything associated with alumni networks is kosher. Once I started looking beyond the mindless inspirational messages/jokes/homilies flooding my school WhatsApp group, I was horrified to find some very strange stuff bordering on hate and bigotry. In many cases, when you point out the errors or fake news, the response is a terse “it’s just a fwd" or something nonsensical like that. Please note, I’m not talking about vigorous political debates (“India’s going to the dogs…") but outright hate.

The good news is that such exchanges are few and far between and there are plenty others who leap in to counter the offending person (going by what I hear about other alumni WhatsApp networks, there’s plenty of hate floating around).

That said, you do end up wondering why this person, whom you have known since the age of five and played football with, turned out this way and you didn’t. One possible reason is that a few of us listened in the civics class (and were taught the right things at home, I guess) and he didn’t. Injecting social sciences into the curriculum at the college level doesn’t wipe out that early disadvantage.

Alumni networks can even condone plain wrongdoing. Consider the tragic case of former McKinsey & Co. managing director Rajat Gupta, a poster boy for Modern School, Delhi, Indian Institute of Technology, and Harvard Business School networks. Gupta, the first foreign-born head of the consultancy firm, was convicted in the Galleon case for insider trading and spent 19 months in prison in the US.

As Anita Raghavan, author of The Billionaire’s Apprentice, told me in 2013 in an interview I did with her in Outlook, “Alumni networks are very sturdy. I noticed at Gupta’s trial many of his supporters—the people who came regularly to court on his behalf—were his old friends from IIT. It was these same friends who jumped into action when he was indicted and set up the ‘Friends of Rajat’ website. So, no, I don’t think Rajat will be shunned by the IIT alumni network."

To be fair, Raghavan does go on to warn against making generalizations, adding that there were IIT alums who were highly critical of Gupta’s behaviour. That said, Gupta is seeking rehabilitation in India (a book presenting his side of the story is around the corner). It’ll be instructive to see who among his alumni come out and endorse his stand.

Sunit Arora is editor, special assignments, Mint.

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