It was late one night in 2013 when professor Sanat Kumar Roy was woken up by the shrill ringing of his phone. A journalist from the US wanted to know something about a person he insisted was a former student of his. “It was only after some enquiries that I realised that the person he was referring to as Sundar Pichai, then a senior vice-president in Google, was ex-student Pichai Sundarajan,” says the retired IIT Kharagpur professor, with a laugh.
That’s how IIT Kharagpur remembers one of their most famous alumni – Sundar Pichai, current Google CEO – who graduated from the premier institute’s metallurgical engineering department in 1993, 25 years ago. The list of toppers that hangs on one of the walls in the department, bears his name as the topper of his batch. Indranil Manna, who had been Pichai’s B.Tech thesis guide, still has a copy of his work.
Both professors remember Pichai as “shy, quiet, but extremely intelligent” in class. “He was not diffident, just very focussed, Whenever he was asked something, he was never found wanting. He was always willing to participate in various student activities, especially within the department,” says Manna.
Manna also remembers his “big handwriting”. “If you ask me today whether I had known then that he would be the Google CEO one day, I will say a leader for sure, a thinking man… He was bright, had a star in his eyes,” says Manna.
Manna was in contact with Pichai till he finished his masters from Stanford. “I had expected him to go in for a PhD …” He adds: “If I remember right, he didn’t have beard while he was here. But that apart, he hasn’t changed much.” Over the years, Manna lost touch with Pichai. His next conversation with Pichai was after he had become the Google CEO. “I met another former student, a batchmate of Pichai’s and was enquiring about him and he encouraged me to write to him and assured me he would reply. I was at IIT Kanpur at the time and the students were also keen to have him on the campus for some event. Pichai did reply to my mail, but did not say anything about visiting the campus,” says Manna with a laugh.
Manna was not at IIT Kharagpur when Pichai visited the campus last year. But boarders of Nehru Hall of Residence – the hostel where Pichai had lived as a student – remember the visit well, as do most of those present on campus at the time.
“None of us could interact with him because there was a big crowd surrounding him. But we stood on the stairs and watched him go to his old room,” says third-year civil engineering student Pinaki Mishra. Dulal Kumar Chandra, the librarian at the hostel library, remembers both the visit and Pichai as a student. “As a student, he was always busy with books. You could see that he was intelligent, a good student. When he visited the campus last year, he came to the hostel library too and was happy at the way its been maintained,” says Chandra. From the owner of a store within the hostel to the person who mans the cycle stand there, last year’s visit has refreshed everyone’s memories about the “quiet and well-behaved” former student .
P Simalu, a former member of the mess staff, who retired a few months back, has a treasured memento from that visit hanging on his drawing room wall — a photo with the Google CEO. “He smiled when he saw me and hugged me. I couldn’t understand what he said. He is Tamil and I am Telugu. As a student he knew some Hindi, but I think he has forgotten it now,” he says. “He was a nice boy. He was vegetarian and like food a little sour. He was happy when we served dosa or some other south Indian dish at the mess. He didn’t like things like chana curry too much,” he says with a chuckle.
Neither the professors, nor any of the staff though, remember Pichai’s romance with fellow student Anjali (now his wife), which the Google CEO revealed during his visit last year. But that would be characteristic of the relationship the shy student had with his professors. “Maybe his friends knew,” says Manna, with a smile.The current occupant of Pichai’s old hostel room, Aditya Buridi, says he texted his friends to tell them when it was allotted to him. “They asked me for a treat,” he says with a laugh. The corridors outside have received a fresh coat of whitewash since Pichai’s visit last year. Some of the paint covers the room number painted on the door frame – 309 – in front of which Pichai had so happily posed for photos.