Saturday, April 30, 2011

Geek Nation by Angela Saini: A Review

By John Cheeran
India is in the eyes of the beholder. It can be anything to anyone. Such freedom allows you to come up with premises such as ‘Is India a geek nation?’
Angela Saini’s Geek Nation – how Indian science is taking over the world -- is an attempt to find out whether the large number of engineers and doctors churned out by this vast country’s educational institutions make it a nation of geeks. Saini, a UK-based science journalist, after her detours through space centres and Sanskrit research institutes is not entirely convinced that India is geeky in spirit and soul.
Geek Nation is an interesting read. Saini, daughter of an Indian immigrant engineer, is an engineer-turned-journalist. Her book informs the reader about the ancient and modern tradition of India’s experiments with truth and science.
For, how many, in this age of ‘information technology,’ know of the role played by former prime minister Jawahar Lal Nehru to inculcate scientific temper among the ignorant and illiterate masses? Saini, quite rightly, points out that contemporary India’s large posse of software engineers and doctors and technicians are a direct result of the lead role played by Nehru especially in setting up premier institutions such as Indian Institute of Technology (IITs).
And, yes, an Indian – Aryabhatta -- invented zero! But such an inquisitive tradition has been abused too in modern India. The trend of Indian middle classes re-imagining a glorious Hindu past and looking for all science in Vedas and Upanishads is in fact hilarious as well as disturbing.
To begin with Saini is forced to explain the title of her book. In the past to be a geek meant something of an oddball. And that’s why Infosys chairman NR Narayana Murthy asks Saini ‘is geek a good thing?’ Saini reassures him that being a geek is a good thing according to her book.
Saini, in her quest for geek grail, visits Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thumpa in Kerala, Indian Space Science Research Organisation in Bangalore, Infosys Campus in Electronics City, IBM India Research Lab, Tata Consultancy Services headquarters, National Botanical Research Institute in Lucknow, International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, the tuberculosis clinic in Chennai as well as the Academy of Sanskrit Research in Melkot in Karnataka, and The Oriental Research Institute in Mysore. She also meets Indian Rationalist Association president Sanal Edamaruku in New Delhi. And, much more.
Predictably, scientists who Saini visit are an optimistic lot and assure that India will catch up with science superpowers such as the US, China and Japan soon. But it is quite evident that scientific temper that Nehru wished for is quite absent in the country despite the large number of qualified engineers and doctors.
The zeal of some of India’s scientists leaves Saini troubled as in the case of Champadi Raman Mukundan, the inventor of the Brain Electrical Oscillations Signature software. Mukundan claims that he can read anyone’s mind with his mindreading machine. Saini says the problem lies with Indian leaders and police officers, in thrall to science and technology, seem willing to place their trust in new research and inventors however wacky their ideas might sound to others. In India, unlike anywhere else, nuttiness, without which science can’t flourish, is encouraged without any questions. It can, at times, backfire too.
The only way India can transform its society is by coming up with cutting edge scientific and technological inventions. India’s so called IT revolution has not yet resulted in a microchip. We still don’t have our own aircraft engine. We can’t develop drugs that will cure infectious diseases. Saini observes that efforts of Indian biotechnologists to develop a single drug to fight tuberculosis remain almost a lottery.
India aims for low-cost solutions. India’s research budget is frugal when compared to the West and China. The country’s advantage is that it has a huge, but cheap, educated workforce who can be tasked to crack software and research codes. There is no reason to despair of a technological dystopia. May luck be with India.
But I wonder why Saini visited Lavasa and a devote a whole chapter – Geeks Rule – to Ajit Gulabchand’s real estate project when she wanted to figure out if there was a real scientific revolution going on in the country.
Finally, is it of any consequence that I was reading Geek Nation a few days after the ‘Geek Nation’ paid a tearful farewell to Sathya Sai Baba, considered a saint by many and a charlatan by many others?

Title: Geek Nation
Author: Angela Saini
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Hachette India
Pages: 280
Price: 499

Friday, April 22, 2011

Third Best by Arjun Rao: A Review

By John Cheeran
Making out was not a term in vogue when we went to a co-ed school. The Class of 1999 at Shore Mount, of course, has different priorities. Arjun Rao’s Third Best has plenty of stolen kisses, dreamy as well as cynical lovers, music, bullying, boxing and football. But it does not have a centre.
Third Best traces the life of a batch of schoolmates in Shore Mount, an imaginary co-ed public school meant for the progeny of the rich, upper middle class. It is an enjoyable first novel from Rao but I wonder how many of the characters will stay with the reader after she finishes the final page.
Every writer should not be burdened with expectations of tackling the great questions of his or her day. That would be pointless. Here Rao offers us a peek into a whole lot of youngsters (the class of 1999) but in the process he has failed to do justice to any one of them. Easily said, Third Best is the story of the coming of age of Nirvan Shrivastav, a shy, reluctant hero burdened with a family history of achievements at Mount.
Nirvan is in awe of his successful elder brother Moksh who is with him at the Mount, and his father and grandfather. The blossoming of Nirvan’s leadership qualities, grit and fidelity however fails to sweep you off your feet. Yes, Nirvan stands firm when bullied and beaten almost to death by Nanda and still does not rat on him. Nirvan, the quiet hero, reclaims his girlfriend Ruma from the boxing champion Nanda through a Bollywood kind of revenge but does not win over readers.
Among the many faces that make up Third Best --- Gautam, Nirvan, Ruma, Natasha, Bose, Zoya, Gomez ---, I was fascinated by Faraz the handsome. Girls, juniors and seniors, are always chasing him and asking him out on the dance floor but the guy falls for his teacher Zoya, living without her husband who is serving the Indian army in Nagaland. There was minimum of fuss in their mutual need and all that music that flows and enriches Third Best added warmth and poignancy to a foredoomed relationship.
Rao writes well but should have been persuaded by the editors to limit himself. At 376 pages, Third Best is an overwritten answer sheet.

(Arjun Rao studied in The Lawrence School in Lovedale and now teaches history in The Doon School, Dehradun.)

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Bharat bhagya vidhata ! (by MJ Akbar in Sunday Guardian)

Editor's note: The Greatest Headline on Sunday Morning: Bharat bhagya vidhata by MJ Akbar in Sunday Guardian.

Trust MJ Akbar to come up with the three words that summed up the nation's mood and the winning moment on Saturday night in Mumbai. This one was definitely sweeter than the one he gave for The Asian Age front page when India defeated Pakistan in the 1996 World Cup quarter final played in Bangalore -- VICTORY. A few weeks later I joined The Asian Age in New Delhi.

A cursory look at Sunday’s morning newspapers in India reveals the paucity of clearheaded thinking in newsrooms. Few newspapers had the élan to think in simple, but striking terms. All the more reason to raise a toast to Akbar.

Below read the front page comment Akbar wrote in Sunday Guardian celebrating and savouring the emperor's -- Mahendra Singh Dhoni -- great triumph as a leader. India winning its second World Cup.

By MJ Akbar in The Sunday Guardian

The romance of cricket has but one competitor, the mystery of conspiracy. When the two become part of the same narrative, there is an all-time best-seller. We have had two in one week.
The credibility of both SMSes and bookies rose sharply before the IndiaPakistan semi-final when a pre-match SMS circulated what the bookies thought — or knew? — what was going to happen: India would bat first, make 260, lose 3 to 4 wickets in first 25 overs, Pak would cruise to 100, lose 2 quick wickets, be 150 for 5, crumble and lose by over 20 runs. Twenty minutes before the finals on Saturday I received this SMS: Lanka will bat first, score between 240 to 250. Tendulkar would fail (meaning, score 37), as would Sehwag, but Gambhir would shine and India would win.
At 2.30 pm Lanka batted first, but the prescient SMS had underestimated their score. They put on a batting performance that began with professional virtuosity, and paced it like a musical overture: minimum fuss at the start, no histrionics, the music’s passage crafted by a captain who knew this had to be the innings of his life, but ending with a thunderous clash of cymbals, a mighty final five overs that climaxed a perfect harmony. Mahela Jayawardene’s Sri Lanka had outdistanced the know-all SMS by a crucial 25 runs. Would that become the vital difference that kept the World Cup in either the largest or the smallest of the cricket countries of South Asia?
It was evident that Mahendra Dhoni had made his first big mistake of the tournament by investing in Sreesanth. It was not merely the runs that he gave away to Lanka’s cool batsmen, but the manner in which he gave them, with that strange alchemy of petulance and ability that has made him a wanderer rather than a fixture in the side. Sreesanth is not a boy big enough for the big moment.
The Indian innings was an essay in transition. The old order was giving way to the new. Gautam Gambhir did not merely deliver in mathematical terms, important as they are; a new captain was claiming his place for the future in front of the most important audience of his career. When Gambhir and Dhoni were batting with India at 170 for 3, the only question was whether those last five overs of the Lanka innings had been the gamechanger. At this stage, a target of 140 to 250, with Yuvraj still to come was eminently reasonable. India was full of runs and Lanka short of wickets. There was suddenly a big hole where wickets should have been, and for one reason alone: the last finale of the greatest bowler in Lanka’s history, Muralitharan, seemed to have lost its magical, piercing rhythm.
Dhoni and Gambhir made the failure of Sehwag and Sachin irrelevant. A team is always greater than the sum of its most combustible sparklers. Such was their dominance that when Murli returned in the last ten overs, he surrendered a wide and was hit for a four. The mojo was gone. Then, as if to prove that cricket would always remain the eventual winner, Gambhir was bowled. Drama revived, a dying game returned to life. Indian hearts were attacked when a run out and an lbw went to the third umpire at 241. But there was a batting power play left. Surely India could not come so near and yet be so far.
If Sri Lanka had a king as their captain, India had an emperor. Moreover, he had a prince as partner, Yuvraj. Emperors save their best for the last. The six that brought India its second World Cup, in the new capital of international cricket, will be adorned in history as the finest stroke of a game that began in England and has become Indian. The final began with the Indian national anthem. Our anthem was the perfect metaphor. Bharat bhagya vidhata…Jaya hey!
John Cheeran at Blogged