Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi: ‘The audacity of hope’ and ‘Our way of life’

President Obama visited Delhi on the occasion of our Republic Day earlier this year. Arvind Kejriwal was the immediate past Chief Minister of Delhi, which had no Chief Minister at that time. Kiran Bedi had just been roped in as the Chief Ministerial candidate by the BJP.  Kejrival had complained to the Press that he was not invited for the Republic Day parade. Kiran Bedi had a prime seat for that occasion. A proud Bedi gave a public advice: “If he wants an invitation, let him join BJP”.

This in a way summarizes our way of life.  It is not enough if you deserve something, you need to meet the powers that be and pay your obedience. If you don’t do it, the powers that be will ensure that you don’t get what you deserve. We would of course continue to talk about merit on public forum. It was saddening to see the iron lady from Tihar make this statement in 2015.

I was very pleased to see a newspaper announcement after Modi had assumed charge as PM. ‘Do not hang around and keep asking for favors’. After reading about Kiran Bedi’s advise to Kejriwal, I wonder what that announcement meant. ‘If we have some use for you, we will call you and throw some favors, you don’t come and ask’. Some one like Kiran Bedi should have deserved better.

When I had joined the IISc 18 years back, a senior colleague advised me: “Go and meet this influential person”. It was bizarre and some thing I have never been used to doing. I ignored the advice. It is certainly not that I would not like to meet an accomplished person. The objective of such a visit, which was apparent from the suggestion, was sickening to me. I have seen several around me paying a visit and letting their presence known. It seems to have helped some of those who visited.

If you have not read Obama’s ‘The Audacity of Hope’, I would strongly recommend that book. He describes an incident in which President Bush hosts a party to the legislators in the USA. Barrack Obama was a young representative at that time. Bush was always surrounded by many and Obama stayed in some corner. When the meeting was about to end, Bush goes to Obama and offers a hand. Obama, with some food in his hand stumbles. Bush had heard about Obama and has a brief chat with him on his own! I have witnessed such events.

It is indeed important that the elders are respected. However, respect should always be earned and not demanded. I see many not so accomplished young leaders suffering when they don’t feel respected enough by their younger colleagues. It gets into their head and they make statements which they themselves would regret, if and when they come down to earth. Some do not come down to earth though. It is a puzzle to me! Why our system puts up with their open display of arrogance!

I do hope that our youngster don’t fall prey to those in power. However, this needs courage, which still appears to be short in supply. One cannot, of course, loose hope. I indeed like the title chosen by Obama ‘The audacity of hope’. I do see in our youth enough signs that ‘respecting elders’ would no longer mean ‘implicit obedience’ and ‘accepting everything that is said without questioning’. I only hope our elders see this trend and stop ‘favoring’ the more-obedient at the cost of merit. We have suffered a lot due to such leadership all over India in every field.


On religion and conversion – 2

This is a continuation on my previous blog with the same title. The main purpose of this second blog is my urge to share with interested readers a few more anecdotes from my experience.  I learned about two professors, one from India and one from the USA and one political leader who used religious fanaticism to grow.

‘Travel is lethal to indifference, bigotry and narrow mindedness’ said Mark Twain and I could not agree more. As I mentioned in my previous blog, joining American College, barely 1 km away from my home, taught me about people eating non-vegetarian everyday. Though, the college was just a km away, it had students from many parts of Tamil Nadu and from a diverse background. It also taught me about the eagerness shown by Christians to bring others into their fold. When I joined IIT Madras for MSc in 1982, I found out about Hindus who would not eat non-vegetarian only on Saturday. All my childhood, I was eating mutton only on Saturday.

I realized there is nothing sacrosanct about any of these practices. However, following some discipline in life is always good and if you are following something, do follow it.  Don’t expect others to understand it or approve it. If any one claims, his/her way of life is the correct way, you can laugh and ignore. If it is forced, one must object. As nothing is sacrosanct, there is no need to be too hard on ourselves.

Around 1996, when I was in IIT Kanpur as a faculty, I found a seminar notice which aroused my curiosity. The speaker was a professor at IIT Delhi, and if my memory serves me right, in the Mechanical Engineering Department. The title went something to this effect ‘How to solve all the world’s problems’. As I have always been interested in solving all the world’s problems, I attended the talk. Within a few minutes, it was clear to me that the speaker’s suggestions would only create more problems. He simply said: ‘Anytime there is a conflict, follow what Bhagavatham says’.

I had not seen/read Bhagavatham and to the best of my knowledge this holy book is about Vishnu and Vaishnavaites are expected to follow this. I told the speaker: Your suggestion is good for creating and not solving problems. It is not just because I am from a Shaivaite family. I have read about serious conflicts and fights between these two groups in the history of India. This whole conflict is silly as many scholars have pointed out that Shiva and Vishnu are both, two forms of God.

A few years later, when I was in IISc, Bangalore, a very successful theoretical chemist from the USA visited IISc. He was among the topmost cited chemists. He gave three talks, one for the specialized audience in a Chemistry Department, one for all science audience at our faculty hall and one evening talk at a community hall. I happened to be his host from IISc during this visit and as a polite host, attended all the three talks. The third one was titled something to the effect ‘The resurrection of Christ is scientifically proven’. I was curious again but all he mentioned in the talk was that he believed it! You cannot argue with believers. As far as I could see, no ‘scientific proof’ was given.

He is certainly not the first scientist to have faith. Even then, I was amazed at his evangelical zeal to preach. I learned that he was a ‘born-again’ christian. He had a terrible loss in his life which pushed him towards faith and I can completely understand his choice. This brings me to the third person, a political leader from India who grew using religion. He had a temple in his house and pictures and statues of God all over the house. He installed many all over the city he was dominating. He also had a terrible loss in his life, and he became an atheist. He ordered removing all Gods from his house! As if God’s primary duty was to ensure that he does not loose anything.

Clearly, conversion not only happens between religions (between different faiths), it can also happen from no faith to faith, atheists to theists and reverse. Often these are based on personal experiences in life. I have never been religious and am convinced that all the books on Gods from all over the Universe were written by scholars at various point of time.  In today’s world, I can only believe in a constitution written and approved in a democracy and not on any religious books.



Why are we not trained to respect every individual!

Our society is largely patriarchal, even in 2015. One can see it from the way we treat children, students, subordinates, coworkers etc… “Just listen, I know what is good for you”. It continues when the children become parents and the students become professors! I would like to share some personal experience which helped me learn a few things in life. These may not be applicable to some of you who have come from a less protective/more liberal surrounding

I visited a distant relative who had settled in Canada during 1993 with my wife and some other relatives. He had moved to Canada in the 1970s and we used to play street games together during our childhood. He was married and had a son, 1-2 years old. His great uncle, also a distant relative of mine, had supported his move to Canada towards the end of his high school. We knocked at the door and his wife, with their young son on her lap, opened the door. As several of us entered the door, the boy started crying. The mother told us: “I did not prepare him for your visit and that is why he is crying, I am sorry”. I thought to myself “Alright you guys came to Canada long back, now don’t tell me this…”.  Though I did not say it, I was ashamed of this thought later in life. We had our first daughter born in 1994.

In 1995 while on a visit to Urbana-Champaign, a close friend of mine, originally from Iceland, had called us for dinner. His wife had given some papers and crayons for our elder daughter to draw as we were all chatting. After the dinner, when we were about to leave, we wanted to clear up the “mess”.  We took all the papers in which our daughter had ‘scribbled’ something and we were about to trash. His wife was shocked “Your daughter was drawing something beautiful, you just want to trash it!”. Somewhat apologetically, we kept those papers somewhere and bid them good bye.

We moved to Bangalore in 1997 and had two young daughters. My sister from Madurai visited us with her family. We did not have any vehicles at that time and we rented a van everyday and went around Bangalore and Mysore for 3-4 days. Then one night, I had called for a taxi. When the taxi arrived, my sister and family got in and me and my wife waved them good bye. Our daughters started crying loud wanting to get in to the taxi. My sister proudly said: “They love their aunt so much they are keen on coming with us”.

Of course she has been a great aunt but at that time our daughters had barely known the aunt except for those few days when we went around. It suddenly occurred to me that we had never informed our daughters that aunt’s family would be going back home that night. They were used to getting in to the car and merrily going around and suddenly, we were telling them that they should not get into the car! We had not prepared our daughters for their aunt’s departure.

A few months later, my in-laws had come in a group with some kids and we repeated the routine. On the day of their departure, I spoke to my daughters in the morning: “You know, tonight grandma, aunty and your cousins are all going back to Madras. Would you both like to go with them or stay back here with us” Their choice was obvious. That night, my mother-in-law was telling my wife just before their departure: “Keep the children inside, they would start crying when we leave”. I told her: “They won’t cry and they would wish you good bye and sleep”. And so they did. It is not that they loved my in-laws family any less.

Even today, it is not uncommon in many families to hear these words: ‘ What does she/he know? Why do you have to ask her/him, I will bring a boy/girl and they will get married!’.  Making decisions for people below us and accepting the decisions of people above us, seems to have been a way-of-life for us. Respecting the elders has been equated to agreeing with everything they say without any thinking on our part. This may help in freezing the time and living in the ‘glorious past’.

Isn’t it a surprise that we often here about ‘lack of creativity’ in many fields? If we stop crippling our children, with the young population we have, no one can stop our growth!

PS: Our marriage was arranged by our parents and I consider myself quite fortunate! Clearly, I cannot advice any one not to listen to parents/teachers. That is certainly not the objective. Our parents and teachers may do well to learn and say: ‘If I were you, I would do this because of these reasons’ and stop saying “don’t talk back and do what I say’. Let us learn to treat them as individuals with respect.


On religion and conversions

I was a graduate student at the Kansas State University in a small town, Manhattan, during 1986-91. On one afternoon, just after lunch I was alone in my apartment and my roommate was not there. The calling bell rang and when I opened the door, I found two elderly ladies smiling at me. One of them asked me: “Young man, are you happy with the way the Government is solving the problems we face?”. I almost knew what they were after and so answered them: “Absolutely, I have voted in every election and helped in choosing the right people. In case they don’t deliver, the next election I vote for some one else”. The ladies did not expect my answer and were taken aback. They still invited me to Christ, the savior of all. If I were disappointed with the Government, they could have had it easier. I, of course, did not have voting rights in the USA. I have voted in many elections in India but not all.

I was born in a Hindu family, perhaps more appropriately, a Shaivite family if one were to mention the religion. Apparently Hindu does not mean religion but a way of life, and believe me there are many ways of life. We followed one Hindu way of life. After my bath every morning, I would put ‘viboothi‘ on my forehead using two fingers. I used to see most using three/four fingers and some using one finger and I was using two fingers. It is just something I chose to do and no one objected or perhaps noted. We would have prayers on most mornings and evenings, when most of us sat down in the prayer room and recited Thevaram, Thiruvasagam and other devotional songs on Shiva and other Gods in Tamil. We did not discriminate Gods. These songs were beautiful, melodious and those who know them simply adore them. And even now I do and know many of the verses by heart.

We used to have oil-bath every saturday, when we put gingley oil all over our body and use Shihakai powder to clean up the oil. We invariably had mutton and bone-marrow soup for lunch on this day. I thought everyone had meat one meal a week and did not realize that it may have been a decision based on economy. I did not know ‘Hindus are vegetarians’ either. We celebrated most Hindu festivals. We had a festival called ‘Mulaipari‘ which is a festival of locals and everyone in our locality participated. This happened once in a few years and every night, men, women, boys and girls would get together and dance independently (men and women groups danced one after the other and not together).  We, of course, had prayers offered to Mariamman goddess every night. On the last day, Mulaipari would be carried by women and we would march towards the river Vaigai  and stop in all temples along the way, including a mosque. Every temple and the mosque would welcome us warmly. We had our own temple where we were the priests. Yes, I am from a priest family. It is in Puliyooran, about 60 km south of Madurai and the deity is Shiva.

Being a native of Madurai from South India, I learned tolerance of all faiths. Madurai is home to one of the largest festivals, known as ‘Chitra Festival’. This is unique in that it is a city festival. Most of the city participates in this festival including many of the big and small temples (both Shaivites and Vaishnavites) spread all over Madurai and beyond. And for a good measure, some mosques too. I learn that Thirumalai Nayakkar integrated the various festivals happening in different parts and times in to one city festival (he literally united space and time) in the 17th century. Madurai had religious harmony during my childhood that I could not find in Delhi or Kanpur where I lived later in my life. I particularly remember one incident around the 1980s.

One of the Hindu groups had put a poster all over Madurai claiming that they would go on top of the Thirupparankunram Temple hill to put some ‘Deepam’ (light). It is one of the big temples participating in the Chitra festival and also one of the six ‘houses’ for the God of Tamil, Murugan, who is also known as ‘Arumugam (six faced). There are six such houses for Arumugam all over Tamil Nadu. Madurai has one more, Pazhamuthir Solai. On top of the Thirupparankunram hill is a small mosque. This Hindu group claimed that Hindus used to light a lamp on top of the hill in the past and it was stopped (following the construction of mosque?). I was not aware of this ‘history’ and people around me did not seem to have known about this practice either. The group had invited everyone to join in the march to the top of the hill to start this practice again. Very few turned up and the plan fizzled out. The mosque and temple have been co-existing for a very long time and it seemed to me that this was a motivated plan to divide the society. Most of the people in Madurai did not buy this at that time.

When I joined The American College, I learned Chemistry and also different ways of life. I found out that there were some who had meat every day. I found out that Christians are eager to convert others to their religion and preach rigorously. We had roll numbers given to us alphabetically. One of my classmate, B was sitting in between A and C and B became a Christian before our 3 year B.Sc. programme ended. His family was still Hindu and was not very happy with the decision. It was a voluntary decision by B, helped by the persuasion of A and C, I thought. Those days this person, C (I have given an appropriate name) would not talk about anything other than Chemistry or Christ. I remember arguing with him giving him my reasons for not becoming a Christian at that time: I commit two sins all through my life and otherwise have done only good deeds: one is a sin and the second one is not asking for forgiveness for this sin. He would tell me that I have to go to The Hell for this. I would just smile.

I have many close friends from India who are Christians and from what I could make out, some of them are recent converts and some have been Christians for many centuries. Some of the recent converts are eager to bring others in to this faith, as they are convinced that Christ can save them. You cannot convert to Hinduism, from what I have learned (now we have special programmes to bring them back). I have never been a religious person and I believe in one thing about God, should there be one. It is a proverb in Tamil I adore: கண்டவர் விண்டிலர் விண்டவர் கண்டிலர் (Those who have seen have not revealed, and those who reveal, have not seen). In any case, I thought, if I were to believe in a God who could save me, should not I let all my friends know that and ask them to join me? For some reasons, Hindus did not do that.

Hindus not only forbade conversions, they would not even allow persons from other faith entering the ‘sanctum sanctorum’ in their temple. And we have some Hindus who would tell other gullible ones that  prayers in Sanskrit are holier than the prayers in their native languages, even in 2015! Christians in Bangalore conduct services in English, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Hindi and if you speak a different language, they can start one for you. Christ seems to be following all these languages. Tamils had to start a major movement in Tamil Nadu to have prayers in Tamil. I went to Puri a year ago and one of the priest proudly told me: Even Indira Gandhi was not allowed inside the temple, when she was the Prime Minister of India. Ms. Gandhi had married a non-Hindu. You have to pay a price for such silly and false-pride.  You cannot complain and ask for laws to prohibit conversions. The Hindus certainly need to introspect. In closing, let me quote from an article I read in The Hindu today: Why, despite their (17th century mathematicians from Kerala school) brilliance, did this knowledge not trigger the kind of revolution set off by Newtonian calculus? ( http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/comment-for-a-newly-imagined-historical-temper/article6866021.ece?homepage=true)

PS: Some personal opinions on specific issues

0) I like Bhagavad Gita (most part except where it warns about ‘racial mixing’) and Thirukkural. I think Hindu philosophers were far advanced in their thinking and Hinduism as a religion is far advanced than monotheic religions. It recognizes diversity, which the recent over-zealous self-appointed guardians overlook.

1) The New York Times Editorial published today (6/7 Febrary 2015) advising our PM Modi was uncalled for.

2) I liked Obama’s passing mention on the importance of not letting India divide on religious lines while on a visit to India.

3) I very much liked Chomana Dudi, the first Kannada movie I watched. The hero, a poor dalit(?) refuses to convert for money.

4) I do not like exploiting the plights of the poor to convert them. If Christians were to say ‘idol worship is bad’, I would say ‘Hell with you Christians’. Read about Muthuramalinga Thevar in his biography, if you know Tamil ‘Pokkisham’.

5) As long as the caste system continues in the Hindu society, if I were from a suppressed caste, I would say ‘Hell with you Hindus’ and become an atheist/buddhist/christian….

6) I would not like Hindi to become the National language of India and ‘Sanskritization’ of education.

7) Words given in italics can be searched in google if you want to know more.



Rosa Parks and Mooka Nadar: Recent tales from the world’s “oldest” and largest democracies!

I am a native of Madurai, India and lived there for 20 years, largely during the 1960s and 70s till I finished my B.Sc. in Chemistry (1982) at The American College, Madurai. In 1986, I went to the U.S.A. for my Ph. D. and postdoctoral work and lived there for a little more than 8 years. I returned to India at the end of 1994 to join IIT, Kanpur. All through my stay at Madurai and in the USA, I had not heard of Rosa Parks or Mooka Nadar. What unites them is the courage of conviction they displayed against discrimination, risking their own lives. Rosa Parks, though imprisoned, survived and the USA eventually changed its ways. Mooka Nadar was killed and India changed its ways too.

I learned about Rosa Parks when my elder daughter was in middle school.  A social science text book for Class 7, CBSE (Central Board for School Education, India) had one small section on Rosa Parks. There is a page in Wikipedia on Rosa Parks  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosa_Parks) and one can learn more about her from Google. In short, it was a period when the buses in the USA had segregated the white and black passengers. However, if a white person enters the bus and could not find a seat in the White section, people of color have to get up and give the white person his/her seat.

On December 1st, 1955, Rosa Parks was returning from work and was very tired. She refused to get up and give her seat for a white man even when the other black persons in the bus at that time, stood up and gave their seats. The bus driver, a white man James Blake, called the police and had her arrested. She was found guilty of misconduct and fined. She was eventually acquitted and segregation based on color ended in the USA. She became known as ‘the first lady of civil rights’ and ‘the mother of freedom movement’. Rosa Parks day is observed on 4th February (her birth day) and December 1st (the day she was arrested) in the states California and Ohio. I was in Portland, Oregon during the summer of 2013 and found a road named ‘Rosa Parks Way’.  I found out more about it in the web later and you can too (http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2009/07/if_rosa_parks_way_naming_is_an.html).

I had not known Mooka Nadar until the last year, nearly 7 years after I had learned about Rosa Parks. I had not lived in any of the places where Rosa Parks was born and lived (Alabama) or settled later (Detroit). I was born and lived in Madurai for 20 years and I had not known Mooka Nadar. Today (1 February 2015), I found about 4,79,00,000 results (in 0.40 seconds) on Google when I typed Rosa Parks. Mooka Nadar is relatively unknown, even to a person like me who was born and raised in Madurai.

There was a period in India when segregation was prevalent and casteism was accepted by every one. People of ‘Nadar’ caste were not allowed to enter the temple. Mooka Nadar decided to defy this ban and entered the famous Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai. He was identified immediately and lynched. Nadars filed a complaint and the Court in those days, with Judges of British origin dismissed the case as Mooka Nadar should not have entered the temple in the first place. It does appear like there is a street named after Mooka Nadar in the centre of Madurai city, though I do not know for sure if it is named after this same person. Google has 81,200 entries but I suspect most of them are not about this person. Today, no one based on caste can be denied entry to any Temples in India legally.

I learned about Mooka Nadar last year from a book authored by my namesake, Arunan.  His book on ‘Thamizhakathil Samooga Seerthirutham Iru Nootrandu Varalaru’ (Social revolution in Tamil Nadu: History from the last two centuries) published in 2013.  This book is well researched and written and I would recommend it to any serious reader who has an interest in this topic. Amazon lists several books by this Author Arunan, who does not use an initial (http://www.amazon.in/s/ref=sr_pg_1?rh=n%3A976389031%2Cp_27%3AArunan&ie=UTF8&qid=1422773832). The last book listed in this page in amazon.in (found today) is an edited volume following a symposium on Shock Waves we organized. The titles of his other books indicate to me that we not only share our names, but also views on many things. Perhaps, not about communism and I cannot comment on it until I read the books.

The USA has not shied away from discussing racism and has been taking steps to correct it. India has taken enough steps to prevent caste based discrimination but has not been as open as the USA in discussing it. It has repeatedly ensured that ‘caste’ is not included in the UN discussions.  How wrong our perceptions could be about who is the big bully, among these two democracies. While all over the world, such discrimination and exploitation of the weaker section has existed, one real mark of a civilized country can be seen in the way it treats the marginalized sections. I wish, India will become more honest and less hypocritical, in admitting our mistakes from the past, correcting them and marching towards a modern and civilized country. In closing, two quotes: 1) One Thirkkural that I like most (widely believed to be more than 2000 years old):

பிறப்பொக்கும் எல்லா உயிர்க்கும் சிறப்பொவ்வா
செய்தொழில் வேற்றுமை யான்

The essence of this Thirukkural, known as the Veda of Tamil, is that by birth every one is equal! 2) “The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” Rosa Parks. http://www.americanswhotellthetruth.org/store/posters/rosa-parks-poster?gclid=CM73-cyCwMMCFVIV7AodZRsAUw Don’t give up or give in, when you see discrimination.