Yes, you can change ACS, TWAS and IUPAC!

It was 21 years ago on this day, I had joined IIT Kanpur as an Assistant Professor. We returned to India from the USA towards the end of September 1994. I was advised by well wishers that I should report for duty first and then take leave if I wanted to visit my family. I had not  visited them for more than 4 years. I had visited India in June 1990 to get married and was returning back for good with my wife and a 7 month old daughter. We decided we would go home, spend some time with both our families, attend some family functions (there are always some) for about a month. I had to decide on a day to start my job. November 7th was close and it happened to be a Monday. It was C V Raman’s birthday anniversary too. I have never looked for an auspicious day or time to start anything. I thought 7th November 1994 would be a good day to start my independent career. Raman had won the Nobel prize working in India, when we were not an independent country. He accepted the Nobel Prize and there was no Indian flag!

I had a dream of building a microwave spectrometer in India. When I joined IIT Kanpur, I found out that one Physics Professor who was working in this area there, decided to go back to USA as it was not possible to sustain. I found another Professor in Kolkata who had spent a few years gaining experience at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with the same spectrometer I worked with. He returned after 3 years and decided that it would not be possible to build such a spectrometer in India. I had used the spectrometer which was already built and had gone through the nuts and bolts in design. I had to rebuild a flow reactor during my Ph. D. as the Department moved to a new building at the Kansas State University. Though, this move delayed my Ph. D., I had some experience in building. I couldn’t count on it for building a  microwave spectrometer, which is totally different. As our people’s President Kalam said, when you  have a dream that doesn’t let you sleep, you can find ways. We built it in our laboratory.

American Chemical Society (ACS)

I became a member of the American Chemical Society during my Ph. D. (1986-91). I stayed in the USA till 1994 and have attended ACS meetings a few times. After returning to India in 1994, there was very little I would get by continuing my membership. There was only one benefit: I would continue to get their news magazine Chemical and Engineering News, which helps me keep track of what is happening in Chemistry. I found out that IIT Kanpur would reimburse 75 % of  membership fees and I had to pay only 25 %. The fees used to be about $100 and it was a significant amount that time. If this was all I had to pay, my share at that time would have been about Rs 1200 per annum and my monthly take home salary was perhaps Rs 7000. But, this was not all. To get my copy of the C&E News, I had to pay shipping charges. By ship, it was $15 per year and for airmail $50 per year. Airmail would take 2-3 weeks in 1995 and shipping would take a few months. IIT Kanpur would not reimburse this amount. I realized I had to pay 50 % of $150 per year to get C&E News. American members of ACS do not pay any shipping charges. I decided to pay and continue my membership.

I moved to IISc towards the end of May 1997. When I had to renew my membership for 1998, I found out that IISc reimburses only 50 % of membership fees and no shipping charges. IISc was better than IIT Kanpur on some aspects but not in perks for a faculty. I had to pay more now but I decided to continue anyway. University of Illinois played a big role in the development of world wide web (the more famous www now) during the early 1990s but I had not followed it when I was there from 1992-94. My first MSc student Shamasundar (currently a faculty in IISER Mohali) came to me one day, excited after going through the web pages of a few Universities in the USA. I had not seen a webpage yet. When I applied for Ph. D. in 1985-86, Universities would send brochures by airmail. It was thrilling to be able to see what faculty members in the USA University were doing sitting in Kanpur.

Within a few years after that, I could read Chemical and Engineering News online, on the day of issue. The print copies that came two weeks later were getting dusted, except on occasions when I wanted to look at a specific article. I wrote to the ACS when I had to renew my membership. I would pay my membership fees but I do not want to receive the print copy. The first response was that a member does not have a choice of not receiving the print copy. I explained to them that the only reason I continued my membership after returning to India was to read C&E News and now I can do it online. I would not want to spend my personal funds of $55 a year for receiving the print issue 2-3 weeks after the issue date. ACS told me that I do not have that choice. I asked them why? The next response was that the advertisers pay charges assuming all the members receive a print copy. I replied to them: If your advertisers want to reach me, let them pay for it. Why should I pay?

The next response from ACS cited its’ Constitution and Bylaws which declare that ACS resolves to send a print copy of C&E News to every member. Hence, I do not have a choice. I asked them how does a member, initiate a change in the constitution? It took some time and I was told that I could propose a change and the council would decide. I suggested that the bylaws be changed to read: ACS resolves to send all its members a printed or online version of C&E News. It took me four years (2004-2008) to convince the ACS.  I was continuing to pay the membership fees plus shipping charges during this period. Finally, ACS yielded. When they did, they became smarter. The next year’s letter for subscription included an announcement: International Members can now choose to get C&E News print/online version and save money!

Third World Academy of Sciences

Prof. CNR Rao had become the President of the Third World Academy of Sciences perhaps in 2003. When I heard this news, as a Fellow Indian and Scientist from Bangalore I was happy. However, I didn’t like the name. I sent an email to Prof. Rao congratulating him on becoming the President of TWAS and asked him. Why is it called the Third World Academy of Sciences? Others can call you third world or third rate! Why do we have to call ourselves with such derogatory names? Prof. Rao met me next day by chance, behind my Department and told me: Arunan, I received your email, for what we have been doing, we should actually be 10th world! But, let me look into it. Of course, he was upset with the way we do things here. However, he did look into it. The name was changed to Academy of Developing Nations, TWAS after some time. They wanted to keep TWAS as it was widely known. More recently, the name was changed to The World Academy of Sciences. I was more happier than I was when Prof. Rao became the President.

International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry

In 2004, Prof. S. Chandrasekaran organized the IUPAC Council meeting in Bangalore. He invited all the Chemistry faculty members from IISc for a dinner. I have seen some Indian scientists who are very protective about the visitors they bring to India. They would not like others to meet with the visitors and discuss. Prof. SCN was different. I usually inform all my colleagues and arrange for them to meet with the visitor(s) if they choose to.

We had just published our first microwave spectrum recorded in our laboratory with the home-built spectrometer. It had unambiguously showed the structure of C2H4-H2S complex to be hydrogen bonded. The conventional wisdom is that water (H2O) can form hydrogen bond and H2S cannot, and that is why H2O is liquid and H2S is gas at room temperature. H2S has van der Waals interaction. When we submitted this paper, one referee had commented: The work is well motivated, experiments have been done with care, paper is written well, but do not call it a hydrogen bond. We agreed to change the title at that time to :Bridging hydrogen bonding and van der Waals interaction. This was the first paper we published after taking lots of funds from DST. It was five years already and we were publishing our first paper. I was in no mood to argue with the referee.

The referee comments are very useful most of the times. The peer review process is, in my view, one of the important reason Science has its dominance today. Referee has nothing personal against the authors or the manuscripts (in most of the cases) but raises questions. I was intrigued by the comment. I started reading the literature spreading over 100 years. I met with the Chairman of the Physical and Biophysical Chemistry Division in IUPAC when he visited Bangalore. I suggested to him that IUPAC should come up with a new definition of the hydrogen bond. He told me that IUPAC already had one. I had seen that earlier and did not like it at all. We met the next day and I showed him the existing definition and gave my reasons for disagreement. He suggested that I submit a project to IUPAC for redefining the hydrogen bond. I wasn’t expecting it. I asked him how do I do this? He said I should contact experts from all over the world. Form a task group. One should not include his/her friends and collaborators as IUPAC wouldn’t want to spend funds on friends getting together. I took these words seriously and contacted 13 other experts from all over the World. I had no prior interactions with any of them. They all agreed.

When we started the project, some had told me that the experts won’t agree to one definition. I had formed too large a task group. After two meetings (first in Pisa 2005 and next in Bangalore 2006) and many email discussions, we produced a definition in 2007. I sent it to IUPAC and the committee said they cannot accept it and we should write a big report justifying the definition. It took time and efforts. I was a co-author of another paper written by three groups and it appeared like stitching together three different style of writing. I decided I would write the complete report and first have it read by a core group of five. Take input from them and revise it. Then it was read by the 14 members and every one’s comments and suggestions were considered. I submitted a comprehensive report which included the definition to IUPAC in 2009. It was returned to me informing that the technical report should not include the definition!

I removed the definition and made it an independent Recommendation. Rest of the report became a Technical report. There was some discussion about the title and finally the titles I gave were accepted. These were refereed by 20 experts all over the world. IUPAC gave a 6 month period for any one interested to send comments.  A typical manuscript is refereed by 2 experts. I wrote down responses to all these comments and had all the Authors go through them. Finally in 2011 two manuscripts were published in Pure and Applied Chemistry. One was titled ‘Defining the Hydrogen Bond: An account” Another was titled ‘Definition of the Hydrogen Bond” Around the same time, IUPAC formed another task group to define a halogen bond. It closely followed our work. IUPAC finally accepted only a short paper on definition and the last I found a technical report was yet to be published. IUPAC must have learned something in the process and decided to publish the recommendation without insisting on a technical report which could delay the process.

When I started my career on 7th November 1994, I could not have imagined what was possible. Asking questions, having perseverance and not taking an immediate ‘No’ as the final answer were all important. As one says in India, it was possible to play ‘a squirrel’s role in Ramayana’ and make some changes in American Chemical Society, Third (The) World Academy of Sciences and the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, sitting in some corner of Bangalore!


Hinduism is not A way of life: Hindus celebrate Deepavali on different days and yes some Hindus eat beef!

One Hindu festival that is celebrated all over India is called Deepavali in Tamil Nadu and Diwali in the North India and there may be more variations. Even when I was young, I knew that there was a difference of one day or perhaps morning/evening between Tamil Nadu and Delhi, for example. As kids, we have stayed awake the night before bursting crackers and chatting around. Around 4 am, we would take oil bath and start with an ‘atom bomb’ an apt name for one of the loudest cracker. We wear new dresses and have lots of food, snacks and sweets. We exchange sweets/snacks with all our neighbours friends and relatives.

One thing I fondly remember is having idli and mutton gravy, more like a stew. For some reason, only on Deepavali day, it was made like this and on other days, mutton ‘kulambu’ (gravy) was made differently, to be mixed with rice. On those evenings, I used to enjoy dosai with mutton kulambu. Other than Deepavali, we had mutton mostly on a Saturday. Deepavali used to be one day and the legend we had was that Narakasura was conquered and the day was called Narakachaturthasi (14th day of the declining moon). Some parts of India celebrate it on the new moon day, perhaps.

In North India, Diwali is a festival of light, as widely known in the world. Most families lit lamps all over the house but not in Tamil Nadu. Our light festival usually comes during the next or following full moon day known as Karthikai. Karthikai Deepam is a big festival in Thiruvannamalai and all over Tamil Nadu Hindu families celebrate it. Lighting lamps in front of the house for the whole month and all over the house on the full moon day is a common practice. I am not sure it is celebrated in other states. Some save a few crackers, especially the ones producing more light than sound for Karthikai. For us, Deepavali is a festival of sound! What is common everywhere is new clothes and lots of food, snacks and sweets.

Now I work in Bangalore. Mysore is the major tourist attraction in Karnataka, which is about 140 km from Bangalore. Both cities are closer to the southern border with Tamil Nadu. During my first Deepavali in Bangalore, I was surprised to find that it is celebrated for 2-3 days. Crackers would go on for three days unlike in Tamil Nadu when I was young. The day after Deepavali is called Bali padyami in Karnatka, named after the demon king Bali. I had not heard of this until moving to Bangalore. The nearest town in Tamil Nadu, which is just 40 km from Bangalore is called Hosur. I realized a few years ago that Hosur is basically the word in Kannada for ‘New Town’ and the Tamil word for the same is Pudur, which is found in many parts of Tamil Nadu. Hosur is part of Tamil Nadu though. Kannada is the language spoken in Karnataka.

Hindus in India have a large number of ‘local’ festivals many of them coinciding with the full moon day. To repeat myself Deepavali is celebrated in most parts of India. It was indeed surprising to see such a big difference in Deepavali days between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. This year, IISc has a holiday on 11th November for Deepavali. Tamil Nadu has a holiday on 10th November for Deepavali,. This difference of one day has happened most of the years. What surprised me more is Mysore Medical College has holidays on 10th and 12th for Deepavali and Balipadyami but 11th is a working day!

If you have been reading newspapers or watching Television in/from India, you could not have missed ‘Hindutva’. Those who are fond of this ideology are eager to make India a ‘Hindustan’ as they seem convinced that is the right thing to do as Muslims got Pakistan. What they forget is the fact that the number of muslims who chose to stay in India was more than the population of Pakistan at the time of partition and independence. Our founding fathers decided that India will be a secular country and religion would be a personal choice. I am very happy and proud of that.

I would indeed be happy if some body in India could announce that Deepavali is on a particular day for all of India. Having lived in the USA for some time, I have seen how families got together for Christmas. Christians around the world have evolved and 25th December is celebrated as Christmas in most parts of the world now. I thought Australia was celebrating it on a different day as December is summer there.  I was there a few months ago and found out that Australia does celebrate it in December summer. No white Christmas but the same day. In India, some one working in Bangalore having parents in Madurai, finds it difficult to plan a family get together for the most celebrated of ‘Hindu’ festivals. We have different ways and different days to celebrate the most common festival, Deepavali/Diwali.

It is a pity that India today has to depend on words given by observers from outside to describe itself. I am not a historian or a social scientist. As a scientist by training, I read, observe, question, think and analyze. The word ‘Hindu’ apparently appears first as a Persian geographical term for referring to the people who lived beyond the river Indus (Sindhu). ‘Hinduism’ has become a religion today in the world. I was declared a Hindu in my school certificates and that is what I write when I choose to fill ‘religion’ in forms. Apparently, the Indian Supreme Court has declared that ‘Hinduism is a way of life’.

I wonder how a Supreme Court can answer this question! Are the Judges experts on religion? They are expected to be experts on our Constitution. I have not read the Constitution in full and so I wonder if our Constitution declares that ‘Hinduism is a way of life’. If that were to be the case, the Supreme Court could be well within its purview to make this statement. But then, as an evolving democratic nation, we go to Court with all kinds of questions. Judges in their own wisdom accept many such cases and declare a verdict.

If my memory serves me right, a High Court was approached to decide what kind of a ‘naamam’ (symbol on it’s forehead) should an elephant in Tirupati Temple have. But then, in India, we do not have one authority who can decide. If the Supreme Court had said Hinduism represents all ways of lives followed by Indians who are not Christians, Muslims, ….? Sikhism and Jainism are not Hinduism, are they? Budhism cannot be Hinduism as Buddha revolted against Hindu religious rituals.  However, Buddha has been accepted as a Hindu God. In some versions, Buddha replaces Balarama as one of the 10 Avatars of Vishnu. India had Shaivam and Vaishnavam as religions with the Supreme God being Shiva or Vishnu. I come from a Shaivite family and perhaps that is my religion.

It seems like the world has accepted that Hinduism is a way of life. I have been thinking about it and it did not make sense. I see that the way of life that most of us live have some things in common and many things that are not common. It appears to me that ‘caste’ defined a way of life in the India I was born and raised. I don’t know the origin of Caste. May be it gave one way of grouping people. Caste in the past defined a profession for the male. As a friend pointed out recently, it makes sense as much of the teaching and learning were happening at home. Father teaches the son the life skills he had learned. Today it should have no place in our society but it seems well grounded.

As many have pointed out, ‘caste’ has been a bane on Indian society and it has a hierarchy. It seems like some are trying to blame the west and moguls for the caste divisions in India. I know old poems in Tamil which mention ‘saathi’ a word used in Tamil for caste. One starts by proclaiming that there are only two castes: Those who give/share what they have and others. People who give are superior to those who don’t! In recent times, the revolutionary poet Bharathiyaar had thundered ‘there are no castes and claiming superiority by caste is a sin’.

A vocal and influential minority has managed to convince the world that ‘Indians are vegetarians and they don’t eat beef’. Every day some one is shouting now ‘Hindu feelings are affected’ when some one eats beef. I am astonished at their arrogance. A lot of Hindus do eat beef and when a chief minister mentions this fact, he is accused as being a traitor to the Nation! The Prime Minsiter condemns him of insulting Hindus. Is the Prime Minister not aware of Hindus who eat beef or he, his party and the Hindutva groups do not consider Hindus who eat beef as Hindus? This is a significant number and in 2015, nearly seven decades after Independence, they have no voice in our democracy?

All those who make such loud statements do not seem to consider the feelings of a significant number of Hindus who do eat beef. While beef eating Hindus can be from any caste, among the poor, beef is perhaps more commonly consumed as a cheap source of nutrition.  When I was young, there was always a suspicion when we order mutton in the Hotels. Are they selling beef in the name of mutton, which was more costly?

Recently, I was intrigued to read a poem by Digumarthi Suresh Kumar in Telugu which I first found in the movie made by the students of Tata Institute of Social Sciences titled ‘Caste on the Menu card’. Our Finance Minster who accuses others of being ‘intolerant to the views of Hindus’ appears to have banned this movie. (http://roundtableindia.co.in/lit-blogs/?tag=digumarthi-suresh-kumar). A large number of Hindus don’t seem to matter for a few Hindus who speak louder. They just don’t care about the feelings of other Hindus. No wonder Ambedkar converted to Buddhism and some others converted to Christianity. If the Hindu organizations do not consider the feelings of all Hindus, we can’t blame the British and Moguls! I hope all Hindus realize this.

Some say our constitution bans cow slaughter. It appears that it is not true. It has been suggested and States are supposed to act as they feel. Many states have banned cow slaughter but buffalo meet has not been banned anywhere in India. India became the second largest exporter of beef this year. Kerala allows slaughter of cows beyond 10 or 12 years. We are living in a time, elderly parents are not taken care off by and left to mend for themselves. A small minority is violently emotional about protecting cows. They won’t raise a finger to protect cows and take care of them either. They beat the poor who own cow below their belt.

The two poems I have mentioned above are given below in Tamil for those who can read:

Avvayyaar (?), many centuries old

சாதி இரண்டொழிய வேறில்லை சாற்றுங்கால்
நீதி வழுவா நெறிமுறையில் இட்டார் பெரியோர்
இடாதோர் இழிகுலத்தோர் பட்டாங்கில் உள்ளபடி

Bharathiyaar in 20th century
சாதிகள் இல்லையடி பாப்பா
குலத்தாழ்ச்சிஉயர்ச்சி  சொல்லல் பாவம் பாப்பா
நீதி உயர்ந்த மதி கல்வி
அன்பு நிறைய உடையவர்கள்  மேலோர் பாப்பா

The movie star turned former chief minister of Tamil Nadu MGR in one of his film says. There are only two ‘saathis’, one is male saathi and another is female saathi.

I wish this meaningless debate about food habits and religion are suspended by the Supreme Court. Let all parties give their plans for development of India and let the people choose the party whose plan appeals to them most.