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By flattening the earth, Covid-19 has highlighted the pyramids!

The year 2020 began like any other for me. Covid-19, as the name implies, was there already except we had no clue what was in store. I have heard about SARS in 2003, when the International Symposium on Shock Waves, to be held in Beijing, was postponed by a year. This reduced the time we had to organize the 25th International Symposium on Shock Waves in Bangalore in the year 2005. My collaborators from our Aerospace Engineering Department, Profs. KPJ Reddy and G. Jagadeesh played crucial roles in bringing this symposium to India for the first time and making it one of the best in the series. I did not read much about MERS but did read about Nipah virus in some parts of Kerala. During the first national lock down, I did see the Malayalam movie, Virus, which I would recommend to everyone. January and February were as busy as any other year, perhaps busier this year. A collaborator from UK was visiting these two months, I organized one and attended three symposia and had numerous travel, while teaching/attending a course.

In the first week of March, I heard some stories from colleagues who were traveling by air about the restrictions faced. After Kerala, Bangalore was beginning to have some cases. We had planned an in-house symposium (IPC Day) on 14th March, Saturday and IISc had planned the Court Meeting on 13th March 2020. I received an email on 10th March announcing that Court meeting was cancelled. Some students were celebrating holi during 9-10 March in our campus and many were beginning to worry about Covid. Some colleagues were suggesting that IPC day be postponed while many others, including me, thought we should go ahead with the meeting. As the concerns expressed by the few could not be ignored, IPC day was cancelled and the dinner we had planned for the 13th March was cancelled too. Many did feel at that time these were over-reactions. Though IPC day was cancelled, we had the Chemical Dynamics Group meeting on 14th March, in which several research groups participate. When we finished the meeting at 11 AM, Registrar’s email announcing the shutdown was there. IISc decided to ask all students to leave on 14th March and gave a two-day notice. I was glad we had cancelled IPC Day scheduled for 14th March. Campus community was upset and angry and it seemed to me that the Administration had enough reasons to shut down the campus.

IISc announced a two week shut down from 16th March with a 2 day notice. India announced a 3 week shutdown on 24th March with a 4 hour notice! Though some states had announced some restrictions by then, national shut down with a few hours notice appears to be a major blunder today. My reaction at that time was that it was a wise and bold decision. Three week shut down was extended by another two weeks. Since then lock down 3 and 4 happened and unlock down plans were announced. It is now 7 months. While several nations in the world are experiencing the second wave, India has a long wavelength and it is not clear if we have reached the peak of the first wave yet. It took more than 3 months for India to register 100,000 cases and we were having close to 100,000 every day until recently. The total number of cases is getting close to 7 million with more than a 100,000 dead!

In the early days, one of our neighbor lost her father to Covid and she could not go to the funeral. Her experience was horrifying as no one can be with the patient and relatives had a tough time paying last respect. Towards the end of June, one of my nephew caught Covid and he was admitted in the General Rajaji Hospital, Madurai. His experience was different. Many patients were staying in a hall and they were generally having a good time as most of them did not have any symptom. He was discharged after a week without having another test. (In the initial days, a patient had to be tested negative twice with a gap of 2 days before discharge). He did see a few cases of patients suddenly developing breathing problems and dying. Two weeks later, my father was taken to a hospital to check his chest congestion. Based on the CT Scan result, he was considered covid positive. His diagnosis happened when we were having PhD interviews online. To our shock, we could not get a bed for him in any hospital in Madurai. My brothers, niece and the nephew who had recovered from Covid were all trying their best to provide care for my father.

On the night of diagnosis based on CT scan results, he was admitted in the same ward in the General Hospital where my nephew was. However, in the two weeks, situation had become worse and there were no nurses or attenders available. A Doctor would visit once every day. One or two family members were staying with the patient in the SARI ward where many patients suspected of Covid were kept. Let me repeat. One or two attenders were staying with the patient in the ward, helping them. My brothers, nephew and niece took time and stayed with my father in the ward with only a mask and hand sanitizer. They were handling him, changing his diaper, giving him a tissue bath. My family is generally resourceful in Madurai and we could not get a hospital bed for my father at that time.

When we took him to the General hospital he was generally in good shape, except for the chest congestion, and asked ‘Why did you bring me to the hospital?”. He was tested for Covid on admission and the result came negative two days later. However, the next day after admission, he needed oxygen as his blood oxygen level reduced. My nephew’s experience in the ward helped in arranging an oxygen cylinder and it was not easy. During the three days he was there, he could be given oxygen continuously and a family member stayed awake to ensure that the mask was not accidentally removed by my father. My daughter, a Doctor, monitored my father over video calls and helped the others attending to him in person. After 3 days, we could get a bed in a private hospital and shifted him in an ambulance, continuing the oxygen supply. It was an ordeal that kept us worried. He was tested again and he was positive at that time. Once he was admitted in the private hospital room, it was like what one reads about Covid patient’s treatment. No one could visit him. Nurses and Doctors in PPE were caring for him. We could send a phone through an attender and talk to him the next day. He recovered in a week and was brought home after testing negative. He has both BP and sugar and takes tablets regularly. As his condition was critical, I applied for an ePass to travel to Madurai and it was denied.

Though his Covid condition was cured, he had some infections and pneumonia for which he needed treatment in a hospital. According to the regulations at that time, he had to be kept at home quarantine for 2 weeks before he could be taken to a hospital. Two weeks later, he was taken to a hospital where he was tested for Covid and kept in isolation until the result came negative again. He was moved to a room where an attender could stay with him as the treatment for infection and pneumonia continued. His condition looked critical and I applied for ePass again for travel to Madurai. Karnataka had relaxed all restrictions by then. Tamil Nadu needed an ePass and it was given for specific conditions such as medical emergency, death of a close relative, tender applications, and stranded returning home. I applied for medical emergency and it was rejected again.

Third time, I managed to get an ePass and drove to Madurai from Bangalore. By now, Karnataka regulations said that someone leaving the state and returning within 4 days, need not be quarantined. However, IISc had one week quarantine for anyone returning from another state. By now, I had stopped worrying about any logic in all these decisions. At that time, according to the regulations we followed, someone going to Mysore (about 150 km) could return and join work. Someone going to Hosur (about 40 km) had to be in quarantine on returning. I packed some food and drove non-stop to Madurai. I was tested before entering Madurai and my result came negative three days later. I stayed in the hospital with my father. He showed improvements, though his condition oscillated. I returned to the campus within 4 days. I drove straight to the Centenary Visitors House, where IISc had kept one wing for keeping the people in quarantine. Everyone was assumed to be a carrier during this time.

I stayed in 1 room for the whole week. IISc had made all arrangements and you could live on your own. One attender fully covered in PPE, would bring food three times a day and leave it at the door and ring the bell. Once I hear the bell, I come out and take the plate inside. Some attenders would move away from the door and wait until I picked up the food. With mask on, I used to thank them. Some attenders, would leave the food, ring the bell and walk back in a hurry. During this quarantine time, thanks to the nature of our work, I could continue my work. I also subscribed to Amazon prime and watched the Tamil movies ‘Thuruvangal 16 (16 directions)’ a very good crime thriller and ‘Baaram’ on Thalaikoothal (one way to put an end to an elderly patient, who is a burden (Baaram in Tamil) on the family). It was a disturbing movie. KD engira Karuppu Durai also covered this topic in a lighter vein and was positive. I like being positive under all circumstances. I watched Alex in Wonderland finally as well. Alex is a popular standup comedian, who had resigned his IT job in the Americas and returned to Chennai to pursue his interest. The show is based on Tamil film songs over 2-3 decades that I grew up with and I enjoyed watching this show.

If you had read this far, the contrast should have been stunning. My father, a Covid patient was kept in a general ward with family members staying with him as attenders in Madurai. In IISc, I was in quarantine being served food by attenders in PPE, though I had tested negative. First one was an inevitable consequence as the system could not handle the number of patients and the family members could not leave the patient unattended. Second one was the rule being followed at that time in IISc. During this period, there were a lot of incidents being covered in the print/social/visual media. In Kerala, a husband returning from abroad was not allowed in to the house by wife and her family. In Madurai, one old man jumped down to death as his family disowned him after becoming positive. One post in the social media lamented that Amitabh Bhachan and family could get admission immediately while some poor lady could not. How far removed from reality people could become? World has never been flat and I doubt if it ever will be. Scandinavian countries have achieved some level of equality, thanks to their small and more uniform population.

People all over the world, for one reason or other, disobeyed the orders/suggestions. Though, there have been talks about such a pandemic for many years now, when it finally arrived, no one was ready anywhere in the world. Africa seems to be handling it better than other parts of the world and it is likely to be due to the natural immunity. How long will this continue? I doubt if anyone knows. Spanish flu (originated in Ft. Riley, Kansas very close to Manhattan, Kansas where I did my Ph.D.) lasted two years and killed 10-20 % of those infected within a few days. Covid seems to be a milder threat and gives patients several days before the condition might become critical. If one is watchful and gets treated for the symptoms, the chances are that it is not fatal. The data as of yesterday, (from Worldometer website) show that “a total of 36,391,128 confirmed cases of the coronavirus COVID-19 that originated from Wuhan, China, and a death toll of 1,060,443 deaths.” That is 2.9 %. The numbers in India show 6,832,988 cases and 105,554 deaths and that is 1.5 %. Somewhat coincidentally, both the numbers in the world and India show that 0.5 % of the population had become positive now. That is one in 200. I certainly know a lot more people, and in my circle it seems like this percentage is significantly more. This includes some who ventured out bravely and others who took all safety measures and isolated themselves until they caught Covid. My father survived and is recovering well. None of my relatives who took care of him turned positive. Stay safe.

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Balance for the better: Empowering Women and Family!

This is a blog I started writing last year but did not complete. The recent birth anniversary of Periyar (17th September) and passing away of the second women to become a Supreme Court Judge in the USA, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (18th September) motivated me enough to complete it today. Ruth was shocked to learn that she was demoted after becoming pregnant with her first child in 1955. [1] She rose in her career and ensured to give judgements that protected working women and men.

I attended the Gordon Research Conference in Orange County, California in 2016 and Royal Australian Chemical Institute’s Physical Chemistry Conference in Perth, Australia in 2019. Both these events had a special session to discuss about empowering women in Science. The International Advisory Committee members of the International Symposium in Shock Waves got emails from a group pointing out that there was no women in the list of plenary speakers in 2019! Compare this to what was happening during the 1930s in Tamil Nadu. E V Ramasamy organized self-respect conferences [2] all over Tamil Nadu and in most of these conferences women were the lead speakers! During one of this meeting, he was given the title Periyar, a noble human. His views on feminism might appear too liberal even to the left-wing liberals of today. [3] Often it becomes important to pull the pendulum to the other extreme to bring balance.

On 6th April 2019, we had a panel discussion on “Balance for the better: Empowering Women” at the Inorganic and Physical Chemistry Department, Indian Institute of Science. I had become the Chair during October 2018. We have an Al(l)Chemist’s Society in the Department, which is managed by the third year Ph. D. students. They take care of the ‘extra-curricular activities’ for the Department and arrange several of them throughout the year. On 19th January 2019, we had a panel discussion on ‘Social Responsibilities of Science/Scientists’. I should write about it some time too. I have been planning to write about this meeting for some time and could not do it yet. The decision in May 2019 of the Senate in Alabama to ban all abortions and the attack on Vidyasagar’s statue in Kolkata around that time pushed me to start the blog in May 2019, but did not complete it.

Secretary of Al(l)Chemist’s Society, Ms. Rinkumoni, wanted to have one lecture arranged on 8th March, which happens to be the International Women’s day. The President of Al(l)Chemist’s Club is Dr. K. Geetharani, first woman faculty in our Chemical Sciences Division since the early 1990s. Their first choice for the speaker was Prof. Rohini Godbole, an honorary Professor in the Center for High Energy Physics at IISc now and she also received Padmashri award in 2019. She has been an outstanding physicist and has also championed the cause of Women in India and all over the world. We could not do it on 8th March as Prof. Godbole had other commitments. I was suggesting to the Al(l)Chemist’s society that we could have a panel discussion on this important topic. April 6th was chosen, as that was when Prof. Godbole and the other panelists were all available. (This happens to be the birthday for my wife and an aunt who was staying with us when we were both working full time. I was delighted with this coincidence but did not tell about this in the meeting ). We had three other professionals in the panel discussion. They were: Prof. Dipshikha Chakravortty, Professor at the Department of Microbiology and Cell Biology and also Chair of the Internal Committee Against Sexual Harassment (ICASH) at IISc; Dr. Nirmala Rajendran, one of the Medical Officers in our Health Center, also a member of ICASH; and an alumnus of our Department currently working in an Industry, who does not want to be named.

Prof. Godbole started the day with a talk on Women in STEM. She started by informing the audience that she had given talks on this topic all over the world, except in IISc, in a meeting she did not organize. It was indeed a surprise and I was glad that our Department did it. She brought out an important point. It is not just that women need to do Science. Equally Science needs women. So, she felt the title ‘Empowering women’ itself is misleading. I was somewhat relieved that Al(l)Chemist’s added ‘Balance for the better’ to the title I had suggested. All over the world, it is being recognized that diversity in work place does improve the performance of an organization.

Dr. Nirmala Rajendran spoke about health issues of working women. One important suggestion she gave was that women should not hesitate in asking others to contribute in sharing the workload at home. Often working women put so much burden on themselves and feel guilty of doing less both at work and home and it is important to avoid this guilt trap. Dr. Nirmala gave important tips for women about how to stay healthy in a professional career. Our Department does have a significant number of women among our Ph.D. research scholars and her talk would have been useful.

Prof. Dipshikha Chkaravortty spoke about the Institute Committee Against Sexual Harassment (ICASH) and informed the students about what one could do when facing sexual harassment in the lab. A teacher-student relationship is unequal and it is important that the teacher does not exploit this. Having power and not misusing it should really be the norm. However, misuse happens often and suffering in silence becomes the norm. Every system is trying to bring in rules and regulations to stop sexual harassment. Our Institute has established ICASH and Prof. Chakravortty discussed about the committee’s efforts to stop sexual harassment in the campus. I was shocked to read a statement from Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her Wikipedia page [2]: She also reflected on her own experiences with gender discrimination and sexual harassment, including a time when a chemistry professor at Cornell unsuccessfully attempted to trade her exam answers for sex. She had mentioned this during the Metoo movement expressing her support recently.

The fourth speaker was an alumnus from our Department working in an industry after some time in academia. I wish she could have continued in academia and realized she had to quit for personal reasons. It rarely happens to men. During her talk, I realized how important it is to have representation from all sections before making a decision. In the Department she served, there was a discussion about when to have a faculty meeting to discuss budget. Based on overwhelming choice, not a simple majority, it was decided to have this meeting in late evenings, 7 – 8 PM. I can relate to this decision in a new Institute trying to establish it’s name. However, she could rarely attend this meeting having a young kid to take care off. She did point out about a male colleague who had this same problem as his wife was working in another town and he had to take care of their kid after office hours. This is precisely why we need participatory democracy and rule of law ensuring that minority rights are protected. While a majority is enough to form a Government, decisions affecting a group cannot be made without hearing their opinion.

After the four lectures, we had a panel discussion involving all the participants, moderated by Rinkumoni. Four speakers served as panel members. The discussion was lively. It was pre-covid days and we did not record the proceedings. I wish we had. As I had mentioned above, when forcing a required change, one sees that the pendulum goes to the other extreme. I added family to the title today. Peiryar pointed out that family is oppressive to women. I have seen this to be true all over the world. I also feel family is a very important small unit for humans. While ensuring that women are not suppressed and harassed is extremely important, throwing the family structure would be similar to throwing the baby with hot water.

Ultimately, it is important for humans to find the right balance and act towards personal and common good. Both Periyar and Ambedkar, who lived their lives fighting for social causes, married much younger women when they were really old. These marriages were both based on mutual consent and for me they do not invalidate their work. As I get closer to 60, I feel it is important to have someone to share your life with. An Abdul Kalam or an Anna Mani could remain single and have a long and successful professional career and life. For most ordinary human beings, like me, it is good to have someone to call as a family. It is possible to have one where every member can pursue their interest and find a way to balance their individual and collective growth. That is indeed balance for the better.

References:

  1. Ruth Bader Ginsburg: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruth_Bader_Ginsburg Accessed on 20 September 2020.
  2. S. Anandi, Women’s question in the Dravidian movement 1925-1948, Social Scientist Vol. 19, No. 5/6 (May – Jun., 1991), pp. 24-41 https://www.jstor.org/stable/3517871
  3. Periyar feminism, Ed. K. Veeramani, 2010. Periyar Maniammai University publication.

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Science fiction in an old Tamil film lyric: Subtle Patriarchy in Promotion of Science!

This blog is written on 30th May 2020, as the number of Corona affected cases in India is increasing steadily, with the number of affected approaching 175000 and the number of deaths approaching 5000. It does not seem to have stopped anything else. We have a standoff between China and India. An unarmed African American was brutally killed by a police officer in front of another officer and some public watching around, with the street cameras recording the gory incident. India is facing the worst migration crisis since the partition. There have been a focus on Science with some pointing out Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel being a scientist and suggesting that Scientists should take part in policy making, if not in politics. May be a good time to write a blog to promote Science. In particular, one of the lines in the lyric says ‘We need to make an instrument that will help our kids learn sitting at home, without having to go to schools’. This is happening now. But, why on patriarchy now? Why not? Nandita Das has released a short movie on domestic violence in particular during the lock down (1).

One of my favorite comedians from Tamil films is N. S. Krishnan (NSK). His wife T. A. Madhuram (TAM) and he formed a good couple in life and movies. When they were both on travel to Pune from Madras to act together for the first time in a film ‘Vasanthasena’, NSK fell in love and they were married (2). NSK did not tell TAM that he was already married and his wife, Nagammal, was in Nager Coil at that time. It was not unusual those days for some one like NSK to have two wives. The NSK-TAM couple was a big draw in movies and they enjoyed fame and money like those of the hero/heroines in those days. As Randor Guy says in the the Hindu article “People loved their brand of comedy, satire, irony and social relevance.” The Wikipedia page on NSK says “He was a Gandhian, patriot and philanthropist, yet a controversial figure”. He was an active member of Dravidian movement, which takes pride about their role in empowering women. Both NSK and TAM had a very successful professional career in movies. As it was common those days, they both were good singers and all the songs in their movies were sung by them.

One of the popular songs by this couple came in a movie called ‘Nallathambi’ written by Udumalai Narayana Kavi. I have mentioned the lyricist in another blog earlier (3). The complete lyric in Tamil can be seen in a blog called Dhool Lyrics (4). As with many of their songs, this is a duet as well, sung by a husband and wife in the movie. Husband introduces Science to his wife and sings about the advantages of Science. Let me offer a translation, more as a prose, below:

Husband to wife: Aa, come, sit down. I am going to promote Science and invite the Westerners for a feast and show them what I have done. Will undo the plows used in Thanjavur and learn all Science thoroughly. I will find a way to produce a kid without a husband and wife. I will ensure that ignorance and superstition are demolished. I will use atomic energy to ensure that people live longer. Unlike the leaders from other Nations who have used atomic energy to kill people and destroy cities, I will use it to demolish ignorance and superstition and also to help in long and healthy life for humans.

Not only that, I will find ways to grow dresses for men and women from the cotton plant directly. I will find ways to make the old people look and live like young. I will show what my hands can do and create wind and rain. I will create a motor and fix it in a bullock cart and take your mother in that. Will take you in that as well and show how it runs.

Wife: Sounds great, but what are you going to do for our home?

Husband: For our home, tell me what do you need?

Wife: I need machines to remove the husk in rice, to grind rice/dal for making idli/dosa, and for pumping water. I need a machine as well to cook all day. I would like to have a water tap in our back yard and an air conditioner in our home. I need an instrument to help kids learn from home without having to go to school.

Husband: Is that all?

Wife: I forgot one: I need a machine which on clicking a button should serve idli and coffee on our table. I need fan above our bed and a machine to show time.

Husband: You mad lady, look at the women in our country. They do all the work at home. There are some women, who look at those from the West and long to have a life like them. Our women go to forest, do field work, work at home and eat rice. The women who want to copy Western women, go in car, roam around town, dress themselves in front of the mirror and have coffee (both of them laugh as it sounds funny to them).

The lyrics in Tamil is written in a colloquial language and rhymes well. The song was quite popular and I knew it by heart. Until a few days ago, I did not try to analyze it. When I was listening to it recently, it just occurred to me that, the guy wants to use scientific advances to help in his work. As the famous dialog in 3 idiots says, “A machine is anything that reduces human effort”. He brags about that to his wife and says he will show the western world his accomplishments. When the wife asks him to make some machines to help in her work, he calls her mad and preaches about how our country women are great as they do all these work by themselves!

Of course, now we can see that most of what was written in this song has been achieved. We have machines to do most of what both of them wanted. However, in 1949, when this movie was made and Udumalai Narayana Kavi wrote this song, the lyricist, NSK and TAM and everyone in the movie crew and all the people who listened to this song did not find anything wrong. All those watching the movie, may have laughed with NSK and TAM as the song ends comparing our hard working women in the country with Westernized women who just roam around having coffee! It is not as subtle, isn’t it.

References:

  1. “Listen to her” a short movie by Nandita Das.
  2. https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/lighter-vein-column-nsk-part-3/article6639763.ece
  3. https://earunan.org/2015/04/02/learning-history/
  4. The lyrics of the song can be seen in Tamil in this link: http://lyricsdhool.blogspot.com/2017/03/vignanatha-valarka-porendi-nallathambi.html
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Lies, deceit and poverty have been there in all Space/Time in the Human History: So are honesty and wealth!

This blog is written during the Corona virus epidemic that is sweeping through the world. I was hoping that such a common threat to humanity would unite the world. Perhaps I should not be surprised. It appears to have led to sharper divisions than before. We have great human beings as health care and essential service providers who are helping save lives often risking their own lives. We also have a large number of people writing and forwarding blatant lies and misinformation spreading them just to advance their own way of life or for just plain personal benefit. This has been given a new word recently!

If you have been reading print/online/social media, you would have read that word ‘post truth‘. Oxford Dictionaries chose this as the word of the year in 2016. (1) According to this, Post-truth is an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. It goes on to claim that this concept has been in existence for the past decade! Though I had a general feeling about what this term meant, I could never accept that the humanity needed a new adjective in this new millennium. Emotion and personal belief may have played a more significant role in the past than in this millennium, though for people living now, this decade does sound like ‘post-truth‘ decade. ‘Sapiens’ author Yual Noah Harari (2) has already busted this myth by calling us a ‘post truth species’ who are happy to have ‘Shared fictions — in the form of news, religions, novels, sports, money, even brands — fill our lives”. Hindu philosophy has this concept of ‘Maya’, which may be loosely translated as magic or illusion. It is interpreted differently and one interpretation is that everything that we experience is an illusion. I am going to limit myself to honesty and poverty and highlight a few things that show that lies, deceit and poverty have been there forever, everywhere. So are honesty and wealth. To the best of my knowledge, Scandinavian countries seems to have produced a society in which disparity has been removed to a large extent. Corona has not spared these countries.

In 1994, there was a Hollywood movie titled True Lies, two decades before ‘post truth‘ became widely used. As we grow up, we are all taught to speak the truth and be honest. Most every human would have lied some time or other. As Warren Buffet says, “honesty is an expensive gift”. One might then expect that poor might lie to make a living. My experience shows that honesty does not depend on material possession. Some are honest no matter what. Some would lie to get anything and everything, irrespective of how much they already have. I am reminded of an excellent Tamil film, titled ‘Yaarukkaga Azhudhaan’ (யாருக்காக அழுதான்), which translates to ‘for whom did he cry’? I may have mentioned about this movie in another blog. It is based on a novel with the same title by Jeyakanthan. The whole movie is about a rich lady losing her gold ornament in a hotel. The room boy (excellent performance by Nagesh) is the obvious suspect. He says he did not take it and everyone else believes he did. He keeps smiling and says ‘I did not’ every time someone asks/accuses/threatens him. Finally, the lady finds it somewhere and everyone realizes that she did not lose it at all. When he finds this out, he breaks down and starts crying.

Perhaps the best Tamil poet in 20th Century, Subramaniaya Bharathiyaar writes in one of his popular songs in anticipation of and in celebration of Independence (he died young much before India got independence)

எல்லோரும் ஒன்றென்னும் காலம் வந்ததே-பொய்யும்
ஏமாற்றும் தொலைகின்ற காலம் வந்ததே-இனி
நல்லோர் பெரிய ரென் னும் காலம் வந்ததே-கெட்ட
நயவஞ்சக் காரருக்கு நாசம் வந்ததே

In this song, Bharathiyaar imagines an independent India in which all Indians are treated equally, lies and deceits have disappeared, the good people are revered and the deceitful have been punished. It was just about a century ago and clearly it has become his wishful thinking. Just after the independence, we did have this widespread optimism and also partition in which millions died.

I have mentioned Thiruvalluvar several times and his Thirukkural, written more than two millennia ago has a chapter on honesty (வாய்மை) and it has 10 couplets. The most popular one is perhaps the following:

பொய்மையும் வாய்மையிடத்த புரைதீர்ந்த நன்மை பயக்குமெனின்

According to this Kural, even a lie could be considered a truth, if that can lead to a flawless good. What is ‘flawless good’ was perhaps left to individuals by Valluvar and humans have convinced themselves that lying to advance oneself is acceptable. I am mentioning about this Chapter just to highlight the fact that Valluvar found it necessary to write a chapter on this. Another chapter is titled ‘புறங்கூறாமை’ (Purangooraamai), ‘refrain from slandering’. Anytime I point out such things, I have friends who would point fingers and conclude that Tamils were having these problems and Hindu Sanatana Dharma was all great. Of course, one has to read what Kautilya said in Arthasastra about corruption in Government. A weblink in Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis has a good summary written by Tarun Kumar (3). That Kautilya wrote this clearly implies that we had all forms of corruptions in those days.

Some time ago, in our Department we organized a lecture by one of our UG students about Sanskrit. That student had learned Sanskrit well and his talk was about the language and its construction. He recited some great poems and pointed out some poems which uses only one sound. For example ‘Ka’. I like to look at various languages and words and have come to some conclusions myself and from my discussion, I could not find anyone who had come to similar conclusions. For example, ‘chi’ (kai may be useful for a commoner) is a Greek letter and all the book discussing ‘chirality’ point out that it is derived from the Greek word ‘chier’ for hand. Though I have read this from college days, only a few years ago, while attending a seminar, I realized ‘kai’ itself is the word for hand in Tamil and in Sanskrit it is ‘kar’. I realized ‘kalki’ will never come as it is always ‘kal ki’ (tomorrow’s in Hindi) bagwan. I told the student about a poem in Tamil which uses only the ‘Ta’ sound. I am digressing. He mentioned about clever poets who hid their names in the poems. For example, first letter in the first line, second letter in the second line, and so on, will reveal the name of the poet. It seems like it was needed to prove that the poem was written by the poet as someone else could claim credit. The fact that it was needed clearly indicates that there were people who would lie. And of course, we have the Varna system dependent on birth and many still believe it. Science be damned. I had written about reservation and merit in another blog. (4)

Every Tamil reads about Thiruvalluvar and Avvayaar, the lady saint who has written extensively in Tamil. In one of her poems, she describes the things that are rare (arithu, அரிது) bad (kodithu, கொடிது), sweet (inithu, இனிது ) and these have beautiful lyrics and good messages for all time. According to her, what is bad is poverty. And she says, what is worse is poverty during youth. (கொடியது கேட்கின் நேரிவடு வேலோய், கொடிது கொடிது வறுமை கொடிது, அதனினும் கொடிது இளமையில் வறுமை). Again the fact that she wrote it clearly implies that we had poverty in her time.

Sapiens describes how every country and society had been cruel to some of its members, women, under-privileged, colored and so on. It does not talk about Indian history and the caste system. We did have dishonest people and we also had people like Thiruvalluvar and Avvayaar who wrote about them and advised against dishonesty. We have of course had reformers in India starting from Buddha, Basava, Savitri Phule, Gandhi, Ambedkar and Periyar. Mahatma Gandhi said “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” I am no longer surprised that there are many who hate Gandhi in India today. For them painting a glorious picture is more important and they would not let facts come in the way.

There have been discussion about the potential of Corona virus in the Science literature for more than a decade. Clearly it spreads from animals to human and then between humans. I see a section of people who blame communism and non-vegetarianism as the main cause for this and for them post-truth seems but natural. I knew a significant majority in India is non-vegetarian. I thought Rajasthan is one state where the majority is vegetarian. However, when I went to Udaipur in late February, before the travel became dangerous, I heard from the local people that the majority there is non-vegetarian too. In closing, let me point out what a section of our society does in one particular instance. Owls are considered to be the ‘vehicle’ for Laxmi (Goddess of wealth) and sacrifising them on Deepavali/Diwali day is considered auspicious. You do some prayer and get Laxmi in and kill the owl so that Laxmi is trapped in your home (5). It seems this practice is there in north India. How easy it could be to remain wealthy for a year. Next year, find one more owl. Of course, ” Owls in India are protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act that prohibits hunting, trade or any other form of utilization of the species or their body parts.” (5) In Wuhan, China, animal trade is a legal practice and it appears that China and Vietnam are finally banning animal trade after the Corona virus (6).

Humanity learns and corrects its ways. In the past, religious texts provided guidelines. Today it is our constitution. Thirukkural is not a religious text nor is Arthasastra. I am confident that the humanity will survive Corona virus or the next one that may come in another 100 years. Maybe I should not take the apparent division too seriously. We go in cycles.

References:

  1. https://languages.oup.com/word-of-the-year/2016/ (Accessed on 29 March 2020).
  2. https://ideas.ted.com/are-we-living-in-a-post-truth-era-yes-but-thats-because-were-a-post-truth-species/ (Accessed on 29 March 2020).
  3. https://idsa.in/issuebrief/CorruptioninAdministrationEvaluatingtheKautilyanAntecedents_TarunKumar_121012 (Accessed on 30 March 2020)
  4. https://earunan.org/2015/05/27/reservation-vs-merit-in-india-or-affirmative-action-vs-equal-opportunity-in-the-usa/
  5. https://www.indiatoday.in/mail-today/story/grotesque-killing-owls-for-diwali-good-luck-1613212-2019-10-27
  6. https://nypost.com/2020/03/28/china-and-vietnam-finally-ban-wildlife-trade-due-to-coronavirus/ (Accessed 30 March 2020)
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Languages in India: Some experiences and a suggestion

India/Bharatha Kanda has been around for millennia with many languages spoken, without any national language! Some mention about the 56 kingdoms in ancient India. People have been traveling across the length and breadth of India, without a passport or a link language. People learned languages as needed. During the independent movement, some in the north of India decided India should have one language and they chose Hindi. Even before Independence, Hindi was pushed in all parts of India, where it was not spoken. In Madras State Rajaji as Congress Chief Minister imposed Hindi in April 1938. He went to the extent of asking people to speak in Hindi in the streets and Tamil at home. This led to a massive protest in the State (1). Protestors were not just political parties with different views. It included people from all background including religious leaders from Shaivaite Matts. Many political leaders were arrested and two named, Thalamuthu and Natarajan, died in prison. In Chennai, you can see a Government building named after the two who died in prison. By February 1940, Hindi imposition was lifted. Congress lost the next election.

After Independence, Hindi imposition was attempted again. In Parliament, attempts to make Hindi as the National language failed. Hindi and English were kept as two official languages and many of the languages spoken in India were kept as National Languages. As far as my knowledge goes, that was the only vote in which President joined to tilt the balance towards Hindi. Parliament vote was divided exactly in half for/against Hindi. Many of the states in India started following a three language formula.

As the Indian Government was trying to push Hindi as the National Language, Paksitan Government pushed Urdu as the National Language. Indian Government yielded when there was widespread opposition in making Hindi the National Language. Pakistan Government did not yield. In 1948 itself, students of Dhaka University staged a massive protest. On 21st February 1952, Pakistani police fired an unarmed and peaceful student demonstration and killed many students. International Mother-Language day is celebrated on this day. Bangladesh was born in 1970s (2). It would be interesting to look at the history of Hindi/Urdu. As I have pointed out UP has been having major Hindu/Muslim conflicts and built BHU and AMU, while Bangalore and Calcutta built IISc and IACS. From what I have learned, Hindi and Urdu both originated from Hindustani. Hindi and Urdu have more in common than Hindi and Sanskrit. Marati and Bengali may be closer to Sanskrit than Hindi.

Forgetting the experience before Independence, Congress Government in the Madras state again tried to impose Hindi in the 1960s. This may have been one of the reasons a tall leader from Tamil Nadu Kamaraj and an incorruptible Kakkan lost the next election. DMK came to power in 1967. Unlike the Parliament which was divided in half, Tamil Nadu assembly voted unanimously for the two language formula of having Tamil and English. I must have started my schooling around that time and I did not know all this history. I learned Tamil and English in school in Madurai. I did pass Prathmic and Madhyama offered by the Dhakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha and had learned to read and write Hindi. I went to IIT Madras and then to IIT Delhi.

During my stay in Delhi, I did not like the way some assumed and insisted on Hindi. One day, after we watched a Tamil movie in the hostel, as we were going to have some tea, we were chatting in Tamil among ourselves. One person on the street shouted at us in Hindi: ‘Aap Dilli may hain, Hindi may bathkaro’. Though I had learned about Hindi protest, I did not know much details at that time. I certainly did not like this. After IIT Delhi, I went to Kansas State University. In my first week, I met a guy from India at the University library. He started talking to me in Hindi and I told him that, I did not know Hindi that well. He was shocked and asked me: How can you be from India and not know Hindi? I realized he had no clue about India. What was surprising, many in the Hindi speaking states assume every one in India knows and speaks Hindi. They have not been taught about India.

After returning to IIT Kanpur as a faculty member, I went to Calcutta to attend a symposium. One of my close friends from Kansas days came to Calcutta from TIFR, Bombay. We were walking in the streets of Calcutta and heard people speaking in Bengali. My friend from Bombay was surprised and told me: Look at these Bengalis, they are speaking in Bengali on the streets. I was even more surprised by his comment and replied: What do you expect the Bengalis to speak? He then told me that they speak Marati at home and Hindi on the streets. I then told him that he should visit Tamil Nadu.

Now we see yet another attempt to make Hindi the only link language in India with the home minister claiming Hindi can unite India. I certainly don’t agree. According to Wikipedia today, world over ” 178 countries have at least one official language, and 101 of these countries recognise more than one language.” (3) India has two official languages and 22 National Languages. I do not see any need for India to have one link language which should be spoken in the streets all over India. Though India became an independent country in 1947, India has survived for several millennia including seven decades after independence without having such a link language. Imposing one is not needed. Starting from Rajaji in 1937, the proposers of Hindi have given one after another illogical reasons. One such argument was Hindi will improve the employment opportunities. It was never the case. After 7 decades of three language formula by all states except Tamil Nadu, Hindi states are among the least developed. For the home minister to say ‘Hindi is needed for Unity’, is indeed unfortunate as he is ignoring the fact that India has been around and has progressed well over the last seven decades.

Would Hindi help all Indians travel across the length and breadth? It is not fair to ask everyone to learn your language to help you on travel. I propose the following, which many may not like. Local language/Hindi/English be used in all sign boards across India. Local language and English remain as official languages in the States that do not want to have Hindi as an official language. All Government services, announcements by flights and trains should be made in local languages in addition to English/Hindi. If people migrate to different states, they will learn the local language. They have been doing it for millennia! Forcing Hindi on people against their wishes is not wise.

  1. M. Ilanchezhiyan, “Thamizhan Thodutha Por” (War waged by Tamils) II Edition 1986.
  2. Safar Ali Akanda, Language Movement and the Making of Bangladesh”, The University Press Limited, Bangladesh 2013
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Official_language

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How about both? or Having (half) the cake and eating it too!

I remember hearing a story from Thenali Raman’s life. He was the wise man in the Court of Krishnna Deveraya. During his youth, he prays to Shakthi for long, Shakthi appears in front of him! She has two glasses in her two hands. She tells Thenali: “If you want more knowledge, take this one and if you want more money, take the other one”. Before Shakthi could wink, Thenali Raman grabs both and drinks them. Why do you have to choose? I have consciously tried not to choose between two things I love and have managed to have them both, may be less of each!

I went back to USA with my wife, within two weeks after our arranged marriage. When we got married, I had four years of cooking experience. Living in an apartment as a Ph. D. student, and not liking bread and cereal for breakfast, I used to cook most of the meals. My wife had three years working experience, as she started her work after her BTech and was staying home. When we were in USA, we did share the house hold duties. She liked cooking and I used to help in cutting vegetables and washing dishes. I ensured that the kitchen sink is clean when we went to bed every single day! Cockroaches used to be a serious problem. One day, she asked me: We are having Dosas for dinner, shall I make coconut or tomato chutney? I had the standard reply: Why not both? Some of my friends could not believe I would say this to a recently married wife 🙂

After coming to USA, my wife started doing MS in Computer Science. I was in the last year of Ph.D. When I completed, she still had close to a year. From August 1991-April 1992, I stayed back as a postdoc in the same group. My advisor was going on a sabbatical and he was also asking me to stay back and take care of the group, projects, etc… It turned out to be ideal, though it is generally not a good idea to continue as a postdoc in the same group. I got a postdoctoral offer from University of Illinois and we both moved to Urbana-Champaign. My wife could have applied for a job in Silicon Valley. She came with me to Urbana and worked for Wolfram Research Inc.

We were both certain about returning to India. We had our first daughter born in February 1994 and I had an offer from IIT Kanpur in June 1994. My wife resigned her job and we returned to Kanpur in November 1994. We decided to have another kid and thought it may be better to have one long break rather than two short breaks. We were blessed with our second daughter in 1996. Though we were both from big families, we could not have any one staying with us and help those days. I used to teach 13 hours a week and stay home most of the other time. I delayed submitting my first project to DST till 1996. One of the member in the committe asked me: Why did not you submit it last year? I told him, I had some personal reasons. I moved to IISc in May 1997 and the project was sanctioned only by the end of 1998 and funds released almost a year later. It is difficult to believe! I started my job in November 1994 and I got DST funds to build the microwave spectrometer in November 1999. Of course, I had students and they need to have their degree.

I started a very successful collaboration with Aerospace Engineering Department at IISc and my first student did his Ph. D. work in Aerospace Engineering in a field that was new to me and of course to him. Now this brings me to the major choice for young academics. To do independent work or to collaborate? The answer is: Why not both? One needs to develop an identity for oneself and also explore avenues for collaboration which can lead to synergistic output. It is possible. We built a pulsed nozzle Fourier transform microwave spectrometer at IPC and single pulse shock tube facilities at the Aerospace Engineering. Both involved time and unbelievable efforts. My promotion to Associate Professor position happened nearly 9 years after becoming an Assistant Professor. IISc usually has a six year period for evaluation, unlike IITs, which could give promotion to faculty members in 3-4 years. Of course, my 5 semesters at IIT Kanpur were not considered. I had no issue, as I needed that time to establish unique laboratories.

Having worked in IIT Kanpur for 5 semesters and taught several courses, I started teaching regularly in IISc. Another question for young academics: Teaching or Research! My answer is the same. Why not both? As Zare wrote in an Editorial in Current Science, anyone with a Ph. D., can become a good teacher with some effort (1). I had reviewed books for Current Science (2,3), I had served as Snack Parlor Secretary in our Faculty Club and I was the Amenities Committee Chairman. One can do teaching, research, and some administrative work as a young faculty member. All of these, without ignoring the family. I remember one incident very well. My wife had to go to Chennai with both our daughters. I could not take a break and go with them. I did not want to send them alone either. We went in Lal Bagh express which left Bangalore in the afternoon and reached Chennai in the night. My father in law came to take them home. I went to the other platform and took the night train back to Bangalore the next morning.

Another major question that young academics face is, basic or applied research. Should we do experiment or theory? The answer is the same. It is better to work on problems that interest you. We have done both basic and applied research in our group. We have done both experiments and computation. The current definition of hydrogen bond approved by the IUPAC is based on our initiative (4). We could put the most important noun and verb in Chemistry, carbon and bond, together like no one would have imagined (5). We could also show that a simple chromium coating could reduce drag for a rocket/missile (6). This work received unexpected coverage in both science magazines and newspapers, in India, Pakistan and the USA.

We have been told from the beginning: You can’t have the cake and eat it too! You have to give up something to get something. What we need to realize is that we can have some cake and eat it too. We should learn to make the choices with which we can live happily. If I had submitted the project to DST as soon as I returned, I may have been promoted earlier. If my wife had gone to silicon valley after her MS, her career could have progressed differently. After taking a 5 year break, she started her career and did very well in career as well. It would not come as a surprise to anyone that anytime she worked, her salary package was always significantly better than mine.

At every point in our life, we could have chosen to put family or career ahead of the other one. We consciously decided to find a balance. Never make one more important than other. Whether it is career or family, teaching or research, basic or applied research, coconut or tomato chutney, you can find a way to have them both! As everyone is different, the choices we made may not be the most appropriate for others. However, everyone can find a balance with which they can live happily. We win some and miss some, staying together is a blessing. May everyone who has read this for, and also others who may not read this, find the right balance in having the best, a career and a family can offer.

References:

  1. https://www.currentscience.ac.in/Volumes/102/01/0009.pdf.
  2. https://www.currentscience.ac.in/Downloads/article_id_078_02_0202_0203_0.pdf
  3. https://www.currentscience.ac.in/Downloads/article_id_079_09_1392_1393_0.pdf
  4. E. Arunan, G. R. Desiraju, R. A. Klein, J. Sadlej, S. Scheiner, I. Alkorta, D. C. Clary, R. H. Crabtree, J. J. Dannenberg, P. Hobza, H. G. Kjaergaard, A. C. Legon, B. Mennucci and D. J. Nesbitt. Pure Appl. Chem. 83, 1619 (2011).
  5. Devendra Mani and E. Arunan Phys. Chem. Chem. Phys. 15, 14377-14383 (2013).
  6. V. Kulkarni, G. M. Hegde, G. Jagadeesh, E. Arunan and K. P. J. Reddy. Phys. Fluid, 20, 081703 (2008).
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Prakash Krishnaswami: An incredible human being and a close friend!

Prakash during a visit to Urbana, Illinois in 1995

It is 10 years since Prof. Prakash Krishnaswami, a distinguished faculty member at the Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering Department at Kansas State University (KSU) departed us. Thinking about him and the last time we met him and his family, I am reminded of one of the quotes of Einstein, that I like very much: There are only two ways to live life: One is as though everything is a miracle and another is as though nothing is a miracle. Summer of 2007 was somewhat of a miracle in our life. I do not know the context of this quote. It also taught me that Einstein’s quote misses an important aspect of life. Life has misfortunes in addition to miracles. How did this summer of 2007 teach me about miracles and misfortunes? I need to rewind by 2 more decades.

In 1986, I moved to Manhattan, Kansas to start my Ph. D. in Chemistry. Manhattan is a small University town. When I left India, my mind was blank. I had no idea how my life would unwind in a foreign land. At that time, there were about 18000 students out of which, perhaps about 100 were from Indian sub-continent. There were a few faculty members from India living with family. It turned out I had a great time at Kansas State, thanks to an excellent group of people both in the University and in the little town. One prominent member of that group was Prakash. He had just married Sujatha and they both returned to Manhattan shortly before my arrival. We became very close friends. Most students going to Kansas State University those days would have enjoyed the hospitality of Prakash and Sujatha. Between 1986-92, when I was there, there was always some friend(s) with/without family staying at their home for days, months or years. They disproved the popular proverb in Tamil which says “medicine and guests are good only for 3 days” emphatically. In Tamil, it naturally sounds better ‘Vriundhum marundhum moonru naal (விருந்தும் மருந்தும் மூன்று நாள்)

I do not remember when we met first. Prakash was unusual, unassuming, empathetic and an abundantly talented individual. I learned that he had completed his B.Tech from IIT, Madras with flying colors. Somewhere down the line, he had also learned to fly. I thought of asking him to take me along during one of his flying session but never did that. After joining KSU as a faculty member, he registered for an MS in Mathematics and completed it. During 1986-90, we lived in Manhattan as close family. In 1990, I got married to Gomathi in Chennai and Prakash and Sujatha attended our wedding. Fortunately, they were visiting Chennai during that time. Our marriage was arranged by the families. Naturally, Gomathi had concerns about leaving home and traveling with a stranger to a foreign land. I remember telling her this: “We have great people all over the world”. Prakash and Sujatha were in my mind, along with many other friends from Manhattan.

During our stay in Manhattan, we used to drive away, often late in the night with friends to exotic locations. Prakash, Sujatha, me and Gomathi on one such trip with many other friends.

During 1990-91, I became the President of the India Students Association (it was not Indian and I never figured out why). Prakash was the Faculty Advisor. That year ISA expanded its activities nearly astronomically. In 1992, we went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. We missed no opportunity to visit each other or travel together. It was also helped by a sabbatical Prakash took in Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago during that time. That was another eventful time. We had taken a friend from Urbana to Chicago and stayed with Prakash and Sujatha. That friend was Prof. Ramananthan, an eminent Mathematician from TIFR who was visiting UIUC. His life was a mix of miracles and misfortunes as well. I should write about that some time. By September 1994, Gomathi and I returned to India with our first daughter. Of course, before that we visited Manhattan staying at Prakash’s home for a few days. They had their only son Azad with them at that time.

After returning to India, we continued to be in touch and were lucky to have many opportunities to spend time together. Prakash did spend a semester each at IISc and at IIT Madras. After this, he was hopeful of returning to India for good. Unfortunately for India, that did not happen.

In May 2007, Prakash and family came to Bangalore and were staying with us. Prior to their visit, I had decided to attend the International Symposium on Shock Waves to be held in Göttingen, Germany during 15-20 July 2007. As I had an Indo-French project, which required me to visit the University of Rennes, France for 2 weeks that year, I thought of going to France just before the symposium, 1-14 July. I planned these two visits one day and returned home in the evening. Gomathi informed me that she had to go to Prague during June 25-30 for an NFC meeting representing Samsung. I was amazed at this incredible coincidence. I suggested to her that we go together and take both our daughters to Prague, Rennes and then Göttingen. Our second daughter was born in 1996 after we returned to India.

I had never gone on a sabbatical myself and that was the only time, I had taken my family with me. As we had two weeks in Rennes, and they don’t work during the weekend, we decided to go to Paris during the weekend 7-8 July. We decided to leave Rennes on 6th and return on 9th. On hearing this plan, Prakash told me that they were going to Italy during the first week of July for a conference. And they were planning to spend the same weekend in Paris! Shock wave symposium, NFC meeting and the conference Prakash attended were all decided by independent international bodies!

We could not believe this. We had both planned to spend the same weekend in Paris without knowing each others plan! We were pleasantly surprised and decided to spend the time in Paris together. It turned out we had booked hotels in different parts of Paris and were discussing about where to meet. When you want to meet someone in Paris, I thought the obvious choice would be to meet at the Eiffel Tower. We decided both our families will go to Eiffel tower in the evening of 6th July. Whoever reaches there first would wait on top of the tower for the other to join. We were nearing the entrance to the tower, when Prakash and family joined the queue. We waited for them to arrive and spend perhaps the best time of our lives going around Paris. A picture taken at the Eiffel tower with both our families reminds me of the miraculous trip we had in 2007. The time stamp has Indian Standard Time. Prakash is in his slipper, his usual footwear on all occasions.

It turned out that 9th July was the wedding anniversary for Prakash and Sujatha. We knew this and had packed a small gift for them. On 9th, as we were both getting ready to part ways, Prakash offered to give us a party. He was hesitant to reveal the reason and finally told us, “It is our wedding anniversary”! We smiled and gave them the small gift. Then, we took a train back to Rennes. Prakash and family were to take a flight next morning to the JFK airport New York. Prakash had done it often. Flying in to the east coast of the USA, visiting families and friends and driving from Manhattan, New York to Manhattan Kansas. Again after this trip, he started driving back to Kansas. When they were passing Pennsylvania, the misfortune struck us.

On the 9th July morning, we both visited, Sacré-Cœur, Paris. Anytime, I see a tower I like to climb to the top. Prakash and I were generally fit and never thought twice before exerting ourselves. We decided to climb up the Church building with our kids. I thought he looked more tired than I had ever seen him before. He had driven from Italy to Paris. We had been walking around Paris as if to utilize every minute we had in our hands. I thought, he may have been tired. I had no idea what was in store.

When I was back at the University of Rennes, I had an email from a common friend, another gem of a person, Youvaraj. Prakash had health problems and had to be hospitalized in Pennsylvania. He was diagnosed with Leukemia. I was stunned. We could not believe the miracle turning to misfortune so suddenly. Prakash survived till November 2008. He used this period to ensure that he would do everything that was needed for the survivors to lead a good life. He never complained about his health. He was always focused on what needs to be done. I managed to visit him during June 2008. That visit was another near miracle in itself. May be I will write about it on another occasion.

We live in a time of post-truth, over-coverage of negativity and many appear to have genuine concerns about the future of humanity and earth. I continue to remain positive. For I know, there are people like Prakash who never worry about themselves and do things for common good. In closing, let me share some part of an email I received from Prakash’s father C. S. Krishnaswami. “Prakash is always unforgettable and lives on to inspire his large circle of friends, relatives and students. He touched so many lives in his simple, selfless and self-effacing way. That is what we found out when we were in Manhattan. He himself never spoke of himself and of what he did.” I do not know if the father could ever tell this to his son. I do hope Prakash knew this! It is thanks to Prakash and many such noble souls, humanity and earth has survived for this long and I am sure they will continue to survive.


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Deepavali, for me, is the festival of sound!

“Unity in Diversity” Nehru knew India! “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Mark Twain knew humans! I had written a blog on Deepavali earlier pointing out that it is celebrated in India on different days and different ways (1). Some of my friends were surprised to find that our family had idli and mutton on Deepavali days. Recently, The Hindu has an article about this tradition (2) and now it’s mainstream! Again, this year Tamil Nadu is celebrating Deepavali (naragachathurthasi) on 6th November and our Institute has a holiday on 7th November. Bangaloreans celebrate beween 6-8th November! Deepavali is most commonly known as the festival of light and for us, it was indeed a festival of sound.

At the cost of repetition, let me state a few things again. When I was young, a typical celebration of Deepavali started a month earlier. We buy new clothes and give it for stitching and visit the Taylor shop several times to ensure that the new dress was ready. We start saving money to buy more crackers. At home, parents would buy some crackers. Typically, women at home start preparing sweets and savories several days before Deepavali and stack up all vessels. One or two days before Deepavali, we go for buying crackers. Northeast monsoon may be bringing rain and the weather would be moist. It was important to keep the crackers in sun light when possible.

While most of the crackers were bought from the major suppliers ‘Anil’ and ‘Singam’ pattaasu (cracker in Tamil) , our savings would be used to buy what was called ‘Out’. This particular cracker was made in Madurai by Saurastrian families settled for centuries in the city. They migrated from Gujarat in stages and eventually settled in Madurai during Thirumalai Nayakkar’s period, according to one history note I read. They are called in Tamil as ‘pattu nool karar’, which means people who used silk thread to make sarees/clothes. I am not sure if Out is still made and sold. Out combines an ‘atom bomb’ and ‘a flower pot’ in one. It is cylindrical with an yellow paper cover about 4-6 cm tall and 1-2 cm diameter. There is no thread that is visible to light the cracker and run away. One needs to open the paper cover on top and the gun powder would be visible. It should be lighted. It would start the ‘flower part’ action soon and you run away. Within a few seconds, the ‘atom bomb’ will blast off.

Other crackers had interesting names. ‘Seeni vedi’ is the mildest cracker and it is small with a red cover. Vedi is the name for the crackers that make sound, in Tamil. ‘Kuruvi vedi’ (Kuruvi = sparrow) was slightly bigger and louder. Then we had Lakshmi vedi/Meenakshi vedi and they were much louder. All these crackers would have a black thread with white paper cover. This cover should be removed to light the dark thread and it spreads slowly giving one a little more time to run. ‘Seeni vedis’ are used in making multiple threaded crackers. When I was young, I used to see 50, 100 or 200 combined having a common thread running in the centre, with the crackers lined up on both sides. As I was growing and our economy grew, I started seeing 5000 and 10000walas! I suppose the ‘walas’ come from Hindi. These crackers come as a role and when you unwind them they could cover 10s of meter length and it could cover a significant part of a street one lives in. The bursting continues for several minutes and most have their hands covering the ears!

We also had other crackers that give out only light such as flower pots, chakras and colorful match sticks (mathaapu in Tamil), rockets that fly off and produce colorful lights and/or sounds. I would not be surprised if we have hundreds of such crackers that produce sound and light of varying magnitude. Deepavali was indeed a festival of sound in Tamil Nadu. As I had mentioned, the festival of light comes in the next Tamil Month, Karthigai. All house holds keep lamps at the doors throughout this month. On the full moon day of this month, Karthigai Deepam is a major festival. Lamps will be lit throughout the house and surrounding. Thiruvannamalai celebrates this as a city festival and it is worth a visit. The whole city, temple and the hills have lamps lit synchronously at 6 PM and it is an incredible sight.

Over the last few years, there have been serious concerns expressed about pollution during Deepavali. Both noise and smoke pollution peak on this day in most parts of India. It has attracted world wide attention and there have been several scientific papers published based on pollution levels following Deepavali. I remember, Science had published a paper too. It may be a good way to get into Science, as we know pollution would be high and international press would be keen to cover it. The title of a recent paper perhaps summarizes the issue succinctly: “Short term introduction of pollutants into the atmosphere at a location in the Brahmaputra Basin: A case study” (3). This does not sound dramatic enough for Science or Nature and so is published in a lower impact Journal. We really need to worry about many other things that we do which cause more permanent damage to our earth and environment. A responsible individual or society or nation should not do anything that could cause serious problems to the only planet we have for life. However, I find the oppositions to crackers during Deepavali as an extreme reaction, perhaps motivated by a hidden agenda.

Don’t we have problems with fire crackers? Yes we do. Some of them are too loud. Many of them need safety precautions that we have not bothered to learn or practice. Several accidents happen on the day of Deepavali and some children lose their eye sight. Crackers were being stored and sold from many places without any concern for safety. This is a universal problem in India and is not limited to Deepavali. The train accident that happened on the day of Vijaya Dasami cannot lead to a ban on the celebration. Every citizen, administrator, organizer, municipality, town corporations, State and Central Governments have to take safety with all seriousness.

There have been accusations of child labor involved in making fire crackers. We really need to regulate the production, distribution and use of fire crackers. However, I do not think some elites can decide that crackers should be banned and convince the Supreme Court to do so. The recent news about banning crackers traditionally made, even while allowing ‘green crackers’, does indeed raise suspicions about the real agenda (4). There are no green crackers. As I had written earlier about the ban on Jallikattu, a few elites who think they know what is good for everyone, should not be allowed to make decisions for everyone. We do need regulations and not a ban on crackers. Have a great Deepavali, wherever and whenever you celebrate. Ensure that crackers, if used, are used with adequate precautions. Let me wish you all again with a beautiful picture taken from my OnePlus6 camera. IISc students light lamps in front of our Main Building just after the Deepavali Mela celebrated by the IISc Family and Friends!

  1. https://earunan.org/2015/11/05/hinduism-is-not-a-way-of-life-hindus-celebrate-deepavali-on-different-days-and-yes-some-hindus-eat-beef/
  2. https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/food/early-morning-conversations-with-idli/article25400846.ece.
  3. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1309104215302300
  4. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/green-crackers-make-sivakasi-see-red/article25406861.ece?homepage=trueNEERI&fbclid=IwAR1rcLoclKFYJAKFuD1tA7R2mJ807yZyB3qVzJKrT7nDS2am0Fz15UWoQPQ
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Indians Helped Nehru and Raman Make Favoritism and Nepotism as Accepted Methods! And it is time we undo this!

Nehru and Raman represent two ends of Indians. In short, Nehru was promoted by the system (powers that be) and Raman was self-made and supported by some who wanted to promote Science. I started thinking about these two eminent personalities in 20th Century India for various reasons. Swarajya had published an article claiming Raman had a better vision for Science than Nehru. It was too biased and verifiable facts were left out. I wrote a blog countering that (1). I also wrote an editorial in Current Science a few months ago, pointing out conflict of interest has affected Indian Science (2). That was appreciated by many, while upsetting and angering some (3-5). I continued my thinking about these two leaders and share my views in this blog.

Nehru, Jawaharlal our first Prime Minsiter, was the son of Motilal Nehru who was very influential in Congress. Motilal was the President of Congress twice, in 1919-20 and 1928-29. In 1929, Jawaharlal succeeded Motilal, not because he was elected but because, the system favored him. Wikipedia entry on Motilal Nehru says the following: “it greatly pleased Motilal and Nehru family admirers to see the son take over from his father” (6).  In 1946, this continued and Gandhi pointed his finger at Jawaharlal Nehru as the Prime Minister, even though the Congress had elected Sardar Patel. Today, there are some who believe Patel would have been better as the first Prime Minister of India (7) and there are others who do not agree with this (8). One thing everyone agrees and knows is that Nehru was not elected but favored. “Gandhi introduced the concept of forced decisions by the so-called ‘high-commands’ that usually means overruling state units.”

It is easy to comment about what was right and wrong in hindsight. The fact is that Nehru was the first Prime Minister of India and he was elected by the people time and again until he passed away in 1964. Unlike, what some doomsayers predicted, India survived as a democracy through his life and till today.

C. V. Raman on the other hand comes from a family of modest means. His father Chandrasekhara Iyer was progressive and ensured that his sons got ‘English’ education (9). Raman had once mentioned “I was born with a copper spoon in my mouth and my father had a salary of ten rupees a month”. Raman’s father was the first in the family to get ‘English’ education and became a school teacher. Raman was a child prodigy of sorts getting his BA when he was 15 winning gold medals in English and Physics, from the Presidency College, Madras (now Chennai).  He got his MS when he was 18 and had already published a paper in Philosophical Magazine (London), though Presidency college had focused only on teaching and had no history of research. As may have been typical of the educated youth in those days, he cleared the Indian Civil Service exam. He went to Calcutta in 1907, barely 19 years old, to join the Finance Department as an Assistant Accountant General. That Raman would come back to Science was helped by Dr. Mahendra Lal Sircar, who established the Indian Association for Cultivation of Science in 1876 itself. Sircar died in 1904 and was saddened to see the Institution reduced to dusty rooms and unused laboratories. His hope that some young man would step in and make IACS a great institution was proved right by Raman, three years later. He worked on research in his spare time without any financial support and gave up his job and accepted a Professorship with a salary five times less at the University of Calcutta. He went on to become the first Nobel laureate in Physics from the East and did not stop research until 1970, when he passed away in Bangalore.

When Jawaharlal Nehru passed away in 1964, Lal Bahadur Sastry became the Prime Minister of India briefly. After this, Nehru’s daughter, Indira became the Prime Minister. She had made her last name Gandhi, though neither the father nor her husband had that name. And as they say, the rest is history. Jawaharlal succeeded Motilal as the President of Congress in 1929.  Indira did not succeed Jawaharlal. I have read about a ‘Kamaraj plan’ that propelled Indira Gandhi to be the leader of Congress and Prime Minister of India. I often wondered why Kamaraj did this. Kamaraj was a tall leader of Congress, coming from Tamil Nadu. He is known to be ‘incorruptible’ and served as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. During his tenure, several developments happened and in parallel, free lunch was introduced in Schools to bring the poor kids to school. When he died, he had no savings or property and his mother stayed in a rented house. Why did Kamaraj favor Indira? Was he convinced the ‘royal blood’ is good for the Nation? Did he think the people of India would accept Nehru’s daughter? Did Nehru or Indira speak to Kamaraj and asked him to do this? That is quite possible and I do not know.  Kamaraj is known as the king maker, for making Indira the Prime Minister. The people did vote for her.  Both Nehru and Indira got the Congress Presidentship and Prime Ministership due to personal favors and they both won many elections. Does it mean Indians want dynasty or does it mean Indians do not mind dynasty and will vote for the favored sons and daughters, until they mess up? India did defeat Indira Gandhi after Emergency.

When Raman passed away in 1970, his son Radhakrishnan was appointed as the Director of Raman Research Institute (RRI) founded by Raman himself. Jayaraman, who authored the official biography of Raman (8), writes: “After Raman’s death, it was his wish that the Directorship of the Institute be offered to his son Radhakrishnan, a well-known Radio-Astronomer.” Radhakrishnan did not need to win any election and a small committee had to select him. Kamaraj’s role in this case was performed by Ramaseshan, Raman’s nephew. Jayaraman’s book mentions that Ramaseshan took an active role in carrying out Raman’s wishes.

What Motilal and Jawaharlal did became a precedence followed by all political parties in India, including those who were ideologically opposed to birth based privilege! One can see this in our neighboring countries such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Today, starting from a Prime Minister, to a Chief Minister, Minsiters, MPs/MLAs, City Mayors to a local Panchayat leaders, dynasty rules. While appointing a son/daughter as a Director of an Institution appears less likely today, what Raman did has been practiced in Institutions, Universities, Colleges and High School across India. If not a son, a student takes over! Favoritism and nepotism can be seen in many fields, where the control is with a select few.

In a democracy, political succession needs validation by the people. In academia, a committee’s view is enough. People who rise to power this way, can do well or fail. Nehru and Indira are admired by many in India and Radhakrishnan was loved by RRI. However, as I had asked in the Editorial, we would not know if some one else could have done a better job. Conflict of interest must be addressed in a transparent manner in every appointment. As I mentioned in the Editorial, even for a crow it’s chick shines as gold!

Would Patel becoming the first Prime Minister of India have changed how India grew? Throughout our history, I wonder if the right person was chosen only based on his/her credentials. Are we still cutting of the fingers of Ekalavya, so that Arjun can be the best archer, even if we miss out a Olympic medal? or Have we reached a stage, when the best archer will represent India in the world?

References:

  1. https://earunan.org/2018/03/04/jawaharlal-nehru-and-c-v-raman-nehrus-vision-is-more-important-for-science-in-india-not-ramans/
  2. E. Arunan, Curr. Sci., 2018, 114, 1385–1386. http://www.currentscience.ac.in/Volumes/114/07/1385.pdf
  3. Subrahmanyan, R., Curr. Sci., 2018, 115(2), 193.
  4. Swarup, G., Curr. Sci., 2018, 115(3), 369.
  5. A. Gupta et al. Curr. Sci. 2018 115(6), 1020
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motilal_Nehru Accessed on 9th October 2018.
  7. https://www.indiatvnews.com/politics/national/why-gandhi-opted-for-nehru-and-not-sardar-patel-for-pm-6689.html?page=3
  8. https://herald.dawn.com/news/1153825
  9. A. Jayaraman, C. V. Raman, A Memoir, Indian Academy of Sciences, 2017.
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Indian Institute of Science, Uncategorized

Faculty Recruitment in Institutions with Emphasis on Teaching and Research!

I have been planning to write on this topic for sometime and finally the Editorial published in Current Science dated 10 July 2018 triggered me (1). I wanted to write this as there had been a huge response to another editorial I wrote three months ago on conflict of interest in Indian Science (2). I had written some other editorials and several comments in Current Science (3) and these have attracted comments from a few with similar views, mostly from the Academia. However, the Editorial on Conflict of Interest elicited applaud from many and anger from some, in the academia. Many appreciated this for speaking the truth. What surprised me was that this Editorial was also covered by some news media, http://www.dailyo.in (4). Dinesh Sharma titled the news as ‘How conflict of interest is murdering Indian Science’.  I was worried about the news  coverage of academic matters, given that news has to be sensational. Indian Science is alive. Of course, it is not performing to its potential, which is perhaps true for many things in India. Conflict of interest is certainly a factor that is affecting it.

Another unusual comment I had for my editorial follows: “pl do not become a knight in shining armour. The matters are nuanced. You have a large following. They should not go tilting at all the wind mills”. Though, I had disagreed with this comment at that time, I do share some worries. In fact, Saibal Gupta has articulated my worries well in his editorial. (1) His editorial is about ranking Institutions and how all the various numerical indices may not be able to identify great faculty candidates. He goes on to say: “What might the solution be? This is a difficult one, as it involves the ability, confidence and wisdom of our faculty selectors to be able to look beyond ‘numbers’. For reasons not entirely academic, and we must admit, our own transgressions over time, academic decisions that do not conform to the ‘number’ game have become legally open to challenge, and can easily become fodder for a news-hungry media that is ‘looking’ for evidence of academic corruption. We need to convince ourselves that there is space for admitting people who we recognize as good in the fundamentals, and who we believe would be able to think ‘differently’.”

There has been some ‘transgressions’ as Gupta points out and there have been clear cases of conflict of interest as I pointed out. However, one should not forget the fact that many institutions, in particular, IITs and IISc, have sustained quality for many decades. This would not have been possible if the whole system was corrupt. I do believe that there is always room for improvement and perfection would remain a goal, that is never attained. On the other hand, I have also seen that the perception of corruption in India, in every field, may be far higher than the real corruption.  Anyone who is not selected may conclude, there is corruption everywhere. Obviously that number would be large. We do have honest people in every system and India has been surviving and growing thanks to the tireless work of many such people.

I wanted to share with everyone interested some information about how a faculty member is selected. I have been directly involved in this for about a decade now. A committee looks at all the applications and decide whether or not to consider the applicant further. There are many reasons why an application may not be considered further. Our Department does not like to inbreed i.e. none of our Ph. D. students are generally considered for faculty positions in our Department. There are other Departments in IISc and also other Institutions, that may not share our view. Another reason a candidate may not be considered is because the Department may not be looking at some research areas at that point in time. If for example, one theoretical chemist was hired recently, and the Department is not keen on hiring another theoretical chemist, applicants record would not matter. The number of publications, impact factor, number of citations and h-index, none of them may count.  If the research area of the candidate is considered to have significant overlap with that of an existing faculty  member, not just the recently hired ones, that applicant is unlikely to be hired as well.

At any point in time, we may like to hire faculty members in some areas. We do look at the candidate’s record in terms of past publications and future research plan. We do not necessarily go by the number of publications, impact factors of the Journals in which they are published and citations. Particularly, in my field, for example, the Journal of Chemical Physics, has a good reputation though it may have a lower impact factor than the Journal of American Chemical Society or Angewandte Chemie. One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that only a small number of papers dealing with physical chemistry/chemical physics are published in these ‘general chemistry’ Journals. Even among the few papers appearing in these Journals (and also the ‘general science Journals like Science and Nature), most have dramatic conclusions about topics that have huge appeal to chemists/scientists. I can cite two examples that I am aware of. In 2013, Science published a paper on ‘visualizing hydrogen bonds’ and the authors were from Physics and Chemistry Departments (5). It was covered in all magazines and I wrote a ‘Research News’ in Current Science as well (6). Later on a more detailed study questioning this interpretation was published in Physical Review Journals. I can only guess Science refused to publish them. (7) That is only for the experts.

Somewhat coincidentally, in 2013 Science had published a paper on the first observation of the ‘Criegee intermediate’ which is very important in atmospheric chemistry (8). Science was not interested in publishing a more thorough work, which provided more accurate and thorough data and that was published in the Journal of Chemical Physics (9). This work was done by Y. P. Lee and coworkers from Taiwan. I was listening to him during the Asian Spectroscopy Conference in Taiwan in 2017. In his talk, he mentioned the following: “We have published several papers on this important intermediate and the significance of these papers is inversely related to the impact factor of the Journal in which these are published” Scientists know the difference and it is what we call a ‘peer evaluation’. This appears as ‘perception’ in World ranking . Peer evaluation, appearing as perception in these ranking should not be confused with what a commoner might think about perception. In judging Science, peer evaluation is not perfect, but there is nothing better.  I just heard from someone that UGC was planning to remove this ‘perception’ in national ranking, and I think it is a bad idea. Most from India may have heard about Vashishta, an ancient saint. To be certified as a ‘great saint’ by Vashishta was considered the greatest of honor a saint could get. In Tamil “வஷிஸ்டர் வாயாலே பிரம்மரிஷி’. Peer evaluation is just that.

Candidates who work on the same areas from Ph. D. to postdoc and have plans to continue in the same area are unlikely to be considered irrespective of the impact factors and citations. When we look at the postdoctoral work, we try to judge if there is any original contribution from the candidate. Candidates have to show and prove that they can think independently. That they can identify an important unsolved problem and know how to tackle it. Once a candidate is shortlisted, (s)he is invited to give a talk based on past work and also a talk on future research plan. All faculty members attend these talks and ask questions. Reference letters from referees suggested by the candidate and also some experts working in related area are sought. These letters play a crucial role. Often, faculty members who have supervised and/or worked with a candidate are the best judges and most provide an honest evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of a candidate. When I returned to India, I have had requests from students with whom I had no interaction, asking for a reference letter. I have always refused. These letters are not to be confused with ‘recommendation’ as commonly known in appointments in India. I cannot recommend a son’s friend or a friend’s son for any job. I can recommend my students and anyone else with whom I have worked based on my observations.

Candidate gets to meet with all faculty members and discuss for about 30 minutes with each, in addition to giving a one hour seminar and 30 minute research plan presentation. There has to be a nearly unanimous view among the faculty members about whether a candidate can be hired. There is very little room for corruption or influence in this affair, if all the faculty members express their opinion. Over the last decade or so, when I have been closely involved in this process, no one has ever tried to influence the selection of Assistant Professors. Is there a possibility that the collective judgement of the faculty members can go wrong? That probability is certainly not zero. However, to repeat myself, no one has tried to influence the selection of candidates for faculty positions in my experience.

References (all the weblinks were accessed on 13 July 2018):

    1. Saibal Gupta “Balancing teaching, research and institutional rankings” Current Science, Volume 115, pages 7-8 (2018). http://www.currentscience.ac.in/Volumes/115/01/0007.pdf
    2. E. Arunan “Is Indian Science Ready to Tackle Conflict of Interest Rationally?” Current Science, Volume 114, pages 1385-1386 (2018) http://www.currentscience.ac.in/Volumes/114/07/1385.pdf
    3. http://ipc.iisc.ac.in/~ea/current_science.html.
    4. https://www.dailyo.in/technology/science-in-india-cv-raman-current-science-indian-institute-of-science/story/1/23673.html
    5. Zhang, J., Chen, P., Yuan, B., Ji, W., Cheng, Z. and Qiu, X., Science, vol 342, issue 6158, pp 611-614, (2013). DOI:10.1126/science.1242603.
    6. E. Arunan “Hydrogen bond seen, halogen bond defined and carbon bond proposed: Intermolecular bonding, a field that is maturing” Current Science, vol 105, pp 892-894 (2013).
    7. https://pubpeer.com/publications/345962A4190EDDB394CDEFB056026E#fb16414.
    8.  Su, Yu-Te; Huang, Yu-Hsuan; Witek, Henryk A.; et al. SCIENCE   Volume: 340   Issue: 6129   Pages: 174-176(2013).
    9. Ting, Wei-Lun; Chang, Chun-Hung; Lee, Yu-Fang; et al. JOURNAL OF CHEMICAL PHYSICS   Volume: 141   Issue: 10     Article Number: 104308 (201)
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