Archive for July, 2002

Beyond Keyboards

Monday, July 15th, 2002

Jul 15, 2002

It’s 23 years now since Douglas Adams told us what the answer to the ultimate question about life, the universe and everything was. So why is everyone still boiling strange green stuff in test tubes and looking through telescopes the size of soccer fields?

Of course, I am just being facetious, but the truth is that to most people, science is scary, and technology something to avoid or be very suspicious about. Mathematics is an area we love to have a mental block about. A computer mouse makes many grown-up men and women stand up on chairs and scream just like a biological mouse does. And generations of students, faced with high school physics, have cursed Newton for not eating that damn apple. So you have these wild-eyed woolly-headed intellectuals who are always looking for a chance to get into arguments about science versus the liberal arts. The most stupid philosophical question I have ever heard is (and someone actually asked me this): “If you had a kilogram of beauty on one end of a weighing scale and a kilogram of technology on the other, which do you think would weigh more?”

Here I can’t escape longishly quoting my favourite scientist. In a BBC documentary on his life and works, Richard Feynman, physicist, Nobel laureate, painter, bongo player and lover of women, said: “I have a friend who’s an artist and he’s sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say, ‘look how beautiful it is,’ and I’ll agree, I think. And he says, ‘You see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you as a scientist, oh, take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing.’ And I think he’s kind of nutty.

“First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me, too, I believe, although I might not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is. But I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside which also have a beauty. I mean, it’s not just beauty at this dimension of one centimetre: there is also beauty at a smaller dimension, the inner structure—the processes. The fact that the colours in the flower are evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting—it means that insects can see the colour. It adds a question—does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms, why is it aesthetic, all kinds of interesting questions can crop up, so a science knowledge only adds to the excitement and mystery and the awe of a flower.

“It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

What Feynman is saying is also a fine example of something that’s far more important than science: the broader philosophy it stands for. The scientific temper is the ability to cast an unprejudiced eye on the facts and reach a conclusion. Which does not necessarily come from a degree in science. Topping a hundred chemistry exams does not necessarily bestow scientific temper. That comes only from a recognition and internalisation of the values that science stands for.

And if science is the manifestation of an abstract value system based on truth and fairness, technology stands for change. I think people who are anti-technology are fundamentally uncomfortable with change, happily oblivious of the fact that they use electricity, flushing toilets (whose inventor, Thomas Crapper, unfortunately, has been immortalised in the expressive word “crap”), drive or are driven in internal-combustion-powered vehicles, and use internet chat groups to rant bitterly. None of these existed in 1850. And to those who I can sense are bristling to yell about the negative effects of technology, I would ask them to also holler for banning all books because child pornographers often use the medium.

This issue of Outlook has been born out of the belief that among all the people who impact our lives profoundly, scientists and technologists are the least known and least celebrated. In an India mesmerised by one-day cricket, remix music and serials that have titles beginning with K, these men and women who are creating the future for us can’t even get a foot in the Britney Spears-postered door.

Talk to people about Indian science, and the stock response is: Indian science and tech? Oh, that’s all gone, isn’t it? In this issue of Outlook, we have tried to prove this wrong. There are brilliant and unsung heroes all around us who are using the tools of science innovatively to change the lives of common Indians. They are not just writing code on sub-contracted work from foreign software firms.

For, today’s social reality is that a lot of people in this country take “technology” to be a synonym for information technology, which is taken as a synonym for software programming, which is taken as a synonym for low-grade grunt work that involves a humungous amount of tapping on keyboards. Indians in science and technology, as this issue demonstrates, do whole lot more than that. Just as the answer to the ultimate question about life, the universe and everything is not really 42.

Kolkata Diary

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2002

Jul 02, 2002

Didi Comedy Show

How idols crumble. A year ago, the entire Kolkata middle class was passionately behind Mamata Banerjee, waiting eagerly for election day when they could vote Jyoti Basu out. “But will Didi be able to provide good governance?” I remember asking friends, and invariably the reply would be: “We’ll figure that out when the time comes. First let’s get rid of these sham Leftists.” A year later, I find that most of these people—stockbrokers and bankers, software entrepreneurs and mnc executives—did the unthinkable: voted the Left Front. To keep out Didi. The message from the middle class to Mamata was clear: that she was not trustworthy enough to be handed the reins of power. Her erratic volte faces and changes-of-mind had gained her neither the Muslim vote nor the moral high ground, as she had hoped. Instead, her resignation from the nda government had only eroded her credibility. “When the time came to vote, the Bengali looked at the options rationally, not emotionally,” a senior journalist told me. “And they saw a lady who did not seem to know herself what she was going to do tomorrow. This was not what we wanted from a chief minister.” Almost everyone says if she had stayed with the nda, Mamata would have won more seats. And almost everyone tells me that if the nda takes her back, it’s going to make Mamata a laughing stock in Bengal and the nda government look like a craven Pushmi-Pullyu, Dr Dolittle’s pet llama which had two heads looking in opposite directions and so could never decide which way to go.

…And Other Spirits

Some good things haven’t changed, like the Kolkatan’s unique relationship with the law. Driving to a blood bank to get blood for an ailing relative, I found myself going down the wrong way on a one-way street. Entreaties that I was from Delhi and didn’t know this was one-way cut no ice with the polite but firm traffic policeman. Then I told him that I needed to get to the blood bank quickly. He checked my medical papers, then waved me away with a “Stick to the side of the street and don’t do it again”. He knew both the letter and spirit of the law, and the difference between the two. Something the roadside cop in any other India metro has no clue about or has contempt for.

City Of Gins…

In the meantime, Kolkata seems to have already decided that happy days are here again. A city starved of entertainment avenues for decades is suddenly all fun and games. Huge new shopping malls bustle with splurge-thirsty matrons and teenagers. At night there are long queues outside swank new eateries serving everything from Thai to Mexican. Amusement parks in the suburbs do roaring business. New pubs and discos seem to be appearing every other week, and they are all jammed. The young Saturday night crowd with their lycra tops and leather mini-skirts in Tantra—supposedly the most happening disco in town—would fit into the nightlife scene in any metropolis in the world. It’s almost as if Kolkata got too bored with itself and decided to let down its hair. And ask anyone jostling for space on the dance floor or waiting in queue to see the latest Rituparna Ghosh film, and they’ll tell you that things are changing.

The Complete Man

As I sit writing this on the day the Left celebrates its 25th anniversary of coming to power, I can’t recall any chief minister anywhere enjoying as much popularity as Bhattacharyya does currently. Right now, he seems to be everything that the state needed. He demands efficiency, aggressively chases investment, and sees technology as a weapon of empowerment. His slogan is not a piece of Marxist intellectualism but a simple “Do it now,” and in Bengal’s context, it’s a call to arms. He insists the babus of Writers’ Building come to office on time. His industries minister Nirupam Sen, a party ideologue catapulted from obscurity to the No. 2 position in the Cabinet, bluntly told a crowd of schoolteachers (who form a crucial part of the Left Front’s core grassroots organisation) that they better start working, and if they didn’t, there were enough people to replace them. And last week came the announcement that the government wants to reintroduce English from Class I. Twenty years ago, the Left government abolished English till Class VI in all government-aided schools, resulting in the state producing several generations doomed to unemployment and economic stagnation.

Of course, Bhattacharyya has a huge uphill task ahead. His reforms will soon start affecting the many vested interests—babus, labour leaders, Marwari traders—who have thrived in the last 25 years. What happens then, when some of the Left’s core constituencies start resisting? Will the party back the man that Bengal needs? One can only hope so, for Bengal’s sake.

Neo-Buddhism

It’s never a very happy state of affairs to be defined by your adversary. With Jyoti Basu no longer CM, Mamata was suddenly left without the juicy target that had propelled her rise. For years, Basu’s elder-statesman image outside Bengal has been a source of derision inside the state. Basu’s arrogance, constant rumours of approaching senility, endless charges of corruption and wheeling-dealing against his son, and an increasingly criminalised administrative machinery had combined to make him the most hated man in the state, and the Left Front stayed in power simply because of the absence of any viable alternative.

Then came Didi, and after 25 years of Left rule, Bengal was primed for a change. But the Left Front understood this and removed Basu. In the first couple of months, the old man refused to fade away, and his 20-car convoy, which has a rival in perhaps only Jayalalitha’s automotive retinue, raced up and down the state at its usual Formula One speed, sirens blaring, carrying the Great Leader to rallies to be addressed and celebrations to be inaugurated. And then, slowly, interest dwindled, crowds diminished, and memories faded. It is amazing how little people here speak of Basu any more. “If Jyotibabu had remained CM, Mamata would have breezed into power,” I was told by a businessman friend, who has done a complete backflip from virulently anti-Left to fiercely pro-Buddhadev Bhattacharyya. “Had Buddhadev become CM a year ago instead of six months back, no one would have even discussed the possibility of Mamata coming to power. People wanted a change and they got the right change without having to explore uncharted terrain.”