Hoopla at the Bandra Kurla
The PanIIT 2006 conference was a marvel to behold. I was among the over 5,000 (so the organizers claimed) who attended the event at the Bandra-Kurla Complex in Mumbai, Dec 23rd to the 25th. I had had my misgivings about being part of the hoopla but my curiosity trumped discretion eventually. I don’t regret being there, mind you, as it was a supreme learning experience. Besides, I got to meet some interesting people, and see some people who I had heard and read about a lot but never seen them in the flesh.
President Kalam Azad
Dec 23rd was a red-letter day for me. It was the first time that I saw one of the greatest contemporary Indian icons, President Shri APJ Abdul Kalam. He arrived an hour late. I believe it is called being “fashionably late.” Which was a good thing. While waiting for him, the guy who was the master of ceremonies actually got to learn the name of the President of the Republic of India, and thus saved everyone the pain of feeling embarrassed for him for making a fool of himself in front of President Kalam.
The MC (I never quite figured out what his name was) thought that he would fill in the time showing off how cool he was by reciting some shairi. The word “tuk-al-luf” figured prominently in it. What followed was a rambling eulogy of the guest of honor who was “none other than Prof Kalam Azad.” The “none other than” must be his favorite phrase because throughout the day, every single person was introduced by him as “none other than.” Anyway, if he were to be not too clued in about the name of a relatively unknown person, he could be forgiven. But not knowing the name of the guest of honor who just happened to be the president of the country, and whom he was supposed to introduce, takes the cake when it comes to being clueless. He repeated what he thought was the president’s name a few times during his show of coolness. After a brief break, he came back to announce that he had learnt the name of the president of India, but he still thought that “azad” was appropriate as it meant “Freedom,” an ideal much prized by the president. I am happy that the MC did not embellish the president’s name any further. I was afraid that his next iteration would be “Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad.”
I think that was the high point of the PanIIT 2006 meet that day. It was downhill all the way from there. And I guess the organizers figured that too. They took the stage for the next hour or so (but seemed interminable) congratulating each other on the “great success the PanIIT 2006” was. Each tried to outdo the other in heaping praise on all and sundry for the great job they have done. It was an orgy of premature congratulations. Their praise for each was only interrupted by references to how great a “brand” IIT was and how they, as the “product” of IITs, were going to “Inspire, Involve, and Transform” the nation, and who knows, perhaps the world, if not the entire universe. They were clearly impressed by their own cleverness in expanding IIT to mean spell the theme of the event.
It was a bit too thick, and I was beginning to feel a little sick. A bunch of self-absorbed inflated egos strutting about the stage sprouting meaningless drivel about how great they and the IITs were soon gets nauseating. So it was a pleasure to see President Kalam take the stage, of course after the mandatory references to “scientist” and “rockets.”
Kalam is charming. There is a naïve simplicity about him that is endearing. His eagerness and sincerity is almost childlike. Perhaps that accounts for why he is an able administrator; people like him. I sometime wonder: is it better to be very bright, extremely arrogant, supremely competent, and highly accomplished—but disliked—or is it better to be not too bright, quite humble, somewhat mediocre, charming—but liked? I suppose the answer depends on what job you want done. If you need a monumental work done, you need the first kind, the kind I would call “General.” (General Patton is the archetype.) But if you need to be inspired to be good, then you need the second kind, the “Grandfather.”
Anyway, as I was saying, Kalam was a welcome break. His introductory remarks lasted for about 10 minutes in which he panned IITs. He used an interesting device. He said that he called up a bunch of people the previous day and asked what was the first thought that came to their minds when they heard the word “IIT.” His respondents included, among others, a General in the army and a former director of an IIT. The responses he received ranged from “very low value addition” to “largely irrelevant.” Not exactly the sort of thing that the organizers of PanIIT wanted to hear, I am sure. But then, Kalam had warned that what he was about to say was going to be “mixed.”
Nanotech Genomic Economic Rural Development
If Kalam had limited his talk to the introductory remarks, it would have been sufficient. But then he got on to his favorite hobby horse and rode off into technological wonderland. I am sure that there are those who upon hearing a long speech heavy-laden with a huge amount of scientific jargon (nanotechnology, bioinformatics, genomics, etc.) mistakenly believe that their incomprehension is an indication of profundity of the thoughts expressed. These people eagerly lap up books with titles such as “Quantum Healing” (Chopra comes to mind) and “Nanotechnological Genomic Economic Rural Development” (Note to self: Finish writing that book already.) There is a market out there waiting to be exploited.
Kalam exited stage right after receiving a flurry of bouquets and mementoes, amid much cheering and expressions of gratitude for his gracing the momentous occasion. The next event was a panel consisting of IIT directors. Many people decided to take this opportunity to leave the main hall and wander off to retrieve their cell phones from the security people. Due to security concerns, all bags and any sort of electronic devices were not allowed into the hall during Kalam’s visit.
Stay Home, ET
Which brings me to one of my pet peeves. The organizers of these sorts of events naturally like to bag high profile people as trophies. It costs them a bundle but that is all paid for by the thousands who attend to watch the trophies. Private costs and private benefits roughly match and all is fine and good. But what about the externalities that are associated with the visit of a celebrity such as the president? No one seems the least concerned with the considerable public costs incurred without the attendant public benefits obtained.
Kalam could have been virtually present at the gathering from his comfortable residence in Delhi. The technology was all in place for him to make his half-hour speech and we could have seen him larger than life on the massive LCD projector screens. He would not have been late; air traffic would not have to be disrupted twice at each airport (Delhi and Mumbai) for his arrival and departure for a total of about 2 hours; disruption of traffic in Mumbai and Delhi during his transit would not have occurred; the list goes on. Delayed flights, longer commute times, the flights carrying the president and his entourage—all avoidable but not avoided because someone else bears the costs, not the organizers nor the president.
The Brightest and the Best
Retrieving the cell phone was an ordeal that I would not even go into. If the mismanagement of a simple foreseeable task such as the safe-keeping of cell-phones is indicative of the brains of the so-called brightest engineers of the land, I am afraid that the land is in trouble.
It took only an hour to get my cell phone back. Of course, a few thousand others also wasted an hour each to retrieve their cellphones.
I got back into the hall to find the organizers praising each other. The next celebrity speaker was “none other than” Shashi Tharoor. Handsome, urbane, English-accented, India’s nominee for the top job at the UN, Tharoor was introduced with appropriate recognition of his many accomplishments.
Talking of introductions, I noted a pattern. These intros were multi-level contraptions, wheels within wheels. The speaker X was introduced at length by Y, after Y himself had been introduced at length by Z. Thus, Purnendu Chatterjee was given a long introduction, following which Chatterjee then gave a long introduction to Tharoor. Just for good measure, Chatterjee launched into a long speech himself before getting on with introducing Tharoor.
Every Cliché About India
I had anticipated that Tharoor’s speech would be entertaining, considering that part of his day job includes speaking and writing competently. A professional speaker, so to speak. (I heard rumors—stress rumors—that he was paid $50K for the performance.) Anyway, Tharoor did not disappoint in the entertainment department. The jokes were inserted at the right moments and were appropriately changed to be pertinent to the context.
Have you heard that one about the Texan farmer who visits an Israeli farm? So the story goes that the Israeli proudly shows the Texan around his rather modestly sized farm. After all, this is Israel, which barely shows up in small maps of the world. The Texan boasts to the Israeli that he himself has a farm in Texas. Back home, the Texan says, when he gets into his car in the morning to drive across his farm, by evening time he still doesn’t reach the other end of his farm. The Israeli shakes his head in commiseration and replies, “I know, I know. I had a car like that once upon a time.”
Tharoor told a more elaborate version of the joke, replacing the Israeli with a Punjab da puttar. His point was that our assumptions dictate our perceptions. A clichéd observation. And that was the disappointing bit about Tharoor. His speech was a string of clichés, though well put together. First came the cliché about how every statement about India, and its converse, are both true. Then came the cliché that India is a pluralistic democracy and everyone in India is a minority. He clearly side-stepped the issue that while we all are equal in our being minorities, some minorities are more equal than others, as Orwell had pointed out.
I suppose it gets a tad tiring when one is reminded for the umpteenth time that a Muslim president administered the oath of office to a Sikh prime minister who was nominated by an Italian Catholic leader of the party. The Muslim presidents of India, the Muslim officer who commanded this sector during that war with Pakistan, the Parsi officer who led the Indian army in the other war — the list is long. All to show how secular India is. Whenever I hear people talking so vehemently about Indian secularism, I am reminded of the statement made by some wit: “The louder he spoke of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”
Then there was the cliché about how the Hindu Indians can only be secular by denying their religion but non-Hindus can be secular even if they claim that theirs is the only valid faith. Tharoor loudly proclaimed that he was a practicing Hindu and a recovered atheist. Good for him. I wasn’t taking notes but that is no loss as I am sure that he makes those points frequently enough that it is bound to be there somewhere on the web for anyone interested in what he had to say.
The public gave Tharoor a standing ovation. Cynic that I am, rarely get off my seat upon hearing pretty speeches. “Yeah, yeah,” I say, “Just get on with the show.” I was eager to hear the next speaker, Mr George Soros, and we were already running about an hour late. Soros is a hero of mine. Knows his stuff and knows that he knows it. Means what he says and says what he means. (How about them clichés, eh?)
Of course, that does not protect him from being misquoted. He was asked by one person eager to get into philanthropy how to go about it. Soros replied that one should first get rich before worrying about philanthropy. The next day, DNA, a Mumbai newspaper, quoted him as saying, “Get into philosophy only after you have become rich.” (Philosophy, philanthropy, what’s the difference, eh?)
It was sad that Soros was not given an opportunity to speak. He was told that as they were running short of time, they would go straight to questions. Still, Soros snuck in some of his observations about India. By the way, Soros stole someone else’s line about being an expert on India: that within 48 hours of being in India, one becomes an expert on India, and in a few months one realizes that one is not an expert.
Upon reading what I have just written, I realize that this is too bloody long. I should take a breather. I am saving the best for the last. In the next bit, I will go into the phenomenon called “Sri Sri Ravi Shankar” who was the concluding speaker that evening. I have pondered SSRS for years and here was the most exciting event coming up. I was going to see him (or should it be “Him”?) in person. Please come back for the next exciting installment of “Panned IIT” when I get to see “His Holiness Guru Dev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar ji” in the flesh.
It’s all karma, neh?
[Will wonders never cease? I have actually written the promised followup to this post here.]