NR Narayana Murthy, the true Indian, and how this offends us all…

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If there’s one thing typically Indian, apart from the sideways-and-shake head wobble, which means just about everything ranging from ‘yes to no, to don’t know, okay!, don’t care, no idea, maybe, anything, to Oh! I’m so excited’, it is this tendency and the ability to run ourselves down to the ground. This self-loathing of sorts, I haven’t yet found in people from any country other than my fellow Indians.

Sure the, Brits are a self-deprecating lot, Greece are an embittered one now I guess, the French are confused but proud, while the Americans, well, they don’t care a damn… But, I believe only Indians are afflicted with this self-loathing that Mr. N R Narayana Murthy let shine through in his speech recently at IISc, Bangalore. Wait, scratch that, IISc Bengaluru! since we decided to cast our colonial past away in the hopes that it allow us to rediscover our Vedic mathematics, the pushpak vimaan, all the fantastical things the likes of VHPs and other would have us believe existed long before the process of patenting did – again a western thing.

Let’s have a gist of what Mr. Murthy, IISc Chairman Emeritus, said at the 2015 Convocation Lecture, which was titled: How can you, the graduates of IISc, contribute towards a better India and a better world?
Apparently, Mr. Murthy knows and means to tell us so.

Full text of Murthy’s speech (Scroll.in)

So he takes a leaf out of MIT’s book – Ideas and Inventions: 101 gifts from MIT to the world. Note the significance of 101 here. Not 98, not 103, not 10,000, and definitely not 37.5. So far as I know, only in India do we have this tradition of gifting in odd numbers – the shaadi ka teeka, or Muh-dikhayi or some such. This practice is so typically Indian that if you go outlooking for fancy gift envelope in any of our stationery stores, you won’t find anything that’s not embedded with a Re.1 coin, set in a printed filigree border, so as to spare the gift giver the inconvenience of scrounging for loose change. I think the world send a thank-you note to MIT or as we would in India, at least perform that exaggerated gesture that looks like the blesser is trying to catch hold of the blessee’s horns (imaginary ones, to be found on the head), and twist it until they break completely, a cracking on knuckles completes the act, perhaps to symbolise the breaking of these horns. It’s called balaaiya lena in Hindi, you know what I am talking about!

Well, coming back to MIT, I am glad the NRN wants to compare our IISc with this mighty turk of technology and invention. But, we are like this only. We compare. From husband’s salary to the hemlines of daughter’s frocks to the length of her locks to son’s report cards to wife’s figure to friend’s sari or girlfriend – as it may apply across genders – comparison is how we get by socially. If comparison doesn’t fit into the present scenario, we stretch the scenario to cover the past as well (the Vedic times, the times of Ramayana and Mahabharata, Manu, and all such).

So, I think NRN was indulging only that part of his Indian-ness. Think of him as that overbearing parent (If you’re Indian, surely you’ve had at least one of the sort) – not like a tiger mom, tiger mom bares her teeth – but more a deliberate and vicious version. Tiger mom growls and slashes her tail about to ensure are scared enough to become slackers of any sort. The Indian version has a slightly mad quality to it. Just a tinge of madness here and there – parents who hang their kids by the ceiling fan, teachers who strike kids on the knuckles or make them stand in the Indian sun for 7 hours for missing school for a day, elders who advise parents to take to the stick when things go out of hand, mothers who paint the bleakest of futures just so their kids do that 1 maths sum. Maths, science, and English… I can still hear my memory jingle.

So, NRN compared IISc Bangalore to MIT and India… well, he did say, “Yet, let us look at the problems that surround us here in India. We have the largest mass of illiterates in the world. We have the largest number of children with malnutrition. We have the poorest public health service in the world. We have the dirtiest rivers in the world. Our vehicles produce he highest carbon per vehicle in the world. We have the lowest per-capita usable water in the world. Our primary education is one of the lowest quality in the world. I can go on and on. The important thing is to recognise that this country has no shortage of problems to be solved urgently.”

Well, yes we do, all of that and more, in fact. A quick perusal of the Mumbai Mirror will tell you that. It’s telling that when the PM wants to make Digital India a reality, a lot of Mumbai Mirror readers write in to its Sexpert, Dr. Mahinder Watsa, asking about the risks of pregnancy from kissing. I mean, these people only need to google, or watch Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (which was released more than 15 years ago at least). But, they don’t do that. Instead, they choose to write to Dr. Watsa, waiting for the next day’s edition to come out while plucking the petals off a flower “I’m pregnant”, “I’m not” – tick tock tick tock!

So yes, Mr. NRN, you have hopes from these young students, but be careful what you hope for. It might just come true. He says he does not find any difference between students here and students in the western countries. Now, saar, you’re being funny. Ask a Grade II student in India to stand up and introduce self, ask the same of a student from the western world and there you will see it. We are a people who turn craven in spotlight, generally speaking. And that comes from our having poor fundamentals or fundas. Some are shy of attention, some are scared of speaking in public but very few of us are confident enough in any subject. We do things we do to clear exams, to shine better in comparison to others on a CGPA scale. To innovate would need a different skill set altogether. The Indian society unmakes many a Bill Gates by not letting them drop out of school, many a Steve Jobs by not letting them drop out of college, and many a nobel laureate by not ensuring they get to go to school and then on to college, and then on to university as they please.

People innovate when they are free and they have resources. When they don’t, they do something called Jugaad. Jugaad is a low-born cousin of innovation, but no less in merit, that focuses on making do with little to deliver much more. Surely, you must have heard of it? What is Infosys, after all? You call 24-hour workday an innovation? No sir, that’s jugaad. And it has created more problems than it has solved. why working more than 8 hrs a day can kill you But that’s hardly your lookout. You’re the boss of Infosys.

Which brings me to this – not a fat load of innovation has come out of Infosys either, or do you have 101 gifts from Infosys to the world in the pipeline, too? How about 11? We hope that the next time you take to a lectern, we hear from this list of yours.

Touchy, I’m not. We are what we are. A bunch of slatternly people who won’t let an ambulance have the right of way, but will worship even a crow in order to pass a test or to have a marriage match approved. We all are quite aware of our limitations. Your speech, while touched on a topic that is true, violated a few expectations that are humane – those of dignity. You are chairman of what the students call their alma mater. You should have been more discerning. This was their Convocation Day, not a day they decided to bunk your lecture for a cricket match. This tone of chiding was undeserved as it would ever be, and all in all, you sounded like a disgruntled parent who is doing everything to make the child finish an extra chapter in the silver hopes that you’ll one day be hailed as the one whose child came on top! You may have had a lot of gifts yourself but a gift for motivation is not one of them.

We don’t have an MIT, yet, and perhaps never will. But if we do, the kind of words you spoke will definitely not have helped the matters.

As for your original harangue on innovation, here’s something: Blowing Infosys’ trumpet

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