Category Archives: Inspiration

Learn. Forget. Relearn The Hard Way.

History is probably the most underrated subject taught in school. In a country like India (and increasingly worldwide), ground realities have ensured that there is a high probability that unless you have a degree in a science related field, you will not have any measure of financial security.

The focus during schooling naturally shifts towards math and science and a subject like history tends to take the back seat. A soft field for those who can’t cut it in the world of technology. Future liberal arts majors who will eventually make a living at Starbucks, as the stereotype goes. But I will always count History among my favourite subjects.

This is not because I hate math and science or I was bad at them. It is because History strikes a chord within me and makes me think about life in a way even astronomy never can. Because it tells us the story of humanity. If we could compress all of history to a year with midnight on January 1st being the Big Bang, all of human history would be contained in the last few seconds of December 31st. Yet, it is a significant that we learn from it because our ability to survive and prosper depends on avoiding the mistakes we have made in the past.

When we learn history in school, the syllabus tends to focus on our nation’s history.  And in India, politics often determines the content of our textbooks. Critical inquiry is often discouraged, especially when there is a chance that the veneer of respectability and even divinity that we coat our nation’s leaders with is peeled away to reveal the monsters underneath.

I remember one entire school year we read about the Marathi King Shivaji. We learnt about how heroic he was, how just, how tolerant, how brave he was. We learnt what a master tactician he was and were reminded time and again about the aura of perfection that surrounded him. However, not once was there any criticism leveled against him. In Maharashtra, questioning Shivaji is taboo. One cannot something negative about him and go unpunished. Entire elections are decided on the basis of which political outfit invokes his name more often. And we treat his enemies, the Mughals and later the British like our own enemies.

Indian students learn exhaustively about the Indian freedom struggle, Americans, presumably about the American Revolution and the French learn lessons about the storming of Bastille and the execution of Louie XVI. But in this compartmentalization of history, while we glorify our heroes, we pay lip service to others. But in reality, each historical event profoundly influences others.

The French Revolution, for instance, is perhaps the single most important historical event of the 19th century. Republics, growth of liberal democracies and the rise of secularism in the modern age has it’s roots in it. Many ideas that shaped the Indian Republic were borrowed from the French Revolution and The American War of Independence.

The American Constitution is surely the most important document from the 18th century and shaped the constitutions of several other nations well into the 20th century. The American Civil Rights movement was extraordinarily important and in fact drew it’s inspirations from the civil disobedience movements pioneered by Mahatma Gandhi. Yet, only lip service is paid to these events.

We forget that nations are human constructs. Yesterday’s nations can dissolve and merge because what is a nation other than an arbitrary and ever changing division of land? We mustn’t let those who need these divisions to retain control make us forget that not too long ago, we were all merely tribes separated by distance, distances that are now just a minor inconvenience. And we share a common origin.

Forgetting our lessons causes us to make the same mistakes made in the past. Great civilizations fall because of indulgent populations that grow complacent and forget the ideals their nations were founded on. Greece, Persia, Mesopotamia and Rome all fell because of the rot that had set in and even America, a modern empire, is on the brink because in many ways, its citizens have repeated the errors made by empires past.

Giving History it’s due and making it accessible and important is the key to progressing as a species and moving beyond our petty squabbles. Many years ago, my father delighted me with stories of the great empires that sprang up, prospered and collapsed over the ages. It’s time everyone took a second look at their tales and listened closely to the lessons they teach.

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The Greatest Revolutionary?

The best measure of your belief in any cause is not how much you are willing to kill for it, but how much you are willing to die for it. Those who kill indiscriminately for a cause, are not as impressive as those who seek to reason with their oppressors. For this very reason, one of my greatest heroes, and perhaps the greatest revolutionary in modern history is Mahatma Gandhi.

At the time I was in school, several movies were released within a few months of each other dealing with Bhagat Singh. What distressed me about these movies was that they portrayed Gandhi as a schemer and seemed to make it appear that he had a superficial role in securing India’s independence. Some of my friends became very anti-Gandhi at the time and I could not completely understand the reason.

Gandhi’s path of non-violence may come across as meek to many people but it was far more effective than violent acts. Consider an oppressive regime like the British government at the time. They employed brutal force, harsh punishments and imposed an iron rule across India. What retaliatory violence served to do was harden British hearts against the cries of a nation longing for freedom. This was observed in the revolution of 1857 where even the most sympathetic of British observers would have been inclined to acts of violence when stories of rape and pillaging by Indian soldiers on British citizens reached them.

But Gandhi revolutionized the approach to struggle for rights and freedom. Responding to violence with violence leaves no difference between the oppressor and the oppressed. It brings them both down to the level of beasts who cannot reason. If there was a way to make the British realize what brutalities were being visited on the Indian masses, it might turn public opinion in favour of independence. The approach relied on the assumption that the average human being had enough empathy to relate to the victim’s cause. An armed struggle on the other hand would have been far more harmful to the Indian freedom struggle, as is seen with so many other revolutions. The recently concluded war in Libya has left the nation in tatters and a stable government looks unlikely to be formed there any time soon.

What Gandhi’s struggle left was a legacy of nonviolence and tolerance. It gave millions of people hope that their cause was just and the best way to prove it was to respond with kindness and mercy where none existed. This non-violent struggle did not end with India’s independence. Much of the civil rights movement in the USA drew it’s inspiration from the Civil Disobedience and non co-operation movements successfully started by Gandhi. And they have had resounding successes.

Perhaps the enduring legacy of this method was demonstrated by the Prime Minister of Norway when the perpetrator of the Norway Massacres of 2011, Christian terrorist Anders Breivik, was apprehended. When calls were made to reinstate the death penalty, the Prime Minister said, “We will respond to attacks on our democracy with even more democracy.” This statement encapsulates all that is great about what Gandhi championed. When you sink to the level of your foe, then your struggle is meaningless. An eye for an eye, indeed makes the whole world blind.

 

 

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Happy Birthday Mr. Tesla

A few years ago, when I was tasked with creating the first annual magazine for the Electrical Engineering department in my college, one thing I knew right away was whom I wanted to dedicate the magazine to. It wasn’t Gandhi or Sardar Patel (after whom my college is named) or Abdul Kalam or my HOD. It was dedicated to one of the giants of modern science and one of my heroes, Nikola Tesla.

When one ever thinks about electrical engineering, which is very very rare for most people, the only person who is vaguely associated with the field is Thomas Alva Edison – a great inventor and scientist himself. He invented the first long-lasting incandescent light bulb, the motion picture camera and many other things. But the story of Nikola Tesla is perhaps the story of electrical engineering itself.

The work of an electrical engineer seems almost mundane. It certainly isn’t glamorous, is thankless, slightly esoteric and definitely unnoticed. After all, electricity cannot be seen right? One takes for granted the fact that at the flip of a switch, the lights go on, water is heated, computers are booted and videos uploaded. While one is willing to discuss the i7 processor, the latest android OS and Google +, one does not really feel the need to discuss the movement of electrons through a wire. And one does not really need to.

For most people, the only time electricity is discussed is either when the bill is too high, or when there isn’t any electricity at all. Perhaps our unlucky cousins from the rural areas of Maharashtra appreciate the 8 hours of intermittent electricity they get a lot more than the denizens of the island city, where the power rarely goes out.

Nothing we do today would be possible without the immense contribution of this eccentric Serbian who was born on this day in 1856. Calling him a genius would probably be doing a disservice to him, especially when customer representatives at any apple store call themselves that.

When Tesla arrived in the US in 1884, he started working for Thomas Edison. Supposedly offered $50,000 if he made Edison’s DC generators more efficient, he was allegedly denied the amount with Edison telling Tesla that he did not understand “American Humor”. If this were true, one would probably not be unfair in calling Edison a dick.

What is true is that Tesla soon quit Edison’s company and started his own company and constructed the first brushless AC induction motor. To someone who does not understand the significance of this invention, this is the electrical engineering equivalent of founding Google.

Not content with this, he worked with George Westinghouse to popularize poly-phase AC systems which won the “War of the Currents” against Edison’s own DC system. Again, to put this in perspective, this is essentially the equivalent of replacing the postal system with the internet AND wireless mobile systems.

Edison did much to discredit the AC system but eventually had to cave in to higher demand and gave up his DC technology. But Tesla was beyond caring at this point. He had latched on to more revolutionary ideas. He first demonstrated the possibility of wireless power transmission way back in 1893. Scientists are still working to make this commercially viable. He demonstrated wireless radio communication a year after that and his Tesla coils helped him study x-rays when they were still known as Rontgen Rays.

Like all great men, he was unable to digest the fact that the world could not keep up with him. He established principles for radar, wrote about an ocean thermal energy system and obtained his last patent which was for a Vertical Take-Off and Landing aircraft. Quite simply put, he was way ahead of his time. Did I mention the fact that he was fluent in eight languages?

For a man who has given much to the world and modern science, the only memory people seem to have of Tesla is as the unit of magnetic induction. His ideas grew even more eccentric, with his criticism of Einstein’s theory of relativity, plans for a death-ray and a dynamic theory of gravity – which was never published.

He stayed as a recluse in a New York hotel for the last 10 years of his life and undoubtedly became a bit senile. A sufferer of OCD and prone to strange visions, he died alone of heart failure in 1943.

For someone who practically invented the electrical industry on his own, history has not been kind to Tesla. He is scarcely remembered by a world that owes him much. But for those who do know about him and his work, he will always be a hero and remain a continuing source of inspiration.

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The Grameen Bank Story

How often does one really get the chance to see a Nobel prize winner speak? And how often does one get a book signed by one? And most importantly, how many people get to carry around his business card? It’s a great honour.

Two reasons why studies in the USA are worth it – 1) The amazing libraries and 2) the opportunity to hear great men speak.

A few weeks ago, I received a routine email stating that Muhammad Yunus would be speaking at Georgia Tech about Social Business and that he would be available to sign books. I marked the date on my schedule and was eagerly looking forward to his talk.

The talk was set to begin at 5 but I reached at 4, knowing fully well that the auditorium would be packed. I secretly cheered my foresight as I found an empty chair and saw that the hall was pretty crowded around 4:15. Students from the management courses that got over at 4:30 were yet to make it to the hall and I feared they would be unlucky. Sure enough, people started to get folding chairs and started sitting on the floor in the aisles.

Mr. Yunus arrived at 4:55. In the confusion to find seats, most people missed his arrival. Not surprising since he does not look imposing at all. He was dressed in a simple kurta, payjama and waistcoat (might have been khadi) and simple black shoes.

Mr. Yunus started off by saying that he never had the intention of forming a bank. He said, “Circumstances push you and for me those circumstances were the poverty I saw around me in Bangladesh. Elegant theories make no sense when people are dying and I wanted to do something as an individual, not as an economist.”

Mr. Yunus taught at a university which was surrounded by villages. He talked about how the villages themselves became a university for him as he learned so much from them. He came to know about loan sharking. He started off by giving the equivalent of 27$ to around 42 families. This freed them from debt. What was astounding is the amounts which the villagers owed the sharks. 27$ by 42 families is less than 30 rupees per family.

He went to banks and realized that they found his idea of lending money to the poor as crazy. Mr. Yunus told the bankers that their design was completely wrong. Banks lent money to the rich and not the poor and less than 1% of the borrowers were women.

He and his students lent money to the members of one village and the scheme worked. The poor were free of debt and could repay their loans. The banks asked them to verify it at another village, then another and another yet again. Finally Mr. Yunus realized that the banks were never going to accept his vision and decided to create Grameen bank. In his simple but eloquent English he says, “I decide what I want to do. Why should I work to please some bank manager?” Why indeed.

With the scheme starting in 1976, he formed the bank in 1983. 97% of the borrowers were women and the borrowers themselves owned the bank. Mr Yunus says he is just another employee and his business card attests to the same. Simply designed, it says, “Professor Muhammad Yunus, Managing Director”.

The money that is lent comes from the deposits itself. There is no world bank aid or anything of the sort. In spite of this the bank lends around 100 million dollars every month and growing.

He said the bank also encourages the education of children. The cost of higher education is borne by loans from the bank. A large percentage of Bangladesh’s poor are now educated directly because of Grameen bank.

At one point, Professor Yunus emotionally recounted the story of a girl he met in a village and she was helping her mother. He recognized her from years before and asked her what she was doing. She replied that she was a doctor now and she had come to the village just to meet Dr. Yunus because she had heard he was visiting the village. He said he looked at the mother and the daughter and the looked the same and he asked himself why the opportunities the daughter had got, the mother could not. He says, “Poverty is not created by people but by the system.”

The Grameen bank model has been successfully implemented outside Bangladesh in places as far away as Manhattan and the new banking system is all inclusive. No longer are the rich the only ones eligible for loans. Grameen bank has truly changed the world for the better.

Mr. Yunus also talked about how the whole idea of business is wrong. He says, “Everyone enjoys making money. People earn money and they think they are ‘successful’. But this makes human beings robots. Is earning money the only things human beings are made for? We are not uni-dimensional!”

“When economists theorized business, they presumed that humans are selfish and formulated their definitions accordingly. What they forgot that humans can be selfless too.”

“The key to social business”, Professor Yunus says, “is adding the concept of selflessness to business. We are making money because there is nothing else to do. But money cannot be an end. It should only be the means to something. That is where social business comes in and that is where the future lies.”

“When I was young, people would laugh when someone said people could walk on the moon. Today I am saying that poverty can be completely eliminated from this world. Do you really think it is impossible?”

The simple man he is, Professor Yunus chose to conclude without fuss. All he said was, “If happiness is the purpose, then my purpose is served. Thank you.”

Notes taken, lessons learned and book signed, I walked back a little dazed and very happy.

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The Global Soap Project

As part of a management course I take at Tech, I get to attend talks by some very interesting people every week. CEOs of companies talk about leadership, entrepreneurship, their own companies and struggles. Today, I had the privilege of listening to Mr. Derreck Kayongo.

Mr. Kayongo is the founder of the Global Soap Project. The idea of the project is simple. For people around the world who live on less than 1$ a day, soap is a luxury they cannot afford. If they had access to soap, the risk of people in underdeveloped countries catching infectious diseases would decrease by half. Every day, hotels around the world throw away millions of bars of soap which have been used only once or twice. They replace them with new soap bars. What happens to the old ones? They are thrown in the trash. What the Global Soap Project does is ask the hotels to give them the soap bars which would otherwise be thrown. They melt the bars and recast them to remove what Mr. Kayongo describes as the “yuck” factor. Then they ship it to Africa.

The problem is the project is new and they need help and funds. Hopefully Mr. Kanyogo would be able to secure both soon because I think this is a brilliant idea. All the best to him. Long live the Global Soap Project.

P.S. I really think he should be on TED

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Poems

I have never really had enough patience to read and appreciate many poems. But recently, I searched for some of the poems I remember from my school days and was amazed by the amount of meaning they contain. The fact that many of them have been written hundreds of years ago does not diminish their relevance in any way. This is just a short collection of poems I read yesterday. They never cease to amaze me.

Trees by Joyce Kilmer.

I think I shall never see,
A poem lovely as a tree;

A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed,
Against the Earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear,
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain,
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

Death the Leveller by J. Shirley

The glories of our blood and state
Are shadows, not substantial things;
There is no armour against fate;
Death lays his icy hand on kings:
Sceptre and crown
Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.

Some men with swords may reap the field,
And plant fresh laurels where they kill;
But their strong nerves at last must yield—
They tame but one another still:
Early or late
They stoop to fate,
And must give up their murmuring breath
When they, pale captives, creep to death.

The garlands wither on your brow:
Then boast no more your mighty deeds;
Upon Death’s purple altar now
See where the victor-victim bleeds.
Your heads must come
To the cold tomb:
Only the actions of the just
Smell sweet, and blossom in their dust.

Inchcape Rock by Robert Southley

No stir in the air, no stir in the sea,
The Ship was still as she could be;
Her sails from heaven received no motion,
Her keel was steady in the ocean.

Without either sign or sound of their shock,
The waves flow’d over the Inchcape Rock;
So little they rose, so little they fell,
They did not move the Inchcape Bell.

The Abbot of Aberbrothok
Had placed that bell on the Inchcape Rock;
On a buoy in the storm it floated and swung,
And over the waves its warning rung.

When the Rock was hid by the surge’s swell,
The Mariners heard the warning Bell;
And then they knew the perilous Rock,
And blest the Abbot of Aberbrothok

The Sun in the heaven was shining gay,
All things were joyful on that day;
The sea-birds scream’d as they wheel’d round,
And there was joyaunce in their sound.

The buoy of the Inchcpe Bell was seen
A darker speck on the ocean green;
Sir Ralph the Rover walk’d his deck,
And fix’d his eye on the darker speck.

He felt the cheering power of spring,
It made him whistle, it made him sing;
His heart was mirthful to excess,
But the Rover’s mirth was wickedness.

His eye was on the Inchcape Float;
Quoth he, “My men, put out the boat,
And row me to the Inchcape Rock,
And I’ll plague the Abbot of Aberbrothok.”

The boat is lower’d, the boatmen row,
And to the Inchcape Rock they go;
Sir Ralph bent over from the boat,
And he cut the bell from the Inchcape Float.

Down sank the Bell with a gurgling sound,
The bubbles rose and burst around;
Quoth Sir Ralph, “The next who comes to the Rock,
Won’t bless the Abbot of Aberbrothok.”

Sir ralph the Rover sail’d away,
He scour’d the seas for many a day;
And now grown rich with plunder’d store,
He steers his course for Scotland’s shore.

So thick a haze o’erspreads the sky,
They cannot see the sun on high;
The wind hath blown a gale all day,
At evening it hath died away.

On the deck the Rover takes his stand,
So dark it is they see no land.
Quoth Sir Ralph, “It will be lighter soon,
For there is the dawn of the rising Moon.”

“Canst hear,” said one, “the breakers roar?
For methinks we should be near the shore.”
“Now, where we are I cannot tell,
But I wish we could hear the Inchcape Bell.”

They hear no sound, the swell is strong,
Though the wind hath fallen they drift along;
Till the vessel strikes with a shivering shock,
“Oh Christ! It is the Inchcape Rock!”

Sir Ralph the Rover tore his hair,
He curst himself in his despair;
The waves rush in on every side,
The ship is sinking beneath the tide.

But even is his dying fear,
One dreadful sound could the Rover hear;
A sound as if with the Inchcape Bell,
The Devil below was ringing his knell.

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Another Dateless Diary

When I was at home I never felt the need to keep a diary. It seemed needless, I had the blog. I never felt the need to pen down what I really thought about people and all. I guess that was when I had really close friends I could share stuff with on a regular basis and get stuff sorted out. But its all different now.

I don’t have any really close friends here unfortunately. It will take time to make new ones. So I have started keeping a daily journal. Over the summer when I was in Chennai, in a quest for good reading material, I stumbled onto my Grandfather’s diary. I have never known him. He passed away years before I was born. But reading even the mundane entries in his diary, including stuff like “Milk purchase today” somehow made me connect with him. A man and his memories.

I guess now that i am getting a chance to experience new things, I ought to make the most of it. And the daily struggles that one goes through here what with trying to control spending and trudging for hours to various places located across the campus for nonexistent jobs would one day serve to remind me of the bad times in life, so I can cherish the good ones and would help keep me grounded.

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