Archive for the ‘History’ Category

I had the opportunity to visit Sweden last month to attend a management program on Corporate Responsibility. It was an amazing experience. My most memorable experience was the visit to the Nobel Museum at Stockholm. We were lucky to have a very well informed guide. Let me narrate to you a cute story that I heard there. You see the chair below. There is a tradition that after the Nobel dinner the prize winner who signs behind the chair. Once there is no more space for signatures it is bought to the Nobel Museum.

There was one chair in the Museum which was kept locked in a glass case. We thought it belonged to a famous prize winner.

It turned out that this chair had the signature of Koichi Tanaka, a Chemistry Noble prize winner from Japan. He was only a salaried engineer with just a bachelor’s degree. He was not a PhD like most other winners. In fact, he is the first recipient of the chemistry prize with only a bachelor’s degree. He is very famous in Japan because of his unlikely achievement. All the tourist from Japan were insisting on sitting on this chair and taking a picture. They were not even interested in Einstein’s chair as much as this one. The chair was showing signs of breaking because of the demand and hence they decided to protect it in a  glass case.

Here are some more picture from the Museum

A brief about all the prize winner till date is hung a clothes line near the entrance of the Museum.

The hand written will of Alfred Nobel.  According to the guide the most revolutionary aspect of the will was the clause that the prize should be awarded without consideration of nationality. At the time it was written, it was very controversial since many swedes felt that Nobel was giving away his wealth to other countries. But it was this very same clause that made the prize so prestigious.

Inscriptions on the floor of the Museum

Me and our guide in front of Nobel’s will

Quotes by Nobel winners on the walls of the Museum

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I spotted this book a couple of months back at a bookstore in Bangalore. It caught my eye because it dealt with many subjects that interest me –  Shiva, Indus Valley, river Saraswathi and real stories behind mythology. I read a couple of pages and found the style of writing very text bookish. I decided not to buy but instead borrow it from the library.

In the past couple of weeks many people wrote to me about this book. My friend Archana presented it for my birthday. On the same day my library delivered a copy. Another friend, Meenks wrote to me from the US recommending the book. He had read reviews of the book and thought I would like it. It was almost as if the entire universe was conspiring to make me read the book 🙂

All my friends were right, I loved the book. Although I was not mistaken in my initial assessment of the style of writing, I enjoyed it all the same.

 It is the story of Shiva, a Tibetan immigrant who comes to Meluha (mainland India) to escape from the incessant tribal wars in his countru. In Meluha he is given Somras which makes his throat turn blue. Thus he becomes Neelkanth, who the Meluhan legend says would be their savior. The story is about Shiva’s discovery of his true destiny. In the course of the story we are introduced to many mythological characters in their new Avatar. Brahma the Meluhan scientist who invents Somras, the drink of immortality. Saptharishis are selected students of Brahma to whom Somras was first administered. Lord Rama, an ancient king who broke the caste barrier to the access to Somras.  He laid down a social order which ensured that everyone got equal opportunities regardless of their birth.  Sati, the daughter of the current Meluhan king, Daksha. Manu, a Pandya kind from the land of Tamil sangam!!!!

I know, I know. I can hear many of you are screaming in protest at the blatant disregard for actual historical facts

Amish, the author the book has the imagination of a child. It is innocent, idealistic and without boundaries. And just like a child his story is very simplistic. It lacks the nuance and depth of an adult’s book.  Have you seen the cartoon network adaptation of Ramayan in English? This book gives you a similar feeling.  Shiva comes across as a cool dude of the new millennium who loves marijuana and has modern views of equality, justice and democracy.  Sati is the feminist of the last millennium, intelligent, well read and a warrior and yet willingly submissive to the rules of her tradition. She silently bears all the insults hurled at her and raises her voice only when someone insults Shiva. Towards the end Shiva resembles Ahoka, filled with grief for having fought a pointless war. There are also references to the ideological clash of communism and democracy.  The book is the first of a trilogy and the climax is cleverly crafted to make you long for the next one.

The Immortals of Meluha is very much a children’s book at heart. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Those of us who are closet comic book readers, who can still experience the magic of Astrix, Archie and Bhagavatam will understand its appeal.

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Last year I went on a trip to Rameshwaram, which is an island in the south of India. It is a very important pilgrimage center, famous for an ancient Shiva temple believed to have been built by Lord Rama. We had to get to the town via a bridge built across the ocean. The sea looked so beautiful from there. I have never seen so many colors in the ocean. It varied from Aquamarine green to deep blue.


It reminded me of the great Indian scientist Sir C.V.Raman who got the inspiration for his Nobel Prize winning theory as he observed the deep blue of Mediterranean Sea from the deck of his ship. I thought I should write about him.  

Before Raman propounded his theory it was believed that the sea was blue because it reflected the blue of the sky. Raman observed that the Mediterranean appeared blue even when the sky was dull gray. After extensive research in his laboratory in India he found that the color of the sea changes because of a phenomenon called inelastic scattering of light. Why is the sky blue? Because it scatters the blue light more than any other wavelength. A similar phenomenon occurs in ocean. However in addition to scattering the light , the molecules of the water absorb some energy from the light. A lower energy light radiation is emitted and thus color of the sea changes. It is not identical to the color of the sky. It can easily be understood through quantum theory. Photons of higher energy are absorbed and lower energy are released by the molecules. If you look at the picture above, the color varies directly proportional to the depth of the sea. I think it is because, in deeper areas of the sea there are more water molecules and hence more energy loss and those areas appear green (green is of lower frequency and hence lower energy photons)whereas the in the shallower regions the energy loss in less hence it is blue.  

Raman also found that this loss of energy or shift in wavelength is dependant on the medium. Hence it was possible to study the molecules of the medium and the structural arrangement by passing light through it. Raman won the Nobel prize in physics for his finding. Today, Raman Effect is considered to be one of the four major discoveries in experimental physics of the early twentieth century.  

What is even more commendable about his finding is that it happened in his laboratory in India. He did not have sophisticated instruments or technology which was available to the western scientist of his times. In fact he did not have the money to buy a light source, so conducted his experiments using sunlight. He is believed to have said “The essence of science is independent thinking and hard work, not equipment 

Till he died, Raman continued to do research, give talks and inspire students. During his life he wrote 360 research papers and four books. He founded schools of physics in Kolkata and Bangalore. To mark the anniversary of the discovery of Raman effect, Feb 28th  is celebrated as “National Science Day” all over India. 

Footnote: In my library I have a book series called Charitravali, which are biographies dedicated to great people of India. I have written about these books in this blog. The Charitravali series also has the biography of C.V Raman, “The Scientist Extraordinary by Dilip.M.Salwi” ,which I used as a reference for this post. The entire series is a great read. I strongly recommend it to all my readers.  

Update:  Here is Priya’s explaination for the varying color of sea

The deeper the sea, the bluer it will be. Shallow water appears a lighter shade of blue or green. Yellow, Red, Green etc are absorbed first. The amount of organic debris in the water impacts the color. The deader it is (little or no organic debris or life-forms) the bluer it is.

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I have a collection of my absolute favorite books in a special corner of my library. I call it my ‘hall of fame’. I have lost count of how many times I have read the books there. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ figures in the top 5 of my list. It is the only Pulitzer prize winning book that I thought was perfect. It moved me so much. Each time I read it, I cried.

 The story is set in a sleepy southern town of US called Maycomb in 1930s. The Civil war had ended but racism was still at its peak in the southern states. The story is told from the eyes of a 5 year old girl called Scout. She lives with her father Atticus who is a lawyer and older brother Jem. She shares a very special relationship with her father. It is her innocent but insightful observations of the world around her as she tries to make sense of the confused values and prejudices of people. It is a coming of age book with a difference. Unlike most books of this genre the loss of innocence is not sad and depressing, but rather sweet and hopeful. 

Scouts father takes up the case of a black man who is accused of attempting to rape a white girl. The entire conservative southern community is up in arms against him for backing a black man. Scout and her brother are forced to endure many snide remarks even at school. The most moving conversation in the book is the one Scout has with her father regarding this subject. 

 “Scout,” said Atticus, “… it’s not fair for you and Jem, I know that, but sometimes we have to make the best of things, and the way we conduct ourselves when the chips are down—well, all I can say is, when you and Jem are grown, maybe you’ll look back on this with some compassion and some feeling that I didn’t let you down. This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience—Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.”
   “Atticus, you must be wrong…”
   “How’s that?”
   “Well, most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong…”
   “They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions,” said Atticus, “but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

And here is my favorite argument he presents in the court while defending the black man 

The witnesses for the state have presented themselves to you gentlemen, to this court, in the cynical confidence that their testimony would not be doubted, confident that you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption—the evil assumption—that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, that all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women, an assumption one associates with minds of their caliber.
   “Which, gentlemen, we know is in itself a lie as black as Tom Robinson’s skin, a lie I do not have to point out to you. You know the truth, and the truth is this: some Negroes lie, some Negroes are immoral, some Negro men are not to be trusted around women—black or white. But this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men. There is not a person in this courtroom who has never told a lie, who has never done an immoral thing, and there is no man living who has never looked upon a woman without desire.”

Inspite of the case being completely baseless, the jury finds the defendant guilty and sentences him to death. Later on in school, Scout’s teacher, Miss Gates talks about Hitler and how he persecuted Jews. Scout is unable to reconcile the double standards. She tries to make sense of it by talking to her brother 

“Well, coming out of the courthouse that night Miss Gates was talking with Miss Stephanie Crawford. I heard her say it’s time somebody taught ’em a lesson, they were gettin‘ way above themselves, an’ the next thing they think they can do is marry us. Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad an‘ then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home—” 

Another one of my favorite scenes from the book, when Atticus tries to explain to his friend why it is important for him to live his principles 
“Heck, if this thing’s hushed up it’ll be a simple denial to Jem of the way I’ve tried to raise him. Sometimes I think I’m a total failure as a parent, but I’m all they’ve got. Before Jem looks at anyone else he looks at me, and I’ve tried to live so I can look squarely back at him… if I connived at something like this, frankly I couldn’t meet his eye, and the day I can’t do that I’ll know I’ve lost him. I don’t want to lose him and Scout, because they’re all I’ve got.” 

The book is a series of very sensitively stung incidents. It is not preachy, it is not idealistic yet it is positive and hopeful. This is best captured in the last lines of the book. Scout tells her father about how she misunderstood her neighbor and in the end he turned out to be such a nice man. And Atticus replies “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.” 

I don’t think any review can do justice to a book of this caliber. Even as I was writing it I god goose bumps and tears in my eyes. If you have not read the book do read it. I guarantee that you cannot but love it.

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As the largest democracy gears up for its 60th independence day, today, the mood is very upswing in the country. India is the 2nd largest growing economy in the world and predictions are being made on when it would become the largest economy. BBC is airing a month long season on India and Pakistan, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the two countries. Even Orkut, the popular digital networking site is flaunting the tri-colours.


I for one am happy and proud that India is going places. I have enjoyed my journeys to other parts of the world, yet, there is no where else I would want to live. India may not be heaven on earth but it is home all the same.

Today I bring to you a thought provoking article written more than 15 years back by Adam Osborne, who invented the first micro computer BUS called S-100. I was surprised to note he was born and bought up in my neibhouring town!!

 I was raised in Tamil Nadu in South India, in the ashram of Sri Ramana Maharishi, of an English father and a Polish mother.  Both were dedicated followers of Sri Ramana Maharishi.  Therefore as a child growing up in the small town of Tiruvannamalai in Tamilnadu,  I was fluent in Tamil and was surrounded by Indians who were proud of their nationality and heritage, and believed they had a lot to teach us Europeans. 

I still speak enough Tamil to get by, and feel that my roots are indeed in India.  I must be only professed “vellackaaren” (=3Dwhite) Tamilian in America.  After all, how could anyone, even an English boy, grown up in Tiruvannamalai, in the ashram of Sri Ramana Maharishi, not acquire a pride in his roots?  It is therefore with some misgivings that today I find myself dealing with Indians, many of who do not feel proud of their Indianness.  Indian Americans represent the most affluent minority in America, ahead of Jewish  Americans and Japanese Americans.  This is a statistic and not an opinion. 

Indians swarm all over the Silicon valley, where they are an integral part of most product development teams: be they teams developing new semiconductor chips, software packages or computers.  Indians are recognized throughout America as technically superior.  No Indian in America has to explain his educational background, or apologize for his technical training. And yet, as a group, though Indian Americans are quick to acknowledge their caste, religion or family, they lack national pride. 

I have frequently talked to Indians of their lack of national pride, with telling results. Invariably, after making this assertion from the lecture podium, I find myself surrounded by Indians: Engineers, Scientists, doctors, even lawyers, all asserting the correctness of my observations, “You are correct,” they will assert. “I am not proud that I am an Indian.”   

Is the reasons India’s colonial heritage?  Who knows?  But whatever the reason, it is a pity. Since the day Indians learn pride, India will rapidly move out of its third world status to become one of the world’s industrial powers. I will return to India, to preach Indian pride: not pride in being a Hindu, or practicing Islam or being a Parsee, or a Sikh: not pride in being a Tamilian, or a Telugu, or a Punjabi, or a Marwari; not pride in being a Brahmin rather than a lesser caste.  

 These are all divisive differences that India would be better off without. But I will preach that Indians must learn to be proud of being Indians just as Singapore nationals are proud of their nationality, irrespective of their race or their religion.  Then there will be no more shoddy Indian products, since every worker will generate output with the stamp of a proud man on it.  With self-evident quality that screams out: “That is the work of an Indian!”  And corruption will decline. For, although bribes are solicited by greedy, dishonest men, as well as by men who do not earn enough to feed themselves and their families, and even though these root causes of corruption transcend the bases of lack of Indian pride of which I speak, nevertheless a proud man will pause, more than a man without pride, before extending his hand to receive a bribe. And a proud Indian will try harder to be responsible for products and services that others will praise. 


As we celebrate this day, it is my hope that every Indian feels pride for his country; A country which continues to be a democracy against all odds, a country which is more diverse than whole of European union, yet stands united in its values and humanity.

And if you are looking for more reasons to feel proud about India, refer to this site

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Have you heard of the project Gutenberg? Their website http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Main_Page has a collection of more than 20,000 free ebooks. These are books whose copy right has expired (more than 50 years old) and books which do not have copy right ie those which are freely available on the web. The project is named after the first printing press that was invented.

They have some really amazing books and today I thought I will review one book which I read from their collection – Cleopatra by Jacob Abbott. I read somewhere that if Cleopatra’s nose was shorter by an inch then the history of the world would have been different. This book beautifully captures the circumstances that made her the women she was. Abbott says “Her character and action are marked by the genius, the courage, the originality, and the impulsiveness pertaining to the stock from which she sprung (she was of Greek descent although Egyptian by birth). The events of her history, on the other hand, and the peculiar character of her adventures, her sufferings, and her sins, were determined by the circumstances with which she was surrounded”.

The book describes why Egypt is considered one of the most remarkable countries in the globe. Because of its extraordinary geography “Egypt has been occupied by man from the most remote antiquity. The oldest records of the human race, made three thousand years ago, speak of Egypt as ancient then, when they were written.”

The book goes on to describe the dynasty of the Ptolemies to which Cleopatra belonged. It is to Ptolemy of this dynasty that we owe the famous Alexandrian library. It is however sad that a Dynasty which was founded by such a visionary produced decedents who were the most abominable and terrible tyrants that the principle of absolute and irresponsible power ever produced. Their most terrible vice was that of incest. What follows is a gory tale of deception, conspiracy, fathers marrying their daughters and murdering their own sons for power. When you read her history you come to understand why Cleopatra turned out to be such a ruthless and cold blooded person. It was just a matter of survival.

Abott goes on describe how Cleopatra rose to power and how she controlled the two most powerful men of her time with her razor sharp mind, ruthlessness and breath taking beauty. Julies Caesar, being a strong personality himself could hold out to her. What she did to Mark Antony was quite a different story. Antony, neither had the genius nor the grit of Ceaser and completely succumbed to Cleopatra’s charms. She manipulated him and led him to his final defeat and death.

Let me tell you about the character I liked best in this book, Ptolemy Philadelphus one of the most illustrious members of this otherwise morally fallen line. He was interested in collecting books for the Alexandrian Library and wanted it to have a complete collection of all the books in the world. He employed scholars to read and study, and travelers to make extensive tours, for the purpose of learning what books existed among all the surrounding nations; and, when he learned of their existence, he spared no pains or expense in attempting to procure either the originals themselves, or the most perfect and authentic copies of them. He heard about the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament which the Jews had .They were then wholly unknown to all nations except the Jews, and among the Jews were known only to priests and scholars. The Jews would have considered them as profaned in being exhibited to the view of pagan nations. Ptolemy very naturally thought that a copy of these sacred books would be a great acquisition to his library.

In those days many Jews were bought as captives to Egypt and sold as slaves. Ptolomy thought that the best way to please these Jewish priest would be to release the slaves. After releasing them and sending them back to Jerusalem, he sent a respectful letter to the highest priests with many magnificent gifts with a request for the copy of their book. The priest not only made a splendid copy of the book in golden letters they also sent scholars proficient in Greek and Hebrew who translated the book. Thus this holy book found it’s way into the Alexandrian library.

As a book lover, I felt a kinship for Ptolemy Philadelphus who went to such great lengths not to for more power and wealth but for procuring a rare book. I shed tears when the book described how the library was destroyed in a war. It is one of my fond dreams to visit this library. For people who worship books, it would be nothing short of a pilgrimage.

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