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Archive for the ‘Inspiring People’ Category

I was deeply saddened by the news that, Uncle Pai, the creator of Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle passed away today. These comics were a big part of my childhood. Not many people know that he created a magazine for teenagers called Partha.

When I heard the news of his passing the first thing I remembered were the two stories from Partha that made lasting impact on me.

The story of a Mumbai Entrepreneur

A famous sculptor was once asked how to sculpt an elephant from a stone block. He said that it is very simple. All you have to do is remove from the stone block whatever is not the elephant and what remains is an elephant. Opportunities in life are like stone blocks, we should have an eye to spot the elephant in them.

This is a true life story of Ram who came to Mumbai in search of a job. He waited everyday outside a famous factory hoping to be recruited. As he came there every day, he realized that other job seekers were much more qualified than him. The chances of him getting the job were very slim. He also noticed that these job seeks waited for hours together outside the factory. So, He started selling peanuts outside the factory. Soon he made brisk business. Now he owns a hotel opposite to the factory.

The stone block of opportunity was there for all the 200 job seekers who waited outside the factory. Only Ram could spot the elephant.

David and Goliath – Retold

All of us have heard the story of David and Goliath. The little boy David who defeated the giant Goliath, where mighty warriors failed. Why do you think David succeeded; because he thought he could. All the warriors thought “He is so huge, how can we defeat him”. David thought “He is so big, how can I miss him”.

In life, the circumstances are pretty much the same, the difference lies in the perspective

The fact that I remember these stories after more than 20 years of reading them is a tribute to Uncle Pai and the power of his stories. May he rest in peace.

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I saw Oprah’s interview with JK Rowling on YouTube.  Towards the end of the interview, Jo asked Oprah on how she felt about her show coming to an end. Oprah gave very profound response. She said, “I know that time is right to end this show. I would never be able to stop talking to people or sharing their stories. That is why I am starting my own network. I read somewhere that Michael Jackson never realized that Thriller was a phenomenon. He spent his entire life chasing the phenomenon. I realized I don’t want to do this. I am not going to spend my life wondering how I will top my previous success. This is one phase of my life. I am very grateful to god for it. I am moving on to another chapter”

Interestingly JKR too had read the same story and this was exactly the part that resonated with her. She is very grateful for the success of Harry Porter. She will continue to be a writer but does not truly  expect to top it. She says, “people keep asking me, how are you going to do anything bigger than Harry Porter. I don’t even want to try”

JKR says that she is most grateful for her fans and she dedicated her final book to her regular readers. She was once walking down the road and a 20yr old girl came up to her and said, “you are my childhood”. That is the best compliment she has ever received.

Some deep insights on how to deal with enormous success.

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I had a very memorable day, yesterday. I attended the TedX Youth conference organized at my office premise. I got a special invite. Ideally, I should be posting this in my company blog, but I had so much fun that I wanted to share it with the whole world. Here are some nice insights from the event.

Ted was founded 25 years back, yet it gained popularity in the last 5 years, mainly because of Chris Anderson who took over 5 years back. He decided to upload all the talks on the web and make it available for free. People were paying $6000 for attending the event, so this seemed a very counter intuitive move. Yet, it was THE factor which catapulted TED to world fame. Today, there is a 1 year waiting list for TED conferences.

The most interesting speech was by Aravind Kumar, the founder of Clean Credit. His mission is to make India as clean as Switzerland. He has come up with a unique model for making this happen. He piloted this in IIM campus with great success. He got his idea from trolley management process followed in some international airports. You pay a dollar to take the trolley and when you return it the dollar is refunded. His research showed that 90% of the trash is generated from the products of 25 companies. Get these companies to tag their products with a Clean Credit tag and charge 1Rs extra on all products. Upon returning the used packing material, refund the amount to the customer. When this was piloted in IIM, the trashiest place in the campus became clean in 4 days and they could achieve 100% segregation. Through this model we can make every corner shop a trash collection point.

Now, we only have to put pressure on these 25 companies to tag their products. His idea is to employ Gandhigiri 2.0. Take photographs of trash(which predominantly comprises of these companies’ products) and put them on social networking sites. Aravind Kumar is a PHD student in IIM. Many of his classmates are westerns who keep complaining to him about the filth in our cities. He promised them that he will make India as clean as Switzerland.

Here are some inspiration from other speakers.

Major Ravi, an ex-major in the Indian army and a film maker spoke of his journey from a 9th std dropout to a successful army major and a film maker. His message, “Always take on the most difficult tasks”

Elango, A scientist by profession, went back to his village, Kuthambakkam and transformed it into a model village by engaging the grassroots and employing e-governance. He says,”Youth should lead this country and hence opt for politics as a profession.” In a democracy people should be participants, not just beneficiaries.

Dr.Madhan Marky, a professor in Anna University wanted to be a lyricist. He fulfilled his dream by using software engineering to generate the best possible lyrics for a given tune. He was able to program, such components as uniqueness and pleasantness of the lyrics into his application. The first song that was created using this software was Irumbu Manida from Eindhiran.

I had a thoroughly enjoyable day. A special thanks to Mani and Rajashree for inviting me.

For details on all the speakers at the event refer to http://www.tedxyouthchennai.com

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I had the opportunity last week, to attend the inauguration of TWAS 2010. TWAS is a science academy whose members comprise of 800 scientists from 40 countries. This year’s general meeting of TWAS was hosted in Hyderabad and inaugurated by Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh. My thatha (Grandfather’s brother), about whom I have written in this blog was awarded the Indian Science Prize, the highest  and most prestigious national recognition given to a scientist in India for a major contribution to any branch of science, engineering and medicine. It was a proud moment for all of us. At 90 he is still going strong and is helping establish the “CR Rao Advanced Institute of Mathematics, Statistics & Computer Science “in Hyderabad University

Thatha with Award from PM

 400 scientists from 40 countries participated in this conference. Prime minister gave a very insightful speech. He recounted his experience of working with the founder of TWAS, Abdus Salam, a Nobel Prize winning physicist from Pakistan. He quoted Sir Winston Churchill who said “Empires of the future would be the empires of the mind”. Since there is a limitation of infrastructure in the developing world, collaboration among all the countries is essential. Science has the capacity to solve most of the pressing problems of our times. We need to put science in a pedestal. Our pedagogical method of teaching emphasizes memory over enquiry and this is not good for scientific progress.

 What I found most interesting in his speech was his mention of open source research platform. He said that the main drawback with scientific research is that the intellectual property rights make it very difficult for sharing and using research findings. Our government is promoting a open source forum where scientists can share their research findings which can be freely reused by other scientists.

I did a quick search on the net and came across “Council of Scientific and Industrial Research” which is using this model to collaboratively develop low cost drugs for diseases. You can read more about their work at “Open Source Drug Discovery Foundation”. I am not sure if this was the forum that the Prime Minister was referring to in his speech.

Some other interesting tit bits from the conference

The chief minister of AP in his speech proudly proclaimed that Hyderabad is a major IT hub with big companies like Microsoft, Oracle, Cognizant having their presence here. I was gratified to hear Cognizant being uttered in the same breath as Microsoft and Oracle

I was sitting next to a Microbiologist from Tunesia. She wanted to know what the Indian nod signified. The way we nod our head to say “yes” is very different from how the rest of the world does it. She actually shook her head and asked me what this means.

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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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My husband’s brother died of Cancer 6 years back. Ever since then, my mother-in-law visits an institute called Udavum Karangal on his death anniversary and sponsors food for the children of the orphanage run by this NGO.  This year she was unable to make it during the anniversary. She was very upset and we promised to take her next time she comes to the city. We visited Udavum Karangal yesterday.

This was my first visit to the institute and I was stuck by its serenity and beauty. Udavum Karangal meaning helping hands in Tamil was founded by Mr.Vidyaakar. He himself was an abandoned child. He was bought up by a philanthropist, Mr. Ramakrishnan who provided him with shelter and education.  His mentor told him “you should also help another person like I helped you”. That served as the inspiration for Udavum Karangal. Today Udavum Karangal is home for more than 2000 abandoned children, infants, mentally challenged destitutes and HIV patients.

I want to share with you a few of my experiences at Udavum Karangal. We were distributing biscuits and chocolates to the children. These were 4-10 year old children, very happy to receive the gifts. Yet, they sat down in a disciplined manner and took the gifts only when they were given and acknowledged it with a ‘thank you’. No one pushed or shoved or tried to grab. Infact, when I offered them an extra gift they refused to take it saying they have already received their share. I am not sure if we can expect that kind of grace even among children who get to eat exotic chocolates every day.

When we were stepping out of the orphanage we met Mr.Vidyaakar, the founder of Udavum Karangal. He offered to take us on tour of his facility. We met infants who were abandoned in the hospitals and in dust-bins. Then we went to the facility for mentally challenged adults and spastic children. They were so excited to see Mr.Vidyakaar, they came running and held his hand and called him papa (meaning daddy). These women are not confined to a room. They are allowed to move freely within the premises. He introduced us to a lady whom he found 20 years back, roaming naked on the high way. They located her family recently. They are not willing to take her back. There was another lady whom he found on the road with a girl child. Although the mother is mentally challenged her daughter is normal. She received her education at Udavum Karangal and she is now studying to be a nurse.

There are two schools run by the institute, one for boys and one for girls. They also run vocational training schools for nursing and driving. As I was walking around the premises I was stuck by the beauty of the garden. There were all kinds of beautiful trees and plants and creepers and not a speck of litter. I asked Mr.Vidyaakar who maintains the garden. He said it is maintained by the mentally challenged women residents.

Udavum Karangal is entirely run by contributions from donors and volunteers. These are people from all walks of life. There is a barber who comes there regularly and gives free haircuts to the children. It is people like these who make me wonder what it really takes to be able to serve. I don’t think it is money or time. The secret lies in our attitude.

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I have been lax in my writing and I owe all my regular readers an apology. Inspite of my prolonged absence you have been commenting on my blog. Thank you very much. I am very grateful.

I am back again to share with you a story that really moved me. Last week, my husband returned from a business trip to Italy. He told me about a person named Alessandro whom he met at his client’s office.  My husband said that he was a service engineer in his early twenties. Alessandro told my husband that he has visited India several times. He along with a group of friends run a program to help street children in Andhra Pradesh.  It is not a typical orphanage he claims. They have appointed a mother and father to take care of a group of 20 children. They have named their program Manchi Kalalu meaning ‘sweet dreams’ in Telugu. This group of young people regularly take time off and come all the way from Italy to spend time with these children. Most of the funds to support the project come from them and their friends.

My husband was simply amazed. He never expected to encounter such a person in Italy. Incidentally, our family has roots in Andhra Pradesh and many of our extended family lives there. How many times we would have walked those streets and not noticed the hungry children. No one ever discussed them. It was as if they did not exist.  Here were a group of people, so far away from India , who have the heart and the will to make a difference to these children who are no way connected to them.

If you want to know more about Manchi Kalalu and how you can help, visit their website

 

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Yesterday I read the text of J.K.Rowling’s, Harvard university commencement address. At Harvard’s 357th Commencement, J.K. Rowling received an honorary doctor of letters degree. It was a great speech and gives insights into the women behind the Harry Potter sensation. I wanted to share it with all of you. I have highlighted the sections I found most inspiring

The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination

 

 

 President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers, members of the faculty, proud parents, and, above all, graduates,

The first thing I would like to say is ‘thank you.’ Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honour, but the weeks of fear and nausea I’ve experienced at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation! Now all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners and fool myself into believing I am at the world’s best-educated Harry Potter convention.

Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility; or so I thought until I cast my mind back to my own graduation. The commencement speaker that day was the distinguished British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock. Reflecting on her speech has helped me enormously in writing this one, because it turns out that I can’t remember a single word she said. This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in business, law or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard.

You see? If all you remember in years to come is the ‘gay wizard’ joke, I’ve still come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock. Achievable goals: the first step towards personal improvement.

Actually, I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say to you today. I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in the 21 years that has expired between that day and this.

I have come up with two answers. On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called ‘real life’, I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination.

These might seem quixotic or paradoxical choices, but please bear with me.

Looking back at the 21-year-old that I was at graduation, is a slightly uncomfortable experience for the 42-year-old that she has become. Half my lifetime ago, I was striking an uneasy balance between the ambition I had for myself, and what those closest to me expected of me.

I was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do, ever, was to write novels. However, my parents, both of whom came from impoverished backgrounds and neither of whom had been to college, took the view that my overactive imagination was an amusing personal quirk that could never pay a mortgage, or secure a pension.

They had hoped that I would take a vocational degree; I wanted to study English Literature. A compromise was reached that in retrospect satisfied nobody, and I went up to study Modern Languages. Hardly had my parents’ car rounded the corner at the end of the road than I ditched German and scuttled off down the Classics corridor.

I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics; they might well have found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.

I would like to make it clear, in parenthesis, that I do not blame my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you. What is more, I cannot criticise my parents for hoping that I would never experience poverty. They had been poor themselves, and I have since been poor, and I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is indeed something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticised only by fools.

What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure.

At your age, in spite of a distinct lack of motivation at university, where I had spent far too long in the coffee bar writing stories, and far too little time at lectures, I had a knack for passing examinations, and that, for years, had been the measure of success in my life and that of my peers.

I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted and well-educated, you have never known hardship or heartbreak. Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the Fates, and I do not for a moment suppose that everyone here has enjoyed an existence of unruffled privilege and contentment.

However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear of failure quite as much as a desire for success. Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average person’s idea of success, so high have you already flown academically.

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above rubies.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more to me than any qualification I ever earned.

Given a time machine or a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.

You might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but that is not wholly so. Though I will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

One of the greatest formative experiences of my life preceded Harry Potter, though it informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those books. This revelation came in the form of one of my earliest day jobs. Though I was sloping off to write stories during my lunch hours, I paid the rent in my early 20s by working in the research department at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London.

There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was happening to them. I saw photographs of those who had disappeared without trace, sent to Amnesty by their desperate families and friends. I read the testimony of torture victims and saw pictures of their injuries. I opened handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials and executions, of kidnappings and rapes.

Many of my co-workers were ex-political prisoners, people who had been displaced from their homes, or fled into exile, because they had the temerity to think independently of their government. Visitors to our office included those who had come to give information, or to try and find out what had happened to those they had been forced to leave behind.

I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no older than I was at the time, who had become mentally ill after all he had endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably as he spoke into a video camera about the brutality inflicted upon him. He was a foot taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a child. I was given the job of escorting him to the Underground Station afterwards, and this man whose life had been shattered by cruelty took my hand with exquisite courtesy, and wished me future happiness.

And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty corridor and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and horror such as I have never heard since. The door opened, and the researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a hot drink for the young man sitting with her. She had just given him the news that in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country’s regime, his mother had been seized and executed.

Every day of my working week in my early 20s I was reminded how incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were the rights of everyone.

Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard and read.

And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before.

Amnesty mobilises thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s minds, imagine themselves into other people’s places.

Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.

And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces can lead to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.

What is more, those who choose not to empathise may enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.

One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people’s lives simply by existing.

But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch other people’s lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets you apart. The great majority of you belong to the world’s only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden.

If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped transform for the better. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.

I am nearly finished. I have one last hope for you, which is something that I already had at 21. The friends with whom I sat on graduation day have been my friends for life. They are my children’s godparents, the people to whom I’ve been able to turn in times of trouble, friends who have been kind enough not to sue me when I’ve used their names for Death Eaters. At our graduation we were bound by enormous affection, by our shared experience of a time that could never come again, and, of course, by the knowledge that we held certain photographic evidence that would be exceptionally valuable if any of us ran for Prime Minister.

So today, I can wish you nothing better than similar friendships. And tomorrow, I hope that even if you remember not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom:

As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.

 

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This week I was gratified to read that VS Ramachandran, my favorite science author figured in the list of top 100 public intellectuals by an American magazine. I have read two of his books, “Phantoms in the Brain” and “The Emerging Mind”. They are absolutely brilliant. Although I have done a couple of posts based on his writing, I have never been able to do a review of his books. I always felt that a single page write-up would not do justice to the broad spectrum of mind blowing ideas he presents in his books.

 

My friend, Sukumar also quoted him in his recent post Building a Belief System Part 2 – What holds us back?. These inspired me to re-read “Phantoms in the Brain”. It was as delightful as the first time. I thought I will attempt a review, although I do so with apprehension because I am still not sure if I can do justice to this absolutely amazing book.

 

V S Ramachandran is an eminent neuroscientist who has done pioneering work in the area of Phantom limbs. Many amputees, even after their limbs are removed still feel as if the limbs exist. They feel pain and movement in these limbs.  In this book he talks about this phenomenon and many other strange neurological disorders. He claims that these disorders help us gain great insights into the working of normal brains.

 

The first few chapters of the book are dedicated to Phantom limbs. He recounts some fascinating stories of amputees – Tom,  whose Phantom (non-existent) arm could wriggle its finger, reach out for objects and pick them up. Mirabelle, who born without two arms yet felt a vivid phantom which she felt was 6” shorter than her artificial arm. What is even more interesting is how Dr.VSR identified the neurological cause of these Phantoms and helped cure a few of them using simple devices.

 

An even more fascinating case was that of Diane. She had suffered a carbon monoxide poisoning that left her completely blind. When her physician was evaluating her, he stumbled upon something really unbelievable. Although she was technically blind, she was able to grasp objects and perform complex activities without being aware of it. For example, if you ask her to post a letter in a mail box, she will have no awareness of seeing the mail box or the letter, yet she would be able to orient her letter and post it perfectly into the slit. This phenomenon is called “blindsight”, It is as if a zombie within you is performing these functions without you being aware of it. As many as 30 regions in the brain are involved in vision and only a few of these regions produce the consciousness or awareness of sight.

 

Then there is this strange mental disorder called “hemi neglect” which occurs in patients who suffer from right brain stroke. Patients with this disorder tend to neglect what ever lies to their left side including their own body. They will comb only the right half of their heir, apply makeup to only the right half of their face, will eat food only from the right half of their plate, will bump into objects that lie in the left half of the vision. Neglect is not same as blindness. If you draw their attention to the left side they will respond. Another disorder in patients who suffer paralysis on their left half is “Denial”. Even normal human beings suffer from denial however these patients have extreme case of this disorder. They refuse to acknowledge that they are paralyzed. They claim that they can move their left hand and perform complex functions like tying a shoe lace. Most often, these patients are considered psychiatric cases. Dr.VSR provides neurological explanation to these disorders.

 

He says about his experiences with these patients “What I didn’t realize when I began these experiments is that they would take me to the heart of human nature. For denial is something we do all our lives, whether we are temporarily ignoring the bills accumulating in our tray or defiantly denying the finality and humiliation of death”.

 

The book covers many other interesting disorders like Carpgras delusion where the patient claims that his close relatives like father/mother/brother are imposters and Cotards syndrome where the patient believes he is dead and he can smell the rotting of his own flesh.

 

In the last few chapters he discusses profound concepts. What causes spiritual experiences? Do we have a god module in our brain? What is consciousness? What is the nature of the self?  VSR tries to explain these deep philosophical questions in neurological terms.

 

I like to end my review with VSR’s thoughts on why he thinks neurology is so interesting. Because it has the potential for the “greatest revolution in the history of human race – understanding ourselves.”

“There is something distinctly odd about a hairless primate that has evolved into a species that can look back over its own shoulder and ask questions about its origins. And odder still, the brain can not only discover how other brains work but also ask questions about its own existence: Who am I? What happens after death? Does my mind arise exclusively from neurons in my brain? If so, what scope is there for free will? It is the peculiar recursive nature of these questions – as the brain struggles to understand itself-that makes neurology fascinating”

 

 

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This week I heard Barak Obama’s speech on race and racial tensions in the US and as speeches go it is one of the best I have heard in my lifetime. Right from the first time I have heard him speak I liked Obama very much. He appeared intelligent, genuine and honest. How many politicians can fit this description?  But I have always wondered about him. He may have great charisma, but can he make a good president? He has never been tested. Does he have the experience and the skill required to take hard decisions.  I had no doubts about Hillary. You knew what you were getting and with Bill Clinton by her side she would be a safe bet for the world.

However this speech on race removed all my doubts. It was a very challenging situation. His spiritual mentor was being caricatured as unpatriotic and racist. A lesser man would have disowned him and distanced himself. Obama took on the challenge with grace, courage and honesty. While he denounced the statements made by his pastor he did not disown him. He explained the reason behind the anger many black people carry. He also explained why white working class people are angry; because they are required to pay the price for the discrimination they did not perpetuate. He spoke about his white grandmother and the racial prejudices she carried.

It was one of the most politically ‘incorrect’ speeches I have heard. Coming from a politician at such a crucial juncture in his career, was an act of tremendous courage. It made me think that all his speeches about rising above individual differences, about unity of spirit and intelligence of electorate were not mere words. When a challenge presented itself, he lived up to all the promise his words held. I think it is a very rare quality. More then anything we need politicians who have their heart in the right place.

 Incidentally, this speech also gave me some insights into politics in India. We have had similar issues. The caste system which resulted in marginalizing large sections of the population. Independent India tried to correct these through reservations for backward castes. This is has led to so much resentment among upper caste sections of India. How does Indian politics work – each party panders to one section of the vote bank. It feeds on the hate and insecurities of the people.  Elections are won and lost based on castes and not on the ability of the elected representative. I wish we had politicians like Obama in our country, who can understand both sides of the problem and have the courage to take the middle ground. 

You can read the full transcript of the speech and watch the video here

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