Thursday, June 21, 2007

Space Age Samosas!

Was watching the news today while having my dinner...Its been quite a few days since the media has been obsessed with Sunita Williams and the return of Atlantis to terra firma...Every move they were making was being tracked...Nice to see so much interest being shown in space missions suddenly!

Now every news channel i see is carrying the story of the return of Atlantis...This gets me thinking, why the sudden interest? Two things come to mind: Since the tragic death of Kalpana Chawla, people in India and all over the world have suddenly realised the dangers of space travel. Till then it seemed like an extremely glamourous and adventurous job. Also, the so called Indian roots of Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams have sparked the interest of the normal Indian citizen in what NASA is doing.

Now, one point that struck me as odd were that the news channels were talking ONLY about Sunita Williams. What about the other astronauts with her? Sunita Williams is just like the other astronauts with her. Shes no more Indian than any of them! Isnt our pride a little misplaced? Lets consider her bio for a moment:

Sunita L. Williams (Commander, USN)
NASA Astronaut

PERSONAL DATA: Born September 19, 1965 in Euclid, Ohio, but considers Needham, Massachusetts to be her hometown. Married to Michael J. Williams. Although they have no children, Labrador retrievers and a crazy Jack Russell Terrier named Gorby have added their share of excitement to their lives. Recreational interests include running, swimming, biking, triathlons, windsurfing, snowboarding and bow hunting. Her parents, Dr. Deepak (emmigrated from Gujrat in the 60s) and Mrs. Bonnie Pandya(Shes a Slovenian), reside in Falmouth, Massachusetts.

Needham High School, Needham, Massachusetts, 1983.
B.S., Physical Science, U.S. Naval Academy, 1987.
M.S., Engineering Management, Florida Institute of Technology, 1995.

ORGANIZATIONS: Society of Experimental Test Pilots, Society of Flight Test Engineers, American Helicopter Association.

SPECIAL HONORS: Awarded Navy Commendation Medal (2), Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, Humanitarian Service Medal and various other service awards.

She is an American by birth! Taking the Bhagwat Gita & an idol of Ganesh along & eating samosas doesnt make someone Indian! In that vein all people eating pizzas should be Italian! Yes she is a PIO(Person of Indian Origin).. Accepted! But why do we want pick out only one individual from a team of very capable astronauts and wish for her safe return JUST because one of her parents are Indian? Arent the others in equal amount of danger? Arent they human beings too? Dont they have families as well? I dont see anyone wishing for the safe return of Atlantis on the whole. Only Sunita Williams! Reportedly, there were school children performing a havan for her safe return. Others with placards wishing her safe return. One news channel was even carrying a clock counting down on the time left for Sunita's return!!Not Atlantis..ONLY Sunita!Isnt this a little too much?

My views on space travel as it is are not very supportive. I personally feel that its all a BIG waste of money. But after having a LONG argument with my girlfriend about this and being the person i am, i am ready to accept that maybe there is some point to it. In future it might help mankind. We have invented satellites to assist us in our fast paced, globalised life. So i guess space travel helps too. Maybe!

Dont get me wrong here. Iam not saying that i dont appreciate what astronauts do. Every job in this world is challenging and theirs' more so. But thats just it. They are doing their job! Thats all!

Bottom line, i think, is that human beings by default are parocial in nature. Another case to point is a powerful leader from Maharashtra supporting Pratibha Patil for President JUST cause she is Maharashtrian. I find it saddening! I guess its easier to associate with someone when u find a common thread binding you to that person. But isn't being human a strong enough thread?

Even i am wishing for the safe return of Atlantis back to terra firma. But not because Sunita Williams is on it. Not because iam Indian. But ONLY because iam human.

P.S.: Last night i wrote this article thinking I am the ONLY one finding all this hullabaloo odd. But apparently I am not. The reason I am editing this post is because there is an article about this very issue in today's (22nd June, 2007) Indian Express titled "Indian Idol?" by Shobhit Mahajan who is a professor of physics and astrophysics at Delhi University. I would like to quote a few excerpts from his article:

"It is remarkable, given her(Sunita's) background millions around India still take pride in her achievements - not as a woman achiever, which she undoubtley is, but as an Indian!"

"Kalpana Chawla was born here (India), spent her formative years here and was educated in India. Thus, there could be some rationale in caling her an Indian-American and take some pride in her achievments as a nation. But the nationalistic pride on display for Sunita is somewhat misplaced."

"Maybe we could learn from Kalpana's favorite quote from the Roman stoic philosopher Seneca -' I was not born for one corner; the whole world is my native land' "

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Indian Institutes of Emmigration

If you read the recent headlines in local Pune newspapers, all were proudly proclaiming that 250 students from Maharashtra got selected in various IITs in the country. This is against about 15-20 till recent years. On the face of it, it is a very proud achievement. But in my opinion, it’s not that proud. This article prompted me to write a blog I’ve wanted to write for ages!

First of all, I would like to express my suspicion on the “Kota” courses that most IIT aspirants go through. I somehow smell a scam going down here. What is so different that is taught in Kota as compared to the rest of the country? Why do year after year people from Kota come up trumps in IIT-JEE? Why do people flock to Kota and stay there for a year to prepare for the exam? Is the water there magical? If someone could offer me an explanation, I would be very interested to listen to it!

Recently the IITs made the entrance checks a little more stringent. Minimum 60% needed in the 12th Board exams. Otherwise not eligible to apply! Result? WIDESPREAD protests all over the country. Pitiable I must say. Seriously I mean. You really think someone securing 50 % in the 12th Boards is going to able to handle the IIT course? I don’t think so!

I for one never considered myself to be suited to even appear for the IIT-JEE. WAY over my level of intellectual capacity. I really admire all those who have cleared this test and fought their way into the IITs. Hats off to them! But I am now beginning to see a different perspective to this entire process. I shall elaborate on it a little later in the article.

Let us now move to the IIMs. “THE” place to be if you want to pursue an MBA. Path of entrance? The much feared CAT or the Common Aptitude Test. “Aptitude”. This word seems to have lost its fundamental meaning in modern Indian testing methodology. Aptitude should be something that comes naturally. Not coached. Then why are there COUNTLESS coaching classes claiming to give the BEST training to CAT aspirants to clear the toughest exam in the world?

Is it because the competition is so high that even natural aptitude needs to coached? Ironic isn’t it? But that is the truth in the today’s times. Coaching classes for CAT have mushroomed on every corner and are minting money. Reason? Economics, my dear Watson. Supply must equal Demand!

At this point I would like to add that I too appeared for the CAT and I too had joined a coching class for the same. A few facts I came across were:

The exam isn’t as tough as it is made out to be.
Coaching classes are virtually ESSENTIAL to do well in the exam.
Everyone should give the CAT once in their lives once at least. If nothing else, just for the sheer experience of appearing for the toughest exam in the world.
There are 2,50,000 hopefuls every year vying for 5000 odd seats. That’s a mere 2% hit ratio.
I got a 97 percentile despite getting a big fat ZERO in Maths.

Moral of the story? Don’t let the facts weigh you down. Give it your best efforts. Don’t give it just for the sake of giving it. For all you know, you could get through. Give the CAT and get an experience of your life!

The IITs & IIMs are premier institutes in India for acquiring graduate and post graduate degrees. Their course structure and teaching methodology are unparalleled. They are the best institutes in the country. But what makes these institutes the BEST? The course material? The faculty? Their placement record? None of these! It’s the students that make the institute. If you choose the best students in the country it stands to reason that you will be the best institute in the country. Simple! I would like to see these premier institutes open their doors to below average students and then see if they can maintain their high level of achievement. I would also like to see them give a chance to less fortunate students in this country to get the best education and move forward in life.

Let me elaborate on a story I heard recently. The niece of one of my superiors managed to secure admission in IIT Powai for Civil Engineering. Civil engineering you will ask? Well, she wanted to be ONLY in IIT Powai. Branch didn’t matter. This girl with relentless hard work and her superior intellectual capacity managed to come first in all the 5 IITs! Not a mean achievement by any stretch of imagination. Consequently she received a Presidential Gold medal for it.

Subsequently she went on to pursue her M.S. in Structures in the good ole US of A.(Why am I not surprised?) After which she was picked up by NASA. Again, on the face of it, a very proud achievement. But again, not from my perspective. Allow me to explain.

IITs & IIMs are government backed institutions. Their course fees are subsidized by the Government by the way of grants. These were started way back in the late 1960s in order to impart world class education to thousands of intelligent Indians and use their knowledge so gained to build the country. It was more or less that way for about 35 years. Then came the era of globalization. And it all changed!

People are now taking the best education from our country at subsidized rates and migrating overseas in search of “greener” (pun intended) pastures. As in the example I quoted above, do we need great minds to spend their time trying to put man into space which, on the face of it, is not going to benefit mankind in any perceivable way? Or do we need our great minds to solve the earth’s problems? To try and design a dam structure in such a way that it won’t disintegrate in the event of an earthquake and kill thousands?

Lets get to the crux of the matter then. Why is that the best minds of our country head out and then blame India for not being a progressive nation? Building a nation needs the best of minds working together for a common goal. A lot of readers of this article will say that it is a case of “sour grapes” with me. “You couldn’t go so why you blaming others?” I am not blaming anybody. People should head out and look for so called better prospects. By all means! But please don’t sit overseas and belittle me, my countrymen and my country! After all, a home, even if made of cow dung, is still home! And in a house where you are a guest, even if it is made of gold, you remain a guest no matter what!