INDIA produces one of the highest numbers of IT professionals, with stiff competition coming from neighbour China. While no one talks in wonder about the Chinese’ indulgence with technology, when it comes to India it is talked about it with such surprised and exclamatory tones. Essentially because the West sees India still as a country of snake charmers and half-naked sadhus. And so it does not come as surprise that Angela Saini, born and brought up in England is gushing about the strides India has made in science and technology. In her book Geek nation: How Indian Science is Taking Over the World Angela Saini takes a trip around the nation to find out what ticks the Indians.
Her journey takes her to Narayanamurthy, Vandana Shiva, M S Swaminathan Foundation, the Sanskrit institute in Melekote, the IT hub Bengaluru, the National Science Conference, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and of course the IITs. She follows the story of a student Nitin (as a stereotype case) who is being pushed by the parents to be a ‘top scientist’ and is being trained to crack the Olympiad. The tour also includes a peek into the education system in India. “And in India at least, a good memory is all a student needs” she said adding “There are two reasons for this. Education is relentlessly hierarchical, which in the past has made it difficult to ask questions or challenge authority.” The second reason is that “Indian education system remains old-fashioned learning by rote.” This kind of sweeping, confident and half condescending statements are there in the book throughout. A few days in India, a few interviews and a few places visited and the prognosis are ready.
In India nobody thinks amiss if a coconut is broken before the launch of the satellite. Tradition and belief need not be sacrificed at the altar of ‘modern’ and ‘scientific’ temperament. This kind of denial of the past comes from the belief that “we” are better than those who came before us. Indians, largely on the other hand believe that wisdom has come down generations and the deeply quasi religious practices have significance. Angela Saini is surprised by the presence of spiritualists and herbalists in the National Science Conference. In any other place their presence would have been considered “an affront to modern science” she says. “At the start of my trip, I might have found this kind of communion between the scientific and pseudo scientific unfathomable, but now I can’t help thinking that India’s precarious place in the scientific landscape, between the geeky and the bizarre, may not be an entirely bad thing after all.”
The Prime Minister’s (Manmohan Singh) speech at this conference she notes has a quotation, borrowed words from Winston Churchill. Interestingly, this was the same quotation by the same prime minister the year before! Nothing much changes in India really!
Angela Saini is a journalist and science reporter. It is a journalist’s account of a trip to India, on an assignment. And it should be taken as that, witty, snappy and quick-to-jump-to-conclusions report. Geek is complimentary, the spirit of sacrificing everything for science.
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