Book 243: Geek Nation by Angela Saini

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Geek Nation: How Indian Science Is Taking Over The World by Angela Saini

Finished reading on December 3rd, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Could India be considered a Geek Nation? If you’ve watched “3 Idiots”, maybe you already do. In “Geek Nation”, Saini brings out some aspects of Indian culture, history, educational system, etc looking at both sides of the argument for and against considering India a “Geek Nation”.

I’ll start out by writing why You might consider reading it:

  • To understand how few powerful educated people can lay the groundwork for massive change in a country’s literacy rate, adopting new technology in a variety of ways
  • To see why one can’t consider scientific and technological challenges in India and in other countries the same because of a difference in scale

There are more reasons, of course, but lets get to the specifics.

First we need to be on the same page when it comes to the definition of “Geek”. In Saini’s book she sees it so:

“[..] To me, at least, geekiness is all about passion. It’s about choosing science and technology or another intellectual pursuit […] and devoting your life to it. History’s ultimate geeks are the men and women who sacrificed their lives on the altar of science, risking failure to pursue an obsession.” Angela Saini

In Saini’s book the obsession is obvious in several cases, but not always in the pro-technology and science part. Quite a sizable part of the books shows how an unknown sizeed part of India really can’t be seen as “Geek Nation”.

Saini brings out for example the Indian Institutes of Technology, which came about at a time when Jawaharlal Nehru’s government took a straight route to increasing literacy, establishing schools of higher learning, and also educating the rural population using interesting technological solutions for it.

To a western reader – IIT-s are in a way the top engineering schools in India – you’d want to study there either because you’re really into science and engineering, or because you want to have a high-paying job after graduation, or because you want to continue your studies somewhere abroad. Although at first the popularity might seem like a sign of a immersive geek friendly education system in India, as Saini points out – it seems that mostly IIT is attended rather by people who might be slightly lacking in a certain type of passion and in Saini’s words are rather “drones” than “geeks”.

If we look further than the school system, we see that science and technology in India face very different problems due to large population, bureaucracy and influences from religion and tradition.

This book gives a glimpse into what kind of vision Nehru had for India, what some leading entrepreneurs and scientists have in mind and how their hard work is opposed at some level by activists and religious institutions.

It’s definitely worth reading.

Saini goes on to explore for example the Indian Space Program, the search for a cure for tuberculosis, research on bananas that would stay fresh longer, and how thorium might in the future be an important source for energy in India and elsewhere, but we also encounter and anti- GMO activist and researchers working on how the Vedas might have scientific information hidden in their metaphors.

There are definitely two sides to the story- one being the leading, young generation Y working on tech and science that could if implemented improve the lives of millions of people, but then there’s the other, more religious and traditional side, that puts value on small farms, traditional agricultural methods that might leave people without their livelihood due to harsh weather, and crop varieties  that have been traditionally cultivated, but would eventually leave the people to starve because of pests.

It is interesting how Saini brings out the fact that religion is on the rise among the better educated population and how it might be because of their education that there’s a lot of effort hoing into trying to show how ancient texts contain knowledge about science and technology that Western science is discovering only now.

It is a very interestingly crafted book, and it doesn’t give s certain answer as to wether India really already is a Geek Nation or not, but there certainly seems to be activity in both directions- towards a more geek culture with e-governance, but also a more hesitant or even resentful part, that sees technology and science as a force that will split the population up even more than it is right now due to various reasons.

 

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Book 164: A Fine Family by Gurcharan Das

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A Fine Family by Gurcharan Das

Finished reading on April 8th

Rating: 8/10

This book deals with the lives of several generations of a family beginning in the 1940s in Lyallpur, continuing through the troubled time of Partition and moving away from their ancestors’ home as staying there becomes too dangerous. The second part follows the recently married daughter Tara and her husband Seva Ram and their son Arjun as they make their life in Simla and the final part of the book follows a grown-up Arjun and his later life and marriage.

One of the most prominent themes in the book seems to be dissatisfaction and also as appropriate for the time – being carried along in the fast flowing current of history.

“Even the dogs trembled as they wandered in despair for a morsel of human neglect. Once or twice a door opened and the smell of fear spilled onto the street.”

The book is certainly worth a read – the characters are interesting, though I personally didn’t find them particularly agreeable, and it is a fast paced story, with the end being a little bit rushed compared to the rest of it. But it’s all a little unexpected – you think you know what will happen, and it will, but there’s always some kind of twist to it… It’s quite poetic.

Book 130: The Sari Shop by Rupa Bajwa

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The Sari Shop by Rupa Bajwa

Finished reading on April 8, 2014

Rating: 8/10

The Sari Shop follows the life of a Ramchand, a shop assistant in Amritsar (which wikipedia tells me is in Punjab, India).

His day-to-day life might seem repetitive – as he wakes up in the morning, washes himself, is usually late to work and has to show saris to customers at work, eats a quick lunch and back to work, and the evenings he’d usually just spend staring at the ceiling, and on Sundays he’d go and see a movie in the cinema.

However Ramchand’s life is about to change, as he decides that he will try to read and write English every evening. In addition he is getting extra assignments at work, to go and show saris to the rich Kapoor family, whose daughter Rina is about to get married (and has a role to play further on in the story), or go fetch his colleague to work.

But while he is trying to improve himself, he also finds out more about his work colleagues, especially about Chander, one of his older colleagues, and about his wife Kamla, who he once sees, when he is sent out to find Chander who hasn’t turned up at work. Kamla is drunk and saying all sorts of obscenities. And this is where the novel’s mood changes, and we’re in for a surprise (not too nice one) ending.

“Just to be alive meant to be undignified, Ramchand thought, his stomach aching with acidity. Because it wasn’t just about your own life eventually. What was the point of trying to learn, to develop the life of your mind, to whitewash your walls, when other people lay huddled and beaten in dingy rooms? Or had dark, dingy memories like rooms without doors and windows, rooms you could never leave”  – Rupa Bajwa

The book was interesting, and the second part of the novel, which gives a lot of background information about Kamla  reminded me of the writing of Fyodor Dostoyevsky – showing the miserable life and living conditions of the working class, and what humans might become or do under pressure. An interesting look at life.