Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Time for a poor Parsi?

One of the things that I have always been very proud of, is that I have friends from many cultures and nationalities, and when they are not friends, I can at least refer to them as people that I know well. I once had Kenyan coffee with a Nigerian. I have shaken hands with a gentleman who called himself an Eskimo by heritage, and once, I sat next to a Mongolian gentleman from Cuba, on a flight to Germany.

Last week, while I was trying to think of a community in India that I don't have friends or acquaintances from, I suddenly came across a newspaper story about Parsis. The Parsis, who arrived in India from Persia a few centuries ago, due to the persecution of Zoroastrians there, have perhaps given more to India than any other community has, on a per capita basis. By and large, the Parsis are an extremely prosperous group of people, who have worked very hard to build a reputation for themselves over centuries.

The news story was about "poor Parsis". Not many people in India can come up with a sentence which has these two words together. Apparently, the Parsis have many charitable properties in Bombay, that they can rent at a subsidized rate, provided, they can prove that they are poor. So, from time to time, people calculate the "poverty line" for Parsis, and this year, it happens to be an income of rupees 90,000 per month. That is about a thousand and a half dollars a month in a country like India, where, for comparison, a senior bureaucrat in Delhi makes about the same.

Naturally, the first thought that came to my mind was about how many Parsis I know.

Strangely, I don't have any Parsi friends -- not even people that I can call friends of friends. Of friends. But then, many years ago, in the land of the free, I was  interviewed for a job by a Parsi gentleman. Since the engineering group that I had talked to, had only one person from India, after my interview, they had asked him to take me out for lunch. And over lunch, we got talking, about things from India.

Like most Indians, who had spent decades outside of Des, this gentleman got very nostalgic very soon. He told me about his college days in Bombay, and about an old bollywood movie that he had watched after "bunking" college, that I hadn't even heard of -- Satta Bazaar. And then, he had explained to me what Satta was, and how bookies made millions by betting on everything you can find in a farm, including the farm itself.

He had explained to me that in the land of betting, the stronger guy has less money tied to him. So, if you are betting on a guy who has a sure-shot chance of winning, for every hundred bucks you bet on him, you will probably get fifty, or even twenty five. However, if you choose to bet on the weaker horse, with all the odds stacked up on its rickety back, and, in case it wins -- you will make out like a bandit. You will probably make a couple of thousand bucks by betting a hundred. Not bad, really.

I remember ending the conversation with a direct question about what my chances of getting the job were. I had a great interview, and I knew that they were looking for someone with my background.

"For you my friend, for every hundred bucks I bet, I will probably get ten!" That is how my Parsi interviewer had given me hope, for a job that I finally didn't take. But, the entire thought of being the winning horse, was not an entirely unwelcome one.

India, is still trying to choose its candidates for the presidential election. And every Indian, can tell you about a candidate or two that they think should be president. Since India is a parliamentary democracy, the president is a ceremonial figurehead, who is not even directly elected by the people. So, I was surprised that people around me have been really excited about who the next president should be. And then, I found another news story about the Satta Bazaar, where each of the presidential candidates now have a certain number of rupees attached to their names -- for every hundred you are willing to put up. I also found that India's incumbent finance minister, who is the favored candidate, will fetch you much less than hundred. Not that I am betting.

If you live in India, I am sure that someone or the other must have told you about their favorite candidate in the last few weeks, or they may even have asked you about yours. So, when a friend recently asked me the question, I had an answer ready.

"I think India's next president should be a Parsi, and preferably, a poor one."

While my friend looked at me quizzically, I rambled on.

"You know, we have had presidents from all sorts of communities before, but never a Parsi. So, why not?  As you know, India's growth story is coming to an end, people need a change. And, they need a new constitutional head who represents that change. May be, the poor Parsi that we pick will be a person from a business background, and inspire the rest of us."

"Got any names?" asked my friend, who was looking bored already.

"How about Ratan Tata? He is retiring from his current position at the helm of the Tata empire. He made India proud with the nano. And, during the terrorist attack in Mumbai, when most politicians had disappeared from public view, Mr. Tata stood bravely in front of the burning Taj -- with a promise to resurrect it as soon as the fires were put out. And he did. Plus, I have heard that he lives frugally, so he is a poor Parsi."

My friend, who has been tracking the politics of electing a figurehead quite closely, said, "Desi, you have lost it. Completely. Do you know that even if a majority of politicians came around to the idea of electing Mr. Tata, he would refuse to contest. In case you don't know, he is a very private person."

And then, he asked me a question related to the Satta Bazaar, since I had told him the story about my Parsi interviewer, "Desi, if you were to go and bet a hundred bucks on the most favored candidate today, how much do you think you will get?"

"Twenty, may be?" I said casually.

"And how much will you get for Ratan Tata?"

"I don't know, but I have a feeling that it will be pretty high."

"How high? For your poor Parsi candidate, Desi?"

And suddenly, it came to me. In a flash. And then, with a wide grin on my face, I told him.

"Ninety thousand rupees. For a poor Parsi."

Friday, June 1, 2012

Engineering the entrance

James Bond movies are fun to watch. You can have a few hours of brainless entertainment, and come out feeling pretty good at the end. I have watched so many of these movies so many times, that in my mind's eye, I have a pretty miserable mash of characters and plots, and often, it is very hard for me to remember what happened in which movie.

I remember one such movie, perhaps with Sean Connery playing the lead, in which he was trying to gain entrance into the villain's lair. The door was guarded by a big and burly character, who tried to scare Bond off with a bunch of complicated moves, swishing and cutting the air with a big and mean sword. Bond watched him calmly through the entire swordplay, and, at the end, pulled out a gun, and shot him dead.  Now that -- is what I call an entrance.

The engineering community in India is going though an elaborate discussion right now. On how, they should guard the entrance to our temples of engineering education.

The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) have long admitted students based on a single entrance examination, conducted at the end of twelve years of school education, in which, the final two impart specialized education to eligible students, in the basic sciences. At the end of these years, a student is expected to know how to calculate the forces inside complicated arrangements of pulleys pulling on blocks of wood  with ropes, or how to synthesize long chain polymers of hydrocarbons from ethyl alcohol, that you and me sometimes call moonshine. It is another story that if you ask these students to put together an actual arrangement of pulleys, as in a block and tackle, or perform some exciting chemistry experiment with dad's stash of moonshine, they will fail. Miserably. And therein, lies the problem with India's engineering education system, and how we pick the future engineers for our country.

The government, which should not be in the business of fixing anything, is trying to fix the problem. But, for a completely wrong set of reasons. They are not trying to fix the entrance process to enable a better selection of future engineers, who, in addition to having the rote requisites to understand the sciences behind the engineering, should have a passion for the subject. Instead, the government believes that the examination is too tough, and so, the new entrance strategy should be based on a mix of academic performance in school, and a new entrance examination, which presumably, will be different. To put things in a language 007 fans like me would understand, they are putting two swordsmen at the entrance now. Perhaps, Mr. Bond, will now need two guns.

So, that begs the question. How should we really pick our future engineers?

Well for starters, we should not pick the people who are going to do something else for a living after the country invests a large amount of money in them. Something else, like a job in the finance industry, setting up derivatives that crash the world's economy. But then, isn't that a pretty difficult thing to do? You can pick a student based on his knowledge of physics or chemistry, but how in the world do you pick someone based on passion for something like engineering.

Since the government is already making major modifications to the entrance, it is perhaps possible to pick a hundred or so students from all over India, who make some kind of basic cut in their high school grades, but participate in a nationwide competition to actually build something useful. This selection procedure could be similar  to the one in the science talent program that has been running in the United States for the last sixty years or so, currently sponsored by Intel, and previously by Westinghouse. And of course, such students, will be exempt from the "pressure cooker" entrance examination -- the one, with the swordsman at the gate.

So, if you pick the "super" hundred kids from India based on their ability to build things with passion, is there a guarantee that they will not take up jobs in finance? Well, there are no guarantees in life, but, for a change, you might be able to attract a few kids to the system who have a passion for building, and have high school grades, that are good enough to sustain them through the academic system at the IITs.  

I would like to believe that this is a revolutionary idea of sorts, that identifies passion for engineering, but I would be terribly wrong. The Indian Institute of Science, considered India's top institute in postgraduate research, recently added an undergraduate program. Although they have decided to select some of their students through the IIT entrance examination, they also select budding scientists through a nationwide science talent program known as the "Kishore Vaigyanik Protsahan Yojna" or KVPY. Perhaps, the IITs can pool their resources together and start such a program to select a limited number of budding engineers, who can actually do something with the ropes and pulleys they seem to get entangled with, in their nightmares.

A few months ago, I met an old friend of mine, who shared my passion for engineering in our days at an IIT. Many years have passed since. Although I stuck to a career in engineering, my friend, after working in the field for a few years, decided to get himself a business degree from a big name school. And then, he bade adieu to engineering. For ever.  He now has a high paying job in finance. So, I asked him what it feels like -- to not be associated with a field that he was once so passionate about. 

With a sigh, my friend, who was once a civil engineer, told me, "Are yaar,  pahle sachmuch ke kiley banaya kartha tha, aab to sirf hawai kiley banata  hoon! (My friend, in my old job, I used to build real castles, and now, I just build them in the air!)"

For the hordes of young people in India, contemplating a career in engineering, I hope the new entrance strategy works out. Or, there will be many more castles to build -- in the air.