(For the fourth post in this series, for which I have interviewed people I am close to, I emailed Vishwanath Ji a set of questions. His responses have been reproduced here. I hope that you would like the idea and enjoy the conversation. The series is to be continued with other friends as and when possible. Sincere thanks to all readers who commented on and appreciated the earlier posts).
My friend with us for today’s post is someone very special. Mr. Vishwanath Gopalakrishna is one of those very nice people whom interestingly, I have known for a very few months. Being acquainted with him is for me a clear evidence of the rich meaningfulness that online interactions can be a source of. I have read a number of his extremely pleasant writings on a whole range of issues- short, amazing memoirs, reflections on the changing social institutions such as marriage and still interestingly his lovely, insightful comments and suggestions on a number of blogs and other online fora which he regularly reads and contributes to. A Civil Engineer by profession, I see in him a flair for continuously exploring and attempting to make sense of the ever-changing world. Vishwanath Ji’s articulations on some of the issues I just mentioned are instances of brevity meeting wisdom and wit. For the short duration that I have known him, he has already become a source of warmth and inspiration. In this extremely enjoyable interview he talks about various aspects of life and its changing course. I hope my association with him becomes an everlasting one and that this exchange of ideas and information continues unabated.
Vishwanath Ji currently lives in Bangalore where his engagements with technology, life and society continue to flourish.
Personal Concerns – Thank you Vishwanath Ji for agreeing to respond. To start with, I would like to ask you something about your days as an Engineering student at Roorkee. What was it like in those days to be a student of Engineering?
Vishwanath Ji– Roorkee (1972 to 1974) evokes pleasant memories. I had just obtained a BE(Hons) degree in Civil Engineering from BITS (Pilani) in 1972. But the best institute for Civil engineering and all its branches was Roorkee University at that time. I badly wanted the Roorkee “Chaap” on my degree.
Roorkee was the oldest Engineering college and it was the post-independence successor to the legendary Thomson College of Civil Engineering set up by the British more than 150 years ago. Most of the well-known Civil engineers of the country had studied at Roorkee and I remember that most of the text books on Civil Engineering were written by Professors from Roorkee.
The Civil engineering department of University of Roorkee was the biggest in the country with over 70 teaching staff, nearly all of them PhD’s in Engineering and offering the widest options to civil engineering graduates to specialize. Getting into the Structures section was the toughest of all and they selected only 10 from the hundreds of students from all over the country who applied. I got through and have never regretted my decision to postpone entering the job market by two years in order to specialize and get a Masters degree in Structural engineering from the University of Roorkee. It is now called IIT Roorkee.
Roorkee had a special attraction for Civil engineers. The place housed not just the University of Roorkee with its internationally famed Civil Engineering Department but also several prestigious Civil engineering institutions like the Central Building Research Institute, The Structural Engineering Research Center, The School of Research and Training in Earthquake Engineering, the Water Resources Development and Training Centre and the Irrigation Research Institute. All these were located in adjacent campuses. Not for nothing was Roorkee called the Mecca for Civil Engineers.
The one regret I have was that the PG scholarship offered by the UGC was just Rs 250/- those days and it had remained at that figure for several years before I enrolled there. Several batches of students had been agitating and representing to the Govt of India for enhancing the scholarship to prevent hardship to the students. We were the last batch who were given this paltry sum. The next batch, after I passed out got Rs 400/- per month.
Vishwanath Ji – Oh! It is unrecognisable! We have all heard of the Industrial revolution which changed the lives of millions of people initially in Europe and later all over the world. That revolution is nothing compared to the second Computer/Software/Internet/Communication revolution that I am fortunate to be part of. I still don’t know whether today we are still at the beginning of the revolution and have yet to see most of it or if we are somewhere in the middle or if we have come close to exhausting the possibilities. For the generation or two that preceded mine, electricity, the automobile, printing press, aeroplanes and radio represented the wonders of modern technology. I grew up without being amazed or impressed by any of it.During my childhood long distance telephony, supersonic aircraft, black and white movies (35 mm), and the gramophone and tape recorder, typewriters, telegrams and later telexes and modern nuclear weapons and missiles, and the amazing advances in health care, vaccination, birth control, antibiotics and the elimination of small pox and polio etc and modern methods of methods of surgery like the first heart transplant represented advanced technology.
In my youth technology was represented by feats like space travel, orbiting and landing on the moon, and military advances and modern weapons like missiles and hydrogen bombs, and neutron bombs.
During my early adulthood (age 20 to 30) TV, VCRs, PCs, even the humble calculator, Photocopying machine, colour photography, 70 mm movies etc were all unknown and they all made an entry one by one and I watched these developments unfolding and experienced the thrills. I later actually experienced the computer revolution starting in India in the late sixties. I learned Fortran programming on the IBM main frame computers in the late sixties at BITS Pilani, moved over to using minicomputers and later graduated to the personal computers in the Nineties. I was part of the internet revolution right from 1998 onwards and have enjoyed and benefited from the amazing progress we have achieved and are still achieving in this area. I never dreamed 15 years ago that mobile telephony will be a reality and become so cheap and widespread. I think more than anything the cell phone is the device of the century and has done the maximum to influence our life in a positive way. I envisage the gradual amalgamation of entertainment, information, communication and computation into one device in the years to come.
PC – To what extent do you think that technological advancement should be taken to be an indicator of human progress and development as these terms are commonly used and understood?
Vishwanath Ji – I would say the extent could be 50 percent. When I say this I mean technological advancement is not the only reliable and complete indicator of progress. India with practically no technology (as we understand it today) was considered a country where enormous progress and development had been achieved by the heroes like Ashoka, Chandragupta, and later by the emperors who ruled from Delhi. Prior to this we have accounts from the Mahabharata and Ramayana too about the progress made by human beings.
Today, we need technology but it must be balanced with concern for the environment. I would rate those countries as the best to live in where it is not technological advancement but political stability, security, health and general quality of life of the average citizen that is the criterion. I would not rate USA at the top in spite of all its miraculous advancements in space and war technology but would choose countries like Switzerland, New Zealand, Australia, Netherlands etc.
PC – In case you believe that to be the case, how are south and north India different from each other?
We can live with and perhaps celebrate some differences also. It is fact that the South is in general less aggressive. May be the wars in the North have influenced people’s behavior. The south has not suffered as much from wars as the North (particularly Punjab) have. I also believe crime in the South is less than crime in the North both in severity and number of incidences.
I don’t believe some myths that the south (and Bengal) is more “intellectual” and that hospitality in the north is warmer. I am willing to believe that the average North Indian is physically taller, and stronger and some shades fairer in complexion than the average South Indian. I believe literacy levels are better in the Southern states than in the north.
I have lived both in North, West and South India and feel perfectly at home in all these regions and enjoy the advantages and tolerate the disadvantages of each.
PC – How many languages do you know? Which one is the most special?
Vishwanath Ji – In decreasing degrees of proficiency, the languages are English, Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, Gujarati and Malayalam and French.
By birth I belong to a community that has its origins in Paalakkad District of Kerala near the Tamil Nadu border and as a child I was exposed to a strange lingo that my parents used. It was a mix of Tamil and Malayalam. The sentence structure of the language was grammatically closer to Tamil but Malayalam words were generously used and the spoken accent was totally Malayalee and my parents wrote in the Paalakkad Tamil dialect using the Malayalam script. This was my first exposure to any language, learnt sitting in my mother’s lap.
Later, having been brought up in a Gujarati speaking neighbourhood in Mumbai, I was exposed during my childhood to Bombaiya Hindi, and Gujarati. The school I went to was an English Medium School run by Catholic Missionaries and I developed a taste for English and it was my favorite subject in school. I did extraordinarily well in English in school and was the favorite of my teachers. I read voraciously in English.
I learned Hindi as a compulsory subject in school but I polished up my Hindi during the five years I spent at Pilani and later two more years at Roorkee and developed a taste for the language courtesy Bollywood film songs. Starting much later, I worked hard at reading and writing Hindi and read voraciously in Hindi to catch up. Starting with pulp fiction of Gulshan Nanda I graduated to more high brow reading of authors like Premchand. My Hindi speaking skills improved due to close interaction with Rajasthani friends at Pilani and later UPite friends in Roorkee. I can now talk almost like a native Hindi speaker and you won’t be able to detect a south Indian accent in my Hindi. The only dead giveaway is my occasional gender error. This ka and ki of Hindi still sometimes flummoxes me. But the language I communicate best is English and this is the result of not merely an English medium education in School but the fact that my profession used no language other than English for nearly 37 years.
In addition I can speak colloquial Tamil and a smattering of Gujarati and Malayalam and Kannada and I manage to communicate with the servants, taxi or auto drivers, and street hawkers in these languages. I can also read and write slowly and haltingly in these languages. I can read hoardings and sign boards in these scripts but would be unwilling to exert myself to read a book or periodical in these languages.
I learned French for four years in School and got good marks in the matriculation exam in 1966 (90 percent) but due to lack of opportunities to use it later, have totally forgotten it. I can now only sprinkle a few popular French words and phrases in my written English and can read simple French.
I admit I have artificially inflated my list of languages here. To be really honest, the languages I can rightfully claim to know are English and Hindi. English and Hindi are both special to me. I value English as my ticket to the world beyond India and my proficiency in this language has helped me advance in my profession and also build up an international network. I value Hindi as it has enabled me to reach out to the largest number of my fellow citizens in this country. I love to read technical literature only in English but I don’t fancy reading about our myths , scriptures, culture and tradition in English and always prefer Hindi. I love reading poems in Hindi and listen only to Hindi Songs, never English. I respect the west for some technically great movies they have produced but I can’t relate to the story in English movies. I ALWAYS prefer watching a good Hindi Movie or Teleserial to an English Movie or TV serial if I have the choice.
Vishwanath Ji – Yes, of course, there is a generation gap and there has always been one and perhaps there will always be. The youth of today will be the elderly tomorrow. The issues may differ from age to age but the gap will always exist. It is not a bad thing. It is natural. I am quite comfortable with it and I tolerate it and do try to bridge it without sacrificing what I cannot give up and without imposing my views or prejudices on another generation. I don’t feel comfortable with some of the beliefs, tendencies and practices of the younger generation but I live and let live.
In particular, I do not approve of youngsters tattooing their skins. While I am comfortable with both love marriages and properly arranged marriages I am not comfortable with living together relationships particularly when children are born to such couples. I am not comfortable with sex outside marriage. I don’t like both men and women smoking and drinking and consuming drugs and I shun night clubs and night life in general. I believe night is the time for sleeping. I have adjusted to the fact that the joint family is dying and do not mourn it, though I recall with nostalgia some great moments in my life when we lived as a joint family. I could cite more examples.
PC – Who are your favorite authors and artists ?
Vishwanath Ji – I am unable to give an honest answer. I can’t single out any one. I can only narrow down the list.I have been heavily influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s thinking and also by Jawaharlal Nehru, but in the last ten years, I have begun questioning some of their policies and beliefs. I have loved reading several authors but cannot pick out any one as my favourite. I have absolutely no knowledge of painting and art. I love classical Music and light semi classical music but have no favourites. I don’t fancy western music, pop music, or rock music. In the field of arts and culture, I am a pakka Desi and nothing in the western world attracts me. I believe our classical dances and our Yoga are better than anything they have to offer. My choice if I am asked to pick the most beautiful woman in the world would be a Sari clad woman from India, never a western lady in their dresses however tall and fair they may be. But I readily admit their overwhelming superiority in sports.
PC – I wanted to know about your favorite films/ books.
Vishwanath Ji – Again, I can’t pick just one. I loved the movie Mackenna’s Gold released in the late sixties or early seventies for sheer technical brilliance during those less technologically advanced times. There are too many Hindi/Tamil/Malayalam films that I can list as my favourites and it is impossible for me to decide which was best. My favourite books include the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
PC – Please share with us a song of your choice. I would like to know what makes it stand apart?
Vishwanath Ji – I admit my failure here also. I can’t name any one. There are just too many and depending on my mood, each one lingers in and torments my mind at various times. An example (just an example) is the Magudi tune played by the late Carnatic Violinist Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan. It was mind-blowing. There are others too that captured my imagination and made my hair stand on end when I listened. I have been enthralled by Bismillah Khan‘s Shehnai, and the Saxophone played by Kadri Gopalnath. I love flautists T R Mahalingam, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Ronu Mazumdar, My favourite singer is Lata Mangeshkar for light music and I have too many favourites in Carnatic Vocal music. It would be sacrilegious to compare them. They are all simply great. In Light instrumental Music I have been impressed by flutist Praveen Godkhindi.
Vishwanath Ji – Tradition and culture will never be a thing of the past. Yesterday’ customs and practices are today’s traditions. Today’s customs and practices will become tomorrow’s traditions. What will change is the actual customs and practices that qualify as tradition.
(All comments and suggestions about the format and the presentation of the interview would be deeply appreciated. Friends who wish to be included in this series, please let me know. It would be lovely to have you here on my blog. Cheers!)