Category Archives: history

adam osborne – the idea of (NRI) Indianness

This post continues from – adam osborne – the man…

There is no jingoism here. There is only a suggestion of a reasonable pride about relevant parts in our history, our collective pasts and the present. Of course, there are certain parts that we need to introspect on too!

There is no suggestion of an empty glorification of the past. Just a few pertinent and plain questions – to make us think.

I have personally met quite a few of our NRIs (non resident Indians) and RNIs (resident non Indians) – and I am sure, you have too – who have these kinds of attitudes – observed so ably by Adam.

” A people which takes no pride in the noble achievements of remote ancestors will never achieve anything worthy to be remembered with pride by remote descendants. “

— Macaulay.

How long do we hold on to the coat tails of the likes of Thomas Babington Macaulay? May be, we shall overcome, in spite of all the corruption and unrest and – am ashamed to admit to it  – in spite of my fellow Tamilians such as Raja and Karunanidhi. May be this too shall pass?

Here goes, the text of Adam’s April 1991 dataquest aricle:

I was raised in Tamil Nadu in South India, in the ashram of Sri Ramana Maharishi, of an English father and a Polish mother. Both were dedicated followers of Sri Ramana Maharishi. Therefore as a child growing up in the small town of Tiruvannamalai, Tamilnadu. I was fluent in Tamil and was surrounded by Indians who were proud of their nationality and heritage, and believed they had a lot to teach us Europeans.

I still speak enough Tamil to get by, and feel that my roots are indeed in India. I must be only professed “vellackaaren” Tamilian in America. After all, how could anyone, even an English boy, grown up in Tiruvannamalai, in the ashram of Sri Ramana Maharishi, and not acquire a pride in his roots? It is therefore with some misgivings that today I find myself dealing with Indians, many of whom do not feel proud of their Indianness.

Indian Americans represent the most affluent minority in America, ahead of Jewish Americans and Japanese americans. This is a statistic and not an opinion. Indians swarm all over the Silicon valley, where they are an integral part of most product development teams: be they teams developing new semiconductor chips, software packages or computers. Indians are recognized throughout America as technically superior. No Indian in America has to explain his educational background, or apologize for his technical training.

And yet, as a group, though Indian Americans are quick to acknowledge their caste, religion or family, they lack national pride. Indians are not proud of their nationality as Indians, something I realized many years ago. Something that puzzled me Recently, talking before Indian audiences on the lecture circuit, I have frequently talked to Indians of their lack of national pride, with telling results. Invariably, after making this assertion from the lecture podium, I find myself surrounded by Indians: Engineers, Scientists, doctors, even lawyers, all asserting the correctness of my observations,”You are correct,” they will assert. “I am not proud that I am an Indian.”

Is the reasons India’s colonial heritage? Who knows? But whatever the reason, it is a pity since the day Indians learn pride, India will rapidly move out of its third world status to become one of the world’s industrial powers. Today I work with an Indian American, trying to help him make his dream come true. And in the process, make my own dream come true, since I have hitched my dream to his. Then, with my dream realized, I will return to India, to preach Indian pride: not pride in being a Hindu, or practising Islam or being a Parsee, or a Sikh: not pride in being a Tamilian, or a telugu, or a punjabi, or a marwari; not pride in being a Brahmin rather than a lesser caste. These are all divisive differences that India would be better off without. But I will preach that Indians must learn to be proud of being Indians just as Singapore nationals are proud of their nationality, irrespective of their race or their religion. Then there will be no more shoddy Indian products, since every worker will generate output with the stamp of a proud man on it. With self-evident quality that screams out:”That is the work of an Indian!”

And corruption will decline. For, although bribes are solicited by greedy, dishonest men, as well as by men who do not earn enough to feed themselves and their families, and even though these root causes of corruption transcend the bases of lack of Indian pride of which I speak, nevertheless a proud man will pause, more than a man without pride, before extending his hand to receive a bribe.

And a proud Indian will try harder to be responsible for products and services that others will praise. And it is in that praise that India’s future Industrial greatness lies.

– – Adam Osborne

At one level, Adam fills me with hope.

— END —

adam osborne, the man…

I do not know how many of us remember Adam, I mean THE Adam.

A few days back, I was talking to Christopher Quilkey (the editor of the journal Mountain Path – published by Ramanashramam) – who visited Bangalore and us on some personal errand. Apparently he spent some 5 years personally tending to his ailing friend Adam – and Chris must have shared in the grief and sorrow of  witnessing the gradual and irreversible deterioration of a beautiful, straight-thinking and innovative brain.

But, some of us may not know Adam.

” The most valuable thing you can make is a mistake – you can’t learn anything from being perfect. “

— Adam Osborne

He was the guy who spent his childhood in Tiruvannamalai in Tamilnadu, prided himself for being the ‘only vellaikara tamil’ (the only white tamil) – and after a rather roller-coaster ride through life (and silicon valley),  finally breathed his last in 2003, in Kodaikanal in Tamilnadu.

These biographical details perhaps, are not that important. But, I personally admire him for three reasons:

1. He was a true pioneer of the relentless drive for making usable personal computers really economically. (thusly innovating in the area much before the other respectable guy,  Steve Jobs – am not even talking about Bill Gates) I would say that he was the first true PC entrepreneur.

2. Him being the first successful publisher of useful, affordable, very well designed computer books – in addition to being a very good author.

3. The fact that he talked persistently about the inferiority complex of many of us ‘learned’ Indians. (In this context, he even wrote a simple and hard hitting article in a computer trade magazine DataQuest, way back in 1991 – that is reproduced in the next blog entry)

… Chris shared  a few poignant details about the final years of Adam, and the human condition. One suddenly felt rather numb.

Chris is also a sensitive and fine raconteur of ideas – and of course, we then moved on to other common interests such as the dogs being very sentient, films etc etc. Such is life.

But I thought, I will share my admiration of Adam and that of his article which was making rounds on the USENET a couple of decades or so ago… It is worth reflecting on…

shah jahan’s tajmahal vs raja’s corruption

Once in a while, we ‘discuss’ politics and allied goings-on (including the civic structures and civil society) with our impressionable adolescents. We sometimes discuss history too, in spite of the fact that in these times of the impending ‘secondary school leaving certificate’ exams and prep mode for some of our children, we can’t have interesting discussions like this all the time.

But, still…

Here is a gist of a rather tricky question posed and some ideas it generated…

1600s CE:

The Moghul emperor – Shahab-ud-din Muhammad Khurram – popularly titled and known as ‘Shah Jahan’ in our horrendous history books – ordered the construction of a mausoleum (basically an elaborately & aesthetically constructed interment monument) – over the grave of his favorite queen (who was also Khurram’s maternal cousin) Arjumand Banu Begum – popularly known as Mumtaz Mahal. Arjumand dies in the mid 1600s and Khurram grieves for more than 20 years over the matter, and finishes the construction of the mausoleum – and of course orders the movement / transport of the remains of his queen to the monument from Burhampur, where  it was temporarily interred. The building apparently cost Rs 3.2 Crores at that time. In US dollar equivalent it would have then been some 1 million (US $ 1 million); the current value of the cost incurred would be in the region of tens of thousands of crores of Indian Rupees. Again, this would roughly translate to many billions of US dollars.

Khurram literally bankrupts his government in the process, in spite of the fact that India then was a very vibrant economy. He uses the tax payers’ money to build a monument for primarily his edification. If he had instead built a mosque or mosques or some other place of worship or a big university or a huge set of factories – they could have benefited the laity – at least to some extent. At least, these community structures are justifiable expenditure items.

Everyone then and now know that he diverted the state funds for his purely personal agenda. In other words, it is corruption. But, we don’t even think of it like that. We feel that it would be a blasphemy to think along these lines. We assume that kings can deal with the state treasury in anywhichway they want.

The fact that the Taj Mahal is considered beautiful is besides the point. (full disclosure: I haven’t visited it so far)

200os CE:

Andimuthu Rasa – popularly(!) known as A Raja, the much deservedly maligned ex minister of Telecommunications of the Indian Union, manages to make a monumentally corrupt set of deals and wheeeling-dealings – and has perhaps built many Taj Mahals elsewhere. We don’t know much about them. He is not willing to share the details. Not yet. The money (with the standard cut at 30-35% of the deal size) that he must have accumulated through this diversion of Indian Nation’s assets (tax payers’ money) will amount to some Indian Rs 40,000 Crores at least, as of now.

But, we call this Raja names. He has also done exactly what Khurram had done earlier. The only thing is that we don’t yet know the details of the taj mahals of this Raja. May be, his taj mahals would be modern day temples (as our Jawaharlal Nehru announced loooong back) like some huge industrial complexes or pleasure islands or housing mega-complexes. We don’t really know.

Raja was/is a ruler. Khurram was one too. Both have done almost similar things – using public money for personal ends. It was aristocracy then. It is a so-called democracy now. Frankly, the only difference that I find is that, to my limited knowledge, Andimuthu Rasa’s wife is still alive and so perhaps it is immature to talk about a multiplicity of possible Parameswari Mahals. (sorry, sorry…)

I also agree that, perhaps we cannot use the current definitions of corruption to historical contexts – I am a reasonable student of history. But the fact is, these kinds of cognitive dissonances continue to bother me. I feel that if A. Raja had lived in the times of Shah Jahan, say, what he had done now would have been normal. In fact, many of our historians would have praised him for his Parameswari Mahals.

Hmm. After much discussion (and a justifiable sense of uncomprehending horror from our adolescents) we kind of figured out that our notions of corruption stem from our understanding of the current concepts & notions of democracy, republic etc. And also that – as usual we always rely on our ability to articulate our double standards and selective application of ideals to understand an increasingly complex world.

(I would say that one of the impossibly beautiful rewards of being, teaching and learning with children is – the fantastic pleasure of looking at the faces of the children, when their brains go click-click-click and nerve impulses whiz thru their synapses making new connections and applying new contexts… and then, we get to see the impossibly radiant faces of our children. It is lovely, one has to experience this feeling to really appreciate it)

And, I would love to hear from you about our very own and contemporary Andimuthu Raja Shah Jahan…

a lesson in history

… or in sex education (oh no!), if you will…

I have the shared the following story many times in the past, with groups of school-going children, fellow ‘teachers’ and sometimes in the random corporate ‘training’ sessions that I have conducted – all lost in the twirling mists of the past.

Anyway, over to the story.


Many years ago – two children, siblings actually – one a 8 year old, the other 6 years of age were living in a distant suburb of Chennai – this suburb was quite close to the Meenambakkam Airport – and was more like a sparsely populated village in those days. These children went to a happy municipality school close by and were enjoying open spaces, clean air, safe environments… Oh those begone halcyon days of the past…

And now, these children were discussing some matter of earth shaking importance to them… A transcript follows:

Presently 6 dawdles along and asks 8 in a semi hushed tone, with surreptitious glances, just in case…

6: Anna (‘elder brother’ in Tamil), is it possible for males to give birth to children?

8 is stunned and stumped – he thinks for a while, with the burdensome responsibility of an elder brother, who ought to know ‘things,’ weighing down heavily on him. He is given to devouring everything that has anything written on it and so is looked up in awe by 6; 8 is considered as a repository of all knowledge in the neighborhood. And so, 8 is already suffering from a very debilitating performance anxiety, because the question is very technical and he has had no direct experience in the domain. And so, 8 scans his brain, and aha, he has the answer staring at him. He is delighted.

8: Umm, yes Giri, I think it is possible for men to give birth to children.

6: Oh! (with obvious relief) I also guessed as much. It explains a lot of things. I too have seen so many pregnant men, but never thought that they too would have children inside, instead of a huge stomach. I thought they ate too much. Heh!

8: Ummm. Ha ha!

6: But, but, how do you know that? Have you seen men delivering babies?

8: No. But I think it is possible.

6: How come then, we don’t hear of any man delivering babies?

8: Um.., I don’t know whether it is still possible, but am very sure that it has happened in the past. In those days, it must have been possible.

6: Really? So there are books about it??

8: Yes! I have read in our government ‘tamilnadu textbook society’ history books about these facts!

6: Oh really? Tell me, tell me more about that please, please!

8: Yeah. You see, in the Moghul history, this is what happened. Moghuls were the emperors of North India then. Babur started the dynasty. And then, Babur got Humayun, Humayun got Akbar, Akbar got Jahangir and so forth. They are all males you know – and still they ‘got’ their children. If you see their pictures you would understand…

6: Thanks Anna, (with a glowing face) you know everything

8: (with obvious relief, but put on airs) ahem…


See, in those days 8 did know somewhat about the birds and bees – but not much. But, there were proofs to the contrary in the textbooks. Given the available information and weighing the rather public evidence, I suppose he came to a correct conclusion. What do you think?

I think it took many years for 8 to get out of the trauma of the discovery of ‘delivering’ men (as opposed to delivery boys). But finally he got his deliverance… At least I think so. I know that 8 year old rather intimately. It was actually yours truly.

But the state government texts and NCERT books are not to be blamed alone here… All the new fangled books for IGCSE to IB are full of these kinds of cognitive dissonances and uselessly lame ideas.  When are we ever going to learn from herstories, and itstories?

Anyway, this conversation happened some 40 years back. The fact is that the same state of affairs continues in the textbooks and in ‘education,’ is quite sad. But there is hope, as we will eventually arm our children with two questions (for any given context), that will open doors, provide pointers and make them good meta learners. These questions are very simple yet powerful – if asked, answered and then revised based on current understanding; they are 1) Why and 2) Why not.

I am glad to say that in the nammashaale, the children are encouraged to ask these kinds of questions, repeatedly, nay, incessantly… Hope the parents would pardon us.

dr vagishwari – a raconteur of history

Thanks to ‘Indian Institute of Montessori Studies’ (IIMS), some of us from NammaShaale got an opportunity to listen to Dr Vagishwari of the Department of History at Christ University, Bangalore – on 23rd Jan, 2010.

I have been a student of history for quite a few decades now and I have always been fascinated by the various interpretations and streams of history – and the interplay of contexts. However, I have almost always been disappointed by the lack of depth and the incorrigble (and sometimes, plain dishonest) ability to generalize based on a sample size of one or less of many of the historians – some of them quite famous, some of them quite dead. Good riddance too.

So, when I got the invitation from the school for this talk on history to a primarily Montessoriese adult audience, my immediate reaction was tremendous reluctance – the talk was on a saturday, the venue deep within the city, the speaker unknown to me, expected time spend of 6 hours etc etc… However, I did go and ma’am Vagishwari  did not disappoint me.

It was good that she did not canonically toe the line of the ‘JNU school of marxist’ ahistorians  (actually these specimens are the current establishmentwallahs) or the ‘extreme nationalistic’ school or for that matter, ‘dravidian/aryan dividers and rulers’ nonsense. Her talk was about getting the facts first and then getting the relevant contexts so that a reasonable edifice of history can emerge. She was not interested in generalizing and making sweeping statements – and she also appeared to be uptodate with the current level of research in the contentious topics of history. She could also effortlessly move from Bittiga to Charlemagne to Veerappandiya Kattabomman to EVR to gender studies to… Good. Many idols fell by the wayside, including the idol of sloganshouting-placard wielding years of my youth – D D Kosambi. However, as she hinted at, everyone’s contribution has been useful for the furtherence of historical cognition in one way or the other, so, RIP dear Kosambi.

There were of course a few points of divergence of opinions and jumping of contexts, but they were all subdued by good natured humour and her erudition.

It is not often times that one gets to listen to professionals with depth, a fine sense of humour and good oratorial capabilities (no PowerPointless slides yay!)…  Her passion for history shone thru’ in the whole talk.

May her tribe increase.  Thanks NammaShaale, for the nice saturday surprise, instead of um, some staff meeting – and also IIMS, of course!