Pl read

1. Why o Why?

If you are visiting these writings for the first time, or have not read the entry "Why o Why",

may I suggest you read that first and then read the rest in numerical order?

Sunday, 3 December 2017

25. How could one person touch so many lives?

Just before 7 pm on Saturday, Dec 2nd, 2018, Saraswathi took the stage towards the end of a function arranged to release the third collection of  short Tamil stories penned by her dear father Shri S.V. Ramani. Before her, many  celebrated Tamil writers — who were sitting on the stage — had spoken in praise of the stories, and the story teller.  In fact, a few months earlier, at the release of the second collection, the literary world had acknowledged his prowess by calling him “The Sculptor of Great Stories”.

Until he showed us a typed version of some of his stories more than a year ago, I had no clue that story writing was a talent my father-in-law possessed among a myriad of others.

He was an avid painter, an impatient one at that. His paintings were created in spurts, often after  a trip to some exotic locale. He also painted portraits, ones that attracted the most attention were his paintings of Kanchi Paramacharya, and Shri Ramana Maharshi. The latest was a photograph-like depiction of the “Junior” Acharya of Kanchi. His paintings adorn the walls of the house he built in Nanganallur, Chennai. In the very first room that visitors see as they enter the house one can’t but notice paintings that surprise  many by the fact that they came from the same person they had high regards for, but for other reasons.

Most of us, if we are lucky, have an effectiveness quotient of one — we do reasonably well what an average person is expected to do. But my father-in-law was a true  ashtavadhani. To me, that came about because he enabled, nurtured and empowered people around him and made sure whatever resources and connections were at his disposal  were harnessed to help someone handle with finesse the problem they were facing. Many have vouched that but for him their lives would have languished. 

He was as generous with his time as he was with his financial support for worthy causes.  And, he did all this silently and diligently. To top it off, many of the good deeds he engineered were done in the name of the Rotary Club, with him being the primary, sometimes sole,  financier of the activity. He did not do things for  the glory that  usually attracts people to perform such actions. 

Innumerable are the  schools — in rural as well as urban areas, hospitals — especially those catering to the not so well endowed, and, in general, public causes, that owe their very existence to his bottomless generosity.

Arguably, his passion for music surpassed everything else. Come music season, he could only be found in his favorite sabhas that dot the city of Chennai. He thoroughly enjoyed Carnatic music — it was clear to those who were near him when he was listening to music — that,  to him, it was a spiritual experience. The meticulous manner in which he maintained his vast music collection bears witness to not only his love for the divine sounds, but also his vision of  making the young singers become familiar with long forgotten kritis. Music Sabhas as well as musicians — the established as well as the fledgling ones — were keen to have  his presence at their concerts. To enable the music lovers in Nanganallur get  their music delivered  literally  in their backyards, he built Ranjani Hall — a functional auditorium along with a self-contained two story place for visitors to stay.

It was in this auditorium that the release of the book containing the third collection of stories took place on 2nd Dec. Just as his daughter Saraswathi finished thanking the speakers for their kind words about  her father and his creations, her brother Murali stood at the entrance of Ranjani Hall, while people saw an ambulance pass by behind him, Saraswathi tearfully informed the audience  that earlier that afternoon their father had breathed his last. 

What a tribute to a glorious life which defined in one go what a can-do attitude and  a big heart can bring to this world!

Thursday, 17 August 2017

24. Women Do their Duties, Therefore Deserve their Dues!

Inequities galore!

Even a cursory look around us reveals palpable gaps between
-   what a woman is capable of doing and
   what she is assumed to be capable of,
-   what she gets as dues for some work done, compared to
    what a man gets for the same work, and
-    what a man does casually to go up the career ladder and is praised, and
    what a woman has to struggle to achieve but is frowned  upon.

In almost all cultures, and especially in India, women are given, and often perform, the role of caregivers.

During their early years, their children take the care givers for granted.
During their middle years their husbands take them for granted.
During their late years, their children have left their nests, husbands need physical assistance  themselves and the women are expected to behave as they did all these years, taking care of them.

Since all such care is usually given at home, they are nonrenumerative. They are the care givers but few care to openly acknowledge the critical role the care givers  play. (See my care givers) .

I am of course talking about what used to be the norm, but my contention is that things have not changed that much, even with more women entering the workforce. With women forced to prove her capabilities outside the home to remain employed, they are have to juggle multiple conflicting demands on their time. Many compromises are made.

  1. Some prefer to stay home even if they are employable.

  1. Some take a break from work whenever a non-trivial need for their services arises. In many cases - due to insensitive workplace rules - some are forced to quit their jobs and, when the need for their services subsides, they start all over again and in many cases, without due credit being given to their prior work experience.

  1. Some use the time between two care-giving episodes to upgrade their skill sets, and even to get the next diploma or degree. Many find this rewarding due to the thrill or self-satisfaction of learning something new. But there is a distinct likelihood of such women feeling even more frustrated after the degree is earned because of competition from younger men and women with credentials similar to or better than theirs.

The situation for women especially those who get back to jobs or any career path after a break due to, for example, child rearing, is dismal.

The Result:  women end up in jobs that are not as rewarding or stable as they deserve.

The sad part in all this is that, perhaps because the space given to women is disproportionately small and opportunities at the top being few and far between, there is sometimes an unhealthy competition between women and (in some sense) not surprisingly, some women are perceived as playing playing hard,  to get to the top. And, in this male dominated world where women are supposed to be soft hearted, such behavior is not viewed positively. Here again, we see a double standard, in that when a man does it, it is considered to be a sign of assertiveness but when a woman does it, she is considered “pushy”. Nevertheless, to many males and females in decision making roles, such pushiness is something they can do without and so decisions are made, not based on one’s real capabilities, but on perceptions.

This has several consequences.

1.  The right people not being where they ought to be, the society does not get the benefits of what is achievable through their participation;

2. They feel the world is not fair to them and this leads to frustration that affects performance, giving reasons the decision makers badly need to justify their decisions, thus forming a vicious cycle;

3.  As a result, some  capable women, who do not want to fight the fight, settle for less than what they deserve.

This also contributes to women feeling that they are dealt with in an unfair manner.

The powers that be, in government and elsewhere, have not woken up to the loss that society incurs as a result.

In fact, the current policies and practices contribute to the continuation of the status quo.

These include
  1. Irrational age limit for jobs and to apply for government schemes/funds for entrepreneurship or self-employment.
  2. Need for prior experience of a specific kind.
  3. Need for the job to be “permanent” in order to be able to  get funds.
Consider academics, the temple of rational thinking.

Advertisements from Government funded research institutes state that they prefer candidates who are below 35 years of age  for entry level faculty positions. If a woman is beyond that age and wants to do research in academia, her only choice in India is to work as a low-paid researcher with absolutely no benefits such as pension or a health plan unless she is married to a spouse with similar benefits.   These research positions are temporary, on-contract basis and there is no job guarantee and it forces her to work in an atmosphere of fear of  losing her job due to loss in funding,  making her unnecessarily dependent on a mentor.  There are very few programs like Department of Science and Technology’s Women Scientists program, but then again, it does not lead to any permanent position. She cannot apply for Associate professorship since she lacks experience post PhD and Assistant professor position is beyond reach due to age!

Currently,  in spite of working hard and even helping Professors to  write proposals, a researcher’s name can never appear in the proposal as a Co-PI because  the non-permanence of  her job prevents government  agencies from funding her project in spite of the  PI being  a permanent employee.  Despite mentoring PhD students in her group, her name can never appear on their theses as Co-guide since she does not have a permanent position. There are many highly qualified women with a  passion for research toiling in research laboratories in temporary positions, reconciled to a stunted career.

An irony in all this is that there are no temporary research positions for PhDs with more than five years of experience because it is  assumed that they would have become assistant professors!

So, only those women who follow the  sequence of Bachelors, Masters, PhD, faculty position, marriage, child birth, etc. -- and do not attempt to do  things in a different order   -- have some hope.

The following recommendations emanate from the above observations:

a) The more informed and enlightened institutions like the IITs  should  have research track  positions. It will benefit everyone if people who want to be on this track, male or female, are empowered to write proposals (which will provide funding, among other things,  for their salary). They can, in addition, help regular faculty to carry out their research and  mentor research students.

b) As long as someone has the qualifications associated with a position, age-related bars  should be eliminated, so that the demoralizing and debilitating impact of such bars on one half of society can become history. This also makes sense in light of the fact that women live longer on average than men.

Both these steps, I believe, will lead to a win-win situation all around.  In academic campuses, where the spouses can also be expected to  be qualified, by giving opportunities for the spouses to shine, a tangible -- and much needed -- increase in  the overall  productivity of the campus is highly likely.


The author,  Krithi Ramamritham, an eternal optimist, is Rekhi Chair Professor in the Computer Science Department at  IIT Bombay.

He is thankful to Saraswathi for being a wonderful caregiver, sooner in life than usual.  Also, along with Sumana,  she sensitized him to the sad plight of passionate researchers due to age discrimination and insensitivity of decision makers to the constraints faced by women. Thanks also for their inputs and comments on this blogpost.

As always, he requests the readers of this blogpost to bring it to the attention of others (male of female)  who may be interested.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

23. Some return, most won’t -- Implications for Indian Research(ers)

It has been 19 years since I returned to India after spending almost equal  time in the US. But even today when colleagues from the US come to  visit me, they ask about my experience being back in India. With most of them, I get the feeling that the thought of returning to India is on their minds and that is where it will stay. The percentage of Indian faculty in the US academia, especially in STEM subjects is much higher now than it was a decade ago, in almost all the universities in the US, independent of their rank in various “polls”. What is surprising is that the Indian representation in non-engineering areas is also becoming significant. Clearly, the number of  Indian students going abroad does not seem to have decreased.

Even though in the 1990’s there was a dip in the number of students going to the US immediately after their Bachelor’s degree, the numbers are rising again, but not close to the large exodus in the 1980s. What appears not to be on anyone’s radar is the number of people who do not go out immediately after they graduate, but leave after t(a|e)sting the waters for 2-3 years. When I did a quick check of students who did their Master’s project under my guidance during  the last 10 years, I was shocked to find out that almost all of them are working in the US -- with a small number opting for further studies.

Yes, brain drain is alive and kicking!

Optimists point out the involvement of many Indian VCs in Indian startup funding, the many incubators at almost all academic institutions in India, etc.  But, despite this silver lining, alarm bells should be ringing everywhere given the net departure of talent from India, albeit in avatars beyond the usual. One can hear some bells making feeble sounds,  their impact not commensurate with the demands of the ground reality.

The government for its part is creating several avenues for Indians abroad to return, or at least “pay back”.

The latest  entry is the VAJRA scheme which aims “at boosting research work and enabling new and cutting-edge technologies that India now needs.” They are designed to attract PIOs to spend time in India. These are useful but my personal feeling is that they don’t serve the ultimate purpose of having more PIOs back in India, for good. I am not saying that the hosts and the guests don’t feel good at the end of such visits but the benefits rarely linger to affect the host institution in the long run.

The various funding agencies in the government are competing with each other to formulate collaborative  funding opportunities for Indians here and abroad to work on problems that will positively impact people everywhere. I myself have been a beneficiary of such funding in more ways than one and will continue to go after them. But having been in the midst of things, I am not so sanguine about their overall effect, given the real problem on the ground.

And then, there is the much talked about effort  go after "foreign PhDs".
This is likely to cause turbulence in Indian academia if by diktat preferential treatment is forced to be given to somebody not based on what they are capable of  but where they did their PhD.

What are the implications of all this for Indian research and the people involved in it?

The Current situation: We have many good faculty in about a dozen top-class institutions in India. Some of them got their PhDs abroad, but not all.
Most have high aspirations. Now, research-oriented faculty everywhere depend on their students to convert ideas into something tangible. When students do not or can not deliver, the impact of the faculty suffers, visibility of the institution takes a hit and the country as a whole is affected.

If one takes a serious look at even the dozen institutions mentioned earlier, we notice that they do not have enough of any of the ingredients necessary to make a substantial difference in research, be it the number of high quality faculty, quality time for faculty to concentrate on research, high caliber students in good quantity, dependable infrastructure needed for focussed research, etc.

We must take cognisance  of  this current situation and resolve to utilize our human and other resources better.

Recommendations: High quality faculty leads to high quality of the graduating students as well as high quality research output during and after their PhD, provided adequate resources are available for conducting the research. So,

1. Enable faculty to focus on their research:

Today faculty (even in the top institutions) do everything from deciding which research problem to work on to procuring/maintaining  common infrastructure like microphones for their classrooms. These and the many mundane things in between leave very little quality time for sustained high quality research. Hence, there is an urgent need to improve the provisioning of dependable support staff so as to release more time for faculty research.

2. Enable the participation of high quality research students:

Good students form the vital staple for good faculty research. There are many bright students across India who would like to do their PhD right here in India. They have to be spotted and nurtured. But,  for many of them, preparing to jump through  all the hoops during the admission process is something they feel they can do without. As a result, a potential PhD student is lost to some other country and it tilts the scale even further in favour of that country.

Just like faculty are at liberty to choose their area and topic of research, they should also be given the flexibility to scout for and recruit the type of students they need. Institutions should have faith in its faculty in all research-related decisions, including student hiring. Such flexibility will also help in retaining the best of our own students.

Institutions must also work to increase the catchment area for students which currently consists of college teachers, who are required to have a PhD for promotion purposes, researchers in IT companies who do part-time PhDs, spouses of faculty in campuses like IITs, and those who are committed to being in India and accomplishing their dreams. Nurturing not only the faculty but also the promising students in the colleges that feed to the IITs should be attempted in earnest.

3. Enable students and young faculty to pick up the necessary skills to become better researchers, thinkers, writers, problem solvers:

The average student in India starts his/her PhD. work  less prepared -- on almost all fronts -- than his/her counterpart in the West. This means he/she needs more time to get up to speed and the net result is that the student’s productivity and hence that of his advisor suffers. Still, we must expose the younger researchers to the necessary tools and techniques without which they will feel handicapped throughout their careers.

If the above steps are taken, faculty and students can be held  to higher standards when it comes time to promoting them or giving them their degree. Senior faculty  should take the time to understand what the younger faculty have accomplished and promote only the deserving ones. This should be done to maintain quality as well as to dispel any doubts about the impact of giving faculty more flexibility in conducting their research.

Unless we depart from the status quo very soon, the multiplication factor -- the spreading of the intellectual output -- of  academic  researchers in India is likely to plummet even more, compared to that of their Western counterparts.

Given the autonomy the (I)IITs have (had), it is not apparent why these steps have remained elusive.

Additional thoughts on


Of course, things have changed enormously over the last couple of decades (See “Computer Science Research in India”. IEEE Computer 30(6): 40-47 along with the complete report (1997) to get a “before” picture).

The Indian IT Companies, along with the Indian Labs of many IT companies based outside India have played a large role in the above positive movement.
In addition to increasing to the number of potential jobs post-PhD, they have also helped enhanced the PhD intake. For example, the TCS Research Fellowship program has funded more than 200 Ph.D. scholars since its inception, and awards and fellowships instituted by others (e.g., Intel, Google, etc.) have made doing a Ph.D. in India an attractive proposition.

As a result of such measures, the gradient of the quality and quantity of research  is positive and that has caught the attention and imagination of people elsewhere but it has been a mammoth effort to maintain the positive slope, even if it is vastly overshadowed by China’s. 

Yes, there are some positive signs, but there is a lot more that can be, and needs to be, done.

Monday, 19 June 2017

22. My Father

My dad was a self-made person, and most such people are simple in their approach to life, but have big hearts. His wants were few and given his origins and his exposure, he had both his feet on the ground.

Come to think of it, in many ways, he was a trailblazer:

o   By the time he was 25, he had seen and experienced more of the world than most people of his generation had or could at that age.
o   By the time he retired, he had served in almost a dozen cities as an
employee of the Civil Aviation Department, Government of India.
o   He gave us the best education possible, in places far away from where he served, sometimes fending for himself, because my mother was taking care of us.
But he never forgot his roots and also impressed upon us to do the same.

Today I wanted to write about him.
But, I wanted to write about him, as my father.
This, I now realize,  is harder than I thought.

Of course, I remember many nuggets...

-- The many holiday trips, in First class "coupe"s, we took, from wherever he was stationed to Madras (now Chennai). Since it was just our family in the coupe and it often took 36 hours even by "Express trains", the experience was out of this world. After Madras we would go to visit our villages, where many of my cousins also came for the summer holidays.

-- On rare occasions we were able to visit his "communications office", where he and his colleagues would be directing several aircrafts at a time,  and  observe the radar screens with blips, representing aircrafts in the sky,  playing  hide and seek, disappearing from the screen as it swept the sky, and reappearing in a another spot on the the next screen.

-- On Deepavali day, we would all wake up bright and early and wait for my father to have his "Ganga Snanam" and give us all new clothes. The latter happened only on such special occasions, so we all looked forward to these special days.

-- More recently, when I went home for the first time following my stem cell transplant, his first remark was, "what happened to all the hair on your head", to which I simply responded, "at least my head is still there", and that seemed to satisfy him.

-- A year later,  when our daughter got married to Tim, my father was there at all the wedding related events, blessing the couple, and acknowledging the relatives and friends who had come. Roopa was delighted that all her grandparents were there to celebrate.

There are many many more and I am thankful for the memories.

Still, I wish I had taken the time to know him better; I was too preoccupied with one thing or another when he was around, to really talk to him, to really get to know him, more than I do.

Fortunately, perhaps realizing that such a day will come, he had started writing “his story”. And, I am so glad he did. Reading it now, after many years, I can see the many dimensions of his life and his attitudes towards life, his love for us, and more. He was a proud father, delighted with our accomplishments and that of our families.

As it happened, his writing stops in the 1980s. So, I have to reconstruct the following 30+ years of his life, but I believe we have better documentation about his activities then than the preceding period. I have set a task to myself -- to complete the story before another year passes by.

The story that he wrote does not have to wait until I get my act together. 
You will it find it at “MY RANDOM THOUGHTS by S.Ramamritham”.
I am sure you will find it fascinating.