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March 31, 2016 / Gyanesh Pandey

Number of Tesla Stores

Tesla Icon

USA – 92

Austria – 4

Belgium – 4

Denmark – 2

Finland – 1

France – 8

Germany – 22

Italy – 2

Luxembourg – 1

Netherlands – 8

Norway – 12

Sweden – 6

Switzerland – 12

UK – 14

Australia – 2

China – 16

Hong Kong – 3

Japan – 3

Total Number of Tesla Stores WorldWide (except US) : 120 +

Total Number of Tesla Stores in US : 92

Total Number of Tesla Stores WorldWide : 212

Info taken from Tesla.

April 25, 2015 / Gyanesh Pandey

Through Our Eyes

When I was starting college, if I had met a Jyotishi who promised to tell me my future, I and my family would gladly give him a decent amount of dough for that peek into the future. However, even when you know the final destination, you wouldn’t know the steps to it. You can’t quite get the map to the destination of your life.

“Through our Eyes” is a valiant effort by the 1986 batch in compiling their journeys of life before, during and after IITs. It is in some sense a map of lives of people who go through a professional course.

College life (hostel life for many) is possibly the toughest transition that we make in our lives. It is like the first flutter of the wings. But the pain that ensues pushing against the walls is what makes you strong, ready to fly. Unfortunately that pain often seems like The End of the World –  Like that grade seems like the end of the world, that first failed relationship feels like the end of the world, when the job you didn’t get seems like the end of the world. If someone can tell you that it’s gonna be okay! you’ll be fine! Here, take a look at these guys, they all went through this and they are all doing fine. Everybody is going through the same shit hole. You just have to keep going.

This documentary achieves that well, by showing how people through different challenges turn out just fine.

It is also refreshing to see the document not take IITs over seriously. Someone jokingly points out “IITians think that if we have our brain to a situation then the situation is under control”. And like all jokes, it also has some truth in it.

If you ever lived a hostel life or are currently living in one or aspire to get there, this documentary will be valuable.

April 16, 2014 / Gyanesh Pandey

पढ़े लिखे ये बे-ईमान

चले चलाने अपनी दुकान 
पढ़े लिखे ये बे-ईमान 
कविता पढ़ना, थ्योरी गढ़ना 
कोठे सा इनका संसार 
जो दो पैसे देदे इनको 
उसका देखो करते गान 
पढ़े लिखे ये बे-ईमान 
मानवाधिकार का रूप ये धरकर 
आतंकी का साथ है करते 
धरना करें ये सुबहो-शाम 
मानव जनम का करें अपमान 
पढ़े लिखे ये बे-ईमान 
सेक्यूलरिस्म का नारा जपते
संप्रदाय में फूट डालते 
झंडा कोर्ट या संविधान 
सबका करते यह अपमान 
पढ़े लिखे यह बे-ईमान 
मर्यादा का मान नहीं है 
नियम नीति में रूचि नहीं है 
करेंगे देश का काम-तमाम 
पढ़े लिखे ये बे-ईमान 
अंग्रेजी में खिट-पिट करते 
जगह क्षेत्र का नहीं है ज्ञान 
सत्ता इनका  खेत खलिहान 
ये क्या जाने कृषि किसान 
पढ़े लिखे ये बे-ईमान 
बातें हैं ये खूब बनाते 
रंग रूप में सबसे आगे 
जाने ना गेंहू क्या धान 
पढ़े लिखे ये बे-ईमान 
कभी न जाएँ मंदिर-मस्जिद 
कभी करें न दुआ-सलाम 
चुनावों  में पहन के ताक़ीआ  
अल्लाह को करते बदनाम 
पढ़े लिखे ये बे-ईमान 
आओ मिलके भारतवासी 
चलें साथियों अबकी कासी 
खूब बजाये इनके कान 
पढ़े लिखे ये बे-ईमान 
January 21, 2013 / Gyanesh Pandey

2012 in Review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 23,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 5 Film Festivals

Click here to see the complete report.

August 17, 2012 / Gyanesh Pandey

An IITian at Olympics

(From IIT Kanpur to International Olympics CommitteeStory of Aditya Sheoran)

Aditya’s friends call him Jaat – obviously because he is from Haryana. Though he does not look it, nor talk it or walk it unless you know him well enough.

He was waiting at Café Coffee Day for a girl he was supposed to meet on his trip to India. He lives in Lausanne, Switzerland. And works for International Olympics Committee – IOC. ‘Is there something like that?’ would be the reaction of most Indians to that statement. “And what exactly do they do, or more importantly what do you do in that?” would be an obvious next question. He could see the area around Connaught Place was badly dug up in preparation for the Common Wealth Games 2010. He was curious about the ongoing preparations for the games. Working for the Olympics Committee while his home country hosting a games event of such magnitude was a thing of pride for him.

He was meeting this girl for a possible matrimonial alliance. Aditya graduated from IIT Kanpur in 2002 with a bachelors degree in Electrical Engineering. And since had taken a very challenging and adventurous route to working for a sports organization. Considering what he was doing now, he could not say for sure what role did IIT play in his career but one thing the stamp of an IIT degree got you was a head start in a matrimonial alliance. However, this detour into sports was not received that well.

The girl was a software engineer and a part of the rising youth of India. His meeting went as he had expected. They talked about all the things and finally she asked what do you do in Olympics Committee? Aditya smiled and explained. The smile was not reciprocated. We are still very far from understanding the work in fields other than engineering and medicine. Sport, as a career, is a far faint cry in India and for all the right reasons.

This was not the first time he had had such a reaction and add to that the nervousness of meeting in such an artificial environment, he felt weird.

He had dealt with a lot in his life to be bothered with this event though. About three years ago, after graduating from the Sports Management course in Lausanne, he did not have a job. This was after spending rather heavily for a year studying in Lausanne, Switzerland, after having quit his job almost a year and a half ago – he was staring straight into an uncertain future.

It was 11th December 2007; he had finished his sports management course and was to return to India three days later on 14th December. He did not have a job. On the morning of 11th Dec. he went to meet Mr. Denis Martin to whom he had made the presentation of his project work done during his coursework. This was the most important project a student did during the one-year course in Sports Management. This was his last effort at landing a job, before he left for India.

Aditya was a rather shy person. He is someone who would never go and introduce himself to a stranger at a party, leave aside striking a conversation. He would often be terrified of speaking in public or giving a presentation. Interestingly during the presentation to Mr. Martin, when his partner for some reason started failing to present well or answer questions, Aditya stepped up his game and gave a presentation for almost two hours. He recollects that he had never felt that confident in his life. He answered all the questions that were asked and his presentation simply flowed. After the presentation, Mr. Martin had asked him about his plans for future and Aditya had told him that he was looking for options.

After trying at a few places and facing failure Aditya had ultimately written to him about a possible job opening. So just 3 days before he was supposed to fly back to India, without a clue about his future, he had a meeting about a possible opportunity of employment.

That day when he left the office of International Olympics Committee as he walked into the open fresh air, he thought to himself “What all are you putting yourself through?”

Since graduating from IIT Kanpur in 2002, Aditya had been working in rather cushy jobs, which took care of everything he had wanted and  left some cash.

But now as he reflected on his life, it just seemed to him that nothing in his life came easy. In the year 2002, when he graduated from IIT Kanpur, the recession had gripped the industry. And usually one would understand that a graduate from IIT Kanpur would find a job no matter what, but that year the percentage placement was only about 60%, which was very low considering the usual scenario. Anyways, he did get a job before graduating and joined a software firm named Virtusa in Hyderabad. But the whole process of applying for various jobs and going for various interviews had been quite frustrating.

A job offered him all the best things he had dreamt of – he lived with friends and had money to eat at the best of places, buy all the books he wanted to, dress up, travel and you name it. No pub in the city was left untouched. Friday and Saturday evenings and an occasional weekday evening was more often than not a booze & food party. It all continued until the boredom of work struck.

Software work is not intellectually stimulating by any stretch of imagination. The joy of the job lasted only till hangover of financial freedom. In only about 6-8 months he was scouting for a better job, more challenging environment than where he was. This led him to a job at Tavant Technologies at Bangalore.

Tavant was more challenging and a bit too much because somehow his boss expected a lot from him. The first few months were difficult for him because this was the first time some real work was happening. His earlier stint at Virtusa had not given him the full taste of work since first few months are treated more as training. It took him about six months time to catch up with the new team at Tavant. In a year, he was indispensable to the team. Soon, he was handling the production responsibility onsite in California, USA. Handling a production environment is the Holy Grail for a software engineer, because that’s the real thing and each problem could cost the customers money. How much? Depends on the business domain. It could easily be thousands of USD if not millions.

California trip was very enlightening because now he had a huge responsibility on his head. This was work, as serious as it got. He was working 14-16 hours a day. He worked there for almost six months and in the process learnt a lot. However, at the end of it all, he felt burnt out.

Feeling burnt-out is not necessarily a bad thing. It makes you rethink about your priorities and puts you face-to-face with greater things in life.

Less than 2 years after college and he had already seen so much to make him wonder if this is what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. The stress of work made him introspect and think real hard about what he really wanted to do in his life. It was as if he sat down to revisit the film of his life and select the more important scenes to choose what his film was going to be about.

He came back from US and while working at the Bangalore office, his introspection continued.

One of the possible things to do was what every other engineer would do – take GMAT to pursue an MBA. Boredom was the primary motivation to do an MBA and chase a fatter paycheck.

Humanity has achieved a lot trying to escape boredom.

He started preparing for GMAT while continuing with his job. As he prepared for his GMAT exam, he kept up with his reading. Aditya had always been an avid reader.

It is amazing how much can be accomplished, if we like what we are doing.

Aditya had been exposed to reading quite early. His parents were teachers. He had read Dostoyevsky, Maxim Gorky, Premchand etc. very early in his life. So much so that he sometimes regrets it thinking that reading such material at a very young age makes you a little gloomy.

Aditya has the countenance of a rugged thinker – never too happy or too sad about anything in his life. He would only break out sometimes while watching a game of cricket or football.

These days he was actively working on compensating for the early onset of gloom. Bangalore is a great place for indulging in music and alcohol – it is a breeding ground for all kinds of music, especially Rock. Bangalore has been host to some of the biggest rock concerts in the country Roger Waters, Joe Satriani and many more. He was living his life as much as one could.

On his way back from US, he had picked up a Canon DSLR camera. It took him sometime to learn it. It was not exactly like using any other scientific instrument. One thing an IITian is good at is figuring things out, however that does not necessarily make you artistic. But eventually he did learn to use his camera well. So much so, that he was assigned as the photographer for a Joe Satriani concert in Bangalore for Rock Street Journal, one of the most popular magazines in its genre.

Amongst all the hustle bustle of life, GMAT, as one can imagine, took a backseat. He had seen a whole host of business graduates from some of the best business schools and neither their work nor the money motivated him to focus on the exam. All this impacted his motivation to pursue that career.

He knew better than those often misguiding newspaper articles in business magazines and newspapers about the fat paychecks of business graduates.

While he was busy working, dragging along GMAT preparation, taking photographs, dining & wining, reading and introspecting there emerged a pattern that he loved reading about sports and had been a keen spectator of all major sporting events in the world. He remembered that when he had moved from village to New Delhi city, in Xth standard, which was an extremely difficult transition for him, he still got special permission in his hostel to see the Olympics. He was the only one in the whole hostel interested in the event. He still remembers watching Leander Paes win the Bronze at 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, USA. His interest went beyond the usual cricket fever in India, which would sometimes extend to football world cup too. He had even tried getting admission into a Public Sports School, Rai in Haryana at an early age. He had tried twice but failed in both the attempts, as he could not qualify the physical round. He had cleared the written exam but failed when it came to actually playing a game. He had a peculiar relationship with sports. He always loved sports as a fan. Like many sports enthusiasts he loved Sachin Tendulkar, Agassi and such sports personalities but his fantasy would lay in spending time with them, enjoy their company not to actually play the game.

Sports seemed like an option he could pick up with passion. Also, looking at the condition of sports in the country, so much could be done. Well not everyone would probably look at this way. But there is a very interesting story in this context: Once a shoe salesman was sent to an island to sell shoes. No sooner than he got there, he reported that nobody wears shoes here. We can’t sell anything here. While another salesman got there and immediately sent a telegram saying ‘Send as much stock as possible. Nobody wears shoes here’.

As far as Sports in India is concerned, Cricket is where it starts and usually ends. Sports persons from other sports are pretty much hand to mouth or bidding their time at some odd jobs. It is funny how we, as a country have got here. At the outset, whole country seems to be crazy about education. From the mother who can barely afford a meal to the most senior executives in the country, the education of their child is the most important thing. However, when and how did we fix the definition of education as bookish knowledge or “Akshar Gyan”.

Akshar Gyan a term popularly used in Hindi/Sanskrit Literature to the stage in learning which is confined to literal lessons and not the lessons that one gains through practice and experience. The ideal of any education has to be beyond Akshar Gyan and this is not even a necessary step. But still if you happen to walk into an Indian Household with a kid just young enough to speak, the first thing parents take pride in is his or her ability to count upto 10, recite ABCD (Ka, Kha, Ga, Gha has been discarded for a long time.) and if the kid has to raise his game then “Johnny Johnny yes papa”.

And more often than not, the kids spend their lifetimes saying “Yes Papa”.

Johnny go to Engineering School!

Yes Papa

Johnny be a doctor!

Yes Papa

Johnny now do an MBA

Yes Papa

Jonny time to get married

But Papa…


Yes Papa.

Plato in his treatise titled “The Republic” says “We cannot build Utopia with young people corrupted at every turn by the example of their elders. We must start, so far as we can, with a clean slate.” Hoping that some enlightened ruler would empower them with the best tools. He goes on to add “In any case we must give to every child, and from the outset, full equality of educational opportunity; there is no telling where the light of talent or genius will break out; ”

Nobody knows where that effulgent spark would emerge from, one cannot manufacture it.  In his very same treatise Plato adds “For the first ten years of life, education shall be predominantly physical; every school is to have a gymnasium and a playground; play and sport are to be the entire curriculum;”

He dedicated first TEN YEARS of life to physical education, so that their HEALTH is their supreme asset. He goes on to stress the importance of philosophical thought, musical training for the cultivation of soul and other aspects of personality. The ideal was to cultivate each child into a well-rounded MAN! Or Woman.

If you have seen Yogeshwar Dutt’s final rolling trick to get the Bronze, Mary Kom’s fight for the Bronze, Saina Nehwal’s struggle, the splendid concentration of Vijay Kumar in 25 m Shooting or Sushil Kumar’s maneuvers; you cannot deny that the EDUCATION they have gone through is the supreme education. Alas! The intelligent policy makers of this country fail to look at it that way.

If Plato was to visit contemporary India and see the standards of education, he would have to drink himself senseless to swallow the state of affairs.

Anyways, our Aditya, having finally chucked the idea of an MBA, started exploring the field of sports and found out two good Sports Schools. On finding two such schools of repute he got into it with all his might. Right from writing essays to getting recommendations and the whole works. Eventually he was offered admission at International Academy of Sports Science & Technology, Lausanne, Switzerland.

Now it was time to either quit his job or just to continue in a mundane software job. Now, it may seem obvious to quit one’s job and follow one’s passion. But anyone who has done this knows that it is much easier said than done.

However Aditya quit. And this story would not be written, had he not.

He hasn’t had much conversation with his parents until now. His conversations with them would usually landed up being a stalemate with them wanting him to get married. Actually he had never listened much to anyone when it came to deciding what he wanted to do with his life.

It was August 2006 and he was to start Sports school in January 2007. He had to spend almost 6 months at home with his parents. He decided to take some time finding out about the reality of sports field. Also, his mother was supposed to have a surgery and he wanted to be with her during the operation.

His parents were devastated by his decision. They had in their mind to have their well earning, very well educated Johnny married and have him settled. But this sudden action shattered their dreams and they made no bones in making this clear to him. Staying at home with his parents became a nightmare. During this time, he was meeting people from the sports industry to understand the overall scenario a little bit better. The feedback from various corners about the sports industry was also not very encouraging. An Asian Games medalist athlete told him “I have sent my kids to Australia and told them never to step into sports”.  The sportsman leads a quiet life of desperation.

But the deed had been done. He felt like riding a bumpy flight, which was not headed anywhere.

As he walked out of the Mr. Martin’s office and headed towards his home. He recollected that from those days till that moment after his meeting with Mr. Martin, he had seen the most difficult times. But today he had his first easy breath with a job offer from the International Olympics Committee (IOC).

This event had almost been a climax in his life so far. However, there were many more which had hardened him enough to take these blows. He had moved to Delhi Public School, RK Puram after passing X standard exams. This transition was nothing short of a nightmare as for most of his life he had lived in small villages where his mother taught in Navodaya Vidyalayas – special schools set up by The Central Government in rural India. To be suddenly put amongst New Delhi kids and that too in XI standard was like dealing the sharks and not just inside the classroom. He was living in a hostel.

His friends at IIT Kanpur would also call him a fighter. Before he went to IITK, he spent two years preparing for the exam at FIITJEE while pursuing his higher secondary education. He could not make it in the first attempt. It was the biggest shock of his life. He had never been disappointed as much. The next year was the most clinically efficient time he ever had in his life. He studied so well that he secured a very good rank in the JEE, which lead him to a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering. So, he more than deserves the title of a ‘fighter’. He looks more like a rustic Zen warrior standing 5’ 10” tall and with a rather composed look on his face.

Now working in one of the most prestigious sports organizations in the world, he often thinks about the state of sports in India and wonders what could be done. While it has been an end to a lot of other stuff, but his true journey just began with the job at IOC.

He was there in Beijing to cover the 2008 Olympics. He is currently at the closing ceremony at London Olympics 2012.

He life is what is called living a dream. And each time you see a video link of Olympics not playing on Facebook, it is Jaat who is to be blamed for he handles the media at IOC 🙂

July 7, 2012 / Gyanesh Pandey

Same Language Subtitling

Same Language Subtitling

(The story of finding and executing a near-zero-cost solution to improve literacy by Dr. Brij Kothari. He has an M. Sc. in Physics from IIT Kanpur. A Phd. From Cornell University, USA and is an adjunct professor at IIM Ahmedabad.)

Have you seen those Karaoke style subtitling in some of the song programs on TV? If you have noticed the subtitles are in the same language as the song – like even Bollywood songs would have subtitles in Hindi. Weird right? Why would you want to subtitle a song in the same language? Weren’t subtitles meant to be in English or some other commonly known language?

Same Language Subtitling for Bollywood Songs

It would be of interest to know that Same Language Subtitling doubles the number functional readers in primary school children. From a government’s stand point, this is like a ZERO COST solution to improve literacy.

It was the year 1996 – Brij Kothari was finishing dissertation for PhD. His topic was Conservation of knowledge of indigenous people of Ecuador. He was presenting their own knowledge about various plants and nature in iconic form, with minimum text in it. While he was working on his dissertation he was also trying to polish his Spanish – the language his subjects in Ecuador spoke. He would often watch Spanish films to work on his language. Most of the films would be subtitled in English.

While working on his dissertation, it occurred to him that if he could have Spanish subtitles for Spanish films, it would improve his reading ability tremendously – more than any book or course in the language. Thus the idea of subtitling in the same language started germinating in his mind.

His association with the languages had started very early. He grew up in the Aurobindo Ashram from childhood till he was ready to go for Masters. The school there is an experimental school, which believes in overall development of a personality rather than training kids for scoring well in exams. It has a much more holistic approach to education with a significant focus on physical education as well.

SLS Brij Kothari

At the Aurobindo school kids can choose their own subjects and often their own teachers. So, in a certain way it is a paradise for a child because the kid has the liberty to study what he or she wants to study. They have no examinations and no degrees. So when Brij went for an interview to IIT Madras for their Masters Program in Physics, he did not have a degree in hand. They made it clear that they would not have him in their institute, however the interviewers did hear him out for comic relief. Everybody likes to hear an interesting story. They did not grant him admission. He did get into the two year MSc. Physics Program at IIT Kanpur though.

He had neither X class certificate nor a XII class certificate, not even a Bachelors Degree – Not that he had not studied. But his school did not believe in such competitive methods to enforce education. Somehow, the professors at IIT Kanpur were more open to the idea and they let him in. Actually there had been a student before Brij, with the same background as him, who had come to IIT and had done rather well. Two years after Brij Kothari, a girl, with the same background as his, had topped her class at IIT Kanpur. So there was no problem with his education just that there was a gap in terms of exams and certificates.

Brij had grown up like a free bird learning whatever he wanted to. He played tennis, learnt Italian, French and studied English Literature. He had also studied Western Music there. But when he started thinking about getting into a traditional Masters program, he had to gear himself up to appear for competitive exams followed by interviews. This desire to get into a Masters Program was purely to earn a degree and take a step towards mainstream careers.

There could not have been a more contrasting shift than to go from the open skies of Aurobindo Ashram to the pressure cooker of IIT Kanpur. IIT Kanpur was and continues to be infamous for its notoriously fierce academic standards.

Brij spent most of his first semester coping with the rest of the class and did not do too bad. However, from the next semester onwards he got used to the groove and started expanding to other activities. He represented the IIT Kanpur Tennis team in sports and enjoyed participating in other cultural activities as well.

After graduating from IIT Kanpur, like everyone else, he also decided to go to US for furthering his studies. He was not too sure if he wanted to continue in Physics. So he cast his net a bit wide and applied for a communications course at Cornell University. He presented his case with background in Science (Physics) and interest in languages towards becoming some sort of a professional in science communication.

He pursued Masters in Development Communication at Cornell but he did not become a science journalist. He graduated into a PhD program at Cornell and this time in the field of education.

He had finished his Masters in 1988 (started in 1986) and here he was writing his dissertation for a PhD in the year 1996. So, after passing out of IIT Kanpur with a Masters in Physics, 10 years later, he was still a student finishing his doctoral thesis.

He strongly holds the opinion that people who rush through their PhDs miss out on a lot in their lives.

The way he chanced upon the topic of dissertation is also a very interesting story. He did a lot more than education in his time spent as a graduate student in US and he thinks that the openness and freedom for a student in that country is remarkable. As for himself, seeing America was one of his most cherished desires. Though traveling all around a country as big as America is not a very viable option for a graduate student. So once when a friend wanted to get his car moved from New York to California, he was happy to volunteer to drive it across the breadth of the country – with gas paid for.

He along with a dear friend of his, Rahul Ram – who has made a big name in India while playing and singing for Indian Ocean – decided to drive the car from Ithaca, New York to San Diego, California. The only two rules they had were – One, not to eat at a fast food restaurant and Two, never to take a highway. The goal was not to make it to San Diego but to see America, from the inside. On the last leg of the journey, a car crashed in from behind and the good thing that happened was that their car broke into two. It just broke into two. Which in insurance terms meant the car was “totalled” and the owner was going to get a good compensation for his already very old car. The truth was that their friend had been trying to sell the car but on failing to do so, he wanted to move it with him. So he was only happy. As for Brij & Rahul – who had a whole lot of National Parks and such stuff to be seen – the insurance company gave them another good rental car. They had enough proof to support their claim of being on a road trip, otherwise the insurance company would just put them on a plane to wherever they were headed.

Similarly in all those eight years of PhD he had had different phases of once getting into Reggae music and another phase of Latin American Dance.

One day, he got a coupon for a to-and-fro travel to Ecuador from Continental Airlines costing only 99 dollars. This was going to be another one of his many trips, but this trip was ultimately going to be very central in his coming up with his topic for thesis. On his trip to Ecuador he came across the indigenous people of the land and eventually conservation of their knowledge became the topic of his thesis. Discovering one’s topic for PhD on a travel trip is how education in truest forms is meant to be.

Getting exposed to Latin America had its own effects on him and his life. This was the first time that he had started looking at Education of the disadvantaged communities more seriously. In the process he came across the works of Paulo Freire, a legendary figure in the field of education, which took him on a radical phase for a while. Eventually he realized that he was not the only one, who was studying such communities, but the problem so far had been that the researchers would come and learn the methods of these folks and then vanish. They would leave nothing behind. It was a sort of intellectual theft in practice. So, he decided that he would do something for the Conservation of their knowledge.

Usually, having this kind of social relevance to your work is not one of the top agendas of most people. But his upbringing must have played a role in that. His parents live in a small town called Nanded in Maharashtra, India. He comes from a traditional Marwari family, a community known for its business acumen. It is very surprising that his parents saw value in the kind of education Aurobindo Ashram imparted. A lot of youth in the Marwari community usually gets involved in the same business as their father’s at a very early age, and often treat education only to further their ambitions for a certificate or a degree. His parents made a remarkable decision in stepping aside from the hundreds of years of community tradition  and instead decided to have their children sent to a rather unusual school, where the focus was real education, not getting a piece of paper with a stamp, called a degree.

Brij with all his conquests did become an inspiration in his extended family.

When his guide heard about his idea of Conservation of Knowledge of Disadvantaged Communities for his thesis, he was only very happy to have him find a subject on his own. Also he chose to do his PhD in a slightly different format. They realized that nobody reads a PhD dissertation, so acting upon a suggestion by a friend, he decided that he would openly publish each chapter as he progressed in his work. The act of publishing each chapter made the whole process even more interesting and popular – far from a usual academic exercise.

While studying at Cornell he also met his wife. So in about eight years, a doctoral degree and a life partner along with all the other fun he had in his life – not a bad deal at all.

And just around the time, while completing his doctoral program and toying with the idea of language, he came across professor Anil Gupta. Dr. Gupta, a professor at IIM Ahmadabad was visiting Cornell for a lecture. His work had also been in the field of education of disadvantaged communities. After they had a word with each other, Dr. Gupta invited Brij over to IIM Ahmadabad, but he was apprehensive because IIM was a very well known business institute and he wondered what role would he play? But he was told that IIMA had a Center for Educational Innovation. Brij thought that this would be an ideal opportunity for him to do some research on the Same Language Subtitling, something he had been wanting since the idea had occurred to him.

Having come across this idea of using subtitles to improve his language skills it had occurred to him that if one subtitles the programs on Television it could immensely help literacy in India. As soon as he started with his position in IIMA, he started doing research on the impact of subtitling of television programs.

Now, he was thinking that a few research publications in the domain and that would give him a tenure at IIMA. After that, he thought, he would pass on the findings to the government and move onto something else. In his mind, he was thinking that this thing would take him about 2 years. This was the year 1996.

Brij was quite gung ho about this new idea and more so the impact it could have. In their research he found various interesting things about SLS, like, Schoolchildren who see SLS programs are twice as good readers as those who don’t. It also helped deaf people enhance their reading ability. It was a method, which reinforced the text by providing the context through music & images, thus improving the language skills of people who were semi-literate or illiterate.

Armed with his scientific findings, his file of degrees (which had degrees from IIT Kanpur, PhD from Cornell University & the position of faculty at IIM Ahmedabad) he approached the Doordarshan – the government broadcasting body. Until the advent of cable TV in 90s, DD, as it is popularly called, was the only TV channel available in India. Some of its programs like Chitrahaar, Rangoli (both programs run popular Bollywood songs) are still quite popular amongst a large non-urban populace. At one point of time DD had such a hold on its audience that during some popular programs like Ramayan, Mahabharat and even during the Chitrahaar, there would be significantly less traffic on the roads.

DD was an ideal place for Brij to sell his findings for two reasons: It was still a very popular channel & DD was set up with an agenda of public welfare, as is everything established by the government.

Brij was in for a surprise.

His excitement met such an un-enthusiastic response that it would have driven him mad or even made him doubt his work. The experts in the media said: This would spoil the pleasure of watching the song, besides anyways people who watch these programs are illiterate.

It is interesting to imagine, what would have gone in the mind of the media professional, who would be telling such things to Dr. Brij Kothari, a guy who had spent his lifetime studying and then painstakingly doing his research work. A guy who had studied at the best place in the country, at one of the best places in the US of fucking A and then was a professor at one of the best institutes in the country, IIMA.

After this setback, Brij decided to get some support from the National Literacy Mission hoping that they would be more tuned into something like this. But the “experts” there said “this couldn’t work, because it is far too simple. If something like this could have worked, it would have been tried”.

What do you tell such a man! And this was when the research showed that people actually preferred subtitles and initially it would be a little difficult but very soon people caught up.

Some experts even had a moral problem in combining the two – how could you attach education with titillating song sequences from Bollywood. That was the whole idea! Those titillating songs, which people watch anyways, would be a medium to carry some learning, which would arm them with an ability to read other forms like newspapers, books, signboards and you name it.

Well this was India. This is India. In some other parts of the world, people would doubt themselves before mouthing such opinions and that too to a researcher like Brij Kothari with unmatched credentials. His battle was to reach a whole new level. He had so far in life, mostly struggled with ideas and concepts in books and also striven to prove them in the fieldwork. But now, a new coursework was to start – How to convince a bureaucrat! Or for that matter any other human being.

Dr. Kothari states that one thing he has learnt over the years is to question the experts, because clearly a person who is claiming to know everything about something doesn’t know everything. Because a real expert always knows that he doesn’t know everything.

It was 1999 and he had written to all the Doordarshan Kendra directors but no one had replied. So, he tried meeting a few directors at various Kendras but no one seemed interested.

A gentleman, Satish Saxena, at All India Radio found out about this and wrote to Brij about his interest but subtitles had no place in Radio. However, a few months later he moved to the Doordarshan Kendra, Ahmedabad, Gujarat and contacted Dr. Kothari for testing his Same Language Subtitling locally in Gujarat. Soon they found out that this was working. Dr. Kothari stood vindicated.

It was the best fruit of Dr. Kothari’s labour. Now, his theory of Same Language Subtitling being a tool of literacy was no more an academic exercise but it had been proven to work in the public domain, which was the target audience for such a project.

Armed with the confidence of this proof,Dr. Kothari, after three years of his laborious work, was now sure that now there would be no stopping. So, he went to New Delhi to the meet the Director General of Doordarshan. The DG heard him out but later responded with a letter saying he was not interested. No explanations provided – Bureaucrats do not need any reason to reject a suggestion. Dr. Kothari found this rejection almost hard to believe. But then again this is India, almost everything here moves like the traffic here, a million brakes in a mile.

Meanwhile, their research continued with the help of Satish Saxena. They also used it in folk language songs (earlier they had used it in Film songs) and realized that this technique would work in any song-based program.

Along the path Dr. Kothari applied for a competition at Development Marketplace sponsored by World Bank. This is a competition for Social Entrepreneurs. SLS (Same Language Subtitling) competed for the top prize of USD 250,000 and won it!

Armed with a World Bank Prize for Social Entrepreneurship he along with the Director of IIM Ahmedabad again went to meet the new Director General of Doordarshan in Delhi – Dr. S. Y. Quraishi. Dr. Quraishi, a very respected IAS officer, is currently the Chief Election Commissioner of India. Dr. Quraishi heard Dr. Kothari and said that he did not see any problem in implementing this. He asked them to subtitle “Chitrahaar”, which until the cable TV, was one of the most popular song program television had.

Despite the DG’s approval the lower order bureaucracy created delays and problems. One would think that doing “good” must be easy and people would welcome it.

One of the directors wanted many strange clauses in the contract and one amongst those was that he wanted to keep all the equipment after one year. This was strange, because the whole effort was funded by the World Bank. They had to again resort to Dr. Quraishi’s help in speeding it up. And it still took them a good 8-9 months to implement subtitling. They had won the grant in Jan 2002, which was valid for only one year and if the work could not be furthered within that year they would be asked to return the money. Fortunately, by September 2002 they had started subtitling Chitrahaar. Once on air, the ratings responded. So not only was it good for society but even the TRPs got better. Eventually Doordarshan was very happy about the result and after a year they also got “Rangoli”(another very popular song program) to subtitle.

2003 onwards they got enough programs and enough languages to keep their hands full. The CEO of Prasar Bharti, the Broadcasting Corporation of India, Mr Sharma gave them several programs in different regional languages like Gujarati, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Punjabi etc.

But, soon they ran into the scalability issue. Their grant could get them so far but they did not know where to raise money from for the next phase. They obviously wanted to take this wonderful tool to all the 600,000 villages in the country, which have very poor infrastructure as far as education is concerned. Here was a tool with a micro-budget, which could make a dent in the destiny of such a huge populace, but they had no more funds.

It is surprising that Doordarshan was not paying anything for such a service in fact one local director even asked money for promoting literacy. Considering that one of the primary motives of having a state sponsored TV Channel is to promote various social good through media, this was absolutely heinous. But this is not unimaginable in India.

After a lot of running around they could get some support from the Ministry of Human Resource and Development, but that was again limited. And soon those funds were exhausted.

Till Date 85% of the funding of the Same Language Subtitling had come from foreign funds. A literacy program made for India has been primarily funded by non-Indian agencies.

SLS – Bill Clinton

Lately when Bill Clinton – Yes the Bill Clinton – praised this simple idea with a “staggering impact on so many lives”, It alerted some sleeping babus – “why is Bill Clinton talking about this stupid idea we have been trashing for so many years!” some must have thought. Now there are efforts that subtitling should be adopted as a policy in Prasar Bharti programs.

It needs to be a policy because otherwise it depends on individual patronage and tomorrow anyone can come and say “I don’t like it”, without caring the least about all the research that has gone into it, the positive impact that it has. Needless to say that it has come such a long way with some genuinely concerned people holding offices. Lately it has had a positive hearing at the Prasar Bharti Board meeting as it houses a couple of people from Civil Society – non-bureaucrats.

According to an independent study conducted by Nielsen – Center For Social Research: Same Language Subtitling doubles the number functional readers in primary school children.

Brij Kothari has come a long way since 1996 with both where his project and his understanding about the implementation of a simple idea. It has taken him 15 years to get here and the path has been full of challenges and some resounding victories.

BookBox – An offshoot of the same idea won a business plan contest at Social Entrepreneuship Competition at Stanford Business School. It is the implementation of the same idea of reinforcing reading ability for children by subtitling animation stories. Once the subtitling has been done in one language it is relatively much cheaper to do it for other languages too. The distribution of print material is a challenge but such material could again make a drastic impact.

Dr. Kothari’s family lives in California, USA. He has three kids all less than 10. He divides his time between US and India almost 50-50. Though the time he spends with his kids is never sufficient but he does get them to the Aurobindo Ashram in summers. The ashram, his alma mater, has a permanent place in his life and is also going to impact the lives of his children.

It must be very exhausting for him to keep these trans-Atlantic efforts going, to be staying away from family. But when he gets a postcard from some chidren in a village, who tell a story about how they got together to write a song book, with each kid copying a line of the song and then putting it all together to perform the songs together, it makes all his efforts worth the toil. Similarly kids hard of hearing get benefited from this, older people who can’t hear, people who studied till 5th standard revive their reading skills and venture into reading newspapers.

What is reading after all? Signs translated into sounds and when assisted with the context given by a story & music, mind seems to subconsciously pick up the craft. It’s magic.

Dr. Kothari spent 10 years in education culminating into a PhD and another 15 years with Same Language Subtitling. The wars he has fought, the battles he has won and the glory he has rightfully earned – Do you think it would be possible had he been “ambitious” and taken a high paying safe job.

I don’t think anyone would say yes.

June 1, 2012 / Gyanesh Pandey

Cracking the Primes

(Dr. Manindra Agarwal’s Journey to the Primality Testing)

It was December 2002 when suddenly a rumor spread around in the Computer Science students, who had just graduated from IITK in May that year, that two of their batch mates had completed their PhDs in a matter of few months. It took no time for the mails to be circulated, phone calls to be made, yahoo messengers to ring the message among the students who were either working or were furthering their studies. Two of their own batch mates, friends of many, had completed their PhD and that too How!

When few got the real scoop, the news was even more interesting than the completion of PhD. They had invented an algorithm to solve a huge problem in Mathematics. It had been an open problem for a long time. They had invented an algorithm to test if a number was prime or not. Given the computational ability of Computers, testing if a number is prime or not sounds like a mundane problem. But when the Prime numbers become bigger and bigger, the time taken to test the number for primality increases exponentially – literally!

Like if one was to test, say 5423. A small program can find this out in much less than a second. But what if one was to test 542354235423 was a prime? It would still be a little longer. What if one was to test – (5424)^5 + 1? It takes a long time, so much so that until the advent of Super Computers, there was a limit on the highest Prime Number known. But one may ask, why do you need to find out?

Finding out the largest prime number is not a huge challenge, but to reduce the amount of time taken to test if a number is prime or not, is something that has teased many mathematicians for a long time. As I said earlier, the time taken to test a number would rise exponentially as the number grew larger.

These famous folks had invented an algorithm which took much lesser time and more so as the numbers got bigger, the time did not increase exponentially. It increased in what is mathematically called Polynomial order.

As the rumor would have it – Neeraj Kayal & Nitin Saxena had completed their PhD, having solved this problem. Or more accurately Dr. Manindra Agarwal had agreed to grant them their PhDs, having solved such a remarkable problem.

So, Dr. Manindra Agarwal, Neeraj Kayal & Nitin Saxena had written a paper about their findings and it had instantly caused a storm in the international community.

It was special for all the people sitting in their corporate offices because in last six months they had realized that the intellectual challenges a job offered was not even in the same zone as this effort. Most of the graduates either take up a job or go to US for pursuing further studies. While these people had stuck around here in India to do their PhDs, working with Dr. Manindra Agarwal.

Truth be told, Dr. Manindra Agarwal had been struggling with this problem for a few years now.

Dr. Agarwal has also had a very interesting trajectory like his students Neeraj & Nitin. He graduated from IIT Kanpur in the year 1986. This was the time when there used to be a mass exodus of highly educated and very intelligent engineers or scientists to the rest of the world, read America. The news of various space crafts like Voyager/Challenger was a common news item and the fact that there were a bunch of engineers at NASA which were of Indian Origin, more specifically from IITs was also well known. One of the most common career paths for students graduating from IIT Kanpur was to take the GRE and land up in US to pursue Masters or a Phd.

The problem of brain drain was at such a high that in the same year, the then Prime Minister Mr. Rajiv Gandhi had launched a New Policy of Education. Indira Gandhi National Open University was also started in 1985. There was a new wave as far as educational reforms in India were concerned. It was in the year 1986 that the Indian population living abroad cried their hearts out listening to the song “Chitthi aayi hai, watan se chitthi aayi”. Not that the song could do much more, but crying helps.

Graduating from IIT Kanpur in 1986, Dr. Agarwal decided to stay on India and continue his Phd at IIT Kanpur. Now, he was neither a part of New Policy of Education, nor did he indulge in the sentiment of a Bollywood song but his reason for not going to US was that he could not muster enough courage to study for GRE.

He was an ace student. He had a CPI of 9.3, while the Institute average usually hovers around 7. His All Indian Rank was 38! And he was a Computer Science student. But he could not motivate himself to take the GRE. GRE is a much simpler exam than JEE and lacs of students, all over the world – especially from India – take it every year to go to USA for further studies. The exam involved mugging up virtually the whole English Dictionary. He did start the process but could never motivate himself enough to keep doing it. Thus one of the biggest factors in his staying in IIT Kanpur to continue his Phd was his inability to mug up the dictionary, consequently he did not take the GRE.

His not going to US and continuing to study at IIT K would have much larger implications in his life and around. He enrolled to do his research with Dr. Biswas in the Computer Science department at IIT Kanpur itself.

Not that that is what he wanted to do forever. There were many other tempting options like management, civil services and even other jobs. But, he had never had any inclination towards Management or Civil Services.  Software industry had started functioning in its own accord.  As far as software industry went, he had worked as an intern at a software firm. He had to implement Binary Tree as his assignment there – something which was far from challenging for an IIT Kanpur, Computer Science graduate. That gave him the idea that even a software job is not going to satisfy him – intellectually. So the only option that he had left for him was to pursue further studies and eventually get into research.

Coming from the background that he did, he did not face any music about making such choices. If at all, his parents were only happy that he had decided to stay back in India. Dr. Agarwal has an elder brother who is now settled in United States of America, and his brother has been almost guilty of making that choice. Similarly a distant relative had moved to US and the rest of the family did not necessarily look at it as a great achievement. This was remarkable because typically there is a lot of prize and prestige associated with a son living abroad.

Dr. Agarwal’s parents are retired teachers. His father taught Mathematics at Allahabad University and his mother taught Education there. His parents had never wanted their kids to go to the US – may be because they were from a small town – Allahabad. Allahabad, a small town from certain aspects, is otherwise a place of great importance. Allahabad also used to be a center of education until 90’s, not any more though. Allahabad is perhaps most famous for Prayag – where the rivers Ganga, Jamuna & Saraswati come together. It is considered a great holy destination amongst Hindus.

They lived in a rather congested area called Khuldabad in Allahabad. And the people they dwelt with created no pressures on him to do anything he did not want to do. His childhood was like the childhood of any other North Indian kid – strewn with comics like Champak, Motu-Patlu, Chandamama, Nandan etc. However, he enjoyed mathematics even as a child. Living in the region in which they did, it did not offer him much opportunity for sports. Playing cricket in the lanes was where it ended. He read a lot even as a child – Enid Blyton being one of his early favorites. But he had had an early interest in Mathematics and he pretty much read any book about mathematics he could lay his hands on. However, he would never go and ask someone to get him some book or get a book from the library. He was a shy kid. He was also not particularly studious.

Looking at him one would never guess the activities he was fond of. A typical IIT grad has spent at least XI and XII just sitting on a table and chair – studying. JEE did not allow much room for entertainment. However, some of his favorite activities during those days were to bunk college regularly – go to movies (Amitabh Bachchan being his favorite. Incidentally Mr. Bachchan also hails from Allahabad), sit at a Chai shop and chat with friends, or once in a while visit a nearby girls’ college for some eye tonic. He remembers his benign ogling at girls with a mischievous grin on his face.

One would be surprised because with all this he secured 38th rank in the Joint Entrance Exam for IIT. He surprised many with this result because he studied in Government Inter College, not the best school by any stretch of imagination and there were other better schools like St. Joseph and Boy’s High School in town. He had heard from the friends of his friends that there were some very smart guys in St. Joseph’s Convent, which used to make him nervous. But the result laid his fears to rest and somewhere he felt that it was a fluke.

He continued his studies at IITK with the same indifference but like for many more people, it opened up a whole wide world to a boy, who grew up in a small town in UP. He spent a significant time smoking grass, listening to Pink Floyd and usually cramming up shortly before the exams. Pink Floyd would have never imagined, while they sat composing music in London, that their music would be appreciated so much in this technical Institute, in a small little village called Kalyanpur near a small town Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh. Like in the third of the third of the third world. Grass and Pink Floyd gave a lot of relief to people those days. However, unfortunately the trend was discontinued with US pressuring India to ban Grass. Those days Grass was sold at legal shops like some of those ‘Theka Desi Sharab’ selling local liquor.

Pink Floyd still continues to be so popular in IIT Kanpur and in most other IITs. Somehow people don’t listen to Beatles there, very few to Jethro Tull and then not much of Led Zepplin or other great musical trends but Pink Floyd. It is as if these small little institutes are holding a beacon in this part of the world as a fan following. Dr. Agarwal thinks that they have a certain Indian quality, not very definable, but some deeper connect.

Considering his interest in music, grass and fair bit of indifference to studies, it is funny that he did not have much to do with girls in his college days. IIT Kanpur boasted of one of the most open cultures in the country where boys and girls were permitted in each other’s hostels, without much restriction. He had a reputation.

Once in his third semester – second year, first semester – Dr. Agarwal and some of his friends were busy preparing for their mid-term exams while they lived in the E-Mid wing in Hall 2.

Hostels in IITK are called Halls and each floor in a block is called a wing. So say E Block would have a E-Bot (1st floor), E-mid (2nd Floor) & E-Top (3rd Floor). There are no Ground Floors in IIT Kanpur – they did away with their colonial past!

Now that wing faces the tennis courts. While these guys were busy cramming and getting frustrated, their frustration was fuelled by some M. Tech students playing tennis in the courts, with their girl friends cheering them from the sides. Instantly a bet of 20 rupees was set in their wing – the challenge was to go around the tennis courts in nothing but an underpant. Dr. Agarwal, who was so shy that he would never ask someone to get him a book, thought of this as an interesting proposition. He along with a fellow accomplice went around the court in their underpants.

IITians get more than a fare share of stories of their eccentricities but this one is truly unique. Well the tennis fan-fare stopped then and there. Later that evening the whole girls’ hostel, on the provocation of the gentlemen, landed up outside Hall 2 and demanded the culprits. But IITian males are known to demonstrate unsalable unity against females.

Finally, the issue landed in bureaucratic files, from where even demons don’t emerge.

Dr. Agarwal considers his undergraduate time as a waste of time in which he learnt nothing. And he credits his CPI to having an excellent short-term memory. He would cram up the things just before the exams and then forget all of it very soon. He regrets it.

However, he did graduate with a sense of what he liked and disliked, which is a great achievement because most of us land up living our lives without even wondering about what we really like. Leave aside, one, knowing what one likes and two, acting on it.

And act he did.

After joining under Dr. Biswas as a Phd Student he did get serious about studies and explored not just mathematics. He read up a whole lot of stuff including the Classical Indian Philosophy – Yoga Sutra, Brahma Sutra etc. Now he would hang around with a different set of people. He had now become serious and not just about his vocation – mathematics. He graduated with a Phd in the year 1991.

A lot transpired between 1991 and 1998 – he continued as a research scholar at IIT Kanpur till 93, became a Fellow at School of Mathematics, Madras until 95, Humboldt Fellow in Germany till 96, joined back at IIT Kanpur as an assistant professor in 1996.

It was in the year 1998 when he along with Dr. Biswas, who had also been his Doctoral Advisor, came across an interesting technique for Polynomial Identity Testing. Until then, most of the approaches had used random numbers to do the testing. In this paper that they found, the author used irrational numbers to evaluate an expression, which gave significantly better results. The probability of the result improved with the lesser approximations taken for irrational numbers. However, the problem of Polynomial Identity Testing still remained non-deterministic. But this gave an idea to Dr. Agarwal that he could use this approach to solve some other problem in the field of Complexity Theory, his area of specialization.

In the search of a problem to apply this solution to, he chanced upon the Primality Testing. And it became a haunting problem, as it did not lend itself to his efforts. He felt inside that if increasing the approximation improves the result at some point the problem would become deterministic.

He kept on working on this problem, while the rest of the life continued – classes, home, students and the whole works. About two years later, in 2000, with the help of a student he could prove his approach to be true for numbers as large as 10^9.

It was in the year 2001 that Neeraj & Nitin joined him for their B. Tech project -their final year of undergraduate studies. B. Tech project another perfunctory exercise for most but critical for a very select few. You choose. They worked with Dr. Agarwal till the end of their time, May 2002. And they were staying at the campus for the summers, So Dr. Agarwal also decided to stay and they continued working on this problem.

Actually Nitin and Neeraj had both applied for Phds outside of IIT Kanpur. Nitin wanted to travel to the land of milk and honey and Neeraj to TIFR, but since Nitin did not get through anywhere he decided to continue with Dr. Agarwal. And since Nitin decided to continue, Neeraj also stayed on. They continued working on various aspects of the problem and they did find some interesting results but it never came to the point where it would hold true deterministically.

It was one morning in July 2002 that things suddenly came together – a bunch of facts they had discovered were floating around. Each of these observations were very simple in themselves but they suddenly came together to solve this problem. Dr. Agarwal called on his students to verify the results, which they did in a few days. They had finally found a solution to test if a number was a prime whose running time was a polynomial over the number of digits. He was very relieved to have solved this problem, a monkey he had been carrying on his back for about 4 years.

None of them had the slightest clue about how important a result this was and what consequence this would have. The News became public in Nov-Dec 2002. The awards have not stopped pouring ever since, including some of the most prestigious awards – The Clay Research Award, Delbert Ray Fulkerson Prize, G¨odel Prize along with other and other honorary awards like the Distinguished Alumnus Award at IIT Kanpur.

It is remarkable how few things happen and a lot others don’t. Now had he been able to cram words for GRE, or had his parents wanted him to go to the US or to the Civil Services, had he decided to pursue a more lucrative corporate career or had he not come across that paper in 1998. This story would not have been told.

The Clay Research Institute has seven unsolved problems, for which there is a combined prize of 7 million USD, a million a piece. The problem consist of Reimann Hypothesis, Poincare Conjecture*, Hodge Conjecture, Swinnerton-Dyer Conjecture, Solution of the Navier Stokes Theorem, Solution of Yang-Mills theory, and determination of whether NP-Problems are actually P-Problems.

Now who is smoking pot and roaming around the tennis court in his underpants?

I am Lost For Words as far as Dr. Agarwal’s story of Learning To Fly is concerned. We don’t need no Brain Drain, we need Brain Damage.

*Grigori Perelman solved the Poincare Conjecture, but refused to accept both the Fields Medal or the 1 million USD as the Millenium Prize, which was offered to him in 2010.

* Dr. Agarwal has been awarded a Padma Shri (4th Highest Civilian Award) by the Government of India on 26th Jan, 2013.