October 9, 2017

Fixing the Leaky Pipeline for Leelavati’s Daughters

Women (and men) with a passion for science management. The authors Bela Desai (front row 2nd from left) and Shahid Jameel (back row extreme left) can be seen.

Note: This is the unedited version of our article, which appeared in the Indian Express on 9th October, 2017 under the title "Women of Science"

A news item on the front page of Indian Express newspaper (02.10.2017) lamented how only 16 women scientists have won the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award since its inception in 1958. The Bhatnagar award is the highest research award given to a scientist, under 45 years of age, for research carried out in India. This year’s awardees are all male. The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which administers this award states that only “science is discussed when the advisory committee meets to discuss nominations”. One of us, a former Bhatnagar awardee, has sat on this committee and supports CSIR’s claim. However, the problem lies elsewhere.
We write from our experience of researching at India’s premier institutions and working at the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance - a partnership between the Wellcome Trust, a British charity and the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India – dedicated to supporting biomedical research in India.
Women make up 37% of PhD’s in science overall but the percentage of women holding faculty positions in science research institutions is less than 15%. T(I. . here could be several reasons for this. For women, the childbearing age coincides with the age that requires the greatest dedication to the lab to establish oneself. Women also have to deal with the “two body problem”, whereby institutions do not give faculty jobs to both partners. This is slowly changing.
It is against cultural conditioning, against great odds and while running against the biological clock that women have to establish themselves. These daunting circumstances lead many women in their 30’s to dropping out of the STEM workforce. The base of the pyramid never becomes wide enough to support a peak – a phenomenon called “the leaky pipeline”.
During 2010-16, the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) elected about 230 Fellows, of which only 30 were women. This is not restricted only to India but it is a global phenomenon. A 2013-14 survey of 69 science academies worldwide showed only 12% of their members to be women. There is also a dearth of women in leadership positions as heads of research institutes or in higher decision-making committees where they can influence policy. We believe that the low numbers of women researchers getting the Bhatnagar Award or fellowship of science academies is a yet another consequence of the “leaky pipeline”.
Statistics at India Alliance also show evidence of this. So far, we have awarded 280 fellowships to researchers of the highest caliber and 31% of our Fellows are women. However, a close examination of numbers reveals a different picture. For our early career fellowships, awarded to scientists who have recently finished their PhD, 51% of the awardees are women. But for the intermediate and senior fellowships, awarded to scientists to establish a new research program or expand an already established research program, there is drastic drop – only 22% of the awardees are women.
How can the “leaky pipeline” be plugged? The change has to be at two levels  - attitude and policy.
Real change requires a smaller effort across a larger population – a change in the mindset of the people, a gentle breaking down of stereotypes. The male child who believes that girls are not good at Maths (or Science) will grow up to become the stalwart questioning the professional commitment of child bearing women. Girls should not be told that being an engineer or a scientist will make them less appealing. They should be given more opportunities to interact with successful women scientists and have role models. At India Alliance, we have commissioned short videos of 20 of our women Fellows to inspire others.
Young women researchers should know that they always have a choice. The tough times don’t last and like others who have traveled the same road earlier, they too will make it through. “Leelavati’s Daughters”, a book published by the Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore (2007), chronicles the experiences of women scientists in India. It features many inspiring women who broke the glass ceiling to reach the top of Indian science. The ready availability of enlightened mentors, a terribly inadequate commodity in Indian science, would help young women just as much as they would young men. At India Alliance, all Fellows at the early career and intermediate levels must formally declare a mentor. On average, women scientists make up about a third of the membership of committees at India Alliance.
Real change also requires policy to push it forward. Two things critical for a researcher today is a position with stability and funds for research, the latter coming as fixed tenure grants. Though India has now increased maternity leave from 16 to 26 weeks, the effects of having a child on a woman’s career last much longer. This calls for increasing the time given to women researchers who have a child early in their career to apply for tenure. Typically, 5-7 years from appointment is given to researchers to seek tenure; adding a year or two to this timeline for women with young children will empower them to succeed. Similarly, a full cost one-year extension should be given on research grants to women scientists who take maternity leave during the term of the grant. Currently, India Alliance is the only funding agency in the country to do this. Other small steps such as the availability of a crèche within the institution will go a long way in making young women more productive.
More women are entering the STEM fields but the challenge now is to make them stay.  This is not a time to lament but to act. Change begins small and change begins at home. Let’s tell at least one girl today that she is good at Maths and Science, and that she can grow up to be whatever she wants.
Bela Desai is a PhD in molecular biology from TIFR Mumbai. She is now a Grants Advisor at the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance.
Shahid Jameel set up and led the Virology Group at ICGEB, New Delhi for 25 years. He is now the CEO at the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance.

July 16, 2017

India, Emerging Infectious Disease and the One Health Framework


The concept of ‘One Health’ promotes the realization that the health of humans, animals and the environment are linked to each other.

Animals can be sentinels of environmental hazards for humans; for example, regularly monitoring the levels of dangerous contaminants (eg lead) in pets can alert to the potential for poisoning of children. Animals develop many of the same diseases we do and can thus be good model systems. For example, dogs live for about 20 years making possible long-term longitudinal studies to assess cancer risk as exemplified by the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study. The discovery that ticks transmit cattle fever germinated the idea of mosquito bites transmitting yellow fever and malaria. Antimicrobial resistance in humans is directly traced to the use of antibiotics in livestock and poultry.

Animals are an affordable and sustainable source of protein for humans. But food security often comes at the risk of deforestation, which can promote the spread of emerging viruses to humans. Ebola and SARS viruses are directly transmitted to humans through eating infected wild animals. Nipah virus was traced to pigs that were reared on deforested land and got infected from fruit bats emerging from the lost forest. Researchers are also exploring the role of pigs as intermediate hosts in the transmission of Ebola virus.

In a landmark report in 20081, Kate Jones and colleagues (Zoological Society of London, UK) analyzed emerging infectious disease (EID) events between 1940 and 2004, with some startling conclusions. The EID events had a non-random geographic distribution, were dominated by zoonoses (i.e. transmission from animals to humans) of which over 70% originated in wildlife, and their origins correlated with socio-economic, ecological and environmental factors.

Of almost 1500 pathogens known to infect humans, over 60% are of animal origin. But these ‘known’ knowns appear to be a small fraction of the total diversity. A 2013 study estimated 320,000 viruses to infect mammals; if extrapolated to other species, there are an estimated 100 million viruses on our planet2. There is thus a vast pool of ‘unknown’ knowns.

What infectious agents are lurking in animals that can jump into humans and cause disease? Are we at a greater risk of zoonoses from apes, which share our genes, or rodents, which share our habitats? With the devastating track record of zoonotic pathogens such as HIV, pandemic influenza, Ebola and others, it would be sensible to address this comprehensively.

Two recent studies3,4 report on viruses spilling over from animals into humans and what drives such zoonotic risk.

Olival and colleagues (EcoHealth Alliance, USA) writing recently in the journal Nature3, analyzed associations between 754 mammals and 586 viruses to understand what determines viral richness, diversity and zoonotic potential. Bats, primates and rodents were found to carry the highest numbers of zoonotic viruses. Bats are also a major reservoir for coronaviruses, which made big news in 2002 when SARS emerged in China, spreading to 27 countries and killing 774 people. In 2012, the newly emerged MERS coronavirus caused 640 deaths.

Anthony and colleagues4 (Columbia University, USA) studied coronavirus diversity in 12,333 bats, 3,387 rodents and 3, 470 monkeys from 20 countries in Central Africa, Latin America and Asia, which were previously identified by Jones as ‘hotspots’ for zoonoses. Nearly 10% of bats carried coronaviruses compared to only 0.2% of the other species, with diversity being highest in locations that harbored multiple bat species, such as the Amazon rainforest.

India also has an an incredibly diverse bat population with 117 species and 100 sub-species5. But we know nothing about the viral diversity that it harbors and its potential for causing human or animal disease.

The Jones study should have alerted researchers and health policy people in India. We and our immediate neighborhood are ‘hotspots’ for zoonotic, drug-resistant and vector-borne pathogens. But there is little information from India, a key country that is also missing from the Anthony study. Poor domestic research and international collaborations in this area, the latter driven by restrictive government policies on sharing clinical and research materials, are responsible for it.

Professor Ian Lipkin at Columbia University is a world expert in the search for novel pathogens and a key contributor to the Anthony study. He has also tried to work with India for many years. “Sample access is challenging”, says Prof. Lipkin. He adds - “I'm eager to help (provided) the logistics can be sorted. Let's focus on technology transfer in emerging infectious diseases. Global public health and the people of India deserve our best efforts”. 

Why is India an EID ‘hotspot’?

The transmission of infectious disease requires contact, and its probability increases with population density. With a population of 1.34 billion people6, 512 million livestock and 729 million poultry7, and a land area of 3.287 million sq km8, India has a high density of about 400 people, 156 livestock and 222 poultry per sq km. High rates of human-animal, animal-animal and human-human contacts increase the potential of emergence, circulation and sustenance of new pathogens.

The International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya, showed 13 zoonoses to cause 2.4 billion cases of human disease and 2.2 million deaths per year. The highest zoonotic disease burden, with widespread illness and death, is on Ethiopia, Nigeria, Tanzania and India9.

India has also lost about 14,000 sq km of forests over the past three decades, bringing down its forest cover to 24% of land area10, against the recommended one-third. This increasingly brings wildlife into contact with humans and domesticated animals, adding to the direct risk of zoonoses from wildlife. Forest loss also alters weather patterns, indirectly and unpredictably affecting zoonoses.  

India presents a poor picture of One Health research, preparedness and policy.

There are 460 medical colleges and 46 veterinary colleges in India, but most do little or no research. Limited research on priority zoonoses such as influenza, tuberculosis, encephalitis and others, happens primarily in the health sector, with the veterinary sector paying little attention to human disease.

The governance structure and inter-sectorial coordination is also problematic. The work on human health is guided by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, that on animal health and husbandry by the Ministry of Agriculture, and on the environment by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. Each works in a silo.

India’s National Health Policy11 approved recently is also a missed opportunity. Framed to address the changing national healthcare needs, it does not even mention the terms “zoonoses” and “emerging infectious diseases”. It fails to break down the sectorial silos or provide an enabling environment to build core capacity in key EID areas.

What must India do?

India has shown that various sectors can successfully come together in a crisis situation such as during the 2006 Bird Flu outbreak. The need is to move from being reactive to proactively understand zoonotic pathogens before they emerge as disease in humans. This will require preparedness and policy inputs.

An Inter-Ministerial Task Force involving the key sectors of science and technology, human and animal health and the environment could be entrusted with preparing a policy framework that enables preparedness by strengthening research and health systems. Life scientists, physicians, veterinarians and ecologists could be awarded collaborative research grants to comprehensively survey animal species for pathogens with potential for causing disease in humans.

The technology for pathogen discovery is not complicated and is also available in the interest of global health. The challenge is to come together.

Such research also makes economic and political sense.

Discovering the entire viral diversity on Earth is estimated to cost $6.4 billion2. In comparison, the World Bank estimates the 2002 SARS outbreak to have cost the global economy $54 billion, and a severe flu pandemic could cost about $3 trillion or 5% of the world economy12.

A new disease emerging in any part of the world is a global threat. If India aspires to be a future leader, it must take this responsibility seriously. After all, if we can pledge to not proliferate nuclear weapons, how can we remain a potential threat for disease proliferation?

June 20, 2017

Super Sunday and the Laws of Stupidity

Cricket in ruins
Sunday, June 18, 2017
India were playing Pakistan in a Champions Trophy Cricket Final at The Oval. The No.1 ranked ICC Test team and the defending champions were playing a team plagued with all sorts of problems, the least being no one willing to play them at home. Both teams had played brilliantly in the tournament – India dominating from the start and Pakistan starting low but rapidly gaining ground.  The setting could not be bigger – the historic Oval Cricket Ground, which hosted the first Test on English soil in 1880, but where earlier Henry VIII used to grow asparagus.
This had all the makings of a Super Sunday.
My problem, however, was sleep deprivation. Ramzan, long summer days and love for coffee all came together this month to allow me very little sleep on a working day. Sunday was my sleep catch up day. What was I to do?
On Sunday morning a friend sent an article on the Laws of Stupidity, which were compiled almost 40 years ago by Carlo Cipolla, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley (http://harmful.cat-v.org/people/basic-laws-of-human-stupidity/). His basic thesis is that “Stupidity” is the biggest threat to our existence, that there are more stupid people than we can imagine and the only defense against stupidity is for non-stupid people to work harder to offset the losses of their stupid brethren.
How do we define a stupid person? According to Cipolla’s Third (and Golden) Rule of Stupidity, a stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses”. But the Third Law also defines people with three other phenotypes – bandits, helpless and intelligent. The bandit makes gains for himself at the cost of others, the helpless makes gains for others at the cost of himself and the an intelligent person makes gains all around.
Coming back to cricket, the media on Sunday turned out to be the bandits. They raised the pitch about this “Clash of Titans”, with predictions of how India would demolish Pakistan, with reminders of how the latter has never beaten the former in a big final, and with statistics on big names in the Indian team and relatively unknown faces from across the border. It was a done deal. In the end, more eyeballs on TV, more commentaries and more arguing on social media, all contribute to revenue. Gains all around for the media “bandits” at the cost of everyone else’s time and emotion.
It also suits another group with the bandit phenotype. The political class. Cricket, being the opium of the masses, the frenzy keeps focus away from issues of real importance such as jobs, lawlessness, education, environment, health, civic amenities, etc. Stupid people in the country talking cows and peacock have also been serving their bandit masters rather well these days. A few people heckle Vijay Mallya outside the Oval and we in India feel elated. And was there a certain Mr. Vadra on the BCCI guest list at the Oval?
Most people who watched the game were either helpless or stupid, depending upon your perspective. They did not gain anything from it. In the end it wasn’t even a keenly fought game of cricket. We the helpless and the stupid also did not factor in that India won its qualifying matches fairly easily without its middle order being tested, while Pakistan struggled and kept improving through the tournament. They were peaking at the right time, had nothing to loose and could play unshackled. We the people looked more stupid than helpless.
We should however be proud of the Indian team. Not just for the way they played, except for one bad day, but also for the dignity with which they conducted themselves. Dhoni with Sarfaraz’s son in his arms, and the two teams mixing freely at presentation are my defining images. This team should be an inspiration for the rest of us. They are good ambassadors of the game and get my vote for the intelligent phenotype.
Where does that place me? I caught up with my extended Sunday siesta, turned on the TV when India were 30 something for 3, shut it off and went back to writing something I had been putting off for two weeks.
I guess I managed to do the intelligent thing.

June 13, 2017

An evening at Falaknuma

The Falaknuma Palace
Ever since my first visit to Hyderabad over 30 years back, I have been fascinated by the imposing sight of Falaknuma Palace, sitting on top of the highest piece of land around the old city.

Falaknuma, which in Urdu means ‘like the sky’ or ‘mirror of the sky’, floats delicately on that hilltop. An Italian Palace built in the late 19th century in the Andrea Palladio style (named after the 16th c Venetian architect) its layout mimics a scorpion, the zodiac sign of its master, Nawab Viqar-ul-Umra, the Prime Minister of the State of Hyderabad.  The refined taste, beautiful architecture and rich furnishings cost the Nawab a handsome 40 lakh Rupees, which left him bankrupt. This money was taken out as a loan from the Bank of Bengal, which later merged with other Presidency banks to become the Imperial Bank of India, then the State Bank of India.

The lamps and sunset at Falaknuma
In the spring of 1897, Nawab Viqar-ul-Umra invited the 6th Nizam, Mahboob Ali Pasha, to be his guest at the Falaknuma Palace. And the Nizam never left. 

Although our guide noted that the palace was gifted to the Nizam, who paid for it, circumstances and sources point otherwise. It was at best a forced gift, with the Nizam paying only about half the costs. From the end of the 19th c till 1950, the Falaknuma Palace was used as the Nizam ‘s royal guesthouse. The last prominent guest to stay there was Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India, in 1951.

Following the merger of Hyderabad State with the Indian Union in 1948 and disputes over the Nizam’s assets, Falaknuma also went through various stages of neglect and decay. I remember visiting it in the 1990s when the grounds were used for private parties and there was a ticketed tour of the palace. The architecture was naturally grand but time had taken its toll on the interiors.

The hotel rooms
In 2010 the Taj Group of Hotels took over the Falaknuma Palace, refurbished its 60 rooms and opened it in 2011 as a luxury hotel (https://taj.tajhotels.com/en-in/taj-falaknuma-palace-hyderabad/). The Palace interiors have also been restored beautifully, with a lot of taste, attention to detail and sense of history going into it.
When in Hyderabad last month, we visited the Falaknuma Palace.

The visit had its highs and lows.

We found that you could only visit Falaknuma if you were either staying there or eating in one of its three restaurants. At today’s room rate, a single night would leave you poorer by at least Rs. 25,000 or you could rent the Royal Suite for about Rs. 60,000.

You could have a Nizam-style afternoon tea at the Jade Terrace overlooking the Charminar and Makkah Masjid for about Rs. 6,000 per head, or dine on European cuisine in the Renaissance-inspired Celeste or have Hyderabadi cuisine at Adaa for a minimum charge of about Rs. 4,000 per person. And don’t forget to add about 20% in taxes. A meal for four will easily cost you Rs. 20,000. This is steep if you just want to see the refurbished Falaknuma Palace.

A third way to visit is on Saturdays and Sundays only with a Hyderabad Tourism Palaces Tour, which also costs upwards of Rs. 3,000. It is a half day tour that includes other city palaces as well with a 90-minute tour and tea at the Falaknuma Palace. See http://www.hyderabadtourism.travel/falaknuma-palace-hyderabad
Nizami lamps and the city lights

Was it worth it? The Falaknuma Palace was indeed beautiful. It is the best place to be in Hyderabad at dusk. As the sun sets on the horizon, where the Golconda Fort has stood for centuries, you can see the city lights flickering below and Falaknuma rises like an angel. The vast outer courtyard with marble statues comes alive and the light is just right for photography, even if you are shooting with just a cell phone (like me).

However, there were two disappointments. The Taj guide for our tour had poor knowledge of the history and anecdotes, and needs a serious education with his Urdu diction.

The other was the food. The presentation was good, but it stopped there. The food in the Hyderabadi restaurant was very rich (as in buttery) and seriously spicy, leading one of our party to be quite sick all of the next day.

Of course, one can hardly blame either the guide or the cuisine at a time when only the nuevo rich, with little sense of history or culture, can afford to visit such places. Our tour group mostly had young couples, interested in each other and their selfies.

Roaming through the Nizam’s office and library at Falaknuma was interesting. There was his famous table on which he used the Jacob’s diamond (world’s 2nd largest at that time) as a paperweight. But I was more interested in what he was reading. And I was impressed by what I found on the shelf next to his table.

1. Starling’s Principles of Human Physiology, 5th ed. This was a classic of the early 20th c when important medical discoveries were being made in the West. I found a review of the 6th ed (1933) and a price of $8.75. See https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC537204/?page=1; Amazon is selling the 14th ed (1968) for $ 42.97. https://www.amazon.com/Principles-Human-Physiology-Ernest-Starling/dp/070001375X
3. The System of Financial Administration in British India; PK Wattal, 1923; see https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.39896

Palace lamps and city lights
The Falaknuma Reading Room reportedly has 5900 books, including the very first account of the Titanic written by a survivor, and all volumes of Encyclopedia Brittanica. The Nizam was not just rich. He was also well read or at least pretended to be one by surrounding him with the most contemporary works of the time.

There was the usual walk through the living quarters of the Nizam – the Ladies Powder Room, where much of the royal gossip took place and the bedroom of his favorite wife. Her bathtub was the most interesting, reportedly the first to be imported from Europe and installed in India. From our guide’s description, it was not clear whether this was the wife of the 6th Nizam (Azmat-uz-Zehra Begum) or 7th Nizam (Dulhan Pasha Begum). Most likely, it was the latter.
The Dining Room and 101 seater
The Falaknuma Palace is full of European and Oriental art, which includes statues of various sizes and styles, sculptures, bowls, vases and paintings. Many are likely to have a history, which remains unexplored. The staircase going up is lined with photographs of all British Viceroys and Governor-Generals, most by Bourne & Shephard, the world’s oldest photo studio (est 1840). It opened in Calcutta in 1863, operated from there and Shimla, and finally shut shop last year after 176 years. Bourne & Shephard became famous for being official photographers for the Dilli Durbar of 1911; these pictures can still be seen at New Delhi’s Imperial Hotel.

The dining room is another highlight of the Palace. While everyone tells you about the 101-seater dining table and the Nizam’s chair (the only one with a padded armrest), there are a few other things of note in this room. The acoustics are such that talk made at one end of the table can be heard at the other. The walls are adorned with images of animals and plants, which actually show the Nizam’s menu. The gold plates and cutlery, which adorned this table are now safely locked away and replaced with imitations carrying Nawab Viqar-ul-Umra’s seal.

It is sad that this heritage is locked up behind a pay wall, being inaccessible to those who live in its shadow. Equally important are those visitors who might wander and discover the history lurking in its rooms – the furniture, books, photographs and other artifacts. If I could find interesting things in less than 45 minutes and could read back on those, many would do much better.

Open days could be organized for people in the neighborhood and other heritage lovers. There is so much for the present and coming generations to learn. It will also make the rather boring Falaknuma tour a bit more interesting. And it might help educate our young guide as well.

The Tata and Taj Groups being pioneers in business, philanthropy and conservation should pay some serious attention to this. Heritage appreciation and business don't have to be on opposite sides. They can be very effective partners.  
The lamps come alive
Night sets in at the Falaknuma Palace

July 30, 2013

Two Day, Two Deaths

This past weekend is one I would like to forget very quickly. It took away two people I liked very much.

Prof. Obaid Siddiqi was a celebrated biologist. He pioneered research on molecular biology, genetics and development in India. He built institutions and trained numerous students who will carry forward his legacy. Obaid received every possible award and recognition one could get in India, but those did little to curb the child-like enthusiasm he had for his own work and that of others, or to reduce his good-natured humility even an ounce. Obaid passed away on Friday evening and we buried him on Saturday in Bangalore.

Dr. Sabiha Saleha, or Apiya to me, was the elder sister I never had. She was not a famous scientist, but was equally proud of what she had achieved professionally. She was the unknown crusader who gave up everything, including her health, to raise her children and ensure that they get a good education and grow up to be decent human beings. They will carry forward her name. Apiya passed away on Saturday night and we buried her on Sunday in Aligarh.

As I reflect on these two individuals who did not know each other and were only connected through me, some common threads begin to emerge in my mind from the two lives and the two deaths.

They were both educated at the Aligarh Muslim University.

Obaid was a local boy who had his undergraduate education at AMU, excelling not just in academics but also in leftist politics and debates (especially Urdu debates), before he left for a job in Delhi and higher studies in UK and USA. This was the 1950s.

Apiya entered AMU immediately after finishing her High School in Lakhimpur-Kheri in the Terai belt of UP, her father being an erstwhile zamindar and a practicing Advocate there. Over the next ten years or so, she came out with a PhD in Organic Chemistry. This was pretty remarkable for a middle class Muslim girl, who was the first from her family to achieve this distinction. This was the 1970s and early 80s.

The Aligarh Muslim University, a hotbed of Indian Muslim intellectual activity, nurtured people as diverse as Obaid and Apiya. It gave them a platform to express themselves and become confident in their own ways to tackle the challenges of life. It accommodated diverse points of view with ideological leanings being strong, yet never in the way of personal or professional relationships. At the same time, it provided a secure environment into which a middle class Muslim family could confidently send its 17-year old daughter. Both are as relevant today as they were then.

But these values are eroding in times when they are needed the most, at AMU, in India and the world. Is it not our duty to preserve them locally and apply them globally? Perhaps the custodians of institutions as well as the self-appointed custodians of faith and morality should ponder over this with some honesty.

They both succumbed to matters of the brain.

Obaid spent his life trying to understand the mysteries of our nervous system, especially how we remember smell and taste. He used the fruitfly as a model and devised simple yet ingenious experiments to understand the genetic and molecular basis of these processes. He was as comfortable giving a lecture on his work to accomplished scientists as he was talking to High School and college students; I have attended both. It is ironic that he died due to a freak head injury that destroyed among other faculties, the same abilities he spent much of his professional life trying to understand.

Apiya suffered from a neurological disorder that was diagnosed about four years back. Despite all advances in neurosciences, no two doctors from India to Saudi Arabia to USA, agreed on her prognosis. Some called it Parkinson’s, others called it Multisystem Atrophy and yet others thought there were iron deposits accumulating in her brain. But all agreed that it was progressive and her condition would deteriorate rapidly. And this did happen. When I saw her last, about ten days back in Aligarh, her eyelids were the only body part she could move on her own. How painful must it be to hear everything, to understand everything, yet not be able to communicate her feelings? Yet, she had the courage to smile, when her facial muscles allowed her to.

And they were both lucky to be surrounded by people who loved them.

Through the five days Obaid was in the ICU, the Bangalore Baptist Hospital witnessed a constant vigil by his immediate family and people at all levels in the institution he created. They were with him, hoping without hope. But they also had the moral courage and sanity to not press charges on the 16-year old girl on a moped, who unknowingly knocked down this giant of Indian science. What a tragedy!

Apiya required much longer care. For over two years, her family – husband, daughters and son, tended to her with love, often getting frustrated, sometimes losing hope, but never really giving up on her. When the end came, her husband was there, struggling against a condition that had progressed beyond hope. Apiya was relieved of her agony, both physical and mental, in the wee hours of July 28.

It is said that writing can be therapeutic. And for me it is. I will remember these two who meant so much to me in their own ways. Expressing my association with them will hopefully diminish some of my personal anguish.

But what about the anguish of an institution and community in which debate and reason has taken a backseat to guile and self-interest? Or a system that allows a 16-year old to drive without a license? Or the anguish of a family that witnesses their loved one afflicted by a disease that no “expert” really understands.

Can we channel our anguish into coming together to find solutions?

Because only solutions will take us forward.

January 27, 2013

A Walk Through Nostalgia

One sign of getting old(er) is to often visualize images of childhood and youth, and to revisit them. I did some of that today.

I grew up on the campus of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and took a circuitous walk today absorbing the sites of my youth. Much has changed, but much remains the same as well.

My walk started from the Old Physics Building, a grand red stone building, which besides being home to the Physics Department in yesteryears, also gave birth to the Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College and sustained it for many years in the 1960s. It now houses the Biochemistry Department. This has a special place in my life as my father started this department and chaired it for many years.

Walking through the Science Faculty and in front of the Engineering College, I arrived at the Arts Faculty, with Theology Department on one side and the General Education Centre across the street. Besides my core (and serious) classes in the Science Faculty, this part of campus provided comic relief in the form of compulsory courses.

Sunni Theology from our time at AMU is synonymous with Iqbal (Barula) Bhai. I remember the time he admonished a fellow student (now himself a Professor at AMU) for questioning why the ‘qurbani ka bakra’ should have certain attributes. Iqbal Bhai was a loveable character despite his insistence that we buy his book from the Educational Book Depot (in Shamshad Market) before he would give the sessional marks. It was widely believed that Iqbal Bhai did not know either English or Hindi, so it was safe to answer the Sunni Theology paper in those languages. Those who answered it in Urdu were usually in trouble; others got passing marks. May he rest in peace.

My memories of Arts Faculty go back to friends who were studying History, but also to two widely divergent experiences. I registered for a French language class, but left it rather quickly because the teacher could exercise little control over his spit, which those in the front had to bear. Moving to the rear was not an option since the professor also liked to walk around the class. The Advanced English course, however, was a joy. We read George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ and Henrik Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’ and the professors who taught these were outstanding. We got engaging commentaries on communism gone awry and gender equality from a leftist and a feminist, respectively.

The General Education Centre was the hub of cultural activity with many a memorable play and evenings of music and ghazals in the Kennedy Hall Auditorium. The play Agra Bazaar, the Mock Convocations and late Maqbool Mahmood are still etched in memory. The GEC was also the site for our compulsory general awareness course ‘Science and Society’ taught by Surti Saheb. A course that you only had to pass, and whose class met at 3 pm in the summer of Aligarh, was bound to attract all sorts of mischief. But Surti Saheb went on undeterred and managed to give us a decent overview of the subject.
Maulana Azad Library
Time to move on. My walk took me to Maulana Azad Library. It looks as lovely as ever, with an extensive green lawn in front and the imposing Moorish arch adorning its main gateway. It was encouraging to see many students studying on the sunny lawns and hectic activity in and out of the Library. So, I walk through the Library Complex towards the sports fields. Soon, my optimism turns into disbelief.

The football ground now has a cricket pitch in the middle. Why? There were two dogs enjoying an afternoon snooze and just two boys dribbling with a football. There was some activity on the basketball floor, just a few boys shooting the hoops. The tennis courts and hockey ground were major disappointments. In the mid-1970s when I played on the AMU tennis team, four courts were set up every day, with at least 15-20 students playing there on a given day. Today, there was just one court and no one was playing on it. The attendant said the University Team had just left to play the Inter-Varsity tournament. But where were the others? The hockey ground of my memory was always full, with two full teams playing a match every day and many boys waiting on the stairs. Today there were just two boys dribbling and one shooting at the goal post. Will AMU hockey ever produce another Zafar Iqbal (my friend and contemporary at AMU)?

Realizing that this is the age of cricket and AMU has just won the North Zone Inter-Varsity Cricket, I started walking towards the Willingdon Pavilion, and took the path through Sir Syed Hall. This place was alive. The AMU Students Union elections have just been announced and every major candidate has a camp in SS Hall. There were groups sitting around in the sun discussing strategy over endless cups of tea. I enter through Bab-e-Ishaq and walk through Strachey Hall towards Bab-e-Rahmat. This part of campus has no equal in terms of its architectural grandeur. But the drying laundry in front of Asman Manzil and Mushtaq Manzil does spoil the scenery. The University Mosque stands out like a pure jewel.
University Mosque
I arrive at the cricket ground to find seven boys at the nets. Just the other day there was a programme on NDTV about the Toyota University Cricket Championship in which 16 university teams are being invited to participate in a T-20 format. AMU is one of the teams. But why are those players not on the nets? The weather was perfect.

My disappointment is growing. So I take the road in front of Victoria Gate to walk towards University Road. The red stone architecture is lovely and well preserved and lifts the mood. As I approach University Road, there is Faiz Gate, popularly called Bab-e-Himaqat, either for its ceremonial role in welcoming dignitaries or the story that an elephant towed it from a ‘riyasat’ around Agra to Aligarh. Opposite the Faiz Gate is the newly made University Circle, which today sported the banner of one of the election candidates. Such a pity!!
I turn left to find a group of students demonstrating in front of the administration building, and overheard someone saying – “phir yeh drama shuru hua”. I move on towards Bab-e-Syed, the youngest of AMU gates that looks quite nice. I hope it does not get plastered with election posters as in yesteryears.

Next to Bab-e-Syed is 3 University Road. This is the house where I was born and spent my childhood, living there till 1968. Naturally, I turned into it. The beautiful house with 10 rooms, a large outer verandah, a portico and a large heart-shaped lawn, has changed over the years into a mess that now houses the AMU Admission Office. When the Administrative Complex was built where the AMU Nursery used to be, it took away some space from 3 University Road as well - the one that occupied the left driveway populated by palm trees and bougainvillea. My neem tree is still there but the ‘morpankhi’ in my favourite lawn was no longer there. What stared back at me was something I did not recognize. How can I expect it to recognize me?
3, University Road
I turn towards Muzammil Manzil and quietly melt away in the cacophony of Dodhpur.

All major roads on AMU campus are dug up right now, but this will hopefully lead to a better future. But many more students who aimlessly ride motorcycles on university roads compared to those present on sports fields, is something to be worried about. This is not a good sign for the future.

AMU has some of the best sports facilities of any Indian university. On this winter afternoon every single sports ground was ready to welcome users. Sadly, the users were missing. Can we not make it compulsory for every first year student to participate in a sport? The lessons of discipline, rigor, competition, defeat and triumph learnt on a sports field will help our next generation better face the challenges of life.

The challenge however is to get them there.

November 27, 2012

Auto Expo Unvisited

(This piece was written in January 1998)

I was on top of the world. I had a good job, an apartment, two cars and a bunch of credit cards – all the benchmarks of success in this city of 13 million. My immediate irritation was my Gypsy, which was seven years old and not very pretty. The plan was to take the afternoon off, visit the Auto Expo in town and start thinking about a new set of wheels. I could afford one and felt I owed it to myself for putting in all those long hours at work.

Around 10 am I learnt that my colleague Sunil lost his ailing mother. A few of us rushed to the hospital and later accompanied Mataji’s body to Crematorium. The sights and events of the day were revealing in many respects.

Getting to the Electric Crematorium near ISBT from Vasant Vihar was a major hassle. The India Gate roundabout was closed to traffic due to Republic Day Parade rehearsals. We therefore decided to approach Ring Road via Mathura Road. It was a mistake. Everyone in Delhi appeared heading towards Pragati Maidan for the Auto Expo. People were driving their cars into traffic jams, spending hours getting there, then fighting over parking spaces, and for what? To go and buy more cars. But for the circumstances, my plans exactly.

Once at the Crematorium a brief puja was performed and the body submitted to the incinerator. There is only one Electric Crematorium for this vast metropolis, and even there, only one of the two ovens was working. Another body that came in later had to wait till the first one was done. Even after dying, Delhiites have to wait in a queue. Everyone waited and no one complained. After all, it is our national ethos. We do not work to our full potential and have a chalta hai attitude.

The two hour wait to collect the ashes was even more revealing. At the entrance of the Crematorium is a statue of Lord Shiva. And protecting it is an iron grill enclosure, with a lock at the gate. In this city, even Gods need protection. The scenery was rather bleak. This place overlooks the vast slums of the Jumna Pushta. The half-naked children playing in the vicinity of death had very little to live for. Yet, they were laughing. They often go to bed hungry, but they were cheerful. They have no clean drinking water and have not been vaccinated yet they survive. These are our models of Drawinian selection; they survive because they are the fittest. But as a society we have failed to provide them an education or a dream. And they will not forgive the likes of me for our selfishness and complacency.

There was still an hour to kill. A few metres from the Crematorium stood an innocent-looking room. A peek inside was horrifying. There were about haf a dozen dead bodies piled on top of each other. These were unclaimed bodies brought from hospital morgues and collected for a mass cremation every evening. Just then, a van pulled up with three more bodies, which were dragged out and dumped with the rest. These people must have been someone’s sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters. Now they were reduced to a pile of bodies waiting for their date with the oven. They once had names. Today they were only a number and a statistic. They were only worth Rs. 40 a piece for the van driver. For him, the more the merrier.

Sunil walked out with the ashes in an earthen pot. It struck me that my existence was no more than a pot of ashes or a handful of dirt. Just then, the muezzin called the faithful to prayer, as if to remind me who really was in charge.

Driving home in the evening, I gave way to pedestrians and cyclists, and did not even get angry when a car with a “Montu di Gaddi” sign zipped across my driving path. Now the dents and scratches on my Gypsy do not matter.

And that Auto Expo got one less visitor.

Fixing the Leaky Pipeline for Leelavati’s Daughters

Women (and men) with a passion for science management. The authors Bela Desai (front row 2nd from left) and Shahid Jameel (back row extre...