Sundar Pichai, Silicon Valley’s new technology star: wondrously un-grok-able by Westerners looking at him in rear-view mirrors angled on roots
Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthling assumptions) as color means to a blind man.
— Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A Heinlein, 1961
A pity that someone from Madras — known as Tamil Nadu, now — is stripped of the special qualities that tie him to one of the most extraordinary parts of India, a country hundreds of times more colourful and gloriously bizarre than any other. This is what media coverage – in India’s English-language press as much as anywhere else – has done to Google’s new chief executive, Sundar Pichai, born and brought up in the southeastern state of Tamil-speakers.
Diligent reporting for biographical sketches in, for instance, The Times of India, has supplied the impressive details of his rise from the middle-classes — a long way from the poverty of the Indian masses, yet far enough from a life of Western privilege and ease to be deemed a ‘moonshot,’ Google’s term for ambitious, risky, work-in-progress expected to take more than ten years to bear results.
But in what kind of cultural soil were his roots – being widely characterized as ‘humble’ – fed and watered? Nothing in what we have read so far in news analysis offers the tiniest glimpse of what is most fascinating about Pichai’s home state. Its culture has been ignored or edited out, as if in the Indian call-centre tradition in which a sparkling customer service representative assisting a faraway English-speaker says, ‘Hi, this is Brad, how can I help you?’ — when his real name is P. K. Gopinath, and his consonants are so deliciously guttural in the classic Tamil way that you imagine him speaking to you with the shimmering Bay of Bengal for a backdrop.
What is unusual about Tamil Nadu? Jottings:
From a New York Times profile last month of Jayalalithaa Jayaram, the state’s best-loved politician — a former chief minister and actress, now general secretary of the ruling political party, the A.I.A.D.M.K. — and revered by many Tamils as a personal deity (Rollo Romig, 1 July 2015):
When Jayalalithaa set up a tent on Marina Beach and fasted publicly for 80 hours in protest of interstate water policy, thousands joined her. At every letdown, it seemed, A.I.A.D.M.K. supporters tried to set themselves on fire. Several Jayalalithaa skeptics told me that they doubt her party members care for her at all. They just know that mad acts of political theater are how things get done in Tamil Nadu.
… So is Tamil Nadu chaotic, an economic basket-case … ? Think again:
You would think that given all this emotional mayhem, Tamil Nadu would be a mess, but in fact it’s one of the best-run states in India. Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen, in their book ‘‘An Uncertain Glory,’’ an analysis of economic development in India, single out Tamil Nadu as a paragon of administrative innovation among Indian states, ranking it best in the country for the quality of its public services. Under Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi’s governance, Chennai has gained a reputation as the Detroit of India (in the car-manufacturing-hub sense, not in the bankrupt-and-abandoned sense).
None of that is any more unlikely than the life of the state’s most famous mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan — the subject of a book reviewed on this blog. As noted there, Ramanjuan’s mathematical discoveries in the early 20th century have been used in polymer chemistry, crystallography, string theory, computer science and cancer research. Even so,
… a former accountant-general of Madras … remembered Ramanujan telling him that in dreams in which he saw the male consort of [the goddess] Namagiri, ‘scrolls containing the most complicated mathematics used to unfold before his eyes.’ He shows how dream interpretation, palmistry and astrology influenced crucial decisions with which Ramanujan wrestled. (Quotation from The Man Who Knew Infinity, Robert Kanigel, 1991)
What would the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore make of Sundar Pichai and 21st-century India? In 1944, a young writer, Santha Rama Rau — another Tamil Nadu native — recounted meeting Tagore as an old man and proud Nobel laureate:
… Tagore continued fiercely and with what seemed like rising irritation, ‘Our youth, too much of our youth goes to learn from the West. Were we not their tutors originally? What will you learn from them? Technology!’ he growled scornfully. ‘Look in your villages, child. What use has an Indian farmer for technology until he has learned to defend himself against exploitation?’ …
Ah, … but there was this snippet in International Business Times last Friday:
… Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who himself congratulated Pichai via Twitter, has asked why the country lags many other economies when it comes to major science and technology breakthroughs and innovation. “Why is it that a company like Google isn’t born in India?” Modi asked recently, speaking in Hindi, at the inauguration of Digital India, a multibillion-dollar program to bring Internet to the country’s villages …
Wonderful. Wonderful. Wonderful. … Post-Gutenberg can never read enough proof of this world being infinitely stranger and more unaccountable than any of us can imagine.