Sundar Pichai, Silicon Valley’s new technology star: wondrously un-grok-able by Westerners looking at him in rear-view mirrors angled on roots

Sundar Pichai 3 YouTube discussion Screen Shot

Where, if not in India, would an authority on the childhood of a technology superstar be interviewed with a garlanded guru and personal shrine at his back? Tamil TV screenshot, postgutenberg[at]

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 17.09.22

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.

Carl Djerassi, exemplary forerunner of Post-Gutenberg Man

Carl Djerassi in the late summer of 2013 - postgutenberg [at]

Carl Djerassi at home in Green Street in San Francisco in the late summer of 2013
– photograph: postgutenberg [at]

Recorded with sadness:

Carl Djerassi,

29 October 1923 – 30 January 2015

In an unprecedented commemoration, in our experience, yesterday’s Guardian ran — in addition to a short obituary for the general reader — a long and detailed encapsulation of Carl Djerassi’s extraordinary life in its science pages, and in its arts section, a critique of his dramatic oeuvre by a veteran theatre critic.

The photograph was taken in a poignant, unforgettable afternoon spent with Dr. Djerassi in September, 2013 – in which he revealed that he was recovering from a surgical operation for an illness he hoped to defeat for a second time. One recurring conversational theme was a comparison of recent experiences of grief and bereavement: it was clear that he found the loss of his third wife, the literary scholar Diane Middlebrook, virtually unendurable. We were both unquestionably happier discussing e-publishing and the post-print future — the reason for his invitation after writing, improbably, to express his pleasure and surprise in discovering this ‘sophisticated and literary’ blog.

His mention of having personally designed the gorgeous cover of the book he is holding, in his portrait — Newton’s Darkness: Two Dramatic Views — made it impossible not to ask him to pose with it. This he graciously agreed to do without any fuss, issuing no instructions and imposing no conditions. He could not have been a more relaxed subject.

The cover image he chose for the joint publication in a single volume of his play, Calculus, and Newton’s Hooke, by the English dramatist (and father of a physicist) David Pinner — about curious incidents and relationships in the life of Isaac Newton — is a photograph of a sculpture by Salvador Dali, a perfect choice for the surreal life of the greatest scientist before Einstein.

The news that Dr. Djerassi had designed some of his own book jackets could not have been less surprising after the three entries on this blog nominating him as a leader in the transition to unbounded, unboxed, post-Gutenberg creative expression: ‘Carl Djerassi’s sumptuous foretaste of publishing’s mixed-media future’, parts 1, 2 and 3.

We did not expect to find any mention of his accomplishments as an early prototype of Post-Gutenberg Man in any obituary, and indeed there has been none in the dozen-odd specimens we have read so far. But on this blog and elsewhere, there will be a lot more to say on that subject.

In the meanwhile, because his interest in finding new readers of his work could not have been fiercer, all the way to his final weeks, here is an extract from Dr. Djerassi’s programme notes for Calculus – which should be of particular interest to readers of the most popular item in this site’s archives, ‘The Riddle of Ramanujan,’ an essay and review of a novelisation by David Leavitt of the life of India’s legendary mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan.

Any mention of dabbling in mysticism by a venerated scientific figure is apt to make the typical working scientist bristle, snap, or break out in some other conversational equivalent of hives. Positively the last thing she or he wants to hear is about the brain of Newton not merely leaning heavily in that direction, but every bit as preoccupied by the extra-rational and occult as an ‘exotic’ subcontinental would be three centuries later.

Putting physics on a firm experimental and mathematical foundation – an approach coined Newtonism – earned Newton the ultimate accolade as father of modern scientific thought. However, a revisionist historical analysis, based in part on the discovery by the economist John Maynard Keynes of a huge trove of unpublished papers and documents, has led some scholars to consider Newton the last great mystic rather than first modern scientist.


… Newton spent much more time on alchemy and mystical theology than on “science”-composing over 1 million words on each of these two endeavors, much more than all his writings on physics combined! His alchemical library was huge and his alchemical experiments, though kept secret from all but a few intimates and servants, consumed much of his waking hours for decades. Even his religious convictions had to be kept secret, because his faith in Arianism (holding that Christ and God are not of one substance) was considered heretical within the Anglican Church.

Born on Christmas day in the year of Galileo’s death, Newton was so convinced of his supernatural powers that he once constructed a virtual anagram of his name (Isaacus Neutonus) in terms of “God’s holy one” (Jeova sanctus unus). His position as a fellow of Trinity College and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge (a chair now held by Stephen Hawking), his subsequent elevation to the important government rank of Master of the Mint, and conferment of a knighthood by Queen Anne …

[ and here, because the playwright would prefer you to read his words in their context – and purchase and arrange for performances of his play — please continue to … ]