Extraordinary memoir

Dreaming Big by Sam Pitroda with David Chanoff ; penguin; Price: Rs.699; Pages: 331

Within a society given to worshipping at the altars of political, business and even cinema dynasties, it’s unsurprising that Dreaming Big: My Journey to Connect India, the autobiography of Satyen (‘Sam’) Pitroda, the US-based self-made millionaire who catalysed post-independence India’s cruelly-delayed telecom revolution, has received few and lukewarm reviews. Yet this memoir is an inspirational narrative of a visionary engineer of modest circumstances who slummed it out in America as a student, and in typical American style transformed into a dollar millionaire. However the differentiating characteristic of Sam Pitroda is that he responded to the call of the illiterate masses of his country, and returned home to kick-start the critical telecom industry.

Pitroda’s uplifting story details how the son of a blacksmith took full advantage of his modest education in a boarding school (Sharada Mandir, Vidyanagar, Gujarat), and engineering education at Baroda’s M.S. University, and financed his Masters degree at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago. In 1964, Pitroda who had never made a telephone call until then, set sail for America. The trials and tribulations he faced as an impecunious student at the original IIT, his marriage to his childhood sweetheart from Baroda, and how, triumphing over adversity, he landed his first job in the land of opportunity, quickly building a reputation as an expert in the fast growing telecom switching systems sector, is optimally covered in Part I of this engaging memoir.

In 1980, Pitroda made his first passage to India after his emigration. At the time when the country’s population was nearing 1 billion, the entire economy was served by a mere 2.5 million telephone connections. Typically, there is no record of which worthy made the decision to deny the lay citizenry this basic service which undoubtedly cost the Indian economy hundreds of millions by way of lost development and business opportunities. But it’s a measure of the stupidity of the recently abolished Central Planning Commission and its clerical economists that within two decades after liberalisation and deregulation of the Indian economy in 1991, the number of cellular phones countrywide is estimated at over 900 million. I believe that improved connectivity has added at least 2 percentage points per annum to India’s GDP during the past decade.

Inevitably Pitroda’s determination to upgrade and modernise the crucial telecom sector wasn’t well-received by the country’s notoriously obstructive bureaucracy. It took him many journeys between the US and India before he was given an hour by prime minister Indira Gandhi — on the urging of her son Rajiv — to present a proposal to build small 128-256 line, “ruggedized” rural automatic exchanges (RAX) which would connect rural with urban India.

Three years later in 1984 the Union cabinet approved the establishment of C-DOT (Centre for Development of Telematics) with a budget of $36 million (then Rs.108 crore). Overturning conventional wisdom which focused on density of telephones in cities which would spill over into rural areas, C-Dot exchanges reversed the process by establishing subscriber dialling/public call offices manned by “phone entrepreneurs” countrywide, which created over 2 million jobs.

Within the three-year deadline C-Dot revolutionised the country’s telecom industry under Pitroda’s leadership developing “small, medium and large rural exchanges, private automatic exchanges and other exchanges for digital networks,” thus setting the stage for privatisation of the telecom industry and the cell phone revolution of the 21st century. Meanwhile Rajiv Gandhi, with whom Pitroda developed a strong and emotional friendship, succeeded Mrs. Gandhi after her assassination in October 1984 and Pitroda persuaded him to establish the National Technology Missions in 1986 to provide science and technology solutions in six key areas critical for national development, viz, rural drinking water, literacy, immunization, edible oils, telecommunications and dairy production.

But before the missions could take off, Rajiv Gandhi became involved in the Bofors scam and was voted out of office in 1989. In the V.P. Singh government Pitroda didn’t last long and was accused of corruption by K.P. Unnikrishnan, an overweening former journalist who was appointed Union minister of telecommunications. And in 1991 while making a political comeback Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu. “With Rajiv gone, all I could see was darkness,” writes Pitroda. Moreover having worked on a token salary of Re.1 for over ten years, Pitroda discovered he was broke.

In Part III of this memoir titled ‘Rebuilding, Redefining, Reflecting’ Pitroda recounts how he returned to his family in the US and sued several multinationals including Toshiba, Sharp, Casio and Texas Instruments for unauthorised use of an electronic diary which he had patented in 1974. This resulted in a settlement “for a couple of million dollars”. Shortly thereafter he registered a patent for C-SAM, a mobile wallet app in anticipation of the mobile phone boom.

In 2004 when the triumphant BJP called a general election, Pitroda once again felt the pull of Mother India. Although he doesn’t claim any credit for it, the Congress and its allied parties scored a stunning upset victory winning 325 of the 523 seats in the Lok Sabha. Inevitably, Pitroda was one of Sonia Gandhi’s first choices to join the National Advisory Council chaired by her.

Subsequently, he set up  the National Knowledge Commission (NKC) of India. Comprising some of the country’s top intellectuals, the NKC was divided into 27 working groups and made over 300 recommendations in the form of letters to the PM, annual reports, as well as a final report brought out at the end of three years, after which the commission was wound up. Although the NKC has made little impact on the moribund education system, Pitroda lists an impressive array of below the line achievements in terms of double the number of college graduates, vocational education, documentation of India’s traditional knowledge culture, and connecting universities through a digitised national knowledge network.

“These are all significant accomplishments. We will be able to see the results ten or twenty years down the road. The work is all about planting seeds… the United States is a leader economically because of commitments made to education, communication, health, access to information and other sectors about fifty or hundred years ago,” writes Pitroda.

This engrossing, honest and valuable memoir ends on a high philosophical note with the author musing about the future of a rapidly globalising world transformed by mind-boggling technologies, and the future of India within it. Despite its seemingly intractable problems, Pitroda is optimistic about the future. The chapter ‘At the Crossroads’ is one of the best written by — it needs to be stated forthrightly — a great man with an extraordinary work ethic and driven by the highest motives.

Dilip Thakore

Teens management guide

Raising rebellious and unpredictable teenagers can be the cause of much angst and often creates great animosity between parents and children. For generations, parents have wondered about power shifts in their relationships with their children. Basically, how loving and obedient children transform almost overnight into aggressive rebels.

Dr. Frances E. Jensen, chair of the department of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania, has teamed up with Washington Post’s science writer Amy Ellis Nutt, to explore the teenage mind in this enlightening book. Herself the mother of two boys (now adults), Jensen peppers this scholarly volume with anecdotes from her own experiences as a parent, to scientifically explain the complexity of the human brain and mindsets of adolescents.

Jensen’s main proposition is that the teen brain isn’t “an adult brain with less miles on it”, as is widely believed. Hitherto the popular perception was that 90 percent of brain development is completed in the first seven years of life. However, Dr. Jensen argues that the next seven years are possibly as important as the first seven years. The teenage years encompass “vitally important states of brain development… full of unique vulnerabilities and exceptional strength,” she writes. Though teens have the same amount of hormones as young adults, they react differently, making them capable of great successes, but impulsive risk-takers as well.

Jensen suggests that while the plasticity of the teenage brain makes it suitable for learning and incredible achievements, still developing frontal lobes prompt sudden urges and rash decision-making. The frontal lobes which enable judgement and decision-making, develop only by the age of 18. This part of the brain generates self-awareness, responsibility and empathy. This is the reason teenagers have poor decision-making skills attenuated by heightened risk-taking proclivities.

What will seriously interest parents is Jensen’s explanation of “misunderstood” teens. She proffers that instead of constantly condemning them as insensitive, lazy or aggressive, it would be prudent to understand that their minds are works in progress, inhabiting a borderland between youth and adulthood. She describes the teen years as a time of self-discovery and advises parents/guardians to assist them through this turbulent period rather than question or doubt them. Schools and parents have to be especially sensitive because teenage hormones react differently. For instance the hormone THP, which has a calming effect on adults actually heightens teenage stress.

Therefore she advises parents to become “your teens’ frontal lobes until their brains are fully wired and hooked up and ready to go on their own”. In her opinion, partial development of their frontal lobes is responsible for much of the problem behaviour such as unhygienic habits, belligerent stances and reckless experimentation with drugs. She counsels parents to be patient instead of reacting in anger and alienating them, thus driving them towards more risky behaviour.

A redeeming feature of this book which saves it from becoming too academic is that it treads carefully between scientific explanations of teenage behaviour and advice to parents on handling young adults. On the one hand, it explains why teenagers can be impulsive, argumentative, and dodgy. But it also offers sound advice on how to manage trying situations, and engender goodwill and family harmony.

Of late, there have been a number of books advising ways and means to change the popular discourse around the adolescent mind. Among them are Daniel Siegel’s Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain and Laurence Steinberg’s Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence.

But this volume offers the advantage of a comprehensive manual which addresses contemporary issues such as risk-taking, bullying, digital invasion, food disorders and criminal behaviour. It’s a must-read for parents struggling to cope with teenagers, leaving them with the assurance that if managed sensitively, young rebels will make a smooth transition to adulthood.

Gagandeep Kaur