Biographies Vs Novels
Asoke K Laha, President & CEO of Interra Information Technologies
I recently read Sam Pitroda’s autobiography, Dreaming Big: My Journey to Connect India. Sam’s name is synonymous with the telecom revolution in the country. While going through his autobiography, I realized that his contributions are grossly understated in the Indian context. Sam’s contributions, if I may be allowed to interpret, is across the spectrum of technology and to limit that canvas to telecom is a gross disservice to this man who courted controversies, often politically motivated and still kept his spirits high to work for the country in the 1980s.
I have first met Sam in 1977, when I first started my career in USA as a software engineer at GTE located at Chicago. He was highly respected in the organization, and I was highly impressed with his personality and technical brilliance. I became an instant fan, and followed his career in US with pride.
We have to call spade a spade. I believe Sam would have left the country after a year or two as a frustrated man had he not clicked with his political patron Rajiv Gandhi, who shared along with him a technical mind and a conviction that India could come out of its morass only through a technical revolution and a positive approach to life bereft of political wrangling, allegations and their counter points. I suspect that they had become bosom friends since they shared a common outlook. Sam, as he admits in the book, is the son of a blacksmith born and brought up in measly conditions and had education at most trying circumstances, whereas Rajiv Gandhi was a manor born, who could have everything at his command, being a part of the illustrious and well known family. Their journey together to give India a technical face was more on an account of their shared vision. I reckon that it was a sheer luck that Sam broke the ground to become the most sought out advisor of Rajiv Gandhi.
There are many such autobiographies and biographies that have evinced my keen reading. They included that of President Obama, Mahatma Gandhi, Abdul Kalam and the list goes on. I find it is more stimulating and absorbing than a thriller since you know very well such fictionalized things create an ambience of make believe and the characters are germinated by the author according to his imagination and more accurately by his predilections and conjurors. Whereas biographies take you to the real world and you will not get trespassed into an imaginary world. Here the feelings are real and human and the author will not concoct things. If one does so, he or she is insensitive and the work gets easily discounted.
Coming back to Sam’s autobiography, there are many things that take you to the contemporary Indian context. When he explains about the state of telecom sector in India in the 80’s, when the industry was a state monopoly, the present generation who plays with gizmos of different hues and configurations would think whether such age existed in India. Once a central telecom minister famously said in reply to a question raised in Parliament by members who were dissatisfied with the working of the telecom network plagued by line disruptions and non - responsiveness of the telecom operators that they could surrender their connections if they found telephones were not useful. Could the new generation believe that the waiting period for a new connection ranged from one year to five years or even more? To top it, for almost half of the year, the telephone lines remained dead.
Sam’s determined effort to transform the Indian telephone network attracted ridicule, cynicism and disdain. Many thought, as he explains in the book, he was an agent of the multinationals and out to make quick bucks by investing his time in revamping Indian telephone system. Otherwise, what is the interest for a man, who claims to be raking millions of dollars in the US through his patents and discoveries to come to India to work for very little pay. There was media barrage against him doubting his integrity. But the protective shield thrown by Rajiv Gandhi insulated him from the machination of his detractors. In the process, he created many edifices that are changing the landscape of India, such as C-DOT, C-DAC, Technology Missions and the like.
When things had started looking up and taking concrete shape, many adverse things had driven the good efforts he had done out of context. Following the Bofors scandal, Rajiv Gandhi had to demit the office. Before the next elections, when Rajiv Gandhi was widely expected to make a comeback, he was assassinated. Not with-standing his close proximity with Rajiv Gandhi, Sam preferred not to demit his office, despite him being rebuked by the then minister of telecommunications, who leveled corruption charges against him and washed the dirty linen in public. Sam says that the target of attack was not himself but his benefactor Rajiv Gandhi and thought any attempt to resign would send wrong signal of the allegations leveled were true. He continued to stomach the abuses and humiliations and continued with his works
When the Congress party came to power under the leadership of Mr. Narasimha Rao, he had his role cut out as the chairman of the technology commissions. But the spate of health issues that followed shook him physically but did not dwindle his spirit to survive and continue with his development works. Once he recuperated and attained a degree of financial stability, he started refocusing on India and that determination continues despite the change of governments.
Once you read through his memoirs, one can easily latch on to the different phases of development that India had undergone in the post - independence times. He explains how India could make the head start in the software development and how the legendary GE chairman Jack Welsh was compelled to place a US$ 10 million order for Indian software, perhaps, the first order of that magnitude and a trailblazer to the things that would follow in the later years. He explains how the Technology Mission on Education was conceived and how that is incrementally reshaping the education sector in India. The digital advantage of India is not a stand- alone achievement but a grand design to give the country a new development matrix - inclusive growth. Democracy, he is convinced, can grow only in a dispensation which ensures development of all and not a few.
What the nation is thinking now, such as innovation, technology, knowledge driven economy, inclusive growth, digital divide and what have you, I get the impression, that Sam and his benefactors talked about, discussed and debated way back in the 80’s, when liberalization was a taboo and privatization was almost close to blasphemy. That is the foresight of the people whom he is talking about. The pertinent question now is despite that lofty thinking and high values that we had seized up long back, why we are still struggling to make development a central theme of our governance? Is it too much of politicization, too much of talk with little action on the ground, adversarial political propaganda, not walking the talk or simple inertia? I do not have an answer for that except a sweeping generalization that it could be a combination of all.
I still have to convince the readers why I like such biographies over novels. My simple answer is that the former has realism, real character, events, real happenings and everything that is to do with real life but a novel to me appears to depict a reel life. I prefer the former over the latter. That may not be the case with you.