Snakes Alive!

This is the month when many parts of India celebrate Nag Panchami or festival of snakes, by worshipping the Snake God for protection. The many rituals and myths associated with this perpetuate many false perceptions about snakes. This takes me back to my own snake story.IMG_20180830_100525311.jpg

When I started my career as an environmental educator, one of my first close encounters of the wild kind was when we were asked to touch a snake! This was in Sundarvan, a small snake park. The snake was a Red Sand Boa—a non-venomous snake. For someone who was, at that time, far from being a passionate wild-lifer, this was indeed an experience that served to dispel the many myths that one had grown up with. One of these were that snakes were “slimy”, and to be avoided at all costs. The skin of the sand boa felt dry and smooth, and we learnt that most snakes are in fact non-venomous.

And there began my long and fascinating journey in the natural world. A journey along which I had the most wonderful encounters with some of India’s best known naturalists and educators.

One of these was the Snakeman of India Romulus Whitaker.

Not so long after my induction by snakes, Romulus himself came to CEE and fascinated us with snake tales and the importance of breaking the myths that associated snakes with all things creepy and vile, and communicating the vital role of snakes in the ecosystem, especially as friends of farmers because they eat the rats that destroy crops.

A little later, Romulus graciously accepted to write a piece for a book that Meena and I were editing. In this he recounted how he first came to India from New York city when he was 8 years old, and returned a few years later  to make India his home, and herpetology his career. He recalled how “the snake charmers at Juhu Beach in Bombay were my first tutors but it wasn’t long before I outgrew their mixture of magic and nonsense.”

Romulus’s passion for setting the record straight about reptiles has manifested itself in a long and close association with the Irulas, an indigenous tribe of snake catchers of Tamil Nadu who became his friends and mentors; setting up of India’s first Snake Park in 1970 and the Madras Crocodile Bank in 1975 and, in 2005 the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station in Karnataka. These Parks continue to attract and educate millions of visitors every year, and they have also become the base of conservation research projects in many parts of India including the Andaman islands.

His never-ending impulse to show and tell people about reptiles led Romulus to start making documentary films, many of which have won international awards. One of his first films Snakebite tells about how to avoid and treat snakebite. While studying incidents of snakebites in India, Whitaker discovered that numerous lives were lost due to inadequate production and distribution of anti-venom serum. That is when he mobilised the Irula community to form a snake catchers’ cooperative, who under licenses from the Wildlife Department, extract and freeze-dry venom from snakes and sell it to anti-venom producing laboratories before releasing the snakes back into the wild.

In 2018 Romulus was awarded the Padma Shri for nature conservation. In one of the interviews following the award Romulus said “I believe that touching a snake opens people’s minds and changes it forever.” I can totally vouch for that!

Thank you Rom for helping to open a new world, and for being a continuing inspiration!


The Great Babbler Mystery

I call them Angry Birds! They are continually at war with the world, making their views heard with an incessant grating cacophony of sounds. Their beady eyes glint as they stare angrily at you, and their dusty khakhi-brown feathers are always dishevelled, as if they have just emerged from battle!

They are ubiquitous, making their bedraggled group appearance in the garden, on the sun deck, in the wash area and on the window ledges. They make their presence felt with their incessant quibbling and squabbling. In the morning they are busy poking at the lawn before our first cup of tea. In the afternoon they hop around in the verandah and outside the windows, peering through the glass and rapping sharply with their beaks as if to reprimand us for some misdeed. They are the band of vigilantes—sounding a harsh and strident chorus that makes the intruding cat slink away to safety. They fight like fishwives! Screeching, pecking, pulling, merging into a heaving mass of untidy feathers; and emerging with scrawny bare necks that reveal the wounds of war.

They are the Jungle Babblers or the Seven Sisters as they are called in English, and for some reason, Seven Brothers in some Indian languages.

And I wake up with the comfort of starting the day with them.

Until last week….

My angry birds have disappeared en masse!

At first I thought it may be the grey drizzly weather that we have been having after a long, blazing hot and dry summer that was deterring their forays. Then I thought that maybe they had decided to put in a late appearance; I watched for them morning, noon and evening. Not a straggly feather to be seen! I looked at all their haunts, their favourite foraging patches; the bare branches of the tree at the gate and the wires running overhead, but nary a glint of an eye could I see. I thought maybe they have taken off on vacation, but my bird book tells me that they like their home turf and are not likely to wander far.

How can they all vanish? I haven’t a clue!

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Missing from action!

Will they reappear soon? I do hope so!

Till then, the great babbler mystery continues!


Bravely Battling the Big C

I requested my friend who has resolutely conquered her cancer to share her experiences, and she generously agreed, though it was not easy for her to re-visit this part of her life. And what I realized is that you need 4Cs to battle the Big C: Courage of the person concerned, Caring Family, Compassionate Doctor and a network of Concerned Friends.

I share her story in first person and have the conviction that she has left it behind forever.


It’s hard to go down memory lane to the fateful day when I got to know that I had the dreaded C disease. It was so hard to accept that diagnosis and to be able to actually say the word: CANCER!


‘Oh my God ! it can’t be happening to me…’ was obviously the first thought.

It took Dr Sarin less than five minutes and a physical examination to deliver the verdict which sealed my fate. But the journey to get to this point was not an easy one. I had been going from pillar to post, from doctor to doctor to doctor in my country of residence for a full year, and nobody so much as even suspected anything this drastic. I used to repeatedly get a ulcer on my left nipple which was not amenable to any treatment –I tried allopathy, homeopathy, ayurveda…you name it! I visited all streams of experts…GP, Dermatologist, Gynaecologist. Finally, as luck would have it, I came across a surgeon who suggested a biopsy, and on getting the result, he suspected something and asked me to go to India immediately.

A friend of mine had taken me for this biopsy. She immediately got into action and contacted her cousin in Delhi who knew a thing or two about doctors there. Though I have my whole family in Delhi and I belong to Delhi, here was a friend in this alien country who helped me to not only find an ACE DOCTOR, but took the pains to ensure I got to see the doctor—from arranging the appointment to everything.. all without my knowledge. She contacted my sisters and gave them the doctor’s contacts and my appointment time.

So Jan 23, 2017..can I ever forget this date !! I met Dr Sarin with 10 of my family members. There were tears and tears and tears all around as Dr Sarin gave her verdict. But I have to say, if ever there was an angel in a doctor’s guise, it was Dr Sarin. She tried to soften the blow as much as possible. Convinced my family that this was the easiest cancer to handle and that it was completely curable. We latched on to every single word she uttered and put our complete faith on her.

My Paget’s disease needed to be dealt with immediately. Straight on, we dived into a whirlpool of tests and more tests! Mercifully Jan 26th was a National holiday, so I got some respite to catch my breath! My surgery was planned for Jan 27th morning. God was surely holding my hand! I say so because I didn’t get time to think about what had hit me, everything was moving so fast (and trust me that’s the best way to go about it!). On Friday morning, I went into the OT. I was constantly praying to my Sai to hold my hand through this ordeal even as I saw doctors and nurses preparing for the operation. Dr Sarin came to me in the pre-surgery room, talked to me and gave me courage. There I saw my Sai Baba on her locket and suddenly I felt that He would work through Dr.Sarin’s hands and cut away my cancer. I was ready for the surgery. Everything went off well ..I was sent home the next day.

While all looked well, the tissues were sent for a detailed exam. On the third day when I went back for check-up, I was shocked to learn that a gene mutation had been found and I needed hormone therapy (Herceptin) for a year to completely take care of my problem. BUT to give that, they had to give me 6 cycles of chemotherapy. OMG! Once again I was in Dr Sarin’s room flooding it with tears. I could not handle the thought of chemotherapy. Apart from everything else, I could not accept the thought of losing hair and becoming bald. And also the fact that I would have to stay back for 4 1/2 months at least, to finish six rounds of the three-weekly chemo sessions.

Then started the second phase of my treatment journey. We had left Delhi about 10 years before this incident. I have two sisters and a brother-in-law living in Delhi and a hoard of school and college friends whom I had been close to. By God’s grace they all came forward and were there for me. They were like my suraksha chakra. I can never thank them enough or do anything to repay their love and support and courage which helped me go through this trial.

For after this, it was never-ending trips to Apollo every Monday and Thursday. I decided to look upon these as my outings! Remember in chemo we have to be confined to a room in the most sanitized atmosphere possible ! Oh God ! how seriously we took US-based sons would send us Dettol wipes in huge dibbas and Chlorex to clean the floor. My husband was quite depressed through it all…he felt sad and guilty as he could not be there with me. But he had a job to keep and cancer is an expensive affair !

My sons would put a positive spin on everything. They’d say ‘Mummy, when will you ever get so much attention in your life? Just take it in your stride and go through it bravely. We have to come out a champ from this ordeal. Sai Baba is with you, providing all support. You have to do your bit by hanging in there.’

And that was true. I had the best doctors treating me. Dr Sarin is nothing less than God for me. Her healing touch was enough to lift my spirits every time I met her. With every passing chemo, she would say, ‘chalo one more done, ab to katam hone wala hai…’, and I would feel happy that we were crawling towards the end, slowly but surely. May God give her long, blessed life! My medical oncologist Dr Manish Singhal, took care of all the side effects so beautifully that I had minimum discomfort (that the minimum is also difficult to handle is another matter!).

Then again, the hardest part was to lose my hair…however much you may be prepare for it, it does make you cry!!!! I lost mine after the second chemo, but again my children had already sent me wigs, so I didn’t have to move around bald. Dr Sarin, Pooja, Dr Parag and my whole family would always pull down my scarf and urge me to have the confidence to move around like that!

I had my whole family rallying around me. My nutrition was being well taken care of..Nariyal pani first thing in the morning, healthy palak parantha for breakfast, anar mid morning etc etc. The whole meal plan was  ‘cooked fresh, fresh, fresh’.

All in all my sisters were a great source of strength for me during my difficult period.The two who were in Delhi physically present with me through it all and with whom I took turns to stay with for months on end and my sister from afar praying for me and cheering me up always!

My sister from Dubai too gave me immense strength through it all.As soon as she heard about my diagnosis,she took the next flight and was by my side for the surgery. Then all through my chemotherapy days she kept sending me beautiful scarves and prayer threads and what have you! Twice more she flew down to spend time with me.She is an excellent cook n as we know during chemo the taste buds really go for a toss .She would prepare yakhni and other delicious stuff that would appeal to my palett.It was a delight to have her around whenever she could make it ! Its because of her prayers and best wishes that I stand strong today !

I used to sleep a lot, something that came naturally to me after every chemo. In each cycle, in the first week, I only slept.  The second week onwards, felt a bit stronger. The third week was the golden week when was all ok. My relatives made a ritual of entertaining me on the day before the next chemo. In the safe period, we would go out for a movie followed by dinner. So in this way, I saw six movies and ate in six plush restaurants to mark my six chemos. Perks of being a patient!!

I felt God all around me, as if He had sent these people to lovingly look after me, and all I had to do was to be a little brave and keep my eye on the light at the end of the tunnel.  I thanked God a million times every day for giving me these people to help me through my most difficult times.

I tried my best not to let myself be dragged down by negative thoughts. I used to always go to the temple on the Apollo premises before going in for chemo. It gave me immense strength. A quirky habit I developed was that I wanted a room facing the temple only. That had become my good omen. After two chemos, they knew i wouldn’t take a room on the other side!

After the six chemos were over, I was finally given the go ahead to go back to my home and country to continue with Herceptin for the rest of the year, and then come back for a check-up. In Feb 2018, my last Herceptin was administered. I flew to India end of March and got my check-up done by Dr Manish Singhal, Dr Parag and my dearest Dr Ramesh Sarin, and got the ALL CLEAR signal.

The relief in my heart is difficult to express in words. When Dr Sarin told me I could have my chemo port removed, I was as unbelieving as I was the day I was told that I needed one!

Thank you, Apollo Hospital!

I love my doctors and I love my family and friends, who with the grace of God, brought me to this day where I have left cancer behind….hopefully forever!



A Parliament of Owls

No this does not refer to a House of sleep-deprived MPs at an all-night Parliament debate!

This is what a group of Owls can be called!


The English language has some wild and wonderful names to describe groups of animals or birds. We use some of these collective nouns occasionally when we talk about a Herd of cattle or a Flock of sheep. In school we often had to fill in the blanks or match the following– a Pride of lions, a School of fish or a Pack of wolves.

I have always been intrigued and fascinated by some of these collective nouns. I think that a Gaggle of Geese sounds just so appropriate, as does an Army of Ants (especially having once been literally attacked and badly bitten a marching regiment of army ants—no joking!).

Here are some delightful feathery ones!

Imagine a Parliament of Owls which includes members from the following: A Murder of Crows, a Convocation of Eagles, a Deceit of Lapwings, a Ballet of Swans, a Siege of Cranes, a Conspiracy of Ravens, a Company of Parrots, a Murmuration of Starlings and a Flamboyance of Flamingos!

And what about our four-legged friends? Here are some quirky ones!

When Noah invited representatives of all animals onto his Ark, he had to select a pair each from: An Ambush of Tigers, an Array of Hedgehogs, a Bloat of Hippos, a Crash of Rhinos, a Rumpus of Baboons, a Shrewdness of Apes, a Singular of Boar, a Skulk of Foxes, a Sleuth of Bears and a Mob of Kangaroos!

Not to mention the hoppers and slitherers from a Colony of Frogs, a Knot of Toads, a Quiver of Cobras, a Bask of Crocodiles, and even a Culture of Bacteria!

These are only a small taste of the numerous terms used to describe groups of different kinds, the history of which can be traced back to the Middle Ages in England. The earliest known collection of terms of collective nouns or ‘venery’ (an archaic term for ‘hunting’) is in the Book of Saint Albans, a kind of handbook for hunters first published in 1486. Included among chapters was a list of the Compaynys of Beestys and Fowlys, where many of the common terms of venery made their first appearances including pride of lions, flock of sheep and herd of deer.

While serious scientists may not be amused at the attribution of human traits to describe the animal world, for the language lovers, discovering new terms can be great fun.

Even more fun is trying to coin one’s own terms! Here are some that I thought of: A Cacophony of Koels, a Preening of Peacocks, a Menace of Mosquitoes, and a Buzzload of Bumblebees!




Travel PANIC…..

I regret planning a holiday before I leave. And once I am ‘there’ I don’t want to think of home!

So here is a list of things I panic about:

  1. Packing: Have I enough clothes? Have I too many clothes? Have I the right clothes? How do I fit in the walking shoes and the formal shoes and the chappals? Is it going to rain? Do I need an umbrella? Is it going to be cold? Do I have enough woollies? Do I really need them? What medicines should I take? Did I pack my chargers? Am I going to read two books or three? Are the books too heavy?EB301699-D567-4B7B-A138-124C3458A90C
  2. Money: Do I have enough? Do I need all these credit cards? Have I got them safe yet handy? Am I going to lose my money? Are my cards going to get pinched? What is the exchange rate? Shall I change money at the airport or the city? What if I don’t change at the airport and don’t find an exchange easily? Am I going to get gypped?
  3. Documents: Did I put in all the papers I need? Do I have all the hotel contacts, the visa documents, the whatever, the whatever? Have I got copies of all of them? What if I lose them?
  4. Connectivity: Will my phone work? Are the charges going to kill me? Will I be able to regularly access email?

And of course..

  1. Work: Did I forget to do something important? Is what I sent the Boss OK, or is he/she going to want some changes? If so, how will it get done? Is there going to be a crisis just in this one week? Are the skies going to fall?
  2. Home: What about thieves and burglars and break-ins? Do all those wicked people know I am away? Are they watching for a chance? Are they planning for a break-in?

And the most predominant one in my life currently…

  1. Older people: Is my mother going to be OK when I am away? Even if she doesn’t fall ill, is she going to panic herself sick because I am away? What if the doctor doesn’t respond promptly? Does she have all her medicines? Does she have all contact numbers??

But the learning for life, which I have to remind myself about before every trip…..

Crises do break out, but they get managed somehow.

Wallets do get whacked, but there is not much one can do.

We do over-pack and under-pack, but never learn to do better next time.

And we do live to travel another day.

So no point worrying, just go!


Yes, you got it right. Just got back from a holiday!

Women in War

Every year in the run up to India’s Independence Day we are reminded of the events and people who played a significant role in taking India to freedom from the rule of the British Raj. We remember our history lessons about how women played an active role in the movement to boycott British goods and pave the way for Swadeshi.

In the past month, quite by chance I read four books which described what England and women in England were going through during almost the same period—the first half of the 1940s. It was something that perhaps most of us are not so familiar with, and made me want to know more.

In the 1930s, social roles were clearly defined in English society. A woman’s place was in the home, a man’s place was out at work. It was acceptable for women to work outside the home if they had no family to look after, but they were paid less than men were — even when doing the same jobs, and most would have expected to leave as soon as they married, or when they had their first child.

With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, and in the following years, men in England joined up for military service and there was a big vacuum in the labour force in essential services. This was filled by women. Unmarried women between 20 and 30 were called up to join a variety of services from working in factories manufacturing armaments, to those on the fringes of the war front. Among these was the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) that recruited female volunteers for driving, clerical and general duties including anti-aircraft searchlights. The Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) that maintained ships of the Royal Navy and were involved in some of the most secret planning for D-Day. The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) that was used for maintaining and flying barrage balloons, and the London Auxiliary Ambulance Service which was on duty through the German bombing “blitzkrieg” (lightning war) of 1940-1941.

Many of these were dangerous jobs, which carried the very real risk of death or serious injury and many at first thought that the jobs were not only unsuitable for women but that they did not possess the physical strength needed to carry out the tasks which were being asked of them. This was to be proven wrong time and again. And there are many tales that tell of heroic feats of these women.

The books tell stories from the point of view of ordinary women who had never stepped out of their home, and how their new roles were the leveller of the very-English class distinctions. Working class girls who worked as domestic help in mansions, now worked shoulder-to-shoulder with genteel middle class girls as ambulance drivers and munition factory workers. Ladies with large estates took in evacuees from all backgrounds, and turned their manicured gardens into food-growing plots, while lawns were dug up to make Anderson shelters in which to stay during air raids. Timid girls from villages who were skilled in living frugally were appointed by the Food Ministry as Home Front Economists and Kitchen Economists to give talks and demonstrations to women’s groups on how to conserve food rations and fuel.

Cargo ships carrying vital supplies imported from the colonies were being bombed on high seas. It was a time of shortages, rationing, hoarding, and black-marketing, it was also a time for austerity—managing with less. There were coupons for food, for petrol, and clothes. Fashion was dictated not by French designers but by the Board of Trade; hemlines were decreed to be shorter to save cloth, and there were a limited number of basic, no-extra-frills styles, with Utility Labels which could be bought using coupons. Various schemes gave advice on recycling or making clothes last longer, two of these were the Make Do and Mend, and Sew and Save, schemes for which women were called upon to share ideas and experiences.

The stories tell of lasting friendships in a fragile time… Knitting together while waiting for an emergency call out; driving through darkness of curfew and blackout, through rubble of collapsed buildings, pulling out people from the debris, bonding by the uncertainty that they never knew if they would come back after a call; sharing picket duty during the hours of darkness to stop anyone from pilfering petrol.

The stories also reveal how the new roles raised the self-esteem of the women by allowing them to become an integral part of the overall war effort in every way. Gone were the housewives of the 1920’s and 30’s and in their place were an army of skilled and resilient workers, farmers, builders, and defenders—women with gumption and spirit. Women whose tales need to be shared.

Coincidentally, one of the last living female pilots of World War 2, Mary Ellis died on 24 July this year at the age of 101. She was a pilot of the Air Transport Auxiliary service, and delivered Spitfires and bombers to the front line during the war. Having flown about 1000 planes during her service, she once again flew a Spitfire for 15 minutes at the age of 100! Way to go!



The Train Reached the Station….

And all I could see was fire and smoke! Everything outside seemed to be burning. I could hear cries of ‘Allah ho akbar’ and ‘Hey Ram’. There was not a soul on the platform. We and the other newly married couple from our bogey got down. We didn’t know what to do—we just stood there for a few minutes, with all our luggage. I was holding the ‘chumbu’ that had not fitted into any trunk. My veena, wrapped in old sarees, lay at my feet.  I had no clue what was going on. My husband looked worried, but I did not know what he was worried about. We had thought that athimber (my husband’s sister’s husband) would come to the station to take us home. We had heard that there was some trouble in Delhi, and thought that surely he would have arranged for transport. But there was no one there.

Then a porter appeared. He came to my husband and they started speaking in Hindi. I could only understand a few words of Hindi at that time, so I don’t know what they said.

After a lot of discussion, the porter hurried away and returned with a cart of some kind. We loaded all our luggage onto this. But the veena would not fit in—the neck stuck out. So my husband picked it up. I was still carrying the chumbu.

My husband only said ‘Walk fast. Don’t make a noise’.

I could not understand where we were going. We got down from the sloping end of the platform and crossed some tracks and kept walking along the tracks. They were going so fast, I was finding it difficult. I was hungry—the GT was supposed to have reached at 5 o’clock in the morning, but it had reached at 5 o’clock in the evening.

As we walked along, there were houses on the sides. They all looked the same. It was some colony. We saw not a soul on the way. I could not make out whether anyone lived in the colony or they were all empty houses.

It was difficult to manage all the luggage in the cart as we walked over the uneven ground. There were trunks with clothes. Two holdalls. My mother had tied up vessels and kitchen items in old sarees. Then there were tins with different types of sweets and savories. My father had bought a blue glass jar from his lab supplier because I loved them. My mother had filled it with mixture ordered from the hostel. She told me I could use the bottle later to store something in the kitchen. Suddenly the blue jar fell down and broke. Tears came to my eyes, but I did not dare cry. We just kept walking on.

After about half an hour of walking, the porter stopped the cart near one of the houses. He went to the door and knocked softly. Someone looked out of the window. On seeing the porter, he came to the door and opened it slightly. He was dressed like a watchman.

They whispered to each other. Then the porter signaled to us to take the luggage into the house. The house was full of piles of luggage.  The watchman shifted a few pieces here and there and made some space for our luggage. We brought in the pieces one by one and put them there.

I asked my husband in Tamil: ‘Are we going to leave the luggage here? All the silver vessels are here. How can we leave them?’ My heart was sinking. My mother had bought two large oval plates and two tumblers specially for my coming to my husband’s house for the first time.

He just hissed at me to keep quiet. He took the porter and watchman to a corner, said something to them and gave them lot of money. We walked out.  The veena was in my husband’s hands—it was too big and odd shaped—we could not put it in the room. And for some reason, I was still carrying the chumbu.

When we had walked a few minutes, I saw a huge railway water spout gushing water. I ran to it. Only when I started drinking did I realize how hungry and thirsty I was. I drank and drank. Then we walked on. We had now left behind the colony and were in the city. My husband told me there was a curfew on but it was relaxed for an hour and so we had to hurry and reach home. But I didn’t know what a curfew was.  We walked quietly along the side of the lanes.

And then the horror! A man came running from one direction. There was another man chasing him. He caught up with him, and in front of our eyes, he drove a knife into the first man. Blood spurted out. I was going to scream, but my husband clamped his hand on my mouth. The killer pulled the body and threw it into the gutter on the side of the road and ran away. He had not noticed us.

I asked my husband why that man had killed the other one, what was happening? But he just gestured to me to keep quiet and walked on.

By the time we reached home, it was dark. It was not our house, my husband told me. ‘This is Tagore Road. My sister’s house. Our house is in Lodhi Road—too far away.’

We went in. Our brother-in-law was there and 2 other families who were sheltering there because their own areas were not safe. My sister-in-law and mother-in-law had gone to our house in Lodhi Road to get the house ready for us, but had got stuck there.

The ladies welcomed us and did aarti. One of them said ‘Are you hungry? There is some arisi upma we made in the morning. You can have that’. Never had food tasted so good. But there was not much. Even as we were eating this, the ladies started cooking dinner. There was a murungakka tree in the garden. So they made murungakka sambhar and rice. This was the menu for the next three days, both for lunch and for dinner.

In the night, all the ladies slept in one room. We each would keep a cloth with red chili powder in it, and a heavy stone (ammi) or something like that next to our pillows. The ladies told me that if anyone should come into the house, I should throw the chili powder in their eyes. The men would go out in groups and do rounds of the colony. They had piled up stones and reapers across the lane entrance.

I was fifteen years old at that time. The year was 1947.


This is the true story of the day my athai (father’s sister) landed in Delhi as a new bride, in the midst of the Partition.

A Life Too Short: A Tribute to Dr. Vikram Sarabhai

Today all of us as Indians, and the whole world in fact, see India as a technological power, a force to reckon with. It is easy for us to be confident of ourselves, our technical prowess, and our growing economic power. But in the ‘40s and ‘50s? We were a fledgling nation, and even food security was an issue. Many around the world wondered whether we would survive as a country, as a democracy. And at such a time, there were some people who had the daring, the vision and the confidence, to dream of being a country that would make a difference. One of them was Vikram Sarabhai.

‘Vikram Sarabhai—A Life’ by Amrita Shah tells this story well. It is a book which made me feel proud as an Indian; which said individuals can make a huge difference; which revealed glimpses of what it takes to build institutions of excellence; and which, most importantly said that it is possible to be a wonderful, warm, caring and very human person, and a high-achiever at the same time.

We look around us today—India is launching rockets for developed countries, it is accepted as a nuclear power, it is on the forefront of the IT revolution. But how did we get here? This book gives us some insights. I think this is an important role that a biography plays—being able to connect the present with the historical context, through the achievements and the legacy of one person.

And the book gives us glimpses of other very extraordinary individuals who played a part in Vikram’s life. The book helps one understand the impact that Ambalal Sarabhai or Kasturbhai Lalbhai or Bhabha had on Sarabhai’s work. But though we catch glimpses of the next generation–Dr Kalam, Mr Seshan, Kiran Karnik or Madhavan Nair—we don’t get an insight into how they, as people and professionals, were impacted by Sarabhai. But that’s probably another book!

The book chronicles well the span and breadth of Sarabhai’s achievements—from pure research to scientific administration; from running a pharmaceutical concern to laying the foundation for management education as we know it today; from market research to bringing in scientific approaches to looking at industrial operations; from space to atomic energy.  But what it does even better is to reveal that he set out on each of these diversified ventures with a clarity of purpose and a remarkably unified approach to seemingly very different issues. Sarabhai knew what he was doing. He was not a vain man, but definitely he had no doubts about his ability to take on the most impossible-seeming jobs—even when older and wiser heads thought otherwise. His charm and charisma, which probably helped him overcome many an obstacle, come through. But what also comes through is that his relationship with people was based on a real sense of caring. He did not set out to charm people for what he could get out of them, but probably ended up charming because he was a warm, caring and joyous person who believed in people and respected them.

Vikram the father, Vikram the husband, Vikram the boss, Vikram the son, Vikram the scientist, Vikram the manager—they are all there. Maybe not in depth but definitely outlined evocatively enough to give one a flavour of the person in his multiple roles.

The book is remarkably non-judgmental and matter-of-fact. Though Ms. Shah says that Vikram Sarabhai was a childhood hero and that is why she set about writing his biography, she seems to have been able to resist the temptation to fuzz not-so-pleasant realities. Whether it is his marriage, or his inability to really assert himself and take a firm stand vis a vis individuals in the Department of Atomic Energy, it is told like it was.

I would like to thank Amrita Shah for this biography. We cannot afford to forget our heroes—and Vikram Sarabhai was certainly one of them.


Vikram Sarabhai, A Life by Amrita Shah was published in 2007. It is reviewed today to commemorate Dr. Sarabhai’s birthday which falls on 12 August.

The Millennial Matriarchs both count Ahmedabad as home and have worked in institutions which were part of Vikrambhai’s dream. I had the additional good fortune of living on the campus of IIM Ahmedabad as a faculty-spouse. In a large part, we owe what we are to him, albeit indirectly.

Inside Outside

Through the glass, curiously


Little bird looking in

What do you see?

Strange giants pacing within.

Trapped in a cage of steel, stone and wood

In an existence that your kind has not understood.

Harried human looking out

What do I see?

A fledgeling just sprouting wings

To soar wide and free with a song to sing

Of the air and light, the trees and the sky.

Grow strong little one, spread your wings and fly

And I will wait for you to sometime come by.