Geetanjali Shree | Gita Gopinath | Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Shashi Tharoor | Swapan Dasgupta | Brahma Chellaney | Ram Madhav | Shyam Saran | Abhijit Banerjee | Nikhil Srivastava | Ajay Sood | Jaggi Vasudev | Mukesh Ambani | Gautam Adani | N Chandrasekaran | Falguni Nayar | Tridip Suhrud | Sourav Ganguly | Vikram Sampath
Open | 24 Jun, 2022
Now that the virus has tempered down and the idea of lockdowns dwindles farther and farther away into the horizon, human beings, in the absence of that common foe who unites them, can return to the primacy of self-interest and the ordinary routine of conflict and compromise. There is really no surprise in Russia invading Ukraine when it did, at the fag end of the pandemic. Or closer home, the streets again turning into an arena of aggressive democracy. The touted new normal, as it turns out, is becoming more and more like the old normal.
And we negotiate it in the only way possible, by relentless engagement and active debate in the public square. Words will get ugly but if it prevents the descension to chaos and violence, it is still a worthwhile enterprise. It is the role of intellectuals, a nebulous but essential category of any society, to lay out the map on this. If the threat from a neighbouring country has devolved into incursions and invasions, then it is a failure of pre-emption because the right voices weren’t magnified enough. Or, if it is economic collapse of the sort neighbouring countries have witnessed, then it is the result of wisdom heeded that abjured reckless spending of one’s way out of trouble.
The world, and India, may have come out of one crisis but the future continues to be testing. There is nothing that is not linked now and as uncontrolled inflation, after being subjugated for a long time, threatens to raise its hydra head, no one is escaping. The percentages being seen now could very well be the beginning and, like Covid, there seems to be nothing that any government is able to do with any great success. It is only a question of how long prices will keep rising and what the many consequences will be. People don’t take kindly to getting poorer by virtue of nothing except the march of time. The new world on the anvil will eventually be a more flourishing one, but in the interim there is poison to be swallowed.
No natural law makes the progress of society inevitable. We can only make do with time-tested arsenal—the scientific temper and its incremental journey to truths, the insights of art and literature, the efficiency of economics, the collective will of the global community to avoid mutual destruction, the energy of entrepreneurs, the salve of religion, the moderates of politics, the grooming of institutions, the check of regulations, good laws and able lawkeepers, the magic of technology, and the escape of entertainment. None of these is a given. They must all be nurtured by human beings and they are the ones we celebrate.
Geetanjali Shree, 65, Author: India’s Storyteller
The International Booker Prize for translated fiction is the most prestigious prize for an original work not written in English. Writers who have won it in the past have rightly basked in global recognition. Geetanjali Shree—whose Tomb of Sand, translated by Daisy Rockwell, has won the 2022 prize—has witnessed firsthand how the award has catapulted her book and herself into the bestselling realm. This win is especially important as Tomb of Sand is the first book originally written in any Indian language to win the prize, and the first novel translated from Hindi to be recognised by the Booker.
The prize shines a light on Indian books translated into English, which in the last few years have included some of the finest Indian specimens in literature. With Tomb of Sand, Shree has created a novel that tells of “two women and one death”. It is a big book (not only in size) but also in its themes as it deals with the biggest moment of the subcontinent: Partition. Shree’s fifth novel is a landmark because it succeeds at being light and serious at the same time.
Tomb of Sand is a sweeping work of fiction, told by multiple voices, set around an old, bed-ridden woman who has turned her back on the world but then decides to set out for Pakistan to reckon with her Partition experiences. The novel is as much about daily family dynamics as it is about the pettiness and danger of borders. Replete with wordplay, it is a novel that highlights the plurality of the Indian idiom.
“The International Booker Award is shining a light on Sahitya in different South Asian languages. It is an invitation to readers, publishers, translators the world over to come forward and explore this vibrant but hitherto little-known literature”
Gita Gopinath, 50, First Deputy Managing Director of IMF: The Economics of Ingenuity
Her rise to prominence as an academic and policymaker has been nothing short of meteoric. Earlier this year, she took over as the first deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), three years after she became the first Indian-origin woman to be named its chief economist. None other than former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has praised her as “one of the strongest and most promising students I [have] worked with”. The Kolkata-born 50-year-old has always had a special knack for breaking all proverbial ceilings: Gopinath is the first Indian-origin woman to be appointed full professor at Harvard’s Economics Department. Born to a Malayali couple and raised in Mysore and Delhi before she relocated to the US for higher studies, she stood first in BA Economics (Honours) in Delhi University. She is also an alumnus of the Delhi School of Economics and the University of Washington. She was chief economic advisor to the chief minister of Kerala and had advised the Union finance ministry on G-20 matters. A cricket buff and a fan of Sachin Tendulkar, Gopinath gorges on novels when she is not grappling with global economic problems, especially those by her favourite JK Rowling.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, 55, Public Intellectual: Dissent or Be Damned
S ome years ago at an event at Rashtrapati Bhavan, the then president of India individually met journalists and columnists who had been invited. On meeting Mehta, the president’s eyes lit up and he exclaimed how he always waited for his columns. That is perhaps an opinion shared by both camps: those who look up to the public intellectual and academic and also those who try to denigrate him. He is read, liked and disliked, but never ignored. A former vice chancellor of Ashoka University, Mehta is known to speak his mind and has successfully fought for a space for dissent. He has famously criticised everyone in power, irrespective of political affiliations. When the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was in power, Mehta had stepped down from the National Knowledge Commission in protest. His criticism of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, too, has made him enemies. Mehta has not spared even the apex court. His views are tirelessly debated and his intellectual interventions are seen as critical. Over time, Mehta has become a byword for intellectual honesty.
“Dissent is important, not as a freestanding value, but because it is a means for defending higher values we all cherish: freedom, equality, human dignity, democracy and creative expression. The point of dissent is not merely to oppose, it is to create and preserve the values and norms that should guide our common life. It also taps into the existential romance of living in a society without fear, where we are not mutilated by power and authority”
Shashi Tharoor, 66, Author and MP: The Polymath
Ever since Shashi Tharoor wrote The Great Indian Novel in 1989, he has mesmerised us with his ideas and command of the English language. His oratorical flourish, too, has won him admirers. He is by far the most sought-after speaker at any literary festival or cultural event in India. Tharoor had already made a mark abroad, earning the epithet “global Indian” when he returned to enter politics and contest elections in India in 2009. Prior to that, he was Under-Secretary General of the United Nations and had run for the post of Secretary-General in 2006. Being a politician made no difference to Tharoor’s passion for writing and speaking, and his love of art and literature. Of the 23 books he has penned so far, more than half were written after he had made his political foray. Some of his recent works focus on religion and identity—and argue why a pluralistic society is essential to India’s progress. Born in London, Tharoor, a native of Kerala, is an alumnus of St Stephen’s College and Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University where he had received the Robert B Stewart Prize for best student in 1978. His is arguably the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of a politician who is an intellectual and an intellectual who is a politician.
“In our increasingly oral culture, art and literature permit us to conceive of and express ideas, concepts and images that cannot be captured through speech. Their creativity expands our mental horizons, widens our realm of experience, enhances our understanding of the world and gives greater meaning to our fleeting moments in today’s rushed lives”
Swapan Dasgupta, 66, Commentator: Conservative Poise
A combination of journalist, politician and intellectual, it is difficult to bracket Swapan Dasgupta. Last year, he was on the ground waging an unsuccessful battle for BJP to win West Bengal and, recently, his Rajya Sabha term came to an end. But Dasgupta remains that preeminent voice relentlessly advocating the rightwing conservative position on issues that are at the top of the nation’s priorities. BJP may be politically and culturally dominant but its intellectual heft has always been a question mark because the voice of the fringe is loud. Dasgupta is a departure in making reasoned ideological arguments shorn of stridency and that appeal to the head more than the heart. Although firmly in the rightwing corner, his ideas and positions travel beyond its echo chambers.
Brahma Chellaney, 60, Strategic Affairs Expert: Nation First
H e is known as an unabashed hawk when it comes to India’s national security and he has for long been especially focused on the threat from China. His prescience foresaw the aggression that the Chinese have been displaying on the borders. His line on the Russia-Ukraine war has been against the Western consensus and is critical of how self-serving the US and the European Union have been in their actions. Some of his arguments right at the start are now being vindicated in the Indian position of not kowtowing to the West in its isolation of Russia. Brahma Chellaney predicts that the dent on the rules-based order that the conflict has seen will persist and once again zooms in on China as the main country that will benefit. His ideas will be important for how India negotiates this future.
“No country can prosper or be secure without strategic thinking. In fact, absence of strategic thinking can cost a country its freedom and sovereignty”
Ram Madhav, 57, Author and RSS Leader: The Hindu Perspective
If BJP is firmly in the driving seat, then the direction in which that power must be wielded is underpinned by the Hindutva ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). But Hindutva itself is an ideology in the making and Ram Madhav’s latest book The Hindutva Paradigm does much in the formulation of this definition. After a heady innings in active politics and a quiet return to the embrace of RSS, Madhav is now one of the foremost thinkers of the parivar. His vast experience—in the party, government and RSS— makes him a natural for this role. From internal national security and cultural faultlines to India’s position in a changing world, Madhav places all of these within an overarching political philosophy and in the process refines the idea of Hindutva. Even if not a politician anymore, his take on matters of national importance is keenly heard by everyone who matters.
Shyam Saran, 75, Author and Former Diplomat: Breaking the Chinese Puzzle
H e had a stellar career as a diplomat from 1970 to 2006, the year he retired as foreign secretary, the administrative head of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). Those years also offered Shyam Saran a ringside view of India’s crucial and historical negotiations with the rest of the world, especially China. As a diplomat who has served in Beijing and is well-versed in Mandarin, Saran is considered one of India’s foremost experts on the country’s neighbour and how its leadership—the Communist Party of China—sees the world. His new book, How China Sees India and the World, confirms his position as an authority on Chinese belief systems, perceptions, hype and propaganda. His knowledge of Mandarin, which he had mastered early in his career, gives him an edge. In his book, he busts several myths that the Chinese project as truths, making it a must-read for diplomats not only in India but all over the world. Saran, the former ambassador to countries such as Nepal, Indonesia and Myanmar, had chaired the East Asia Division at MEA that handles relations with China and Japan. A highly decorated diplomat, Saran continues to exert immense influence as a champion of multilateralism and enhanced economic cooperation.
Abhijit Banerjee, 61, Author and Economist: What Is Cooking?
Just as the Nobel laureate in Economic Sciences crunches numbers and launches experiments to free people from poverty traps, Abhijit Banerjee displays similar finesse in the kitchen. If you are lucky enough to have watched him rustle up dishes at his mother’s home in Kolkata, it becomes quickly evident that he has an eye for the minutest detail in cooking, including how not to peel potatoes and exactly how long you must heat oil for the best results. Shortly after he won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, his younger brother had told Open, “Abhijit can dish out any kind of food on the table. Which is why I say he should try winning the MasterChef competition next.” This is one of the reasons Aniruddha loves travelling with his brother since the economist always chooses places to stay where they can also cook. That versatility of Banerjee, who is also a literature aficionado, now has a sort of certification: Cooking to Save Your Life, a book of recipes published late last year. Brilliantly illustrated by Cheyenne Olivier, the book spotlights Banerjee the chef who can cook almost any dish on Earth. More important, as in economics, in cooking, too, he is an incorrigible experimentalist.
“The goal here [in the cook book] is to make delicious food with ease and confidence, to help liberate your inner gourmet cook”
Nikhil Srivastava, 39, Mathematician: The Whiz
Born in New Delhi in 1983, Nikhil Srivastava has had a peripatetic childhood thanks to his diplomat father. He even went to a school where the medium of instruction was Arabic—when his father was posted in Damascus.
Now, he teaches mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley, and has won an award in helping resolve the Kadison-Singer problem, considered a major breakthrough in the world of mathematics. He was awarded the Ciprian Foias Prize in Operator Theory this year by the American Mathematical Society for his original work in solving the famous “paving problem” in operator theory that was formulated in 1959. Srivastava had previously won other awards: the George Polya Prize and the Held prize. An alumnus of Yale and Princeton where he did his PhD and worked as a post-doctorate researcher, respectively, Srivastava has also worked for Microsoft Research both in India and in the US. He has also worked on Ramanujan graphs, another study that would immensely contribute to ground-breaking applications in computer science and other fields.
Ajay Sood, 70, Principal Scientific Advisor to The Government of India: Scientific Temper
The long list of awards he has won for his scientific achievements is a testament to Ajay Sood’s work as a world-class physicist, especially in the areas of graphene and nanotechnology. He has to his credit at least 450 published scientific papers and holds seven patents. His most recent research includes a breakthrough discovery in medical diagnostics. Sood has collaborated with none other than CNR Rao, former director at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), in academic projects. It was at IISc that Sood did his PhD and later taught physics for many years. Now Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India, Gwalior-born Sood had in the early 1970s worked at the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research at Kalpakkam as a scientist long before he joined IISc as a doctoral student and later became a post-doctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. In 2013, he was awarded the Padma Shri for his contribution to science. As the government prepares to frame its fifth Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy (STIP), the draft of which is now public, it is impossible to name another person with greater scientific temperament that the Centre could easily fall back on.
Jaggi Vasudev, 64, Spiritualist: Sage Wisdom
India has a long history of religious figures who capture the public imagination. Jaggi Vasudev is the guru of this moment. Beginning from his ashram in Coimbatore in the far south, he is now a household name across the breadth of India because of sage spiritual wisdom and powerful oratory that appeals to both reason and faith. He is a ubiquitous special guest at high-profile gatherings of Mumbai and Delhi where the biggest personalities of the country avidly hear him. On the other hand, his following among the general public remains vast and growing. He is also unusual in donning goggles and riding motorcycles for social causes. His latest such endeavour is a 100-day bike yatra across 27 countries to save soil. Never one to shy away from commenting on any topic, whether political, cultural or spiritual, his public persona is much more than that of the personal guru.
Tridip Suhrud, 56, Historian and Translator: Exploring Gandhi
H e is a scholar who has read Gandhi—and, as he describes, “incessantly so”—in all the three languages the Mahatma had written books, essays and letters: Gujarati, Hindi and English. Gandhi’s most important attributes that Tridip Suhrud talks about, a subject that is as vast as it is complex, are transparency and experimentalism. Gandhi had experimented tirelessly with his body, food, clothes and more. Between his public and private lives, Gandhi saw no distinction because his life was an open book. Suhrud helps us understand the political consciousness of Gandhi through everything the great man did—and also about Gandhi the traveller who discovered himself and others with undying curiosity. Again, as Gandhi the communicator, poring through the 35,000 letters Gandhi wrote, and also Gandhi the newspaper editor in six languages. Analyses of Gandhi through whatever he has written, spoken and done offer us a deeper understanding of history, human nature and tips for life. Through his various books, Suhrud demystifies these like nobody else does. A multilingual scholar and translator, Suhrud, former director of Sabarmati Ashram and now provost for CEPT University, is an unstoppable thinker who challenges our long-held notions about Gandhi.
“Gandhi has to be read as a thinker and practitioner of ethics, moved by a unique quest for justice, equality, striving to free us from the impulse of violence, while reminding us of the duty to care and be compassionate”
Sourav Ganguly, 49, Cricket Administrator: Transition Manager
A s captain, Sourav Ganguly changed the course of Indian cricket, turning the team into aggressive players hungry for wins, much like his own attitude. As president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), he is now once again manoeuvring a transition from the era of Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri. He has brought in former teammate Rahul Dravid as coach. Rohit Sharma has been made captain. And, just as earlier, when Captain Ganguly mentored a new generation of players, a team of the future is now in the works. A large part of Ganguly’s tenure was during Covid and lockdown, but he navigated Indian cricket through the crisis. Given the record revenue of ₹ 48,000 crore that BCCI garnered from selling Indian Premier League (IPL) media rights, Ganguly’s reign has also been the most commercially lucrative ever.
Vikram Sampath, 42, Historian: Biographer of Icons
He has an eclectic background. He studied engineering, did his masters in business administration and then a doctorate in ethonomusicology. He wrote his first book on the Wodeyars, the dynasty that ruled the Mysore kingdom, followed by biographies of musicians Gauhar Khan and S Balachander. But it was his recent biography of freedom fighter VD Savarkar that catapulted Vikram Sampath into the political consciousness of India. A mammoth project involving two volumes, it instantly became a point of debate given how Savarkar, who founded the Hindu Mahasabha, is viewed by the different ends of India’s political spectrum. Sampath maintained that his is a work of non-partisan scholarship and everything that he says about Savarkar is based on a sound documentary footing.
Wealth of Ideas: Powering India Inc
Mukesh Ambani, 65, Industrialist: The Futurist
He took almost a decade to get Reliance’s telecom venture Jio rolling, but it was only after it got going that the world began to realise the extraordinary scale of his ambition. Jio is now the market leader, but it only signalled the beginning of his vision. News of acquisitions by Mukesh Ambani come like clockwork as he builds an empire of the future. From retail to digital services to solar energy, the footprint becomes ever wider, but to a finely charted plan. Ambani sees competition as not just from Indian peers but big Silicon Valley tech behemoths too, who are all vying for a slice of the consumers of the world. Reliance used to be mainly a refineries business beholden to the oil economy but now it is a business of the future riding on Ambani’s vision. The old business’ steady supply of vast profits is being used to create a complete metamorphosis.
Gautam Adani, 60, Industrialist: Growth Machine
F or a brief moment, Gautam Adani became the richest man in India this year. But even as a runner-up on that list, it is his net worth that had multiplied nearly ten times in the last three years. It signals how incredible the demand has been for his company’s stock among investors. Adani has been on a mind-boggling expansion spree that this year saw the acquisition of the Indian cement assets of Holcim for more than $10 billion, catapulting him to India’s second biggest cement manufacturer. Earlier, he had entered into the airports business, and is now the biggest player there. Solar energy, power, ports, consumer goods are just some of the other sectors his footprint covers. Self-made, Adani is representative of what Indian entrepreneurship can achieve.
N Chandrasekaran, 59, Chairperson, Tata Group: Marathon Man
E ven in an era when shareholders demand fitness from those who run their companies, N Chandrasekaran must be unique in being someone who regularly and easily finishes marathons. He attributes his becoming a sharper business leader to this sport. And if performance is any indication, then all his peers should also be donning running shoes. Chandrasekaran already had a mythical reputation as someone who made Tata Consultancy Services the shining diamond of the Tata Group’s crown, which contributed most of the free cash with which they funded their other ambitions. Since being made chairman of the group in 2017, during a particularly difficult period, he has made the group lean and mean, swinging it into becoming an ecommerce and digital powerhouse, with acquisitions like Big Basket and 1MG. And then there was the buying of Air India, making the Tatas once again a leader in aviation. The group’s valuations have skyrocketed under him, and his great obsession with a superapp that would serve as one direct link of Tata products and services to the consumer is already underway.
Falguni Nayar, 59, Entrepreneur: Wonder Woman
It was a decade ago that Falguni Nayar decided to give up the security of being an investment banker to wade into the turbulent waters of entrepreneurship, where there are few guarantees. But what a journey it has been! When her company FSN E-Commerce Ventures, which owns the beauty e-tailer Nykaa, went public last year, the stock saw a frenzy of buyers, with the market capitalisation crossing ₹ 1 lakh crore at one point. Valuations have since become more reasonable, but Nayar is still a billionaire many times over. Unlike other big e-commerce players that launched IPOs recently, Nykaa is already profitable, something that Nayar was particular about. As the richest self-made woman in India, she is an inspiration for Indian women to not shy away from entrepreneurship.