I am convinced that I catch the flu at the wrong times. I can recall half a dozen instances of missing stardom by a whisker because I had the lousy virus. One such instance was when British science journalist and now author of ‘Geek Nation’ Angela Saini came calling. I lost the chance of figuring in her wonderfully written book on the state of Indian geekiness, thanks to a bad bout of flu.
I finished reading Saini’s book recently. Here’s my review of the book, written on invitation from a New Delhi-based magazine, and reproduced below:
Dispatches from Geekland
Knowledge is good, science is better. stealing this quote from Angela Saini’s book Geek Nation looked like the best way to talk about its essence. The book is an enviable slice of science tourism, a wide-angled examination of some pockets of Indian science. Its chatty demeanour and novel observations (that only a foreign eye can pick up) make the book a knowledge-enhancing exercise. As for serious scientific analysis of the state of Indian science, this is not the tome you are looking for.
And that is all right, one should guess. For, it never claimed to tear apart the scientific fabric of this country under a microscope to churn out dry statistics such as the number of publications or patents, top-ranking institutions or the rate of reverse brain drain. Thankfully, it did not. Or else the book would be just another heavy compendium on where Indian science is headed and risk being relegated to the ‘reports’ section of most libraries.
Saini’s book is what every science journalist in this country has secretly wished to live at one point of time or the other. Hopping in and out of flights, taxis and buses, Saini has merrily stolen the plot from under their noses, and how! The book is replete with the refreshing phenomenon of the ‘fresh eye’. You tend to ignore mosquitoes, ill-equipped labs, tea spilt on your sandal in a crowded conference venue, bumpy rides in the suburbs or the constant mingling of religion and science if you live in India. If you do not, your eye picks them up as abnormal. The narrative points a finger at many such things that a non-resident Indian finds irritating or amusing, with ample reason, and a resident frustratingly learns to live with.
Saini’s busy shuttling across the length and breadth of India — voice recorder in hand — has yielded a hydra-headed inspection of what is cooking in laboratories and geeky workstations. She tries digging deep into this seemingly impossible phenomenon — how is it that despite all the constraints, India has managed to breed and nurture the most happening scientific community of the world.
Geeks, geeks everywhere, not one geeky enough: is Saini’s observation of the nuttiness quotient of Indian scientists. She encounters random disappointments in her journey — the IITs are not fun; most Indian labs are ill-equipped and do not nurture crazy ideas; there is no attempt at separating science from pseudoscience; Indian IT nerds are over hyped — in reality they are all assembly line soldiers, just like their friends in the pharmaceutical industry. And then she finds bursts of excellence in the country’s space programme and in innovative biotechnology research studies.
The endearing part of Saini’s narrative is the research. The journalistic effort to get to the bottom of things shows in details — from the Bakhshali birch inscription to the Vaimanika Shastra, an early 20th century Sanskrit text on aeronautics, which she analyses to get an insight into the history of Indian science. It shows in the hop-skip-jump tours that take her to a wide range of places — a TB research centre, a nuclear reactor site, the suburban home of an academic topper, the headquarters of an IT company, a geek township in the wilderness and a missile launch site.
The book itself is different from the more incisive texts that have attempted to answer similar questions. It delves on a serious theme — how Indian science is taking over the world — but does not really bother too much about the whys or whos or whats. This is the beauty of its random observation. It tries to weave a method into this madness.
Saini has the potential of becoming the Xuanzang of Indian science — picking up bits and pieces from a slice of history when India’s science is truly coming out of its cocoon to take wings. She turns these anecdotes into a highly readable travelogue. The book will have its place in history as one that recognised the trends of the time and scribbled interesting notes on the margins.