Transcript of the talk:
This whole episode began when some students from NIT Trichy, a technical university in southern India, invited me to speak at their festival, called “Pragyan”. I cleared the time in my oh-so-busy schedule and agreed. Then they asked if I minded going to a few other places too, and they could share the cost with other universities. I thought this sounded sensible, so in the end I was lined up to speak at three places: “Footprints” at MSU Baroda, “Tryst” at IIT Delhi, and “Pragyan” at NIT Trichy.
My flight left in the afternoon. The usual litany of complaints apply: My Lyft driver was scary. Check in took forever. Security was even more slow and pointless. The gate lounge was overlit, noisy, and crowded. The flight was delayed an hour. Eventually I found my seat, which was a window on the left side. As I had hoped, as we flew over northern Canada I was able to watch the aurora out the window for about 20 minutes. Unfortunately my phone camera wasn’t able to capture it, even with fully manual control. The light on the plane wing got in the way, but it was still pretty cool. The only other time I saw the aurora was flying back from India on my last trip. Any flight in the northern hemisphere that will result in terrible jetlag, is conducted during the northern winter, and leaves at the right time of day will fly over the pole in darkness, which is a pretty good opportunity to look for the pale green washes of light.
The sun rose as we cruised past Iceland. We flew over the Shetland Islands and I saw a bunch of oil platforms in the North Sea, the coast of Norway, the edge of Denmark, and a bunch of gigantic windmills. In the haze of exhaustion, dehydration, and tiny seat compression I had a remarkably clear vision of how I could adapt the Australian parenting philosophy to my own questionable life choices. “First, we’ll go to Australia to play with gigantic poisonous snakes. After, we’ll decompress by hitchhiking to Siberian gulag.” We flew over Turkey, and Iraq, where I saw the Tigris river. There’s something special about the northwest corner of the Indian Ocean and early civilization.
Two days later we landed in Abu Dhabi, where my fully loaded long haul 777 flight on Etihad, the state flagship carrier, was forced to unload down a single mobile staircase. I had about 90 minutes to clear security and immigration for transit, and as usual it was complete bedlam. Of course the departing flight was sneakily delayed, so I did make it. The seat next to mine was filled by a very broad shouldered man who snoozed and leaned over, bracing me securely against the bulkhead, where I was able to doze.
In Delhi airport there was, of course, no signage anywhere in the gigantic terminal, but eventually I found a corridor next to another corridor with 6 different kinds of unlabeled immigration lines, handed my passport over, and had arrived. Delhi is a bit of a tough city to visit – though it is improving. I wasn’t overwhelmed by the heat, pollution (which stings your eyes before the plane even lands), supposed scams, terrible traffic (still better than LA), but by a general feeling of institutionalized bureaucracy, which seems to affect every capital city I’ve ever visited. Delhi is just on another level in terms of scale.
Fortunately in Delhi I was met by a couple of the IIT students at the airport and transported to the connecting terminal for my next flight. It was about 5 miles away and had no formal connection system, just a sea of taxis. The security line had a bag X-ray, gender segregated metal detectors, and a frisking system. In practice this meant giant piles of baggage blocking the whole thing up due to multiple interlocking deadlocks. But what’s the rush? I eventually found my flight, boarded, and had been traveling for just over 24 hours. The last flight to Vadodara was mercifully short, as the plane was full of mosquitoes and my repellent wasn’t accessible. Let’s just say I was ready to be out of planes!
Fortunately the plane landed and let me out, and the trip got dramatically better. I was met by three local students who took me to the hotel, where I was in my room by 8am. I thought the students might be tired by their early start, but they were so excited in the lead up to their festival that they, and about a hundred other student organizers, hadn’t slept much for days. I took an incredible shower, changed my shirt, then attacked the buffet breakfast in the hotel dining room. By 10am I had met A, a student assigned to look after me. I like to walk around a bit in blinding sunlight to help the jet lag set in, so we walked to the engineering school, sussed out the schedule, and said hi to everyone. The level of preparation for the opening the following day was at fever pitch.
That afternoon we walked to Laxmi’s palace, the closest monumental palace open to the public. It was built by the Maharaja in the late 1800s, has more than 500 rooms, and all the latest technology, including elevators, lighting, electricity, air conditioning, and a gigantic golf course. The armory, containing about a million exquisite Indian steel swords, was a particular highlight.
I had plans to go to dinner in the evening, but I was mostly insensible by about 4:30pm, then slept in until 6am the following day. I took the opportunity to write a few words for a new book, then got dressed and headed to the festival opening ceremony. There I met another speaker, the neuroscientist Dr Vaughn, the various deans, and the university Chancellor, Shubhangini Raje Gaekwad, who lives in the palace I visited the previous day. I spent most of the rest of the day taking photos, signing things, talking to people, visiting various booths, checking out fighting robots, and watching the talks by Dr Vaughn and also Vineet Mehta, Tesla’s power train specialist.
The following day, I woke up early, practiced my talk, then traveled to the venue, a large auditorium in part of the local hospital complex. I was a bit nervous, but I got to the end with plenty of time for questions. The floor microphone failed, so I jumped down and ran my microphone to various people asking questions, which was a lot of fun! I felt like a TV reporter. After the talk, I bailed to the green room, changed into cooler clothes, and went to a sponsoring restaurant for lunch with everyone, which was amazingly good dahl and roti.
Back at the school, I checked out the robot fighting arena. A raised platform with a mesh screen to catch larger bits of shrapnel, the robots were sometimes direct DC drive remote controlled via thick cables. D:
My hosts asked if I would like to rest. I insisted I was fine, but they found an empty room, carried in a couch, and politely insisted that I take it easy. I guess a lot of their guest speakers are more distinguished people from colder climates who drop like flies in the early afternoon? I probably should have napped, but instead just read for a while, then took a car to the airport, performed the now familiar security contortions (don’t put your boarding pass in the scanner) and waited for the flight. Back in Delhi, the students found me again, drove me to the IIT Delhi guest house, where I failed to operate the hot water heater, washed some clothes, and passed out.
The following morning I was woken by the strains of a brass band at 5am, so I took the opportunity to wander around the university incognito and try to get some context and detail for my talk later that day. I saw many peacocks, including some that were flying, which was pretty amazing. Also prominent at all the universities were multilingual signs explaining the zero tolerance ragging/hazing and sexual harassment policies – an encouraging sign!
I found the lecture hall and, the talks being sequential on a tight schedule, showed up in plenty of time. For some reason, the students ushered me to some separate room so by the time we got mic’d up and started it was 20 minutes late. So I cut the more depressing parts of my talk and then bailed out for lunch. I considered running away to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, but instead wandered around talking to some students, then decided to call an Uber and get out of dodge. I traveled to the nearby Qutub Minar, an 800 year old semi-ruined mosque. Particular highlights include the 72m tall minaret and the Iron Pillar of Delhi, a 7m tall iron post that is thousands of years old and rust free. It was pretty amazing. At the entrance, though, were two separate lines. A very busy line for Indians, and a short line for foreign tourists, who pay about 20 times as much to get in. It reminded me a bit of Cuba, which has separate currency for locals that is intended to provide cheaper goods and services for tax-paying locals, but in practice renders foreign money irresistible.
I found my way to the nearest metro station, then zoomed on the modern, efficient metro to Central Secretariat, in the middle of New Delhi. Here, I walked through a local park to the India Gate, and then up the road to Connaught Place, a very intense shopping district. All too soon it was time to return to the university by metro, grab dinner, and put my feet up. I walked about 17km that day, and I felt it. I think I must be getting soft.
The following day, I went into the festival again and saw Robert Metcalfe’s talk. He invented ethernet, the lowest level of the tech stack that powers the internet. After lunch, we teamed up and traveled into town to visit the American Center, where UT Austin and the US State Department have teamed up to build Nexus, a startup hub that’s focused on training various incubators to help bootstrap the local ecosystem. Apparently there are about 400 incubators in Delhi! The local contractor had lived all over the world and had some amazing stories.
We considered heading to the Red Fort in Old Delhi, but cut our losses and instead took an autorickshaw to the Lodhi Gardens, a landscaped park around 4 ancient tombs dating back to about 1500. Delhi is the site about about 11 ancient cities, many of which were partially or totally destroyed, built over, and left a variety of ruins, monuments, and other stuff. I found it fascinating how urban planners drew lines around the densest collections of monuments, which are now tourist sites. And, in the surrounding areas, unrestored tombs of often forgotten people lurk in people’s backyards. Somewhat like Athens, one can’t take a photo or turn a clod of Earth without hitting some aspect of 4000 years of history.
That evening, Robert and I were pretty wiped, but wanted to have dinner with the Tryst organizers. For some reason, finding a restaurant that wasn’t an hour’s drive away was impossible, so we piled into the guest house dining room, had a quick chat, then beat a hasty retreat. By now I had applied my decades of catastrophic over education and activated the hot water system, so had a decent shower before going to sleep.
My flight left in the mid afternoon of the following day. Robert took off for the Taj Mahal, but I packed up then took a car to Humayun’s Tomb, built a couple of generations earlier and, in some sense, a prototype. The wild traffic sharpened slightly as my car clipped a motorbike! For a place where accidents are reasonably common, few riders wear helmets. Accidents are much less common than you would think, though. It’s not unusual to see trucks, autorickshaws, cars, bikes, pedestrians, dogs, cows, and even amputees on wheeled skateboards all sharing the same highway.
I arrived about an hour before the tour busses and hordes of people all trying to take exactly the same photo. The complex has a large Persian style garden, about 10 tombs in varying states of repair, and a never ending scheme of conservation and restoration. It must be difficult to do, since the original construction was never documented and even obfuscated. The centerpiece is the tomb of Humayun, which looks similar to the Taj Mahal, but made of red sandstone rather than marble, and was monumental in every sense of the word.
I headed back to the guest house, ate some lunch, then headed to the airport. There were two connecting flights to get to Trichy, with a layover in Chennai. As usual, the layover involved buses, passing back through security, navigating the airport without signs, and a boarding zone order of 1, 4, 3, then 2. All I’m asking for is door-to-door super hypersonic suborbital transportation. I don’t see what’s so hard about it.
I got a nasty headache on the flight, but fortunately was well met at the airport and taken to a very nice hotel in Tiruchirappalli, where I dosed up on Malarone and Tylenol, then had an incredible mushroom dish called “kulcha” and bread. I washed some clothes again and had precisely zero difficulty falling asleep.
The next morning my gracious hosts apologized and asked if I would wear long pants, since we were going to visit some local temples. The first one was Ranganathaswamy Temple in Srirangam, an ancient temple to Vishnu on an island near Tiruchirappalli. We cloaked our shoes and then walked in through the first of seven concentric gates and walls around the central deity. The complex contains about 20 towers, was mostly built about a thousand years ago, and has several cloisters and halls with thousands of monumental exquisitely carved granite columns. The tallest tower, completed in 1987 after 400 years of intermittent progress, is 73m tall. The gate beneath, which is part of the original structure, is so tall it has powerlines routed through it.
Following this we visited a butterfly park and an ancient water control feature, used to supply irrigation, before overheating and getting some lunch in the hotel. That afternoon, a different pair of students appeared to take me to the Rockfort temple, right in the middle of the city. This is actually a set of temples built around and inside a monolithic granite hill, with over 300 (mercifully shaded) carved stairs to get to the top. There was a great view over the surrounding area from the top, with a decent breeze and many brightly colored buildings. Once back at street level we went to a few different shops, full of all sorts of things I couldn’t fit in my bag! That evening I once again skipped dinner to sleep, and did not regret it.
The following day I caught up with Robert Metcalfe at breakfast, then drove to Brihadisvara Temple, another famous, ancient temple (among hundreds!) in the area. This one is devoted primarily to Shiva, and is most famous for its giant gopuram, or tower, with an 80T monolithic globe on the 60m tall peak. Noone is quite sure how it was built, but it is believed the entire complex was completed in only seven years. The structure was built without arches, and I’m really impressed by how the lintels were built without (mostly) cracking. It manages to be both enormous without being overly oppressive. One other detail which stuck in my mind was that in Hindu temples, most deities are also depicted with their “mount” nearby. Shiva’s mount is a bull, so there’s an adjacent shrine containing a very large carved bull. Like the Lascaux paintings, this animal depiction is stylized and contains a compelling animal character, almost like movement. I generally don’t buy arguments that ancients knew more technical information than we do – in particular claims that modern engineering couldn’t reproduce, say, the pyramids are quite silly – but I am always impressed by the artistic finesse of ancient art right back to the earliest known examples.
That afternoon, we drove to the main campus to look around, look for animals, meet people, check out the robot construction lab, and attend the opening ceremony. The highlight of the inauguration, for me, was a terrific talk by Dr BN Suresh, former director of ISRO’s Vikram Sarabhai Space Center, who spoke about the Indian space program. I was also amused by someone videoing the ceremony from a drone, flying inside the auditorium. Back at the hotel I prepacked by bag, practiced the talk, and fell asleep again.
The next day was already my last day in India. I had two breakfasts to smooth a logistical issue, then traveled to NIT Trichy. I was dressed, shaved, combed, and I had a busy schedule of talking to student journalists, a couple of classes of mostly mechanical engineering students (I learned a lot!) and then gave the talk in an capacity lecture hall. After the talk I took a lot of questions, took the obligatory photos (selfie production line), received some lovely gifts, and then returned to the hotel to eat, shower, and pack.
All too soon I was stepping off India back into a plane for the first of four flights, over 36 hours, back to the USA. Once again, my grumpiness was well induced. I had lactose free cheese sandwiches. I had gate lounges with inscrutable whistling covers of insipid Andrew Lloyd Webber. I had bad air quality. I had numerous frustrating interactions with unhelpful uniformed bureaucratic loafers. I spent many, many hours in various lines waiting for nothing to happen. I went through layers of security to access elevators that went nowhere.
And, as usual, I somehow ended up seated in a section of crazy people on the long haul flight. There was the guy playing games on full volume on his phone, and then setting alarms that would go off throughout the night, waking everyone except him. There was the usual croaking chorus of tubercular coughing types. There were the chronically uncoordinated who insisted on shaking every chair as they staggered endlessly up and down the aisles, when they didn’t grab a handful of hair by accident. There were the trash hoarders who somehow filled the underseat space with a mixture of half crushed water bottles, used wet wipes, unlabeled medicinal herb containers, and sputum. But the piece-de-resistance was undoubtedly the domino of people in my row who, as soon as I got up to go the toilet, immediately annexed my seat and fell into an unrousable horizontal sleep. And, when they got up, the next one in line annexed all three seats, same deal. I ended up standing by the exit door for about 5 hours, reading and looking out the window for polar bears.
One person sitting next to me, after trying to treat their randomly targeted endless coughing and strategic sleep-destroying poking with some inscrutable mix of tea leaves, which mostly ended up on me, asked about an hour into the flight “Are we nearly there?” On arrival, 16 hours later, they asked if I would call their spouse to let them know we’d landed, but it transpired they didn’t know their phone number. They always find me! How do they find me?
The plane came down into LA, miraculously smog-less after a week of rain, I headed for the exit, and miracle of miracles one of the eight security screens (“Please remove your cash, shirt, belt, laptop, shoes, loose change, pancreas, IN THAT ORDER”) in Abu Dhabi was pre-immigration, so they let us right out into the airport. I was home after only 40 minutes of terrifying driving.
India! What an amazing place! I feel like I could spend a lifetime in a single state and still not scratch the surface.