Maya’s Berkeley

BerkeleyAug.26 057For the unfamiliar, and for those who couldn’t care less about its socio-political legacy/baggage,  Berkeley could be just another town. Its main street, with a string of Indian eateries, saree shops and jewellers,  can as well be in Chennai’s T Nagar or Bangalore’s Commercial Street.  Other ethic groups can, presumably, get a feel of their own home enviorns in parts of Berkeley.  

For its residents,  Berkeley is not so much a town as a lifestyle they came to embrace; a social attitude that is  not always in conformity with residents  in most other towns in the US.  Berkeley residents are mostly diehard democracy activists –  a term that could well refer to people  ‘who literally protest anything and everything, no matter how good something might be for the city and the majority of people’.

BerkeleyAug.26 122Maya Srinivas, a resident not so diehard in upholding the democracy cause,  wouldn’t however want to live anywhere else. That her husband Srinivas is a post-doc. researcher on the campus, makes her a Berkeley ‘insider’.  Maya took us – my wife and me – for a spin around ‘Berserkeley’, a town where, they say, democracy has gone berserk.  Life in berserkvile doesn’t come any cheaper, says Maya,  who pays nearly thrice as much house rent as she did in Denver, for a single-bedroom dwelling.

Telegraph Avenue on Thursday afternoon was bustling with shoppers, pavement sellers, and panhandlers who  flog ‘Street Sheet’, a tabloid of the homeless, holding out a plastic cup to collect small change. Pavement shops are one of the many un-American aspects of Berkeley. Hawking is okay here; and it is, for some,  an excuse to making a living.  According to a old-time resident,  many of them are illegals. I read  a website  comment that held it is the city’s illegals who make Berkeley what it has become –  retarded.

We move on to a more pleasant, and vibrant, sorroundings –  the UC campus. The crush of humanity on Sproul Plaza  reminded my wife of T Nagar’s Ranganathan Street, Chennai. At the start of the academic session Sproul gets crowded with activists who set up stalls to recruit freshers to student bodies with their own social and community agenda upholding causes fancied by self-described intellectuals, progressives,  visionaries, and queers.

BerkeleyAug.26 070An activist group was seen staging a street-play,  featuring detenus in orange overall,  masked and chained,  and volunteers carrying ‘say-no-to-torture’ placards. On way to the library is a massive panel displaying portraits of Berkeley alumni. Those featured were mostly overseas students,  many from India. “Berkeley has taught me the meaning of persistance,” says Sarathi Bhattacharya in his endorsement of the institution where he was able to pursue his studies through privately funded fellowship.

“Berkeley has taught me to listen better,and scream louder,” says Maxime Stinnet. Says another student, “Learned here how to be a big fish in a big pond”. M S Gidda,a yet another student,  says Berkeley was for him ‘a two-year Boot Camp’.BerkeleyAug.26 027The collage of endorsements from a thankful alumni is part of a campaign to raise $3 billion for faculty, students and programmes by June 2013.

Maya took us on a conducted tour of the four-storey library;  and drove us around the university’s recreation complex with a massive gym and swim-pool, so well equipped that Olympic hopefuls get their training there. Our next halt was at the muncipal pier from where you get a hazy glimpse of the San Francisco downtown high-rises,  flanked by the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Maya says the scene around has a contemplative effect on those with much on their minds –  ‘I come here whenever  in a crisis of faith’.  She has been here counless times, says Maya,adding that her daughter Ila  who went through liver transplant at five months of age had spent most of her time in hospital since birth.  The pier is where Maya comes to reflect,  to meditate and introspect – ‘the place reinforces your insignificance’.

We wound up our day-trip of Berkeley with ‘chena kulche’ at Vik’s. The desi joint functioning out of a warehouse is said to be so old and popular that long-time California residents consider Vik’s as  ‘mother of all chaat houses in the Bay Area’.  Maya sure knows her Berkeley.

I have a question – why do  they put so much haldi in chena ?


Thoughts of a poll loser

Karnataka voters have ousted twiddledee only to bring back twiddledum.  So wrote Dr Bhamy Shenoy in 1995. He could as well write the same stuff in May next,  after the 2009 elections. Our voters do not care who wins and often do not even know whom they are voting for. So says Dr Shenoy, who contested the 1995 Karnataka assembly election as an Independent. And lost by a huge margin.

He reckoned that our voters are easily swayed,  even those whom we expect would take informed decisions. A  retired Karnataka Administrative Services (KAS) official, who had promised his vote to Shenoy, changed his mind on way to the polling booth. Because someone supporting  a rival candidate came up to him and handed over his voter registration slip.  The official had  in his government day held responsible positions  that entailed taking decisions. 

Losing elections, twice in a row,I suppose,  makes Dr Shenoy an electoral veteren. Referring to the last time he lost, 1994, the IIT educated  Mysorean said his  assembly constituency, with a fair chunk of well-to-do residents, had eight slum areas,  where votes were controlled by petty landlords, usually small time politicians. Our candidate had reckoned on neutralising the slum area vote,  by appealing to the educated middle-class to 1) stop staying away from the polling booth; and 2)  think before voting.

Dr Shenoy first contested in 1989,  when he polled 550 votes.  His strategy to draw middle-class votes fetched him 2260 votes in 1994. The strategy worked,  but the candidate lost. His years between elections – 1989-94 –  were spent on proactive social activism and networking  retired professionals and officials to help him mobilise public opinion.

With their support Dr Shenoy reached out individually to 70,000 people and visited 30,000 households, spending time at each place discussing issues of common concern.  “If only half of those we met had kept their word,  I would have easily won,” says Dr Shenoy.

On reflection he felt many who promised Shenoy their vote had, presumably, associated his name with BJP.  The middle-class everywhere has a segment of party-committed voters, who went by the party symbol, rather than a condidate’s merit. So much for the power of informed voting.  Dr Shenoy’s home-visits and his efforts to educate them on democratic maturity simply fell on deaf ears.

Another discovery he made was that, like parties and their parties ,  voters too have an ‘unspoken agenda’.  Sharing his thoughts in the media, Dr Shenoy wrote in 1995:

A shopkeeper was frank enough to admit that if we really root out corruption he would not be able to earn his living!…many of us may talk against the present corrupt system. But  we   have learnt the art of managing the system….Traders ans business class  may  agitate for unification of taxes and show their protest against the political system that brings in irrational rules and regulations.  But in the final analysis, they prefer a system where they can bribe and manage rather than the one where the rule of law prevails.   

Dr Shenoy can be reached at

Calling IIT alumni

Every IIT could adopt a slum or cluster of villages, with development levels that are lower than the national average. The adopted area could then become a development laboratory.  And to implement socio-economic programmes  in the  development lab s   IITs could draw on the talents and financial support of their alumni.  This would be their  guru dakshina, suggests Prof.Kalyan Singhal,  an IIT-Bombay alumnus.

Other suggestions:  1)  Cost of  IIT undergraduate eductaion should be treated as student loans;  and, on graduation,  a percentage of  their earnings should go towards repayment of  loans.

2)   IITs could however  waive loan repayment in the case of students  who choose to do post-graduate work leading to Ph.D.   Pursuit of  intergrated solutions to the problems of villages and slums  should provide ideas for fresh areas of research.

3)  To promote,  what Prof. Singhal calls,  a  culture of innovation,  every engineering and polytechnic student could be asked to undertake intensive interviews with atleast two low-income families.  Based on their findings the students could propose ways to raise socio-economic well- being of these families.

According to Prof.Sighal,  such engagementof undergraduate students  with society would create a vibrant learning environment and help them  become better engineers, reserachers, managers and entrepreneurs. The professor has more on this in The Hindu edit-page article – Towards a renaissance of the IITs. Writer can be contacted at