Amma’s academic record was quite brief – she had studied only until tenth grade. While she claimed that she did very well at school, appa made counterclaims that she had only just scraped through, along with dubious claims that he had seen her marksheets. Neither of them ever bothered to show me proof of their respective claims.
What’s certain is that amma had only a fairly basic education and no more. Perhaps as a consequence, academic qualifications did not seem to matter to her. Some times, when she wanted me to go on a silly household errand that in my highfalutin opinion was a housemaid’s job, I would get frustrated and say, “Amma, I’m an IIT-IIM”. 102
And she would blast back, “So don’t IIT-IIMs eat every day?”.
That is the kind of retort that immediately puts an existential perspective into anyone. Heck, IIT or IIM, I did not want to starve. Now, where’s that bag in which I should get the groceries?
Having such an iconoclastic view of academic excellence, it was not surprising that she never showed much interest in my work which involved business research for emerging solutions in cleantech – solar photovoltaics, next generation biofuels, waste to energy, renewable chemicals and electric mobility.
However, she sometimes used to ask me about my work, especially when I handed over mementos from conferences where I had given a speech.
Most times, I was not sure how to answer her questions about my work. The brief answers I gave only confused her, as she never was able to figure out why an aerospace engineer 103 was dealing with household waste, shit (really), algae and castor oil. 104 Rather, she always wondered why I was not having a simple nine-to-six job like many others in the world – the world she was familiar with.
To impress her about the importance of my work, I once told her that even Bill Gates was working on shit. 105 Unfortunately, she had never heard of him. Another time, I told her that India’s richest man and the boss of the country’s largest private enterprise, Mukesh Ambani, had praised one of our reports. 106 She had not heard of him either.
There were times when I did try explaining my work but she did not understand. On such occasions, I used to give up and say in jest, “Amma, these are too complex for an old lady to understand.”
In return, she would call me a highly educated fool, and used to retort, perhaps only partly in jest, “If you are truly intelligent and understand what you do, you should be able to explain that to even a small child.”
She might not have known some complex things I knew, but certainly knew many simple, fundamental things I did not.
Fig 32: Knowledge gap: Amma and me had different views of what knowledge is all about. It was all about complex stuff with me, and with amma, simple but fundamental knowledge mattered a lot more than complicated knowledge.
102. The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) are considered the top schools in India for engineering and management education respectively, you could say the Indian Ivy League. The entrance exam for IITs is considered one of the toughest in the world.
103. I did my BTech (equivalent to BS) in Aerospace Engg. from the IIT, Madras
104. Among others, specific domains I had worked in the past included household and sewage waste to energy, algae-based biofuels and castor oil based renewable chemicals.
105. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provides research and investment assistance for solutions to sustainable toilets and sustainable sewage and fecal waste treatment
106. We helped out Reliance Industries in getting a better understanding of algae based biofuels, During this assignment, I was told – possibly just to please me – that Mukesh Ambani had briefly flipped through one of our reports and found it good.
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