2020: To Be Forgotten or Remembered?
Updated: Feb 7
Closing out on 2019 – The Holidays
I had a business trip to the US in early December 2019 and landed a few days early to spend Thanksgiving in California with the Jitendras and the Overlands. After my meetings in San Diego and the board meeting of Lantern Pharma in Dallas, I made a quick stop at the Muleshoe Ranch in New Mexico in the mountains surrounding the VLA to check in on our dear friends – the Lassez (Catherine and Jean-Louis). Catherine had made a recovery from a health crisis and Uma and I had been worried about them.
As soon as I returned, the preparations were on for welcoming home our child Maya, her husband Brian and our precious five-year old granddaughter Pallavi who were coming back to India after a gap of over two years. Elaborate plans were laid to spend Christmas in Bangalore, attending service at St Mark’s Cathedral followed by Christmas dinner at my sister Latha’s. My Dad’s 98th birth anniversary on Boxing Day was centred around a brilliant afternoon memorial lecture by Vinita Bali. We left soon after for a few days in Fort Kochi before the children had to go back to San Francisco on New Year’s Eve. It was a glorious week of family celebrations and delight for all of us.
IIACD at the National Museum https://www.iiacd.org/ihse_exhibition.html
Uma and I ushered in 2020 in Bangalore at home. As soon as the children left, Uma and I began prepping for the Indian Heritage Symposium and Exhibition at the National Museum in Delhi in the 3rd week and we prepared an augmented reality presentation of the Kirata Aarjuniya legend from the Mahabharata that has been exquisitely captured in ceiling paintings and bas reliefs at the Virupaksha Temple in Lepakshi. My debut effort in voice overs for video narration of the Kirata Aarjuniya story. It was a desperate effort to get it done and installed in partnership with a new young friend Vivek Jain (FlippAR) who uses postcards to invoke AR content to communicate heritage in a popular mode. Our joint work was a little more scholarly and I think Vivek enjoyed the new focus and we the magic of smart phones and cloud-based content delivery. It turned out to be quite a success.
A Pilani Fatrus Get Together Aldeia Serenia, Assagao, Goa February 2020
In 2018 we were in Dehra Dun at Bhaiya & Priyo’s daughter Ritika’s wedding and we had hatched a plan to meet up in Goa. The dates in 2019 didn’t work out but amazingly all but one couple were able to make it to Goa in February 2020. Tinky’s and my villa in Aldeia Serenia in the now hep village Assagao were activated and we had a really fun holiday – lots of eating, drinking, swimming, playing bridge. This was just before the pandemic came to India …
Actually, I snuck away to Europe in late February and was not quite ready to believe that it would be unsafe in Paris, Basel and Lisbon where I was headed for meetings. None of my meetings were being cancelled and though I saw the occasional masks worn on the streets of Paris it was mostly by Asian residents and so I didn’t give it much thought. Friends were hugging and kissing as usual everywhere, restaurants were packed and all seemed normal. At my last stop at Lisbon, Ambassador Singla who hosted my meetings started filling me in on challenges that were beginning to mount and when I left Europe on March 6th I had an N95 mask on at the airport and was briefly checked for fever when I landed in Bangalore and sent home.
We were just beginning to realize the dangers and did make a couple of slips – attending a charity sufi concert where a positive case showed up. I also had to consummate the sale of a property at the registrar’s office and was masked and gloved etc. but in a crowded public space for a few minutes. Maya gave us a tongue lashing and ordered us to quarantine and stay home and wait till a vaccine arrives. We are still waiting …
PANDEMIC: Testing, Study Groups, Teaching, Board Meetings, Zoom Doom!
Once the import of the pandemic was clear to me, I began understanding that getting the labs at Strand prepared for RT-PCR testing was a high priority. The Government which was being guided by the Indian Council of Medical Research was hesitant to let private labs get involved. Fortunately I connected with a group of the national leaders in diagnostic testing – Dr Navin Dang (Dr Dang’s), Ameera Shah (Metropolis), Arvind Lal (Lal’s Path Labs), Sangeeta Reddy Apollo), Velu (Thyrocare), Kiran Mazumdar (Syngene was prepared to jump in) and we made representations to the Director General of ICMR Dr Balram Bharghav and others in Delhi around mid-March and we were able to launch testing at NABL accredited labs that had already been testing for H1N1 which was very comparable to the SARS-Cov2 tests. Within a couple of weeks we were matching and adding to the national capacity. Dr Rajan Verma, our senior pathologist in Gurgaon led the charge for Strand and we were one of the few go to labs in the NCR (National Capital Region) in the early days of the crisis. There were some challenges in acquiring reagent kits early on – I had to make some calls to ThermoFisher headquarters in Massachusetts to get stocks for our lab in Haryana. We also had a responsibility to educate the public about the protocols for testing since there was a lot of confusion and anxiety. The marketing team at Strand under the direction of Harish Natarajan our COO came up with a brilliant video message : https://www.facebook.com/619310657/videos/10157116237695658/
The experience also helped me convince the Biologists at IISc set up a test facility at the Centre for Infectious Diseases. I am really proud of the Indian biotech sector, reagent companies, point-of-care platforms, diagnostic labs and academic labs at IISc, NCBS, NIMHANS for playing a critical role during this pandemic. It was a coming of age of the sector. The Principal Scientific Advisor Dr K Vijayraghavan, recognizing this enthusiasm has helped in creating an ingenious virtual marketplace for indigenous diagnostics InDx located at C-CAMP in the NCBS campus and funded by Rockefeller Foundation. This will develop a culture that fosters rapid collaborative efforts in future emergencies.
Meanwhile, I wanted to understand the disease biology, the epidemiology of the pandemic and the therapeutic strategies. I threw myself into several study groups and stabilized in working closely with two of them – (1) the CoViD Study Circle (CSC) run by Chitra Pattabhiraman at NIMHANS and Bhagteshwar Singh at CMC and (2) RxCoVEA (Cure CoViD for Ever and for All) run by Prof Bud Mishra at NYU and Cold Spring Harbor. So my Mondays, Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays were study group days and there was a ton of readings and really active slack channels to keep up with. We would hear stories from the front lines and most of us became sources of information for our personal family and friend networks. CSC has been quiet now for some time but RxCoVEA continues to meet and may become a collective that has some longevity beyond the pandemic.
As tragedies began to mount with one degree of separation – my cousin Sharath Reddy in Chennai, Uma’s first cousin’s family in Vijayawada, … both Uma and I furiously read and shared information. Uma is of course a superb ferreter of knowledge from the internet while I was getting it from scholars, research publications and physicians. Some of our calls with Maya would start with enquiring how we were all doing but soon get into what UCSF was posting on the situation. We were worried about Maya as she was really in the front lines and through the months of May and June was literally sleeping the hospital to clear the cases there. We heaved a sigh of relief when she began her research year in July.
Our Small Social Bubble – Family
Our small social bubble was immediate family - Anil comes to visit every other day we have met with Latha, Vani, Rukku and Arathi a few times and Sue and Chandroo at their home twice and once out for a meal. Celebrated birthdays – Latha’s, Uma’s, Anil’s and mine, Vani’s, Pallavi’s vicariously.
But the big one that we were all eagerly waiting for was Seetharamama’s 90th on October 7th. Uma has done all she can to keep him healthy and out of any need for risk. His caretakers are in a “stay at home” mode since mid-March and all clinical services are handled through Nightingales and such. Seetharamama has taken it well though he does complain that he has fewer visitors and no chance to go out. He walks in the house at least once a day and Anil drops by for a chat every other day. So his birthday was an important landmark and we had a lunch celebration followed by another one in the evening with Gautham and Kamala.
ENUGA SREENIVASALU REDDY RIP
Losing his older brother and only surviving sibling Sreenivasalu the next month on Nov 1st was an emotional blow to Seetharamama but he was gratified to read and watch all the memorial tributes. Indeed the entire Enuga family was in mourning with having lost its beloved and loving patriarch and an amazing role model who had an unwavering dedication to free South Africa of Apartheid and saw it through a lifetime of struggle as so beautifully captured by Gopal Gandhi in his op-ed tribute in The Hindu newspaper and by so many others. The online memorial service organized by Ela Gandhi, Dr. Ismail Vadi and others at the Gandhi Development Trust and Ahmed Kathrada Foundation can be viewed here - https://www.facebook.com/KathradaFound/videos/203397357965255
A NEW COLLECTIVE
A few weeks after the 90th birthday celebration we were scrambling to pull together a project idea for showcasing the art and cultural profile of Bangalore and Karnataka with physical exhibits enhanced by augmented reality art historical content. Uma has assembled a fantastic team of a senior art historian and curator, architectural designer, photographers, creative graphics team from IIACD and technologists with 3D Scanning, augmented reality expertise. While the first pitch for funding didn’t go our way, I am sure this team will succeed if we persist with other sponsors. It is a bit disconcerting that public cyberspace for art and culture is being captured locally by corporate sponsored art and the radical (truth seeking) artist may get compromised in this process. The interest in digital heritage communication is high with many agencies now and while it is becoming a crowded space, the quality and team spirit of Uma’s group gives me confidence.
On the academic front, I had been steadily working on putting together a special issue in the 100th Volume of the Journal of IISc. The theme was to be on digital health and with the volume of effort happening on the pandemic front with digital modeling, telemedicine, computational epidemiology the scope of the collection expanded and I had contacted 22 sets of authors and they all agreed to write for the issue. It was a bit of a scramble to keep sending reminders and get the publisher to line up the typesetting resources but we got the content in by September 20th for an October release. The release only happened in November but the magnum opus (320 pages of two column print) is hopefully a collector issue. Springer offered to make it open access for a few months given its relevance to the pandemic. That goes on till January 10th 2021 and so if anyone is interested the download link is https://link.springer.com/journal/41745/volumes-and-issues/100-4
EPIDEMIOLOGY IS IN THE SELF-HELP SECTION!
October was also the month that classes got started at IISc and I had signed up to offer an elective on digital epidemiology for the 4th time since 2017 at the Centre for BioSystems Science and Engineering at IISc. I had 10 students sign up for the course and while my lectures are done – the students will work through January on their term projects. The academic calendar is certainly messed up this year. We will perhaps skip the summer break and go directly from Spring to Fall. Some IIT’s switched to a quarter system to adapt. In the middle of the term I also got enmeshed as program chair of the biotrack for the Bengaluru Tech Summit which ran in November 19-21 as an online conference with 14,000 attendees. The logistics of coordinating the speakers and moderators and pre-recording of many plenary addresses due to time zone issues was a bit of a nightmare although the event management team was able to pull it off.
The two themes for the conference were “The Age of Living Machines” and “One Health”. The former theme was beautifully presented in the plenary session by Dr Susan Hockfield who has a book out with that title which has been awarded the book of 2020 award by the American Physics Society. I feel quite privileged that I was able to work and ride the exponential progress in both decision sciences in information technology and genomics in biotechnology. I have been reading and thinking about the next big technology trend and the age of living machines feels like the next big one. Wrote a short essay on this “From digital technology to living machines” while we were trying to rope in Susan Hockfield, Sangeeta Bhatia, James Collins, Regina Barzilay and George Church for the tech summit and they all spoke there. Delighted that my note has been posted as the editorial of the Christmas issue of Current Science (the journal of the Indian Academy of Sciences). Here is the link if you want to take a look - https://www.currentscience.ac.in/Volumes/119/12/1879.pdf
The second theme of “One Health” is of course closely related to epidemiology and viewing health as a responsibility of global ecological perspectives. The panel I moderated had Shahid Jameel (India’s leading virologist and public health exponent at Ashoka University), Ramanan Laxminarayanan (an honest to goodness expert in epidemiology) from Princeton and Washington DC, Uma Ramakrishnan (a young star in molecular ecology) and S.R.Rao (former Senior Director of DBT and an expert on bio-security and bio-terrorism). This was my swan song as the program chair for India’s most cutting edge infotech and biotech conference.
Metastring Foundation is the non-profit that the founders of Strand have pulled together to address the role of democratizing data in biodiversity and human well-being. One Health is a natural fit with the work we do in the foundation. The India Biodiversity Portal (IBP) has been a 12 year effort and the team that has built and maintains the portal sits across Metastring and Strand. Over the course of 2020 we realized at Metastring the first release of a new platform for visualizing and accessing public health data through the http://healthheatmapindia.org. In addition to building the efficient large scale data visualization and geospatial map-based rendering, a lot of work went into the less glamorous work of “wrangling” and “ingesting” public data that tends to be fragmented and usually requires considerable effort to clean. So there is a major curatorial effort involved as well. Gates Foundation and other agencies have taken a close look the HHM (health heatmap) platform and there is some potential here to create capacity to be the analytic engine for of public health projects in India.
STRAND IS 20!
Speaking of Strand, Ramesh Hariharan called me up in mid-November to remind me that we were close to the 20th anniversary of Strand. The founders Swami Manohar, Vinay Vishwanathan, Ramesh and I quickly met and made a plan to hold an internal event in early December and possibly have a more public event around January 2021. We went ahead with the internal event on November 27th with a couple of guest lectures by Harish Iyer (Gates Foundation, Global Health) on the CoViD-19 vaccines and by Rajesh Sundaresan (IISc) on the sero-surveillance study of Karnataka that he was involved with and was helping also with data analysis of the findings. Here are some pictures from the inaugural of Strand 20 years back. Remember this was history in the making – the first instance of sanctioned faculty entrepreneurship in India. The Simputer was still under construction (far right) – PicoPeta was launched in the middle of 2001. Many of the supporters – M. Rammohan Rao, Tom Kailath, Kiran Mazumdar, Sanjoy Mitter and Ratan Tata (also President of the Court of IISc at the time) are seen on that day.
Early in December soon after the Bangalore Tech Summit, Anil and I drove to Coorg to transact and close the sale of a joint holding we had in a coffee estate. We stayed at Anil’s spectacular villa at Watergate that he has built along with a couple of friends that he time shares with. The Harangi reservoir that it overlooks was reasonably full post monsoon and I got a nice video clip https://www.facebook.com/619310657/videos/10157729081275658/
This was first trip out in 9 months and we were a bit exposed in a public space to complete the registration protocols. So I went through a self imposed quarantine soon after for seven days followed by an RT-PCR swab test which turned out negative and I was back in circulation.
RODDAM NARASIMHA RIP
The first Strand office was actually officially inaugurated in mid-January 2001 by our mentor Prof Roddam Narasimha and we thought we could have him speak at the event in November. When I wrote to him and shared my draft of the living machines essay, he wrote back to say that he was recovering from surgery and would respond in a few days. But just then on December 14th we received sad news about the passing away of this senior colleague at the Indian Institute of Science Professor Roddam Narasimha who had been a mentor, a friend philosopher and guide in my first decade in Bangalore at the Institute. Swami Manohar and I were his great admirers and he inspired us to work on the digital divide and create the Simputer. He also gave us an understanding of science heritage in India and the important role that algorithmic thinking versus axiomatic which he considered Indic vs Western has had in India’s flowering in mathematics from the 3rd to the 15th century. In his words “The Indic approach was basically not that of modelmakers but of ingenious algorisers, and showed a deep and studied distrust of axioms and physical models. This led to an attitude described here as ‘computational positivism’, which considers observation and computation as the only things that matter.”
Roddam’s passing has also marked an era of balanced and thoughtful intellectual enquiry on science, technology and society. As Martin Heidegger has warned us, we need to look beyond technology as a ‘means to an end’ and consider the ‘essence’ of technology which has dimensions, both instrumental (means) and anthropological (of human activity). Roddam’s investigations on Tippu Sultan’s superior rocketry using metallic alloy casings and the sociology of metallurgy craftmanship in Mysore have been well documented as a wonderful synthesis of instrumental and anthropological. I hope we have learned well from this polymath and historian of science and can carry on his style of intellectual pursuits.
The 99th Birth Anniversary of HGV
With a week to go before Boxing day and the 99th birth anniversary of my father. I had taken on the responsibility of putting together a remembrance video along with video clips of messages from the 4 grandchildren. It all had to come together rapidly and Uma loaned me her rather talented young creative coder – Vijeth Kumar. Vijeth and I created a 20 min documentary using various clips I had lying around.Here’s the link and you can judge for yourself if it is engaging or not. https://drive.google.com/file/d/11bLHtnnSJGckrj6MlYr6FCODhLU2oEy2/view?usp=sharing
With only a couple of days left till the end of the year, we got busy wrapping up some pending paperwork and I set about writing this journal which I do hope has been a useful exercise for others – it has for me as it forced me to evaluate the year 2020 that some seem to want to forget and others remember.
I have deliberately not talked about the activities during the year with the deep science and technology innovation ecosystem that I continue to mentor and participate in. Or for that matter the important effort that I have been participating in with the Open Platform for Orphan Diseases http://OPFORD.org. These will have to be captured separately in blogs. My blogspot is Home | Historians of the Now