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India, top of the mind

Scientists and geeky doctors have replaced new-age gurus, helping India reclaim its place as a leader in the global thought-pool.

entertainment Updated: Mar 27, 2011 00:27 IST
Sanchita Sharma

A decade ago, new-age gurus spouting psycho-babble and yoga to suit all moods and pockets defined India’s
contribution to the global wellness market.

Not anymore. Close on the heels of the Indian pharma’s incredible takeover of the global generic drugs market has come a tsunami of eloquent scientists of Indian origin using popular media to update the world on what makes us tick.

Medical jargon’s finally spilling out of formaldehyde-filled jars into popular media as people struggle to understand the complicated inner workings of their body and mind. “People have a great appetite for information, which is partly being fed by tweets, text messages, status updates and blogs. And when this information comes from a trained man who has insider knowledge from the days spent in hospitals and labs, it becomes Gospel Truth,” says cardiac surgeon Dr Naresh Trehan, who trained in New York and is now the chairman of Medanta — The Medicity.

Whether it is the body, the mind or the world around us, these men on the cutting edge of science are stepping out of their sterile labs, operation rooms and offices in Boston, Atlanta, San Francisco and Toronto to send out quick updates on things they know best.

The medium varies but almost all of them are familiar faces and by-lines on television, lecture circuits, bestselling
book jackets and mainstream newspapers and magazines, such as The New Yorker, Newsweek, Time and New York Times.

This combination of scientific creativity and communication is boosting India’s image as a top-of-the-mind centre of innovation. Some, like Microsoft founder Bill Gates, on his nth mission to New Delhi to make life-saving drugs and vaccines affordable to the poorest, have also started saying it out loud. “India has great scientists, great universities, great manufacturing capability and a better understanding of how to use innovations to meet the needs of the poor,” said Gates in Delhi this week.

That empathy makes people better communicators is well established, but what’s making Brand India heard is the peer-reviewed knowledge behind the eloquence.

“Modern scientific training and our love for storytelling makes it easier for people from India to demystify scientific gobbledygook for everyone to understand and appreciate,” says Dr Trehan.

When writing is ‘a moral thing’
Akhil Sharma, 39
The American Indian investment banker turned author whose novel, An Obedient Father, won the Hemingway Award

For a lot of second-generation Indians, the ‘American dream’ has come true at middle-age. Novelist, Akhil Sharma, 39, a Delhi boy, who crossed over as part of the great wave of immigration in the 70s, grew up in the “racist environment” of the Reagan era where he was “labelled Indian in an unwelcoming way.”

Post-liberalisation, America has reached out to its second-generation Indians to ‘understand’ India, he says.

“White American women started talking about how handsome Indian men are,” says Sharma, with a smile at a lecture at Delhi.

Being American-Indian now means a value addition – a person with insider knowledge of the two cultures.

The banner of the ‘American-Indian’ author who had been invited to speak of the ‘immigrant novel’ recently in Delhi fluttered gaily outside the American Center; Akhil Sharma is now part of American pop culture, the mainstream. His novel, An Obedient Father, won the 2001 Hemingway Award. His stories appear in one of the most powerful literary institutions of American life — The New Yorker.

Unlike writer Jhumpa Lahiri whose work primarily grapples with the language, religion, rituals of American Indians, Sharma’s characters attempt to integrate with America in a direct and deliberate manner – a sign of the growing ease with which creative artists with Indian roots, like Sharma, are accepting their American-ness. Gopal (the lead character in Sharma’s acclaimed short story, Cosmopolitan ), for example, takes the lead in his
relationship with an American woman.

The slow, hesitant courtship that starts between Gopal and the red-haired Helen Shaw over the borrowing of a lawn-mower is full of confusing signals. Is that how Sharma fell in love with America?

“That’s how I fell in love with Hemingway,” he answers. ‘I learnt from him how to write plainly about exotic things… how to write about maa ki dal for an audience that was not familiar with a detail like this.”

Sharma, who is also a Harvard law graduate with a stint in investment banking, no longer shies from putting forth his hybrid identity. In his youth it was different. “I would lie in school essays when asked to write about food habits saying we had pizza and spaghetti at home,” he says. His teacher, Mrs Green, failed him. “Now I write from the best part of me. Telling the truth is good for you. Writing is a moral thing.”

The recognition of his literature has, it seemed, also helped him to link the two cultures in his mind. “Writers write about human beings,” he underlines. “People were jealous then, people are jealous now. I try to write from inside out.”
— Paramita Ghosh

Dr Sex & Death
Dr Prabhat Jha, 45
His study of tobacco is analysing the leading causes of death in 1.3 million Indian households

Dr Prabhat Jha’s near obsessive tracking of AIDS and tobacco deaths earned him the moniker of Dr Sex & Death at the university. He doesn’t care. “People think epidemiologists are obsessed with death, but I think we’re actually obsessed with life. We study the causes of death to help people live,” says Jha, the founding director of the Centre for Global Health Research at St. Michael’s Hospital, University of Toronto. He is currently Canada Research Chair of Health and Development at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto. His advisory work has included the government of South Africa on its national health insurance plan, and US President Barack Obama on
global health.
Now he’s doing what he does best in the biggest scale possible. His prospective Study of One Million Deaths in India, the country’s first nationally representative study from 1998 to 2014, is currently analysing the leading causes of death in 1.3 million households. “Most Indians die at home without medical attention, so there is no official record of the cause of death. The Million Death Study will create a blueprint of how Indian health is evolving.” Jha was selected one of 25 Transformational Canadians in 2010.

“Number-crunching helps identify major health and population trends. It has revealed good news. For instance, working backwards from AIDS death data has led to halving of HIV-infected people in India. It has also sounded alarms such as India missing 10 million baby girls to foeticide in two decades,” said Jha, referring to his 2006 study that shocked the world.

Born in India and raised mostly in Winnipeg, Jha studied medicine at the University of Manitoba and Oxford. After graduation, he spent five years at the World Bank in Washington, where he worked on tobacco deaths. “Being obsessed with death does sound nutty and depressing, but identifying and then avoiding the cause can save lives. I can’t think of anything else I would like to be doing,” he says.

Brain, the final frontier
Vilayanur Subramanian Ramachandran, 59
Neuroscience whiz who has made psychophysics as popular as blue denims

You can teach the brain new tricks and there’s no one better equipped to tell you how than Vilayanur Subramanian Ramachandran, the neuro-science whiz with an unpronounceable name who has made psychophysics as popular as blue denims.

He’s been famously called the “a latterday Marco Polo, journeying the Silk Road of science to strange and exotic Cathays of the mind” by ethologist Richard Dawkins. Diane Rogers-Ramachandran, his wife of 24 years, says that when it comes to real life, he has no idea where where he’s going. “He just walks,” she complains.

As a young boy in Chennai, Ramachandran collected sea shells and fossils, but unlike other young boys, he sent his findings to the American Museum of Natural History. Two years ago, he was thrilled to have a dinosaur — Minotaurasaurus ramachandrani — named after him, sealing his love for palaeontology.

Ramachandran’s scientific outlook retains this curiosity and helps him intuitively connect with his audience. “My humour is not always well received,” he muses. In his newest book, The Tell-Tale Brain, he recounts the case of a man who saw a different woman each time he looked at his wife. “We should all be so lucky,” he told the man’s lawyer, who got miffed and hung up.

It is anecdotes such as this one that Ramachandran — a member of Newsweek’s “Century Club of the most prominent people to watch in the 21st century — uses to manoeuvre people through the wild, wild frontiers of the human brain to understand what makes it neurologically distinct in its evolution from our ape ancestors.

As the director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, much of his work involves the use of low-tech equipment, an approach he attributes to his early education in India. He did, what he calls “the first successful amputation of a phantom limb” by using a simple mirror trick to make the amputee believe he could move his non-existent limb, lowering the sensation of pain.

Cancer’s biographer
Siddhartha Mukherjee, 40
His first work made it to the ‘Top 10 Books of 2010’ lists of the New York Times and Time magazine

By day, cancer physician Siddhartha Mukherjee studies leukaemia and stem cells in a Kubrickian lab to better understand what drives cellular growth, which can become a model for the uncontrolled growth of cancer cells. By night, he spent the past six years writing about the shape-shifter called cancer.

The result was a “biography” of cancer – The Emperor of All Maladies – became a surprise bestseller last year. To everyone’s amazement, a book on an old and terrifying disease made it to the ‘Top 10 Books of 2010’ lists of the New York Times, Time magazine and Oprah’s O magazine.

The book, which started as a journal of the gruelling training programme, would, he says, leave him in stunned incoherence by the end of the day. “It grew into a larger project as I struggled to answer questions from my patients.

Most of them fight remissions and relapses and turn around and ask me, ‘I’m willing to go on but I need to know what I’m fighting?” he says. “They deserve to know what was happening to them and what had happened to millions of others in our 4,000-year-old war on cancer,” he says.

His hospital experiences humanise the narrative for people outside medical schools. “In 2005, a man diagnosed with multiple myeloma (cancer of blood plasma cells) asked me if he would be alive to watch his daughter graduate from high school in a few months. In 2009, he watched his daughter graduate from college sitting on a wheelchair. The wheelchair had nothing to do with his cancer. The man had fallen down while coaching his youngest son’s baseball team,” says Mukherjee, A cancer physician and researcher, Mukherjee, a St Columba’s, Delhi, alumnus, is an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University.

After graduation, he attended Harvard Medical School as an internist and won an oncology fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital, where the idea of the book was born. He lives in New York with wife Sarah Sze, the MacArthur award-winning sculptor who teaches at the school of Arts, and two daughters.

Mukherjee speaks as he writes, without a pause. “Writing comes naturally as literature is part of the DNA of medicine,” he says.

With human understanding of cancer advancing radically, are we closer to a cure? “Breakthroughs have come from unexpected people in unexpected places, from chemicals in clothing dyes to mustard gas used in World War I. Today, we have surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, targeted therapy to increase life by 17 to 20 years after cancer. We are getting closer every day.”

Always at ground zero
Sanjay Gupta, 41
CNN’S chief medical correspondent travels to crisis zones like tsunami-struck Japan and pandemic-hit Mexico

Reporting on radiation concerns amid aftershocks of the tsunami that devastated Japan last week, CNN’s chief medical correspondent Dr Sanjay Gupta toys with a gadget that looks like clunky electric razor.

He tells viewers it’s a handheld radiation detector to measure radioactivity exposure. Zooming it over himself and co-host Anderson Copper, he announces there is no need to worry. The radiation that was feared to be spewing from quake-damaged Fukushima nuclear power stations was still well under safe limits.

Going to hotspots everyone else seems to be fleeing from has made Gupta a familiar face in homes that track breaking health and disasters news from around the world. A practicing neurosurgeon — he is faculty at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta and an associate chief of neurosurgery at Grady Memorial Hospital — Gupta was among the first planeload of journalists disgorged in Haiti to cover the aftermath of the earthquake that wrecked the island nation in January 2010.

In 2009, he travelled to Mexico reported on the H1N1 “swine flu” outbreak from the home of patient zero – 5-year-old Edgar Hernandez of La Gloria, Mexico, who was the first confirmed case of the new infection that spread across all continents and was declared a pandemic within two months of being identified — and the world’s effort to track and contain it.

Unlike other doctors who shuttle between home and hospital, Gupta has travelled to crisis zones across the world after joining CNN in 2001. He’s embedded with the US Navy’s ‘Devil Docs’ medical unit in Iraq and Kuwait, reported on Hurricane Katrina and covered the 2004 tsunami from Lanka.

Married to Rebecca Olson, a family law attorney, Gupta lives in Atlanta and has three daughters. He grew up in Novi, Michigan, where his parents Subhash and Damyanti moved to work as engineers for the Ford Motor Company in the 1960s.

He’s written Chasing Life and Cheating Death, both of which are now companion documentaries on CNN.

In January 2011, Gupta was named “one of the 10 most influential celebrities” by Forbes, just two years after he famously declined the Obama Administration’s offer for the position of US Surgeon General. His other claims to fame include being called one of the “Sexiest Men Alive” by People magazine and a “pop culture icon” by USA Today.