My Top 10 Indian Role Models!

by Ramesh Mahadevan

Here is the much-awaited list of Ramesh Mahadevan's Top Ten Indian role models. This list is based on my own, highly subjective, loose criteria of what constitutes a good role model. We now live at a time when we Indians are pushing ourselves to hitherto unattained, high levels of excellence – in field after field, in discipline after discipline. Gone are the days when someone merely had to be physically present on a job for ten years to be considered an expert (and eventually go on to become a 'holy cow' by coasting along for another ten years). Folks, finally, the best among us are truly world class and are terrific examples for generations to come.

Of course, the 'Indian role model' has to have a significant desi component – should have been born or brought up (or both) in India. So, NRIs qualify. But persons of Indian origin who are a generation or more removed from India, such as V.S. Naipaul, were not considered. And only living persons were deemed eligible.

After I made up the list, the main thing I found in common among the ten people is their level of excellence. Almost all of them appeared on the scene with an incredible bang and kept staying on top of their passion throughout. And during their long, sustained tenure, they have been prolific. Simplicity, making extraordinary efforts against extraordinary odds, social consciousness and making their marks in many varied disciplines also seemed a running theme among my role models.

(In alphabetical order of their first names)

(1) President Abdul Kalam: “Dream, dream and dream. Then translate your dreams into thoughts and then into action...” is President Kalam's favorite mantra. His life itself is an example of this philosophy – rising from a fisherman's village to ending up in the presidential palace and along the way launching a bunch of missiles and winning a few 'Padma' (and Bharat Ratna) awards. His simplicity is remarkable, considering the presidential office in India still has Raj vestiges. (They even had a person just to tie the president's shoelaces. President Kalam got rid of this humiliating practice.) There are all kinds of stories of his mingling with children and giving them pep talks, and how he drove up to Mrs. M.S. Subbalakshmi's residence to personally present her the Bharat Ratna award. He is everything we dream in the highest ranking Indian – high-tech savvy, passionate, secular, inspiring, hard working and approachable. If you don't already know, this bachelor and vegetarian writes poems and diddles with his veena in his spare time.

(2) Prof. Amartya Sen: Nobel Prize winner in economics and currently on the faculty in the Trinity College in England. He was a full professor at the Jadavpur University at the age of 24! At a time when Nobel prizes in economics were doled out to any economist who cooked up yet another idea for the western multinational companies to make a fast buck, Prof. Sen's work showed that economics is best studied by integrating it with ethics, humanism and philosophical ideas. And that market reforms are not enough to alleviate poverty.

At a macro level, he is a part of this huge and burgeoning breed of Bengali academicians that is teaching all over the world. I personally feel that our IITs and other institutions of higher learning ought to say a big 'Thank you' to these inspiring Bengali professors and to the Bengali passion for higher education.

(3) A.R. Rahman: He has India dancing to his little finger. In my opinion, he is the greatest music composer of India, all times, with a complete mastery of the Eastern and Western music basics. A great arranger as well as a sound engineer. A high school dropout who since attended the Trinity College with scholarship. He has worked with almost all great names in India and quite a few famous ones abroad. To his credit, he also introduced numerous new singers and artistes. Before landing in movies, he had composed over 300 jingles in his advertising career, when he went by his given name Dileep. My favorite – songs from an obscure Tamil movie, 'Taj Mahal'.

(4) Arundhati Roy: Probably the most well-known world citizen from India. A truly remarkable writer who won the Booker Award, the first ever by an Indian. But I am more impressed with her as an activist, probably because her position on several issues resonates with mine. Her relentless campaign against the so-called WTO sponsored 'globalization' is truly inspiring. The so-called globalization, in my opinion, is just a euphemism for the Western multinationals to plunder the world resources leaving everyone high and dry, except for a small coterie of people associated closely with those corporations. Every time we turn the TV on, we see yet another white man lose his white-collar job to an Indian. Fair enough. But the thousands in India who lose their jobs because of the onslaught of the likes of Pepsi and Hallmark, unfortunately, never get any airtime. (I am not opposed to capitalism and globalization – only to their present, indiscriminate WTO version.) Her speech at the recent World Social Forum was stirring. She was also among the earliest to take on the Indian government for its gratuitous nuclear explosion and the Bush administration for its immoral, illegal and unnecessary war in Iraq. No wonder greats like Norm Chomski quote her. Arundhati's mother, Mary Roy, is also a social activist of sorts – she waged a long, legal battle against an obscure inheritance law.

(5) Azim Premji: This bachelor, who travels by economy class and drives his own car and sometimes eats at roadside restaurants, was at one time the second richest man in the world (even now worth around eight billion dollars). He transformed a moribund company like Wipro (which made edible oil, among other things) into a high-tech superpower.

(6) Karnam Malleswari: Winning an individual, Olympic bronze medal in a nation of athletic non-achievers is such a remarkable feat, indeed. She almost never made it to the team and, at the last minute, had to participate in a different weight category and yet she managed to win the only Olympic medal ever to be won by an Indian woman. (P.T. Usha lost her medal by one hundredth of a second). I know Leander Paes won an Olympic medal for tennis. But then, Olympics are not the seminal events in tennis. By the way, a trivia question – are there any male Indian athletes who won individual Olympic medals? The answer: Norman Pritchard, an Anglo-Indian, who won it for 200 m running and 200 m hurdles in the year 1900 in Athens, when the games were not even called the Olympics.

(7) Kiran Bedi: The first Indian woman IPS officer who has always transformed her adversities into opportunities. Even her 'punishment' tenure as the superintendent of the notorious Tihar Jail in Delhi, with over 9000 hard core prisoners (now over 8999 inmates, after the daring escape of Rana, the Phoolan Devi murderer last week), turned out to be a remarkable experience where she tried to reform the prisoners by conducting yoga classes and other humanistic activities. A supercop, a reformer, youth Asian tennis champion, a public speaker, environmentalist and now she even acted in a short documentary film as well (as a rag picker). Of course, in Hindi movies, we have had boatloads of actresses doing a Kiran Bedi!

(8) Sachin Tendulkar: He is probably a veritable national treasure in our cricket-crazed country. He is so prolific he is supposed to score a century every third time he bats. He is the only Indian to have scored a century on debut in the Ranji, Duleep and Irani trophy games. Says Ravi Shastri, the ex-skipper of India, of Sachin, “He is someone sent from up there to play cricket.” He has never been dropped from the Indian team and considering he has just recently won the Man of the Series award for the latest World Cup, he is in no danger of being unemployed for a while.

(9) Sandeep Pandey: This ex-Berkeley graduate and IIT Kanpur professor gave it all up one day and co-founded ASHA, one of the most successful social and educational NGO efforts in India. ASHA has over a thousand volunteers and has chapters in many other countries.

(10) Shabana Azmi: If both the Hindu and Muslim extremists issue fatwas against her, she must be doing something good! This actress-turned-social activist has taken on such causes as the plight of Mumbai slum-dwellers and national integration. Probably the best actress of India, ever, (especially after the premature death of Smita Patil) she was never afraid to take on unorthodox movie roles, right from a whorehouse madam to a lesbian. “Gracious, fearless, intelligent and a beautiful person” is how someone describes her.

Also considered (listed In no particular order)

Vishwanathan Anand: India invented chess and now Indians are discovering it with a passion, thanks to this first Indian Grandmaster. He established a framework for others to emulate. Since then, we have had many, many grandmasters, culminating for the time being with Harika, who became a GM, a week after her thirteenth birthday last month. And there are so many International Masters in India today that nobody even knows the official count. Way to go!

Pandit Ravi Shankar: Probably the best musical ambassador from India, who showcased our music to the rest of the world. Personally, I still flip for his background score in 'Pather Panchali'. Also, equally personally, I am a huge fan of Nikhil Banerjee and prefer him to Ravi Shankar. Nonetheless…

Verghese Kurien: A mechanical engineer-turned-dairy engineer, who organized the milk cooperatives in Gujarat and established the now-famous AMUL – against all odds. To get a feel for the early days of the milk cooperative movement and how the 'big money' tried to break its back, you must watch the movie 'Manthan'. Rejoice! India is the largest producer of milk in the world and if you consider the fact that buffalo milk fat is between 4 to 5%, we are probably, also the largest producers of milk fat per capita.

Naseeruddin Shah: In my opinion, the best actor ever in India and this, in a pantheon of actors such as Balraj Sahni, Om Puri, Amrish Puri and the various regional greats.

Ustad Zakir Hussain: A total master of the art; a true ustad who knows both the South Indian and North Indian rhythm basics. And a charismatic performer.

Lata Mangeshkar: India's nightingale, that too for decades at a stretch. But, perhaps benefited quite a bit from the hype and the media attention because I personally think that her contemporaries like P. Susila of the South, are just as great and prolific singers.

Dr. M.S. Swaminathan: His importation of a shipload of wheat from Mexico ushered in India's Green Revolution. And thanks to his non-stop inputs and the hard work of the Punjabi farmers, we bootstrapped ourselves from the days of chronic famine. He is still actively pursuing research in his Institute that he set up, mostly with his own prize money.

Chandrababu Naidu: e-Governance, anyone? And for transforming the congested, chaotic downtown Hyderabad into a modern metropolis and a high-tech Mecca.

Amrita Pritam: A prolific writer who is active even now, even though she is over eighty. Her feminism-based themes and stories were way ahead of their time.

M.F. Hussain: This 88-year young painter is the best-known contemporary Indian artist. He still abounds in youthful energy and freshness. He firmly believes that it is only a matter of time before India dominates the world art scene. Shame on the goons who destroyed his paintings last month.

Narayana Murthy: The boss of Infosys. Did you know that the Murthy household does not have a maid or a cook? And that their children travel by school bus instead of cars? And Mrs. Murthy teaches in a local engineering college? Some people don't let money take over their lives!

Dr. Hargobind Khorana: Nobel Prize winner.

Prof. Ashoke Sen: A world-renowned physicist working on String Theory. (He makes the list on his own merit and not because he was my hostel wing-mate for a year at IIT Kanpur.)

Dr. Arun Netravalli: A leading scientist and head of the A.T. and T. Bell Labs.

Vinod Khosla: Entrepreneur and venture capitalist. Remember the 'dot com' bubble days when anyone with half a dollar and a quarter idea looked like a genius? Khosla is a genuine entrepreneur who productized revolutionary technologies.

(c) Mahadevan Ramesh. All Rights Reserved