The Technological Indian book review: When tech meets history

Amid claims of ancient India’s lofty scientific achievements, a book explores the grounded reality of ‘philosophical’ Indians’ tryst with technology

The Technological Indian
Ross Bassett
Harvard Business Publishing
Pp 386
Rs 1,250

AT A time when there’s a huge controversy and slanging match going on over the contribution of ancient Indians to science and technology, Ross Bassett’s The Technological Indian is a timely book, which explains India’s current fetish with technology and start-ups that has even caught the attention of the world.

Bassett, who studied engineering in a US university and followed it up with history, is associate professor of history at North Carolina State University, and specialises in technological history. He does not delve into the history of ancient India and the discoveries made by Indians in science and math then; whether stem cell research was on or not or whether Indians knew how to make planes and fly. Instead, his work traces the rise of India in the technological sphere in modern times, and here it offers fresh and interesting perspective.

There’s been work in the field of business history by notable Indian business historians, but they are mostly confined to business families. Academic historians generally confine themselves to the study of the rise of capitalism and capitalist class, peasant revolutions or agrarian stress with a leftist bias. But no writer has so far tried to explain why Indians, who generally studied law, literature and classics during the freedom struggle, went on to study engineering in hordes later, so much so that, currently, the country is dotted with numerous coaching institutes that tutor students on how to crack the IIT entrance exams.

Nehruvians will tell us it is all because of the country’s first prime minister, who stressed on engineering by his focus on building dams, steel plants, etc. The Hindutva brigade takes us back to ancient India to remind us that we had a bright technological history that was destroyed by Muslim invaders. Whatever be the truth, this is no place to indulge in historical discovery, but the fact is that India did miss the Industrial Revolution during the 1770-1800 period. But how and when did the interest in technology come about, which, during current times, has led the country to be known as the outsourcing destination of the world?

This and many related questions are answered by Bassett in a very logical manner in the book, which is peppered with anecdotes. His thesis is that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), on which the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) are modelled, led to the rise of the current breed of technological Indians and the roots of it were sown during the freedom struggle. He traces the writings in Mahratta, a Pune-based newspaper brought out by nationalist Bal Gangadhar Tilak, way back in 1884, when Indians were exhorted to learn technology opposed to just cramming classics and grammar. Much of Indian society then was focused on studying liberal arts and law, and preferred UK’s Cambridge and Oxford for higher studies. No wonder, our freedom struggle had leaders all of whom had law degrees, and the Constitution had so much of it that it is often referred to as a “lawyers’ paradise”.

Bassett quotes from Mahratta at length to show how realisation dawned that to grow and expand, enterprise was required and learning mechanics was a must. Thus slowly began the struggle of some Indians who went to the US and started studying engineering at MIT. Some stayed back in the US, some came back. Enterprises were started; some failed, some succeeded, but the journey towards engineering, technology and enterprise had begun. And this happened as the freedom struggle continued with leaders with law degrees dominating it.

Slowly, as Indian industry took shape, families started sending their sons to MIT for further studies and the bond strengthened. The author profiles major Indian business houses, how they started, their rise and their relationship with MIT. He has also profiled failures, especially in the early days. Though Bassett has tried to place events and individuals in historical context, at times the profile and individual histories tend to get lengthy and boring.

The book is a perfect read for someone who has interest in today’s technological world and tries to understand it in historical perspective. Indians, who were once seen as people who were not a mechanical race but philosophical in nature, have come a long way. Today, Indian students are part of every global technological enterprise. Within the country, too, the race to get admissions in engineering institutes and the IT and BPO industry contributing to large-scale employment provide a perfect context to the book. In fact, the clamour today is that we need more of social sciences and liberal arts—areas where we lack cutting-edge, excellent universities and research centres.

The book is not ideological in nature and has not followed a particular type of approach in explaining its central thesis. However, one will not be surprised if it finds criticism from the Left-liberals for being unabashedly capitalist and rightists for tracing the rise of technological India from modern times. But for a large section of today’s youngsters who are non-ideological in nature, it is a must-read.

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