“Tortoise on the pole” and Desi wisdom

Tapan Misra

Desi lingo, many a times, hides pithy wisdom. One such phrase is “Khambe ka Kachhua”, literally meaning “Tortoise perched on top of a roadside pole”.

Tortoise cannot climb a pole on its own. Tortoise is clueless about its role at high position. That poor chap has been elevated beyond its ability. Passer-by are clueless about the idiot who put it up, at the first place itself. However, life goes on below the pole unaffected as the clueless tortoise atop a pole, can hardly affect them.

In my younger days, I used to think that such characters were more of an exception. Now with a life with varied experiences, I now know they are quite common. You can notice them almost in every field. Our institutions, political parties, scientific organisations , academia, bureaucracy etc. have their own shares of such lofty characters. Their population is a good indicator of the stagnancy of institutions. If the numbers are large and their presence does not matter in the day-to-day work, then it only means that the work environment is mundane, routine, without any ambition and hence does not need leaders. Any pretension of leadership is okay.

Every initiative in such institutions is met with condescending advice, “Beta, tum se na ho payega” (“My son, you may not be able to accomplish the task”). This fatherly advice (sic) killed maximum possible initiatives in many generations. Children have been rendered risk avoiders, youth have become laggards, workers have been made unimaginative, factories became unproductive, institutions have been made hostile to change with time and technology.

It is very difficult to survive if you want to bring change and improvement in this scenario. If you do not heed to the collective ethos of the institution, the majority will easily turn to not-so-friendly-a-company. After all, those accustomed to shibboleth, are not going to seek any change in status quo. Newton’s first law!

Darwin also advised that only the fittest, meaning most adjustable, species can survive. Darwin’s theory never espoused that the best of the lot can survive! Once I faced this reality at my own peril. One of my senior colleagues, quite earthy, in approach and dealings, gave me the desi advice, “Musheebat ke wakt, gadhe ko bhi baap banana padta hai” (“In times of crisis, try to adjust to even a donkey”). I remember the time. Many of my senior colleagues were eased out for not heeding to basic principle of Darwin’s theory, for their enthusiasm to do something different. I heeded, camouflaged myself as one among them and survived to tell the story.

But just because you are forced to adjust to the environment, does not mean that you cease to make a difference. In a status quoist environment, you get many pieces of advice on why things will not work out. Had we listened to all the advices of caution, we would not have established critical technologies like SAR, hyperspectral imaging, HTS with tens of Gibits bandwidth, super resolution camera, miniaturized radars and sensors for interplanetary missions, hundreds of MMIC/VLSI chips/sensors and so on, on a very strong footing in desi environment, truly Made in India. We kept a motto, “Suno sab ki, karo khud ki” (“Listen to all, do what your heart says”). We never lost our conviction on the way to our long journey.

From my experience I realized two major learnings:

“Jugad”(“Frugal Innovation”) will bring you a solution in the short term. But if you want to make a lasting and flawless technology, quality in innovation is the key. Quality comes from three main ingredients: imagination, knowledge and perseverance. Just for the sake of “Jugad”, just because the phenomenon has been romanticized a lot, do not compromise on these three ingredients. “Jugad” is alien to our culture. Look at the beautiful architectures, sculptures, our ancestors bequeathed to us. Each of them is a masterpiece of aesthetics, art, science and engineering, icons of excellence. I feel pained that we forget that excellence is the lasting inspiration from our forefathers.

I get a firm conviction on ordinary Indian men and women. I stopped looking at colleges, they graduated from, and their marksheets. Many of them are like “Number kam hai, dimag nehi” (“Albeit a low scorer, but brainy”). Most of the hindrances to achieving quality engineering is mostly in the leadership. An able leadership sets a right example to inspire his colleagues to achieve seemingly undoable.

Perseverance distinguishes “Lambi dour ka ghoda” (“Quality horse, with long racing career”). Ten percent of right inspiration, from leaders with their own track record, can easily bring out ninety percent perspiration from his colleagues. We can achieve anything, if and only if, “Man lo to har hai, than lo to jeet hai” (“If you succumb to obstacles, you are a sure loser. If you are determined to overcome the obstacles, you are a sure winner”). I fervently wish, as a nation, we imbibe this desi wisdom, in our every sphere of life.


Tapan Misra is a distinguished scientist. He has headed the Space Application Centre and also served as Advisor Department of Space, Government of India.

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