My Impressions of TED India

So I’m back and somewhat recovered from TED India. I’m slowly settling into the rhythms of my usual life without needing to wake up at 6 to go to breakfast by 7.15, and actually being able to officially nap in the afternoons, instead of nodding off in a seated position surrounded by hundreds of the world’s most eminent people, all no doubt staring at me. Anyway, briefly, here are my impressions of TED India:

The Highs

1: Sunitha Krishnan. While the Talks were disappointing going by TED standards (more on that later), I was privileged to be present at a TED Talk that will surely become one of the classics. A petite, cheerful lady named Sunitha Krishnan came up on stage and told us about how she rescued girls kidnapped for or sold into trafficking. It was a strong talk all by itself—and then she gave us some back story. ‘I was gang-raped by eight men when I was 15.’ Jaws dropped. She went on talking about how she got through her anger at her rape, and later drove herself to rescue victims of trafficking and sexual violence. There wasn’t a trace of victimhood or self-righteousness in her narrative, not did she serve up any feminist rhetoric about patriarchies and suchlike. It was a straight-from-the-heart story of the work she does, and of how the girls she rescues, instead of wallowing in self-pity, so often have the strength to go out in the world and engage with society again. It was remarkable—make sure you watch it when the guys at TED release it online.

There were a few other solid talks as well, such as the ones by Shaffi Mather, Charles Anderson, Kavita Ramdas and Ryan Lobo, all of which I can’t wait to watch again online.

2: The People. The real draw of TED is the intellectual firepower around you, and the amazing people you get to meet. I got to reconnect with many of the friends I’d met in the early years of blogging, and also got to meet tons of new people doing interesting things. Many of my fellow Ted Fellows are engaged in work that actually changes the lives of thousands of people (as opposed to writing a measly novel), and it was humbling to be in their company. I was also delighted to connect with the Pakistanis at the conference, who made it a richer event just by their presence.

For future attendees of TED conferences, my friend (and TED veteran) Reuben Abraham gave me some good advice that I’ll pass down: 1, The people are a bigger deal than the Talks. After all, you can watch the talks online. 2, Don’t hang out with people you normally hang out with. That’s a waste. Meet new people. 3, Don’t spread yourself too thin by meeting too many new people. It’s a buffet with 800 dishes, and if you try to taste 400 of them, you won’t enjoy any.

3: The Ted Extras. From the outside, all you see of TED are the TED Talks. But there were hazaar other things happening. There were Ted Fellows sessions, where fellows spoke about subjects of their choice, and some of them were fascinating—especially Sandeep Sood on how we’d remember ancient civilisations if they’d used social media, Jane Chen on how her team did jugaad to build a dirt-cheap incubator for newborns, and Aparna Rao on her funky art projects. (I didn’t volunteer to speak because I was so awed by the TED brand, a decision I now regret.)

There was also something called the TED University, where TEDsters enlighted us on things they were working on. VS Ramachandran gave an excellent talk here on mirror neurons, for example, that was better than most of the TED Talks that came later. And there were workshops on hazaar things, such as a particularly good one called Jugaad, on bottom-up entrepreneurship. To be physically present at the conference, thus, was an experience on an entirely different level from just viewing the Talks online.

4: The Sociological Research. Being at TEDIndia gave some of us valuable insights into society and the human condition (as well as the road to world peace, but I won’t reveal it here, I’d rather find ways to monetize it first). Here’s an interesting observation for you, which my good buddy Gautam John brought to my notice: the pharmacy at the Infosys campus in Mysore does not sell condoms.

I want you to think about that for a moment. This is a campus where thousands of young men and women stay and work together. The official Infosys position on this matter, thus, seems to be that either a) Infosys employees do not have sex or b) Infosys employees have sex, but it should not be safe sex. Isn’t this interesting?

The Infosys campus, by the way, is truly bizarre. It is immensely opulent, but also quite schizophrenic. As I’d tweeted, it’s a collage of pastiches of different architectural styles: you have the Capitol and the Epcot Centre within two minutes of each other, and the Gothic and Greek Revival and Structural Expressionism schools, along with every other style of architecture thought of by man, seems to be present there. (I was disappointed not to spot any caves.) There is no coherence to any of this.

Also, the design isn’t functional at all. In the building where I stayed, all the bathroom windows overlooked the inner courtyard, where people gather. This is just bad design, exacerbated by the absence of condoms.

But back to sociology. In discussions with Gautam and the legendary Shaffi Mather, explanations for this campus were arrived at. One, given the apparent social background of most of the Infosys employees, the campus is meant to shock and awe you. The average employee here has never seen anything like this, and is madly grateful to get the chance to live a life like this. Infosys might well become his religion after this. (Indeed, the organised religions built grand churches and temples and mosques for just this effect.) Two, Staying in a campus of this sort trains him for life in the US, where he might well be posted next. No walking on the grass, strict smoking areas (the pharmacy doesn’t sell cigarettes either) and so on.

But why are we talking about Infosys? And this isn’t sociology, it’s frickin’ adda. Back to TED.

The Lows

1: It’s Good—But is it TED? Spoilt by so many great TED Talks from the past, we tend to expect groundbreaking revelations from TED. But most of the talks revealed nothing new about the world. Hans Rosling, the TED legend, was entertaining, but we’d seen it all before: the visual effects, the showmanship etc. And his central thesis, that India will overtake the US by 2048 based on current trends, was meaningless, because as his own charts show, trends don’t stay stable, and unexpected events always change the way countries grow. Equally, Pranav Mistry’s talk unveiled an awesome new technology—that we’ve already seen before on TED. Even people I expected much from, like design guru Banny Banerjee and behavioral economist Sendhil Mullainathan, didn’t tell us anything we wouldn’t know from reading recent literature on those subjects. Don’t get me wrong, these were good, solid talks—but not quite TED.

2: How Firangs View India. My really big grouse about TED India was that it catered to Western stereotypes of India. There was much exotica, and much mysticism served up that says nothing at all about the country we are today. The average foreign attendee would have gone away with his stereotypes about India reinforced, not shattered. That’s an opportunity missed.

One talk that was truly WTF was by this ludicrous godman named Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev. He is an excellent, endearing showman and has a great sense of humour, which I guess are the qualities you need in the godman business, but he spoke mystical nonsense. Among other things, he described how he once cured a fractured foot just by concentrating on it, because the mind overcomes everything. You get the drift, it was that kind of spirituality/self-help crap, and I’m amazed he was allowed on to a TED stage. At the very least, someone should have broken his foot as he got onto it, so he could actually demonstrate to us the power of the human mind by healing it live. Now that would have been TED material.

3: Too many corporate presentations. A whole bunch of the Talks were just corporate presentations, with people talking about themselves or their companies with the aid of boring powerpoint slides. At a TED conference, you really would expect more than this. Why can’t they make Duarte Design a consultant to help with all their speakers’ slides? Is there no vetting that goes on before a speaker goes up to speak? TED is supposed to be about ‘Ideas Worth Spreading’? Honestly, how many of the Talks had ideas like that?

4: Celeb Power. There seemed to be a handful of people who were invited to give Talks just because they were celebs, without a thought to whether they actually had something new to communicate. Shashi Tharoor is a superb public speaker, but his speech was aimed at the ignorant foreigner, and he said nothing that he hasn’t said hazaar times before. He even recycled that old cliche about a country of Hindus being ruled by a Christian (Sonia Gandhi), a Sikh (Manmohan Singh) and a Muslim (APJ Abdul Kalam; Tharoor was speaking in the past tense). It was magnificent orating, but schoolboy-level feel-good content.

Shekhar Kapur also gave a bizarre talk, and no one there seemed to have figured out what he was on about. ‘Was he on dope?’ more than one person asked me. ‘No,’ I replied. ‘He’s a friend of Deepak Chopra. Whaddya expect?’

But these are familiar figures to Western audiences, so I guess that is why they were invited.

Well, that’s that. The negatives sound harsh, but whenever you curate something, whether it’s a conference or an art show or a magazine (an editor is basically a curator), you never get everything right. My friend Sambit Bal, the editor of Cricinfo who once edited the now-defunct Gentleman, and who I consider India’s best magazine editor, once told me that when he put together an issue of Gentleman, he would be satisfied if at the end he had a product in which any reader could find three or four pieces they thoroughly enjoyed. No one’s ever going to enjoy everything; and no one piece can satisfy everyone.

By that reckoning, TED India was a success. I’m sure that many TED India attendees will have loved the Talks I hated and not liked the ones I loved. That’s the nature of a conference like this, and on the whole, I’d say the folks at TED did an amazing job. Also, my criticism is all about the Talks. The conference itself was immaculately organised, and the kind of people I got to meet awed and humbled me. It was, if I may lapse into cliche, the experience of a lifetime.

I’d been tweeting on and off from Mysore, so you can check those archives for more if you wish. Or just wait for the Talks to come online and make up your own mind. Off I go now, I think I need a nap. There’s a backlog to cover.