Siddhartha Mukherjee: I'm deeply suspicious of simple answers

The discussion titled, 'Frugal Innovations: Are our innovations better than the West because of our different approach?' on the final day of the Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai Litfest on Sunday, had on its panel, Pulitzer prize winning author Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee. Other panelists included R Gopalkrishnan, executive director of Tata Sons and Rama Bijapurkar, one of the leading consultants on market strategy and consumer behaviour in India and author of We are like that only: Understanding the Logic of Consumer India.

Gurcharan Das was supposed to be a part of the discussion initially, but last-minute changes saw Rama Bijapurkar step in as replacement. From the very beginning, it seemed like two of the panelists were heading off in very different directions and had obviously taken two different roles.

Gopalkrishnan was happy to don the role of the witty panelist and many of his quirks had the audience laughing. For instance, while explaining how the dabbawallahs of Mumbai are an example of business model unique to the Indian audience, he added, "They've ensured that divorce rates have remained low by ensuring that the right tiffin goes to the right husband." While his wit was spot on, at times one couldn't help but wonder if he was making far too many digressions, that at times, were not even remotely connected to the topic under discussion. For example, he gave a long and rather detailed outline of neurological disorders caused by lesions in the frontal cortex or something of that sort, which could cause a person to become a mass murderer or a social psychopath.

 Siddhartha Mukherjee: Im deeply suspicious of simple answers

Rama Bijapurkar, Siddharth Mukherjee and R Gopalkrishnan. Image courtesy Tata Literature Live!

His mass-murderer theory seemed a little far stretched even though he was quoting a famous Indian neurologist and Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee was not keen to entertain something that seemed like scientific hocus-pocus. Mukherjee's response was apt and curt, "If you're saying that lesions cause people to become mass murderers, then I would say I need extraordinary evidence to accept such extraordinary claims. I'm deeply suspicious of simple answers."

Mukherjee was true to his reputation as a scientist for whom the idea of innovation was about making human life easier. For him the question of eastern innovation or western innovation was a little redundant. To quote him on this, "I'd say show me the mind, the Eastern or Western mind is not important."

The discussion at times seemed a little disjointed. For Mukherjee, the question of innovation was largely restricted to the field of healthcare, given his area of expertise. His concerns were about the next vaccine to prevent cervical cancer, the mammogram machine.

When asked by an audience member about polio vaccines causing polio, he was once again quick to dismiss such suspicion of the Western medicine system. "I don't buy it, I don't buy it all; the vaccine is the best method we have for disease prevention."

Mr Gopalkrishnan was keen to stick to the idea that the West and East thought differently. He even illustrated, rather unconvincingly, that the Greeks were linear in their approach while the Indians were rather 'crooked' in theirs. The much-used theories about India possessing chaos, creativity, channelising while China had far too much control were repeated by him. In short he did much to stick to the whole East vs West debate, while Dr Mukherjee pretty much blasted any attempt to create such boundaries.

For Dr Mukherjee, innovation was an achievable goal, that required an ecosystem, a nurturing that would ensure innovation would take place. Somewhere in the middle of this discussion that familiar argument, the "why don't we have a Cambridge-Oxford type university," also occurred. Once again there was no concrete answer to that question, as if there can ever be an answer to that.

At the end of the debate — which left me wondering what it was doing in a literature festival— I was convinced of one thing, I had to pick up Emperor of all Maladies. Mukherjee's bluntness and scientific lucidity had wooed me, I'm hoping his book does the same.

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Updated Date: Nov 07, 2011 18:09:32 IST