iMahal Interview Series:
M. Vidyasagar
May 19, 2000

iMahal: The growth of the Internet is a global phenomenon; thanks for facilitating it in India. Were there any other high-level committees?!
Sagar: Several, but I would like to mention only one more that was quite satisfying. I was a member of the Andhra Pradesh Task Force on IT. During 1997, the CM of AP set up a Task Force on IT, to draw up a report which eventually became a part of AP's Vision 2020 document. A part of this was also the statewide APSWAN, which connects 23 district Headquarters with the state secretariat in Hyderabad and also the Software Technology Park in the capital city. I took part in drawing up the specifications and in choosing the firm that was awarded the contract to commission APSWAN.

iMahal: This sounds like a fair bit of administration. It is remarkable that along with all your management responsibilities, you were able to find time to conduct research. Tell us what have you been working on lately?
Sagar: For the past few years I have been working on an area known as statistical learning theory. Different aspects of the theory go under different names, such as computational learning theory, and PAC (probably approximately correct) learning theory. This theory can be used to explain, in a mathematically precise way, why neural networks can "learn" and "generalize." In addition to this, statistical learning theory can be used to develop efficient (i.e., polynomial-time) randomized algorithms for solving problems in robust control design that are otherwise intractable.

iMahal: Impressive! Let's change gears a bit. You spent a fairly large portion of your academic time in Canada. Tell us about your professional career in Canada in particular, and around the world in general.
Sagar: I left India just short of my thirteenth birthday, midway through what was then called Seventh Form, or 12th Standard in today's parlance. My family (father, mother, myself and younger sister) emigrated to the U.S. There I completed the 12th grade, and then joined university at the age of thirteen. I received all of my degrees, namely B.Sc., M.Sc. and Ph.D. (all in Electrical Engineering) from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I am proud to say that in 1995 my alma mater honoured me by giving me a "Distinguished Service Citation" (essentially a recognition as a distinguished alumnus).

iMahal: This probably means that now you will feel guilty about not paying your alumni dues - just kidding ;^) Please continue.
Sagar: I knew there was a financial angle to that recognition, but seriously, it was a great honor. I don't know what I can say about my professional career that would interest anybody. After completing my Ph.D. in 1969, for all practical purposes I seemed to change jobs every ten years or so. Immediately after my Ph.D., I taught for one year at Marquette University, located in Milwaukee (famous for its basketball coach, Al Mcguire! :-) ). Between 1970 and 1980 I was teaching in Montreal, Canada at Concordia University, and between 1980 and 1989 I taught at the University of Waterloo, also in Canada. I chose Canada because my parents moved from the U.S.A. to Canada in 1963 and have been there ever since. In 1989 I returned to India to become the Director of CAIR. In between, I held several visiting positions all around the world. I have visited all continents except for Antarctica. Usually most academics manage to go to Europe, some to Australia, and a few to South America. But almost no academic I know has been to Africa. But I have, not once but twice! Finally, as stated above, a few weeks ago I changed jobs and joined Tata Consultancy Services. So I have covered a very broad spectrum, spanning academia, government R&D, and now private industry.

iMahal: A lot of Indians after spending a few years abroad talk about returning to India. Some do and some do not - depending on their individual constraints. What made you decide to return to India? I am sure many people in the iMahal audience will benefit from your personal experience.
Sagar: Even as I was finishing my Ph.D., I had the thought of returning to India. But since I had left India as a teenager and had not even attended college in India, I wanted to spend a year in India on a sabbatical leave to get some feel for the country. Unfortunately, at Concordia University, where I spent the period 1970-80, the sabbatical leave policy was so absurd that I could not take a sabbatical at all, *anywhere*, let alone to India. So I had to keep my plans in abeyance. After I moved to Waterloo, I took a sabbatical leave in India at the first available opportunity, namely during 1987-88, and spent most of the time in the Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL), Hyderabad, which was then headed by Dr. Abdul Kalam. This experience showed me two things: one, I really liked *living* in India and felt a deep sense of belonging. And second, with an inspiring leader like Dr. Kalam, even government servants will work extra hard. At the same time, the position as Director of CAIR was offered to me. I thought about it and felt that it was the best position I could hope to get. So I took the plunge. After my sabbatical was finished, I asked for one year's joining time, so that I could finish off my commitments at Waterloo, mainly by way of Ph.D. students, and took up this post in 1989.

iMahal: What did (and does) your family think of the decision? Do you still believe that it was the right decision for you?
Sagar: My daughter Aparna was born in 1982, and ever since 1984 she and her mother (and I, if I could manage it) visited India every winter. So by 1987 Aparna knew all her relatives and also the Telugu language. The year 1987-88 in which she went to UKG (Upper Kindergarten) was very good for her, and she thoroughly enjoyed it. So when we returned for good in 1989, she was mentally prepared. The first school that she attended (for the Second Grade) was, in my opinion, a bad choice, but fortunately the next year I could manage to locate an excellent school for her. So she has done fine by the return to India. As for my wife, it has given her an opportunity to be close to her parents, so I think she too is glad to have come back when we did. But perhaps iMahal should interview Mrs. Vidyasagar separately! :-)

iMahal: We just might ;^) What were some of the adjustments you had to make on your return to India?
Sagar: I can't say that I had to make too many adjustments upon my return. The main memory I have of my first year or two in India is the overwhelming amount of goodwill that I encountered from almost all the persons whom I met. They seemed to feel proud that some NRI would actually give up everything (that was how they saw it) and return to India, and went out of their way to help me if they could. Of course, many more persons are returning these days, so I do not know whether someone returning today would meet with a similar reaction. On the other hand, the "gap" between Indian society and the U.S. is getting narrower all the time, be it in the matter of credit cards, keeping one's money in dollars, cell phones, or whatever. In fact, several foreign visitors have commented to me that many more persons seem to have cell phones in India than abroad!

Anyway, I think the key to my successful "re-entry" was that I accepted that I knew nothing about Indian society, and set out to study it. To my surprise, I found that most of the cliches about India are just that -- cliches. The westernized, deracinated, leftist segment of Indian society is vastly over-represented in Indian media (especially English media), and it has successfully projected its self-loathing and sense of shame about being Indian onto a global scale. This is why one reads only negative stories about India in the world media -- because that is all one reads in *Indian* media as well! If one tries to reach out to the "real India" he would find quite a different picture from what one may expect sitting outside India. I see around me an enormous amount of idealism, pride in one's country and one's heritage, and so on. Of course, all this applies only to the "real India" and not to the self-styled elite, as I said above. In summary, I think anyone who is ready to make up his own mind about India, without any preconceptions, will do quite well upon returning.



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