iMahal Interview Series:
M. Vidyasagar
May 19, 2000

iMahal: How was the move from India to the US? I can recall that when I moved to North America, it was a painful transition, both emotionally and financially.
Sagar: I found the one year I spent in an American high school to be extremely unpleasant. In comparison, college was much more enjoyable. In American high schools, social life was *everything*, even back then. Everybody was worried about who was the prom queen, who was the coolest guy/gal in class, and how to hang around them. This experience taught me how tough it must be to be a teenager in the U.S. And remember, back then, there was no "sex" angle to complicate things further, as there is now. Watching Aparna go through her teenage years here in Bangalore made me realize that India is a *much* better place for children to grow up. This is not just a cliche, believe me! So the one year I spent in high school was pretty lonely. But in college people were much more mature, even though they were just twelve months older. I did not feel very lonely at all in college, and had several good friends, one of whom I keep in touch with even today (and to set the record straight, he is a white American! :-) ). Financially, since my parents supported me and later on I had a Fellowship, I had no difficulties. In fact, comparatively speaking, Fellowships were much higher back then. In 1965, I was getting $ 230 per month, tax-free, and I could barely spend $ 30 per week. So I could afford to visit my parents in Canada twice a year out of my savings.

iMahal: As an Indian, yours was a unique experience, in that, you were able to experience high-school, undergraduate, and (post) graduate life. What were the most difficult and what were the most enjoyable aspects of your school days in the US?
Sagar: I think what I found most different was the shallowness of the social relationships. In India friendships are for life. Even today I keep in touch with half a dozen of my high school classmates, who go back more than forty years. In contrast, in the US, people just did not get close to each other, even amongst themselves. I recall once being completely startled when one of my American classmates told me that he did not even know how many cousins he had! Can we imagine an Indian saying something like that? I can't say that I found anything *more* enjoyable in the US than in India, since I had a very enjoyable life in India before our emigration. Since our standard of living in the US only climbed gradually and slowly, even this aspect was not too noticeable.

iMahal: Surely this is the culture thing. While the cultural differences often times surprise us, it is these differences that makes us an interesting species. No? And when you end up in a culture diametrically opposite to yours, it helps if you can connect with a "support group" of sorts, whether Indian or otherwise. Was there a support group you could connect to?
Sagar: I must say that back when I went to the US, even Indian *graduate* students were a novelty, and of course Indian *undergraduate* students were very few and far between. There were only a couple of Gujarati/Marwari/Sindhi students doing their undergraduate degrees in Wisconsin. We knew each other, but for friendship and company I hung around only with Americans. There was an Indian Student Association, whose main function was to show Hindi movies. Occasionally I used to go to these movies, but all in all, I was not too hung up on being around Indians all the time. Paradoxically, I find *today's* emigrants much more clannish and unwilling to venture out into the American society at large than in my time. Having said all that, however, I should add that the University of Wisconsin had a huge collection of Telugu books as a part of its Indian Studies Program, so I used to read those books regularly. I must have read 500 books during the time I was in Wisconsin. Sad to say, most of those books were pulp fiction (what we used to call "Railway novels" during my childhood). I wonder who made the purchase decisions!

iMahal: Your observation is accurate. I wonder if "clannishness" is due to larger number of students. It would be difficult to have a clan with, as you mentioned, 2-3 people, but the number of students going to graduate schools now is considerably larger and they are "able" to form these closer circles. It is hard to say whether that is good or not, but surely it limits their exposure to the American society at large. Let us go back even further, your days as a grade schooler. Where did you go to grade school, in which place(s) in India did you live while growing up?
Sagar: I was born in Guntur, in my maternal uncle's house. Back then, it was common for ladies to go to their mother's house for delivery, and not to a hospital as is the case today. At that time, my father was teaching in Presidency College in Madras, one of the most prestigious institutions of its day. So from 1947 to 1953 we were in Madras. In 1954 the states were reorganized on a linguistic basis, following the self-sacrifice of Potti Sree Ramulu. So my father opted for the newly formed Andhra government service, and was transferred to the Government Arts College in Rajahmundry. For reasons that I cannot now specify, I always think of the calendar year 1954 as the happiest single year of my life, though I was much too small to remember anything in detail. In January 1955 my father was transferred to Cuddapah. He decided to quit government service and joined the Sri Venkateswara University, which *at that time* was private. (Now it comes under the University Grants Commission.) So I spent the period 1955-60 in Tirupati, and if any city in India qualifies as my "hometown," it is the holy city of Tirupati. I go there as often as I can, once every year or two, and climb to the temple on top. As stated above, I still have many friends there, and the house in which I grew up is still there.

iMahal: You must keep in good shape to be able to climb all those steps. Talking about keeping in shape, your current research and administrative activities must require you to keep a demanding schedule. Are you able to pursue other interests alongside your professional activities? What are some of those interests and activities?
Sagar: My administrative tasks demand nearly all of my time. So if I do any research, it is only out of a sense of commitment. I do have other interests. I enjoy Carnatic music, and go to concerts whenever I can. Unfortunately, given the totally chaotic traffic scenario in Bangalore, unless the concert was in a place close to where I live, I could not go. So perhaps I went to four or five concerts in a given year. Since the traffic in Hyderabad is much smoother than in Bangalore, I hope to get to more concerts in Hyderabad. I read an enormous amount, both illuminating and junk books. I don't like fiction very much, unless it is of the classic variety. I simply can't stand all the production-line "Indo-Anglian literature" being churned out by the likes of Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, etc., all of which is so obviously aimed at the Western market. I can't find anything to relate to in those kinds of books. All of it is uniformly depressing, and seems to lack any sort of viewpoint. Also, I don't like authors self-consciously drawing attention to their own style, which the various Indo-Anglian writers do all the time. I listen to music practically all the time. One unfortunate consequence of this is that I run out of things to listen to. In addition to Carnatic music, I also like Western classical music, especially the likes of Mozart, Schubert, etc. (and not so much the sombre type of Western music like Franz Lizst for example). For exercise, I jog as much as I can (but I am fat anyway! :-( ). I also play tennis with my daughter, and play golf occasionally.

iMahal: Sagar, there is so much more we would like to ask you. I hope you do not mind if we continue this interview at a later date. In particular, we would like to hear your views on higher education in India, US, UK and Canada - your candid advise to prospective engineering students at undergraduate as well as graduate level, young researchers, and so on.
Sagar: I have truely enjoyed this interaction. It made me think about things that were buried deep in my memory. I would be happy to follow up on this interview. Thank you for giving me the opportunity.

iMahal: It has been a pleasure.


(Note: Dr. Vidyasagar's interview was conducted by Pradeep Misra who has known Sagar for over ten years as a professional peer and friend.)


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