On the 26th of August 2019, Somaiya Vidyavihar University has become a reality. Many of our institutions will combine together to become a part of this University.
In an earlier email, https://president.somaiya.edu/en/view-communications-page/91I had mentioned how I had promised my grandfather, our founder, Padma Bhushan K. J. Somaiya, that I will, in my lifetime, endeavour to make Somaiya Vidyavihar an institution that any person in the world would want to apply to. This was a condition he made, when he allowed me to go study at Cornell. We traded dreams. My dream to go to Cornell, and his dream to make Somaiya into an institution that his grandson, and by extension, others would aspire to attend.
Becoming a University is a necessary part of that journey and that goal.
Jawahar Lal Nehru said at Indian independence:
‘A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old into the new’
Later he adds
‘The achievement we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity, to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us.’
This is a similar time for us. Becoming a University is a time for charting our own course. On what we teach, and how we teach it.
We do dream of making a world-class institution of teaching, research and service, and build on the aspiration of our founder. We need to imagine what makes for a good education. We need to determine that for ourselves, in our local context, and in the global world that we live in today. Today, many of our institutions transition to University status. Our other institutions are also part of this journey toward excellence.
I would like to make our new beginning with the old Hindi film song:
आज पुरानी ज़ंजीरों को तोड़ चुके हैं क्या देखें उस मंज़िल को जो छोड़ चुके हैं चाँद के दर पर जा पहुंचा है आज ज़माना नए जगत से हम भी नाता जोड़ चुके हैं नया खून हैं नई उमंगें, अब है नई जवानी हम हिन्दुस्तानी …
My grandfather said, why not Somaiya. I said, no Chemical Engineering here, and Cornell is far better than Somaiya. He did not mind that. But said, ‘Go, but promise me, that when you return, in your lifetime, you will try to make our institutions to good, that if a candidate applies to Cornell, he/she will also apply to Somaiya’. And he allowed me to fly.
He traded dreams. Made my dreams his, and his mine. How powerful!!
Last month I was invited to speak at the South Asia Programme at Cornell. I was asked to speak on, how my student days at Cornell (and elsewhere), have influenced the work we do at the Somaiya Institutions.
I thought deeply about that, and thought, that the best way to communicate that was visual.
I explained to them, that I just applied to Cornell, since my friend was, and I gave the exams and made the applications to ‘give him company’. When I did get admission, I was very keen to go and asked for permission. My mom was ok, father was not, but if grandfather (K. J. Somaiya) allowed, I could go.
He said, why not Somaiya. I said, no Chemical Engineering here, and Cornell is far better than Somaiya. He did not mind that. But said, ‘Go, but promise me, that when you return, in your lifetime, you will try to make our institutions to good, that if a candidate applies to Cornell, he/she will also apply to Somaiya’. And he allowed me to fly.
He traded dreams. Made my dreams his, and his mine. How powerful!!
When he arrived, he saw our sports field at Cornell. He said, why can we not have such a field on our campus. And he planned it. However, he could not see it built. So, the first thing I did, when I took charge, is that I developed a 400 m running track in 2011.
Somaiya Sports Ground
I had learnt from him to observe, and if you see something that is good, ten quickly adopt it. But do not be blind. Take what is good, and leave behind what is not. And that, in everything, there is a good and a bad.
Many years ago, while walking near the University of Geneva, in Switzerland, I had seen a giant Chess Board, and so:
Chess at University of Geneva
Chess at Somaiya Vidyavihar
When I attended Cornell, the first thing I noticed, was that there were gardens everywhere and that the landscape was very inviting. On our campuses, we had buildings, but the space between buildings was unattended. So, I thought of creating gardens, and green spaces. And areas for sports. At the Vidyavihar campus, we have done a lot, at the Ayurvihar campus, we still have a lot to do.
The picture below shows the founder’s garden just before, and after completion. What I am not showing, and did not show at Cornell, that many years ago, there was too much litter on our campus. I am so proud, that we take pride in our campus spaces, and feel quite terrible when I see people throwing trash.
I also saw lovely sculptures on the campus at Cornell and thought that we should have them too. For example, they had a nice statue of their founder. But high up. I thought that we should have one too. But not so high. Shri K. J. Somaiya had written in his notes:
કોઈને ઉપયોગી થવાની તક ન ખોવી
Do not lose an opportunity to be useful to others.
K J Somaiya
Similarly, I put a statue of my father, that was so wonderfully unveiled by His Holiness The Dalai Lama in early 2017. When I met him after my father’s death, he pointed to me and said ‘you look like your father, your father was my friend’. I felt blessed.
My father. Dr Shantilal Somaiya did much to establish communication with various religions, at the highest level.
Similarly, I had never stayed in a hostel. And lived at Cornell housing for three years. They had nice buildings and nice gardens outside.
Alice Cook House at Cornell
Maitreyi at Somaiya Vidyavihar
Well, I think our Maitreyi looks better than Alice Cook house – What do you think?
There were also other changes to make. As late as 2010, we did not have common ID cards. Each institution had their own. There was no common campus identity. In fact, students were discouraged from going to other parts of the campus (canteens, etc). At Cornell, I noticed a common campus identity and thought that we must also have one.
Cafeteria for all students
When I studied at Harvard, I really liked their bookstore – the Harvard Coop. So, Amrita and I decided to build one like that in Mumbai too. So, if you have not visited Kitabkhana, you are welcome to visit (it is at Fountain). I think books are necessary. We have become too used to reading 3 minutes (or less) at a time. Books are windows to a different world. They need our time; we need to get lost inside them. Kitabkhana is a place to lose oneself. दिल ढूँढता है, फिर वही फुर्सत के रात दिन……(movie मौसम – शायर – गुलज़ार)
The academic environment was also very refreshing at Cornell. I also teach there. I can decide my curriculum, readings, the method of evaluation etc. I realised, that here we had to teach what the University told us. That had to change, and that is why we applied for autonomy and got that in many institutions. If one has to grow, then one has to learn to think for oneself, decide what is worth learning, how much, and what is ok to leave behind.
We have started a Master’s in Polymer Science, a Master’s in Healthcare management, and are planning a host of other initiatives. Within courses, and in new programmes.
Cornell also had many project groups. I still remember, speaking to the students after having received a copy of the Cornell magazine, describing how Cornell had one the Formula racing competition. And I wondered, that are these competitions only for Universities such as Cornell. Can we not compete? I challenged our students. And now, we have so many groups.
Recently at the MIT Media Lab (where I also took some courses), I saw that the walls of the classrooms were made of glass. So, we have also created glass walls at the extension building of the K J Somaiya Institute of Engineering and Information Technology.
MIT- Media Lab
In fact, our incubator space riidl, was also inspired by a similar visit at the MIT Media Lab.
While visiting Cornell Tech, the recent New York City campus of Cornell University (that was gifted to Cornell by New York City – and that speaks volumes for a City’s commitment to higher education, given how much we need to struggle), I saw that they had started a startup studio. I suggested that to riidl, and we created a similar programme here as well.
And then to take students from one campus to another (their medical campus is a four and a half hour drive from the parent campus – ours is a twenty-minute drive), they have a bus that continuously moves between them. That helped create joint and interdisciplinary projects.
In medicine, the challenge has been to create an institution that provides great care to all. In India, poor go to teaching hospitals and those who can afford it, to expensive ones. In the USA, everyone prefers to go to a teaching hospital. I wanted to make ours like that. And so we added a super speciality wing to our hospital, to improve the overall hospital.
My father passed away in Australia, in a teaching hospital, where he was taken after he slipped and fell, and hurt his head. Though he did not survive, I thought we should have a similar emergency room in our hospital.
But we are also different in many ways. We do work in adult education, in underprivileged areas. We have built a gorgeous centre at Jetavan, in Sakarwadi. This initiative by the K J Somaiya Centre for Buddhist Studies was built using quarry dust, fly ash, jute, cow dung, and old style casting techniques from Kutch.
Jetavan, in Sakarwadi.
Jetavan, in Sakarwadi.
We recently inaugurated the Maya Somaiya library (named after my mother), that was ‘Highly Commended’ by the magazine Architecture Review (only one of three such this year), and was covered in the international magazine Domus.
We also do work at Nareshwadi – to work in health, education, and livelihood of the tribal community. And we have a 100 student बालकाश्रम. We also teach artisans in Kutch business management and principles of design. Their convocation is the best I have ever seen, with graduates walking down the ramp in a fashion show, in a village with more than 6000 in the audience. And the audience is full of friends and family.
Somaiya Kala Vidya
We are a rare institution, where the K J Somaiya Vidyapeeth conducts its entire curriculum in Sanskrit, run by the Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan.
But this is only the beginning. In the future, we want to build a school of Indian music and dance, of the arts, painting, drama. We want to build a museum. We want to build more science laboratories, more health care facilities, more sports facilities. More places to live, learn and live some more.
It is only possible to do because of what they founded, dreamt, and built.
I made a promise to my grandfather. In the words of another poet: It will take time, but many of you are walking with me in making that dream a reality. From the housekeeping staff who cleans the campus, the student who imagines a lander on a Jovian moon, the doctor working in Pratikshanagar, the teacher preparing his/her lecture notes and thousands of you, we are all in this together.
Please continue walking with me in fulfilling that promise.
In the words of Kaifi Azmi: उठ मेरी जान, मेरे साथ ही चलना है तुझे
Mr Samir Somaiya was invited by the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, to attend their 6th Congress of World and Traditional Religions, and invited to speak on behalf of Hinduism. Dr Shantilal Somaiya has been recognised and revered in Kazakhstan for his work in fostering interfaith understanding.
The text of Mr Samir Somaiya’s speech is below.
His Excellency Mr Nursultan Nazarbayev, President of Kazakhstan. His Excellency Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Leaders and Representatives of World and Traditional Religions The word secure, is derived from Latin, and means ‘se’ – without, and ‘cura’, care. Meaning ‘without care’. Without worry. Without fear. How do we help create a world where we all feel secure, free from fear and threats, and one in which we feel free to dream, hope and pursue our dreams. The Sanskrit verse, taken from the sixth chapter of the Maha Upanishad, is engraved at the entrance hall of the Parliament of India.
“This is mine, that is yours, say the small minded. The entire world is a family, for the large-hearted.”(6.71)
We all live in very diverse worlds. Our worlds can be divided into nations, religions, languages, ethnicities, genders, and as many differences, we can think about. Our way of dress, the food we eat, the colour of our skin, the culture to which we belong, our way of worshipping God, etc., are all expressions of those differences. Do we celebrate this diversity? Or do we seek to want the world to look alike and exactly the same, and one that conforms to our worldview? These differences have often become an obstacle to our living together. They must instead be seen as enriching our human community and our lives. The verse quoted above makes us see the world as one without boundaries, and just as in a family we have different members with varied hopes, dreams, ages, and abilities, so also the entire world.
Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” If one is to look at the world as one family, then one must care for the world.
The Bhagavad Gita also says that
यज्ञशिष्टाशिनः सन्तो मुच्यन्ते सर्वकिल्बिषैः ।
भुञ्जते ते त्वघं पापा ये पचन्त्यात्मकारणात् ॥ 3.13॥
Meaning, that one who cooks for himself alone, is committing a sin. And only he who eats last after providing for all is freed from sin.
Here, the meaning is to pursue action, to pursue work, but to work for all, and to partake of the fruit of one’s work, only after making sure that all others have been provided for. After we have ‘secured’ for others, their well being. If people in the world looked out only for themselves and did not bother or care for those around them, then you have the world that is ‘secure for me,’ but ‘there is no place for you’. Mahatma Gandhi was referring to this ‘greed’. We must not become blind to other people’s needs, deaf to their cries of help, indifferent to their problems. We must always be alive to address the needs of our extended families, the needs of those living next door, the needs of those working with us, the needs of those who we perceive to be ‘other’ than us, i.e., a different country, a different religion, a different culture.
In the Atharvaveda, it has been said:
Earn with a hundred hands and give with a thousand hands.
Meaning that one must work, and one must earn. But one must earn to give. To provide a safer and more secure world.
And we must set examples in our own places of work and activity. We all exercise some degree of ‘soft power’, i.e., a power exercised through persuasion, instead of ‘hard power’ that is exercised through military force or economic sanctions. This can be demonstrated by example, or the environment we create in our spheres of influence. If I represent an educational institution, we must welcome all. All people from all walks of life, demographics, religions, languages, cultures. We must celebrate diversity. We must also understand that we may have different value systems. Do we provide a platform to be able to discuss different values? Can we agree to differ, can we agree to come together? Do we only tolerate one other, or do we truly respect each other?
Much violence is being perpetrated in the world in the name of religion, nationalities, languages, cultures, and other boundaries.
A poet famously said:
कोई हिन्दू कोई मुस्लिम कोई ईसाई है
सब ने इंसान न बनने की क़सम खाई है
Meaning that we have all decided to be Hindus, Muslims, and Christians over being people. We must be people first and remember that in all conversations.
To see this unity, and to keep reminding us of this, we need dialogue. Dialogue is about listening to, understanding, and learning from each other in the knowledge that truth and goodness are not exclusive to any religion in particular, but are spoken of in all religions.
In this Sixth Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, at the invitation of the Honourable President, Mr Nursultan Nazarbayev, we are provided with the opportunity to come together, and discuss how we can, hand in hand, create a better, secure, peaceful and harmonious world. Let us keep trying.