Before He Left: Conversations with My Tatayya

I originally wrote this September 4, prior to coming to India. I should have posted this a few weeks ago on the occasion of what would have been my grandfather’s 100th birthday, September 20. I hope you enjoy this belated posting, which benefits from pictures taken during our trip, as I near the end of this visit to Hyderabad, made in part to observe the occasion.

ECIL Birth Centenary Celebrations of Dr. A.S. Rao

In 2003, I visited my “Tatayya,” Dr. A.S. Rao, with his oldest son and my father, Dr. Venkatachalam Ayyagari, on what was at that time a sort of annual pilgrimage my father took to the house in Tarnaka around the occasion of Tatayya’s September 20 birthday. With acuity and wit surpassing most at any age, Tatayya would recount his memories to me as we sat in the cool, high-ceilinged den of the house, sipping tea or water (boiled for me in empty bottles of Johnnie Walker Black Label). I was visiting India for the first time since I was 10, and, truthfully, I was disappointed at that time in my life, being just out of college but lacking in direction or employment, a situation which gave me the leisure to join in my father’s trip.

What follows are unedited transcriptions of the handwritten diary entries [1] I had the bare good sense to record about those conversations, a treasure life gave me despite myself. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of Tatayya’s recollections, nor do I intend this to be a historical chronicle. I merely want to present these pieces of his life as he shared them with his grandson in those quiet evenings under a fan’s breeze. Three weeks after we returned from India, he left us, on October 31, 2003. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Tatayya’s birth, I am glad to be able to share them with everyone.

The chair, his chair, he sat in while talking to me.

The chair, his chair, he sat in while talking to me.

Friday, September 12, 2003

Some things Tatayya reminisced about today:

Benares in the 40s

He was excited by the swelling of the Ganga and took a swim. Fifty or so yards out in the river, he realized he needed to swim back as well, he recalled with a chuckle. Too tired to swim back, he floated downstream until he was able to reach steps in the river and walk ashore. Unfortunately he had to walk the few miles back to his clothes in underwear alone, an embarrassing situation.

Dr. A.S. Rao's degree from Benares Hindu University, next to a later picture of him and my grandmother with my father, aunts, and uncles.

Tatayya’s degree from Benares Hindu University, next to a later picture of him and my grandmother with my father, aunts, and uncles.

On getting to Stanford in the late 40s

After getting his MSc in 1939, he lectured at Benares Hindu University. He wanted to go to Stanford, but in 1946 at age 32, with 2 children, he was considered too old and too burdened with responsibility to receive the Tata scholarship. He wrote a letter to Dr. Terman [2] at Stanford, and the letter was forwarded to Terman at MIT. Terman responded, and for that Tatayya seemed grateful because it was rare for an Indian to get a reply from an American University. Terman forwarded Tatayya’s letter to Dr. Skilling [3] at Stanford, who wrote to Tatayya that the University could offer him a spot with half his expenses paid.

Armed with Dr. Skilling’s letter and a testimonial from S. Radhakrishnan (later President of India), he approached the Tata committee and received the scholarship, Rs. 12,000.

However, he was unable to secure passage until February of the next year, a year or so after receiving the scholarship. By the time he reached Stanford for the Spring term, Dr. Skilling informed him that all available scholarship money had gone to returning American GIs and he could not help him. Tatayya secured a job cleaning glassware in the lab for $20 a month, and did a good enough job that his pay was doubled to $40 per month. He also worked in the canteen for $0.90 an hour, later $1.25/hour.

Within 2 years he earned the distinction of Engineer and decided to return to India.

Tatayya's Engineering degree from Stanford.

Tatayya’s Engineering degree from Stanford.

On staying with Atomic Energy

He recalled that when he was first working, he was traveling 2-3 months per year taking cosmic ray measurements around India, sending hydrogen balloons with Geiger-Muller counters 70,000 to 80,000 feet into the atmosphere to measure cosmic radiation and send back the result by radio.

The travel became too much with a young family, and he informed his boss Dr. Homi J. Bhabha to provide him with a recommendation so he could go teach somewhere. Bhabha told him he would provide him with a non-traveling post in Bombay—but he had to go to Paris for 2 months first. And as it turned out, he ended up in Moscow, London, and New York quite often.

On ECIL and Shiv Sena

In the 1960s, Hyderabad was not really on the national map. Tatayya noted that what companies were there were hiring outsiders, not locals. It was decided to move the Electronics Production unit to Hyderabad to provide jobs to locals.

The organization Shiv Sena got wind of the move and protested 5000-strong outside Tatayya’s office. Bal Thakhare [sic] marched into his office and handed him a letter protesting the huge economic and job loss from Bombay and Maharashtra, with a warning to watch for his safety.

In a letter to the Chief Minister of Maharashtra dated March 16, 1967, PM Indira Gandhi assured that there would be no job loss during the move and newer development sectors were to be located in Bombay. Tatayya recalls having to meet with her several times to discuss the matter.

Tatayya noted ECIL provided jobs to many in the Hyderabad area, many with high school or less education, who would have never found a decent job in the area and would have never left the area. He remembered getting the road near his house built.

Not just 11 years after his death, but 36 years after he left the company, throngs of ECIL employees express their gratitude  for his stand at his grand birth centenary celebration, September 20.

Not just 11 years after his death, but 36 years after he left the company, throngs of ECIL employees express their gratitude for his stand at his grand birth centenary celebration, September 20, 2014.

On family

Tatayya noted that by the late 1960s, when Dad [my father] left for the U.S., there were 22 people living in his 3000 sq. ft. flat in Bombay. He noted that Dad helped take care of all of them and somehow managed to do well in his studies too. He said he [Tatayya] tried to get jobs for relatives who asked, and said even if they did get jobs, they still didn’t move out! He said he couldn’t say no to anyone.

On postwar Japan

Tatayya remembered the abject poverty he saw when he had to dock at Yokohama on the way back to India in 1948. He remembered some would paddle out to the ship and look for discarded food in the water to eat. When he had a chance to disembark there in 1954, he remembered seeing only bricks and rubble. When he returned in the 60s, however, he noted a remarkable change, with buildings and infrastructure where rubble and poverty had been. He attributed that change to hard work from top to bottom. He always says you can do anything you want if you work hard. He laments Indians’ tendency to need outside affirmation (Clinton, Gates, etc.) to have confidence in themselves. He says India is failing to capitalize on its biggest riches, natural brain power.

All this sparked from his admiration for his Japanese-made watch which uses light energy to run. He notes with Admiration the Japanese tendency to not only reverse engineer others’ technology but to improve upon it greatly. He wishes that India could develop that spirit of self-reliance itself.

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Some stories I got out of Tatayya this evening.

On postwar Russia

Went to Russia in 1955. He did not like traveling by plane at all. Once in Russia, he told Bhabha he would take the train wherever he need to go & needed only to know the time he needed to be there. Bhabha apparently used to tell him, “Rao, I’ll hold your hand, come on the plane.” [4] In Russia he saw that in forced isolation they were doing incredible science & technology for defense etc. But at the same time he noted the people were poor and didn’t even have decent plumbing.

On profit and purpose at ECIL

Tatayya noted later in the evening that if you wanted to make money, run a potato chip factory or something, not an electronics company. The point of ECIL, he says again, was to employ people of high school or less education. It was a lament grown out of his observation of massive employment cuts.

On Andhra manners

He was at a UN conference and thought he was late for a meeting. He happened to be walking behind Krishna Menon & S. Radhakrishnan. As he hurried by them he turned around to say Namaste to them. Radhakrishnan turned to Menon and said, “Now that’s an Andhra man.”


A statue of my grandfather in Mogallu village, where he was born.

A statue of my grandfather in Mogallu village, Andhra Pradesh where he was born. Taken when we visited on September 22, 2014.

[1] Where possible, footnotes will indicate verification of information that appears in these transcribed notes. Minor explanatory notes will be in brackets.
[2] Dr. Frederick Terman, now credited as one of the fathers of Silicon Valley. Accessed September 4, 2014
[3] Dr. Hugh Hildreth Skilling, associated with Stanford in some capacity for 68 years, Executive Head of Stanford’s Department of Electrical Engineering from 1944 to 1967, and namesake of multiple buildings on the Stanford campus. Accessed September 4, 2014.
[4] This amusing story of course carries a heavy weight, as Dr. Bhabha died in a plane crash in January 1966, a flight Tatayya would have been on were it not for Dr. Bhabha telling him to come the next day instead with an important file.

Hyderabad under zoom

As I start writing, it’s about 5:20 a.m. local time Tuesday morning. A few minutes ago the muezzin recited the first azan of day at HMT Nagar mosque. You see that little map above? I’m sitting near the top corner of that blue rectangle, in my grandfather’s old house, and the mosque is the green triangle. The muezzin’s loudspeaker calls the whole area to prayer five times per day, probably for a kilometer in every direction, for about 10 seconds each time. I happen to be just 100 meters away, and not Muslim. This isn’t a complaint, though. I woke up before the call this morning. The brain adapts. I generally sleep through it just fine.

My grandfather, chuckling, would always call whomever was serving as muezzin ‘his Muslim friend.’ Not a friend he ever met or talked to, of course, but one he heard from daily. He lived in this house for four decades, first with his large family, my aunts and uncles and servants and a rotating cast of relatives, then in the end with just my grandmother, until he passed in 2003. So the muezzin’s sonorous call was just one beat of the daily rhythm for all in this little patch of Hyderabad.

Click on the map (or this sentence), you’ll land on the Google Map of this block, zoomed in almost as far as possible.  (Make sure you’re in map mode, not the satellite view.) Don’t wait for names and details to fill in until you can see the full shape of the outer ring road, an incomplete and dented crescent trying and failing to contain arteries emanating from the map label of ‘Hyderabad.’ Let the names fill in. Colonies, Nagars, Enclaves, and Hills; -‘pally’s, -‘pet’s, ‘puram’s, and –‘pur’s.

Zoom in. Soon after you start, a few kilometers north of this house, you will see Dr. A.S. Rao Nagar, named after my grandfather. It was an honor he tried to refuse, as he always resisted pomp or ceremony, but the merits of his work brought both, inevitably.

Zoom further. Move around the city. Pause each time to let it all fill in. Lanes and alleyways and compounds and neighborhoods will proliferate, filling what seemed featureless space with miniature metropolises. Zoom some more, and new and smaller pathways keep coming.

Densely populated spaces anywhere will yield a similar effect. But where I feel most cities would have stopped filling in names and streets, Hyderabad under the zoom keeps generating more vessels and capillaries, more names, marking more figures and layers of history, Mughals and Rajas, religious and secular, colonizers and freedom fighters, and as you zoom in they step forward to say, “I was here.” Toponyms all over the world, at least as of 2014, have regrettably mixed origins, from selfless merit well-remembered to the fiat of brutality triumphant.

The important message, then, comes from the filigree forged between the map’s named places by the daily rhythms of unnamed millions, each proclaiming from their own patch of Hyderabad, “I am here.”

#HotSportsTakes on the Bee

I competed in the National Spelling Bee three times, I placed 3rd twice, I love the Bee, and I appreciate the kinds of skills it gave me. I also love the high profile it has gotten in the last decade and the spotlight these amazing kids have been given. I saw just now a post by Nate Scott at USA Today declaring “shenanigans” on the new rules which commit the apparently grave sin of using scores from a vocabulary test to winnow the 31 semifinalists to 12 finalists for tonight, even when many semifinalists had not spelled any words wrong in the competition. Here’s the core of his post:

You want to cut spellers out of the competition? Make the words tougher. Don’t fall back on some pre-match VOCAB test to kick kids out. This would be like if they ended the legendary Isner-Mahut tennis match early, saying Isner won because he juggled three tennis balls longer a few hours before the match. Or something. THERE ISN’T EVEN AN APPLICABLE ANALOGY, THAT’S HOW PREPOSTEROUS THIS IS.

Luckily, most of the big time spellers stuck around, including my main man Tejas (You got this Tejas). However, one of the favorites to win the whole thing, Vanya Shivashankar (sister to 2009 champion Kavya), was eliminated. Because she didn’t do well on the vocabulary quiz before the Bee.

Overall, it’s actually thrilling to me that a media outlet would generate this kind of fun live-blog, sports-type response, which I know is meant somewhat in jest. That said, I have to contest Nate’s objection, while still conveying that I understand it is meant as a casual viewer of the bee.

While English spelling has its systems and rules adopted from mainly Latin, Greek, and select other languages, there is a high degree of arbitrariness in “correct” spelling. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s the nature of written language that tries to codify vocalizations. As the Spelling Bee has increased in stature, and even by the time I competed in the early 90s, skill and preparation had reached such a level that the words that would actually determine a champion were far removed from usage by anyone, let alone middle school students.

The question often arose, both from me and others, “Why learn to spell completely obscure words whose meaning you’ll rarely if ever know and use?” It’s a valid question. The whole point of spelling as an educational exercise that benefits kids is both to give them a skill valuable in itself and, even more significantly, consolidate their grip over language, its use, its power, and beauty, in the service of expressing themselves more fluidly. This latter skill is the ultimate goal, and 20 years later, I can say, an infinitely valuable gift I could not cherish enough.

Nate Scott (and Twitter) are upset that an “irrelevant” un-televised test determines who among the elitest of the elite will compete under his gaze tonight. As a viewer of a sporting event, that’s completely understandable. But he is right that the tennis analogy is inapt.

This competition, at its core, is about offering an opportunity to amazing children who have expressed passion and effort. I am not some pedagogical naif that expects that ESPN, Scripps, and the Bee are pure of heart in this educational mission. They have profit, viewership, and time considerations at the core of their partnership, in addition to the kids and the competition. When I competed, we did simply spell until one champion remained. 1994, when I placed 3rd again, was the first year ESPN televised the Bee. Maybe the Bee will return to that format if this kind of objection begins to affect interest in the competition.

But don’t knock the Bee for using a high-level test of the most relevant skill to determine who competes for this prize. The sooner these talented kids grasp meaning in addition to form, the sooner they make definitions important in addition to the spelling, the greater their grasp of language will be, the richer their lives will be. I admire the Bee for making this deeper education a priority for contestants as well.

Again, I don’t pretend that time considerations and television haven’t dictated this kind of adjustment, probably above the education of the kids. But I am not sorry that the Bee found a way to do that in a way that emphasizes a much greater value than the viewers’ sense of satisfaction in this competition aspect of their mission. I am not sorry, Nate, that your one day of pleasure in viewing the very last phase of a sliver of these children’s education isn’t the gladiatorial combat of extremely specialized skill you’ve come to expect from sports. I guarantee the kids understand the relevance of the vocabulary test, and they will take more away from the Bee for having prepared for it as a high priority.

I also know that as soon as the kids’ real welfare seems to be sacrificed for the sake of the competition sports writers have no problem suddenly decrying “exploitation of good smart children” in service of the competition. I just want to point out that the exploitation is what they scream for right until that point they happen to become aware of it, as it suits them of course.

I care about these kids, I am one of those kids, and what I took from the Spelling Bee was a love of words, not a love of spelling for spelling’s sake. You’re right, Nate, it’ not tennis. It’s their minds, their lives.

Enjoy the Bee tonight, everyone. And even if you don’t, remember what is important about it.

*This post reflects minor edits from the original post, to correct for grammar and clarity. 

I Remember

I was first overcome by nostalgia when I was 8 years old, oddly. It was a deep nostalgia, the nostalgia of a much older person. Not the kind that idealizes the past, but one that still mourns its loss.

We were moving, from the house we’d lived in my whole (8 years of ) life to the one I’m writing from now while visiting home. The image that sticks in my head is walking down the hallway of the empty house the night we finally left. It’s probably a trick of memory and time but I feel I’ve always been able to inhabit myself exactly as I was at that moment, seeing things from the same height, in the same body, with the same emotions.

I see the thin hall, just wider than my arms could reach, under a light made harsh by white painted walls, reflecting dully off dark wood floor. My bedroom door just ahead to the left. A darkened den behind, a darkened left turn in the hallway ahead, leading to other darkened rooms. We were all doing some sort of last walk through and I was alone briefly. It was weird to wear shoes in the house, we never did normally.

Heaviness filled me up. These walls and rooms that seemed to be just walls and rooms now, stripped bare, contained pieces of me, of all of us, of whatever I had done in them, that I wouldn’t get back. The house would keep part of them forever, but never show any trace.

From what I can gather, I have abnormally good recall for certain things. I haven’t really figured out the pattern of why certain things stick, why I can remember what side of the page I read some fact on, when my memory for far more useful things is probably average. This is not a complaint. Weirdly specific recall has served me quite well, except for maybe the times it seems creepy when I might remember some offhand detail about someone I met in passing.

But it also means I’ve spent a lot of time thrown unexpectedly into myself as I was once, prompted by places, by music, by any number of sensory combinations that might tether me to another time. Coming home naturally compounds that sense. Having lived other lives away from here since I moved away after high school, it feels impossible that the same walls and floors can contain my parents and me as we are now. I have this feeling that the amount of experience the walls have seen us through should have altered their fundamental composition, so that we can say, these are the walls of 2014, for the people we are in 2014.

The reality, that these are the same walls we moved into in 1988, as the people we were in 1988, somehow feels far stranger than my ridiculous disbelief.

The Real MVPs

In my almost 34 years I’ve heard mothers referred to as “the real MVPs” countless times, but it’s never been delivered with more truth than Kevin Durant did a few days ago. Watch the whole speech to grasp its full power, but he addresses his mother directly starting at the 23:00 mark. For my mom, for my sisters, for my friends, for myself, I’ve transcribed that part of the speech below. Mom, we love you so much, you make us so proud, and so incredibly thankful, every moment.

Happy Mother’s Day.

And last, my Mom. I don’t think you know what you did. You had my brother when you were 18 years old. Three years later I came out. The odds were stacked against us. Single parent with two boys by the time you were 21 years old. Everybody told us we weren’t supposed to be there, we moved from apartment to apartment, by ourselves. One of the best memories I have was we moved into our, our first apartment. No bed, no furniture, and we all just sat in the living room and just hugged each other. ‘Cause that’s what when we thought we made it. And when something good happens to you, I don’t know about you guys, but I tend to look back to what brought me here. You’d wake me up in the middle of the night, in the summertime, makin’ me run up the hill, makin’ me do pushups, screaming at me from the sideline at my games at 8 or 9 years old. We wasn’t supposed to be here. But you made us believe. You kept us off the streets. Put clothes on our backs, food on the table. When you didn’t eat, to make sure we ate, went to sleep hungry. You sacrificed for us. You the real MVP.

[Standing ovation.]

And In Other Tabs…: Monday Morning, December 9, 2013

As a way of keeping this blog more regularly updated and inflicting upon the public the nearly infinite list of important writing I feel like I find every day, I’m going to spare (somewhat) my Facebook friends from the barrage of links that probably clog their feed when I dive into great articles. Here’s what I’m reading (or intending to read) in the other tabs open right now:

That’s all for now. Look for this semi-daily, maybe even multiple times some days. Enjoy.

Random Roundball: On heartbreak, basketball, and a city divided (from 2008)

155195_775449765291_6347949_nThis is a piece I wrote  (as a Facebook note, incredibly enough) April 8, 2008, in the hours after the Memphis Tigers lost the national title game in overtime to the Kansas Jayhawks. A lot of this piece’s references may be outdated, but I think the point never is. So as a proper Internet denizen, I will participate in “Throwback Thursday.” Tonight, Memphis opens another season of basketball. And finally, an effort I’m proud of has a proper home. Go Tigers!

No doubt this will be among the more ridiculous things I’ve ever written, but in the maudlin sentiment of now, it rings true. That said, I would appreciate it if no one ever asks me about any of this ever again.1

You may notice that Memphis Tigers fans take their basketball a little too seriously. But if you understood the relationship between the city and that team, you wouldn’t be surprised. Many people dismissed Coach Calipari’s underdog talk as a motivational gimmick this year, and to some extent it was. But Cal is above all things perceptive, and he knew how to seize the heart of a city with his words.

There are only two blues that matter in Memphis: the kind you play on a guitar, and Tiger blue. If you’re born and raised in Memphis, and you have no other allegiances, you root for Tiger basketball; that’s just the way it is. Imagine if most Carolina grads stayed in and around Chapel Hill, or most Kansas grads settled near Lawrence. Memphis is a small college town of a half million people, most of whom are from around there, most of whom will stay nearby. A great portion of the city is run by people who graduated from Memphis. A lot of us leave after high school and never return. But most carry the spirit of a city that has for many decades searched in vain for healing, and validation.

Memphis is in a lot of ways a crucible for this nation’s deepest scars. We just observed the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. We still have cotton exchanges on Front Street. We have a riverfront park named after the founder of the KKK. We have square mile upon square mile of devastated ghetto, both north and south of a downtown that has been “redeveloped” or “gentrified,” depending on who you ask. We are about as perfect an example of the patterns of white flight as you could hope for. We have a public school system in serious crisis. We’re always near the top of the nation in the murder rate. We are a city derided in the region for being too black and too violent. We are in a region derided by the country for being too racist, too dumb, and too poor.

The racial divisions alone have plagued everything about our city’s politics, and psyche. It is a city where black and white work side by side, in the same offices, in the same jobs, and yet live in different worlds when they leave. And over everything hang the ghosts of 1968 riots, of bitterness over the corrupt administration of the current black mayor, the first one ever elected in Memphis.

So if it seems that we turn almost obsessively to something that brings the city together, I don’t think we should be blamed. Memphis is a basketball town in the football-mad South, always will be. Everyone can talk Tiger hoops, because everyone’s been talking Tiger hoops for so long. The 1973 championship game run came only 5 years after King’s assassination. The team featured local black high school legends, and the city rallied to them. Same with 1985 Final Four run by a team from a city riven as much as any other by crack and its violence. Tigers have always been Memphis kids, from the ghetto, from the suburbs, from white Memphis and black Memphis. Sure the campus is as divided in some ways as the city, but it is at least a concentrate of the community united by the Tigers.

We don’t recruit locally anymore, but that spirit that the Tigers are Memphis kids still remains strong. So in 2008 we have a team with a hulking 24-year-old senior from the worst of West Baltimore;2 a junior All-American from the Detroit playgrounds;3 a freshman prodigy from Chicago’s South Side.4 And each time these black kids from the roughest neighborhoods come back from a road trip, or set out on one, they get hugs from little old blue-haired white women decked out in Tiger blue; these same women grew up in segregation and probably supported it. Maybe their parents hurled epithets at the Little Rock Nine. Maybe they cowered in fear at the rioting in ’68. Maybe today they clutch their purses a little when they see a black teen. But in those send-offs and greetings, they find in those kids only people whose success they pray for. At least in those moments when the Tigers are playing, the richest white suburbanite in Germantown and Cordova can have the same passion, directed to the same place, as the teenager from Orange Mound. What’s more, they can see that same passion in each other.

So when we hear the slights directed at the Tiger team–too many tattoos, too undisciplined–we hear echoes of the slights against the city–too small compared to the big cities, too “urban” for rural whites, too much crime, too much racism. And in defending the Tigers against fans and the media, maybe we’re striving to defend where we’re from too.

Memphis needed that title last night, because we needed something untainted, simple, proud. Our jewel of a Civil Rights Museum arose from the the blood of Dr. King. A basketball title is one thing that would lift the hearts of Memphians of all colors. And if basketball can make black Memphis and white Memphis, rich Memphis and poor Memphis, stand next to each other and cheer for a week or two, talk a little hoops at work, and after, then that’s worth more than another banner at UCLA, another great year at Carolina, another title at Kansas. I don’t pretend that individual fans root for Memphis out of some great need for reconciliation, racial or otherwise. The motives are as varied as the people who have them. What is important is that there is something simple for all of them to get behind and agree on.

Carolina, Kansas, and UCLA are to college basketball what New York, Chicago, and LA are to U.S. cities. They are a cut above, entrenched, and never in danger of being replaced or surpassed. Another skyscraper in New York doesn’t mean much; the same one would transform the Memphis skyline. Similarly, a Tiger title would have done some real good in a city that yearned for it. We all know those programs and those cities will keep on getting their accolades, their chances, their titles, and probably soon, probably next year for at least one of them. They have their storied past: Dean Smith, Michael Jordan, James Naismith, Phog Allen, John Wooden, Bill Walton, Lew Alcindor. They have their 17 odd titles between them. It could happen again for Memphis next year, but it’s just as likely it may take another 25 years to get to a Final Four. These are rare chances. We needed this, because we don’t know when we’ll be back. We don’t know when we’ll be able to get together again like this.

So if it seems like Tiger fans care a little too much, it’s because, well, we do.


1. At the time, I truly couldn’t handle the thought of ever thinking about that game itself ever again. I still can’t bear to hear the name M**** Ch******.
2. Joey Dorsey
3. Chris Douglas-Roberts
4. Derrick Rose

Random Roundball: Kansas vs. Duke for the National Title*

There are some years in college basketball where you simply tip your cap and admit another team will win the national title. As a Memphis fan, it is deeply painful for me to say this before Memphis even tips their season. Especially these two teams. Kansas because….ugh…and Duke because…dammit…Duke. If it wasn’t apparent by the time Parker and Wiggins got to college, if any person had any doubt about the “hype,” there is no reason to dispute it now. Kansas and Duke are so much more talented, so much more skilled even at this early stage than any other college team can be expected to be in a given year, that it’s clear they will meet for the national title.

Jabari Parker is the closest we’ll ever get to understanding what would have transpired had LeBron gone to college. He’s not as explosive, but far, far more skilled than LeBron was as an NBA rookie, even if only by virtue of his effortless outside shooting stroke. All you have to do is realize that no college kid should be able to do what Parker did with about 4:30 left in the first half. Steal guarding on the post on one end, coast to coast, Euro step/jump stop hybrid against 2 defenders, double pump…layup. Wiggins’ smooth lightning spin move is a close second in terms of preternatural skill at this age. Duke and Kansas are already playing at a level that the Anthony Davis Kentucky team was at mid-season, when I realized they were head and shoulders above their competition. This will be reminiscent of the 2007-2008 season, where Memphis, Kansas, UCLA, and North Carolina were so obviously the best teams that it was a relief they all made it to the Final Four

And here’s the part that hurts more than praising a Duke player. If I had to call it, I would say Kansas beats Duke in the national title game. Wiggins, Embiid, Selden, combined with experienced players like Perry Ellis (and yes, I see you Tarik Black….smh), are already so polished, and will be so much more so by the end of the year (with Embiid breaking out as a force) that as a unit they will be superior. Parker, however, is the best player in college basketball since Kevin Durant. He has more help than Durant, but not as much help as Wiggins. I swear, if the committee messes up and puts these two teams on the same side of the bracket.

I will root for my Memphis Tigers with barely contained insanity as usual. But I can’t ignore my eyes. It’s just one of those years. Let’s all enjoy it, at least. Dammit.

(*Universal caveat: Barring injury, of course. As a college basketball fan, I hope like crazy this season isn’t marred by it. It’s too special this year.)

Prelude to a Storm?


If you move from right to left you can follow the weird transition of the sky and clouds from blue and fluff to grey and hulking. Click for full panorama. Strange skies over the DMV this afternoon, and still don’t know if we’ll actually get rain out of it. Also I guess I’m supposed to say something about whether this is a derecho, because that’s a thing we all apparently know about now?

UPDATE: apparently, nothing will happen to DC. Like the snow scare from earlier this year.

My Life in Threes

I’ve been planning to write this for a few days now, forming bits and pieces in my head. As always, life makes your plans for you.


Quincy 2003 Commencement

I don’t remember exactly how the script goes, but it’s something like this: “Srinivas Ayyagari receives the A.B. with a concentration in Biochemical Sciences. He plans to…”

That was ten years ago today, on a sunny Thursday in the Quincy House courtyard  at Harvard. My sophomore year bedroom window was just ahead of me in the shaded neo-Georgian corner entryway to my left, my junior and senior rooms were in the industrial hulk behind me. My whole family attended, including my nephew, born that April and on his first trip away from home. I walked across the stage as the House Tutor finished that sentence, reading the ending I had written for it a few days before. I don’t remember now how much I thought about what I put on that form, whether I agonized over it or not. I know it turned out that at least among the Quincy graduates, no one said something exactly like it. There was a deep and justified pride in what everyone chose to say, quite a few endings that sounded like  “…attend medical school at…”,”…attend law school at…”,”…move to New York to work for…”,”…pursue a doctorate in…”. My point is not to say that these choices were somehow “cookie cutter” or in any way meaningless to paint myself as some maverick. In truth, I wished like hell at the time that my sentence could have ended the same way, with a place to go, a particular person to be. I wrote what I wrote because at the time it was the only thing I knew I’d be doing. In hindsight I marvel at the wisdom I was forced into.


Twenty years ago last week I was following the results of the National Spelling Bee. Not on TV, but in the (gasp) local paper. We didn’t have C-SPAN, and ESPN didn’t start broadcasting the bee until 1994. I wasn’t used to following it from afar. I exited the Bee in the 5th round in 1991, and tied for 3rd place in 1992. I placed 3rd again in 1994, in my 3rd trip to DC. But in 1993, my odd year out, I was still cut deeply by coming in 2nd place at the county bee. To the guy who would go on to win the National Spelling Bee. Wearing the speller number I would have been assigned had I won in February. And I knew every word he got at the National bee cold. On the cusp of 13, I felt that week that it should have been me, and that ridiculous “what if” lodged like an ember in my gut. Well, really, at the time I convinced myself that I knew it “should” have been me. After all, my proof ran, I’d known the word I missed at the county bee. It was an easy one. I let my concentration down for a second and it got away from me. In the short-sightedness of youth even the 3rd place on the 3rd trip, or the successes that followed, or getting to go to Harvard, never really doused that ember.


I’ve grabbed the number 3 out of convenience, not out of any narrative symbolism or mystical significance. Our life streams do not change course at neat storytelling intervals like 3 or 10 or 5. I could have spun my reflection around many different numbers. Nevertheless, a lot of meaningful 3s have arisen, often unexpectedly, in my life. My parents moved to my hometown of Memphis in 1973. The city’s spirit and history shaped my understanding of this country.  I am the youngest of 3 children. My sisters have been my protectors, my support, my guides. I graduated college in 2003, though I entered with the class of 2002. My father’s father took his last rest in Hyderabad, India later in 2003, weeks after I’d visited my relatives in India for the first time since 1990. I was able to take that trip only because, against my own expectations, I wasn’t occupied with anything else at the time. And this Monday morning, on the 3rd day of June, 2013, in Memphis, my father’s mother found her final peace as well, and today her children will complete their duty toward her.

NPR Homepage 5/28/2013Through some strokes of luck, last Tuesday I got a little airtime on NPR to talk about my National Spelling Bee experience. On Thursday, I watched the 2013 Bee, now at National Harbor, from my apartment just a few blocks from the Capital Hilton Grand Ballroom in which I’d competed. I watched with a simple pride and happiness for those incredible kids, who took in the magnitude of their moment so much better than I had. (Robin Roberts made sure to note I looked “dejected” in ESPN’s inaugural Bee coverage.) Arvind Mahankali (who had placed 3rd the two previous years) came away a champion. Earlier that day, my friends had attended their younger sister’s graduation from Harvard, and we talked about the hope and possibility that suffuses the Square, the Yard, and the House courtyards each year.

As of Monday morning, my family is the 3 generations that have chosen to make this country their home. Now, in the waning days of my 33rd year, a few days after being able to celebrate in person the 8th birthday of my nephew’s little sister, to wear the t-shirt that she loves me to wear, to help her free her new doll from its packaging 6:30 Sunday morning, I think of what I wrote down as my plan after graduation. I wrote it because I thought I had nothing else to write, but trying my best to stay true to it has turned out, of course, to be everything.

“Srinivas Ayyagari receives the A.B. with a concentration in Biochemical Sciences. He plans to be a good uncle to his new nephew.”


Little help?


What is it called when you reach the point where you’ve decided you can’t be troubled to reach into your M&M bag to get at them so you just rip it apart and dump them on a napkin at work?

Blog Changes

Those few of you who have read previous this blog from its recent beginning may notice some changes have taken place. I have made these changes for professional reasons, but will continue blogging here regularly. Thanks for reading so far, and please come back often!

Water, stone, glass


Instagram didn’t allow me to post this uncropped, but I enjoy this space in DC so much I wanted to post the original. It’s the Kogod Courtyard at the National Portrait Gallery, and this fluid floor section is a neat complement to the undulating flow of the incredible ceiling. At times I have delusions of photographic skill, I’ll be posting my attempts from time to time. Enjoy.