31 December 2018
Sharad Bailur is a former banker who moved into corporate communications and worked for three major organisations in both the public and private sectors. He has been an occasional writer for most major publications in India over the last 40 years. Now retired, he lives in Mysore.
In this interview with Swetha Amit, he talks about his book, aspects like cloning and surrogacy and the research involved while penning his book down.
The Telomere Problem is on an offbeat topic like cloning. What really inspired the book?
I have extremely wide reading habits and the subject is one of many that I read in some depth. As long ago as 1997 a colleague and a friend suffered and died from a very strange disease: Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. During his illness I had scoured the internet for information on the subject and Omni magazine, put me in the way of a possible cause for it — eating brain tissue, even if cooked. In India it is a well known dish called “Bheja Fry” sold in many restaurants in Mumbai.
My friend loved it and had eaten it often. The research and my preliminary findings were written out in longhand in the midst of a 250-inch rainfall at Mahabaleshwar in the hills above Ratnagiri where I had gone as a member of a team of bankers inspecting our branch.
I wrote to some sixty different hospitals worldwide asking for help for a cure for my friend. I even mentioned the possible cause – the consumption of infected sheep or goat brain after it had been cooked.
I received two answers. One from England and one from the US. Both said nothing could be done. CJ Disease is not caused by bacteria or virus. It is caused by misfolded prion proteins, for which there is no cure even today. My friend eventually died. Some 10 years later the cause was confirmed and the scientist, Stanley Prusiner, won a Nobel for it. I am not a scientist. It was little more than a desperate shot in the dark to help a friend, not confirmed by experimental results. Dr Prusiner fully deserved the Nobel.
So, I did have some sort of a background in researching for scientific material, though I am emphatically not qualified. I hold just an MA in Economics from Lucknow University.
On the matter of cloning, It all started with a news item in a local paper that mentioned the cloning of Dolly the sheep in Scotland. My brother, who was visiting me in Dapoli, asked me if a human could be cloned. I said, “Yes. It is well within the bounds of possibility.” Then he asked would it be possible to clone a living actress of the Hindi screen. The answer from me was, “Yes. Provided she offers some of her tissue or blood”
Interestingly the protagonist in your book chooses late actress Madhubala as a part of his cloning research project. What made you choose this yesteryear's actress for your book?
Madhubala is safely dead and cannot object! That apart, it is difficult to imagine the fascination she has had on the mind of the average cine-goer of those years, even today. Madhubala was drop-dead stunning to look at. No other Hindi film actress came anywhere close to her in looks. I had seen her just before she shot for one of her last films. I never knew her as a person. But I can well imagine why she inspired legions to fall for her, head over heels. Had I been just 15 years older I would have been among them.
The story of Madhubala and the process of cloning her 29 years after her death occupied far too little space for it to become a proper book. So I dug around. I found that Dolly the sheep had died at the age of three of unspecified old age effects. That set me off on the hunt for Progeria [pre-mature ageing] and its cure. That in turn led me to telomeres and the issues connected with it.
In essence when I start off on a book I cannot know for certain how it will end. This has happened to me often.
I started my next book as a murder mystery. That went on to become a story of the murderer getting murdered. My publisher and mentor Mayank Chhaya, based in Napier, Illinois suggested I fatten the story. So what I wrote turned out to be a conspiracy to vaporise Mumbai city with an atom bomb. That alone did not do the job. So I added a third story of a base in Nepal used to make a drug to poison the entire population of Delhi. That book, originally titled The Crime Chronicles had to have its title changed. It is now called, The Disappearing Adversary. It is now due out in the next couple of weeks on Amazon.com
My writing has a certain degree of unpredictability about it. An unpredictability that even I cannot foresee.
Writing on a topic like cloning would have required extensive research. How did you go about this process?
The whole process started with the monsoon pouring down on the small village of Dapoli in Ratnagiri District where I had a house. Dapoli is about 1,400 feet up in the hills that faces the direct onslaught of the rain and is just five miles from the coast as the crow flies. So it gets about 200 inches of rain. My dog, Otto, moped around waiting for the cascade of water outside to stop. For Dapoli it is normal. Very oddly the internet worked, even if slowly. I was alone in that large house. So I sent an e-mail to Nature Biotechnology asking if they could send me a few sample copies. They did.
I similarly sent out e-mails to other magazines like The Lancet and New Scientist. Some, like Nature, were kind enough to send me a few copies. Others ignored me. About eight issues out of the various magazines that I received had articles related in one way or the other to cloning and life extension.
Once my interest in the topic picked up, I started to look around. In my personal library there were at least three books that had material on the subject. Once the rains came to a halt I drove down to our flat in Mumbai (then Bombay) and visited my friend Mr Shanbag of Strand Book Stall, on Pherozeshah Mehta Road. Today regrettably both Mr Shanbag and that iconic book shop with the tell-tale understated name are no more. I picked up two more books there. That gave me enough material to think of an outline. I then looked for material on the Discovery and National Geographic television channels. Strangely enough there was material. There was even an hour long interview with Dr Panayiotis Zavos, a pioneer in the field. More importantly, there was a lot of material on the internet about life extension and its possibilities.
You have also brought out aspects like surrogacy and adoption in your book. How do you think India as a country has progressed towards both of them?
I worked as the senior general manager for public relations directly under the internationally reknowned Dr V Kurien when he was the chairman of the National Dairy Development Board in Anand, Gujarat from 1991 to 2000. I knew that the town of Anand is known as the surrogacy capital of India. Surrogacy – even commercial surrogacy (wombs for hire), is legal in India. Only yesterday 22 December 2018, the present government has introduced a bill in Parliament making commercial surrogacy illegal. The Bill is yet to become law. As for adoption, there are no laws against it in India, even of foreign citizens wishing to adopt Indian babies. All we have is a safety screening process to prevent abuse or misuse.
Nanorobot is another concept mentioned in your book. Could you tell us more about this?
Much of this came about after my reading of Eric Drexler’s book, Engines of Creation and the writing of Ralph Merkle and Robert Freitas who provided me with the concept of Nanorobots that were partly made of the person’s DNA. I also established connections with the Foresight Institute of California by becoming an overseas member. In fact a major former office bearer of the Foresight Institute is Dr Storrs Hall – who is a friend on my Facebook Page. I also read through the three lectures and the work that won Elizabeth Blackburn her Nobel on telomeres and telomerase.
Media frenzy is another aspect subtly showcased in your book. Considering how headlines and rumours are spreading like wildfire, do you think sensible reporting has diminished over the years?
Having been born into the family of a journalist, my views of the profession are coloured by my opinion of journalists that I have formed over my years dealing with the media. I respect writing as a profession – because that calls for a lot of hard reading, something I myself do, even today despite my failing eyesight.
I don’t have much of an opinion about reporting. But what I have seen and experienced over a period of 30 years of exposure to reporters is that they are mostly uneducated beyond being able to put words together to make sentences, never having read anything after college,if at all. But all of them without exception carry a huge chip on their shoulder about their personal exceptionalism. Media frenzy is mostly a sign of today’s electronic journalism — especially on TV where news and information has swiftly degenerated into talk shows and media inquisitions by anchors. Reporting without bias, as far as is possible, has acquired the status of a myth. All reporting is slanted and / or has an ulterior motive, mostly political. And now the corruption of the media has set in with entire newspapers and their owners being bought by political parties.
This is the frightening prospect that the Indian citizen faces: He never gets to read or see anything but slanted “news” and “analysis” in which, “supressio veri; suggestio falsi” is the most common tool employed.
Your other protagonist also faces an identity crisis — something that is common amongst youth who are born in India and raised abroad. What is your take on this?
My son migrated permanently to the US some time back. Both his children were born there. When he went I had warned him of the ABCD (American Born Confused Desi) phenomenon. He took my advice to heart and is now a confirmed American as are the rest of his family members.
The identity crisis issue is genuine and people who go abroad, especially those who accept foreign citizenships, must understand that their first loyalties lie with their adopted country, not with their country of origin. A huge attempt is being made by Hindu citizens of the US in particular to bankroll the election in India of one political party simply because it espouses Hindu supremacy. This amounts to nothing other than trying to control the destinies and future of those living in India by remote control, keeping themselves safe from the consequences of any actions that this party may take. I have a very close friend from our days in college, who is an office bearer of the Hindu Temple of Maryland in Silver Spring, who is a rabid communalist. I am strongly against such people, even though he is my friend.
It’s interesting how you have woven several themes like love, friendship, Indian film industry and science into a compelling plot. As an author did you face any challenge or fear with regards to losing focus from the main theme?
No. None at all. I had a story to tell. I went about telling it. The science called for some detailed study and I had to confirm my conclusions which could all have been so wrong. But other than that I had no problems.
What are your expectations from this book? Any plans for another one?
My expectations from The Telomere Problem have been modest in the extreme. I enjoyed the adventure of the research and I enjoyed getting lost in the story I was writing as if it was some sort of three dimensional film with all the smells, tastes and thoughts.
Besides, the story I had to tell had nothing very glamorous – no space travel, no space monsters, no violence and no sex. So I had no expectations from it. Science fiction is a very small niche market and there are far better and more qualified writers than me doing a wonderful job. The sale of this book has been modest. No more than I expected.
But now I am writing for an audience, not just for myself. So from my next two books The Disappearing Adversary and The Disappearing Adversary - Part II, I am looking forward to a much better response. My first novel Safe Custody has never been published. It is an exercise in alternative history. I hope to do something about it in the latter part of 2019.
I am not a scientist. So the chances of my writing a science fiction novel are slim – or so I thought till very recently. Then a young friend who is just 24 and is an ethical hacker put me in the way of information on Stuxnet and the cyber-attack that destroyed Iran’s uranium gas centrifuges, which produced enriched uranium for use in its nuclear bombs. The attack was supposedly conducted in a collaborative effort between the governments of the US and Israel. True or not, the Stuxnet story was fascinating. So I started digging and collected a lot of information. It forms the third long story in my second volume of The Disappearing Adversary, which I hope to put out via Amazon.com some time in March or April 2019. My friend and mentor Mayank Chhaya is keen that it comes out as soon as possible.