On Somanath withdrawing his autobiography

Excerpt from The Hindu, November 4, 2023:

S. Somanath, Chairman, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), told The Hindu that he’s withdrawing the publication of his memoir, Nilavu Kudicha Simhangal, penned in Malayalam. The decision followed a report in the Malayala Manorama on Saturday that quoted excerpts from the book suggesting K. Sivan, former ISRO chairman and Mr. Somanath’s immediate predecessor, may have hindered key promotions that Mr. Somanath thought were due.

“There has been some misinterpretation. At no point have I said that Dr. Sivan tried to prevent me from becoming the chairman. All I said was that being made a member of the Space Commission is generally seen as a stepping stone to (ISRO’s chairmanship). However a director from another (ISRO centre) was placed, so naturally that trimmed my chances (at chairmanship),” he told The Hindu, “Secondly the book isn’t officially released. My publisher may have released a few copies … but after all this controversy I have decided to withhold publication.”

I haven’t yet read this book nor do I know more than what’s already been reported about this new controversy. It has been simmering all evening but I assumed that it would simply blow over, as these things usually do, and that the book would be released with the customary pomp. But the book has indeed been withdrawn, which was less surprising than it should have been.

Earlier today, I was reading a paper uploaded on the Current Science website about Gold OA publishing. It was run-of-the-mill in many ways, but one of my peers sent me a strongly worded email decrying the fact that the paper wasn’t explicitly opposed to Gold OA. When I read the paper, I found that the authors’ statements earlier in the paper were quite tepid, seemingly unconcerned about Gold OA’s deleterious effects on the research publishing ecosystem, but later on, the paper threw up many of the more familiar lines, that Gold OA is expensive, discriminatory, etc.

Both Somanath’s withdrawn book and this paper have one thing in common: (potentially) literary laziness, which often speaks to a sense that one is entitled to the benefit of the doubt rather than being compelled to earn it.

Somanath told The Hindu and some other outlets that he didn’t intend to criticise Sivan, his predecessor as ISRO chairman, but that he was withholding the book’s release because some news outlets had interpreted the book in a way that his statements did come across as criticism.

Some important background: Since 2014, ISRO’s character has changed. Earlier journalists used to be able to more easily access various ISRO officials and visit sites of historic importance. These are no longer possible. The national government has also tried to stage-manage ISRO missions in the public domain, especially the more prominent ones like Chandrayaan-2 and -3, the Mars Orbiter Mission, and the South Asia Satellite.

Similarly, there have been signs that both Sivan and Somanath had and have the government’s favour on grounds that go beyond their qualifications and experiences. With Somanath, of course, we have seen that with his pronouncements about the feats of ancient India, etc., and now we have that with Sivan as well, as Somanath says that ISRO knew the Chandrayaan-2 lander had suffered a software glitch ahead of its crash, and didn’t simply lose contact with the ground as Sivan had said at the time. Recall that in 2019, when the mishap occurred, ISRO also stopped sharing non-trivial information about the incident and even refused to confirm that the lander had crashed until a week later.

In this milieu, Sivan and Somanath are two peas in a pod, and it seems quite unlikely to me that Somanath set out to criticise Sivan in public. The fact that he would much rather withhold the book than take his chances is another sign that criticising Sivan wasn’t his goal. Yet as my colleague Jacob Koshy reported for The Hindu:

Excerpts from the book, that The Hindu has viewed, do bring out Mr. Somanath’s discomfort with the “Chairman (Dr. Sivan’s)” decision to not be explicit about the reasons for the failure of the Chandrayaan 2 mission (which was expected to land a rover). The issue was a software glitch but was publicly communicated as an ‘inability to communicate with the lander.’

There is a third possibility: that Somanath did wish to criticise Sivan but underestimated how much of an issue it would become in the media.

Conveying something in writing has always been a tricky thing. Conveying something while simultaneously downplaying its asperity and accentuating its substance or its spirit is something else, requiring quite a bit of practice, a capacity for words, and of course clarity of thought. Without these things, writing can easily miscommunicate. (This is why reading is crucial to writing better: others’ work can alert you to meaning-making possibilities that you yourself may never have considered.) The Current Science paper is similar, with its awkward placement of important statements at the end and banal statements at the beginning, and neither worded to drive home a specific feeling.

(In case you haven’t, please read Edward Tufte’s analysis of the Challenger disaster and the failure of written communication that preceded it. Many of the principles he sets out would apply for a lot of non-fiction writing.)

Somanath wrote his book in Malayalam, his native tongue, rather than in English, with which, going by media interviews of him, he is not fluent. So he may have sidestepped the pitfalls of writing in an unfamiliar language, yet his being unable to avoid being misinterpreted – or so he says – still suggests that he didn’t pay too much attention to what he was putting down. In the same vein, I’m also surprised that his editors at the publisher, Lipi Books in Kozhikode, didn’t pick up on these issues earlier.

Understanding this is important because Somanath writing something and then complaining that it was taken in a way it wasn’t supposed to be taken lends itself to another inference that I still suspect the ruling party’s supporters will reach for: that the press twisted his words in its relentless quest to stoke tensions and that Somanath was as clear as he needed to be. As I said, I haven’t yet read the book, but as an editor (see Q3) – and also as someone for whom checking for incompetence before malfeasance has paid rich dividends – I would look for an intention-skill mismatch first.

Featured image: ISRO chairman S. Somanath in 2019. Credit: NASA.