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The servants came with the house


Life in Calcutta, India
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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The other place that left a big impression on me that we lived for a long time... We moved back to Baltimore, we lived in Texas, we moved... But the place that probably left the biggest impression on me was India. We lived in Calcutta for a couple of years. And that was when I was kind of junior... Probably eighth grade maybe. So 14, 15.

And India, again, was an incredibly exotic place but we were in the middle of a city in Calcutta, it was extraordinary, it was rickshaw drivers and every morning, literally... I mean, there were people that lived on the streets, every morning there was a truck that came and picked up the bodies of the people that had died during the night. And it was very, very poor. Lots of refugees from the country. All kinds of cultures of... I remember being struck by, you know, in America we think of ourselves as diverse but when you go into the bathroom everyone does the same thing. In Calcutta when you go into the bathroom everybody would do something different. It was...

And there were Hindu idols and malas calling people to prayer. And we went to a Christian church. But it was the most multi-cultural place I've ever been to. But again just so alive and so exciting. And going through the market places and again I felt perfectly safe wandering around the whole city. I really felt like the city was mine. I would ride the tram cars or take rickshaws and walk. And I just loved that city.

Again, the smells, completely different than the smells of Africa, but spices and of course humans. The people smell different. The Indians were very physically clean, even the people living on the streets would bathe every day in the water pumps.

And there we also ran into kind of a different kind of racism which is the British were there. And most of the swimming clubs they wouldn't allow Indians in the swimming clubs, only the British were allowed. And so the Calcutta Swimming Club or... Which we would go to sometimes with our friends. At that time wouldn't allow Indians. Maybe that one would, I don't know, a lot of them wouldn't. But so we joined the Tollygunge Club, because it did allow Indians. It was one of the only swimming clubs that allowed... Swimming Clubs were very important because it was very hot and we didn't have any air conditioning. And... But then we did... But then they decided that... I've got it backwards, no. Maybe it's the Tollygunge Club didn't allow Indians and the Calcutta Swimming Club did. I think that's right. We joined that. But the Tollygunge Club... we discovered this because when we applied they needed to meet us and kind of look us over before allowing us into the club. And we figured out that they were looking us over to make sure we weren't Indian.

So we didn't join that club that was closest to our house, we joined the Calcutta Swimming Club which did allow Indians, which was much farther away but had a better pool anyway.

W Daniel Hillis (b. 1956) is an American inventor, scientist, author and engineer. While doing his doctoral work at MIT under artificial intelligence pioneer, Marvin Minsky, he invented the concept of parallel computers, that is now the basis for most supercomputers. He also co-founded the famous parallel computing company, Thinking Machines, in 1983 which marked a new era in computing. In 1996, Hillis left MIT for California, where he spent time leading Disney’s Imagineers. He developed new technologies and business strategies for Disney's theme parks, television, motion pictures, Internet and consumer product businesses. More recently, Hillis co-founded an engineering and design company, Applied Minds, and several start-ups, among them Applied Proteomics in San Diego, MetaWeb Technologies (acquired by Google) in San Francisco, and his current passion, Applied Invention in Cambridge, MA, which 'partners with clients to create innovative products and services'. He holds over 100 US patents, covering parallel computers, disk arrays, forgery prevention methods, and various electronic and mechanical devices (including a 10,000-year mechanical clock), and has recently moved into working on problems in medicine. In recognition of his work Hillis has won many awards, including the Dan David Prize.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes George Dyson

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Calcutta, India

Duration: 3 minutes, 58 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017