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Teachers and Mentors

As you live your life, you come across people who contribute in improving your skillsets, influencing your worldview and changing your perspective of life. You get a conviction that your life would have been very different had they not come across your life. The influences may be subtle and understated, but the cumulative impact is non-trivial.

An early memory of such a person was of Kalyani Behn, who taught me at the Gandhian school called Sadanam, where I spent my early years. It was my first school, very near our house. Kalyani Behn wore white khadi and was very gentle. There were other ‘behns’ in the school, all living in Gandhian simplicity. The school was perennially short of money and I suspect that the inmates often went without food. On the annual day I was given a prize, a book on Gandhi’ speeches by none other than Sucheta Kripalani. Finally the school moved away to some distant place — some said Kumarakom — and that was the end of my first school.

After the third class, I was taken to the C. M. S. College High school, my father’s alma mater. This was a school in the grand tradition of Christian missionary schools, situated on a hillock with big buildings, play grounds and an impressive legacy. The primary section was in a separate building in the northern side of the hillock. I have memories of the classes in geography primarily because it was a subject close to science, my future love. Geography was taught by Mathen sir, a pleasant old man. The description of distant places and the flora and fauna fascinated me. Even to this day, I enjoy reading travelogues. The English class frequently held spelling tests, in which I used to come first. The correct spelling came to me naturally.

One teacher I was very fond of was Kanam E. J. Philip, our Malayalam teacher who was also a writer. Inspired by him, I started writing poetry, although he made it clear that poetry had no future and that I should write stories like him. I kept contact with him in the later years, when he became an editor of the Malayala Manorama weekly. Kanam also initiated me into acting in Malayalam plays, as part of the Annual day celebrations. Invariably, young boys like us had to take on women’s roles. My friend Chacko was a favourite in the female role, he specialising as the shrew of the family and I as the demure, good wife.

The year I spent at the University Intermediate college was remarkably barren in the quality of teaching. However, I made many friends from among the seniors at the University hostel. P Ramachandran, who was doing M. Sc in physics was a neighbour and influenced me quite a bit in my decision to pursue science. Another mentor was Areepally N. N. Moosad who was a poet and was pursuing an M. A. in Malayalam.

Two excellent teachers I remember from the B.Sc days at the S. B. College, Changanacherry are K. K. John and Prof. S. L. Thomas. K. K. John taught us Mechanics in a very lively way and taught us all the tricks to solve problems from the book by Loney. Prof. S. L. Thomas had grand, professorial mannerisms, while being an excellent teacher . He initiated us into the mysteries of electricity and magnetism. Of all his classes, I still remember the last lecture he gave us, a general talk on what science means and how it impacts society. One of the reasons which lead me into a decision on a career in research was this talk.

After finishing M. Sc at the Union Christian College, I had applied for a CSIR fellowship and was preparing to go north in search of a place to do my doctorate. I received an unexpected phone call from a friend working in the physics department of Athanassius College asking me quite earnestly whether I could join the college as a lecturer and shelve my long term plans for the time being. Meeting Prof. M. P. Varghese was another unexpected incident. MPV, as we used to call him told us of his plans to organise a fund collection for expanding the new building for the Arts College, since the high profile Engineering College was beginning to grow and wanted more and more of the old building. I enthusiastically joined this activity. It was clear to me that he had a truly remarkable vision about the college. He could see the college growing, adding postgraduate and research projects, the faculty growing in stature. He was very critical about young people not fully realizing their potential and would make cryptic comments about how they are wasting their time. He had a nobility of behaviour, which perhaps came into conflict with the politics he had to play in his dealings with the college administration and the management association.

After spending two years at Kothamangalam, I joined the Physics Department of the Aligarh Muslim University to work towards a Ph D. Prof Rais Ahmed, former Head of the Physics Department at the Aligarh Muslin University, made me realize that science transcended the task of creating new knowledge to drive economic advancement and social change. It was under his influence that I started reading journals like the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, specializing in science and society. Another person who influenced me during that period was Prof M S Sodha, former Professor of Physics at IIT Delhi, who had always helped me in my efforts in what he called “getting literate in Plasma Physics”.

After a few years spent at the Aligarh Muslim University both as a Ph D student and later as a faculty member, I joined the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad to start a career fully devoted to research. PRL activities led to the formation of the Institute for Plasma Research, India’s premier centre for research in Plasma Physics and Thermonuclear fusion. Knowing Professor P K Kaw at the Institute for Plasma Research made an impact on me. I have seen him and have learned from him in his many roles; as a great plasma physicist, as a powerful motivator, as an interpreter with great clarity of thought, as a person with profound philosophical and spiritual moorings, as a clever and nuanced strategist, and above all as a person with a grand vision of the role of India in fusion and plasma physics.

Both PRL and IPR had programmes allowing research students to work towards their Ph D degree. I was fortunate in attracting a number of brilliant students who came to work with me. Mentoring them was not one directional as I learned much from them as I was able to influence them. I am deeply obliged to my students Kamlesh Jain, Chenna Reddy, Vijay Shankar, Deepak Gupta, Purvi Zaveri, Sambaran Pahari, Subroto Mukherjee and Shantanu Karkari for being willing fellow practitioners in the craft of building complex plasma devices and making them yield exciting data.

In the nineties, I became interested in looking at shorter-term applications of plasma physics, which led to the setting up of a centre focused on developing and transferring plasma-based technologies to industries. In course of time, I realized that this activity has a significant sociological element as it deals with people as much as with machines. It involves to a large extent changing the prevailing perspectives and mindsets and is an activity prolific with hurdles of various kinds, little to do with science and technology. Prof Abhijit Sen was always a patient listener to me and has proffered valuable advice which influenced my execution of the programme.

In the plasma applications programme I learned many things from people who were experts in a variety of fields like plasma physics, material sciences and chemistry. With his characteristic enthusiasm, Ganesh Prasad gave me the confidence to take on many ambitious projects in plasma application development. Sudhir Nema made me appreciate the power of Plasma Chemistry in material synthesis and material property manipulation. Ashish Chainani, with his deep knowledge and insights made me realize that good science can be gleaned from mundane work in application-driven research.

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