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Under the Painted Vault



You may recall an old commercial about Pepsi, where you win if a number on the crown of the Pepsi bottle gets picked up in a lottery. The un-hero was Cyrus Broacha, who was actually a loser in the commercial, plaintively asking “ mera number kab aayega?”. I believe Prahlad Kakkar was the ideator!

The following relates to the events connected with my number finally coming up with award of Padma Shri from the Government of India. Such events have happened so rarely in my life that I may be excused for being a little narcissistic in taking extraordinary pleasure in describing them in considerable detail.

On 14th January 2010, on the day of Makar Sankranti and kite flying, some officials from the Home Ministry and the Intelligence Bureau came home and said that they wanted to felicitate me for the Padma Shri award. When I asked them whether this was confirmed, they hedged and said that it was 99% confirmed. This was the first inkling I had that something was happening.

On the morning of 25th January, on the way to the office, I had another call from a Joint Secretary of the Home Ministry congratulating me and asking whether I would accept the award. He said that the formal investiture would happen sometime in April and that the list would be uploaded to the President’s website by the evening.

In the evening, while Minnu and I were out buying cakes and sweets from Melanie’s place (who was thrilled on hearing the news and insisted on our accepting a cake from her), Indiavision TV called to congratulate me. Almost immediately Deepika newspaper from Kottayam called and said they were at my ancestral house in Karapuzha, and they interviewed me. Manorama also did the same. They all wanted my photograph and a profile, and I started preparing this in between phone calls. By late night, I was able to send some material.

The deluge of calls from the press started the next day and messages of congratulations started pouring in. The phone line collapsed amidst this. The editor of the newsletter of Malankara church wanted a biographical sketch, highlighting the fact that I was the great-grandson of Pucadyil Ittoop Writer, who wrote the first history of the Syrian Christian Church. The photographer from Times of India landed at our house and made us pose in many ways until he was satisfied.

The next day, I had to go to the ITER India campus for the Republic Day flag hoisting and to give a little speech on how their plan to go into ISO 9001 was important. I added some stuff from Prof. Ram Charan’s book on “Execution” to make the talk sound professional. I also mentioned Paul Romer’s TED talk on how rules were important.

Back home, the representative of the Bopal chapter of the Kerala Samajam came to invite us for felicitation in the evening in the Tulip School. A small delegation from the members of the church also came with a bouquet and compliments. While they were at home, the head of the Jacobite Church, His Holiness Baselios Thomas I called and said that I had brought great honour to the church. Other church dignitaries, notably, His Grace Thomas Themotheos from Kottayam (whom I knew from the Vienna days), also called and said similar things. Professor K. K. John, my former teacher at the S. B. College became very emotional when he talked. He also made sure that the present principal talked to me, who mentioned that he was actually on his way to the Alumni meeting and said that he would talk about me and the award.

The Manorama online article triggered calls from Vienna, from former IAEA friends. George Varghese called from Dallas and reminded me of the Alwaye days when I used to create Malayalam songs on the tune of Hindi film songs. He sang some of them and I was very touched.

Jumana Shah from DNA wanted an interview, and I invited her home on Wednesday evening. This resulted in a beautiful piece mentioning my interests in poetry, painting and the social commitment of science etc. The DNA piece created another flurry of messages. A very interesting result was that my neighbour, a young businessman brought many of his business friends and family members for a ‘darshan’. His wife Babita and sister-in-law Poonam also came for ‘blessings’. The Sterling City managing committee also came home to congratulate us.

On 31st, the following Sunday, there was another felicitation in the church for both of us. I read my poem on Einsiedeln, which created some interest. Deepak, my former student wrote from Los Angeles congratulating me and mentioned that he got carried away and created a Wikipedia page about me.

A belated congratulatory telegram from P. Chidambaram, the home minister was another rite of passage. Another letter from Home Ministry wanted a citation to be drafted by me for inclusion in the commemoration volume. A major task was to spell my name in Hindi, which turned out as hard as getting the award. Many consultations with friends yielded many versions. Someone tried Google translator, which gave me yet another version. Finally, the Hindi officer of the institute was brought in and he solved the problem.

The DNA article created a further spin-off. Sabina Griffith, the editor of the ITER Newsline wanted an interview and materials relevant to my interest in painting and poetry. This piece came out quite well.

And finally, on the morning of 5th April, we left for Delhi to take part in the ceremony. The home ministry had graciously provided accommodation at the Taj Palace. My son, Joseph had planned to accompany us to the ceremony but opted out because of a vacation trip to Prague. In the afternoon, I went to visit friends at the Physics Department in IIT, Delhi and to talk plasma physics.

There was a rehearsal on the 6th when we were made to go through the paces. On the 7th evening, we filed dutifully into the Ashoka Hall of the Rashtrapati Bhawan to wait for the President Pratibha Devisingh Patil and other dignitaries including the Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh. The Padma awards are given here in a glittering event of unparalleled grace. Under the painted vault as I waited my turn to be called before the President to receive my award, I felt a strange sense of satisfaction, of arriving at my destination after a long journey. When I started my journey all those years back, I had no inkling that I would be fortunate to reach where I am, a journey from humble beginnings and of struggles and occasional triumphs.

Inspired by the events, I wrote the following poem:

“Under the painted ceiling, amidst my peers I sit, waiting to be called to the presence and for the scroll and the medal, a lifetime’s reward for going my way and doing whatever I did.

My wife sits among the guests, in signature blue Her eyes darting my way in constant concern when she was not watching the gathering crowd of movers and shakers who make up Delhi.

They gesture and prance and surreptitiously look for the wandering press, perchance a shot for the page three prominence, the holy grail and those who arrive late, with those who arrived and the hall slowly fills up, the last seats taken and a hush as trumpets rumble and bugles flare.

As we are called, we present ourselves in well-rehearsed order, with obsequious care, namastes strewn around, cameras flash and back in the seat, the trophy clasped in hand.”

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