A source of strength

Print edition : February 02, 2002

TO all of us at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Professor Satish Dhawan was a towering personality, an extremely handsome man with a voice like Rex Harrison's. We were proud to show off to visitors and friends our handsome Director. If you met him anywhere on the campus, he would readily talk almost on any topic and all you did was stand in amazement at his command over the language and the subject.

His main weapons were his pleasing personality, a great accent, an eloquent choice of words, a level of wisdom that could have come only through hours of reading, a large heart and the greatest love for the Institute and its people. He used these to the utmost and touched everyone. It is almost impossible to find anybody - among the staff, students and the faculty of the Institute - who was not in awe of him.

Once, when he was concurrently holding the chairmanship of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), one of his scientists complained to him about the outcome of some ISRO-sponsored research work carried out by a Professor of the Institute and even suggested that ISRO should stop supporting projects undertaken by such "paper tigers". Prof. Dhawan, usually a very composed person, gave him a piece of his mind. The stunned colleague later realised that he should have more patience and faith in his colleagues and cultivate Indians to do Indian science. The incident reflected Prof. Dhawan's deep commitment to the people from his Institute, his magnanimity in ignoring short-term failures and using them to invest in the future of science rather than condemn a person for life. This attitude helped make the IISc the premier institution that it is today.

MY own most memorable interaction with him occurred in April 1981. As a young Ph.D. from the IISc, I was eager to go to the United States. I had an offer from Ohio State University and had planned to leave for the U.S. soon after my marriage on April 17 at Palani in Tamil Nadu. Prof. Dhawan invited me to his office for a discussion on April 9. For the first half an hour, he softly and non-intrusively asked me questions about my work and how it could be developed. He made me feel very comfortable. Only much later did I realise that he was, in fact, interviewing me and evaluating my potential to become a faculty member at the Institute.

When he asked me about my plans for the future, I mentioned that I was planning to leave for the U.S. His immediate response was, "If you go to the U.S., you will be like a screw driver: somebody else will be turning you. But if you stay in India you can plan and execute many big things by yourself." He then asked: "How about coming for an interview on the 18th for a faculty position at the Institute?" When I told him that I was getting married on the 17th at a place far away from Bangalore and that I needed to think about the offer, in his own characteristic way he said, "Okay, think for 15 seconds and attend the interview on the 20th."

WHEN Prof. Dhawan talks everyone listens, because his words are laden with love and care for you. Needless to say, I followed Prof. Dhawan's advice and stayed back to work at the Institute. I have never regretted the decision. His words of wisdom and the example of the screw driver, his faith in Indian science and Indian scientists, have left a lasting impression on me. Prof. Dhawan's famous statements include, "An institution will not become great because one person from that Institution is great, but it will become great only when everyone in the Institution is great." And it can be said that he ensured that this happened both in ISRO and the IISc.

As Prof. C.N.R. Rao has said, the IISc before and after Dhawan are two different entities. He guided the Institute's growth from a small, laid-back institution to a large, world-class Institute. He gave credibility to engineering research not only in the Institute but also across the nation. His faith in Indian science and technology was so deep and his persistence with it, undeterred by initial failures, so unswerving that the country could now boast of strong technology generators such as ISRO, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), and the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE).

Prof. Dhawan's presence round the corner was itself a great source of strength to all of us. It will take us many years to realise that he is not around. Without him, we at the Institute will feel the same way the nation felt when Mahatma Gandhi died.

Professor N. Balakrishnan is a member of the faculty of the Supercomputing Engineering and Research Centre at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.