«Edited by Govindjee Urbana, Illinois, USA and Shyam Lal Srivastava Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, India i The Cover A photograph of Krishnaji (Dada), 1980 ...»
But I believe that the soul is immortal. He is still leading us from the darkness to light. At least this is true for me. Every morning I chant a mantra he gave me that calms me from the turbulent emotional upheavals. This is his greatest gift to me!
1. The selected list of publications of Professor Krishnaji is given in Part D of this book. His paper on ‘Development of Scientific Research in India–a Casualty’, published in 1961, in Science and Culture, is reproduced in Part D, because some of his observations are relevant even today!.
My Personal Tribute to Professor Krishnaji Ashoka Chandra A-15, Sector 15, Noida-201301, UP, India E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org I t is an honor to write something short and personal in the memory of Professor Krishnaji. I will not attempt to write about his scientific and professional achievements, which were most impressive indeed.
Suffice it to say that he was among the best known experimental physicists of his generation, who pioneered research in microwave spectroscopy and who set up a world class research laboratory with most modest means, designing and building most of the equipment himself. He trained a generation of researchers, who acquired international distinction in turn. I am going to talk instead of his deep affection and concern for his students, which defined him more than anything else. And, I will talk of how he touched my life.
As I look back I recall the year of 1961 when I had just completed my Master’s degree in Physics from the Allahabad University. I was just 19 then. My father, Dr Kailash Chandra Berceria, himself an academic, an Economist, had his heart set on my becoming an IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officer. Perhaps in his own life he had suffered unfair comparison, even within his immediate family, with those in administrative service or been subjected to the haughtiness of some senior administrator in his work place. Whatever be the reason, it was his chance of getting even with all the injustice meted out to him, if his son became an IAS officer. He had no doubt whatsoever that his son would be successful and join the IAS cadre.
Allahabad University was the Mecca of IAS in those days and anyone who had done as well as I had more than an even chance to succeed.
Indeed, all my classmates in the immediate circle of friends who opted to try for the IAS succeeded. One rose up to be Cabinet Secretary, another close second, many others retired as Secretaries to the Government of India. The fact that I was only 19 and not eligible for appearing for the IAS for at least another two years mattered little. He wanted me to join another Master’s program, in Mathematics, which would be a ‘scoring’ subject when I could indeed appear in the IAS examination. Unfortunately, my heart was equally set on research and an academic career. For me there could not be a better calling than to be an academic engaged in intellectual pursuits, engaging in research, unraveling the mysteries of natural world. I dreamt of a world where I would have the chance to develop that special theory, write that special equation, conduct that special experiment that would open up a fresh vista of understanding.
Everything was possible; the world of physics was my oyster. I was a romantic. What else can you expect from a 19 year old! I could not empathise with the dreams of my father. I saw becoming an IAS as ordinary and trite in comparison.
In those times you did not defy your parents. I was brought up to obey my parents’ wishes. But my heart was elsewhere. I could see the luminary example of Professor Krishnaji in my immediate surrounding. I would admire his dedication to research, admire his enthusiasm and obvious enjoyment in physics, marvel at his ability to design complex instrumentation for research, and secretly aspire to emulate him. I approached Professor Krishnaji and requested him to accept me as his PhD student. To my great delight, he agreed. I joined his research group. In those days his laboratory was situated in the basement of the J.K. (Juggilal Kamlapat) institute. His lab was air-conditioned and two of the senior researchers in the group also worked from the same lab in which Krishnaji sat and worked. Their experimental rig had been set up in that laboratory. Some of us, the more recent members, the juniors, sat in the lab across the corridor.
We would read, study research literature, discuss among ourselves, and try to get ideas for a research topic for our PhD thesis. That the lab where we sat was not air-conditioned, that it was peak summer and Allahabad could get unbearably hot, that our research ideas were still very fluid and in a nascent stage, mattered little. We would spend almost the entire waking hours in the lab, going out only for meals and occasional game of badminton in the vicinity. A sense of optimism was palpable and permeated our being. However, from time to time, letters would arrive from home. The pressure from my father for pursuing the goal of IAS continued. It was a serious distraction to say the least. It would disturb me thoroughly. I would get depressed.
Occasionally, I would think of giving up my research assistantship and think of joining the Master’s in Mathematics. I could not dream of going to Krishnaji with this problem. He was just too high a person for me to even contemplate involving him in my petty problem. I suffered. My close friend Shyam Lal Srivastava, (later to become a Professor at Allahabad University, a distinguished researcher, and successor to Krishnaji’s microwave lab) was yet to join Krishnaji as a research student but was otherwise in close touch with him. He knew my predicament.
While I was struggling with this pressure, and, sitting in the opposite lab away from the eyes of Krishnaji, I assumed that no one else was privy to my situation. It seems, however, that Krishnaji had sensed that something was bothering me. I guess he asked Shyam Lal. I would never know for sure. What transpired, as I learnt much later, indirectly from my parents, Krishnaji traveled on his own to Haridwar to meet my parents. He discussed the matter in depth with them and persuaded my father that I be allowed to pursue a research career. He was a very busy person, could hardly afford to take a few days off just to talk to the parents of one of his students, not knowing if his suggestion would be welcomed. But he did. Those days the journey from Allahabad to Haridwar took a solid 24 hours in train. It was not a comfortable trip and he spent his own time and money for it. And the intended beneficiary of his munificence, myself, had no inkling whatsoever. I came to know of it, not from Krishnaji, for he never once mentioned it to me or to anyone else, but from the letter that followed from my mother, who had all along supported me in my desire to pursue a research career. To my utter surprise my father had agreed that I could continue in research. Apparently Krishnaji had also said to my parents that he saw great potential in me and that his lab alone would not be able to provide the comprehensive environment needed to help me flourish fully. He advised that I be allowed to go abroad to the US for my PhD.
But, by then it was already late for applying for scholarship to the US universities. I was asked to apply to several good universities.
I got admission immediately from several but they all pointed out that the assistantships/scholarships for the year had already been decided. It was out of the question for a person of my means, indeed of most middle class working families, to pay one’s way to a PhD.
Even if one could afford it, those were the days of extreme foreign exchange restrictions. One could get only a princely sum of seven dollars for a US visit! Once again Krishnaji came to my rescue. One of his younger colleagues in the Department, Dr Sushil Kumar Kor, was to proceed soon to the University of Maryland on a Post-Doctoral fellowship. I believe Krishnaji asked his student Dr Suresh Chandra to speak to Dr Kor. If my recollection serves me right, Dr Kor came to Krishnaji’s lab and in his presence agreed to finance my costs until I secured assistantship and was able to pay him back. Krishnaji had no doubt that I will obtain an assistantship and will be able to return the money. A big hurdle was over. I wrote to the University of Maryland that I was now in a position to accept their offer of admission. The academic session at Maryland had already started and I would be able to join the fall semester only in the middle of it, but the university still allowed me. I was set to leave for the US.
Before I proceed further, let me take the opportunity to express my gratitude to Dr Kor. If he had not agreed to support me at that crucial juncture, who knows I may never have proceeded to the US for my PhD. He was truly God-sent.
But I spoke too soon. The hurdles were not quite over. Dr Kor’s support would extend at best to the period while he was still a post doc at the University. The PhD would clearly take longer. In the absence of assured financial assistance for the full duration of the PhD, the US embassy would not grant me a visa. I had to show a financial guarantee to cover the estimated costs. It was already late;
my offer of admission would not last for ever. Krishnaji came forward and stood as a guarantor. He also asked his colleague, Dr Arvind Mohan, to provide guarantee, who, if my recollection serves me right, generously pledged his house to do so! Dr Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar also provided me his guarantee. How does one thank those who came forward so selflessly, at considerable personal risk, to help out a mere student! Almost five decades later, it is difficult to believe that there existed such persons when one encounters totally self-centered persons, who would consider it ‘foolish’ to risk so much for a virtual stranger. But Professor Krihnaji had a quiet moral authority which extended to his friends and students and they were touched and transformed by it. I can recall many instances later in life when Krishnaji would ask his students, myself included, to help out another needy student and we would do so without asking any questions.
I proceeded to Maryland. Within a couple of months, by the time the fall semester ended, I was offered assistantships both by University of Maryland and Cornell University. I accepted Cornell’s offer and moved to Ithaca, New York. I paid back the money I owed Dr. Kor but I can never repay his debt. The course of my life had been set. My life had taken a turn that shaped my entire future, and I can only pay a silent homage to Krishnaji and all those like Dr. Kor, Dr. Bhatnagar, Dr. Arvind Mohan, and many others who made it possible.
Professor Krishnaji continued to take interest in my progress, as indeed he did for all his students. I recall his visit to the US during the period I was there. I had finished my PhD and was working as a scientist at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, Upton, Long Island, NewYork. At the time Krishnaji had temporarily moved to Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India, to head the Department of Physics at the University there. From Jodhpur, he sent me a letter offering me a faculty position in his department. I had not asked him, but in my conversations with him he had learnt that I was planning to return to India. He would have spoken to others too, because I received several other offers too. That was surprising as I had left India at the young age of 20, and knew virtually nobody in the scientific establishment in India. I could not return just then but came back a couple of years later. Soon after returning to India I was appointed a full professor at Regional Engineering College (now renamed as National Institute of Technology), Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, India, at the age of 29.
I am almost certain that Krishnaji having spoken about me to colleagues and friends helped me in this appointment. He was greatly respected in Physics circles and his recommendation mattered among senior persons.
I will not dwell on Krishnaji’s continued support to me that helped me throughout my life, because I do not wish to talk about my limited self even though, in a manner, I cannot help but to think of him through his impact on my life. Later I joined the British Council as its Science Adviser. He was my referee. Still later I joined the Government of India, first in the then Department of Electronics, and later as Educational Adviser to the Government of India. I continued in the Government for almost two decades, holding positions at the level of Secretary to the Government of India for 12 years, but I had the satisfaction of choosing only those positions that either had strong academic content or were closely allied with the academic world. In a sense, I could fulfill both my dreams to be a researcher as well as my father’s desire for me to join the cadre of administrators. Krishnaji was my referee throughout. He would take great pride and pleasure in my growth. He would visit me or contact me each time he came to Delhi. But he did that for all his students. He would have a list of telephone numbers of all his students when he came to Delhi and would phone them to enquire about their welfare. Each of us felt that he alone was a special favorite of Krishnaji, but he loved all his students. His heart would encompass all of them. Sometimes I wonder if his immediate family, his children, did not resent the time, the affection he showered on his huge community of students, and the efforts he undertook on behalf of his students. Surely they felt deprived! But, I hasten to correct myself. They surely knew how large his heart was, that it could cover each and every one, and he could make each one feel especially close. Govindjee, his youngest brother, tells me that he always thought that he was the only one on this Earth on whom he (his Dada) spent all his time and energy in seeing him succeed.
In later years, I had several opportunities to talk to Krishnaji on various matters. We spoke at length but I never heard him say even once an unkind word about any person. He would also not talk about himself. I am sure, like anyone, he had suffered injustices, had been denied certain things, which were rightfully his, but he never pondered over them, never spoke of them, never allowed them to detract him from his concern for the people and the tasks to be performed.
One particularly sad incident comes to mind, which revealed another facet of his personality to me. Krishnaji had turned seventy.