Heart-to-heart with a Bharat Ratna

CNR1The Scholars’ Avenue caught up with Prof. CNR Rao and his wife for a morning chat over tea in his chambers at Technology Guest House. A Bharat Ratna, a Padma Vibhushan and a Padma Shri, he’s the founder and Director of Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR). With over 1600 papers, 48 books and 75000 citations, he stands eminent as the “Science Man” of India. The talk gets interesting when he remembers his young days and churns out wisdom about the different roles he played: a student, teacher and scientist, in the form of stories and illustrations from the lives of great scientists. Here’s what ensued:

Table of Contents:

Being a Student
Stagnation in Personal Pursuits
About Talent and Intelligence
Remembering younger days
The publishing virus
Technology in Teaching
Spirituality and Inspiration
Being a good teacher
Research for Indians
Parting words

TSA: Sir, it is a privilege to be talking to you, and maybe its the closest we will get to a Bharat Ratna in our lives.
Prof. Rao: (Laughs) Aah, there’s no reason why you should appear intimidated. We both started our careers as inquisitive students like you. With time and effort you could be great individuals. But for that, one has to be a good human being first and then a good student. A life of studentship is what educated people should actually worry about.

Being a Student

TSA: Sir, who do you think is a good student?
Prof. Rao: I think studentship is nothing with being student in a college. Studentship is a way to live, I am a student myself. A student is one who is always looking for new ideas, new and interesting things to do. Even in school and college, the best student need not necessarily get As in every course. In fact, if he gets an A in every course I feel he has a low discretion. He must get a B in some subjects. I was like that. You have to use your judgement; your entire life is a judgement balance of some sort. When you become highly course-oriented or exam-oriented that takes away the spirit of being a good student.
I have been very lucky that I consider myself a good student. Every day I try to learn something. I learn from my students, sometimes we learn together. Like this new technique of artificial photosynthesis I’ve started 2 years ago. Cutting edge field. Good students become wonderful companions; in fact I was always a companion to my teachers rather than a student under them. When I was a student in America I worked with this very nice man, a Nobel Laureate. I did a lot of things because of him. On Saturdays, he would take me for a very good lunch. I could not afford such treats so I would wait for him every Saturday. We shared a wonderful friendship, though he was my teacher. So, basically, a student is someone who is looking for opportunity to learn more, all the time.

Stagnation in Personal Pursuits

TSA: How do we encounter stagnation in output at a personal level?
Prof. Rao: Stagnation is purely physical to me; mentally you can never be stagnant. Some of the greatest minds are those who had no money, no food but produced fantastic work. Intelligence is not something that’s deposited in a bank and could be withdrawn when you want. It is a quiet use of your talent at the right time. Mental stagnation is one an intelligent man will not allow to establish.

About Talent and Intelligence

TSA: Sir, could you talk about your student life and what set you apart from the rest?
Prof. Rao: (Laughs) Set apart? How do I know I was set apart? You know, when I was a student my friends nicknamed me “Professor”, because I often talked in length about all kinds of things. (Laughs) People thought I was foolish. I used to talk a lot about Pauling, for example. Of course he got two Nobel Prizes but I was inspired by his books and papers and wanted to work with him. We all joked about it. But those who knew me then would always remember me reasoning, talking about things: I was quite vocal. I used to write stories, even poetry but discontinued after 17 or 18. I wrote an autobiographical book of mine; Climbing the Limitless Ladder, have you read it? I think each one of us has got some talent, some inherent latent talent. Some people recognize it, use it and become great. Like my grandmother; she is the most brilliant woman I knew but didn’t have the opportunity to use it. Talent is similar: when you use it, it is talent otherwise it is useless. Intelligence is also like that. Only by use do you prove its existence.

Remembering younger days

TSA: Sir, what did you do in your 20s?
Prof. Rao: When I was 20, I enjoyed poetry, theatre and music. Even here, when I was in Kharagpur, I used to go to Chowringhee, a wonderful Bengali theatre. We both (gesturing at his wife) hear and read books even today, outside science. Right now I am finishing an engaging book written by an Indian author. (Wave of hand) Lots of things. These are hobbies, but may be what you are asking is not hobbies.

The publishing virus

TSA: Professional instincts that helped you later on.
Prof. Rao: When I was 19, I joined Kharagpur. Just past 20, I left for the US, around mid-September. Somehow the craze of publishing came to me. I had this teacher who taught me a fantastic course; he got a Nobel Prize later. He used to tell “If it is worth doing, it is worth publishing. Otherwise don’t do it”. That tremor got me. And I was influenced by Faraday. When a young man asked him, “Sir, Define science; what is meant by doing science?” He said, “Its nothing. Work, finish and publish. That’s all”. These things stuck with me. And it is a disease, like a virus: publishing virus. You know, I worked very hard. I’ve got 25 people like you working with me, so if each of them writes one paper, I have 25 papers. I write too, I sit and write every day, manually.

Technology in Teaching

I don’t use computers. I am anti-computers. I am against all technology, the PC, I don’t use a mobile. If you go by Darwinian Theory of evolution, soon man will have only one hand, because the other is stuck to their ears, demonstrating.
His wife adds, “And only one thumb.”
Prof. Rao: It is already happening. They can’t even do simple multiplication. In our days, we could remember up to 20*20. Over-dependence on mobiles and laptops has indulged our youth. I am against use of computers in education. Eventually one good teacher, in one class, makes all the difference. (Pause) In my case, I had wonderful teachers in school; they were paid very meagerly, some Rs. 50. They weren’t much learnt, but were excellent teachers! On Saturdays there would be demonstrations of making chlorine in the lab. And then I would ask them “Can I also work with you?” They were very inspiring. So, IT is very good as a supplementary tool, but inspiration will not come from a machine.

Spirituality and Inspiration

God inspires you they say, but you don’t see God. You have to be spiritually bent in some way to gain inspiration from God. God is amazing you see, everything we get from God is through a man, he sends a representative. Are you from Bengal any of you?

There’s this story of Ramkrishna Purohit. Goes on to narrate the story. There was once a disastrous flood in Bengal. This man was standing in front of his house. There was water everywhere. And people were going away in boats and they say ”Arre! Come away in the boat; very soon you will drown! The water level is increasing.” He says “No. I’m not coming, I believe in God”. Next day the water level goes up. He’s standing on the steps and another boat comes by. ”Hey you better come with us!” “No no, God will save me. God won’t leave me”. Third day, the water goes up to the roof; he is now standing on the roof! Another boat comes. And they say, “Why don’t you come in this?”, “No!! I believe in God. I will not go with you.” Now, the man dies and then goes to heaven and confronts God, “What did you do to me? I believed in you but I had to die.” God said, “You bloody fool! I sent the boats three times.” (Laughs) Everyone thinks they’re jokes, but they’re not jokes. The lesson is that everything, good things, come through human effort. So, that’s why inspiration has to come through humans. That is why good teachers are important. I used to take first year at IIT Kanpur. Those who took my first course, never forget it. They always tell me. I used to narrate stories, all great stories. Chemistry, what I taught was the least important subject.

Being a good teacher

TSA: Sir, you talked about teachers. What is your opinion on the quality of teaching in good institutions in India?
Prof. Rao: Most of the teaching in India is bad. And good institutions are the worst in teaching like Indian Institute of Science. When I was the director, the teaching was terrible. People were selfish; they went on with their research and publications and never bothered about teaching. Teaching is not just what you teach from the book. It’s the interest in the activity. You must take interest in the young people sitting in front of you. What you teach comes later. If you’ve no interest in them, you can’t do much teaching. That is why even as the research guide, I shared a good rapport with my students, and they still call me. Good teaching is not just sitting in the room and using the blackboard, that is only part of it, the mechanics of it. It is about the vibes that connect a student and that’s how a teacher-student relationship. The way he talks, the way he addresses the students, the way he takes interest in you, that’s what makes a good teacher.

Research for Indians

TSA: What is your opinion on the quality and quantity of research in India?
Prof. Rao: Actually 40-50 years ago, India was a very poor country. Even after we attained freedom, there were times when one couldn’t get rice in the market. After Independence, research in India has improved. The problem is that even as IITs and other top institutes were coming up, due to globalisation, the bar for getting a research paper published became very high. Before that, even a paper with just statements would still make the cut. Today, the requirements include various measurements, instrumentation, computation theory and so on. It was difficult for Indians. To get a fantastic paper published in a reputed journal now, you need to have good equipments, techniques, good theory, etc. Back then universities were pretty decent. But in time, the universities degraded in standards and the spotlight shifted to the IITs, IISc etc. They lack facilities and their contribution to research is significantly low – maybe 10% compared to 60-70% back then. Calcutta University was considered very prestigious back then. I was to join CU for Masters but I eventually joined BHU.
Indians in general are very lazy, kamchor. India has very few world class scientists, maybe two or three of them and they had to really work hard to be there. One of the most accomplished scientists right now according to me would be Narasimha, an engineering scientist. We used to be classmates in school.
Most of my peers just wanted a degree, and then take up the job which gives the maximum salary. Most people belong to that category but my ambition was to do the very best in the world, as good as the best and you know that I am trying. I don’t want to compromise because I’m in India, I’m a black man. Don’t forget we are all black men in this world. My wife is a bit fair, but it’s not that black and white. (Laughs) Black men are those who do not belong to Europe and America. They run the world, don’t forget. For you to be recognized as a little gem from Kerala is very difficult, by birth you are disadvantaged. The main stream of corporates, big business, intelligence, scientific stream goes from Europe to America. Everything is there. In fact today, 60 % of the top science companies are from America and 25 % from Europe, they run the world. Japan is trying, but that is a small country. Korea and China are attempting to beat them, I don’t think it’s so easy but they are trying. So, you have a disadvantage which is why you need grit and determination, tenacity and perseverance. You have to make up your mind, doggedness,”I’m going to do it”, and you will do it.

Parting words

TSA: Sir, what’s your message for the students of IIT Kharagpur?
Prof. Rao: Do what you want to do and become what you really want to be. Don’t let your decision be influenced by the society including your parents. And once you start, never give up. Certainly, anyone who has done anything with determination has succeeded. Sadly, most of them give up before they cross the line. Look at how JC Bose, who used to be a poor man living in Kolkata in 19th century accomplished so much. He was abused in a letter from a British government official for asking a grant of 2000 rupees. Look at how Ramanujan who came from a poor family from a backward place in Tamil Nadu proposed almost 3000 theorems and is still considered among the best mathematicians ever. How was he able to do that? This is the kind of inspiration you require. The story should amaze you and make you wonder how they were able to achieve what they did.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.