Thursday, 21 March 2013

Samartha Bharat Parva : Dr R A Mashelkar

Dr Mashelkar, the great visionary whose whole thoughts are for Samartha Bharat gives lot of importance to the Gurus in his life.

 Let me start with my journey of my life. Journey of my life has been challenging- to put it simply. So many great people have influenced my life and given me interesting lessons in my life and I would like to remember and recognise them. May be some of you must have also met such individuals in your life, who inspired you.

I start with my greatest guru - my mother. I was born in a very poor family and my father died when I was six. We moved to Mumbai and my mother did menial work to bring me up. Two meals a day was a tough challenge. I studied under street lights and I walked barefoot until, I think, I was 12. I remember when I passed the 7th standard and I wanted to go into the 8th standard, our   poverty was such that even to secure 21 rupees for secondary school admission became a big challenge. We had to borrow from a lady, who was a housemaid in Chaupati in Mumbai. That was the tough life I had.

In fact, I remember, my passing the SSC Examination – i.e. 11th Standard. Those days it used to be not 10th standard or 12th standard but 11th  standard.  I stood 11th among one 1,35,000 but I was about to leave higher education and find a job.  What helped me was the scholarship by Sir Dorab Tata Trust. It was just 60 rupees per month and would you believe that 60 rupees per month from Tatas  added so much value to my life  that I have been able to stand here today before you to speak to you.

I am on the Board of Tatas now and it is very interesting that the same Bombay House where one used to go to collect that 60 Rupees per month now one goes and sits there as a Director on the Board of Tata Motors. The turn that these 40 years has taken is very interesting. It has all been possible because of the chance I got to do higher studies at the insistence of my mother.  She gave me values of my life.  She was one of the noblest parents I have met in my life.

So, my greatest guru was my mother. My second great guru was Principal Bhave, about whom I made a mention earlier.  He taught us Physics.  Because it was a poor school, I remember, it had to innovate to convey to the young students the message of Science. 

I still remember one of the interesting experiences when, on a Friday afternoon, Principal Bhave took us out into the sun to demonstrate to us as to how to find the focal length of a convex lens.  He had a piece of paper here, a convex lens here and he moved it up and down and there was a point when there was a sharp focus and a bright spot on the paper. He showed the distance between paper and the lens and said that this distance was the focal length. But then the paper started burning.  For some reason, he then turned to me, and said, “Mashelkar, if you focus your energies like this, you can burn anything in the world. 

My young friends, from this I got two lessons- first the philosophy of my life that if we focus, we can achieve anything. And the second about the power of science.  It  was so powerful.  I thought to myself why don’t I become a scientist. It left an indelible mark in my mind.

By the way, if you think carefully about that story, it also tells you about the new model for the society and for the nation. What is the experiment? You have the lens. And what does the lens do? It takes the parallel rays of the sun and then lets them converge.  And what is the property of parallel lines? Parallel lines never meet. Parallel rays never meet but the lens actually makes them meet. I call it “convex lens” leadership by the way – leadership that brings people together.

In fact I was a visiting Professor at the Harvard MIT HST School last year and there I gave a talk.  And I talked about how to bring the world together – we need a convex lens leadership.

Unfortunately, in our country, rather than finding a ‘convex lens leadership’, we find a ‘concave lens leadership’!  And what does a concave lens do? The parallel lines go even further apart.  Rather than societies coming together, they try to divide them further – on the basis of caste, on the basis of religion, and so on.  Our elections have been reduced to caste based voting in many places. Sounds familiar- isn’t it? So there are deep lessons in that afternoon’s experiment.  We all must strive for and insist on ‘convex lens leadership’, where we become one society – one India.

The third teacher who made a huge difference for me was Professor M.M. Sharma.  He had returned from Cambridge at the young age of 28.  He took up the position of a Professor in University Department of Chemical Technology. He was incredible. I was among the top rankers in Chemical Engineering. I had a number of offers of scholarships from the United States of America and Canada for doing research for my doctorate degree. I had always done things which were different, by the way. I thought where could I get a better Guru for me and decided not to go abroad and worked in University and did my Ph.D under young Prof. Sharma, a man with enormous value systems. All his research was ‘idea based’.  With barely Rs.10,000 per year as contingency grant, i.e. less than 1000 rupees per month, we did research that was published in top international journals.  He has remained a teacher.  Just now, it was mentioned that I am the third Engineer to have got the fellowship of Royal Society in the 20th century. Prof. Sharma was the first by the way.  Ours is a rather  unique combination of Guru and Shishya both getting Fellowships of Royal Society!

And the fourth one, and I want to mention about him in order to set the mood and tone for what I am going to say subsequently, was Professor CNR Rao, who came in my life  little late.  Prof. Rao  is the most celebrated scientist in the country. The interesting thing is that he is approaching the age of 75 now and he still works 25 hours a day! Not 24 but 25.  And that too day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year. He is really my role model and an icon. Except the Nobel Prize, he has received all the major awards.  I am sure he will get that too, and sooner rather than later.

What he did for me was very interesting and there is a lesson for you to take home. Anytime I got any honour and  I went to him expecting him to appreciate and applaud. You know the only word he would use would be- Not Bad! I became a Fellow of Royal Society FRS, It’s a big honour. In fact, I remember receiving a letter from another FRS, who said `only two greater things can happen to you in life now, One is Nobel prize and other is death. One is certain and the other is uncertain’.

When I went to Professor CNR Rao and told him that I received FRS, he said Not Bad! Then I became Foreign Associate of U.S. National Academy of Science. It was established in 1868. In 140 years or so, only seven Indians have got this honour. Sometimes you get a Nobel Prize first and that honour later, like Sir Harry Kroto, who got the Nobel Prize first and five years after that he got this honour.

I thought surely now Professor CNR Rao would be impressed. So, I went and told him look, I got this honour. He said,’ Not bad’. I was really frustrated. So I asked him directly what will make him satisfied. Then he defined for me what is called a limitless ladder of excellence. He said, “there are no limits to the ladder of excellence”.  You should continue to climb on this ladder of excellence for ever and ever.  Your best is yet to come.

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