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The story of an extraordinary professor

Rama Bijapurkar | Updated on July 25, 2019 Published on July 25, 2019

The late Dr VL Mote taught legions of business leaders at IIM-A

The Whatsapp groups across 30 batches of IIM Ahmedabad are buzzing with an outpouring of inspired tributes and amazing stories about the one and only Prof Dr VL Mote, who passed away on July 23. They are a testimonial to the deep and lasting impression that only an extraordinary teacher can make.

Dr Mote was one of the founding fathers of IIM-A who helped make it the redoubtable institution that it is. As IIM-A Director, Prof Errol D’Souza, said in an e-mail to the community, “He will be remembered for his outstanding academic contribution and sterling personal qualities.” Two short phrases that capture the enormity of his stature. Inspired by Vikram Sarabhai, Dr Mote, a Ph.D in quantitative methods from North Carolina working with Calico Mills, quit his job and became the second faculty member to be appointed at IIM-A in 1962.

When Dr Mote entered the classroom, a collective shiver would run down everyone’s spine. He pushed very hard and left no stone unturned to make sure we learnt, not merely to absorb the tools of quantitative analysis but to use them to think for ourselves and come up with sound solutions to business problems. Stories about the way he taught are legendary and, had I not experienced it in my class, I would not even have believed them.

Suddenly, during a class, he would become the main protagonist of a case study we were discussing, and he would literally be on the floor, at the feet of some hapless student in the third row, begging him, “You are my mai-baap, tell me how I should solve this problem.” That day, the problem if I remember right, was about how a textile business could cut cloth with minimum wastage, and the answer lay in the magical world of managerial economics that he taught.

He also taught us a legendary course called MSM, legendary because even those quant heroes from IIT usually failed quizzes early on, and everyone was cut down to size so that the learning could begin. MSM was officially Mathematics and Statistics for Management. But, unofficially and more popularly, it was known as “Mote Saha Malya”, for the indomitable trio that taught it. They had only one goal — that we learnt — and they pursued it relentlessly. IIM-A folklore is replete with Mote stories. Every class has a hugely amusing (in retrospect) story of how some hapless person had a chalk or a duster whizzing through the air past his or her ear for not measuring up when called upon to answer! We wondered for years if he just had bad aim or whether he was very careful, because none of those flying objects ever came into contact with anyone!

Dr Mote had a formidable intellect and a keenly curious mind that brooked no silos. It easily transported itself across contexts — whether it was typical business issues, work in social sectors such as health and education or working with government on policy. He gave advertising its first media planning model, the Clarion Mote model, at a time when the only models ad agencies knew were humans.

Dr Mote was my husband, Ashoke Bijapurkar’s thesis guide. I used to wonder what a non-hardcore quant type like Ashoke was doing with Dr Mote, and that too on a marketing area thesis. That’s when I discovered the professor’s polymath side, and also the softy that he was outside the classroom. His wife, Snehal, was his lifeline and a bedrock of support, unfailingly gracious, warm and welcoming to his many friends, students and admirers who kept dropping by.

I met him often in professional contexts after I graduated — what strikes me now is how he listened so intently and patiently to brash 20- and 30-year-old (me) who had a strong (and usually incompletely thought through) opinion on everything. He would then nudge and push through sharp and persistent questioning to get the answer that he was willing to accept. I remember thinking, gosh, how can someone so charming outside the classroom be so terrifying inside it!

The Mote moment that remains etched in my memory is what he said at Prof Jahar Saha’s (former director of IIM-A) festschrift event. He quoted a Sanskrit saying that the best guru dakshina a student can give a teacher is to surpass him, and said joyously that, by that measure, Jahar had repaid him many times over. What a wonderful set of principles to have lived life by — the pursuit of excellence, open-minded listening, making affectionate time for family and friends, and seeing the success of students as the best form of guru dakshina.

Gone but never forgotten, Dr Mote will live on in his work, in his students’ memories, in IIM-A folklore and through the many present day academics that he has taught, guided and mentored.

(The writer, a management consultant, is an alumna of IIM Ahmedabad.)

Published on July 25, 2019
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