Three remarkable men, all in their late eighties, passed away within days of each other in December 2020, two of them in Bengaluru and a third in Allahabad.
Enough has appeared in this paper and elsewhere about Professor Roddam Narasimha who died on December 14, as a scientist and a teacher in the Indian Institute of Science. India’s aerospace programme owes a lot to him.
A scientist strategist
Roddam was a tremendously curious individual who wore his achievements lightly. He was a member of India’s highest-level strategic and security bodies.
The numerous honours that came his way included the Fellowship of the Royal Society - London.
He could have been successful anywhere else in the world — in Caltech where he studied, in NASA where he was, but returned to India at a time when many in his position would have stayed back in the US.
I remember Roddam as the kind and inquisitive man I got to know at the National Institute of Advanced Study (NIAS), which he headed. Under his care NIAS flourished in the best way institutes of advanced study do — as open houses for scholarship and the free exchange of ideas, attributes I later came to appreciate in the Centre for Contemporary Studies-IISc, Collegium-Budapest and Wissenschaftskolleg — Berlin.
The poet bureaucrat
Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, who passed away on Christmas day in Allahabad, was my senior colleague in the Indian Postal Service. In hierarchy conscious government, he was least bothered about seniority. As an officer he distinguished himself while excelling as a poet and author. We who were his colleagues, were proud that he was awarded the Sahitya Academy Award the Saraswathi Samman and the Padma Shri.
Faruqi feared that fanaticism of all kinds would ground India. The change of names of Allahabad and the lack of historical understanding that led up to it caused him immense grief. ‘In Arabic, and so also in Persian and Urdu,’ he wrote in an article in the Indian Express “ ilah does not mean Allah, the one and indivisible, the unbegotten who begot no one”. It simply means, “god, any god”. So, when Akbar named the city Ilahabas/Ilahabad, he was doing an honour to the people. He called it the “abode of divinity”.
An engineering visionary
The last of the three to pass away was Sudarshan Maini, the founder of the Maini group of companies. He came up the hard way in life and personally witnessed the worst of partition violence in Punjab. A brilliant student and a scholarship holder throughout, he passed out of BHU with distinction and later from Loughborough University and excelled as an engineer. He believed that civilisationally, India was programmed for excellence and set out to prove that the country could become a hub for world-beating high quality engineering products. He succeeded handsomely.
His emphasis on streamlined high quality frugal engineering and constant striving for ‘zero-defect manufacturing,’ in the companies he established made them internationally renowned for the excellence of their products. Some of the finest companies in the world beat a path to his door, among them the biggest names in aerospace and automobiles.
In popular imagination however, Sudarshan will be best remembered for the small electric car, Reva, which he, along with one of his sons, conceptualised and manufactured. It became an export sensation with so many still running on England’s roads. If only government support of the kind electric vehicles are getting today had been extended to him, India could well have become the hub for their manufacture.
Roddam, Faruqi and Sudarshan were people from modest backgrounds who thrived in hard times. They believed in the new India that came up after 1947, and went on to achieve great things for themselves and the country. As much as we should mourn their deaths, we must also be celebrating the wonderfully inspiring lives they led.
The writer teaches at IISc Bengaluru.
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