A Very Small World -1: The Austrian Professor

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In April 1958 I came to Tambaram as an instructor at the Flying Instructor’s School of the Air Force.    Tambaram is a suburb of Chennai.    In 1958 however, Chennai was still known as Madras.   Smallest of the four Indian metros of that time, it was a charming little city with a character of its own that was lovable.     Though its climate could be described as being hot, a cool sea breeze cooled the city down every evening to a very comfortable level.  Similarly, every morning a smart land breeze swept the dust of the city from its sky out to the Bay of Bengal.   Compared to the north of the country, the air here carried very little dust.    Low and medium clouds prevailed overhead for most of the year preventing the earth from getting scorched by the sun.  The city was blessed with a beautiful string of sea-beaches.   It had nice roads and disciplined road traffic.   Comfortable electric trains connected the city to its suburbs.  All in all, it used to be a city well worth living in.

As a metro the growth of Madras was quite robust.  The Madras University boasted of excellent colleges affiliated to it.   A technical college known as the Madras Institute of Technology had made a name for itself in the country.  It had a sea port that was quite active, an ‘international’ airport that was connected to the other four metros apart from other towns in the south like Madurai and Kochi and an international connection to Colombo.    A small beginning of industrialization had started; the Standard Motor Company had started manufacturing motor cars near the city.   A Leather Research Institute had been established.    The Central Government now decided to locate one of the planned ‘Indian Institute of Technology’ at Madras.   It was to be located beside the deer park within the raj bhavan complex.

Some time during that summer I received a letter from my uncle (Mejokaka).   An old school pal of his, Dr Bibhuti Bhushan Sengupta was moving down to Madras from Bombay. He used to be a professor at the Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute Bombay (now known as Veer Maataa Jeejabai Technological Institute Mumbai) and had been picked up to be the first director of the IIT being formed at Madras. The old couple were new to madras and had no social contacts outside his academic world, which would perhaps be adequate for the professor, but the old lady would definitely be lonely.     Could I go down to Guindy and look them up?    He had already written to them about me and they would be expecting me.    I was of course always ready to be pampered by old folks.     Without any more prompting I went down to the newly formed IIT and presented my self at the Director’s residence.   I received a very warm welcome.

Over a period of time (which was actually quite short) I became a part of the Director’s family.    I was invited to join them whenever they had guests and I also visited them whenever I went to that part of the town, which was quite often; Guindy lay halfway between Tambaram and the City of Madras.

For Dr Sengupta those were exciting days.   While the individual IITs were being set up, the Directors were given a lot of freedom of action.   He was a dedicated educator, and he enjoyed this task of setting up the IIT at Madras.     He liked discussing his day to day activities with me.   Like him, I too was in the business of learning and teaching in a technical environment, and I could share his enthusiasm.    I still remember the child like delight that he had in displaying the first overhead projector he had managed to procure  for the IIT (from Germany I think), and the excitement in his voice while he explained how a teacher could do his blackboard work while facing his pupils with the help of that ‘cutting edge but simple tool’.

Some time in late 1958 I received an invitation from him for a dinner at home.   One Austrian professor was visiting the IIT and the dinner was in his honour.   In those days, people still travelled between Europe and India by ocean going ships.   This particular professor had come by ship from Genoa to Bombay and by train from Bombay to Madras.   Having spent a few days at Madras he had gone on for a whistle stop tour of the country touching Benaras, Delhi and Roorki.   He had now come back to Madras on his way back; he had to board a ship from the port of Madras.

Dinner at the Sengupta’s was always very pleasant and very personal.   Mrs Sengupta liked to feed her guests well and she always managed to present a very interesting platter.     That particular evening was no different.   After dinner we all moved into the living room and a protracted amiable  conversation followed.    At a point of time during this conversation, the visiting professor turned to his hosts and said that he did not belive that India had five hundred million people!   This was a statement that was completely out of context.    In view of the mellow ambience, we assumed that this would be an opening gambit for the professor to opine on some interesting observation.   We listened on and the professor did not disappoint us.    The professor had had a long and interesting journey sailing from Genoa to Bombay.   In the process he had met an Indian professor on board and had become friendly with him.   This Indian professor was from Banaras and he knew a number of people in VJTI Bombay. He was also aware of who Dr Sengupta was.     After disembarking at Bombay and before coming down to Madras, he was hosted by some teacher of VJTI who knew Dr Sengupta very well.   After all, he was an ex teacher of VJTI and had just moved into IITM a few months ago.   The host teacher at Bombay also recognised the professor from Banaras by name though they were not directly acquainted.    The same kind of story followed the Austrian visitor through out his tour through Banartas Delhi and Roorki.   Within the academia, he found that almost every one knew about every one else.    We, the Indians present, did not find this narration strange at all.  We had so few engineering institutes of high order in the country of course it would be natural that most teaching staff would know about each other.    The visiting European however found this situation very strange.   He turned to Dr Sengupta and said, ‘Tell me, if you really had fie hundred million people, how does every one kow every one else?’

Dr Sengupta pandered to his guest.   ‘Yes’, he said, ‘we live in a huge populous country, but we also live in a very small world.’

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3 responses »

  1. Sir,
    A small correction. VJTI is Veermata Jeejabai Technical Institute. Jeejabai is the mother Chatrapati Shivaji. The name of VJTI was changed when Shivsena and BJP were in power and even Sahar International Aiport and Victoria Terminus got their new names at that time.
    Like your articles in the past, enjoyed this article, too.
    Have a happy new year.

  2. Dear Tikku Sir,
    This is a time to open an account with you, on the Face Book. I like your narration, so nicely put in an extremely absorbing manner. Yes indeed after working with you at the Staff College, Wellington Nilgris, I moved to Tambaram to Command the Station, you may remember. I loved the place and particularly to be a neighbor to the Christian College was indeed a great privilege. To this day I cannot forget the chirping of the beautiful birds in the early hours while the cool sea breeze was making the ‘sunrise’ an event to remember every morning. Salim Ali the great Ornithologist? (sp) lived and observed birds in the Christian College and in our Campus. His observations are indeed very interesting.
    Talking about Mrs Sengupta’s platter I cannot help but remember Mrs Leena Sens dinners in Wellington and her spread was mind boggling always. Shs has always been a great host all her life. May God bless her for her charming ways.

    The Austrian Professor’s remarks are indeed a honest reflection of the style of living in the West. Most of our children are settled in the West now and I find the Professor’s remarks realistic in some ways. Why go so far; when we look at our Attitudes today in our country, we find that your beautiful narration , ” every body knowing every body” is a thing of the past.

    After my PSU, tenure in Delhi I moved to Chennai, (Madras). It was so different living here than what I had imagined.. It took nearly two to three years to get used to living here. Most people in Madras lead a simple life. It is a common sight to stop by a tea shop for a good cup of tea just for four rupees. The Dhabas in the North have been given a posh looks and of course the prices of items too has shot up.

    Take Care. Children join me conveying Our affection and regards to both of you and the family; particularly to greet you both during the Festive Season is indeed my privilege. May I wish you and Mrs Leena Sen a most wonderful, and Happy 2011.

    Regards, HMS.

  3. Sir,
    A Very Happy New Year to you, your near and dear ones and all the followers of fascinating blog.
    Warm Regards,

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