Prof N R Kamath of IIT Bombay lived the difference.
As India marks Teachers Day 2020, it is an opportune time to pay homage to my teacher, Professor Kamath of IIT Bombay, who preferred to say that he was an educator, not a teacher. But to me, he was much more than either.
By Rajendra Shende, Chairman TERRE, former Director UNEP
I was waiting nervously outside Professor N.R Kamath’s room in IIT Bombay’s Chemical Engineering Department. I had recently secured admission in IIT-Bombay, high in demand among students those days. I had cracked that IIT entrance examination with flying colors. My knowledge of chemical engineering that time was limited to ‘engineering that helps to produce chemicals’. And my rural background exposed my limited fluency in English. I waited with nervous waves striking me. In the corridors of the IIT Bombay those days I had heard students talking with Bombay-slangs and stylish English. I was, however, determined to meet the head of the department and introduce myself to him.
I was asked by his secretary to wait. After a while, Prof Kamath came out and signaled me to come with him with his typical wink. I expected the meeting to be in his room but my first ever meeting with him took place in the corridor of the Chemical Engineering Department. In his characteristic style, he placed his longhand on my shoulder, and he walked with me the way my friend in Rahimatpur would walk with me. He was proceeding to the main building and I was just walking with him side by side.
“Tell me how you are doing, my friend,” he asked. I started unshackling my inhibitions in response to his friendly gesture. “Sir, I want to know you, because I come from a small village in Maharashtra,” I said in my muddled English. In reality, I wanted to ask, ‘‘Sir, because I come from a small village, I would like to get advice from you on how I should study in IIT to get good grades”. But my vernacular past translated all that was gathered in my mind into random rural English. He stopped. Looked at me and said ‘You come from a small village? Me too! And remember those who come from small villages will have no problem in learning chemical engineering in IIT. Everything that takes place in the villages is chemical engineering. Right from making fertilizer from cow-dung to making jaggery and desi liquor by fermentation, it is all chemical engineering, my friend. So, you are in the right place. Come to me if you have any difficulties.’’ He assured me with his distinct chuckle and left me hurriedly to go to the main building of the institute. I felt reassured even if it was a sort of stray response to my question. I was happy because a number of other students had seen me walking along with the professor who was the author of several books on chemical engineering processes and a consultant-par-excellence to many chemical industries.
During the course of my five-year course at IIT Bombay, I had a few more meetings with him. They included taking his advice on the subject of my final year thesis, selecting the company in Mumbai for my practical training, and for getting advice on setting up a small-scale chemical plant for drying onions and exporting to the Middle East. Each meeting was as brief as the first meeting.
My plans to set up a small-scale industry failed. I could not find any property to mortgage and get a loan from a bank. I used to think that my first class IIT degree could be the best mortgage. But when I stated that in the meeting with the bank manager, he looked at me in disbelief. Probably I talked about something and redefined the ‘mortgage’. He dodged my statement and said, ‘‘Why don’t you go abroad like your other IIT friends?’’. I walked out without telling him that, indeed yes, I could have done that easily. But I wanted to first send my product abroad. Like my uncle, I had been bitten by the swadeshi bug.
Many of my friends went abroad to study further. I lost nearly half a year and had to miss the first year of my post-graduation overseas due to my ‘desi’ plans. And, strangely I could not fulfill the wish of the bank manager either
Back to Prof N.R. Kamath!
His secretary asked me to wait as he was having his lunch. He then came out and asked me to follow him with a wink. He laid his hand on my shoulder and started walking with me. “Tell me how your small-scale industry is doing?”, he asked. I told him the whole story. This time my English was logical and quick. The result of spending 5 years in the IIT-Campus with friends from Cuffe Parade and Colaba, I suppose. I was determined not to show my tears. But Prof Kamath did not miss noticing a strange lump in my throat as I walked my talk!
‘‘Relax, heavens have not fallen. I know you were selected in a Campus interview by Tata Chemicals. You did not go because you wanted to sell onions!’’ he said. ‘‘Dry onions, sir,’’ I corrected him, holding back my tears. I had by now become the only IIT-Graduate of my batch who had remained unemployed even 6 months after the convocation. I thought I had brought disrepute to the institution. And I could not go back to my village, Rahimatpur, near Satara, about 300 km from Bombay, as communicating from there would have been a challenge since I did not even have a proper phone line.
Prof Kamath asked me to stay back in the hostel and come to see him the next day. I kept wondering what magic bullet he had found for me.
The next day he asked me to go to the chairman of Tata Chemicals in Bombay House, the famed headquarter of the Tata Group. Prof Kamath said he had revived the old case of mine and Tata Chemicals would reconsider that case. I went immediately to the Bombay House. Chairman Darbari Seth saw me and then asked me to meet director Hinge. The hotline to Mithapur in Sourashtra across Kutch, where the main plant of Tata Chemicals is located, was activated. While I was waiting at Bombay House, my appointment letter arrived from Mithapur through Telex. I was told to go to Mithapur the next day to start my job.
Rest is my career story, a journey of working in Mithapur, then in Mumbai, then in Delhi, and then in Paris for the United Nations, where I was selected through a global competition. But not for a single moment could I forget that my long journey as a successful IIT technocrat began only thanks to the ignition that Prof Kamath, popularly known as NRK, provided me on that day when I was a desperate IIT-Bombay graduate who had the ignominy of having remained unemployed even six months after the convocation.
Kamath was an outstanding and well-recognized technologist with profuse knowledge of ground realities, chemical industry, and process engineering. From the University Department of Chemical Technology (UDCT), now known as Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai, he came to the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, and became the founding head of the department and then Deputy Director of IIT Bombay.
My last meeting was with his Czechoslovak wife Ruzena whom I met in the subway tunnel in Sion in Mumbai. Kamath was no more. But Ruzena continued to live in India. I told her how Kamath taught us chemical engineering with the first lecture on fermentation and winemaking. She told me, standing in the subway tunnel, Prof Kamath’s last days in Czechoslovakia
Prof Kamath often used to say that he was more of an educator than just a teacher. Even when he had left this world, his words had remained with me as I was constantly trying to figure out the difference between a teacher and an educator.
Even now, I keep dreaming of how he would have responded to this tricky question. I often recreate the scene in my mind. Perhaps, after a wait outside his room, he would have come out and asked me to follow him with a wink. He would have placed his big hand on my shoulder and said, ‘‘My friend, I’m not a teacher. I only show the way to those who ask for it. I point the way ahead. Whether it is about a small scale industry for drying and exporting onions to Middle-East or helping to grab the missed train to Tata Chemicals in Mithapur. Seeing that they move ahead, the educator in me feel contended.’’