In memory of a gentle colossus


The Air India carried two charismatic characters sitting side by side in September 1963. One was a Commonwealth Scholar, who was going to Shefild University and the other an iconic actress, who was going to receive an award in London. They chatted on the way on the freakish London weather, had tea, as the seven hours melted away. As the Maharaja was about to touch the Heathrow tarmac, the handsome young Professor demurely asked for her name. She said, Nargis, considered the greatest Indian actress by many for her exceptional role in Mother India (1957). I still refuse to believe that the young Professor could not recognize the lissome heroine. He was Prof. R.K. Nanda, the doyen of Chemistry of Orissa, who passed away on 6th April.

When I got married in 1983 to Nandita, he took me on a morning walk & said: Marriage is like a compound and not a mixture, where the elements combine better. I felt the sure touch of a chemist! He had a dim view of economists and disliked auditors as he had a torrid time with auditors, who questioned him on purchase of towels. Towels were not authorized for Professors under the university rules! I was both an economist and auditor, and was at the receiving end of his gentle sarcasm very often due to this. Yet when the mood overtook him, he could be expansive, as on board aircraft carrier Virat, where I took him. He would share nuggets as to how he would watch Harold Wilson as Prime Minister shaving inside the car, as his car passed by the University of London. He saw Pele play at Wembley, Sobers hammering the English bowlers at Lords in 1963. As a Common Wealth Scholar, he was privileged to watch theatres from the box seat of Royal Albert Hall and Satyajit Ray’s iconic film Pather Panchali.

For his students, he was peerless in every way. For some, it was his unique gait, for others it was his impeccable sartorial sense and chaste English. But the best anecdote came from a student, who recounted how he took a day’s leave as he could not prepare properly for the class at night. This was from a teacher, who wrote a text book in Inorganic Chemistry, considered the best in the business for 10+2!

His students insisted that the cortege must pass through Ravenshaw University, where he taught from 1952-1963 and Vani Vihar where he was the doyen of Chemistry from 1966 till he retired in 1990. Sitting aside his lifeless body, I almost felt that the Chemistry Professor rose to live as five generation of students paid floral tributes with bleary eyes. Plato said in 273 BC “Knowledge is Power”, and in Sanskrit we say “Vidhwan Sarvatra Pujyate” (The scholar is propitiated everywhere).
He gave his daughter, a Samsonite suitcase in 1983, he bought from Texas in 1980 at a princely sum of 30 dollars. He never liked America and its excessive emphasis on business and flamboyance. The quiet waves of the Thames caressed him and the British humour tickled him no end. He was the Quintessence Brit Professor, who valued courtesy as an inescapable accompaniment. I have never met anyone one, who is so discreet and careful with his words as him. The other trait, I admired most was his shunning administrative position, which most academics love to assume. He was like Ellie Wiesel, the Nobel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor. On being offered the post of PM of Israel, Wiesel had said: The place of a scientist is in the laboratory and not in the Parliament. His students tell me, as long he was the Professor in Vani Vihar, the light never dimmed in the laboratory till the wee hours!

Once I asked him, if he did not miss London and the better academic recognition that could have come his way, had he stayed in UK. He conceded that the opportunity to excel would have been better. But for him, what was most important was to build the Chemistry department to global standards in his own state. He ensured that the national ranking of Utkal University improved to 3 and the students had the benefit of latest curriculum and pursue front line research.

Sadly he suffered quite a lot towards the end. We were indeed relieved that he did not get in to a coma. As an agnostic, I am convinced that there is no correlation between a pious life and peaceful end to life. Prof. Nanda believed in Euthanasia and argued in favour of it in our intermittent conversation. I got a sense, he wanted to exercise this choice in his moments of extreme agony, but never forced it on his family members beyond a point. The gentle colossus was dignity personified even in his worst moment of life.

He was immensely interesting as a raconteur with all age groups, as his interest transcended the narrow boundary of chemical compound. He was like an Alchemist, who could transform lay minds to a paroxysm of joy, by unraveling new frontiers of knowledge. I still carry with me the Samsonite suitcase. The locks work better than any other brand, its light and its silken inner core carry fond memories of innumerable nuggets of his wit, wisdom and warmth. For a late bloomer in academics like me, he holds the template of how to conduct in all places, the importance of introspection and the fathomlessness of knowledge!

The author teaches Economics
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