A biography may be defined as the written history of a person, with attention not only to the events in his life, but also to the character and disposition of the person. A good biography holds a mirror against the person — neither hyperbole, nor understatement.
This biography of Dr. Y. Nayudamma comes close to the model created by James Boswell in Life of Johnson. The reader receives the impression of walking with the man in flesh and blood.
Born as the eldest child of simple and illiterate parents in a remote village in Andhra Pradesh, Nayudamma grew up in a rural environment until he went to Benares Hindu University for his graduation in Industrial Chemistry.
Nayudamma was a scientist of the people and for the people. A deep concern for the poor in rural India was always an obsession for him. He firmly believed that technology was the engine of growth. His credo was to bring some sunshine into the lives of the rural poor.
He joined the Central Leather Research Institute at Chennai in 1943 as a Demonstrator, on a salary of Rs.17 a month. Sheer merit and hard work won for him an opportunity for training in England in 1946. From the U.K., Nayudamma went to the U.S. to pursue MS, and Ph.D in Leather Technology — the first to get a doctorate in the country in this academic field.
In 1951, he returned to CLRI as Assistant Director. However, within a fortnight, he was promoted as Deputy Director, as the powers that be sought to set right an anomaly that “Assistant Directorship was too low a position” for him.
Six years later, when the incumbent Director passed away, Nayudamma was the obvious choice for the vacancy. But as he was quite young — only 34 years old — he was given the job only on a temporary basis. He was equally at home with the peasant and the prime minister. In his illustrious career, he collaborated with three different Prime Ministers. Nayudamma always did what seemed to him as right, and he could not be bullied or bamboozled by unrighteous might.
Meeting with Nehru
Two years later, when the issue of permanency surfaced, the Prime Minister, “Jawaharlal Nehru (himself) wished to interview Nayudamma personally. The appointment with Nehru was around midnight … He (Nehru) told Nayudamma that he would be the youngest person to head a national institute and asked him point blank what he (Nayudamma) proposed to do to develop the age old leather industry.”
Nayudamma replied: “I’ll endeavour to infuse scientific temper to the tradition-bound leather industry, being pursued by the socially and economically downtrodden leather artisans and help in their socio-economic uplift.” Nehru was impressed with that reply and Nayudamma was confirmed as the Director.
Thirteen years later, in 1971, Nayudamma was selected by another Prime Minister — Indira Gandhi — to head the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) at Delhi. Nayudamma accomplished a complete overhaul and rejuvenation of CSIR, during the six years that he served as the Director-General.
When there was a change in the political leadership, despite the new Prime Minister Morarji Desai asking him to continue as the DG, Nayudamma chose to resign. He returned to CLRI intending to devote the rest of his life working for the welfare of the leather artisans.
But destiny had different plans for him. Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister for the fourth time, invited him to become the Vice-Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) at Delhi, which had a bag of woes.
On his first day at JNU, Nayudamma was greeted by the demonstrators of a 55-day old strike. But the same evening, after several hours of discussion, the strike was called off.
Nayudamma tried his best to set things right, but in vain. After 16 months, he quit his job at JNU. He realised that his “diagnosis and prognosis” were not acceptable to the hard core bureaucracy.
His end was tragic and traumatic. He was a passenger in the ill-fated Air India flight from Canada – “Emperor Kanishka” – that crashed off the Irish coast on June 23, 1985. He had changed from Swiss Air to Air India in the last minute, so that he might arrive in India a few hours earlier.
(R. Devarajan is a management consultant)