The new director of IIT-Madras tells BARADWAJ RANGAN about playing the mridangam and pondering upon our country's destiny even as he plays sheriff to a small town.
A gleaming brass plaque in the reception area bears the names of the directors of the institute, with dates marking the beginnings and ends of their tenures. The name at the end is M.S. Ananth, Bhaskar Ramamurthi's predecessor. My first question to Ramamurthi, inevitably, is about the missing name. “There's been no time,” he remarks with a wry laugh. “It's been like Solomon Grundy — informed on Thursday, took up post on Friday.” This Tuesday morning, five days into his new role, the director tells me that he may not even have been sitting in this chair had his childhood dream of becoming a pilot come true. To that end, he even joined the NCC. But his classmates came home and told his mother that he was mad and he should be studying for the IIT exams. “So I wrote the exams and gave up that dream.”
By the time Ramamurthi wrote his entrance exams, his father was transferred to Madras. Plans, therefore, were quickly made to obtain seats in Loyola College or Vivekananda College. But when he knew he'd gotten admission to IIT, in 1975, he chose the institute here, for a Bachelor's degree in Electronics, which was at the time a five-year programme. “Even when I got into IIT,” says Ramamurthi, “neither my parents nor I knew what it was. This transformation of IIT into a brand happened around the time I returned from the U.S. in 1986. When I was in IIT, people would ask where I was studying and not really react when I told them, and now all parents want their children in it.”
He recalls his friends with fondness. The social isolation of the computer age was a long time away and TV was just Doordarshan, so fun on campus always included thick groups of people. “We grew up together and learnt from each other,” Ramamurthi says. “We used to look forward to the weekly movie, which was shown on Saturdays and was a big event at the open-air theatre.”
After a while his sister got married and his lonely parents wanted their son to come home on weekends. But he didn't miss the movies as his passion lay in music, and he spent these weekends honing his skills on the mridangam. Ramamurthi still plays the instrument, but not all that well. “Since I am an academic, I can evaluate myself very clearly,” he says.
After IIT, “as was pretty customary those days,” Ramamurthi went to the U.S. for higher studies. He attended the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he completed a Masters and then a Ph.D. He had made up his mind to return to India and he was of the opinion that wireless communications would prove very useful when he returned, so he used his advisor's connections and wangled a position at AT&T Bell Laboratories. He spent two years there getting experience in the new area and then he came back to IIT-Madras and joined as faculty in 1986.
About his effort to return to India, I ask Ramamurthi what he feels about the students who do the opposite, the students whose flights to the First World results in grim hand-wringing about brain-drain. His answer is calm-headed and philosophical. “You may go abroad and not give anything to the country. You may stay here and not give anything to the country. Yes, the IITs are heavily subsidised. If you've taken something from the country, then it becomes even more of an obligation to give something back. That was one of the motivating factors for me to return. Each of us who have been beneficiaries, on the part of either our fellow beings or the Lord, should have a sense of obligation.”
Ramamurthi isn't conflicted about being a man of science who is also a man of fervent faith. “Yes, I am a religious person,” he says, and adds that you can use any word — “Lord” or “destiny” — but you cannot deny that there are things that happen over which we have no control. “What you ascribe it to is another matter. Why should I be born in a family that gave me a comforting cocoon and a good education and why should the kid on the street be born in that family? You have to say that you owe something. I don't care what logic you use beyond that. I use the Lord; it's simple for me. But I'm perfectly comfortable with any explanation.”
Ramamurthi was asked in 2005 if he'd be Dean of Planning. The deanship ended on August 1 this year, and Ramamurthi says, “I went back to teaching. For six weeks I was just a happy professor.” That's an unusual phrase, suggestive of a two-year-old that's been let loose in a toy factory. “All of us are like that,” he says. “Our first love is teaching. But we don't do these administrative things unwillingly. Somebody has to do it.”
The six weeks of happy professoring came to a halt when Ramamurthi was appointed director. But what does a director do? Ramamurthi explains that he will be responsible (on behalf of the faculty) for fulfilling the educational obligations of the institution, by turning out good people.
Then there are expectations on research outputs. There are expectations that the IITs will invent things and will address social development problems and will count among the top universities of the world. “These are valid expectations,” Ramamurthi says. “A director's job is to be cognizant of them and fulfil them.” But there is also an institution to be run. Ramamurthi likens the leafy campus to a small town which has people to handle things. “But if the water doesn't come, the issue will land up here. So you are also in some sense the sheriff and mayor of the town. You have to take care of everything.”
Ramamurthi tosses off his achievements and responsibilities as if they were an additional exam paper to correct, but he doesn't see himself as someone who's accomplished anything extraordinary. With the dispassionate academic evaluation he brought to bear on his mridangam-playing skills, he sizes up his life's work. “I can say that I'm fairly diligent. I keep plugging away at what I think I should do.”
He wants India to do well. “From childhood, that's been my dream,” he says. He thinks we are doing well but we need to do much more. “We need to see what India is all about.” His elder son, who is in Class XI has been trying to get him to read Harry Potter, but Ramamurthi's interests have gravitated towards philosophy.
“Each of these people, whether Vivekananda or Ramana Maharishi has said something about these things, so I keep going back to them. I'm not one of those who believes in Manifest Destiny, but are we going to be like everyone else?” Just like each one of us is different, there must be some way India is different from other countries — but he doesn't know what way that is. “I'm not a visionary. I can't see where we're going. But am I glad to be at this point in space and time? Very glad.”