The gentleman who gave the trainee a lift in his car was none other than the AEC Chairman
Puri (name changed), a scientific assistant who just joined the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, missed the staff bus at Dadar that day. Taxi was too expensive. He eagerly waited at the main junction, hoping to get a lift.
He frantically waved his hand when a car with the BARC nameplate passed by, virtually jumping in front of it. The driver ignored him. But after a few yards the vehicle stopped. A bespectacled gentleman seated behind beckoned him.
Puri ran fast and got into the front seat. “BARC laboratories should have been somewhere in the city and not in faraway Trombay,” he grumbled.
The benevolent occupant was busy reading some book. Puri, at his ebullient best, interrupted him a few times. He annoyed the driver. Puri didn’t care. His co-passenger wore an amused look.
As the car approached the BARC gate, his co-passenger tapped Puri on the shoulder. “Where do you want to get down”? “Is it ok if I drop you at the next junction”? “That is ok, gentleman,” Puri responded. He had his own mannerisms.
After he got down, Puri forgot the episode. At BARC, he made friends with everyone. He was over 6 feet; head held high, he thought he was a born leader and was always in the front for every activity.
Two weeks later, the staff assembled near the central complex building to celebrate Dr. Bhabha’s birthday. The founder’s day is a stock taking occasion at Trombay.
Puri and his boisterous friends arrived well in advance. They occupied the front row. The function started on time. As the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), stood up to speak, Puri felt that the dignitary’s face was vaguely familiar and the moment he recognised it, he hastily ran back to be out of sight! What he suffered was the mother of all shocks. For, it was the same gentleman who gave him a lift two weeks ago — Dr. Raja Ramanna.
I joined the erstwhile Atomic Energy Establishment Trombay Training School on August 14, 1963. During the first week, we had one of the most memorable and comforting experiences. Dr. Ramanna visited us. He was a very simple person. We could approach him anytime. Very often, he came to the hostel. As the then Director, Physics Group, the training school was his turf.
At the informal meetings, he listened to us carefully and spoke quietly. He spiced his talk with funny anecdotes. When he spoke, we felt that he was talking to us individually. His reassuring demeanour gave us confidence.
An unforgettable incident revealed an altogether different facet of his character. The smiling teacher turned into a steely, taciturn and stubborn disciplinarian.
Two trainees from our batch had a fight. One of them was weak but intemperate, the other strong and short-tempered! They fought on some trivial issue. The weak fellow was playing table tennis when the strong man entered the sports room. After waiting for some time, he requested him to give him a chance. “You don’t have to play any games, you are already strong,” the weak fellow told him. Needless teasing developed into fisticuffs.
The weak fellow got seriously hurt. Friends intervened. Both the victor and the vanquished exchanged apologies. The issue, however, became too serious as the victim needed urgent medical help. He went to the dispensary. He had a broken jaw bone. Dr. Jaywant dutifully reported the matter to Dr. Ramanna.
We expected that there would be an inquiry. Dr. Ramanna thought differently. He could not tolerate indiscipline. He did not want to apportion the blame. “Irresponsible”, “They are going to be gazetted officers in a few months”… “Dismiss them both”... He thundered.
The injured man could not go to his home town during the vacation. He lived on liquid diet for two months. Dr. Ramanna changed his stand only after several trainees appealed for mercy. In the end, the disciplinarian showed e compassion and saved the careers of a scientist and an engineer. The scientist left India for greener pastures. The engineer superannuated as a senior safety specialist.
[January 28 this year was Dr. Ramanna’s 88th birth anniversary.]
(The writer is former Secretary, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, Mumbai. email: email@example.com)