Science Reviews

‘From Temples to Turbines: An Adventure in Two Worlds’ review: Tejas, from dream to reality

Leadership often harnesses the dreams of many; this cannot be understated when it comes to technology. The tension and the glory of leadership in the most controversial area of defence research form the core of V.S. Arunachalam’s fascinating account. During his career, he led programmes on several key technologies for the government of India’s defence research programme.

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The work involved had to maintain continuity across the tenure of several Prime Ministers from Indira Gandhi to Atal Behari Vajpeyi. From Temples to Turbines: An Adventure in Two Worlds is, therefore, a captivating story of Arunachalam’s course through the worlds of science and technology on the one hand and politics and public policy on the other.

Miffed Russia

The book begins with a description of the author’s early life and mentors, and ends with his experiences as a prominent official and adviser to the Government of India. In between, plays out the most interesting story of the building of the first indigenous light combat aircraft, now named Tejas.

Arunachalam portrays Tejas as the combined dream of several engineers, scientists and air force personnel. The story of the realisation of this dream was not immediate but spanned decades. It is a story of having to overcome several obstacles and the author presents it in an engaging manner.

The Russians were not pleased with this attempt on India’s part to become independent and the book documents an interesting incident of his meeting with the then Soviet defence minister Dmitri Ustinov. He recalls, “Ustinov was angry with me for going on an independent route. He was furious but the interpreter was embarrassed and hesitant — he moderated Ustinov’s anger in his translations. Ustinov complained that we would end up flying a kite called the LCA, and said if I were working in the Soviet Union he would have immediately dismissed me. Venkataraman [Former President R. Venkataraman, who was defence minister at the time] retained an angelic smile all along saying nothing.”

This was after 300 scientists and engineers had been roped in under Arunachalam’s leadership into the project with the mission of designing and building indigenous aircraft for the Indian Air Force. He recounts: “When I mentioned Ustinov’s anger... to Rajiv Gandhi [then the Congress President], he humorously remarked that the same thought came to him and wondered whether Venkataraman would take advice from the Soviet Minister!” This underscores the amazingly delicate roots of sturdy technologies.

Anecdotes about PMs, technocrats

The book must be read equally for what it reveals about his interactions with Prime Ministers as for amusing stories about architects of defence technology programmes such as M.G.K. Menon and Raja Ramanna.

To state one, the author had invited Raja Ramanna for dinner at his Lodhi Estate residence. Seeing that the gates were locked, Ramanna agilely jumped over the fence, causing alarms to ring and security personnel to rush after him. “It took us some time to convince them that he was not a stranger but the country’s foremost nuclear physicist,” recalls Arunachalam.

Though it leaves out a helpful chronicling of dates to facilitate the reader’s journey, the book has much in store for those interested in India’s science programme.

From Temples to Turbines: An Adventure in Two Worlds; V.S. Arunachalam, Defence Research and Development Organisation, Ministry of Defence, ₹800.

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2021 2:44:38 PM |

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