From the land to the sky

ISRO chairman Kailasavadivoo Sivan on how he juggled classrooms and farm fields

Published - June 16, 2018 02:39 pm IST

“Remember that sometimes, not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck.” Kailasavadivoo Sivan, chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), will vouch for this wise saying of Dalai Lama XIV.

Sivan could not choose where and what to study. However, looking back, he would not have it any other way, for, he realises that the choices that had been made on his behalf, and often against his wishes, have largely made him what he is today.

Having passed out of a Tamil Medium government school, Sivan found himself matriculated in a pre-university programme at S.T. Hindu College in Nagercoil. This was a convenient and practical decision taken by Sivan’s father. “The college was near our home. As a farmer, my father wanted me to help him out at the fields after college hours,” says Sivan.

Opposing ideas

When it was time for the next life-defining decision, Sivan’s father again called the shots. On the advice of his friends, he enrolled Sivan in an undergraduate science programme in S.T. Hindu College. The choice of the course and college did not go well with Sivan. He was on the war path, but the war had been lost even before it had begun.

“It was not easy to have a conversation with my father, so my mother tried to convince him. She too failed. I was adamant about taking up engineering and to protest my father’s decision I went on a hunger strike for a week, but to no avail,” recalls Sivan. His father’s reasoning was that Sivan should not be saddled with the demands of pursuing an engineering degree.

So, for the next three years, Sivan would study math, physics, and statistics at S.T. Hindu College and assist his father at the agricultural fields. Until he completed his B.Sc course, Sivan never crossed the borders of Nagercoil. During the summer vacation, he was given the additional work of selling mangoes harvested from their fields. In his leisure, he would read Tamil classics and draw.

“I had good teachers, never went to tuitions, was attentive in class and hardworking,” says Sivan explaining how he always scored good marks.


While working in the fields, he would gaze at planes, every time one streaked across the sky on the way to the Thiruvananthapuram airport. Those experiences, probably, formed the spark for a career in the skies.

“Using mud taken from the fields, my friends and I would make models of aircraft. They were fitted with wheels. I was fascinated with aircraft and wanted to study the engineering aspect of it,” he says.

At the fag end of his third year at college, an uncle’s visit helped open up other avenues for Sivan. His professors asked him to apply to Madras Institute of Technology (MIT).

“I did not know the full form of MIT, I used to stammer. But, somehow, I cleared the interview as I had full marks in my core degree subjects,” he says.

Sivan joined a three-year aeronautical engineering course. After completing this course successfully, he was disappointed when it did not land him a job. He got a “direct admission” for a master’s degree at Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. “I did not have money to pay the fee and I dared not ask my father, who had sold the fields to educate me,” says Sivan.

His friend Krishnappa Thambiraj, who won a scholarship amount, paid his fee. Later, when Sivan wanted to join ISRO, he was rejected. “I had to be content with a job at Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre,” he says.

Now, the rocket scientist is the top man at the organisation where he was rejected once.

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