A teacher and an educator: An IITian's tribute

I was nervously waiting outside Prof N.R Kamath’s room in IIT Bombay’s Chemical Engineering Department

Rajendra Shende Sep 05, 2020

I was nervously waiting outside Prof N.R Kamath’s room in IIT Bombay’s Chemical Engineering Department. I had recently secured admission in IIT-Bombay, highly in demand among students those days. I had cracked that IIT entrance examination with flying colors. My knowledge of Chemical Engineering that time was limited to ‘Engineering that helps producing Chemicals’. And my rural background exposed my limited fluency in English. 

I waited with nervous waves striking me. In the corridors of the IIT Bombay those days I had heard students talking with Bombay slangs and stylish English. I was, however, determined to meet the Head of the Department and introduce myself to him.

I was asked by his secretary to wait. After a while Prof Kamath came out and signaled me to come with him. I expected the meeting to be in his room but my first ever meeting with him took place in the corridor of the Chemical Engineering Department. In his characteristic style he placed his long hand on my shoulder, and he walked with him. He was proceeding to the main building and I was just walking with him side by side.

“Tell me how are doing, my friend.” He asked. I started unshackling my inhibitions in response to his friendly gesture. “Sir, I want to know you, because I come from a small village in Maharashtra”, I said in muddled English. In reality, I wanted to ask, ‘Sir, because I come from a small village, I would like to get advice from you on how I should study in IIT to get good grades. 

But my vernacular past translated all that gathered in my mind into random rural English. He stopped. Looked at me and said "You come from a small village? Me too. And remember those who come from small villages will have no problem in learning Chemical Engineering in IIT. Everything that takes place in the villages is chemical engineering, right from making fertilizers from cow-dung to making jaggery and desi liquor by fermentation, all are chemical engineering, my friend. So, you are in the right place. Come to me if you have any difficulties". 

He assured me with his characteristic chuckle and left me hurriedly to go to the main building of the Institute. I felt assured even if it was a sort of stray response to my question. I was happy because a number of other students watched me walking along with Prof N.R Kamath, author of a number of books on chemical engineering processes and consultant par excellence to many chemical industries.

I later had a few more meetings with him during my five years in  IIT Bombay. That included taking advice on the subject of my final year thesis, selecting the factory in Mumbai for practical training and for getting advice on setting up a small-scale chemical plant for drying the onions and exporting to West Asia. Each meeting was as brief as the first meeting.

My plans to set up a small-scale industry failed. I could not find a mortgage for getting a loan and hypothecate to bank. I thought my first class IIT degree could be the best mortgage. But the bank’s branch manager looked at him and said, ‘Why do not you go abroad like your other IIT friends’. I walked out without telling him that, indeed yes, I could have done that easily. But I wanted to send my product abroad first. Like my uncle, I was charged with a ‘Swadeshi spirit’.

Many of my friends went abroad to study further.  I lost nearly half a year and had to miss the starting year of my post-graduation abroad due to my ‘desi’ plans. And, strangely I could not fulfill the wish of the bank manager either!

At one of my meetings he put his hand on my shoulder, as his wont, and started walking with me. “Tell me how your small-scale industry is doing”. I told him the whole story. This time my English was logical and quick. The result of spending 5 years in the IIT-Campus with friends from Cuff Parade and Colaba, I suppose. 

I was determined not to show my tears.  But Prof Kamath did not miss noticing a strange lump in my throat as I walked my talk!

"Relax, heavens have not fallen. I know you were selected in campus interview by Tata Chemicals. You did not go because you wanted to sell onions!" he said. "Dry onions, sir", I corrected him, holding my tears back. 

I was now an unemployed IIT-graduate for the last six months after the convocation. I thought I have failed the reputation of IITs. And I even cannot go back to my village Rahimatpur as communicating from there would have been a challenge as I did not even have a proper phone line.

Prof Kamath asked me to stay in the hostel and come the next day. I kept wondering what magic bullet he has to engage me.

Next day he asked me to go to the Chairman of Tata Chemicals in Bombay House. Prof Kamath said he has revived the old case of mine and Tata Chemical would reconsider my case. I went to Bombay House, Tata’s headquarters. Chairman Darbari Seth saw me and then asked me to meet Director Hinge. The hotline to Mithapur was activated. The appointment letter arrived from Mithapur through telex. I was asked to go to Mithapur the next day to take up the job. 

Rest is my career story, a journey of working in Mithapur, then in Mumbai, then in Delhi and then in Paris for the United Nations, where I was selected through global competition. This story was ignited by Prof N R Kamath, popularly known as NRK.

Prof. N R Kamath was an outstanding and well recognised technologist with profuse knowledge of ground realities, chemical industries and process engineering. From the University Department of Chemical Technology (UDCT), now named as Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai, he came to the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay and became founder head of department and then Deputy Director of IIT Bombay.

My last meeting was with his Czechoslovakian wife Ruzena whom we met in the subway tunnel in Sion in Mumbai. Prof. Kamath was no more. But Ruzena continued to live in India. I told her how Prof Kamath taught us chemical engineering with first lecture on fermentation and winemaking.

Prof Kamath had stated in public  that he is more an educator than just a teacher. He left the world by leaving behind this seething thought in my mind,  what is the difference between a teacher and educator?
I keep dreaming, how he would have responded to this tricky question.  I then visualised a scene. He would have planted his long hand on my shoulder and would have answered, "My friend, I’m not a teacher. I only show the way to those who ask for it. I point the way ahead. Whether it is about small scale industry for drying and exporting onions or helping to grab the missed train to Tata Chemicals in Mithapur.

"Seeing that they move ahead, the educator in me feel contended".
(The writer is Chairman TERRE Policy Centre and former Director, UNEP. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at shende.rajendra@gmail.com)



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