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Monday, 17 April 2017

Remembering Dr Venkataraman Jagannathan

Dr V. Jagannathan (Photo courtesy: INSA)
I scanned over every nook and corner of the newspaper which I regularly read. Then another one. Then yet another one. I searched on the Internet. No. Nowhere could I find anything related to the passing away of Dr Venkataraman Jagannathan. Not even in the obituary columns! Well, in a way, that suited his character; that was probably what he would have wanted. He never did anything for the sake of publicity while alive; then why now, when he is no more? He never enjoyed flattering. He despised such extravaganzas. Or, should I say he was above all those crazy feelings? He was not very concerned with whether he was appreciated for a particular matter or not. He would go on with his work. But he was very particular not to hurt others’ feelings in any manner. 

The thunderbolt

It was the previous day, 2 December 2015, that my phone rang around noon when I had just finished my lunch. The caller was Hema Narayanan, Dr Jagannathan’s niece. I almost jumped in expectation of a glad news. Dr Jagannathan used to always inform me when he visits Delhi. And I would invariably go and meet him at the India International Centre (IIC), where he used to stay. He was a member of IIC. It was always such a pleasure to be in his benign presence, to listen to his soft words, to be with his rare personality. Each word he would say would be so soothing, so comforting, like that of a disciple hearing his Guru. Well, I was his disciple, and he my Guru, without doubt!

He was either already in Delhi, or was planning to make a trip to Delhi very soon. That must be the reason why Hema was calling. I picked up the phone and said, ‘Hello’.

Hema said, ‘Jayanthan, this is Hema Narayanan from Pune’.

She probably didn’t know that I have her number saved on my phone. I said, ‘Yes, Hema.’

I waited for her to break the news of their impending trip to Delhi. But instead she said, ‘Jayanthan, uncle passed away this morning.’

That was a thunderbolt! I was struck by lightening. I was dumb. And deaf. And speechless. I must have heard it wrong. Or Hema may have got it wrong. But you cannot wish away the truth. It was the truth. Dr Jagannathan had passed away that morning. For several seconds I did not know what to say or think.

Then I asked Hema, ‘What happened? Was he unwell?’

She said, ‘He had been ill for more than a year. He passed away peacefully this morning.’
She sounded to be in a hurry. Naturally so. She may have to make several calls to all those who were close to Dr Jagannathan over the years, both professional and personal. And supervise his after-death rituals.

The D-day

I first met Dr Jagannathan when he came to join the Tata Energy Research Institute (now The Energy and Resources Institute) (TERI) to set up and head the Biotechnology division. He led the Biotechnology as well as later the Plant Tissue Culture divisions in TERI. I worked with him from the day he joined the institute in 1985 till the day he left it in 1992. Mr Subramanian, who headed the administration, had told me, ‘Dr Jagannathan was Director of the National Chemical Laboratory, Pune. He is a very senior scientist. You are very lucky to work with him.’

From Mr Subramanian’s descriptions, I made a mental image of him – a very strict, matter-of-fact, never-smiling, and tall and stout person, who had the air and aura of the Director of a national institute. I was also slightly scared. As I was to learn later, he had never been officially the Director of NCL. He had politely refused to take the administrative responsibility of the Director, in which case his research activities would have suffered. And he never wanted that. But his status was equal to that of the Director.   
I met him for the first time the day he joined for duty. My surprise knew no bounds. He was exactly the opposite of what I had imagined. He was short and lean by physical standards. When weeks and months passed, I knew him a little more. He was ever smiling, talked very softly and lovingly, very simple, always listening very carefully to everything one had to say (whether it was on hard core research or a silly personal matter), finding solutions to people’s problems, and always ready to impart professional as well as personal advices.  He was, above all, an extremely loving and caring friend and guide. I was indeed very lucky to have worked with him.

The initial days

TERI had no prior experience in plant biotechnology. Everything had to start from the scratch. Each item of equipment had to be assessed, selected, quotations invited, and acquired. Dr Jagannathan used to spend a lot of time researching on the materials and instruments (including equipment to be imported). He also selected each test tube, flask, pipette, and such other small instruments. It took several months for the facility to be called a laboratory. It is true that later a few other scientists joined the division and Dr Jagannathan did distribute some of the responsibilities to them. But all final decisions was taken by him. His active involvement continued till the time a purchase team was set up exclusively to look after the purchase needs of the division.   

The little ‘big’ things!

When I purchased my first motorised two-wheeler (a Vijay Super Mark II scooter) (I used to ride a bicycle earlier) Dr Jagannathan gave me two advices. One, I should never overtake a vehicle on the left side, which is very common in Delhi. And two, the pillion rider, even if it was my wife, should always wear a helmet. I could never obey the second advice, since my wife would not wear a helmet. Also, it was not mandatory under the traffic rules then. And the first one, well, I obeyed it almost always. But as for the fast vehicles, the rule does not actually mean much. In a three-lane road a vehicle on the left side might speed past a vehicle on the right side. Does it amount to overtaking? Of course, my vehicle was never the fastest. It was never even fast. It used to be faster than only bicycles, cycle rickshaws and occasionally autorickshaws! Dr Deepak Pental, then Fellow in the Division (who later went on to become Delhi University’s Vice Chancellor) advised me, ‘Just think you are riding a slightly faster bicycle. Do not think you are driving a car!’

Finding a solution where there is none!

Dr Jagannathan was a founding member of the Plant Tissue Culture Association of India. The Association conducts meetings every year at various organizations in different parts of the country. Once the meeting was organised by Dr Jagannathan in Delhi while he was in TERI. As his secretary, I had the chance to do all the correspondence, and also made several other arrangements for the event. It was a huge meeting with several hundred participants, conducted at a five star hotel. I also handled the expenses related to the meeting. Dr Jagannathan was religiously strict regarding expenses, whether personal or public. After the conclusion of the meeting, he asked me to prepare a complete statement of accounts. While preparing it, I realised that an amount of Rs. 937 was short from the imprest money that I kept for purposes of immediate cash transactions. I checked all the bills and receipts and other documents to find out the whereabouts of the missing amount. I had absolutely no idea where and how the money had vanished. Did I forget to get a receipt from someone? Did I forget to note it down in the notebook which I kept for the purpose? I didn’t remember anything. At last I went and apprised Dr Jagannathan about the missing money and offered to refurbish it from my pocket. He asked me to recheck all the documents and gave me more time. After two days I told him that the money remained untraceable. He then asked me to prepare a receipt in my name for Rs 1000 against clerical expenses for the meeting. Thus the expenses were tallied. He was confident that I did not spend the money on anything other than that related to the meeting. He trusted me completely. So, instead of punishing me for my carelessness, he rewarded me for my efforts! I do not remember whether my eyes were wet, but I was certainly overwhelmed. 

The happy hour

The seed of the practice, which later became almost our habit, of ‘Happy Hour’ was actually sowed by Dr Dilip Ahuja. He transplanted the idea from the US, where he worked for several years before joining TERI, as a small plantlet. But it grew to become a huge fruit-bearing tree under Dr Jagannathan. On every Friday evening all of us in 90 Jor Bagh, from where TERI’s Biotechnology Department functioned (about 25 to 30 people), used to assemble and chit chat (but no gossips or discussions on politics) in Dr Jagannathan’s room over a cup of tea and snacks. Everybody actively took part in the event right from Dr Jagannathan to peons and security guards. The event was sponsored by us in rotation.

It started with meeting over a cup of tea, which was available free in the office. It slowly grew when one colleague or the other started sponsoring snacks. Slowly the number and types of snacks increased, and sweets were added, too. Though it was called happy hour, it was actually for 30 minutes, though sometimes it spilled over to some extra minutes. As told earlier, our office was located in 90 Jor Bagh while the main TERI office was located in 7 Jor Bagh. Technically this was supposed to be an event confined to 90 Jor Bagh. But I remember several people from 7 Jor Bagh used to attend the function regularly. Some of them sometimes even sponsored a particular happy hour. Even Dr Pachauri, then Director, had attended the function several times. Had Dr Jagannathan not taken a keen interest and encouraged it whole-heartedly, the event could have died a premature death after Dr Dilip Ahuja and his division shifted to another building. The ‘habit’ spread like wildfire to other buildings of TERI, and they started to have their own happy hours. It continued even after all the staff members shifted to the huge single office complex in India Habitat Centre. Much later it had to be abandoned due to the unwelcome attack of ants and mice who were very happy to enjoy the little pieces of left-over snacks and sweets.

The OP Bhasin Award

In 1988 Dr Jagannathan received the Om Prakash Bhasin award for his contributions in the field of Biotechnology. I do not even know how many people came to know about that. As I said earlier, he never wanted to make a hue and cry of his achievements. He never blew his own trumpet. But I am sure several people within TERI knew about it. I also remember some colleagues congratulating him in person and several others over the phone. That is all. And then everybody forgot about that. But next year when another senior colleague, a distinguished fellow in TERI, won the same award in the field of agriculture, an official function was organised by TERI to felicitate him. I remember Prof. M.G.K. Menon, the then Minister of State for Science and Technology, attended the function as the chief guest. A question arose in my mind that day and kept on troubling me for several more weeks, ‘Why only felicitate this scientist? Why not Dr Jagannathan?’ Maybe, a distant MAYBE, Dr Jagannathan did not want such an event. Or, maybe nobody thought about it. Or maybe, felicitating Dr Jagannathan would not have brought accolades to TERI and therefore, useless, him being a silent scientist.

The Vipassana meditation

It was while working in TERI that once he went to attend the Vipassana meditation course at Igatpuri, Maharashtra. The initial course was of ten days. On his return, he explained what the whole course is all about and how it is sure to change one’s outlook towards the whole concept of life. The course teaches you to feel and follow your breath, he said. It is nothing but to feel and experience everything that you do. He even advised me that I too should attend the course once. Though I wanted to do it, I couldn’t till now, for various reasons (excuses?!) However, I plan to do it now. At least as a tribute to Dr Jagannathan, I have to do it.

I also remember once he talked a lot about the Alexander technique. I don’t know if he practised it, or attended a course, but he was certainly very much interested in the technique. The Alexander technique, Dr Jagannathan said, is based on the theory that most of our physical disabilities and deformities are caused by our incorrect postures and the incorrect ways in which we moved our legs. A deformity of the neck could be cured by proper massage of the feet!

Nothing official about it!

Dr Jagannathan was very particular that no official resources are to be used for personal benefits. He used his own car to commute to and from office. If the car was not available due to whatever reasons, he would hire a taxi, but never asked to be picked up or dropped by the office car. He could very well have done that, and no questions would have been asked, but he never did it. When he took over as the head of the plant tissue culture facilities at Gwal Pahari (Gurgaon), on many occasions he had to travel to the facility, located about 25 km from TERI. The understanding was that he would be given an official vehicle to make these trips. Later, however, he was requested to use his personal car for the purpose. He was, however, provided with a driver. I do not know if the fuel was paid for, too by TERI. He did not, however, make a big hue and cry about the arrangements.

Several people used to use the office stationery, while sending a personal communication by post. The postage stamps were, however, paid for on many occasions.  But not so with Dr Jagannathan. He would invariably purchase an envelope from the post office, and never use the office stationery. He also used to pay for his personal calls from the official telephone. This was when nobody would have asked him to do so. I do not think any other senior staff member did this. 

Dr Jagannathan used to have a set of stationery for personal use, such as a pair of scissors, a stapler with staples, pens, pencils, gum, etc. While leaving Delhi, he gave me the pair of high quality scissors. I treasured it till one day I inadvertently took it in my hand baggage along with my toiletries on a flight. I was promptly asked to remove it at the airport. Even to this day I regret having done such a foolish thing that day.

As a parting gift Dr Jagannathan also presented me with a copy of the Bhagavadgita with Dr S Radhakrishnan’s critique.

He was, without doubt, a gem of a person, and a very rare one at that.

The meetings that never were!

Dr Jagannathan never wanted to annoy anybody, even strangers. Sometimes people came to meet him, and he would not be interested to spend a lot of time with them. He would, however, not refuse to meet them. He would let them in. He would tell me when to go and interrupt the meeting. After about five or ten minutes, I would knock at the door and tell him that the Director wanted to meet him urgently, or some other such excuse so that the visitor ends the meeting and departs.  This happened not many times, but on a few occasions, during the seven years I worked with him.

The shock of the life!

The year was 1992. It was the first day in office after I had returned from a long leave from Kerala. Dr Jagannathan called me to his room first thing in the morning. He said he has resigned from TERI. And he was smiling! He could have been saying that that day’s breakfast was nice! Or that he met an old friend on the way to office! I was so shocked that I looked at him confused! This was totally unexpected. As far as I knew he was doing extremely well as the Head of the Biotechnology and Plant Tissue Culture units. Nobody had anything bad to say against him. And everybody respected him for his intelligence, politeness, down-to-earth manners, and helping mentality. Anybody could go to him any time and discuss even personal matters. He would listen to it as if the existence of the world depended on it. He would always give good practical advices. I had absolutely no idea of what must have prompted Dr Jagannathan to take such a drastic step. Despite my repeated queries, he did not elaborate the reason for his action. As was his practice, he just smiled my questions away. As he said later, he did not want his action to affect his subordinates adversely. That was probably why he did not tell me the reason for his resignation. Not then, not at any time later. He thought the less I knew the better it was for me. And he made absolutely sure that none of his junior colleagues were adversely affected due to his departure from TERI. He did not want them to suffer from witch hunting.

I, however, had an inkling that everything was not very well between him and the Director. I recollected having typed a note for him some time back, addressed to the Director, regarding the peer review of some project. The tone was quite sharp and I remember he had also given a deadline to the Director for taking (or reversing? I don’t remember which) a particular decision. I was awed that somebody could write such a note to the Director. Well, Dr Jagannathan could, and he did. That same evening, he went out telling me that he was going to the market to have a haircut. Did he expect something to happen while he was out of the office? I don’t know, but if he did, he was right. After some time I received a call from Director’s office that he wanted to meet Dr Jagannathan before he left for the day. I rushed to the market. I found him on the chair in the saloon and the barber doing his work. The moment I went in, probably due to my panting, the barber stopped his work and looked at me. Dr Jagannathan, too, turned his head towards me, as if he had been expecting me. I told him that the Director wanted to see him urgently. He smiled (or did he laugh?) and said, ‘all right’.

I marvelled then and I marvelled all the time that I worked with him, and I wonder even now, on his ability to keep his emotions completely under wrap. He never showed any emotions at all. He wrapped every emotion under his ever-present and winning smile. A few days after this event, I had proceeded to Kerala on a long leave. And by the time I returned, he had resigned!


I remember the very few meetings I had with him after he left TERI. He had returned to Pune where his heart was even during all those years he worked in Delhi. He had actually advanced the date of his resignation by a few days so that he would be able to attend the famous Ganesh festival of Maharashtra which he would have missed if he had stuck to the original date! Whenever he used to visit Delhi, he used to inform me and I would go and meet him at the IIC. Once he invited me for breakfast where a few other former colleagues were also present.

I also met Dr Jagannathan once in Pune. I had gone to Pune to be with our son, for a few days. I telephoned Dr Jagannathan. He invited us to his home for lunch. We could not have lunch with him, because we had lunch with our soon-to-be daughter(-in-law). But the snacks he and his niece Hema treated us with were no less than a stupendous lunch; all home-made delicacies. When we were leaving, Hema took us to the most famous shop in Pune (I forgot the name) from where we purchased bakarwadi, the very special Pune snack and some sweets.

The unpardonable crime

My regret, for which I shall never forgive myself, is that I had been to Pune twice during the few months before his passing away and I did not even telephone him. If I knew he was unwell (as Hema told me), then I would have made it a point to go and see him. It is when this thought came to me that I realized that it was nearly three years, since I have had any communication with him. It has certainly been very ungrateful of me. Well, I could plead that my son was busy and couldnot spare the time, or my daughter was busy, too; or that I was new to Pune and didn’t know the way, and can spread several other excuses. But I will not be pardoned. And I should not be. I could have taken a taxi and visited him, couldn’t I? What excuse did I have for not even telephoning him? None. The loss has entirely been mine. A loss that can never be fulfilled; a gap that will never be closed. And I hold me entirely responsible for that.