May 15, 2009

Of Opportunities, wasted and wanted.

It's surprising, sometimes, how much one can learn in a span of a few minutes, from someone whom one has spent listening to for the most part of three years. I know this is true of most of my friends here who've spent time with Prof. Ranil N. Biswas, (especially the ones that gave him a farewell party tonight) that they are proud to have known such a distinguished personality, and regret that they might not ever meet him again.

Those who have known Prof. RNB, or was a student under him, need no introduction (By the way, this also includes the director of my current Institute, Dr. Rajeev Sangal). For those unfortunate few who have not known him, he is one of the few 'old world' teachers left. 'Old world' not in the sense of physical age, because I can dare say he is fitter than most of my friends, but 'old world' in the sense of the kind of vision, commitment, dedication, and satisfaction achieved from a work well done, or a life well lead, that is present only in the people of the previous generation. He has spent more than 40 years teaching, of which more than 30 years were spent at IIT-K, has served as the Director of IIT-K, and this is only his teaching career.

Here are excerpts from an informal gathering we had. These quotes are not verbatim, but they convey the meaning.

I haven't told this to many people, but one of the things I feel really proud about, is not my 4.0 CGPA at Berkeley, but the fact that I could show them an Indian could do it. An Indian is 'no worse' than them.
I had to do a course from the Physics department, to fill my credits. This was taught by a Nobel Laureate in Physics, to the brightest students in physics, and I had to hold my own against them.
One of my moments of crowning glory, was this: The Nobel Laureate was a panelist in my thesis review panel, and when I went to him to get my thesis reviewed, he said "You are from the Electrical Department? But you stood second in my class! And the one who stood first was from the Physics Department!" He was surprised to believe someone from outside the Physics Department could do so well.
One of the things I cherish the most, is that my students remember me even after some 30 odd years. Even now, whenever I meet some of them, they arrange get-togethers, much like you did. That is something that will always give me pleasure.
I had never ever thought I would end up in teaching one day. I was even convinced that would be the last of my career options.
One cannot 'learn' teaching. Teaching is like acting. Either you can do it, or you can't. One has to have an aptitude to do such things. That is why I always say, if you really want to do something well, you need to first really like doing it.

The only reason I took up a PhD was that was the only way I got to see America in those days.
Who else had the funding?

He is one of those very few people who know how to do a thing well, and are content in the knowledge that they have done their best to do it well. When asked why he didn't pursue 'research', he said that he had made his choice long back. "There were very few people who wanted to improve the quality of the teaching, or the teaching material, or the course structure and such things. I thought I could do it, and went ahead and did it."

He has a zest for life. He has been to most of the developed countries, loves to blaze away in fast cars (his top speed was 100 mph, which he achieved both in the US and in India), loves to play sports (he still plays table tennis), and still maintains working hours that rival the best of workaholics.

Like I said, it is surprising how much one can learn from just one night spent with such a man, when one had all the opportunity to do it for four long years. With a mixed sense of awe, respect, gratitude, and humility, I say thank you, sir, for giving us this opportunity.