The podium worthies

With the security surrounding the VVIP, you have no choice but to open and provide access to nooks and corners in your property

A distin-guished scientific institution wanted to celebrate its golden jubilee year with great gusto and media exposure. So it invited the President of India. The President very graciously accepted and the date of the public function was fixed in accordance with his convenience.

Nevertheless, closer to the date, the President had to back out of the proposed programme because of a more pressing call on his time. The hosts, however, did not want to let go and requested the dignitary to give another date, which he did. Only, later modifying it once more.
One may imagine the stress the organisers were going through and the waste of time and money arising from a sudden change of the programme. The case described above did not end in success. For, even at the third attempt, the VVIP failed to turn up, asking instead the governor of the state to represent him. Thus, despite all efforts the institution did not get the man with the exalted position that they wanted for the occasion.
What are the advantages of inviting a VVIP like the President or the Prime Minister? It goes without saying that the event attracts media publicity and thus your institution gets the attention of the common man. A side effect can be that various public services will improve the infrastructure in your neighbourhood since the VVIP will be passing through it. So now is the time to get those potholes in the road in front filled up. Also, if you care for that sort of thing, you will get to know the local VIPs, officers of public bodies, etc, whose help might be needed by your institution in the future. Finally, if you were seen on the dais alongside the VVIP, your “social importance” goes up.
But you have to weigh these advantages of inviting the VVIP against its disadvantages. Firstly, as mentioned in the opening paragraph, an uncertainty hangs over you all through the period leading to the event: Will your very important invitee actually show up? You will be in suspense dreading that phone call from Delhi (or, whichever place your VVIP is coming from) announcing that he cannot come for a reason which in the eyes of the VVIP, is obviously more important than your
function.
Secondly, with the security surrounding the VVIP, you have no choice but to open and provide access to nooks and corners in your property. So forget your own privacy; but learn to live with the surveillance. Thirdly, depending on how efficiently the security people manage their own affairs, you might be called upon to provide food and rest areas for them.
It is up to you to decide on the basis of these pros and cons whether you want a VVIP to be present for your important occasion. I have a secret admiration for those who do. They show rare persistence and readiness to face any eventuality. For me the “easy way” out is to avoid VVIPs for events like inaugurations, souvenir releases, honouring persons, valedictory functions etc.
Which is why when the astronomy centre I was associated with had its main buildings ready and my colleagues and I were thinking of having a dedication ceremony, we did not consider VVIPs for the occasion. All of us wanted a distinguished scientist whose presence on the campus of the centre would bring inspirations to all those who use it. And we unanimously homed in on the name of Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, the Indian-born Nobel Laureate astrophysicist then professor at the University of Chicago.
We were all relieved when he sent his acceptance of our invitation and gave a very unusual but erudite talk in which he compared the series of paintings of haystacks by Claude Monet with the set of equations one arrives at in general relativity when solving problems of black holes as well as colliding gravitational waves. Also unusual was the way the centre was dedicated to the nation. Prof. Chandrasekhar and Prof. Ram Reddy, the then chairman of the University Grants Commission (the sponsor of the centre) set in motion the Foucault Pendulum which steadily changes the direction of its plane of oscillation because of the spin of the earth. As it turned out, ours was the first working model of a Foucault Pendulum in India. The National Council of Science Museums had taken on the challenge of making the pendulum, a challenge which they successfully met.
I sometimes wonder what would have been the format of our dedication ceremony if instead of a distinguished scientist we had a VVIP as the chief guest. Our arrangements and movements would have been drastically restricted. The time frame allotted to us would have been limited. And there would be no guarantee that the function would start at the scheduled time. In fact, we would have counted ourselves lucky if the function were not postponed to a later date. And, as organisers we would have faced considerable tension while the VVIPs and their entourage were on our premises.
I value the informality that prevails at such ceremonies if VVIPs are not involved and recall with pleasure the inauguration of the Institute of Theoretical Astronomy at Cambridge University back in 1967. The vice-chancellor of the university was presiding and the inauguration was done by Sir Isaac Wolfson whose foundation had funded the institute building. As it happened, not waiting for the inauguration we, the scientists at the institute, had already begun our work there. The auditorium blackboard still carried the notes of my lecture delivered the previous day, which the director, Fred Hoyle, had asked to be left untouched. He referred to it in his opening remarks when he said, “Sir Isaac, your building has provided a good locale for our research and as you see from the blackboard, my scientist colleagues have not waited for the inauguration…” In his speech the vice-chancellor replied by saying, “Sir Isaac, the scientists here have not waited for your inauguration. So let me formally close this institute first so that you could inaugurate it!”

The writer, a renowned astrophysicist, is professor emeritus at Inter-University Centre for Astronomy
and Astrophysics, Pune University Campus

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