The prodigy & the alchemist

In selecting teachers Malaviyaji ‘cast his net’ nationwide... He had a predatory instinct for talent. Wherever he saw exceptional talent he tried to grab it for BHU.

In this day and age, when new universities, real or deemed, are sprouting all over the country, the following story is worth recalling. This story dates back to the early 1930s.

A young student from the then princely state of Kolhapur was in Cambridge, studying for the Mathematical Tripos followed by research. His performance in the reputedly very difficult examination had been excellent. On the basis of his results he was declared a “Star Wrangler” and awarded the Tyson Medal for astronomy. Later he received the Isaac Newton Studentship and won the celebrated Rayleigh Prize at Cambridge University.
Coming from an orthodox priestly family, this promising youngster was the first generation entrant into the folds of modern science. His love for science made him opt for a scholar’s career in a university over the well-paid Indian Civil Service. So after taking loans and scholarships from the J.N. Tata Endowment and the state of Kolhapur, he began his career in Cambridge. And as he crossed the half-way mark of his scheduled period at that ancient seat of learning, he began to worry about job prospects in British India. His natural preference was for an academic position near his native region, then part of the Bombay Presidency.
It was then that he received a message from an unexpected quarter. Mahamana Madan Mohan Malaviyaji wished to meet him. Malaviyaji had come to London for the Second Round Table Conference. These meetings were convened by the British rulers to decide the future of India. While this student knew who Malaviyaji was, he could not see what the Mahamana and he had in common for such a meeting. Nevertheless, he went. For him, it turned out to be a tryst with destiny.
Malaviyaji had called him to offer him a job at the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) which had been created barely 15 years ago, as a unique combination of Hindu ideals and modern Western education. The young man was surprised and touched by the fact that this great veteran leader, who had come to attend an important national meeting, should take time off to meet and talk job prospects with a young student who had not yet completed his studies.
When founding the BHU, Malaviyaji wanted to recall the excellence of our past educational traditions as embodied in the ancient universities of Takshashila and Nalanda, and create an academic ambiance of modern Western universities like Oxford, Cambridge and the Sorbonne. Following the Oxbridge example, Malaviyaji had planned the layout of the BHU campus on the banks of the majestic Ganges.
However, a huge flood cautioned him that the Ganges was in an altogether different class compared to the tiny Isis or Granta that adorned the Oxbridge campuses. So the campus of the budding university
was shifted to a safe distance.
But Malaviyaji knew that his work did not end with founding the new university; it began with it. He had to raise funds to run the university and, even more importantly, create human resource of dedicated teachers and researchers. In selecting teachers Malaviyaji “cast his net” nationwide. One may say that he had a predatory instinct for talent. Whenever and wherever he saw exceptional talent he tried to grab it for BHU. That is how he spotted and met the young wrangler at Cambridge.
At the meeting Malaviyaji impressed upon the young man the country’s need for a whole new generation dedicated to higher education and the essential role youngsters like him had to play. He made an open offer: as and when the young wrangler felt ready to shift his teaching-cum-research career to India, he was welcome to join BHU as a professor of mathematics.
The budding scientist returned from the meeting greatly elevated. Next year he was to go to the California Institute of Technology to spend a year at Caltech’s famous Mount Wilson Observatory, where the discovery of the expanding universe had just been made. Before that he was planning to spend his summer vacation in India and decided that he would pay a visit to BHU to see the place and meet the Mahamana in his own territory.
The visit to India thus included a trip to the BHU. To his relief, the young man discovered that Malaviyaji did not need to be reminded of his promise. Indeed Malaviyaji said: “Now that you are here, why don’t you look around and decide? Indeed, I would urge that you join us right away.” And that is what happened! The academic in him fell in love with BHU and what he saw prompted him to take a decision.
This is the story I heard from my father Vishnu Vasudeva Narlikar, the young man in the above story. Malaviyaji’s ability to spot talent was amply justified when under VVN’s guidance the mathematics department at BHU became one of the two leading centres in Einstein’s relativity theory in India (the other one being in Calcutta University). Some of the papers coming from there, like P.C. Vaidya’s on gravitational effect of a radiating star, have attracted international attention. Vaidya had come to BHU for research without a scholarship, because he was attracted by the prospect of working with VVN.
Indeed the above story is just one of many in the 1930s and 1940s, about teachers and students being attracted to a growing young university because of its reputation for excellent academic environment. For example, Bhaskar Govind Ghanekar, who became an Ayurveda expert, has narrated how he walked all the way from Maharashtra to BHU to join there as a student. Alas, how many such stories can we find today?
The irony is that because of rising malpractice in all sectors of the society, we have erected protective firewalls of rules that prevent nurturing talent but encourage mediocrity. In today’s academic ambience the above story would not be possible.

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

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