Monday, September 21, 2009

Ajoba - a truly remarkable man!

My Ajoba (maternal grandfather) died in his sleep last week. He was 98.

As anybody who met him will say, he was a truly remarkable man.

Remarkable, not simply due to the sheer length of his life which allowed him to witness historical events like World War I and II, the rise and fall of communism,  the emergence of Mahatma Gandhi and the modern Indian nation, the Great Depression, the shift from newspapers to radio to television to the internet etc.


His legacy is not built around being a passive spectator of history as it quickened its pace of change to unprecedented levels over the last century. He was an active participant, a man who made interesting choices in his life - many that directly affect and guide me today.

He was born in a business family in a small town, became enamored with physics, and decided that he wanted to do a PhD, and went to Gottingen, Germany in the early 1930s.

Germany, early 20th century and physics were like Silicon Valley, late 20th century, and computers.

He got to meet and interact with some of the brightest minds of that time (my Aaji - his wife - loves to tell us the story of how she once had Nobel Laureate Milliken for tea). He got out of Germany, and came back to India just as the Nazi regime was taking hold.

He joined the physics staff at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore in a department that then included another Nobel Laureate, C.V. Raman. A few years later, in a move I've never really understood even after asking him several times, he came back to his little home town - the same place where I spent the first 18 years of my life.

He immersed himself in science education at the school and college levels. In the meantime, he fathered 9 children - 8 of whom were girls. His education brushed off on all of his children (including my mother). In a time and age when few women ventured out - three of his girls became doctors, four of them got a masters in science, and one of them became a practicing lawyer. He really was far ahead of his times.

He was a voracious reader, and immersed himself in his study for several hours every day. It was a little, quiet, sunny room, with diploma-laden walls, and the scent of old books. He made his own tea and walked almost a kilometer to the college he built and loved, well into his 90s. He led a simple, active, and intellectually full life.

My favorite story about him - something that I derive direct inspiration from - happened on the eve of his 85th birthday. I saw him in his study working out a calculus problem from a graduate textbook. I was puzzled, and asked him why he was doing it. He replied "If I don't practice, I will forget." He worried about forgetting how to integrate a function by parts, when most people his age had trouble remembering their names. His devotion to learning is what kept his mind surprisingly sharp, till a very advanced age. It is only after his eyesight became too weak to read, that the overall deterioration of his health commenced.

The last time I met him in 2008 at Anju mavashi's place - I talked to him about his time in graduate school. He was surprisingly coherent, and laughed often, as he told me stories of his advisor, his defense, and his work.

For almost a full hour.

I never knew, at that time, that this was my last chance to watch, as he vicariously re-lived some of his fondest memories.

Like someone said, "We all die. The goal isn't to live forever, the goal is to create something that will".

And he did.


Wayfarer said...

Lovely Sachin. The reading room/study at Belgaum was indeed the best place in the house. I love that room with its glass front cupboards full of books, the comfy chairs, the sunlight streaming in through the windows. It was a sanctuary. I remember one instance when he was reading there away from all the hustle-bustle of the other areas of the house and I ventured in chancing upon a whole stack of National Geographic (the mega expensive-rarely seen except in a library magazine). What a wonderful afternoon with him and the magazines.- Prajakta

Mihir said...


Thank you for penning this portrait. While sadness is a feeling one has in times like these, I am glad you chose this time to tell us this intensely personal but inspiring sketch.

My maternal grandfather also went to IISc for his engineering degree. He remained a tinkerer all his life, building a solar cooker, a ceramic factory, an electronic bug zapper, and having fun.

Khot said...

Sachin, truly inspiring story; please accept my heartfelt condolences.


Sachin Shanbhag said...

Prajakta - that was my favorite room in 436 too, although the kitchen where we spent a lot of time, was close too.

Mima. Your mom is still my wife Priya's number one hero. I didn't know about your granddad, but having seen your mom, somehow that doesn't surprise me at all!

Thanks, Prasanna.

Priya Pai said...

very inspiring blog, sachin

Sulakshana said...

No wonder your grandfather's portrait made Mihir remember his grandfather!
They were both products of that great transforming and exciting period! My father was born in 1908, took his B.Sc in Maths in Pune, electriacl eng. degree from IISC and started (but did not finish) his Ph.D in Maths from IISC. Went to Japan and China to see industrial activities there before WWII and on returning went on to join freedom movement, went to jail for 2 years.
He started his own business by purchasing a cinema theatre and then went on institution building, scinece and technical experimenting, farming, reading and writing and all the fun!
After reading about your Ajoba, I think it was the complext and elecrified environment of the period which must have shaped their lives! And they achieved so much! I was really touched by your writing and decided to write this immediatly.
Please accept my condolences


Sachin Shanbhag said...

Thanks, Sulakshana mavashi. I strongly agree with your central point. Many people from that period seem to be driven by a force much stronger than naked self-interest.

Of course, Priya and I, think you belong to the same category of people.

Shaila said...

Thanks Sachin for the blog.

I was so eagerly waiting to see some comments about Baba. I feel him in my heart. As a peron, he had his high standards which he never imposed on others and allowed others to have their own opinions. I don't remember him arguing with any body.

I was always passionate about some social, political, domestic (big family) issue of the time. I never had any difficulty talking about any complex issue with clairity. It was very important on those days when girls did not talk to their fathers or brothers. I never remember him telling that a girl should or should not!

Education was always on his mind, not performance. A day before one of the tense exams, I worried about the performance and he said, at it worst you may not pass the test, thats not the end of the world. He told me about the line of Geodesic in tenth grade whild explaning a math problem. He ended his explanation with the sentence that, 'I hope everyone find their own life of geodesic'. I leaned it in my MS class in Classical Physic with eyes wide awake. I understood about his comment about finding the line some time later.

I had a chance to glimpse at his spiritual side recently when we travel together to Ajgaon, Shringeri, Kolhapur, Jyotiba, Pandarpur and others. I remmbered him talking about the Datta's place near Sangali when I was in sixth grade or so. He told me about the Peace he found their on the steps. When I visited it with Sheetal one evening, I made it a point to sit on the steps leading to the river and really feel the Peace he was talking about.

Here typing these words I realized that I could not say all that I feel in my heart. He was always with me even far away. He was always there with his wisdom when I had to face some of my own rough spots in my life. He has been a real ornamentation to my heart and brains. I am so proud today to know that I possess half of his chromosomes. The other half belong to equally important personality that I adore.

May god bless him with eternal peace and Mom the strength to withstand the loss.

Shanbhag said...

Thanks a lot Sachya for this blog. Really Lovely. Brought a lump to my throat reading about this amazing man, our Ajoba. Last I met Ajoba was a couple of months back. He was bedridden alright but what saddened me the most was his inability to do things on his own. For a man who I have known to be fiercely independent, in thought and in action, all his life, it was sad. I cried that day and never gathered enough strength to visit him again coz I knew I would break down. How I wish such people lived forever!
The study at 436 remains my favorite too. If I'm not mistaken, Ajoba had those very early issues of 'Reader's digest' mags of the 30s and 40s as well....amazing. I loved reading those expensive National Geographic magazines while Ajoba taught me how to carefully turn the pages of those books :).
I am really so proud just to be associated with Mr Y K Prabhu. That I have some of his genes is a blessing. Love you Ajoba.

Sachin Shanbhag said...

@shaila mavashi: i always knew, but never realized fully how non-argumentative ajoba was. i have seen a lot of smart people in my life, and often smartness/education and argumentativeness are strongly correlated. only the truly wise are able to rise beyond that.

Sachin Shanbhag said...

@manya: i can imagine how you felt during that last visit. archana told me almost exactly the same story.

madhuri said...

sachin, u talked about the integral calculas problem he was trying to solve at the age of 85, well that was a yellow book on elliptic function he was fascinated when he was at gottingon at 24. he used to read that book, and many times got completely absorbed in that.ajji used to call that "pivale' pustak her ' savat'along with of course rpd,and gss college. after few years of hearing that comment about the book from her, one fine day the book was gone and another red one was in his hand. and u know what, he shared the secret with his daughters, he had changed the cover of that same book, and "pivale" word was eradicated. but the fascination never went.he wanted at least one of his child to do doctorate in maths on elliptical function. well, though some of us had the capacity nobody chose maths as the subject of study.surprisingly out of nine children, and seventeen grandchildren, none studied pure maths. now i hope one of his present 13 great grandchildren (and many more to come)at least one takes pure maths and study his "pivale/lal" pustak, and fulfil his dream.

Anonymous said...

Hey Sachya,

what an inspiring blog/story. He was a great man. Dad always used to tell me about him.
May god bless him with eternal peace. - Nikhil

Sachin Shanbhag said...

thanks for that background, geeta mavashi!

yep, nikhlya!

Wayfarer said...

@Shaila atya
Your comments brought a lump to my throat. It is so true about how girls in that age did not interact with their dads much and the fact that Tatya ajoba fostered an atmosphere which enabled you and all his daughters to speak freely shows how ahead of his time he was.

Wayfarer said...

My own ajoba (Bhau) too used to be the most methodical and mathematical person I know. Now, thanks to age and Alzeimers he is just a pale shadow of what he used to be. For someone who was so orderly and neat that he could get anything out from his cupboard with his eyes closed, he just about remembers my name now.
I have seem him become worse and worse over the years so I can understand the pain you must have felt on meeting a bed-ridden Tatya ajoba.
I am glad that the last time I meet Tatya ajoba was at Nupura's wedding 4 years ago. I will remember him as he was then.

Sachin Kalbag said...

Dear Sachin,

I never met Tatya Ajoba even though I am married to one of your cousins, Prajakta, who forwarded me this link.

I wish I had. Entirely my loss.

From what I have heard about him, and from your account of him and the comments posted here, such souls are rare.

Even for an "outsider" like me, his personality seems like an ideal combination of wisdom and innocence. To have witnessed two World Wars, the tumult of Partition, the ecstasy of Independence, the trauma of the Emergency and indeed the deterioration of values all around him, and yet retain his intellectual and moral strength is the sign of a great human being.

There are very few people I know who would have advanced degrees and yet have the courage of their conviction to go back to their roots to erect not just a school or a college building, but create awe-inspiring institutions out of them. Tatya Ajoba belonged to that rare breed.

Even as we mourn his passing, we must also be grateful for the legacy he has left behind in the form of thousands upon thousands of students who will work towards making this world a better place. And even if ONE of them goes back to their roots and takes their favorite institution -- whichever it may be -- to the next level of excellence, I am sure it will bring a soft smile to his face even as he practices the solution to the Integral of root of Tan x.

After all, if he doesn't practice, he might just forget!

deepti said...

the blog is sooo well written ,Sachin. am fortunate that i knew such a man.. or should i say a legend.

i liked the part best which spoke abt him trying out a calculus problem at 85.. i think at 25 my intergration skills are disintegrating!!

as i read the part which spoke abt him leaving germany during the nazi regime , i realised i had goosebumps on my hands.

he truely led a meaningful life and gave meaning to several others too.

really hats off to him!

the onus is now on medha,aditi and arnav to keep the legacy going !!


Sachin Shanbhag said...

@sachin: i loved reading your comment! thanks.

@deepti: hey before you put the onus on Gen3, i should remind you that i am not thaaat old!

Rosemeen said...

WOW! Cheers to the "Pivale Lal Pustak". Hats off to the man who gives it the greatness, the sheer greatness of a discipline. Kudos to you on having captured so much in terms of memories from a truly remamrkable Ajoba. Let the memories live and continue to inspire. I salute your Ajoba for his choice and conviction in those times to go back to his hometown and follow a dream to EDUCATE. A Pioneer indeed.