Jawaharlal Vaid, 88, was at the Institute from 1951 to 1957 at the Department of General and Applied Chemistry (eventually renamed Inorganic and Physical Chemistry), doing his Master’s and PhD. He went on to have a distinguished career in industry, working for the Indian Telephone Industry, and setting up India’s first capacitor plant for Jay Engineering, Calcutta, before a long association with Philips as head of their Materials Laboratories. Excerpts from an interview.
Punjab and the Partition
I grew up in Kot Kapura, near Firozpur in Punjab. Ours was a big family – we were nine siblings, and I was the third child – but with small means. We had enough to eat, and that’s all. But we enjoyed our childhood thoroughly. We went to the local municipal school, walking 3 miles everyday. The lingua franca in school was Urdu, and so my first language is Urdu, even though this was a Sikh school. We even used to wear a turban to school. I was the shortest in my class, throughout my school years. And I always felt that something was wrong with me because other people were taller, stronger. Fortunately, I had a teacher in the 9th standard, who taught science and math, Master Munshiram, who told me: “You should be better than everybody else in studies. That is the only way you can lift yourself.” I took his advice and topped my matriculation exams in 1945.
Then I joined the Dayanand Anglo-Vedic College in Lahore, where my elder brother, Hiralal, had completed his Master’s from. I remember very well the ninth day of August in 1947 – half the city was burning and people were on the streets, but even then, examinations were going on. After the last exam of my intermediate [equivalent to today’s 12th standard] that day, I somehow walked to the railway station and took the first train home. That was the last day I was in Lahore.
Like me, there must have been thousands of other boys and girls who had given their exams and then moved from one side of the border to the other after Partition. We had no idea when and how we would know our examination results. We had lost all hope. Then, one day, after about eight months, I got a printed postcard with my results, saying I had passed with distinction. Just a printed postcard with a signature, that was my certificate. I don’t know how they found my address, but it was a godsend. Salaam to those educationists in Lahore who sent the results of the students who had migrated to this side, to East Punjab University, Solan. Children’s careers were important to them, despite the Partition and all that happened.
My brother, Hiralal, was in the UK at the time. He had gone there in 1946 for a doctorate in chemistry under a government scheme that sent students abroad for training. I sent him a letter, and he replied saying I should do an honours course in physics if I can.
This was around May 1948. My father told me that I should leave immediately for Delhi. I was 17 years old – I didn’t know where to go, where to study, or what to study. I went to Delhi, with only a tin box and bedding. Upon arriving at Delhi University, I was told that the barracks behind the University housed the Punjab University Honours School for chemistry and physics.
But it was too late to get admission for physics that year. As I sat disheartened in the long veranda of the military barrack, a Sikh gentleman walked past me. So vividly I still remember – he was wearing white clothes, white turban, white sandals, and had a white beard. He came back and asked me in Punjabi who I was. I told him my story. It turned out that he was Principal Niranjan Singh, and he had been the head of the chemistry honours school in Lahore and had taught my elder brother there. He said he could get me admission in chemistry, and I followed him.
The hostel was in the barracks, a dormitory. We had to use public toilets and bathe under a public tap, and eat whatever we could afford from the street. Our classes were held in the afternoon, after Delhi University’s classes were over and the lecture hall was free. But we never felt alone because all of us were in the same boat. Later, because of the inadequate infrastructure and facilities, we were shifted to Government College, Hoshiarpur, and finished our honours course there.
I completed my BSc (Hons) in 1951. My elder brother, who had just returned after his PhD, was among the first scientists appointed at the National Chemical Laboratory (NCL), Pune. I decided to visit him. For a few days, I stayed with him in the NCL hostel and enrolled for a Master’s at Pune University. Here, I met SK Kulkarni Jatkar, a retired professor from IISc. One day, he called me to his office and, after asking me what I was doing there, advised me to apply to the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore. When I told him that I had already applied but hadn’t received a response, he immediately tore a paper from his notepad and wrote to Prof KR Krishnaswami, then the head of the Department of General and Applied Chemistry [now known as Inorganic and Physical Chemistry], asking him to take me as a student.
I was amazed at how a professor unknown to me wrote to someone in Bangalore to help me. He didn’t ask me anything, he just saw a boy struggling hard, and said “Go this way”. I will remember him and the sardarji till the end of my days. With just Rs 22 in my pocket – out of which Rs 7 I spent on the train ticket – and my tin box and bedding, I arrived in Bangalore. This was 1951, June or July. Prof Krishnaswami sent me to the hostel, where Mr Patham was the warden. For the first time in my life I had a room to myself. And I could have all four meals in the mess for Rs 32 a month. It was like jannat, to have such an organised hostel life and meals.
Krishnaswami gave me 45 rupees a month as scholarship. I don’t know where he got it from, I never questioned him and he never told me. Later I received Rs 100 a month as a junior scholarship from the Government of India, and then a senior scholarship of Rs 200.
For the first time in my life I had a room to myself
Academics at the Institute
There were very few occasions when we met Krishnaswami. He suggested that I work under the guidance of Dr TL Ramachar, in Electrochemistry. The Department also had the Inorganic section headed by CC Patel, and the Physical Chemistry section headed by MR Aswathanarayana Rao. Dr Ramachar was a person of very few words, a simple person. He used to come in the morning at about 9.30 am and exactly at 5 pm he would take his umbrella and leave.
For my Master’s thesis with Ramachar, completed in 1953, I worked on non-cyanide baths that used pyrophosphates for electroplating instead of the cyanide baths which are toxic and dangerous. I was Ramachar’s first doctoral student and for my PhD thesis, I studied tin-based alloy deposition in various systems. In all my stay at IISc, Dr Ramachar was my guide, but I also treat as my guru Dr Aswathanarayana Rao. Whenever I was in Bangalore later on, I always went to meet him. There was such a bonding with him. He was humorous, and he had such a voice that you could hear him from the other end of the Department.
The Department had some 12 staff members, eight or nine lab boys and typists, and 13 or 14 students. All the labs worked till midnight. Nobody told us to work like that; it was our urge. The spirit, of the professors also, was that you are working on a time-bound problem and you should finish on time. When you needed guidance, it was given, but otherwise you were expected to be on your own. You had to have the habit of independent working. You had to search the literature yourself in the library. If your research wasn’t progressing for a while, you could go on vacation, or go outside campus for a few days, and come back with your mind refreshed. The professors even gave us the freedom to not attend classes. They would ask those not interested to please feel free to leave.
People took pride in their work and in the Institute. The joy of being in the Institute is something which is missing today, even though it has more people now. You are in the highest learning centre in India, and you should be proud of it.
You are in the highest learning centre in India,
and you should be proud of it
It was an unwritten tradition that you stopped working at 4.30 pm and went for your evening tiffin, and then to the library or to play sports at the Gymkhana. There was no football or cricket at the time at IISc; we had tennis, table tennis, hockey and billiards. Then you would take your bath, have meals and go back to the lab.
The Director MS Thacker and Prof Brahm Prakash [Metallurgy] used to come occasionally to mix with the students at the Gymkhana. EG Ramachandran [Asst Prof, Metallurgy] would come to play regularly. He was a good athlete; he could match Satish Dhawan in tennis. I remember that Satish was a dashing, tall and handsome young man, a good athlete, and every girl at IISc had her eyes on the bachelor – they used to spy on him. Then he married Nalini Nirody, who was a beautiful and gracious lady. They were a lovely couple and she became the centre of attention for boys whenever she visited the Gymkhana! She was very friendly and everyone was enamoured of her.
Student Life at the Institute
I remember that mess presidents were served food on a reserved table, unlike other students. I was elected as the mess president for one term. During that time, the Institute had just welcomed summer students and, once, a group of five or six students came in shouting, dressed in their night pyjamas. I told the mess attendant to tell them to maintain discipline, but these students yelled back. So I asked them to leave the mess premises immediately. They went to the Registrar to complain, but he asked them to leave the Institute instead. This was the kind of discipline and tradition at the Institute.
I remember another incident during my tenure. We were organising a dinner for Founder’s Day. A few days before the feast, we found that the crockery was chipped and required replacement. A budget proposal was sent to the Acting Director, Dr Sreenivasan. He refused. So we dumped the old crockery outside the mess and declared that the invited guests will be served on banana leaves. Then, a lady from the Dorabji Tata Trust learned about this incident, and through her we were able to get brand new crockery.
We used to celebrate Diwali and Holi without any barriers between students from different regions or between the staff, students and faculty. We even used to go to our professors’ homes for sweets on these occasions.
Working in the Industry
After my PhD, I was selected as a chemist at the Indian Telephone Industry (ITI), Bangalore, even though they were looking for someone with 10 years’ experience in the metal finishing industry, aged not less than 35, to replace their chief chemist who had left. The General Manager of ITI at the time was Mr NK Sengupta, who became one of my mentors.
On my first day, I met the plant manager and he asked me to measure the diameter of a brass rod. I took 42 seconds; he took 17 seconds. It’s the first lesson I learned about industry – speed is the name of the game. We can always do things better, faster and cheaper, and I have said this in so many seminars and management meetings.
I had joined ITI on the condition that there would be no one above me, so I left the job when their former chief chemist returned. The confidence to do this came from the training I got in the Institute. I then joined the Central Electro Chemical Research Institute (CECRI) of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Karaikudi [in Tamil Nadu]. This was on the advice of Prof MS Thacker, former Director of IISc, whom I met in New Delhi where he was the Director-General of CSIR.
I joined CECRI as Junior Scientific Officer. Soon, I got a message from NK Sengupta. I went to meet him and he told me that the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), Delhi, had developed a process for making silver-mica capacitors indigenously in India. The capacitors were thus far being imported from the UK. He wanted me to go to NPL and find out if it’s worthwhile to manufacture them for ITI or not. I knew nothing about the damn thing and he was saying let’s put up a plant!
I went to meet Dr TV Ramamurthy at NPL, who headed their research on electronic materials and is known as the father of the Indian electronics component industry. He said, “Don’t feel nervous.” I said I will never feel nervous. At the most I will fail and then I will go back and do something else. This was the Institute talking: a never-say-die attitude. I spent a month at the Institute library learning about these capacitors. In a few months, a pilot plant was established in the backyard of NPL with the help of Dr Ramamurthy and some people from ITI. But it took the life out of me.
We moved the plant back to ITI, Bangalore, but I decided to leave. I was about to join as Lecturer in the Department of Electrochemistry at IIT Bombay, when I got a telegram from one TR Gupta, General Manager of Jay Engineering, Calcutta [now Kolkata], requesting me to meet him. He had also enclosed an air ticket. Gupta ji had a proposal. His company, under the Usha brand, made 50 to 70 thousand fans per month. But every fan needs a capacitor, and they imported these from Nichicon in Kyoto, Japan, the world’s leading capacitor manufacturer. There was no capacitor plant in India at all. Gupta proposed that we start manufacturing capacitors here and then others could buy from us.
I went to meet him, and it turned out that Dr Ramamurthy had suggested my name. They sent me to Kyoto to work with the Japanese for a few months. Then we established a plant with Japanese help, and this was how India Capacitors Pvt Ltd was set up. By the end of 1959 we were making up to 70,000 paper capacitors for the fan industry. Philips was our sole buyer and, after six years with Jay Engineering, I joined Philips as head of their Materials Laboratories. My association with Philips lasted 25 years before I retired.
During my time in Japan, I had observed how the electronics industry had worked together to standardise the components and materials they used. This ensured inter-usability across the industry and brought down the cost of production. Prof Ramamurthy encouraged me to do the same in India and I was associated with the Indian Standards Institution for many years as a chair of various committees tasked with standardisation, to bring our standards in line with those of the International Electrotechnical Commission. This work was close to my heart. I was also made a Fellow of the Institution of Engineers (India), though I was not an engineer.
The world is large, and you need confidence in yourself, which the Institute teaches you. Throughout my career, the moral strength came from the Institute – that if you’re right, fight for it. I’m grateful to my teachers at the Institute. And my biggest bow is to the house of Tatas that created an institute with such facilities, where someone like me could come and study.
Megha Prakash is a freelance journalist