You might say these are crazy dreams. Can a country, which has so many deprived, so many people below the poverty line, so many illiterates, really do it? What gives me the confidence that it can happen?
This confidence comes to me because of the images of a little boy, who, in the late 1950s studied under streetlights and went barefoot to school until he was 12 years old. A little boy, who struggled to have two meals a day; a little boy who was about to leave studies in 1960 after his matriculation, in spite of securing a position in the top 30 in Maharashtra State SSC Board, because his poor widowed mother could not support his education. This boy was helped by this gracious Indian society…Today, he is giving this address as the president of Indian Science Congress at the dawn of the new millennium in the august presence of our Prime Minister. If this miracle can happen to an Indian, given an opportunity, it can happen to every Indian, and most certainly it can happen to my India in the coming millennium.
Next century will be the century of the mind and India will have the legitimate right to lead. Next century will belong to India…”
Thus ended my presidential speech on my dream for India in the 21st century at the 86th Indian Science Congress on January 3, 2000, in Pune. Late Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had presided over the inaugural function, which had, in the audience, around 5,000 scientists.
Tiding over dire economic hardship is not only my story, it is the story of so many Indians, who overcame adversities with grit, self-confidence and a never-say-die spirit. Among them, I want to single out the story of President KR Narayanan (1921-2005), who was born in a small village in Kerala. He walked 15 km to get to school. Sometimes, he stood outside class and eavesdropped on lectures because his family didn’t have enough money for tuition. He could do higher studies only because he got a Tata scholarship. I could also do so only because I got a Tata scholarship — Rs 60 per month for six years.
On March 30, 2000, the Padma Bhushan award was bestowed on both me, a Tata scholar, and Ratan Tata, head of the house of Tatas. By whom? President Narayanan, another Tata scholar.
There is more. Ratan Tata and I were elected as Foreign Fellows of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Science — we were among seven Indians to have been elected since 1780. We both signed in the historic Fellows’ book on October 15, 2011, and, on the same page, one after the other!
The symbolism of these two stories is obvious. They remind us of our responsibility to help the children of 100 million families, who have been thrown into extreme poverty in just around 100 days of pandemic. Their future is our collective responsibility. The human race has lived though world wars, economic slowdowns, cyclones, tsunamis and pandemics. It is the human spirit, which has always helped it bounce back.
This reminds me of a quote from the book The Rarest Blue (2012) by Baruch and Judy Sterman: “We owe our modern understanding of light and colour to the multifaceted genius of a 17th century Englishman, Isaac Newton. England saw its last major outbreak of bubonic plague in 1665-66. As a precautionary measure, the students at Cambridge University, including young Newton, were sent home till the following year. He spent his enforced vacation working on ideas underlying his spectacular accomplishments: gravitation, laws of motion, calculus, and optics.”
So Newton not only survived the plague, but succeeded in using the time to achieve four breakthroughs that laid the very foundations of modern science.
My optimism stems from my faith in such human spirit. I have always seen an opportunity even in adversity and I have done my bit to spread that spirit across the nation. I remember my friend (Infosys founder) NR Narayana Murthy’s words at my 60th birthday felicitation, held in National Chemical Laboratory in Pune, in 2003. “One thing I like about him is that he smiles all the time. He is very confident. He’s very optimistic. In fact, my wife tells me that whenever you are down, think of Dr Mashelkar, You’ll feel better and this is true.”
It is this confidence, this undying optimism that tells me that humanity will bounce back from this devastating coronavirus pandemic. After all, there is no limit to human endurance, imagination and achievement, except the limits that we put on our minds.
Raghunath Mashelkar, 77, FRS, is president, Pune International Centre. He served as director general of CSIR between 1995 and 2006