the moving and compelling article by
JP on my father, Prof. Anantharaman, I feel the urge to pen a
few lines of my recollection of my father (also my teacher) touching on
the ‘Anantharaman mantra’, so eloquently expounded by JP, and his role
as a teacher in the class room. I am very grateful to JP for bringing
out vividly and truthfully the characteristics of my father. As I join
with him in extolling my father, I do so not as a son praising his
father, but as a student praising his teacher.
The following anecdotal event springs to my
mind when thinking of the Anantharaman mantra. Once my father was asked
by one of his colleagues (or one of his students, I don’t clearly recall
which), “Sir, why do you always prefer to go by the third class in your
travels by train?”. “Because there is no fourth class” was the immediate
response from the professor.
My memories of Prof. Anantharaman’s
teaching are limited to a few lectures on Chemistry that he gave while I
was a “pre-university student” at UCC (1961-62). Most of the classes had
already been taken by a junior faculty member who left suddenly before
the close of the academic year. My father filled in to give the
remaining lectures. Clad exquisitely in his white jubbah and dhoti,
Prof. Anantharaman had a commanding presence in the classroom (“Sage he
stood with Atlantean shoulders fit to bear the weight of mightiest
monarchies- His looks drew audience and attention….”- to quote the poet,
John Milton). What I recall vividly is his “lecture-demonstration” style
of teaching. For example, once he explained how hydrogen explosively
reacts with oxygen. He filled a bell jar with hydrogen and keeping the
bottom of the bell jar closed, lit the narrow opening at the top with a
match-stick. (His favorite attendant, Kader, stood reverently by). He
then quickly opened the bottom to let air in and I nearly jumped out of
my seat, hearing a thunderous sound. Holding the bell jar firmly in his
outstretched right hand, he explained calmly, “the reaction causes a
loud, but harmless explosion”.
Many years later, as a scientist at
Exxon’s Corporate Research Laboratories in New Jersey, I would recall
this incident while investigating the corrosive reaction between
methane-hydrogen mixtures and high temperature alloys- I took great care
to avoid any oxygen contamination in the system. On another occasion, my
father explained in the classroom: “sulphuric acid has great affection
for water and will remove it from any substance. Let me show you”. He
poured some concentrated sulphuric acid over a small amount of sugar
contained in a beaker- very soon black charcoal filled the beaker.
“Sugar, deprived of water, is just charcoal”, he said. The chemical
formula of sugar, C12 H22 O11, remained permanently etched in my mind.
Prof. Anantharaman had a very unique way
of exposing the subject to you- as he lectured, you felt as though the
curtains were parting to reveal a drama on the stage. You fell in love
with it and wanted to explore all its details. He had that effect on me.
Once while reading an anthology of Rabindranath Tagore, I came across
Tagore’s explanation of the “art of teaching”. The main object of
teaching, he said, “is not to give explanations, but to knock at the
doors of the mind” to create a response, and then allow the student to
explore on his own. Many of my father’s students have explored on their
own and reached great heights. I think, in many ways, Tagore would have
approved of my father’s teaching style.
Prof. Anantharaman’s great passion for
Chemistry extended to the home front. He was extremely fond of gardening
and in our humble abode in Thottakkattukara, Aluva, we had a profuse
rose garden and an extensive vegetable garden. After returning from work
late in the evening (he would always walk home- a distance of more than
a mile and a half), my father would spend hours in the garden taking
care of the different plants. He would say that nitrogen is good for the
growth of leaves while phosphorus is essential for bearing fruits etc.
He would make up his own fertilizer mix.
In matters of cooking, my father would
worry about the dissolution of unwanted constituents from metallic
vessels into the dishes that my mother would prepare. It so happens that
many tasty South Indian vegetarian dishes have pH values bordering on
the acidic and he would concern himself with the dissolution of unwanted
chromium, tin, led etc. into sambar and rasam. He would ask my mother to
prefer ceramic vessels for cooking.
One of Prof. Anantharaman’s
disappointments in early life was that for financial reasons he could
not pursue a doctoral degree in Chemistry after successfully gaining
admission to the PhD program at the prestigious Indian Institute of
Science in Bangalore (Sir. C.V. Raman was the director of the Institute
at that time and gaining admission was a big deal). I once had the
privilege of listening to a lecture by Dr. Linus Pauling who said and I
quote, “Learning gives me so much pleasure that I cannot bear to see
that opportunity denied to any one”. My father made sure that his
children could pursue ‘learning’ to the highest level that their
interests would take them.
Dr. Trikur A. Ramanarayanan
Princeton, NJ 08544
May 7, 2009