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 Raja Ramanna (1925 - 2004)
Dr Raja Ramanna has the air of a man accustomed to barking orders and having them executed at once. But he does let up occasionally. "Yes, you can interview me, provided it has nothing to do with the blast," he snaps. Having had it up to here with nuclear explosions, one is relieved to have a blast-free conversation with the man widely regarded as the father of India's first nuclear bomb.

His face, glasses and portly physique seem custom-made for a Laxman cartoon. He lives and breathes bombs, yet he must be a decent sort if he likes dogs, one is forced to deduce. He's got four in Mumbai, two in Delhi and one in Bangalore, the cities among which he divides his time. And the ones bounding about here - his son Shyam's really - are called Flop, Spike, Millie and Cat. Yes, Cat. They h-o-w-l if he so much as glances at one of them fondly, to the exclusion of the others.

Dr Ramanna, now in his mid-70s, has even given a piano recital at the NCPA. The programme included Liszt's Benediction of God in his Solitude and Valse Oubliee, as well as Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. Does he find it infinitely irritating when people are astonished that he could be a nuclear scientist and yet play the piano, as if it were the most preposterous combination in the world? "That's because they think science is rational and music is irrational, when actually both are irrational," he says, chortling at his own joke, his wit immediately leavening his stentorian air.

"For me, music is yoga," he muses. "I learnt the piano from nuns in Mysore and later in Bangalore from an Englishman called Mistowski," he warms to his subject. "I used to play concertos with the Mysore Palace orchestra and later at the Trinity College in London." It is said that, typically, loners and perfectionists excel at the piano. Is it true in his case?

"I don't think so. It's just that I never had time for friends in school," he says, giving the game away without even realising it. "But I did have friends at the Madras Christian College," he announces, as if in redemption. And, of course, he has pianos in all three cities.

Former head of the Atomic Energy Commission, he left Mumbai in 1988 when he became director of the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore. He also spends time in Delhi in his other avatar as Rajya Sabha MP. "I came to Mumbai after I got my Ph.D. from London in 1949, when I joined the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and later the Atomic Energy Commission. It was a beautiful city then, with big compounds and quiet, green roads. We lived in Sergeant House, then Anand Bhavan, and Zerlina on Little Gibbs Road." One had always imagined Zerlina to be some kind of fairy, but he takes the mickey out of that one by pointing out, "I gave it the name Zerlina after the acronym for a nuclear reactor - Zero Energy." Sigh. Presently, we switch to Side B and ask why he was tempted to dabble in politics at all. "When I retired, I thought I could try and ensure a place for science in this country. As an MP, I can be on sub-committees, get a pass to see a secretary without being stopped." But the eminent scientist C.N.R. Rao has pointed out that of the Rs 4,000 crore India spends on science, barely Rs 200 crore is used for basic research, the remainder going mainly into nuclear reactors and space research programmes. Could such a skew in science allocations be addressed by him as an MP? "Advanced technology is important today. It is because we send a satellite to space that others respect us and don't bomb us like Yugoslavia. Otherwise, we may as well eat grass and live like cows."

As an MP, has he ever given priority to using nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, like generating electricity? "There is a total lack of capital for using nuclear energy for peaceful purposes," he says peremptorily, lowering the portcullis on that strand of the conversation.

So what has he accomplished as an MP? "I have become a specialist in watching changes of government," he says, grinning suddenly. "An MP can't project anything on his own, but one can have more leverage on the standing committee for defence, for instance. But in Parliament, all you've got to do is talk. In fact, the word comes from the French parler, meaning to speak. It can be quite disgusting watching our MPs behave. In fact, in the central hall of Parliament, where India became free, there is now an Udipi restaurant, where you can order idli-dosa. "But the good thing is one gets funds as an MP. I use mine to fund footpaths, so that children don't grow up seeing pictures in textbooks and being told, `This is a footpath.' Also, I am trying to fund a project to have simpler Indian scripts that will make it easier to learn languages. "Khata hai, gata hai, what is the difference?" he snorts impatiently. Stricken, we let it go at that.
Category filed under: Scientist

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