Professor N C Thanh was Chairman of Environmental Engineering Division when I joined Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) in Bangkok. Most in the Division used to be scared of him as he had a very strict face and was firm with the rules. He was however a different person when it came to the Division parties. He used be the star of the event, socialize with everybody and even lead to the dance floor.
Professor Thanh was always well dressed and wore everything branded – his belt, his shoes, his shirt and the tie were all signature stuff. I don’t think he ever shopped items on sale or with discounts! That was the personality.
Professor Thanh was a Vietnamese national. He studied in Canada for his doctoral research (University of Laval) and became a Canadian Citizen. He spoke French very fluently. His English had a mix of Vietnamese and French accent. Whenever he spoke it sounded rather pleasant and sweat.
During my stay at AIT, I hardly interacted with Professor Thanh as I worked with Dr Bindu Lohani. I knew that water treatment was one of his areas of expertise and he had bagged research awards on work done on “horizontal filtration”.
After I returned to India, I reconnected with Professor Thanh after nearly 5 years, in 1989, on a cruise on River Chao Praya. Meeting him on the cruise was a sheer accident. He asked me “Dr Modak, what do you do now a days? I have left AIT now and I run training programmes under the banner of CEFIGREE (International Centre in Water Resources Management in France). Would you have time and interest to come to Bangkok and deliver lectures in our training courses? We don’t pay much but we will take good care of you!” I readily agreed to Professor Thanh’s proposal. I was missing Bangkok anyways.
I used to lecture on Water Quality Modelling and Management in Professor Thanh’s courses. These events used to be once every four months and I did many sorties to Bangkok for nearly three years. Professor Thanh was a good host and a meticulous organizer. His team included Wanida Srichai – my batch mate and Khun Ratana – Prof Thanh’s earlier secretary at AIT. They really took good care of me. I was picked up and dropped to the airport, put in a decent and a friendly hotel, taken out to some excellent local restaurants with friends and of course to the shopping malls.
While at AIT, I didn’t have an opportunity to listen to Professor Thanh’s lectures. During one of the training programmes of CEFIGRE, I had an opportunity. Once Professor Thanh was introducing the subject of Water Quality. His first two slides were however not connected to the subject at all. The first slide showed a map of Bangkok with locations of the shopping malls where sale was on. The second slide showed map of Pat pong, Soi Nana and Soi Cowboy with locations of some of the most frequented night clubs and the “Go Go” bars.
While showing these two slides to the participants, Professor Thanh smiled and said “Well, you all will have copies of these two slides. So don’t worry about what to do in the evenings – everything is taken care of. A mini-van with a driver who speaks English has also been arranged for your safety and comfort”. And then he made a serious face and said “But now listen to me. We are going to discuss Water Quality now and I want your full attention – no distractions please!”. I really liked his style.
Professor Thanh often gave surprises. I recall that there was a round table meeting in Bangkok that he and I were present. The organizers asked each one of us to introduce. I did my best in projecting my research and work experience and try to impress the people. When Professor Thanh’s turn came, he simply said “I specialize in managing people”. I was surprised. During the coffee break, I went to him and said “Professor, why didn’t you talk about your work on water treatment, research you published, awards you secured etc. – “managing people” sounded a bit trivial!”. Professor Thanh smiled and said “Dr Modak, you will soon realize that managing people is actually the key and something so hard to do”. Unfortunately, I understood his point much later in my life.
Professor N C Thanh on the extreme right – A recent picture – courtesy Professor Visu standing next to him with a memento
Professor Thanh would remember every minute detail. I remember we were having a drink at one of our close friends place (P. Illangovan) in Bangkok. Professor Thanh was working with a Finnish company then called “Soil & Water” that operated from Helsinki. Before the dinner, Professor did a concoction for me with a red lingonberry Finnish wine, a wine not generally seen at the duty free shops. The concoction was exceptional and I praised Professor Thanh for the delicate balance and said “Professor, wish we have another occasion to drink this wine once again”.
Years passed by. I was in Yogyakarta in Indonesia in 2002 for a conference. I saw Professor Thanh’s name in the list of delegates. When I checked in, I had a message in my room “Dr Modak, I knew you were to attend this conference. Please could you come to my room at 7 pm for a drink”? When I reached his room, there were friends and some new faces that Professor Thanh introduced. Professor Thanh then got up, opened the mini-bar and took out a bottle of red lingonberry. He told everybody “This wine is Dr Modak’s favorite. I am offering him a concoction that he last loved in Bangkok”. I later realized that Professor had shopped this wine just for me in one of his trips to Helsinki and kept in the reserve for the “future occasion”. I was shocked with his memory and the affectionate gesture.
Professor Thanh moved as Director of Asian Institute of Technology in Hanoi and we had several opportunities to meet and do joint projects. During one of the missions, I remember visiting his house in Ho-Chi-Minh City. I was greeted by his old father and the three sisters who cooked the dinner that evening for me. When we sat on the dining table, Professor Thanh’s father introduced the Menu, spoke about each item and called on the sister who prepared that item and thanked for the hard work. This was something rather touching and unusual. When we finished the dinner, I was asked to say a few words about my experience of eating the home cooked Vietnamese food. I spoke and Professor Thanh did the translation. The dinner was really an event, rather emotional and memorable.
Expressing emotions has always been Professor Thanh’s weaknesses. He is a very sentimental and a sensitive person. I visited his house in Bangkok when he had organized a lunch for me and Dr Bindu Lohani. He asked me to come early. When I arrived, he took me to the market. He then personally picked up the vegetables, meat and the fruits after a lot of thought and examination. “It is important that one should be personally involved right from shopping when it comes to preparing lunch for friends. Most ask the cook or order from a restaurant. I don’t when it comes to friends” He said. And the lunch turned out to be excellent.
Professor Thanh, Dr Bindu Lohani and Prof Visu at AIT – A Recent Picture
After the lunch, Dr Lohani left and I stayed a bit longer. Professor Thanh took me upstairs to show the house and I saw an amazing collection of handicrafts, art pieces and paintings. I couldn’t resist but praise some of art work and I said “I envy you Professor for such a great collection”. Many of these pieces were original antiques. Later, we went downstairs for a cup of Vietnamese tea.
As I was leaving his house and getting into a taxi, a large box was handed over to me. I was surprised. When asked about it, Professor Thanh said “Dr Modak, these are a few gifts for you as a memory for today’s wonderful lunch”. I insisted to open the box and found that the box contained gifts that were actually the very art crafts that I had praised during the house tour. I felt very embarrassed and said “Professor, I was only appreciating.. You didn’t have to gift”. Professor Thanh smiled and said “Dr Modak, its easy to give a gift to someone by shopping in a mall. There are no emotions there! But it is something different when you gift someone from your own collection and part it happily – all as a token of love and affection. My heart will be with you when you will keep these artifacts in your house”. I was simply speechless.
I still have those wonderful gifts of art work in my house. They remind me of Professor Thanh and his teaching to me on how to gift a friend. The (emotional) art of giving.
Cover image sourced from http://toddbishop.tv/2016/05/23/6-commanded-blessings-of-giving/