Stories that Inspire and Stories that are hard to Interpret

It was January 1981 in New Delhi-an incident some 40 years ago. I was presenting a paper at the seminar organized by Central Board of Irrigation and Power (CBIP). My session chairman was Dr Niloy Chaudhuri, who was then the Chairman of Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). I spoke about river water quality management, minimum environmental flows and importance of addressing non-point sources of pollution especially agricultural return waters. Perhaps, the thoughts I expressed were a bit ahead of time. Dr Niloy Chaudhari in his summing up highlighted and expanded my arguments in a much better manner than I did. He patted me as we descended from the stage.

[Those of you who don’t know, Late Dr Niloy Chaudhuri, Ex-Professor, Jadhavpur University has been a legend in environmental management in India. During his 15 years of Chairmanship at the CPCB, Dr Chaudhuri modernized our environmental policies and regulations, introduced science-based effluent standards and conceived the Ganga Action Plan. He came from the Illinois School at Urbana Champaign and belonged to the pedigree of Prof Richard Engelbrecht. As I now look back, pedigree does matter – in your overall growth, maturity and modesty.]

After the session was over, there was a tea break. I decided to skip the later sessions and return to the campus of IIT Delhi where I was staying. The weather was cold, and it was drizzling. I wasn’t prepared for this kind of weather and was not carrying any warm jacket to cover me. I came to the foyer of the CBIP building and started looking for an auto riksha. Just then I saw Dr Niloy Choudhuri. He was waiting for his car. Dr Choudhuri smiled and asked “Modak, where are you going?”. When I told him IIT Delhi, he shrugged his shoulders and said that unfortunately he was travelling in the opposite direction. “It’s alright Sir” I said.

When Dr Choudhuri saw me getting into the auto riksha not wearing a jacket in that chilly weather, he stepped down and reached the auto. “Modak, wear my coat, you will need this coat to protect yourself from this bad weather” And as he said this, he removed his black coat and wrapped around me with care and affection.

“What about you Sir?” I was embarrassed.

“Oh, I will be alright. I will be travelling in my car. We will close the window glasses and I will ask the driver to put on the heater” Dr Choudhuri had an explanation.

And then he bent down and whispered. “Come and return my coat tomorrow in CPCB office when the sun is bright and strong. This will give me an opportunity to discuss some of the interesting things you spoke today”

To me this was a memorable and touching event. I said to myself, “Prasad, this is how you should be. – affectionate, modest and subtle.

[Later many of you may know – I worked as a retainer consultant to CPCB for five years advising Dr Niloy Choudhuri]

Remembering small personal details can really make a difference. Let me recall here a story about Professor N C Thanh of Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok. We were having a drink at one of our close friend’s house (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 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”. This was in 1998.

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 some old 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 favourite. I am offering him a concoction that he last liked 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. “Oh, I must become like Professor Thanh”, I said to myself. Unfortunately, I have a bad memory and the situation is getting worse every other day.

One of the toughest things I have seen is to get a respect from your competitors in the profession. Well, it all depends how you play your business and stay above the pettiness and jealousies of all kind.  You must be in a different orbit.

Dr Deepak Kantawala, another doyen in the environmental field in India, recounted to me an interesting story. There was a competitive bid asked by one of the large pharmaceutical industries on treatment of effluents. The schema involved wetland treatment that was rather new and not so much practiced. Competitors were Associated Industrial Consultants (AIC) managed by Prof S J Arceivala and Environmental Engineering Consultants (EEC) that was Dr Deepak Kantawala ’s firm. EEC put a price that was lower than AIC and so the job was awarded to EEC.

Dr Kantwala however was not confident about the design approach and needed someone to vet. “Who else can I find, except Prof Arcievala” Dr Kantawala said to himself and went to see Prof Arceivala in his office. Prof Arceivala not only greeted him but took efforts to improve Dr Kantawala‘s design and gave him all the help needed – right on the drawing board!

I was shocked to listen to this story as what you see around today is a cutthroat competition, blatant lies, low ethics and rare to find a courteousness and generosity as shown by Prof Arceivala. I must also praise Dr Kantawala for his boldness and honesty.

[Late Prof S J Arceivala was one of the doyens in environmental engineering in India. He authored several books on this subject, was Professor at VJTI in Mumbai, director of National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) and Chief, WHO, SEARO. On retirement, he gave full time to run his consulting company Associated Industrial Consultants.]

When I heard this story, I said to myself “I want to be like Professor S J Arceivala”. Such stories do inspire you to follow. Honestly, many times my “competitors” call me for an advice and I have followed the suit of Prof S J Arceivala.

I shared some of these interesting moments and stories to my Professor Friend.

“Do you have anything to add Professor? I asked.

“Well, Dr Modak, there is one story of that has always puzzled me” Professor said while lighting his cigar. This short story is titled “Lie Thee Down, Oddity” written by T.F. Powys. The story is about a queer Gardener Mr Crouch who lived his life following his oddities or eccentricities, no matter what a common person would say. To him, oddities were supreme.

Professor passed me the story to read. It did not take  much time. In some 10 minutes, I reached on the last page. That page read something like this

“Mr. Cronch came upon a large crowd watching a high factory chimney. This immense chimney, as high as the clouds and weighing many hundreds of tons, was being brought down. The workmen were busy at its base, and the crowd watched from a safe distance.

All were ready for the fall; the masons and engineers left the chimney. But one of the men remained to give the final stroke that would cause the huge structure to sway and fall. This mason completed his task and began to walk to safety.

When he was a few yards off the chimney, he trod upon a wet plank hidden in the mud and fell heavily. The spectators expected him to jump up and run off. But he could not do so. An official held his watch in his hand, “One, two, three,” he counted. When he reached sixty seconds the chimney would fall.

Its direction was known. It would fall directly upon the man. He tried to rise, but his leg was broken. He tried to crawl, but the pain prevented him. He raised himself up and looked at the huge mass above him; he knew what was coming. None of the onlookers moved. It was too late to save the man; to go to him would mean certain death.

The chimney began to totter, to rock.

Then Mr. Cronch said softly, “Lie thee down, Oddity!” but the Oddity would not listen to him. Mr. Cronch spoke in so low a tone that perhaps the Oddity never even heard what he said.

Mr. Cronch walked with his slow gardener’s step, to the man.

“What are you afraid of?” he asked him.

“Of the chimney,” cried the man, “it’s falling.”

“What if it does fall,” observed Mr. Cronch, looking up as though he thought the huge mass above him was a small pear tree.

“It’s coming,” cried the man.

Mr. Cronch took off his hat. The man smiled.”

Powys story ends here. There have been different interpretations by the critiques. Would anyone ordinary do what Mr Crouch was trying to do? And why did the man smile?

Professor sighed and said “Dr Modak, one day I want to be like Mr Cronch. I want to be someone who could conquer the fear of death”.

He extinguished his cigar and looked outside the window.

I didn’t have a word to say.


[Do read Modern Short Stories by Jim Hunter. You will find in this collection this story by Powys, one of the famous British writers of the last century]

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One comment

  1. I have interacted with most of these persons and your descriptions are simply immaculate.
    I remember, while attending your classes if I asked some questions, you would first say “then you will become my competitor”. Immediately after that a detailed explanation would follow. You gifted me a book that you alone possessed saying that “I am confident that you will put it to a good use:.

    Such people not only leave a strong impression on you, but they always govern your ethics in all life endeavors.

    THANKS a lot for being such a adorable mentor- full of humor, knowledge, compassion and sensitivity.

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