My tryst with atomic energy*
By Dr K S Parthasarathy
I came to Bombay on 14th August 1963. The crowds at Dadar railway station unnerved me. I saw Mr. P.P.R. Nair – a family friend and my “local guardian”- pacing up and down the platform. I felt happy and relieved. On 15th August I joined the seventh batch of the training school run by the then Atomic Energy Establishment Trombay (AEET).
The accommodation at “Lands End”, Bandra, was spartan and consisted of a few tiled buildings and several barracks. Those who reported early got rooms in the tiled buildings. “Early bird catches the worms” others said. As per the rules, boys were to stay in the hostel. Girls had to fend for themselves. There were three girls in our batch.
Initially, we sized each other. “I am Mr. Rao, Andhra University, electronics specialist, first class, first rank”; “Mr Khanna, University of Punjab, nuclear physicist, first class, first rank”; “Mr Swamy, Annamalai University, spectroscopist, first class, first rank” and so on. (All encounters are described as they occurred; but all names are changed).
I would like to forget my first few days in Bandra. BEST workers were on strike. We had to walk from Bandra railway station to Band Stand. I wore an ill-fitting rubber shoe, which tore away a few inches of my skin. I felt miserable. The muddy, salty, puddle irritated my inflamed skin; the wind from the beach bearing the smell of decaying fish blew right across my face. We got used to more frequent “Bombay Bundhs” later.
We received a stipend of Rs 300/- To be precise, Rs. 280/- in hand (the barrack rent was Rs20/-). Many of us could save over Rs 100/-. The present day BARC trainees may sympathise with our plight! Their stipend is Rs 8000/-. But then the cost of a full south Indian meal of several courses served in a broad banana leaf was 80 paise only! (Conditions applied! We had to purchase in advance a meal card costing Rs 48/- and eat 60 lunches or dinners in two months).
Our lecturers came from various Divisions of AEET and from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). The lecturers from TIFR were not popular. The most brilliant of them mumbled to themselves. One of them was erudite. During the lecture, he paced up and down and managed to break the cable attached to the microphone almost every day.
The training programme was arduous. Weekly tests, take-home assignments, tutorials, I felt that I lost my freedom on 15th August, when the nation was celebrating independence. Later we realized that the training school programme prepared us to face the challenges in our career. The “batch” camaraderie continues to this day!
We had sumptuous breakfast consisting of unlimited helpings of Idli or sada dosa or masala dosa, uthappam or upma to be eaten with tasty chutney and sambar. Cornflakes and milk were served every day. A cup of tea or coffee was mandatory. Samosa with ketchup or vada with chutney served as evening snacks. We put on weight. But still a few complained. “The jam is too sweet”, “milk contains too much fat” and so on. I cannot drop any names here! Those who complained are still around and may assault me!
Our Social Secretary hired films once in a month. We saw Laurel & Hardy, Jerry Lewis and Charlie Chaplain. He wanted to bring more movies. We liked the movies but did not want to pay more! Three of our friends formed a gang (One of them left the DAE family and retired as Head of an important Department, second migrated to USA, third died young of cerebral hemorrhage)
Their hobby was to name people. When the Social Secretary became unpopular because of his “taxing” nature, they named him “Morarjee”. Soon they realized that “jee” signifies respect. They decided to call him “Morar”. Some one reminded them that “ar” in Tamil also indicates respect. They called him “Moron”! That name stuck.
The Gang of three named me D.D.(Divine Driver – alluding to the role of Parthasarathy as the charioteer of Arjun!). They named One of my friends,”phantom”. I am unable to figure out why. “Phantom” is currently an eminent specialist in USA.
We were very proud at the prospect of becoming “gazetted officers” as soon as the course was over. A trainee used to mention that very often. The gang named him “Gazetted Officer”. A few were very happy to lend their signature to one and all as “gazetted officers”. Two of them stood surety for another friend and regretted it thereafter. They paid a huge sum from their salary as their friend went missing and defaulted payment.
We celebrated our passing out function in the presence of many eminent scientists. They delivered inspiring speeches. The chief guest was none other than Dr. Homi Jehangir Bhabha, the architect of nuclear India. That day was rather warm and sultry. One of the senior scientists at the stage tried hard to arrest a swiveling fan so that Dr.Bhabha will feel comfortable. The fan did not cooperate. We were amused. Dr Bhabha showed visible consternation and waved him off.
On August 1, 1964, we joined the then Atomic Energy Establishment Trombay (AEET) which later became Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. Many of us reached high positions and acquired expertise in a variety of disciplines. We celebrated the tenth and 25th anniversary. We came together to honour Dr.Anil Kakodkar, our batch mate – first when he became the Director of BARC and later when he was appointed Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. We continue to meet often.
We never regretted joining AEET. We witnessed and shared the glory of the growth and consolidation of a highly successful technological enterprise. Developed countries took note. In 1964, India had no nuclear power reactor; now we have 14; presently we mine and mill our own uranium, fabricate nuclear fuel elements indigenously and design, construct, commission and operate research and power reactors. Use of radioisotopes in medicine, industry and research grew a hundred-fold since 1964.
During my career, I was abroad for four years: from September 1969 to July 1972 at the Department of Medical Physics, University of Leeds as a Colombo Plan Study Fellow. I secured Ph.D from Leeds in 1972. I worked in the University of Virginia Medical Centre, Charlottesville, USA as a Research Associate for one year during 1982-1982
In October 1984, I left BARC to join the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. I was Secretary of the Board from August 1987 to January 2004. I was also Director, Scientific and Technical Services Division, AERB.
I superannuated in January 2004. From April 2004 to March 2012, I continued to serve the Department of Atomic Energy as a Raja Ramanna Fellow.
Currently, the fifty-sixth batch of trainees is concluding their training. I understand that now when the new batch of trainees meet for the first time they may try to find out their GATE scores rather than their ranks!
* Part of the events covered during August 1963 to January 204 was published in The Bihar Times.