Man who lived in the future
Shastri Ramachandaran

Vikram Sarabhai: A Life by Amrita Shah Penguin-Viking Pages xiv+248 Price Rs 425

Wealthy, handsome, man of science, visionary, industrialist, institution-builder, humane intellectual, inspiring leader`85 all these do not describe adequately Vikram Sarabhai.

Ask most people who Vikram Sarabhai is, and nine out of ten, would answer: The pioneer of the Indian space programme. The tenth person, like Amrita Shah’s mother, may describe him as "a great scientist", leaving you none the wiser; because for all the reverence he evoked as "a great man who did much for the country" there is only a vague understanding of the man and his contribution.

Her mother being moved by Sarabhai’s death sticks in the nine-year-old girl’s head, and over the years Amrita Shah wonders about the "progressive and romantic" idealist: What kind of mind could envisage developments of such long-term impact; what kind of man could encompass such a wide range of activities; and, what had he really thought of the bomb?

She sets out to answer these in an eminently readable biography of the man who succeeded Homi Bhabha at the helm of the Atomic Energy Commission.

Sarabhai was a many-faceted nationalist who built some of the first ‘temples’ of modern India and laid the foundations for the most worshipped of these: nuclear power, space research and information revolution. Among the institutions he founded, the ones that readily come to mind are the National Institute of Design, IIM-A, Indian Space Research Organisation, Operations Research Group, Physical Research Laboratory and Ahmedabad Textile Industry’s Research Association.

Long before best practices, human resources and technology upgradation became corporate buzzwords, he recognised the need for these concepts. His approach to management of men, materials and technology, and focus on research and development made him a business leader way ahead of his times. More relevant for today’s business elite is that he created a climate for these without the soul-less corporate technocracies that flourish in stifling glass and concrete structures.

India Inc, thriving on the very Nehruvian foundations it reviles, may be surprised to know that some 40 to 50 years ago he was not only talking but doing what is being only talked about now. He foresaw India’s need for (atomic) energy, satellites and computers, and sowed the seeds to make it possible; though these are yet to be applied for the developmental purposes he envisioned. Infrastructure development would not have been the black hole it is today, had his mission prevailed; and public-private sector partnerships (PPSP) would have been a reality instead of the pie in the sky it is proving to be. He pioneered PPSP at a time when the bureaucracy was much more leaden and made it work not only in India but across borders too.

This may not be the definitive biography of Vikram Sarabhai, but it is the best-written book on the man and the many causes he espoused so passionately. Sarabhai’s life was complex, and not only because of his multifarious interests and engagements. Steeped in science, the ‘Renaissance Man’ was a lover of the arts, given to sensual delights and "lived two lives, (in) two homes" with wife Mrinalini and mistress Kamla Chowdhary. There was an element of the "flirtatious" in his relationship with Indira Gandhi.

Amrita Shah also loves her subject, but she is objective and scrupulously presents evidence against her conclusions – such as Sarabhai’s opposition to weaponising the nuclear programme – for the reader to make his own judgment.

Shah grasps not just the facts but also the sense of this human dynamo, and his circumstances, to deliver a seamless narrative. Thorough research and good reportage combined with information, impressions and insights gathered meticulously from a wealth of secondary, and some primary, sources make this book exceptional. The material is placed in — national and international — perspective: in the socio-political conditions of the time; in the history of developments in science; and the many crisscrossing currents at work.

The book is assured of an audience for a number of reasons.

First, both the advocates and opponents of nuclear deterrence will scan the tract to figure out where Sarabhai stood: Was he for the bomb or against it? One answer could be that he was torn between the necessity of the nuclear programme for meeting India’s massive energy needs and the inevitability of it being used to make the bomb. He was dedicated to the programme for energy. But he was opposed to the military objective of a bomb, a necessary evil he opted out of confronting by leaving it to the political class to decide. He could be described as a ‘conscientious objector’, who was no less conscientious about his responsibility as Chairman of the AEC. He lived with that internal conflict, too, like the one in his personal life, believing he would not have to make a choice.

Second, there is abiding curiosity about Sarabhai’s "Two lives, two homes". He never confided to anyone on the subject. Mrinalini felt betrayed and her hurt shows, for example, in The Voice of the Heart: An Autobiography (HarperCollins, 2004). Kamla was aggrieved but not forthcoming on the matter. Those looking for anything ‘new’ on the affair will be disappointed.Third, the book is not packed with the technical stuff of science, but just enough – in capsules - to provide the context, meaning and significance of developments in science. Those keen on Sarabhai’s primary passion – the study of cosmic rays – may find the book deficient. Yet this deficiency is an attraction for those who want to know about Sarabhai. In fact, an edited version sans the paraphrased sections on science might make the book more attractive, especially for the population that, for example, admires President A P J Abdul Kalam without the least idea of his contribution to science and space technology.

Shah leaves a tantalising question unanswered (deliberately?) at the end. Vikram died in the Kovalam guest house with "a book open on his chest". What was the book he was reading before he died? Which, in turn, raises a whole stream of questions about the books, art and music he liked and collected, and about the private pursuits of a rare personality who attracted much respect, affection and love, and made some of India’s best minds "want to work for him" for a pittance.