I was not selected as an engineer trainee in this prestigious institute. On my way back, from Bombay to Kanpur, I was thinking what next. I had spent a few good days with my friends who were at the University Department of Chemical Technology (UDCT) Bombay. Thinking about our good old days with them at HBTI, I reached Kanpur. At the station I was surprised to find my father. Seeing him at the station, I got worried. My father assured me that all is well at the home front, and then he gave me a letter. It was an interview letter for a PhD program at IIT Delhi. My first reaction was – I will not attend the interview. My father’s reaction was – Good, let us then go home. We came out of the platform. By then I had changed my mind. I told my father, there is no harm attending the interview, as they are giving TA. The interview was the next day. I booked my ticket for Delhi on a night train. I reached the Chemical Engineering department of IIT Delhi. So many known faces at the interview site gave me a lot of confidence. I did well in the interview. One of the interviewers was my old teacher of HBTI, Professor Tarun Kumar Ghose, who was now back from his US assignment. I was given a week’s time to join. Thus began my IITD journey.
This was the first time I was staying in a hostel. I never thought I would miss home so much. I did not like anything, particularly the food. When I think of it now, the food was not bad, maybe too much regular; two times a week non-veg. I made friends. Some old friends from HBTI too were there. Those days, our hostel used to run a night canteen. They served Aloo-Paratha, Omelette and chai on extra messing basis. I tried not to miss the night canteen. I did not mind missing my regular dinner. And then there was Bhabhi ki dukaan, on the back of one of our hostels. Almost every day we would go there late in the night; mostly after we are through from our teen-patti session. We strictly followed a system – the one who wins, will have to take us all to Bhabhi for chai-samosa or whatever. The winner of the day must spend the money on those who lost it.
The first six recruits of Prof Ghose (we used to call him TKG) was our world. We were assigned projects; each was different from the other. Since our professor introduced a new area to the institute, it was not that well equipped. For literature search, we used to go to Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) library. Those days the IARI library was very well kept, and we could locate the journals related to our area without any difficulty. We would go in the morning, with packed Aloo-paratha. We would spend the whole day in the library. We would return in the evening stocked with requisite materials for our research work. It took us around 2 months to complete the primary survey. Today, it would have taken 2 days, perhaps. But we did not mind spending time in ‘literature search’, as any search always has many other charms.
My thesis topic was Kinetic and oxygen transfer studies in bacterial systems. I developed a model for bacterial growth and studied the mechanism of oxygen transfer in a bacterial system. The studies needed frequent measurement of dissolved oxygen concentration in the aqueous system, in the presence of an organic acid producing bacteria. And we did not have an oxygen electrode required for the measurement in the lab. The needed procedure for the procurement of probes from outside the country was initiated. In the meanwhile, I tried to fabricate a probe for the measurement of dissolved oxygen in the liquid phase. I fabricated one, but it was not steam sterilizable. So the measurements had to be offline. I got a sterilizable electrode in due course. With the newly acquired electrode, I had to repeat the experiments I did with non-sterilizable electrodes. Based on the data, I proposed an alternate direct contact mechanism for the quick transfer of oxygen from the gas (air) to liquid (water) to solid (bacteria) phase. After almost completing the work, I felt I haven’t done enough work that could give me a doctoral degree. I decided to leave PhD in-between. I started looking for a job. I got one at Mysore; that of a scientific assistant. No one would even look at this job, after almost completing PhD work. I accepted the job offer. I told my supervisor about my decision. He couldn’t think I could do such a thing. He tried to convince me that I have done good work, and this job will take me to the lowest pit, if I accept it. I would not hear a word of what he said. I had lost complete faith in me. My supervisor had to reluctantly agree. He advised me to consult one of his friends from IISc if I ever felt the need. He advised me to come back and complete the thesis writing work as soon as possible. It is rare to get such supervisors. He was my mentor, in the true sense of the word.
At the institute at Mysore, we-the four were put under a newly appointed head, who had just returned from the USA. We were assigned to develop a fermentation technology division in a food technology institute. Here we gave our heart and soul to build the department. We forgot that we are mere scientific assistants. We forgot our limitations. Since the time was short (we were given one year’s time, as the then Prime Minister was to inaugurate it during the Institute’s silver jubilee celebration). It was a big challenge for us. Those days, nothing was available at Mysore. For everything we had to go to Bangalore. We wanted to design, develop and set up a pilot scale fermentor at our laboratory within the time frame given to us. The fermentor was being fabricated at Bombay by another newcomer in the field. It was a morning-day-night game. We did not know how to put up a air line or a water line or a steam line, by what colour these lines are represented. We made mistakes. But we put up the lines. On the way we learned. Our division was ready to be inaugurated by Smt Indira Gandhi in the stipulated time frame. I often see the photograph I have with the Prime Minister, in front of the fermentor designed and developed indigenously by us.
Now it was time for me to say goodbye to the institute. My supervisor wanted me back immediately and submitted the thesis. Otherwise, I should forget about my PhD. I did not meet my supervisor’s friend in Bangalore even once during the year. I was so occupied with my present assignment that I forgot about the other assignment. In the process, I got my confidence back. I was ready to go back to my alma mater to complete my PhD. Now arose another peculiar problem. My Mysore boss would not leave me. He was not willing to understand any of my problems. He was ready to give me out of turn promotion, but that will not serve my purpose. I can’t forfeit my degree. I fought for my rights. He wouldn’t budge. I went to the Institute’s chief administrator, bypassing my boss. Thankfully, he gave me a patient hearing, and then he relieved me of my responsibilities with immediate effect. I was ready to pack and go with a heavy heart. Many of my colleagues came to see me off at Mysore Railway station. I saw my boss, standing at one corner, crying like a child. I felt bad for him. He was my friend. He could not accept the idea of my leaving him. He had big plans for the new division. Building a team is so exciting. So heart-breaking is when the team breaks. The team broke. Within a year, my boss returned to the US. We-the-four also scattered. People come and go but what they build remains. Fermentation has always been an important part of food technology. The we-four-team parted with a feeling that their sweat was worth the salt.
Back to square one! Within 3 months I completed my thesis writing, submitted thesis, appeared for the viva, and the degree was awarded. I remember, when I completed my PhD, I went home. One of my uncles asked me, how I was feeling. There was no special feeling. It was a regular event in my hostel, almost every other day there will be a new PhD. Maybe among friends, there will be a Beer party. Since it is a special day, there is a likelihood of Tandoori Chicken; our standard menu for the special day.