Dr K T Achaya, ‘Doc’ to most of his friends and colleagues, passed away on 5 September 2002. He hadn’t been particularly well for some years before he died, but he wasn’t particularly unwell either. He was still very alert, could move around comfortably inside his bachelor’s den, continued to be a voracious reader and still wrote a little. One had hoped that he would continue to live for some more years in such a vein.
Dr Achaya obtained his Ph.D. from England in the late 1940’s (like many young and bright Indians in the years immediately after Independence, Dr Achaya too went to England for higher studies; he honed his skills as a food and nutrition scientist there, and also became a diehard fan of Denis Compton, the stylish and flamboyant English batsman).
Returning home, Dr Achaya joined Regional Research Laboratory (RRL), Hyderabad. He went on to spend practically his entire career in CSIR. After being at RRL through the 1960’s and some part of the 1970’s, he signed off from CFTRI, Mysore in 1983 heading a UN-sponsored programme based there. After retiring from CFTRI, Dr S R Valluri invited him to work from NAL as a CSIR Emeritus Scientist during 1983-85. It was here that I first met Dr Achaya; I would like to believe that we went on to become rather good friends, although he was exactly 33 years older than me.
Dr Achaya was an exceptionally gifted writer. His numerous books on food and the history of food were extremely successful and deservedly so. My favourite is still Your Food and You. Dr Achaya probably worked the hardest on Indian Food: A Historical Companion, a veritable treasure trove of information (discussing, for example, the origins of chilli and the culinary tastes of the Moghul rulers) and its spin-off: A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food.
I used to meet Dr Achaya quite often when he was working on his Dictionary. He was already quite old, couldn’t read too well and struggled very hard to prepare his subject index. “Why don’t you use a word processor?”, I asked him. “Oh, I am too old for that”, he would reply. It’s a pity that Dr Achaya didn’t embrace computers. He still had so much more to say and write.
One of Dr Achaya’s last serious projects was to write a ten section narrative on the history of food in Karnataka. It was, as always, a masterly effort. Dr Achaya sent it to one of Bangalore’s English newspapers. The sub-editor who worked on this article chopped it mercilessly and stupidly, like subeditors usually do. Dr Achaya was distraught, and practically inconsolable, when he saw the article in print. A gentleman of such refined taste, who probably never got a comma wrong while writing, simply couldn’t take such mutilation! He vowed never to write again. Fortunately, he was eventually persuaded to send his articles to another publication that did more justice to Dr Achaya’s unquestioned scholarship.
I last met Dr Achaya a few months before his death and even complimented him on his recovery. “Oh, at my age, you never know! I just hope I don’t live to be a crippled invalid”, he replied. We talked of Prof Satish Dhawan who had then just passed away and the improved performance of the Indian cricket team. He walked me to my car to see me off despite my protests. Little did I realise that I would never see him again.
— The Hindu tribute to K T Achaya