When Kalyani Vijayan carried a bouquet of flowers to greet an ailing Sivaraj Ramaseshan on what was to be his last birthday in October 2003, he joked: “Are these for my funeral?”.
We shall miss Ramaseshan’s wit, eloquence, scholarship and wisdom. My colleagues at the National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) will miss a great scientist, a visionary leader and an inspiring mentor.
Ramaseshan often described his years in NAL (1966-77) as “the finest years of my professional career”. From all accounts, he was extraordinarily special; even today, decades after he left NAL, colleagues in the Materials Science Division talk about him with tremendous warmth and affection.
My best memories are of a raconteur extraordinaire. After a typically effervescent lecture at NAL in 1994 (“K S Krishnan‘s discovery is today called Ziman theory; you know how these things happen, of course”), I walked up to him to express my concern that gifted speakers like him are becoming a vanishing species. “Don’t worry, I too will vanish one of these days!”, Ramaseshan reassured me.
Later that year, Ramaseshan gave another utterly delightful lecture on S S Bhatnagar in which he explained how science during the British rule was dictated by the compelling need to rule and exploit. At one point the lecture veered off to Nehru addressing a Congress meeting in 1936, and how Ramaseshan simply couldn’t take his eyes off a radiantly beautiful Vijayalakshmi Pandit.
He was like that. Charming, witty and adorable — especially when he became an old man. He could be very sentimental too. When I asked him if he could contribute a tribute to Professor Satish Dhawan for an NAL publication, he politely refused. “Surely, you will write for Current Science, so why not for us?”, I persisted. “It will take me a very long time to get over Satish’s loss. I still can’t believe he’s gone”, he said as his voice trailed off into a muffled whisper.
Ramaseshan was a very gifted writer and editor. “Would you read Current Science?”, he asked me in 1988-89. I replied that I found it too dull and full of agriculture. “We’re going to change that”, he promised — and, with Prof P Balaram, engineered the most amazing turnaround of an Indian science journal. A great life has ended, but Ramaseshan’s legacy will endure — and always inspire.