It pains me deeply that my friend Rakesh Mohan Jha won’t read this note. During the years that we were together at NAL (1993-2006) Jha read every word I wrote. He often had kind things to say, but if he felt that something I wrote was wrong or out of step he never hesitated to say it loud and clear.
That was Jha all over: fastidious to the core, but never without reason. In his book, there was always a ‘right’ way to do something, and, therefore, that was the only admissible way.
But this judgement on right vs wrong wasn’t based on whim, fancy or petulance. It was based on what science had established to be right and valid.
Jha was a true servant of science. The seeds were sown in his early years when he excelled as a student of both science and engineering at BITS, Pilani, and the fledgling sapling was nurtured at Indian Institute of Science, most notably by his guide and mentor Professor P R Mahapatra. But Jha eventually found his true métier when his idol – everyone’s idol? – Professor Roddam Narasimha invited him to join NAL.
By joining NAL, Jha’s career acquired the right direction and focus at the most opportune moment — he would go on to become a very successful, and much decorated, aerospace scientist. His deep knowledge in electromagnetics (EM), and his skill and ability to cross over from science to engineering, made him a truly valuable and formidable national ‘asset’.
If Jha could have been reading this, he’d have given me that questioning look to enquire how a ‘person’ could became an ‘asset’. A moment later he’d have given me that endearing smile to acknowledge that I now work for the private industry where only assets, and their ability to create profits, matter.
We had several occasions to laugh and smile together, usually in the neighbourhood of the Flosolver Lab where the eternal karmayogi, Dr U N Sinha, was at work. Often Dr Sinha would invite us for a work break over a cup of lemon tea to discuss history, science, culture or the Satisfiability Problem. These were splendid interactions that created deep bonds and contributed to NAL’s joie de vivre. When the ‘togetherness’ (I won’t call it a ‘meeting’) ended, Jha would always part after making sure that he rinsed his cup of tea. An unfinished task was anathema to him.
But once a task was properly finished – and it could be no other way with him – Jha didn’t much like to return to the familiar and conquered territory; he would seek newer pastures of adventure. An example is the huge radome that NAL built to house ISRO’s Doppler weather radar at Sriharikota over a decade ago: building that 13m diameter radome, and enhancing its EM performance, was a challenging and enticing technological problem … but once the job was done Jha had no real interest in going back even though his fellow scientist Dr R M V G K Rao was doggedly persuasive.
Jha’s mission in life – and this became even more apparent in his last years – was to create and leave behind an outstanding edifice that would serve aerospace science and technology with distinction. The CEM Lab. that he lovingly and assiduously created, is a prime example. Of course a lab isn’t just an assembly of hardware, software or instruments; it is even more an assembly of knowledge and people. Jha realized this very early and endeavoured to make NAL’s CEM Lab a learning portal for a large number of engineering graduates. To spread the knowledge farther, Jha chose to be a prolific writer: he wrote hundreds of research papers and four excellent books. Jha loved books; he still belonged to the old school that believed that scholarly books offered far greater knowledge and education than a Google search.
Jha spoke as well as he wrote. Over a decade ago, when we heard that Jha was heading for a critical heart surgery to fix a recalcitrant aortic valve, I got deeply worried and sought out NAL’s doctor to ask what that surgery was all about. The doctor gave me a detailed answer full of medical terms and expressions … but I understood little. When Jha heard that I was making enquiries, he summoned me to his room and, on the blackboard with a tiny piece of chalk, gave me a precise sketch of what Dr Devi Shetty proposed to do in the operation theatre with a truthful estimate of the probability of failure.
To our great joy the surgery was a great success. Post-surgery, Jha’s technical achievements became even more prolific and his life was on song – although not being able to eat his favourite rajma dish was always a matter of some grief.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, and tragically, the music stopped on 22 July 2015. But Jha’s elegant musical notes, and his compelling technological rhapsody, will always stay with us. He led an immaculate life, and the sound of the music he created will always captivate and enthrall. It will however bother him that he wasn’t given the time to play that last melodious and magical note.