INCUBATING GREATNESS: P.M.BELLIAPPA, IAS (RETD) REMINISCES HIS CAMBRIDGE DAYS

By P.M. Belliappa (in picture wearing suit), IAS (Retd)*

Had I not gone to Cambridge, I may not have met Venki (Nobel laureate), and my life would have been poorer for that.

“Cambridge University has won more Nobel Prizes than France or Germany… and contains the biggest brains in the world” said Bill Gates of Microsoft.

Tagged with Oxford, the word Oxbridge was born. While Oxford is described as the city of ‘Whispering Spires’, Cambridge gets its name from river Cam on the banks of which it is situated. It is the ultimate destination and dream of every aspiring student and I was no exception. My time arrived later and therein lies a tale.

The Indian Connection

Founded in 1209, it is the second oldest University in the English speaking world, after Oxford, 1096.

The Indian connection is old and has impacted in diverse fields. To name just a few, Maharaja Ranjitsinhji, 1893-94, Trinity College, a Prince, was seen more on the cricket field than the classroom. He played for England and been described as “the Midsummer night’s dream of cricket”. Ranji Trophy, named after him, is an important tournament, played even today.

Sir Dorabji Tata, founder of the Tata Group (Gonville & Caius); Subhas Chandra Bose, legendary freedom fighter (Fitzwilliam); Sri Aurobindo, philosopher and patriot, Ramanujam, the mathematical genius whose Note Books are still being deciphered, (Trinity), Harivansh Rai Bachchan (St. Catherine’s) poet and more relevant, father of Amitabh Bachchan, the iconic actor; Jawaharlal Nehru (Trinity) freedom fighter and India’s first Prime Minister; Manmohan Singh (St. John’s) economist and former Prime Minister of India; Amartya Sen (Trinity) economist and Nobel Prize winner.

Jehangir Homi Bhabha, father of India’s nuclear programme studied at Gonville & Caius, chose to remain a scientist, fortunately for the country, rather than join the family business.

As a young District Officer in Tamil Nadu, I had the fortuitous opportunity to chaperone Bhabha during his visit to Kodaikanal Observatory. An epitome of refinement, brilliant conversationalist making you feel at ease, he left a deep impress. Many years later, by a happy coincidence, I was awarded the two-year Homi Bhabha Fellowship that took me to Cambridge, where I worked at the Centre for South Asian Studies. When I read the news of his demise in an air crash over the Alps, the twinge of pain in my heart, still lingers.

 Guardian Angels

As Bertrand Russell reminisces: “the real value I acquired at Cambridge was intellectual honesty … and this virtue also existed among my teachers”. Cambridge colleges about 31, each more beautiful than the next, enjoy immense autonomy. Students are assigned to different colleges where they get their rooms. It is here that transformation takes place over the years, gently, but surely, making it a life changing experience. They are unlikely to forget, two persons who will play an important role in their lives – the Tutor and the Porter.

Every Tutor is assigned a clutch of students who become his responsibility during their stay. Over time the Tutor becomes the friend, philosopher, and guide. The bond between the two is intimate, honest, and strong. For the student the Tutor is the first port of call, a shoulder to lean on or cry, as the case may be. The student is never left rudderless.

The Porter is the Lord of the campus within the College. Students joining college, report first at the Porter’s desk, which is at the entrance. They are given keys to their room and details necessary for their stay. In due course the Porter gets to know almost every detail of the student, their habits, friends, tastes, preferences and lifestyle. Experienced as they are, it is not difficult for them to handle a variety of students. Legend has it that Porters know the families of students, as invariably some member would have passed through their hands. While they appear formidable, in fact they are very helpful, responsible and caring.

Having the unexpected opportunity of a Cambridge experience, I was never in doubt that this must be the reward for the honest public service by my late father, who was an iconic Police Officer who served with impeccable integrity and unflinching commitment. (The late Pemanda K. Monappa, was the only IPS officer to head the police forces of three Indian States. He was best known for his contribution to integrating the police forces of the princely State of Hyderabad, into the forces of the Indian Union in 1948).

I decided to create a Corpus in his name, which would enable, in perpetuity, a deserving Indian student with modest means to pursue an M.Phil programme, in Cambridge, in identified subjects.

A ‘Nobel’ Friendship

My friendship with Nobel Laureate Venki Ramankrishnan began through my “Scholarship”. Venki, migrated from Tamil Nadu at the age of three, to Baroda where his father was a Professor. At the age of 19 he moved to USA to pursue a course in Physics, changed track, studied Biology, moved to Cambridge, only to win the Nobel (the Mother of all prizes), in 2009 for his path breaking work on Ribosome and its role in making proteins.

According to Venki “the discovery of the ribosome is one of the great triumphs of modern biology”. Knighted by Her Majesty the Queen, Fellow of the Royal Society of which he has been elected President, Venki carries his distinction and achievements very lightly. A man of subtle humour and manifold interests. That we are friends, is the best thing that happened.

 *P. M. Belliappa, a former IAS officer of Tamil Nadu cadre, is an alumnus of Cambridge University.

 Pemanda M. Belliappa, in his 35-year-long service, had occupied important posts, starting as District Collector and also held the posts of head of the National Hydro Electric Corporation of India and the Chairman and Managing Director of the Rural Electrification Corporation of India. 

He has been decorated with the Most Excellent Order of the ‘Member of the British Empire (MBE)’ by the Queen of England.  

Source: Culturama April 2019 with additional inputs from P.T. Bopanna   

 

 

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