Saturday, January 28, 2012

Curiosity Never Killed the Cat - In Memory of T C K Menon

Most of you do not know my uncle. T.C. Krishnankutty Menon (TCK), or to me Aniyanmaman, passed away recently.  He resided in Trichur, in God's Own Country,  a town more famous for its literary figures, jewellers, temples and Pooram. I was born there and he stayed in a house next to ours - we were all from the same family.

TCK was, in a sense, a true blue Keralite. He did his schooling in Trichur followed by his graduation in Chemistry at Maharaja's College, Ernakulam, quickly followed by a post-graduation through research. He joined Sri Kerala Varma College, Trichur after that, in two spells and taught there till his retirement. In-between he did drop into the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Delhi for his Ph.D but for reasons which lie buried with him, he returned to Trichur and that's where he stayed for the rest of his life. His visits out of Kerala were few and far.

A Keralite he was but parochial he was a not. In a small town not really conducive to the exposure which one got in a city, TCK broke barriers, both mental and physical.

This blog is not so much about him but more about what he inculcated in me. And can be used by any professional across various disciplines.

  • Well Rounded - A Man of Many Talents
A trained chemist, his interests stretched far beyond that. He loved the arts and was a good violinist (which was quite natural because the family encouraged artistic pursuits).  I have listened to many of his renderings of the various ragas of Carnatic music. (Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu was one of his favorites). With his keen ear he could identify ragas from an ordinary hum.

His artistic pursuits did not restrict him to music alone; he was a keen follower of art. Renoir and a favorite Duchamp. His finesse with the hand was seen in sketches on scraps of paper, on unblemished sides of pages written on one side, behind envelopes and of course some books.

TCK had a deep interest in literature and devoured various classics. He had a particular affinity to American literature -Faulkner, Steinbeck, Robert Frost, Hawthorne and a favorite - Ernest Hemmingway. All this perhaps fueled by the monthly newsletter he got from the American embassy.

Perhaps influenced by German technology/ science and respect for processes, TCK actually learnt German by himself with the help of some rudimentary self-help books, an English to German dictionary and the radio (for pronunciation and diction) . What is even more astounding is that he actually translated some books from German to English.

  • Hungry for Information - The Unending Quest
If I was asked to visualize TCK now, one of my first memories of him would be of him turning the frequency knob of a small two band radio trying to catch a foreign radio station - the BBC, VOA (for un-initiated - Voice of America) and a host of international radio stations. Due to the frequent drop in signals, TCK decided to rig an external antenna (which I used to listen to more exciting programming like sports news, BBC's Top of the Pops and Billboard!). Televisions were a luxury anywhere in India and more so in a small town like Trichur. I doubt if we even had transmission to that part of the world.

I cannot remember any place he did not look for information. The footpath with the roadside sellers where he picked up some dog- eared second hand books; the Minerva book store at the junction of MG Road and Swaraj Round; the Trichur central library; the college library where I suspect the librarian picked up many publications (within his budget) more out of fear of TCK's temper; the numerous subscriptions for journals and magazines. Infact his home used to be strewn with publications of various types

His quest for information was through discussions too. I remember his discussions with my mother on literature and politics which were quite heated at times, given the fact that they were both strong willed persons and extremely erudite. His erstwhile colleagues and great friends, Prof. Malathi (HOD - English) and Prof.  Ramankutty (HOD - Commerce) contributed to his hunger for information. What is interesting  is that both these friends came from very different fields yet they were close intellectually too. In the recent past, I remember his long scientific discussions with Latha, my wife (she is the scientist types - the biotech variety). He could hold his own and soon such discussions would be a dialogue between the two of them as the others simply could not fathom what they were talking about.  It also helped that they were oblivious to the non - scientists around them!

  • A Scientist Beyond
TCK was not an orthodox chemist, but had a far more all-encompassing view of science. Infact I still remember he took me to his college laboratory where he had extracted some essential oils from the rind of citrus fruits. He wanted to create some natural cosmetics based on these ingredients.

An amateur astronomer, legend has it that he wanted to watch the lunar eclipse clearly but with the primitive equipment available at Trichur at that time, he knew that his wish would not be fulfilled. Rather than ruing about it, TCK decided to import one and that's when Trichur had its first scientific telescope.

It is a known fact that TCK worked not just as a chemist but as a 'scientist' as he embraced all forms of science - be it pharmacognosy or pharmacology or a broader botany. He did not believe in the superiority of one branch of science over the other and leveraged their inter-dependency to cover a larger area. In the course of his career and after his retirement, TCK lectured on a broad range of subjects -biogas, alternative energy sources, essential oils and much more. Infact his latest fascination was cyanocobalamine, commonly known as Vitamin B12.

  • Create Opportunities
TCK created opportunities when none existed. If there is one thing which TCK can claim credit it is  the development of biogas for domestic and small-scale use. Since plant matter was available in plenty due to a preponderance of plants and trees in both rural and especially urban India, he used leaves to develop it (unlike others which used cow dung/ gobar). Interestingly the spent leaves could serve as very good fertilizer. Recycling was not fashionable then and it took his genius and ingenuity to come out with such a solution. Apart from his biogas plant at the college laboratory, his friends and family quite literally fueled this passion. Prof Malathi's and his own home served as the other two labs for his mission. I happened to be his Man Friday when I came home on vacations. I do remember the joy and satisfaction when he could boil water and milk through biogas. For me the ultimate was when he lit a bulb using a dynamo powered by the gas. ( At that age, when I was a child, I thought he deserved the top most award!). I am told that even to this day his design is now referred to "the Indian design" and his papers are used for reference.

  • Simplicity and Simple Living
TCK was without a doubt a known figure in Trichur. But fame did not change him. His favourite mode of transport was for a long time the bicycle, which he used to go to work with, until it became difficult to navigate a 12 km stretch to college due to ever increasing and unruly traffic. He decided to switch to public transport. At times of environmental concerns, we should take a leaf from his book,  by being proponents of the use of public transport.

His simplicity carried to his clothes too. I don't remember seeing TCK in a pant or in any colorful clothes. He wore the simple cotton Malayali 'mundu' - a simple white garment worn around the waist, complemented by a white shirt. The only compromise to his otherwise fully white attire was a black umbrella which he carried the whole year around.

I am sure that if TCK was in a city, he would have received accolades befitting the genius that he was. But then he was not the kind who went looking for that. He made best use of the opportunities and resources available to him.

TCK had his faults, but then again no one is perfect. The greatest of men had their weaknesses.

Much before Steve Jobs spoke about 'Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish', TCK practiced it, he never spoke about it though. It was the greatness of TCK that he could sense opportunity before others did. In the present business dynamics we look at personnel who are well rounded and not strait jacketed in a particular niche. People like TCK become even more relevant now with the ever changing world scenario. 

As Henry Van Dyke had said "Use what talents you possess, the woods would be silent if no birds sang except those that sang best". He was a man who used his innate intelligence and curiosity to the maximum. 

I presume they only make one of his kinds. 

Adieu dear Aniyanamman! Stay Curious!

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