Discovering Vikram Sarabhai

I just read through a collection of Vikram Sarabhai’s important speeches and papers compiled by members of the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad, to pick a suitable portion to excerpt on the occasion of Sarabhai’s birth centenary tomorrow. There was one portion I would have loved to publish but it belonged to a larger text that had originally been printed by an American NGO, and another the rights for which now belonged – of all companies – Elsevier. So I went with an eminently safe option: an enlightening convocation address Sarabhai delivered on August 1, 1965, at IIT Madras.

The purpose of this excerpt is twofold: to recall Sarabhai’s sharp mind and to remind India of Sarabhai’s views on certain matters the country is presently occupied with. The collection didn’t have only three instances of both these conditions being met; that was just the shortlist. The longlist contained multiple choices that intrigued me. In fact, taken all together, the collection painted an image of Sarabhai somewhat different from the one I had constructed based on what I had read in the news. For example, no doubt Sarabhai was smart but that smartness was devoted almost exclusively to industrial development. Most of his speeches, even including one on “the role science is currently playing in promoting national goals”, involve attempts to characterise a problem or ambition at hand in terms of utilitarian concepts and definitions, following which he analyses their pros and cons, or performs a comparative analysis, and sifts out a proper course of action.

It could certainly be, among other possibilities, that the PRL collected only those papers and speeches discussing quantitative measures in its collection, but it is still remarkable that in these presentations from 1959 to 1971, Sarabhai was seldom a story-teller and almost always a problem-solver guided by (what he recognised to be) the needs of the country. Without saying anything about whether this may have been a virtue in the India of 1960s, there is little to no evidence (within the collection) that Sarabhai was motivated to pursue any of his grand ambitions – whether spaceflight or nuclear power generation – for anything other than to transform India from being ‘underdeveloped’ to ‘developed’, together with Homi J. Bhabha and Jawaharlal Nehru.

In fact, the sole exception to Sarabhai’s tendency to appear to be in control in the collection is the IIT Madras convocation address, riddled with rhetorical questions and groping for answers for sociopolitical problems within the principles of nuclear physics. This I hope you will enjoy reading tomorrow.