A Life Too Short: A Tribute to Dr. Vikram Sarabhai

Today all of us as Indians, and the whole world in fact, see India as a technological power, a force to reckon with. It is easy for us to be confident of ourselves, our technical prowess, and our growing economic power. But in the ‘40s and ‘50s? We were a fledgling nation, and even food security was an issue. Many around the world wondered whether we would survive as a country, as a democracy. And at such a time, there were some people who had the daring, the vision and the confidence, to dream of being a country that would make a difference. One of them was Vikram Sarabhai.

‘Vikram Sarabhai—A Life’ by Amrita Shah tells this story well. It is a book which made me feel proud as an Indian; which said individuals can make a huge difference; which revealed glimpses of what it takes to build institutions of excellence; and which, most importantly said that it is possible to be a wonderful, warm, caring and very human person, and a high-achiever at the same time.

We look around us today—India is launching rockets for developed countries, it is accepted as a nuclear power, it is on the forefront of the IT revolution. But how did we get here? This book gives us some insights. I think this is an important role that a biography plays—being able to connect the present with the historical context, through the achievements and the legacy of one person.

And the book gives us glimpses of other very extraordinary individuals who played a part in Vikram’s life. The book helps one understand the impact that Ambalal Sarabhai or Kasturbhai Lalbhai or Bhabha had on Sarabhai’s work. But though we catch glimpses of the next generation–Dr Kalam, Mr Seshan, Kiran Karnik or Madhavan Nair—we don’t get an insight into how they, as people and professionals, were impacted by Sarabhai. But that’s probably another book!

The book chronicles well the span and breadth of Sarabhai’s achievements—from pure research to scientific administration; from running a pharmaceutical concern to laying the foundation for management education as we know it today; from market research to bringing in scientific approaches to looking at industrial operations; from space to atomic energy.  But what it does even better is to reveal that he set out on each of these diversified ventures with a clarity of purpose and a remarkably unified approach to seemingly very different issues. Sarabhai knew what he was doing. He was not a vain man, but definitely he had no doubts about his ability to take on the most impossible-seeming jobs—even when older and wiser heads thought otherwise. His charm and charisma, which probably helped him overcome many an obstacle, come through. But what also comes through is that his relationship with people was based on a real sense of caring. He did not set out to charm people for what he could get out of them, but probably ended up charming because he was a warm, caring and joyous person who believed in people and respected them.

Vikram the father, Vikram the husband, Vikram the boss, Vikram the son, Vikram the scientist, Vikram the manager—they are all there. Maybe not in depth but definitely outlined evocatively enough to give one a flavour of the person in his multiple roles.

The book is remarkably non-judgmental and matter-of-fact. Though Ms. Shah says that Vikram Sarabhai was a childhood hero and that is why she set about writing his biography, she seems to have been able to resist the temptation to fuzz not-so-pleasant realities. Whether it is his marriage, or his inability to really assert himself and take a firm stand vis a vis individuals in the Department of Atomic Energy, it is told like it was.

I would like to thank Amrita Shah for this biography. We cannot afford to forget our heroes—and Vikram Sarabhai was certainly one of them.

–Meena

Vikram Sarabhai, A Life by Amrita Shah was published in 2007. It is reviewed today to commemorate Dr. Sarabhai’s birthday which falls on 12 August.

The Millennial Matriarchs both count Ahmedabad as home and have worked in institutions which were part of Vikrambhai’s dream. I had the additional good fortune of living on the campus of IIM Ahmedabad as a faculty-spouse. In a large part, we owe what we are to him, albeit indirectly.

6 thoughts on “A Life Too Short: A Tribute to Dr. Vikram Sarabhai

  1. How many of us even know what all Dr Sarabhai did, leave apart appreciate its importance in what India is today. Would get this biography to read after going through this inspiring review.
    Having read a couple of biographies in past six months, I also feel that schools should have two biographies a year prescribed for children. With hardly any role models in this age and time, reading such biographies may inspire them for something great.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A True Incident

    One day, many years ago, near the Trivandrum sea shore, an elderly gentleman was reading the Bhagavad Gita. That time, a young talented atheist guy came and took his seat by the side of that gentleman. The young guy taunted the gentleman by saying that in the age of science, only foolish people prefer to read old fashioned books like the Gita.

    He further said that, had the gentleman devoted the same time to science, then by now the country would have scaled great heights.

    The gentleman did say nothing but asked the young man for his introduction to which the youth replied that he was a science graduate from Kolkata who had come to make his career in Bhabha Atomic Research Center.

    The youth further told the gentleman to devote his attention to scientific research as by reading the Bhagavad Gita, he wouldn’t be able to achieve anything.
    The gentleman simply smiled and rose up to leave. As soon as he got up, four security guards surrounded him and his driver brought his red beacon fitted official car. Seeing all these the youth panicked and asked the gentleman, ‘Who are you?’
    The gentleman now replied with a smile and said that his name is Vikram Sarabhai, the Chairman of the same organization, where the youth had come to make his career.
    At that point of time, there were 13 research organizations in the name of Vikram Sarabhai, along with which he was also the Chairman of Commitee for Atomic Planning, having being appointed to the same by the PM Indira Gandhi.
    Now, it was the turn of the youth to be ashamed and he fell down on Sarabhai’s feet, crying profusely. It was then that Sarabhai said a very wonderful thing.

    He said, “Behind every creation, there’s always the Creator. So, it doesn’t matter, whether it is the time of the Mahabharata or today’s India. Never Forget God !!!
    Today’s atheist people, by invoking the name of science, may dance as much as they want but history is witness that science has been created by the God- believer theists only.
    *God is Eternal Truth. God’s speech (Bhagavad Gita) is true; it cannot be falsified at all. Just by worshipping it, troubles will surely get resolved.*

    Tribute to Vikram Sarabhai on his 99th Birth Anniversary!!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, I was hoping you would find out the correct year and post it. You do have the email address of the poster so please could you enquire and put the date right?

        Not having a date there will put a lingering suspicion about the incident.

        Like

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