December 4, 2006

A Mysorean who didn't know his worth

T S Elliot said of Dr V Ramakrishna that he didn't know his own worth, like a flower that is not aware of its own fragrance. Dr S Radhakrishnan was full of admiration and very impressed by his profound modesty, and depth of his learning. Somerset Maugham, who wanted to shape a character in his book after him, couldn't get Dr Ramakrishna to talk about himself - 'in spite of my repeated requests for details about him he has been evading me very cleverly'. As Maugham put it, " it is strange that a person of this type is found these days when everyone clamours for undeserved recognition".

A Mysorean who now leads a retired life with his daughter in the US, Dr Ramakrishna, 82, in the words of his Nobel Laureate friend T S Elliot, ' shirks publicity of any sort and does not talk about himself'. I heard about him from his younger brother, Dr Ramaprasad of Chamarajapuram, a retired BHEL dentist now settled in Trichy. "His work is not recognised in India," Dr Ramaprasad said of his elder brother, "I'm sure very few here know of him".

Dr Ramakrishna, a Mysore University agri. science graduate, pursued higher studies in Paris, London and Edinburgh, and received an honorary LL.D from Berne University. Besides being an agro-scientist who has served the World Bank and the Universities of Bangalore and Jabalpur, Dr Ramakrishna retained an enduring interest in child development issues. A Ph.D in child psychology from Sorbonne, Paris, Dr Ramakrishna's UNESCO prize-winning book of 1952 - 'Freedom from Want in Early Life' - Has been published in 14 languages.

He donated the prize money and also the cash component of many of his 13 international awards to UNICEF. The National Defence Fund (set up in the wake of 1962 Chinese aggression) and the Hiroshima Fund were among the notable charities to which he donated his prize money. Apart from literary awards Dr Ramakrishna is a recipient of the Magsaysay (1984) and the King George V Gold Medal awarded by the Royal Psychological Society.

T S Elliot, in his convocation speech at Sorbonne, spoke of his association with Dr Ramakrishna and recalled their first meeting at Delhi airport in December 1951. the Nobel Laureate got held up in transit for four hours. Dr Ramakrishna accompanied Sir John and Lady Crombie, then on a visit to India, to the airport to spend time with a stranded Elliot. While the other three were busy talking 'shop' the young agricultural graduate just listened for about 25 minutes without uttering a word, "but smiling at some of our silly jokes".

So silent was he that the other three made fun of him in a bid to provoke Ramakrishna. A reluctant talker and a slow starter, but once he got going, Ramakrishna could talk "with ease and clarity" on a variety of subjects - literature, science, religion, philosophy, psychology, music dancing and arts. Entomology was his favourite, observed Elliot. The Crombies told Elliot about Ramakrishna's art criticism published in the 'Illustrated London News'. He was a good sportsman and represented his university in football and athletics and was champion in walking and middle distance running.

The man has a dual personality. As Elliot said, what was visible outside is 'all humble, quiet, unassuming and modest; and what isn't visible is the remarkable versatility, wide knowledge, generous heart and a remarkable strength of will". Elliot concluded his convocation speech with a few lines from Grey's Elegy, which, he said, applied to Dr Ramakrishna down to the last word:

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear,
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
Losing its fragrance in the desert air.


ER Ramachandran said...

You have unearthed and brought a rare gem, GVK. Thank you very much!


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