Before He Left: Conversations with My Tatayya

I originally wrote this September 4, prior to coming to India. I should have posted this a few weeks ago on the occasion of what would have been my grandfather’s 100th birthday, September 20. I hope you enjoy this belated posting, which benefits from pictures taken during our trip, as I near the end of this visit to Hyderabad, made in part to observe the occasion.

In 2003, I visited my “Tatayya,” Dr. A.S. Rao, with his oldest son and my father, Dr. Venkatachalam Ayyagari, on what was at that time a sort of annual pilgrimage my father took to the house in Tarnaka around the occasion of Tatayya’s September 20 birthday. With acuity and wit surpassing most at any age, Tatayya would recount his memories to me as we sat in the cool, high-ceilinged den of the house, sipping tea or water (boiled for me in empty bottles of Johnnie Walker Black Label). I was visiting India for the first time since I was 10, and, truthfully, I was disappointed at that time in my life, being just out of college but lacking in direction or employment, a situation which gave me the leisure to join in my father’s trip.

What follows are unedited transcriptions of the handwritten diary entries [1] I had the bare good sense to record about those conversations, a treasure life gave me despite myself. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of Tatayya’s recollections, nor do I intend this to be a historical chronicle. I merely want to present these pieces of his life as he shared them with his grandson in those quiet evenings under a fan’s breeze. Three weeks after we returned from India, he left us, on October 31, 2003. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Tatayya’s birth, I am glad to be able to share them with everyone.

The chair, his chair, he sat in while talking to me.
The chair, his chair, he sat in while talking to me.

Friday, September 12, 2003

Some things Tatayya reminisced about today:

Benares in the 40s

He was excited by the swelling of the Ganga and took a swim. Fifty or so yards out in the river, he realized he needed to swim back as well, he recalled with a chuckle. Too tired to swim back, he floated downstream until he was able to reach steps in the river and walk ashore. Unfortunately he had to walk the few miles back to his clothes in underwear alone, an embarrassing situation.

Dr. A.S. Rao’s degree from Benares Hindu University, next to a later picture of him and my grandmother with my father, aunts, and uncles.

On getting to Stanford in the late 40s

After getting his MSc in 1939, he lectured at Benares Hindu University. He wanted to go to Stanford, but in 1946 at age 32, with 2 children, he was considered too old and too burdened with responsibility to receive the Tata scholarship. He wrote a letter to Dr. Terman [2] at Stanford, and the letter was forwarded to Terman at MIT. Terman responded, and for that Tatayya seemed grateful because it was rare for an Indian to get a reply from an American University. Terman forwarded Tatayya’s letter to Dr. Skilling [3] at Stanford, who wrote to Tatayya that the University could offer him a spot with half his expenses paid.

Armed with Dr. Skilling’s letter and a testimonial from S. Radhakrishnan (later President of India), he approached the Tata committee and received the scholarship, Rs. 12,000.

However, he was unable to secure passage until February of the next year, a year or so after receiving the scholarship. By the time he reached Stanford for the Spring term, Dr. Skilling informed him that all available scholarship money had gone to returning American GIs and he could not help him. Tatayya secured a job cleaning glassware in the lab for $20 a month, and did a good enough job that his pay was doubled to $40 per month. He also worked in the canteen for $0.90 an hour, later $1.25/hour.

Within 2 years he earned the distinction of Engineer and decided to return to India.

Tatayya’s Engineering degree from Stanford.

On staying with Atomic Energy

He recalled that when he was first working, he was traveling 2-3 months per year taking cosmic ray measurements around India, sending hydrogen balloons with Geiger-Muller counters 70,000 to 80,000 feet into the atmosphere to measure cosmic radiation and send back the result by radio.

The travel became too much with a young family, and he informed his boss Dr. Homi J. Bhabha to provide him with a recommendation so he could go teach somewhere. Bhabha told him he would provide him with a non-traveling post in Bombay—but he had to go to Paris for 2 months first. And as it turned out, he ended up in Moscow, London, and New York quite often.

On ECIL and Shiv Sena

In the 1960s, Hyderabad was not really on the national map. Tatayya noted that what companies were there were hiring outsiders, not locals. It was decided to move the Electronics Production unit to Hyderabad to provide jobs to locals.

The organization Shiv Sena got wind of the move and protested 5000-strong outside Tatayya’s office. Bal Thakhare [sic] marched into his office and handed him a letter protesting the huge economic and job loss from Bombay and Maharashtra, with a warning to watch for his safety.

In a letter to the Chief Minister of Maharashtra dated March 16, 1967, PM Indira Gandhi assured that there would be no job loss during the move and newer development sectors were to be located in Bombay. Tatayya recalls having to meet with her several times to discuss the matter.

Tatayya noted ECIL provided jobs to many in the Hyderabad area, many with high school or less education, who would have never found a decent job in the area and would have never left the area. He remembered getting the road near his house built.

Not just 11 years after his death, but 36 years after he left the company, throngs of ECIL employees express their gratitude for his stand at his grand birth centenary celebration, September 20.

On family

Tatayya noted that by the late 1960s, when Dad [my father] left for the U.S., there were 22 people living in his 3000 sq. ft. flat in Bombay. He noted that Dad helped take care of all of them and somehow managed to do well in his studies too. He said he [Tatayya] tried to get jobs for relatives who asked, and said even if they did get jobs, they still didn’t move out! He said he couldn’t say no to anyone.

On postwar Japan

Tatayya remembered the abject poverty he saw when he had to dock at Yokohama on the way back to India in 1948. He remembered some would paddle out to the ship and look for discarded food in the water to eat. When he had a chance to disembark there in 1954, he remembered seeing only bricks and rubble. When he returned in the 60s, however, he noted a remarkable change, with buildings and infrastructure where rubble and poverty had been. He attributed that change to hard work from top to bottom. He always says you can do anything you want if you work hard. He laments Indians’ tendency to need outside affirmation (Clinton, Gates, etc.) to have confidence in themselves. He says India is failing to capitalize on its biggest riches, natural brain power.

All this sparked from his admiration for his Japanese-made watch which uses light energy to run. He notes with Admiration the Japanese tendency to not only reverse engineer others’ technology but to improve upon it greatly. He wishes that India could develop that spirit of self-reliance itself.

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Some stories I got out of Tatayya this evening.

On postwar Russia

Went to Russia in 1955. He did not like traveling by plane at all. Once in Russia, he told Bhabha he would take the train wherever he need to go & needed only to know the time he needed to be there. Bhabha apparently used to tell him, “Rao, I’ll hold your hand, come on the plane.” [4] In Russia he saw that in forced isolation they were doing incredible science & technology for defense etc. But at the same time he noted the people were poor and didn’t even have decent plumbing.

On profit and purpose at ECIL

Tatayya noted later in the evening that if you wanted to make money, run a potato chip factory or something, not an electronics company. The point of ECIL, he says again, was to employ people of high school or less education. It was a lament grown out of his observation of massive employment cuts.

On Andhra manners

He was at a UN conference and thought he was late for a meeting. He happened to be walking behind Krishna Menon & S. Radhakrishnan. As he hurried by them he turned around to say Namaste to them. Radhakrishnan turned to Menon and said, “Now that’s an Andhra man.”

A statue of my grandfather in Mogallu village, where he was born.
[1] Where possible, footnotes will indicate verification of information that appears in these transcribed notes. Minor explanatory notes will be in brackets.
[2] Dr. Frederick Terman, now credited as one of the fathers of Silicon Valley. Accessed September 4, 2014
[3] Dr. Hugh Hildreth Skilling, associated with Stanford in some capacity for 68 years, Executive Head of Stanford’s Department of Electrical Engineering from 1944 to 1967, and namesake of multiple buildings on the Stanford campus. Accessed September 4, 2014.
[4] This amusing story of course carries a heavy weight, as Dr. Bhabha died in a plane crash in January 1966, a flight Tatayya would have been on were it not for Dr. Bhabha telling him to come the next day instead with an important file.

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