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It has been a long journey from the government school in Vayalur, near Kalpakkam, to the Okinawa institute of Science and Technology in Japan for R. Govindarajan. Helping the determined and hard-working young boy, whose parents were daily wage labourers, dream and span the unthinkable distance were scientists Sridhar and Kalavathi from the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR) at Kalpakkam. A post-doctoral scholar now, after a PhD in Chemistry, Govindarajan is one of three boys from deprived circumstances that the scientist couple took into their home several years ago, treating them as their own children, paying for their education and guiding them to higher education after they completed school. Sridhar passed away last year.
Recalling his transformation, Govindarajan said, “I am from Vayalur village next to Kalpakkam and grew up in a thatched hut. My father Ramadas was a daily wage labourer, working to load and unload goods from trucks; at other times he worked as a watchman. My mother Jaya worked on construction sites. Yet with their meagre income they tried to educate my brother Murali and me.”
The scientist couple offered free tuition for the students of the Tamil medium Vayalur government school after school hours. But when Govindarajan, then in Class 4 wanted to join, Sridhar sent him away, telling him to wait till he was in Class 6.
“From Class 6 to 8, I studied in his tuition classes at school,” said Govindarajan. “From Class 9 to 12, I stayed with Sridhar Sir and Kalavati Teacher in their house and studied. The treated us as members of their family, lovingly. Sridhar Sir would teach us Math while Kalavathi Ma’m would teach us other subjects.”
Language was a major barrier for Govindarajan. “I was studying in the government high school of Chaturangapattinam. In the midterms I cleared all subjects but I was able to get only 33 marks in English. But step by step I studied well and was able to pass and improve all subjects. In the 2003 public exams I was able to score 434 out of 500 and get the second rank in the school. Sridhar Sir sent me to his close friend’s house with some chocolates. Those friends gave us gifts in appreciation and we were elated!” he recalled.
The scientist couple offered free tuition for the students of the Tamil medium Vayalur government school after school hours. But when Govindarajan, then in Class 4 wanted to join, Sridhar sent him away, telling him to wait till he was in 6th grade
He chose to study the tough combination of maths, physics, chemistry, and computer science in high school in Tamil medium.
“In Class 12, I got 949 out of 1200. Even then I was in the second place in my school. While staying at his house Sridhar Sir was a tough taskmaster which helped me score well in the Class 10 exams. But when I moved into high school, he said ‘We are like friends from now on, I will treat you as an adult and will not be strict with you anymore’. As a result my marks fell in Class 12. ‘If you had continued to treat us strictly, I would have gotten more marks,’ I told him but he just laughed,” Mr Govindarajan recalled.
While a love for chemistry was sparked by his teacher, Arasi, Govindarajan did not have the means to pursue his dream of a degree in chemical engineering. He joined Loyola College for an undergraduate degree in Chemistry with Sridhar funding his studies for the first year.
“For the next two years, I was able to get a scholarship from the Asha Foundation. The college would pay Rs. 40 per hour for volunteers who cleaned the classrooms ahead of classes. A cup of tea came with the job. A month’s work earned us Rs.400. This money was useful for us for our other expenses,” he said.
Govindarajan found innovative ways to overcome the language barrier as the classes were in English.
“While taking notes I used to write down the English words I did not understand in Tamil and ask my fellow students to help me with translations after class. I cannot forget the encouragement given to me by college professors Judith Vijaya and John Maria Xavier. Sridhar Sir told me to read stories to learn English. But I used to read only chemistry textbooks! I read books by different authors for the same lessons. That is how I improved my English knowledge. Professors at Loyola College were also very dedicated and made sure we understood the lessons,” he said.
Govindarajan went to earn a PhD in 2017 from Puducherry Central University in Organometallics and Supramolecular Chemistry under Prof. Bala Manimaran. Even as he was pursuing his doctoral studies, he was selected as national post-doctoral fellow at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) in Kolkata. On completion of his PhD, he worked under Prof. Swadhin K Mandal at IISER for the next two years. In March 2019 he got an offer to work in the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University as a postdoctoral scholar under Prof. Julia R. Khusnutdinova.
Looking back at his remarkable journey, Mr Govindarajan recalls the immense contribution of Dr Sridhar and Dr Kalavathi. “We could take any small issue to Sridhar Sir and he would listen. He never gave us solutions but made us think about how we could solve it on our own. At the same time, he would be more overjoyed than even my parents at any small achievement!”
“The love, affection and care that Sridhar Sir and Kalavathi Teacher lavished on me is beyond words. Had they not taken me into their home and nurtured me like their own son, I would never have scaled the heights I have now,” signs off an emotional Mr Govindarajan.
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