Recalling late Prof Yash Pal, his humour and unique skills
Professor Yash Pal will always be remembered as a ‘Turning Point’ in Indian science, science administration, education and above all in the world of science communication
Professor Yash Pal, a strong pillar of science communication, a committed votary of scientific temper, an excellent communicator, a first rate teacher, a brilliant scientist, an institution builder, an administrator of science and education passed away peacefully. His life is worth celebrating and death worth mourning. Many remember him due to Turning Point, a very high TRP programme, telecast on Doordarshan in early nineteen nineties, when he became the most known scientist-face in India. He was a communicator who could explain most simple and complex questions in a layman’s language with equal ease.
I don’t remember when I met him first but I do remember that I knew of him as a renowned scientist during my student days. Later, it was in 1983 when the idea of Bharat Jyan Vigyan Jatha (BJVJ) started germinating, I met him in a meeting.
I was a founder member of Delhi Science Forum, generally known as DSF. Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) and DSF jointly started working on a massive project of taking science to the Indian Public. A year later, Prof Yash Pal was appointed as secretary, Department of Science. We knew here is a man who could think big and understood the importance of relationship between science and the public. It took us next four years to transform the idea into a reality. However, during this period I saw and met Prof Yash Pal a number of times, but cannot claim that I was close to him.
I gradually became an admirer of his communication abilities and clarity of thought. He could, with equal lucidity, talk to an international gathering about highly technical and scientific issues, he could discuss how to take science to the people with science popularisers and activists, he could also give a lecture to school children, engage them for long and on TV, Prof Yash Pal, was always a charming communicator who spoke in an informal language.
In subsequent years I met Prof Yash Pal a number of times but remember four of these encounters very distinctly. The first was sometime in 1984-5. National Council for Science and Technology Communication (NCSTC) and Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC) held a workshop for those filmmakers who were interested in science communication. Prof Yash Pal gave the inaugural lecture.
The lecture was long and about twenty of us were spellbound for about 2 hours. He spoke on theory of big bang and formation of cosmos, starting from the beginning to the present day research. The lecture was highly scientific yet in a story telling format. Somewhere in my memory the lecture was preserved and I have tried to incorporate those elements in my efforts to communicate science. He had the ability to change lives. Most of those who had attended the workshop later became science communicators.
The second encounter, a much longer, one-to-one, with him lasted for about three hours. I was making a film on Dr Homi J Bhabha and collecting information for writing the script. Since I knew Prof. Yash Pal had worked with Bhabha and was in Delhi, I sought the time to discuss his experiences. He was very busy and could not find time to spare but I did not want to go to Bombay without talking to him and waited patiently.
Eventually, he gave me time, 30 minutes and no more, that is what he said on telephone. I reached in time and the interview started with he asking, ‘Yaar, tum kaisi film banana chahte ho? (Friend, what kind of film do you want to make?). He very frequently used the word ‘Yaar’ in his conversations, even his formal lectures delivered in English language were often punctuated by ‘Yaar’. The tone of ‘Yaar’ would always tell you what was about to come next. At the beginning of each conversation he always used it for breaking the layers of formality.
The interview continued for three hours, I was recording it and had to change audio cassettes. He told me many great stories about formative years of TIFR and how Bhabha shaped it. He also told me that when he joined TIFR, he started coming there in kurta and jeans. A very senior person, one day, told him that he should not come to the institute in an informal dress, Dr Bhabha doesn’t like it. He retorted ‘my letter of appointment does not mention any dress code’. And that was the end of the controversy. Dr Bhabha never raised any objections.
The third encounter that I remember was when I invited him to give an inaugural lecture in an international conference on scientific temper. I was busy organising the conference, Prof Yash Pal was received by my colleague Dr Surjit Singh and was taken to the room next to the stage, where he was served tea.
I was informed that he had arrived, As I entered the room he was chatting with volunteers. I briefed him about all the sessions, probably in a matter of fact manner and requested to cover some points, which will set the tone of the conference. The inaugural session went off very well. Afterwards, I accompanied him to the same room, but before I could offer him a cup of tea, he asked me ‘did I cover all the points Mr Polit Bureau Member?’ and then he laughed. I was so embarrassed.
The fourth and the last meeting was about a year back. It was the most pleasant one. I requested him to come to RSTV channel for an interview. I was the anchor of the programme called Eureka. On telephone he said ‘Yaar, tu mujh se kya kya karvataa hai’ the sentence was full of love and Punjabi affection. He came, and for me it was an honour to interview him on a TV channel. Throughout the programme, I could not get rid of the feeling that I am interviewing one of the greatest science communicator of the country, who became a household name during 80s and 90s.
He talked about partition of India, the trauma, which his family, had to go through, disruption of education, his memories of Gandhi and Nehru visiting the refugee camps and pacifying the anger. He also spoke about Indian education system at length. This was one of the finest interviews, which covered a host of issues. I was happy that due to nervousness I did not mess up.
Once I had invited him to deliver a lecture to a group of social activists and before the lecture we were talking about the 2002 carnage of Gujarat. He was listening to me and wanted to know the details of what had happened there because I had made a film on Gujarat Carnage. Suddenly he said, ‘the society always progresses and moves forward, but there is always a great danger that it can go backwards, in a regressive motion, for a short period of time.’ I was reminded of Faiz Ahmad Faiz. ‘Lambi hai gham ki sham magar sham hi to hai’.
I mourn Prof. Yash Pal’s passing away. It feels like a personal loss. I am sure he will be remembered as a ‘Turning Point’ in Indian science, science administration, education and above all in the world of science communication.
The author is former Prof AcSIR, Chief Scientist, National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources