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P R Pisharoty

Reminiscences About Professor P. R. Pisharoty

After getting my M. Sc. degree in Physics from the University of Pune (then Poona) in 1964, I had been working as a Demonstrator in the Physics Department. On my way to the university, I would pass by the newly-established Institute of Tropical Meteorology and wonder what might be going on within it. I was soon to find it out for myself, after I joined ITM as a Senior Scientific Assistant on 6 September 1965.

My first couple of days at ITM were spent in completing the administrative formalities and visiting the library. Dr P. R. Pisharoty was the Director of ITM and he called me to his office. After knowing that I was fresh from the university, he said to me, “As a student, you were taught to believe all that was written in a text-book. Now that you have joined a research institute, you should learn to question everything that you read.” That was the first of the many lessons in life that I would be learning from Dr Pisharoty during the course of my career.

He then accompanied me to the library and asked me what I had been reading. I told him that I was browsing through a small book which was a brief introduction to meteorology. He picked up a bulky book from the shelves. I still remember that it was Reiter’s Jet Stream Meteorology. He handed it over to me and said, “Do some serious reading.” Soon afterwards, he assigned me to work with Mr Ramesh Godbole in the Division of Physical Meteorology and Aerology, which was in the process of being set up and did not yet have a Head. Dr Pisharoty used to have a round of the place twice a day and inquire about little things. Once he asked me where I signed an attendance and I told him that I had to go another section to do that. The next time he came on his rounds, he brought a new attendance register with him for me, so that I did not waste time going to another place.

Although it was then a part of the India Meteorological Department, the atmosphere in ITM was very different from that of a typical government office, even from the next-door IMD establishment which I had to frequently visit for obtaining books, data or information. The scientists in ITM were eminent personalities but they did not throw around an air of seniority. They were friendly, approachable people. This atmosphere was Dr Pisharoty’s creation. There used to be no seminar hall then, but curtains would be drawn across the long verandah in front of the Director’s Office and folding steel chairs laid out. The speakers had only blackboard and chalk as aids. But we used to hear stalwarts like Smagorinsky, Manabe and William Gray, visiting ITM at the invitation of Dr Pisharoty. Takio Murakami stayed on at ITM for over a year and I had the good fortune of being associated with him.

It was due to Dr Pisharoty’s initiative that out of the first six IBM-1620 electronic computers that India got, one was installed at ITM. It had a 32k memory that was of the size of a steel cupboard, had lots of flashing lights, and consumed basketfuls of punched cards. In an era in which the word software had just been coined and numerical weather prediction was looked upon with skepticism, Dr Pisharoty nudged us to construct what was, in a sense, one of the earliest numerical models of the Indian monsoon. In those days, a model was not something that you downloaded through the internet from somewhere, but it involved understanding the physics, writing thousands of lines of code yourself, punching them on cards, and then running it on a computer stretching the capacity of the machine to its limits. I was in my early twenties and I enjoyed my state-of-art work. It was challenging and rewarding. And it was fun to work with Murakami and Godbole, cutting the lofty Himalayas to size or warming up the Indian Ocean, to see what would happen to the monsoon!

In 1971, ITM became IITM, the word Indian having been prefixed to its name to go with its new autonomous status. Dr Pisharoty had moved to the Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad. I had happily joined the IMD mainstream with a promotion to the post of Assistant Meteorologist. But my six years of upbringing at ITM with Dr Pisharoty as its Director, had moulded my personality for ever. It had trained me to see things in a different light, had given me the courage to question established practices and equipped me to act with conviction when required.

It was several years later that I had occasion to meet Professor Pisharoty again in Pune when he gave a talk on the subject of remote sensing. For most of us in the audience, this was an entirely new field, and Pisharoty kept us spellbound. He showed us remotely sensed pseudo-colour images of coconut trees and explained how the wilted coconuts could be distinguished from the healthy ones by observing them in infrared and other wavelengths.

Years later again, he was talking at another seminar about INSAT imagery. There were many conventional meteorologists in the audience who still loved their synoptic charts and were not particularly impressed by satellite images. To them he said, “Each satellite image contains millions of bits of information. These images contain solutions. You have to find out the problems!” 

The National Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting was established in 1989 and Professor Pisharoty had played a crucial role in the process. I was in the Satellite Meteorology Division of IMD at New Delhi at that time and I had been watching the Cray supercomputer being set up on the first floor of the building where I worked. It had a glamour and attraction of its own, and one fine morning, I found myself facing Professor Pisharoty in the panel that was interviewing me as a candidate for a post in the NCMRWF. In the middle of my interview, Pisharoty suddenly asked me, “What is your ambition?”, a question that caught me on the wrong foot and made me uncomfortable for the rest of the interview. Obviously, the NCMRWF post was not offered to me, but I was never sorry for it. In hindsight, I think that it was Professor Pisharoty’s subtle way of telling me that my future lay with IMD and not outside it. 

I had another chance of coming closer to Professor Pisharoty, when he was the President of the Indian Meteorological Society for the 1991-93 term, and I was its Secretary. He was living in Pune and I was in Delhi, and he used to write me long letters in his characteristic beautiful handwriting. He used to say, “the more you write, the better will be your handwriting and the more you think, the sharper will be your intellect!” We were organizing the TROPMET-93 conference in Delhi, the second one in the series after its very successful start in the previous year at Ahmedabad, and we were worried about finances. However, just a letter or phone call from Professor Pisharoty would be sufficient to get a grant, and in the end the event was a real success. Once we were discussing the future of the Indian Meteorological Society and how to increase the membership figure. I still remember Pisharoty’s remark, “Every Indian breathes air and so is qualified to be a member of the IMS! We should work towards enrolling millions of members!”

The last interaction that I had with him was in 1998 in the chamber of Professor A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, then Scientific Adviser to Raksha Mantri, along with Professor G. C. Asnani, in a meeting called by Professor Kalam to discuss the Mountain Meteorology Project. The need to build observational systems in the mountain areas and issue specialised forecasts had been felt since long. But there were many difficulties: civilian meteorologists could not be posted in the forward areas, the army had limited expertise in the field, instruments could not be maintained in the hostile environment, communications and infrastructure were required, and there were no funds allocated. The meeting lasted just for an hour but the result was clear soon after Pisharoty had said, “For briefing airline pilots before take-off, you have established meteorological offices at airports. If you have to warn against snowfall or avalanches in the mountain areas, you must set up a meteorological centre in the mountains.” This was accepted as the direction in which to move and a team was formed for writing a project report. Solutions were found for all the problems. The project was implemented jointly by several agencies, resulting in the creation of a state-of-art infra-structure for mountain meteorology in India. 

I remember the advice given by Pisharoty in one of the many speeches that I had the privilege to hear. To everybody’s amazement he had said, “It is a good idea to draft one’s own obituary while one is alive, and try to live up to it. Then, when the time comes, some one else will actually write it and it would ring true!”

We all have our own ideals and we strive to gain wisdom. But what distinguished Professor Pisharoty from the rest of us was that he lived up to his very high ideals in his own life, and that his profound words of wisdom flowed from what he actually practised. His greatness was characterised by simplicity, dignity and integrity, qualities that are becoming increasingly harder to find in today’s world.   – R. R. Kelkar, February 2006 

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. V.M.Sivadas
    Dec 24, 2007 @ 14:16:03

    Dear Sir,
    Verey Intersting article butone imprtant point is ommittes remarks br Dr. C. V. Raman about Dr Pisharoty ” A Million Dollar Barin ” to a forieighner

    Reply

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