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  Remembering Dr H Narasimhaiah

Last week, a veritable institution of Bangalore—as much a part of public and individual memory as the MTR restaurant, Lalbagh and Basavanagudi’s famed green cricket parks— Dr H Narasimhaiah, scientist and educationist extraordinaire, passed away at 84.

Known to the hundreds of former and current students of National High School and the National College, fondly as HN, Dr H Narasimhaiah, was a lifelong Gandhian - a man of strict, disciplined habits, reinforced by living singly and very frugally. HN lived in the same bare hostel room of the College for over 50 years, first as a student, then as its lecturer and Principal and finally retiring as the head of the ‘National Education Society’ that runs the institutions. His lean, tall figure, always clad in a white Khadi dhoti-Jubba and Gandhi topi, could be seen walking about the campus; in later days, leaning on a stick.

Fiercely critical of the superstitious ways of the families of most of his students, HN sought to instil a strong scientific temper among his students and the public; towards which, he set up the ‘Bangalore Science Forum’ in the 60’s � arguably his greatest contribution to Bangalore’s intellectual space. The Forum has consistently organised public lectures by eminent scientists and thinkers, film shows, debates and events; hosting annually the ‘Science Festival’. It won, under HN, the 2003 National award by Govt. of India for popularising Science.

During his distinctive stint as the Vice Chancellor of the Bangalore University from 1971-77, he is credited with introducing psychology, social work, drama, music and dance as subjects. He went on to head and retire from the National Education Society; serve the State Legislative Assembly; and in 1984, received the Padma Bhushan from the Indian Government.

Ever the rationalist, HN scoffed at the common people’s obsession with astrology, miracles and practises unscientific. While serving as President of the Indian Rationalist Association,
he set up an inquiry committee to investigate the ‘miracles’ of Godmen, audaciously challenging Sai Baba; headed a committee with NIMHANS to investigate into the practise of witchcraft or ‘banamathi’ in Karnataka— among other activities— to discourage crude rituals and blind beliefs.

The only Indian member of the ‘Scientific Investigation Of Claims Of Paranormal’, HN’s constant endeavour was to promote a healthy spirit to ‘inquire and investigate before believing’. HN was not one to lie low when his intellect was offended, as when Bangalore University attempted to introduce astrology as a subject last year; he bristled and made his displeasure known.

HN’s family background was anything but lofty or given traditionally to achievements in education or the higher arts. Born to a poor teacher in Karnataka’s Hosur village, Narasimhaiah would’ve dropped out of school but for the vision of his kind headmaster M S Narayan Rai, who spotted keen intelligence in the boy. Upon his own transfer to Bangalore’s ‘National School’, he urged Narasimhaiah to come and study there. Having no money for the bus fare, HN, famously covered the 85 kms to Bangalore on foot; arriving at the National College and staying there for the rest of his life.

Deeply influenced by Gandhi, Narasimhaiah took to wearing Khadi when very young, sticking to it all his life, among other Gandhian beliefs. The highpoint of his life was meeting Gandhiji as a boy of 14,in 1936 at his School in Bangalore. Narasimhaiah translated Gandhiji’s speech to Kannada- a feat he never ceased to be amazed with himself! It was a story he was to tell all his life to his students, they in turn basking in reflected glory.

After his Masters in Physics, Narasimhaiah went on to do his PhD in Nuclear Physics from the Ohio State University in ‘46. His tale of how he survived on Ragi for two years went on to become part of HN lore.

Hardly the serious, stuffy Professor, HN was famous for his sense of humour, often at his own expense. Students chuckle remembering how he’d bribe them with ‘Kadlekai’ (groundnuts) to stay on in physics class on sleepy Saturday afternoons; or how responding to a reporter’s query of his experiences in Jail (to which he went thrice in different parts of the country during the Freedom Struggle) he said he found the ‘Central Jail’, where he was housed, no different than the ‘Central College hostel’ - across the road- because in both places, he was given free food! He took life lightly, and would say, “I want to live to work; will work till I die”. (Read a profile of him in Kannada)

Most of his ex-students went on to hold prestigious scientific chairs in Universities and high profile research institutions, becoming Emeritus Professors or successful journalists or entrepreneurs. HN however stuck to dedicating his life (and his remarkable mind) to serve education, accepting no other vocation but that, in his long life.

Science and its promotion were a constant passion � this writer remembers being introduced to him several years ago and HN only saying ‘Yaake, pure science ododikke ishta illava?’- ‘Don’t you want to study ‘Pure Science’?’ The Deccan Herald, in its tribute to the man, recollected the day he was conferred with the Padma Bhushan, when HN called up the newspaper to only inquire whether the press release of the latest Science Forum event he’d sent had reached them or not!

True to form, HN had expressly stated in his will that there be no holiday declared in the School and College at his death. He had to be denied that wish: the grieving numbers of his students and the press of visitors, come to see him one last time, forced the authorities to declare the day off.

The grief at HN’s death was genuine � perhaps because he was such a permanent presence you thought he’d always be around, surviving even the trees in National College Circle.

-Shruti Parthasarathy


Further Reading

An article on HN

‘Horaata haadi’ or ‘Struggle All The Way’- An Autobiography- Dr.H Narasimhaiah - National Education Society Press,1995,reprint 1998

-Recollections and research