Friday, February 09, 2007

Do You Know a Nobel Laureate?

Well, neither do I. But there is this guy I know.

He never came first in school. Actually, he spent a whole lot of time standing outside the class (or being suspended).
Then, he took the IIT-JEE with the rest of the world. His rank was a modest 179 (or thereabouts). He enrolled for the M.Sc course in Chemistry at Kanpur. Just when his closest friends were mourning the departure of a real fun guy, he came back. He wanted to study pure Chemistry, which was not happening in the best technological institute of the country.
He started doing his B.Sc in Jadavpur University of Calcutta, where he stood second.
He went back to IIT Kanpur for his Masters – and this time, he stayed on. He stood first.
He went to do his Ph.D in Harvard. There is no ranking of doctorates. However, he has been awarded a prize called the Nobel Laureate Signature Award, which consists of a plaque signed by all the US Nobel Laureates in Chemistry. It is given to the doctoral student whose work has had the maximum impact in the field.
This time, his doctorate guide stated that about half of the current work in his lab relies on the work this fellow had done. Think about it. 50% of the work in a Harvard lab relies on one PhD thesis. One.

But why I am going on and on about all this?
Because for the last 26 years, I have had the privilege of knowing Anirban Banerjee – who started his formal education at the same school on the same January morning in 1981 as I did.
And in these three decades, I have been punished because of him. He has been punished because of me.
I made him read Golden Gate. He made me read Afternoon Raag. (Or, was it the other way round?)
We pooled in money to buy our first bottle of Old Monk. But he never paid me for the taxi fare back home. (He pretended to be more sloshed than I was!)
He watched Citizen Kane at my place. He also watched Basic Instinct at my place!
When he came back from IIT, his father interrogated me for possible narcotic connections. When I was late in returning home once, he was interrogated by mine. And in a classic response to my dad’s “Have you guys been drinking?”, he had said “Kaku, not a drop today!”
And there have been countless movies, binges, books, tutorials and tapes – all of which qualify me for being his biographer as and when it happens!

And I remember a time after our Class XII, when somebody had asked him – why Chemistry and not Engineering? He had said, “There is a Nobel Prize in Chemistry.” I had laughed uproariously at this quip.
That was probably the only immodest thing he had ever said in his life, as we never got to know any of his achievements from him. His pathological fear of praise probably needs medical attention – as he becomes incommunicado every time any thing of consequence happens in his life.

All his friends always made references about him winning the Nobel Prize - not for the fact that he was simply the most intelligent person we had known, but for the fact we did not know of any other big prize in Chemistry! Now, I realise that we never really understood his capabilities and our good wishes ended up sounding like jokes.
For he started to go beyond meeting our expectations. He has started to meet his own.

He has now come up on the same plaque as a whole lot of Nobel Laureates. Maybe, he will come up on the same podium some day.
I am waiting to say yes to the question in the title.
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