The year, 1956.
The place, UNESCO Water Insitute in Delft, Netherlands.
The time, early morning.
The occasion, the annual examination for those graduating from this prestigious university, after a harrowing and demanding one year course on Hydraulics, a tough and highly specialised branch of engineering.
The batch of students waiting to take the oral exam were nervous. Naturally. They would enter by one door, face a panel of 6 examiners, all with razor sharp brains and tremendous analytical and scientific skills, and leave by another. A student would never know what his predecessor had been asked. Questions were known to be frightening; more than one student in the past had succumbed to a nervous breakdown.
The young man waited patiently for his turn. He was very thin, his sinewy forearms and wiry frame a testimony to years of Spartan living. It was bitterly cold and he shivered. He came from warmer climates, and here in Netherlands the chilly winds brought a fever in his bones. Vegetarian food was scarce, but he never had to go hungry. There was plenty of milk to be had, and he loved the thick creamy milk, so easily available and plentiful, so things were not too bad. No doubt he missed the daal-roti of his homeland, but it didn’t matter. He had been more than willing to sacrifice his creature comforts in the pursuit of knowledge.
Finally his turn came. The young man was called inside and asked to sit down. In front of him was the panel of examiners. The questioning started. The questions were easy, and the examination was going very well.
But after a while, the young man began to feel uneasy. The questions were too simple. They were far too simple. Was he going to fail? Did the examiners feel he was not capable of answering the tough questions? Were they disappointed with his performance and had lost interest in him? The young man squirmed. One of the examiners asked him what the matter was.
“Sir, the questions are too easy!” he blurted out.
“Would you prefer that we ask you difficult one?” one of the examiners said, seriously.
“Yes please,” said the young man, both anxious and confident at the same time.
The viva continued. The questions became more and more tough. The examiners leaned forward, interested and intrigued. The young man crossed his legs and leaned back. The grilling continued. As time passed, the questions kept moving to higher and higher planes of engineering and technology. The young man did not turn a hair. His preparation was so thorough and his intelligence of such a high order that he stayed unfazed throughout. Not a single examiner could shake him from his purpose, not a single question could shake his nerve. He was carved out of rock. He was in a state of Nirvana. Nothing existed for him and nothing was in his mind, neither family nor cold winds nor lack of food, for it was only his brain, focussed and sharp and pinpointed on the problem in front of him. He lost track of time and forgot his physical discomfort. After nobody knows how many hours the viva came to an end. He stumbled out, exhausted, but at peace.
At the door, he was met by one of his Professors, who had been waiting for him. The Prof embraced the young man. The young man was a little startled by this display of affection. Then the Prof shook hands with him and thanked him profusely, again and again. The young man was aghast. This was blasphemy. It should have been the other way round, he felt. He should be thanking the Professor. He came from a culture where Teachers were equated with God, where students would touch the feet of their teachers and thank them for learning received. The young man began to feel extremely uncomfortable and asked the Prof the reason for the thanks.
“This is because you have made me proud,” said the Professor. “The other students were far below standard. I was actually ashamed of their performance in front of the panel. I had to hang my head in shame. But you, my dear boy, you have more than exceeded my expectations, and those of the examiners. Because of you, I can hold my head high and say, this is what I have taught and this is the calibre of my students. I am proud of you and I am proud of your achievements.”
Long years have passed. The Young Man is no longer young. At the age of 80 and more, he has acquired wisdom and serenity, which he willingly passes to the younger generation. People come from far and wide to touch his feet and take his blessing. And just like his Professor, I am also proud of him. After all, he is my father.