New Delhi: Jawaharlal Nehru had recommended the name of ‘father of fibre optics’ Narinder Singh Kapany for the post of scientific advisor to the defence ministry but a delay in the appointment process to ”filter through the bureaucracy” ensured that the renowned US-based physicist’s future was not in India.
Credited as the ”man who bent light” and invented fibre optics, Kapany had a wish of telling his story himself. And one of the last things he did shortly before he passed away in December 2020 was to finish and submit the final manuscript of his memoir, which has now been published by Roli Books.
In ”The Man Who Bent Light: Narinder Singh Kapany, Father of Fibre Optics”, readers will also get to know his commitment to championing Sikh heritage and culture besides his contribution to science.
Kapany, who was awarded the Padma Vibhushan earlier this year (posthumously), amassed one of the world’s largest collections of Sikh art and sponsored a number of exhibitions and permanent rooms in various museums around the world.
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He had about 100 patents and a similar number of publications and was the one to have used for the first time the term ‘fibre optics’ in an article published for the famed Scientific American publication in 1960.
It was his pathbreaking research in the 1950s on fibre optics, which paved the way for high-speed broadband internet, laser surgeries and endoscopy, among others.
It was during these years that Nehru wanted Kapany to work as the scientific advisor to the defence ministry.
Kapany recalls how he met in the US Krishna Menon, who as defence minister was the nation’s second most important man at that time and a permanent delegate to the UN.
”I’ve been following your career and I want you to work for me. In Delhi, at the Defence Department,” Menon told him.
He paused again and said: ”I want you to be my scientific advisor…” Kapany says he was extremely flattered by the offer.
”But it wasn’t in any way part of my plan, which, wherever it might take me, would, I believed with all my inventor’s heart, definitely involve optical devices – inventing them, designing them, and manufacturing them,” he writes, adding Menon could sense his imminent resistance to his offer.
But Menon cautioned Kapany not to make any hasty decision.
Six months later, Kapany was in India for a vacation. Menon asked him to give a little talk at a Defence Service Conference.
”There was an audience of about a thousand attendees at Menon’s Defence Service Conference on opening day. Highlighting that morning were opening remarks by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, a presentation by Menon himself, and another by Homi Bhabha, the head of India’s Atomic Energy Commission. Fourth on the printed program was another name: ‘Narinder Singh Kapany’. I could barely believe it,” Kapany recalls.
Menon later told him that Nehru was very impressed with his talk and wanted to speak with him personally.
”My hour with Mr. Nehru was one of the most refreshing and personally rewarding hours I have ever spent. He seemed altogether understanding and interested in what I wanted to accomplish, both in science and with my life,” Kapany writes.
”… And at some point in our quite disparate ramblings, I agreed to become Krishna Menon’s science advisor,” he says.
As their talk-session was drawing to a close, and on Nehru’s urging, Kapany looked over his shoulder as he penned a note on official stationery to the Union Public Service Commission, the group in charge of the hiring of high-level Indian public servants.
”In it, he recommended that I be given the position of Krishna Menon’s science advisor and be paid the highest possible salary for that level of government employment. Also, that I be given as much as six months to wrap up my affairs in America before starting the job in Delhi,” the book says.
”He (Nehru) then signed the note, placed it in an envelope, addressed it, and laid it on top of some other envelopes on his desk. ‘I should warn you, though, Narinder,’ he said in closing, ‘that these higher-level appointments often take time to filter through the bureaucracy – two months possibly, or even longer’,” it says.
Kapany told his wife Satinder: ”I should have an official job offer in about two months though the prime minister cautioned that sometimes things take just a little longer.” He then told everyone in the US about the new plan and his direct recommendation from none other than Nehru.
”But then, as two months became three, then four, then five, and still no job offer, I began getting nervous. I called the Union Public Service Commission, and they assured me that the offer was virtually a done deal,” Kapany writes.
”By the end of month five, however, with our lease about to be up on the apartment and my work at the institute drawing to a close, Satinder and I decided that no news from India was simply fate telling me that my future was not in India, after all, but in America.
”So just like that, I stopped thinking about the Indian position and concentrated all my energies, sizable as they were, on Silicon Valley in sunny California. It was time, finally, to become an entrepreneur,” he writes.
About a month after they settled in their new home, a year since Nehru’s personal recommendation, the offer from the UPSC finally arrived.