Gwyer Hall

 

In 1962 the University of Delhi had two residence halls, the Gwyer Hall and the Jubilee Hall. The Gwyer Hall was open to postgraduate students. Its layout and functioning was on the model of similar institutions of the universities in England. The Gwyer Hall was named after the first vice-chancellor of the University of Delhi, Sir Maurice Gwyer. Its outer court was enclosed by spacious rooms in two levels in a U-formation. Its inner court had the dining room on one side and an access to the Fellows Wing. The dining room was laid out in two levels. The high table in the dining room was used by teachers who lived in the Fellows Wing. The Gwyer Hall was at the Northern end of the Ridge next to the Flagstaff. It was enclosed by forests from three sides. Its frontage had an entrance to the Hall lined symmetrically with pillars like the Roman columns. It was a privilege to be a resident of the Gwyer Hall.

 

I was readily admitted in the Gwyer Hall perhaps on the strength of my performance in the B. Sc.(Honours) course. In the first year of residence in the Gwyer Hall the postgraduate student-residents were allotted shared accommodation. Each double room was laid out in three parts. There were separate studies with balconies opening toward the forest area and a common sleeping area with a fireplace and a mantlepiece. The fireplace was never used. I shared my room with Ashok Suri who like me had done the B. Sc. (Physics Honours) and joined the M. Sc. (Physics) course. The Provost of the Gwyer Hall lived in an earmarked residence in the front court and the warden lived in rooms given to him on the second floor of the wing separating the inner and the outer courts. During my two years of stay in the Gwyer Hall I rarely saw the Provost or the warden. Our dealings were with the clerk who managed the Hall. There was no 10 pm restriction for the residents.

 

The Department of Physics was adjacent to the main administrative building of the University. Conveniently located between the two buildings was the frequently visited India Coffee House. The time not spent inside the classroom was spent in the Coffee House. The cost of a cup of coffee was 20 paisa. When six persons had coffee together the privileged person was the one who paid the bill. Keenness in making the payment by some persons was analysed and ultimately understood by the group. As each person would contribute 25 paisa with 5 paisa intended for tip the person who settled the bill left a tip of 10 paisa and had his coffee nearly for free. This ingenious initiative was named Trehaning! It is embarrassing for me to identify the person in whose honour this term was coined.

 

The two years of my M. Sc. course were the happiest period of my student days at the University of Delhi. I was taught Quantum Mechanics by Professor R. C. Majumdar. Invariably he overshot his teaching hour deep into the lunch break. One day when he finished his teaching at 2 pm I pointed out to him that it was past the lunch hour of my hostel. He said to me, Dont grumble. Come home with me. Mrs. Majumdar will give you khichdi. He was a student of Werner Heisenberg. His teaching was full of anecdotes which we all enjoyed. On the dining table when we would start narrating our privileged information that we thought was exclusively shared by Professor Majumdar with us we felt crestfallen when a senior would complete the anecdote. It came as a dampener to us to discover that our predecessors had heard the same anecdotes from Professor R. C. Majumdar when they took the same course from him in earlier years. My other teachers were Professor F. C. Auluck, Professor L. S. Kothari, Professor A. N. Mitra, Professor N. N. Saha, Dr. Vishnu Mathur, Dr. R. P. Saksena, Dr. V. P. Duggal, Dr. Setty, Dr. Gopalakrishna, Professor Bhowmik, Dr. Kichlu, Mr.. Nandi and Mr. Jugal Kishore. I feel sorry to have left out in the list some of my other teachers whose names I am unable to recollect after 52 years.

 

Invariably distinguished physicists during their visit to India also came to the Department of Physics of the University of Delhi. I remember the visits of Niels Bohr, Paul Dirac, Nikolay Bogolyubov and Leonard Schiff to the Department of Physics. When Niels Bohr came even standing room could not be found inside the lecture theatre and many of us had to listen to him from the open quadrangle outside the lecture theatre. Because of his unfamiliar accent and more because of the poor quality of sound from the speaker I could not make out a word of what Niels Bohr spoke. As there were many visitor-seminars, research students considered it a waste of their time in attending seminars in which they were not interested. It was common for the Head Clerk of the Department of Physics to arrange audience for visitor seminars by rounding up students from the Department Library. Teachers had the excuse that they were teaching and the research students could not be touched. Together with lab attendants and chaprasis we made up the audience for many seminars. We were also picked for other tasks such as receiving distinguished visitors from the airport. Normally neither the Head of the Department nor senior teachers would go to the airport for receiving their guests as it was not in their protocol. Once I got a message that Professor R. C. Majumdar would like me to accompany some senior research students to the airport to receive C. V. Raman. As the university staff car was made available to us I accepted with alacrity the opportunity of meeting the Nobel Laureate. It was winter and the flight from Bangalore came in the evening. It was biting cold when I reached the airport. The airport was not air-conditioned then. At Palam airport I met another person waiting for C. V. Raman. I introduced myself to him and asked him who he was. He said I am C. V. Ramaswamy, brother of C. V. Raman. In my ignorance I remarked how you can be his brother because you do not have his surname. He was annoyed with me and said, Young man, same father and same mother! Two Nobel Laureates Sir C. V. Raman and Sir Bragg were being conferred a D.Sc. by the University of Delhi in a special convocation. Raman in his acceptance speech pointed out that neither Bragg nor him had earned Ph.D. degree as students.

 

Hemendra Kumar was my classmate and friend. We did experiments together in the lab. He was good in electronics and could easily assemble transistor radios and other electronic circuits. He was an active ham radio amateur. His father was a physicist. He worked in the Defence Science Laboratory in Metcalfe House. His grandfather was also a physicist and taught at the Benaras Hindu University. Unlike me and his father and grandfather, Hemendra did not want to be a physicist. He wanted to join the civil service. He retired as a secretary to the Government of India. One day Hemendra and I decided to bunk our lab class for seeing the Hindi film Mere Mehboob. Before we had covered fifty meters from the Department we ran into Mr.Jugal Kishore our lab teacher who was on his way to the lab. We wished him. Mr Jugal Kishore did not ask us where we were going but asked us to turn back and go to the laboratory. We smiled and continued walking in opposite direction to that of Mr. Jugal Kishore. He reported our act of defiance to the Head of the Department. The following morning I got a message to go and see Professor R. C. Majumdar. I was worried that as punishment for my act of indiscipline he may recommend discontinuation of my scholarship. I went to see Professor Majumdar. When I entered his room and wished him. He looked at me and said, You dont have a class now. Why have you come to disturb me! Go to your class.

 

We picked up physics gossip listening to our seniors in the dining room of the Gwyer Hall. From them we came to know of the famous physicists in prominent American universities. The senior research students discussed with each other the areas of current research interests of well known physicists. This informal education played both good and not so good parts in my life. The superficial information I picked up from the dining room could have had a disastrous implications in my career. I will return to that later.

 

My other friends in Gwyer Hall were Nand Lal, Surendar Malik and Dr. M. L. Jasuja. Manohar Lal Jasuja was doing his M.D. degree from the Maulana Azad Medical College. He had a scooter. I liked to go with him on his scooter to Buddha Jayanti Park and other picnic places. One day as I stepped out from the dining room after taking my lunch I met an elderly person enquiring about Dr. Jasuja. I became suspicious of his visit and rightly anticipated that he had come to meet Dr. Jasuja with a matrimonial proposal. I told that person that Dr. Jasuja had gone to the tuck shop for his after lunch smoke and paan with tobacco for digesting his meal. I thought that what I had said was damaging enough to Dr. Jasujas reputation and would discourage the visitor from pursuing further with his matrimonial proposal. Of course, Dr. Jasuja neither smoked nor ate tobacco filled paan. He thanked me for my act of friendship. On Tuesday mornings for breakfast we were served upma. Surendar disliked upma. Normally I would take Surendar along with me for breakfast but I had his standing instructions that on upma mornings he would sleep for extra half hour.

 

As there were no late hour restrictions on residents in Gwyer Hall we preferred to see night show of films. We would go to the Connaught Place by bus after taking early dinner and share a taxi for our return journey. There was an understanding in the group that by rotation each one of us would take turns in sharing the taxi charges, which were about Rs 10. One of the persons in our group would always come up with the excuse that he had a hundred rupee note and did not have change to pay. To teach him a lesson one day I went to the bank and got change for one hundred rupees. In the evening we went to see a night show and returned by taxi. The same person once again waved his hundred rupee note and expressed his inability to pay the taxi fare. I pulled out the change for one hundred rupees from my pocket and made him pay the taxi fare on this occasion. Life was normal and fun.

 

We had some unwritten rules of conduct for the residents of the Gwyer Hall. A rule was that lady visitors will not be entertained in the dining room. Sadr-e-RiyasatYuvraj Karan Singh had registered for his Ph.D. degree in philosophy from the Gwyer Hall. We came to know that he was coming to the University for getting his degree in the convocation. It was decided to host a lunch in his honour. The problem came when we found out that his wife would accompany him. It was decided in the general body meeting of the residents to make an exception for Mrs Karan Singh to take her meal in our dining room. But we will ask Karan Singh to give a freezer to the kitchen of the Gwyer Hall as gesture of his good will. A proposal for the freezer was made in the welcome address. In his thanks speech Karan Singh offered to give a radiogram instead for use in the common room.

 

One of the residents was from Kerala. He knew V. K. Menon, the Defence Minister. At lunch he announced in the dinning room that at 2 pm Shri Krishna Menon will come to the Gwyer Hall and those interested in meeting him should assemble immediately in the common room. Shri Menon came punctually at 2 pm. He first checked with us whether anyone from the press was present in the gathering. As we had no time to inform the press of his visit he continued with his address to us. He said that he had come to us directly after submitting his resignation to the Prime Minister. He explained to us the reasons behind the debacle faced by the Indian army in its face-off with China. I did not understand his arguments and am unable to recall now what he said in 1962.

 

In the part-I of the M.Sc. (Physics) examinations I obtained the highest marks and was awarded the science exhibition by the Faculty of Science. I had moved up from the bottom to the top of my class. My teachers had a good opinion of me. I now could hope to get from them good letters of recommendation to support my application for admission in the American universities.

 

I and my three siblings were living in hostels in Delhi. Shachindra and Narendra were in the boarding of the Modern School, Radha Jiji lived in the hostel of the Indraprastha college. At the end of the academic year all four of us went to Port Blair for the summer. Spending summers in the Government House in Port Blair were similar each year. There was one unusual experience which I am inclined to share. During one of my sea journeys to the main land from Port Blair I met someone who worked as an overseer in the Public Works Department. He asked me whether I believed in spirits. He mentioned that he knew a person called the Jinn-Baba who had a spirit under his control. Jinn-Baba could call the spirit under his command. He offered to arrange a demonstration at his home in Port Blair in our future visit. We had all read about spirits and jinns (genies) in the stories of the Arabian Nights. Any child who has read the story of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp would dream to have a spirit under control to do impossible tasks at his or her bidding. In my next visit to Port Blair I mentioned the conversation I had on my boat journey about spirits and their visits. Pitaji asked me not to believe in superstitions and did not encourage me further. I was keen to see for myself whether spirits existed and could be kept under control by a person, even if he is Jinn-Baba. Pitaji relented but he would have nothing do with it himself.

 

I contacted that overseer. He readily agreed to arrange a demonstration of the spirit at his home. Jiji came with me and so did my two brothers. We were seated behind a curtain in the hall of the flat which was on the first floor. I think there was one window opening outside. Other than the host, the Jinn-Baba, there was one other person in the audience. The Jinn-Baba was seated in the front side of a curtain partitioning the room in two parts. We were seated on the other side of the curtain. The Jinn-Baba had placed a stool for seating the spirit and did some puja with flowers and an offering of sweets. He had a metal plate containing some grain. He was constantly churning the grain with his hands and simultaneously reciting some magical words. Lights were switched off. The only sound we heard was that of movement of grain by hands by the Jinn-Baba. Then we heard sound of stones falling on the floor. There was a gust of wind, the curtain flew away and we heard sound of a hard slap on a face. The Jinn-Baba was lying on the floor as apparently he was knocked down by the strong blow of a slap given to him by the spirit. Lights were switched on. The Jinn-Baba said that the spirit is annoyed today. The other person in the audience claimed that as he was reciting the Hanuman Chalisa the spirit could not stay in that room at the bidding of the Jinn-Baba. This explanation apart a suggestion was made to the Jinn-Baba to try to call the spirit again. This time we heard from the curtain a sound as though someone has seated itself with a bang on the stool. We felt intimidated by what was transpiring in that room at that time. Jinn-Baba hinted that we could ask questions to the spirit. We asked some insipid questions. We heard a voice responding to our questions in a mixture of nasal and guttural sounds. The spirit left soon after. I am not convinced whether I was in the presence of some spirit or not. The demonstration has remained inconclusive about the claim that a spirit came at the behest of the Jinn-Baba.

 

At the end of our summer vacations we returned to our hostels in Delhi. I now had a single room in the Gwyer Hall. I used the front portion of the room as my study cum visitor area. I had brought a couple of wooden folding chairs from Port Blair for use by my visitors. I used the back portion for sleeping. There was a balcony in the rear portion facing the ridge forest.

 

Among my teachers there was excitement about the recent progress in elementary particle physics. Murray Gell-Mann had discovered a symmetry of the strong nuclear forces which could explain why elementary particles of a given spin occurred in multiplets. I decided to write my M. Sc. dissertation on the recent work of Gell-Mann which after Buddhas sayings was named the eight-fold way. Dr. V. S. Mathur who had recently returned after his post-doctoral work taught us elementary particle physics. I made up my mind to do research in elementary particle physics which is also alternatively called high energy physics.

 

One day I was in the Department Library. Professor A. N. Mitra entered the library with a foreign visitor. He came to me and introduced the foreign visitor to me. He said, I want you to meet Professor Feinberg from Columbia University, New York. Will you like to study at Columbia University? I was surprised by this unexpected development. I said yes. Professor Mitra said that Professor Feinberg would like to interact with me. Professor Feinberg asked me what I would like to study at Columbia University. I had heard from my seniors in a lunch time gossip that an exciting area of research was the S-matrix theory developed by Chew and Mandelstam. I thought that my response based on high brow gossip picked by me from my seniors would create a favourable impression on Professor Feinberg. On the contrary it would have had a disastrous implication but for my presence of mind. I noticed that Professor Feinberg was surprised by my reply. He said, We dont do that type of work in Columbia University. I realised that the opportunity was slipping away from me. I took a corrective step. I told Professor Feinberg, I am not keen to work on that problem. I want to learn good physics at Columbia University. The situation came under control. Professor Mitra was also shocked by my earlier response and came to my rescue. He diverted the discussion to the work I was doing for my dissertation. Professor Feinberg noted my particulars and said, Soon you will hear from Columbia University. In four weeks time I received the offer of admission and financial assistance from Columbia University. I now had one offer of admission in hand. I decided to apply to four other Universities; the University of Chicago, the University of Rochester, the University of Maryland and UCLA.

 

Pitaji was still not happy with my decision to take up a career of teaching and research in physics. He contacted Dr. P. S. Gill whom he knew when he was the Collector of Aligarh district and Dr. Gill was in Aligarh University. Dr. Gill had to take the permission of the Collector to visit interior areas of Kashmir for his work on cosmic rays. Dr. Gill was now the Director of the Central Scientific Instrument Organisation, Chandigarh. I went with Pitaji to meet Dr. Gill. Dr. Gill convinced Pitaji that research in physics would open for me career opportunities abroad and also in world class institutions such as the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research that had come up in the country. Dr. Gill offered to write letters of recommendations to support my admission application in the four universities of my selection.

 

By the end of March 1964 I had offers of admission and financial assistance from five US universities. I met Dr. Pramod Srivastava who had recently returned after doing his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. I mentioned to Pramod my meeting with Professor Feinberg and the offer of Columbia University. His response was that by now Professor Feinberg would have forgotten me and I would merely be a number in the Columbia University. He also mentioned that the part of New York City near the Columbia University was not a good place to live. He convinced me that I should go to the University of Chicago as some of the leading physicists of the 20th century were associated with it. He mentioned the name of Enrico Fermi and I knew that the famous astrophysicist Professor S. Chandrasekhar was in the University of Chicago. My choice was made. I decided to accept the offer of the University of Chicago and closed the other options.

 

I wrote my M.Sc. final examinations. It did not come as a surprise that I had topped the list of the successful candidates who wrote the M.Sc. examinations of the University of Delhi in 1964. I was awarded the prestigious Dr. K. S. Krishnan gold medal and many other recognition. My performance pleased Pitaji. The other person who would have been proud of my performance was my grandfather. He had died six months ago and I lost an opportunity to make him happy.

 

Jiji and Pitaji had come from Port Blair for performing the marriage of Radha Jiji. The wedding ceremony was scheduled to be held in New Delhi on 1st July 1964. They were to return to Port Blair soon after performing the marriage. Port Blair at that time of the year was accessible only by sea route. I was to reach Chicago around 25th September. My problem now was to find a place to stay in Delhi for three and half months. I came across announcements for admission to Ph.D. course from the University of Delhi and IIT Kanpur. I applied to both institutions. A few days later I got a message to see Professor R. C. Majumdar. When I entered his office he was unhappy. His words to me were, Hair on my head did not turn grey in the sun. I have aged because I had to deal with boys like you. He asked whether it was correct that I was going to the University of Chicago. I replied, Yes Sir. He then asked me, Why have I applied to the University of Delhi for joining the Ph.D. course? I replied that I had no place to stay in Delhi and I wanted to stay in the Gwyer Hall for three months. He said, If that is the problem there is a simpler solution. You come with your luggage to my house and move in with Robie. Robie was his son two years senior to me. I felt embarrassed to stay at Professor Majumdars home with his son. I now wanted to leave for Chicago as early as possible.

 

I decided to go by sea to the US. It provided me a respectable alternative to spending three weeks in purposeless moving around in Delhi. I used that time in enjoying sea journey and in sight seeing en route. Pitaji asked me to spend one month in Pondicherry before sailing from Bombay. Before I left Delhi for Pondicherry, Tauji, as he now was a Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs, arranged a radio telephone talk with Jiji and Pitaji. They wished me farewell and bon voyage one month before I left the country. Shri Ganpatram Ji arranged my accommodation in Pondicherry and took care of me. He introduced me to Shri Sethna and Shri Madhav Pandit, senior sadhaks in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Shri Madhav Pandit gave me a set of books he had written explaining the yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Shri Sethna showed me his correspondence with Albert Einstein. He was interested in finding out the preference of the leading scientists between the big-bang cosmology and the Hoyle-Narlikar steady state cosmology. I did not know the answer then. In a few years times the steady state cosmology died with the discovery of the cosmic microwave radiation.

 

Shri Ganpatramji sought an audience for me from the Mother. It was granted. I entered her room in the Ashram. She looked at me and smiled. I prostrated myself before her for her blessings. She gave me a blessings flower which had a picture of a pair of swans. No words were exchanged. She withdrew her looks away from me and that was the signal to me that my audience with her was over. Respectfully I withdrew from her presence. This brought my Pondicherry visit to a close. I took a train from Madras for Bombay. From Bombay I was scheduled to board S.S. Cilicia for a three-week journey by sea to Liverpool.

 

I will write next about my journey by sea from Bombay to Liverpool and the onward journey by air from London to Chicago.

 

 

 

 

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