In early 1980s, a sixth semester mechanical engineering student at the Thangal Kunju Musaliar College of Engineering in Kerala’s Kollam district, made an unusual request to his Head of Department, F.V. Albin. He wanted the department to introduce an elective in population engineering. Such a course was then rare, if not non-existent, in the state and nobody in Albin’s department had the expertise to teach it.
Nonetheless, Albin was moved by student’s enthusiasm. It may have helped that the extraordinary request came from an extraordinary student; S. Somnath, who was from a humble background, had shown exceptional academic prowess and nurtured a dream to join the Indian Space Research Organisation. Somnath had told Albin that the elective would facilitate his entry into a field about which he was passionate and, importantly, pave the way for a job—an existential need for him.
The HoD approached a 29-year-old lecturer—K. Madhusoodanan Pillai—and asked if he could teach the course. “I was apprehensive as there was no readily available reference material at the college or in libraries.” Said Pillai, who is now a vice-principal of a private engineering college in Kottam. “But, I assured the HoD that I would teach it .” He collected academic material from NASA and other space agencies. “It was an era without internet and obtaining academic material was quite challenging”, he said. “I compiled notes based on available sources”.
While Pillai prepared, Somnath played his part. He set out to convince at least 10 students to enroll for the course to fulfill university’s criterion for electives. He succeeded. As it turned out, it would not be the last successful mission he was a part of, for—in 1985, Somnath was recruited by ISRO.
The life of the ISRO chairman is full of such stories of determination, perseverance and a relentless to overcome obstacles and create opportunities for himself and others, and, thereby for the country.
Born on February 16, 1963, as the eldest among the three children of Thankamma and V. Sreedhara Paniscker, Somnath spent his early years at his maternal home in Aroor, a quaint village at northern tip of Alappuzha district. It is believed that Aroor, bordering on three sides by lakes is the shortened form of arayarudeooru, meaning village of fisherfolk. Another traditional occupation of the villagers is coir making. The land hosts a famous Durga temple and an ancient church dedicated to saint Augustine.
Somnath’s maternal uncle C K Thankappan Nair, 90, and his family still stay at Aroor. When journalists visited their well maintain it house, Nair proudly pointed to a 76-year-old tamarind tree in the yard and said that Somnath used to sit under it and study. “Somnath means lord of soma (The Moon); said Nair, a renowned astrologyer. (IPA Service)