My interpretation of what interests and confounds me ....

Friday, March 29, 2013

Ode to an Academic Maestro

A tribute to Professor DB Phatak, on the occasion of his felicitation, by the students of IIT, Bombay, on him being conferred with the Padma Shri by the Government of India; he's undoubtedly, one of the very best to have 'educated' me (Class of 97, MTech, EE).

Two unique aspects separated out the profoundly knowledgeable Prof's classes from that of the rest of the faculty. One - most MTech classes had a student strength of between 8-15; Prof Phatak's had a whopping 78. This entailed that we use the conference hall in the Computer Science Department as the classroom, since no other room could squeeze in so many enthused souls. For a majority of his students, the extraordinary popularity of the course stemmed from the fact that Prof Phatak had a distinctive and engaging style of pedagogy (he may not like the use of that word, though!), flirting from a core academic concept to the hard-nosed practicality of its application, that ensured there were no snores during the class; rather his utterings were so riveting that the wide-eyed audience, with rapt attention, would cling on to every word that slipped from the intellectual's mouth, lest one missed out on some esoteric fundas! For the miniscule minority (that comprised the lazybones, who too, never missed Prof Phatak's classes!), the Prof's acceptability was attributed to his propensity for a liberal marking scheme that ensured 'flying colours', post the exams.

The second USP of the Prof's classes - shock and awe! While the rest of the faculty used to engage classes during the normal working hours, Prof Phatak announced during his first class that he preferred the graveyard shift. Thus, began the unique experience of classes from 2100 to 2230 hrs, twice a week, on Wednesdays and Fridays (to compensate for three lectures a week of one hour each). More often than not, these classes would commence as late as 2130 hrs, when the Prof got finally free from his myriad engagements (he was also the Dean (R&D) at that time, if memory serves me right). With manadtory 'fag' breaks that endeared him to the smokers in our midst, the classes would often continue well into the wee hours of the next morn! On one occasion, he chaperoned the entire class, at around 2200 hrs, to cheer a few spunky students who were out to gate-crash into the Limca book of records, by their bravado of attempting to stay in water for more than 72 hours in the Institute swimming pool.

The Prof's evaluation schema too were rather avant garde. At a time when the internet/intranet had not yet pervaded our lives, he used to send out assignments on the Institute intranet. Since we weren't connected all the time (as we are now!), this would surprise many a student, leading to submissions well past the 'use by' dates. I guess, the benevolence of the Prof would see these guys through!

On a personal front, I had the privilege of meeting Prof Phatak, after several years, when my organisation, WESEE, celebrated its silver jubilee in 2004, where he was one of the key note speakers. More recently, last year, I could demonstrate to him some of the pioneering work in cryptographic security engineering and network hardening that the Navy has been progressing to secure its applications and enterprise network. Hats off to you Sir, for having sown the seeds of inquisition, research and delivery that has allowed me to do what I do.

The Padma Shri is indeed a rare honour and recognition of your yeoman services to the nation, and all your students would undoubtedly exult at the accolade accorded to you. However, I, as indeed my fellow classmates at IIT Powai, and a legion of your students, are certain in our belief that you are cut out for greater things in life (a Nobel perhaps, why not!?) As you celebrate the honour bestowed on you, I take this opportunity to congratulate your family and wish you all the very best in the times to come; or as we in the Navy say - Fair weather and God speed to you, Sir.

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