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Home / Specials / Mint Profiles /  T.D. Krishnamachari and an insatiable thirst for knowledge

Chennai: Madras University’s 2013 batch of graduates in journalism and communication had one face that raised eyebrows: the class valedictorian, the grad with the highest grades, had a head full of white hair.

At 78, the portly figure clothed in flowing yellow robes was half the age of the institution from which he was taking his degree.

But at the ceremony there was only one question on topper T.D. Krishnamachari’s mind: “What am I going to do next?"

The septuagenarian is still searching for what he might become; he currently holds four postgraduate degrees—in maths, Sanskrit, Vaishnavism philosophy, and journalism and communication—in addition to a PhD in Sanskrit.

This month he is due to begin work on his second PhD, in an interdisciplinary research into journalism and Sanskrit.

When Krishnamachari does not know the answer to a given question, he says, the first thought that occurs to him is, “I must do a PhD on it". As a result of this obsessive academic inclination, he has lived the life of a student ever since retiring in 1998 from Lucas India Service Ltd, an auto electricals sales firm, where he had worked for 28 years.

Krishnamachari feels that his maturity and experience set him above his much-younger classmates: “When you study something without the feeling that your life and career depend on it, you can actually enjoy the subject," he says in a clipped English accent.

There’s an element of nostalgia for a missed opportunity in his youth that may have prompted Krishnamachari’s desire to study.

Having always wanted to study in a grand university like Oxford or Cambridge, the first thing he did post-retirement was to visit his children—two daughters and a son—in the US, and toured college campuses in New York, Boston, California and Chicago for a glimpse of student life.

As a young man, Krishnamachari had won a place at Harvard Business School for a management course, but his father forbade him, saying it was too far away from home.

Butterfly effect

Krishnamachari—Chari to his classmates—had a strict upbringing. He grew up with his uncle and aunt in a village called Jiyapuram near Tiruchirappalli in Tamil Nadu.

His childless uncle took him under his wing at the age of two from his parents who had eight children.

He was officially adopted only when he was about 25 years old, when he was about to get married to Saroja.

Krishnamachari wanted to be an engineer, but his uncle had different plans—he wanted Chari to become a professor and insisted he choose mathematics. He went on to study maths at Madras University.

“In those days, you didn’t choose something because you had the aptitude for it; you were expected to deal with it on the go," he says.

When the time came to find a job, even though he had two teaching offers, Krishnamachari decided he wanted to join the army. “I think I was fascinated by the uniform more than anything else," he says candidly.

Krishnamachari applied to become a pilot for the Naval Air Force, but while he passed all his other tests, he was declared colour blind. “I could not distinguish between green and red in a pinhole, so I was failed," he says.

Unsatisfied, he appealed to the officers to reconsider their decision, which meant another series of even more vigorous tests. “I failed miserably that time, and had to write it off as a wild goose chase," he adds.

After the army debacle, Krishnamachari settled for a government job at Karur, a town in Tamil Nadu, as a statistical inspector with a salary of 200 in 1961. But he soon got itchy feet. Having worked there for only a year, he moved on to a rayon manufacturing company in Aluva, a suburb of Kochi. From there, he was picked to teach the first batch of students at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad, which was set up in 1961.

At IIM-A, Krishnamachari had the opportunity to work with the physicist and father of India’s space programme, Vikram Sarabhai, and taught students like C.K. Prahalad, who went on to become a global marketing guru with his book The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.

While the rest of his peers became private sector consultants after retirement—or just enjoyed retired life with their grandchildren—the restless Krishnamachari went back to the drawing board, aged 63.

“I was looking for something. I think that is what drove me to study," he says. “My mind was not rested, as I didn’t know what I wanted. I thought only education would fill that need."

Choosing a subject for his new academic life was easy. Since 1988, he’d been attending yoga classes “where we used to chant (verses from the) Yajurveda". Krishnamachari decided to study Sanskrit to be able to understand the meaning of the Vedic chants. In two years, he’d completed his MA from Madras University.

Choosing the next subject was not too difficult either. In 1995, Krishnamachari’s son, who is a doctor in the US, had said he wished to marry a Telugu girl. “I was getting used to the idea and asked him why he could not find a Tamil Iyengar like us. And that’s when he asked me what I knew about Vaishnavism," he recalls.

Krishnamachari was stumped by his son’s question. While he gave his son his blessings to marry the Telugu girl, Krishnamachari felt compelled to study the philosophy of Vaishnavism to answer his son’s question, and he enrolled for it in 2002—the same year he completed the MA in Sanskrit.

By now he had crossed off three postgraduation courses from the prospectus of the University of Madras.

Having had a Sanskrit scholar for a grandfather, however, Krishnamachari thought his education in Sanskrit to be incomplete and decided to do a PhD. He got his doctorate in 2006—in four years.

Though his family, friends and most of the professors supported his decision to study, there were some people with doubts. “At first, I wanted to study English literature, but the head of the department turned me out saying at my age I should be teaching, not learning," he says.

Tryst with journalism

Krishnamachari, even as a young school boy, admired the newsreaders on Doordarshan. His heroes were Tamil journalists like Poornam Vishwanathan and English reader Melville de Mellow.

“What I liked most about their reading was the diction, and the way they delivered the news. I used to hang on to every word they said," he recalls.

By contrast, he finds today’s newsreaders a more aggressive bunch, each trying to grab more attention. “If I had to pick among them, I would choose Arnab Goswami. He has a way of asking trick questions and putting people in a spot," he says. “But it would be better if he lets people answer, of course."

While working with Lucas India, he had tried a part-time stint with Doordarshan, where he read Tamil news for a year, but could not juggle the day job with his passion, and had to quit the TV channel.

So, he says, it was quite a natural choice for him to opt for the journalism and communication course, the year after acquiring his PhD in Sanskrit.

In 2007, Krishnamachari applied for a place but, having missed the deadline for the entrance examination, he was asked to apply again next year. He did.

“I got plenty of looks from students, but that only made me more proud," he says.

In class, Krishnamachari was a diligent student, handing in his assignments in time, never missing a class and always prepared for tests.

A. Mohammad Rafi, a 28-year-old classmate of Krishnamachari, who now works for The Hindu newspaper’s Tamil-language edition, says, “When I first met him during the entrance exam, I thought he was accompanying a student. But when he sat to write the exam, I was shocked."

Rafi then discovered a great coincidence. Krishnamachari and his grand-uncle A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the former president of India, had attended the same college, St. Joseph’s in Tiruchirappalli, in 1950. And now he was sharing a bench with his uncle’s collegemate.

“My initial shock then gave to wonderment," Rafi says. “Krishnamachari’s interest in journalism showed in everything he did. He used to be 15 minutes early to class and always asked different questions."

“I guess other students felt a little threatened by me," Krishnamachari says, chuckling. “They found it weird that this guy came into class carrying a flask of filter coffee."

For Krishnamachari, journalism was one of the most interesting professions. “Few professions are as demanding as journalism, when it comes to the amount of knowledge you need to have," he says.

During his MA, he got internships with All India Radio (AIR), Doordarshan and The Hindu, competing against kids on their 20s eager to set out in their careers.

“I liked my stint at AIR. That’s perhaps because I like the way I sound, people say I have an imperial voice," he says, smiling at his own narcissism.

Krishnamachari did not let his age deter him from getting his hands dirty with field reporting. He covered Hurricane Thane for AIR, wrote a piece on a village in Tirunelveli, whose population has a high percentage of hearing-impaired people.

“My interest lies in investigative journalism. Had I been younger, I would have pursued a career in it," he says.

Age is finally catching up with the avid student—he underwent a minor surgery in August to keep his blood pressure from falling to very low levels. But while he is physically frailer, Krishnamachari’s ambition is still indefatigable.

He still hasn’t found what he’s searching for, he says. But he is planning a PhD that will combine two of his interests—journalism and Sanskrit—which he is due to begin this month.

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