Prof. Sabyasachi Sarkar

Honorary Visiting Professor, CHST

 Nano Science and Synthetic Leaf Laboratory, Downing Hall

Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology, Shibpur

Former Senior Professor and Head, Dept. of Chemistry, IIT, Kanpur

Reminiscence:

Santhal Parganas to Chemistry

I was born in Birbhum ( meaning forest land ) district, West Bengal in the house of my maternal uncle but spent my childhood in the adjoining district , Santhal Parganas. Earlier Birbhum and Santhal Parganas districts remained undivided under the name of Birbhum but fearing successive revolts after the first led ( before 1857) by Sidhu and Kanha Birbhum district was divided into two by British . Being the eldest son of a well respected Government pleader of the town, Jamtara, I enjoyed freedom to roam as his son even in the adjoining jungles and mingled freely with young Santhal people of my age group. Before joining school for my formal education, I learned horse riding, hunting, fishing and cycling. My grandfather presented me a Philips bicycle of 16 inch size imported from England and I was rewarded by my father for my good hand writing with the present of a Diana make ( England) air rifle. The horse riding I shared regularly from my Santhal friend, Govind Tudoo, who owned a pony, in exchange of my bike to him. My home teacher supplied me fishing chord for fishing and continuously supplied me magnifying glasses and other items like kites, gum, marbles, battery, torch bulb, wire, cut film, screw driver, small hacksaw and so many others on demand. Normally I used to show home task to my tutor only when my demand of getting something has been met. My home teacher loved me for my wildness and he was constant supplier of my hobby materials. Just beneath the stair of our house I got a place which became my hobby house. However, my mother taught me to read Bengali and she constantly provided me books of novels and classics adventure stories to read by ordering newer books from the publishing houses from Kolkata regularly.
 
One day I decided to release the captive male and female singers inside our gramophone who are forced ( I believed at that time ) to sing by merciless twisting of their ears ( I meant winding of the spring) as narrated by my eldest sister. One quiet afternoon I completely unscrewed the gramophone. Fortunately for me the heavy spring released its energy by de-coiling in the opposite direction of me or I could have received severe spring blow. The local mechanic later fixed it properly but my father who was very busy in his profession listened to my mom's complain and declared that the days of my holiday is over. My home teacher was replaced as he refused to penalise me for my childish (stupid) activities and now the new home teacher, a retired old person who actually taught my father in the school came to train me with an iron hand. 
 
His aluminium made spectacle cover received fresh dent everyday in contact with my head. Within six months I learned sufficient mathematics and English and one day appeared in the entrance test of the local high school along with my two years elder sister. We both were admitted in class VI. I never read in classes I to V and so I got jumped promotion to start. This is the reason that I passed M.Sc. at the age of 19. In school I got enough help and encouragements from my science teachers in procuring chemicals and glass wares by paying from my pocket money and I changed my hobby house as my laboratory. I used to do several experiments in chemistry including isolation of white phosphorous (curiosity over its ignition in air) from bone ash by following sulfuric acid treatment to create syrupy phosphoric acid and reducing it with wood charcoal in an earthen retort which was placed in the coal oven for heating. I shared coal oven after lunch preparation by my mom followed by boiling of water by maid servant to clean clothes and the afternoon time was ideal for my experiments. The earthen retort was custom made by the local earth potter on my special request. In fact he was father of my class mate, Kalipada, and Kaipada pleaded more for my cause. I also learned electronics to assemble radio, transistor, amplifier and photocell driven moving toys, photography etc. and the basic knowledge I acquire by reading through a series of books including encyclopaedia Britannica. These books were presented to me by my father who used to meet all of my demand for which I had to write a letter to him narrating the reasons and justification of my requirement.
 
After one year ( pre-university) in St Xavier's college, Ranchi I moved to Kolkata ( Calcutta University ) for my B.Sc. honours in chemistry study but in most of the better known colleges the admission were closed as I waited long period to get the release of my pre-university examination result of Ranchi University. With heavy heart I was returning back to Ranchi for my future study. As I had to wait for more than five hours at Howrah Station to board the train I decided to pay a visit to the Belurmath, Howrah on that Sunday. It was mid of June, 1961 and before entering the main gate of the Belurmath I saw a building to its left side with the sign of Ramakrishna Mission Vidyamandira. I saw an elderly monk wearing ochre colored cloth just stirring at me a few yards inside the gate of that college. I stepped in to offer my pranam to him and the first sentence he uttered to me, "want to study here?" I remained spell bound and speechless and on nodding in the affirmative he asked me to show him the mark sheets of my previous examinations. I presented my School Final mark sheet , and a letter from the Principal, St.Xavier's college for my bonafide as a pre-varsity student and narrating that the mark sheet is due to come and the first page of a couple of days old Ranchi News paper where my name was printed amongst the top successful students. I got admission in that Sunday in this college and later I justified my late and Sunday entry by securing first position in the future examinations. Swami Tejaswanand , the Principal Maharaj has been very fond of honours students because of our lengthy laboratory hours where most of the times we missed our evening Tiffin. He waived us from the mandatory evening prayer if we were continuing our laboratory experiments in late evening. He even allowed us to go for laboratory experiments on Sundays where we ( the students) were in charge of controlling everything including charging of the gas plant. I owe this to Maharaj who thus helped me enormously to master my analytical skill. After my M.Sc. I started my research on rhenium chemistry under the mentorship of the Late Professor P.B. Sarkar in the University College of Science, Kolkata. Professor Sarkar was a direct disciple of Acharya P.C. Ray. My research in the first couple of weeks has been very challenging . He provided me 10 gm of potassium perrhenate from his Johnson Matthey, England bottle with 99.99% purity. He told me that all wash solution should be preserved to recover rhenium as it is costly. In the first week I synthesised the cyano complex of rhenium which was made by my predecessor in that laboratory. On reporting he asked me if I checked the purity of the starting material, potassium perrhenate. Knowing that I believed Johnson-Matthey label he became unhappy and said that I should have checked its purity by analysing the percentage of potassium and rhenium present in that salt before the start of my experiment. He provided me a reference in Monatshefte fuer Chemie to consult for my next part of reaction. I found the article written in German and could not do much. In our next meeting when I informed my inability to read German , he became angry and asked me to show my admission card in German class in Max Mueller Bhavan, Kolkata next day in his residence . I was like his grand son by age and after showing my admission in German class he offered me sweets and samosa and a cup of tea and opened his memory lane to narrate that how he and Prof. Megh Nad Saha being room mate in the Hindu hostel used to wake up early morning to practice German and French languages during their B.Sc. studies.
 
In 1970, my research was almost completed but unfortunately Prof. Sarkar faced serious kidney problem and became bed ridden and he quitted his emeritus scientist position from CSIR that led to the termination of my fellowship.


I roamed the entire north India for a suitable position and finally got help from Prof. R.P Rastogi who asked me to join the newly created Post-Graduate Department in Chemistry, T.D. College, Jaunpur ,affiliated to Gorakhpur University. The Principal of the said college, Mr. H.N. Singh has been very kind to me. He helped me to create research laboratory there where M.Sc. students can do research projects and also I received some money from the State Council of Science and Technolgy to perform my research. Professor Rastogi provided me some rhenium metal which was found in the chemistry store of the Gorakhpur University and remained unused . I completed my doctoral thesis under Prof. Rastogi . He told me that being a physical chemist he could not get the full essence of my contribution but he had arranged to send my thesis to Professor H.J. Emeleus of Cambridge for his evaluation . I got the evaluated thesis copy back from Prof. Emeleus with the note, "with best compliments";. The Indian examiners were Prof. R.C. Mehrotra and Prof. A. Chakravorty and Prof. Chakravorty came to conduct my viva examination. Then I moved to Germany as Humboldt Fellow to work with Prof. Achim Mueller in early 1976 and even today we are in collaboration. Rhenium being costly so my post PhD research started with molybdenum which has close resemblance to rhenium. The association of group VI A and B has been great so molybdenum and sulfur chemistry has been pursued that led to understand some basic non carbonyl cluster chemistry. The stage of bioinorganic chemistry was set in the mid seventies and I ventured there as a young prospector. Finally I can see the beginning of the chemical Darwinism with the most primitive reaction on this earth and that is the reduction of carbon dioxide. Also I like to understand the size dependent changes in the reactivity pattern based on the self- assemblies from molecular via nano and micro to macro level that lead to diverse pattern in chemical evolution. I enjoyed practicing chemistry alone and also with many students with similar liking. It is the prologue of a humble waltzing through the molecular contours of life.

(This reminiscence was written on 65th birth anniversary celebration held at IIT Kanpur in 2012.)