Now for the memory this brought back to me. A mere fourteen years ago, in the same auditorium, TIFR celebrated its Golden Jubilee with a glittering function that included the then chief minister, Manohar Joshi of the Shiv Sena, and the then union telecommunications minister Sukh Ram who released a postage stamp of TIFR. There were also speeches by TIFR Council Chairman J.J. Bhabha, younger brother of TIFR's late founder, and some other major figures. When about to enter the hall, I discovered that three entire batches of Research Scholars at TIFR were not allowed into the auditorium for the function, supposedly because of a lack of space. In protest I did not enter either, and watched the proceedings on closed-circuit TV in a lecture room.
Thereafter I penned a somewhat melodramatic missive to our late founder Dr Homi Bhabha and put it up on a notice board in the TIFR lobby. It was removed by the chief security officer who scolded me and warned me not to put it up again. Today he is retired (and moreover Manohar Joshi is in the political wilderness and Sukh Ram has been sentenced to three years in jail for corruption!!) so this may be a reasonable time to exhume the letter. I reproduce it below.
February 9, 1996
Dr Homi J. Bhabha
Dear Dr Bhabha
I am writing to tell you about the Golden Jubilee celebration that took place at TIFR this evening. I did not enter the Auditorium, but watched the function from outside on closed-circuit TV. If they have closed-circuit TV in Heaven then you might have seen it yourself, but somehow I think you were not watching.
Dr Bhabha, this was a function on a grand scale. The elaborate arrangements would have impressed you. The dignitaries all looked suitably important and spoke with seriousness (except the Chief Minister, who looked bored but spoke with humour). And the audience contained all the important people in this Institute, in their finest clothes.
Some people were turned away at the door. They had invitation cards, so they thought that they were invited. Not so. There was a complex and subtle system to make sure that only the right people got through.
The cards came in three colours of envelope: white, blue and pink. This meant: big shot, medium shot and small shot. Then the white and pink envelopes were further divided into those with the Stamp and those without. (No, not the postage stamp, that was only worth 2 rupees! The Registrar's Rubber Stamp was priceless.) A foreign visitor to TIFR remarked that this looked like an elaborate caste system.
On a white envelope, the Stamp meant: Big Shot Plus Spouse. That went to Senior Professors, Heads of Sections and Chairmen of Committees, plus some people who did not fit in this list, but were known to be important just by virtue of their importance. It also went to hundreds of non-TIFR people, including army and navy top brass, who came with their spouses.
On the pink envelope, No Stamp meant: "You are invited, but you can't come in." It was actually a non-invitation. So these were the people who got turned away. I was standing near the door and watching their faces.
Who were these people, you might ask. The pink non-invitations were issued to second- and third-year Research Scholars, and later also to Visiting Fellows, after a protest on their behalf. They were also issued to some categories of non-academic staff. (There was still one lower category --- the first-year Research Scholars received NO invitations. They shared this privilege only with the daily-wage workers.)
In particular, Research Scholars and Visiting Fellows who have research publications at TIFR were turned away from the Auditorium. What made the Institute famous in the first place, Dr Bhabha? Sorry if I forget sometimes.
Of course, those who couldn't get in had the option to watch the ceremony outside on closed-circuit TV. But many Research Scholars chose to play cricket instead. Maybe they didn't care enough about the Institute, or maybe they were hiding hurt feelings. Who knows.
I chose not to enter the Auditorium, in sympathy with the non-invited persons. But I was very interested in the programme, and watched every detail on TV. Many of the speakers talked of the bright future of TIFR. They all said very kind words about you, Dr Bhabha. They showered generic praise on your achievements as a scientist, administrator, and man of culture. Your brother said something more precise: that you used to identify talented young persons, and give them the freedom and encouragement to become successful and eminent scientists. He asked a question: What would Dr Homi Bhabha have done if he had been here today?
At that moment a strange idea entered my head. I thought: maybe Dr Homi Bhabha, had he been here today, would have pointed out that the Research Scholars and Visiting Fellows are the future of the Institute. He might have suggested that their pink non-invitations were inappropriate. He might have insisted that the priorities be revised so that the Auditorium could accommodate the future leaders of Indian science. Perhaps he would even have politely asked senior members of the Institute to desist from bringing their families?
Maybe I am wrong, Dr Bhabha. Maybe you would have done something different. But your spirit was definitely not here today, even though most of the talk was about you. Frankly, I feel that the more we talk about you, the less we think for ourselves.