My Favorite Gurus

Most of us agree that our mothers were our first teachers. I may be biased, but I claim that my mother was not just an Adhyapak but truly a Guru. She had a fantastic teaching method that she adapted depending on who was on the other side. By the time I started formal schooling, my knowledge given by my mother was advanced enough that I had to be promoted to the next class. Most of my childhood was spent listening to my mother while she was doing her chores. She was a great storyteller, a quality inherited from her father. She not only had a remarkable ability to present a vivid picture of whatever she wanted to present but also parallelly provided a clear, rational commentary of the events and morals of the story. She was my first Guru who inculcated the habit of rational thinking.

My father, on the other hand, has been an indirect and introverted teacher. He was happy to engage us as children only when we approached him. I was told I would refuse to accept that he could teach me anything, and I would run straight to my mother with any questions. But I still recall his first lesson to me. I remember we were having trouble sleeping, and he decided to teach us how Earth’s rotation caused day and night. He used two balls to represent the Earth and the Moon and a torch to represent the Sun. Even today, when I imagine Earth’s rotation, I recall the picture of my father’s demonstration. Not only did I learn some facts that day, but I was happy to know that the reasons for those “facts” can be understood through scientific study. Our house was full of books on evolutionary theory and physics for entertainment, available in Telugu and English. As I reached middle school, he would leave me with high school mathematics books. I spent most of my hot summer days indoors flipping through pages of advanced mathematics books, thanks to the unavailability of smartphones during that time. He always offered help in mathematics and science, and when I approached him, he would start asking questions rather than providing any answers (mostly because he forgot most of those things). Before I knew it, his questions led me to the solution, and I moved on. We share many common interests, such as ancient history, and most of our time together is spent discussing some bizarre questions about these subjects. I grew up listening to my father and grandfather discuss these, and now we continue the tradition. 

Thanks to being the first child of my parents, who were themselves the eldest of their siblings, I have a close bond with my uncles and aunts. I have one uncle on my father’s side and three on my mother’s side, and they are not much older than me. My childhood summers with my parents and uncles felt like attending the famous Solvay conference. Our family encouraged young and old to participate in any discussion, and we were free to ask questions and present our views without fear. While I may be a professor in my professional life, I become a nephew and a child in front of my uncles, listening to every word they speak as if we were back in the hot summer days of the Godavari districts. Each of my uncles is a favorite Guru. The discussions were on a variety of topics but always followed sound logic. I never recall anyone imposing their opinions on others. Having grown up in such a polite environment, I have trouble participating in debates in my professional meetings where people are mostly belligerent. 

I wish I could say I had many Gurus during my undergraduate education. Interestingly, even at a premier institute, most teachers were more interested in covering the syllabus for the sake of exams. Most of them were not so inspiring. Rarely did they make us think beyond the textbook. My class/hostel mates played that role more than most teachers. The wing cot (a piece of steel furniture where we hostellers used to hang out) provided more critical thinking than most of the classrooms. But I would single out Professor Balki of the physics department among a few teachers I liked. I fondly remember his lectures on the Brachistochrone problem and statistical physics; even today, I keep looking up books on these subjects just to relive that experience. Such is the influence of a great teacher. And I was fortunate to befriend the Late Professor Dilip of the history department. Though I was meant only to read for him, as he was visually challenged, we mostly read material for my benefit rather than his own. He was never my formal teacher, but I owe him a lot to my way of thinking about history.

The last person in this list is not the least. Professor Wassim Haddad (in the picture above) of Georgia Tech has been my friend, philosopher, and guide. He is one of the kindest people we can ever meet; he gave me total freedom to work at my own pace and time. He taught me everything about how to perform research and, more importantly, how to express the results of our research. I cherish every moment of my collaboration with him. The books we wrote receive citations on a weekly basis from all over the world and it appears that our results are used for a wide variety of topics. I am what I am today primarily because of him. 

I have had many more mentors at every stage of my profession, and their guidance has been invaluable in shaping my career. As I progressed in my career, my mentors supported me with invaluable wisdom in navigating the complexities of the real world. I am immensely grateful for the mentorship I have received, as it has not only accelerated my growth but also inspired me to pay it forward by mentoring others embarking on their professional journeys.