Thursday, September 29, 2016

The best of two worlds

By V Ramnarayan

(From Madras  Musings, June 1995)

Jayakrishna Ambati has a string of achievements to his credit, achievements that put him in the prodigy class. This 24-year·old physician, medical scientist, artificial intelligence expert and electronics engineer rolled into one has been recognised as outstanding and lionised in the US where he now lives. 

If on reading of Jayakrishna's exploits. you think they are hard to better, wait till you read about his younger brother's. By now it is common knowledge that 17 -year-old Balamurali Krishna Ambati has become the world's youngest doctor, with honours in all basic sciences, medicine, paediatrics, psychiatry, neurology, emergency medicine, community medicine, ophthalmology, otolaryngology and neurosurgery. Bala has been featured in newspapers and magazines in four continents and appeared in several TV and radio programmes worldwide.

I had the pleasure of meeting the parents of these gifted brothers. To meet proud parents Murali Mohan Rao and Gomathy on their recent visit to Madras was to catch a brief glimpse of the well-directed love and guidance responsible for the growth and development of the two gifted brothers.

A few minutes after I reached their newly built home in Mahalingapuram, where the Ambatis were staying, the family arrived after a hectic round of visits. It was 8.00 p.m. and pitch dark, thanks to a power breakdown. "I thought the power cut was confined to the morning," remarked Bala, innocent of the ways of Tamil Nadu's power supply agency. After a few minutes of desultory conversation, we decided to go ahead with the interview in the dark! Unknown to us, Jayakrishna had gone walkabout, in search of candles, as I learnt later, a search that took him as far as T Nagar.  Bala was by then resigning himself to yet another press interview only to be reassured that I'd talk to his parents. Obviously grateful for this reprieve, he gave a wonderful, boyish smile that said it all.

It is pretty obvious to even the casual bystander that the Ambatis are a closely knit, old-fashioned family where traditional South Indian values are respected. Much of the conversation within the family is in Telugu, without a trace of an American accent. In attire, too, the family is difficult to tell apart from the average Madras family. Murali Mohan Rao takes pride in the way his children have been brought up to be truly Indian in their cultural outlook.

Murali Mohan Rao was the fifth of eight sons born to Ambati Subbaraya Gupta, ICS, the first Indian District Magistrate of Cuddapah District. Ambati senior was an ashtavadhani, or an adept at the simultaneous performance of eight different feats of mental agility. After his schooling at RECC High School, Perambur, Murali Mohan Rao finished his B Tech at IIT Madras in 1969. From then, until his departure for the States in 1980, he taught maths at Voorhees College and CMC School in Vellore, followed by a stint at IIT, Madras. In the US, he studied industrial engineering and operations research.

As Murali Mohan Rao grew up, the atmosphere at home was conducive to learning and academic excellence. Another brother to benefit from this helpful atmosphere was Ramalingeswara Rao,  who recently retired as Deputy Director of Health Services. "He does not even own a house," remarks Murali Mohan Rao, proud of his family's standards of integrity. He strongly believes that the mother's presence at home is vital to the well- being of the children, the reason why his wife Gomathy has not taken up a full-time job, though qualified. "Why should the wives of Indian doctors in the US take up jobs when they are so well off? I call It greed."

Gomathy, who is from Madurai, had a degree in mathematics before she went on to higher studies in Tamil. In the US, she obtained a master's degree in education. She teaches a couple of courses at the University, once she has completed her daily household duties. During the first three years of the Ambatis' stay in the US, it was Gomathy who took care of the boys' educational and development needs at home, while Murali Mohan Rao was settling down in his studies. Jayakrishna was ten and Bala three then.

It was Gomathy who first noticed Bala's precocious talent, his language skills, cognitive ability and mathematical aptitude. Jayakrishna would also participate in honing young Bala's prodigious intelligence and memory. Bala could spell quite well at three and knew the multiplication tables before he was five. Yet the US school system did not permit him to join school until he was six.

It was only after Murali Mohan Rao completed his higher studies and started his teaching career that he started devoting time to Bala's intellectual stimulation. He used his new professional status to repeatedly argue with the administrators to win Bala double promotions.

There were, and still are, several brainstorming sessions in the Ambati home, making learning a pleasurable experience - the word 'fun' is anathema to Murali Mohan Rao. There would be quizzes on maths, physics, the environment and so on, in which all four would take part enthusiastically.

The Ambatis follow a traditional lifestyle at home - respect for elders, humility, our spiritual heritage, discipline are important ingredients. There is much Telugu spoken and an effort to bring the boys up as normal persons. Sport is not ruled out - basketball is a favourite and chess is more than a hobby with both the sons. All four are regular visitors to the Hindu temple where they conduct an Educational Excellence Programme on Saturday afternoons to train middle and high school students to prepare for the National Merit Scholarship and SAT exams.

It is easy to see the close ties of the Ambati family, the parents' affection and pride in their children, tempered by orthodox Hindu parental ideas of discipline. No smoking or alcohol is allowed in the house. The young men are models of good behaviour and excellent manners.

Just as the family was getting ready to leave for elder statesman  C Subramaniam's house for dinner, Jayakrishna returned triumphantly with the candles, to lighten the gloom, but, alas, too late to join the conversation. In a refreshing display of adolescent curiosity, Bala asked me whether I spoke Tamil or Telugu and we exchanged notes on our respective heights. 
I asked him whether he watched the TV serial 'Doogie Howser, MD.', the story of a teenage surgeon much like Bala. He is quick to point out that he has been around longer than the serial. In fact, after graduating in biology at 13, he had declared his intention of completing his medical degree by the time he was 17. The TV serial followed a year later, perhaps even inspired by Bala. Like Doogie Howser, Bala is a brilliant young doctor with a maturity and wisdom far beyond his years. Like Howser, too, he does show flashes of boyish innocence and humour.

Power supply as yet unrestored, I came away seeing in different light the simplicity of a family that finds itself in the limelight, their patience with the irritants of life in Madras after the  luxuries of America, there fierce pride in their Indianness. They appear to have found the right mix of tradition and modernity. They are excellent examples of the merits of the best modern education, aligned with a world-view and nourished by the values of a well-knit, traditional Indian family.

1 comment:

BINA NAIR said...

Enjoyed the read. the narrative was like that of a story.