A Journey of a Boy from India’s Independence Struggle to a Knowledge Sharer in the Digital Age: 89 Year “Young” Prof. BR Ashwathnarayan Rao

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An eleven year old boy is adamant with his parents, insistent on getting into a school in Bangalore, RBANMS. The reason – the head master of the school was none other than Bipin Chandra Pal (of the Lal-Bal-Pal fame during the Independence struggle of India against British rule). The year was 1940 and the name of the little boy was BR Ashwathnarayan Rao. It was a different era to grow up in, with the air rift with patriotism; every youngster in India wanted to be part of the biggest national movement the world had ever seen. We had the pleasure to meet this Octogenarian who at 89 years of age is still full of energy and works more hours than most working professionals do.

Known to most of his students and people he mentors as Prof. B.R.A Rao, he is supposed to have been a very timid boy who went on to have the most amazing adventures in life. In his words – “I was a very timid boy but when I was in 4th standard, a teacher was telling us about Tipu Sultan and how he was against Hindus, etc. No one had ever questioned this teacher. But as I heard him I had a conflicting thought in my mind. My father was an assistant to a temple priest. Every year he would get a huge quantity of jewels for the temple from Tipu Sultan. How then could this teacher tell us he was against Hindus if he was giving such wealth to the temple? I asked the teacher about this and I still remember how the teacher said sorry, and that he will never make such a mistake again. He told me that I will go very far in life.” We knew there were many more stories that most people who know Prof. Rao may not know so we continued intently listening to him recall his various life experiences.

“I have lived a good life… Troublesome but happy!”

Transforming Lives.

“Always give people an opportunity. If you don’t want to take a step, you will never take a step. The horizon is ever widening, never ending.”

What was most inspiring for us was how Prof. Rao transforms lives even today. Here is one such incident we learnt a great deal from.

A few years back Prof. Rao found a boy loafing around the streets near his house, who lived in a slum close by.

Prof. Rao: What are you doing?

Boy: Nothing.

Prof. Rao: Will you work?

Boy: How much will you pay me?

Prof. Rao: How much do you want?

Boy: Rupees 100 per month.

Prof. Rao: I will give you rupees 200.

Prof. Rao put him on to simple document scanning and he learnt pretty fast. Today he converts Prof. Rao’s lectures into YouTube videos and more.  Prof. Rao presented him with a computer. Today he has setup his own data place and earns 20k+35k running! He has free movement in Prof. Rao’s house, he has transformed. Between Prof. Rao and his son they have helped him build a house which is one the verge of completion today.

Prof. Rao’s philosophy in life is that it is important to make things easy for people. “Leave the world better than you found it! Make things simple. Life is anyway difficult for people but make it a bit simpler.”

He related a story from his life where an unknown person he had met made life for his family a little simpler and easier.

He would go for walks every morning and talk to friends as well as strangers. These days people are too busy to talk to each other or even acknowledge each other. Prof. Rao would use his morning walks as an occasion to simply wish others a good morning. On one such morning Prof. Rao encountered a man, a total stranger, and introduced himself after the customary good morning. The man replied “The Buddha smile.” Prof. Rao’s immediate thought he was probably talking to a mad man! Then he remembered that man was in Pokhran with APJ Abdul Kalam and asked him if he was there. To which the stranger replied with a smile that he was a scientist at Pokhran!

A few days later the same man looked at Rao and enquired, “Mr. Rao you look worried. Why are you worried?” Rao resisted and said that it was his problem. However on the gentleman’s insistence Rao finally opened up and shared that his daughter who was a bank officer had a tough life because the branch where she worked, Anekal was very far away. Family life was getting increasingly difficult for her and Rao worried about her. The man asked him which bank and immediately told Rao to ask his daughter to report to the HAL branch from the following Monday. He stood surprised and on enquiring further got to know that the gentleman was Mr. Joseph the Chairman and MD of the same bank!

Prof. Rao told us that his life’s learning has been “If you are good, make life simple, it pays you back like anything. It always comes back, it is nature’s law!”

His First Job.

Having studied as St. Joseph’s from 1945 to 1950 when he finished his degree, he was struggling to find a job. Armed with a BA in Economics and History it was not easy to find a job for even Rupees thirty a month. He would while away his days eating at home and sleeping in Cubbon Park. On one such day Father D’Souza from St. Joseph’s spotted him and asked him what he was up to. He answered truthfully that he was just loafing and whiling his time in Cubbon Park since he wasn’t finding a job. “Will you work for me?” asked Fr. D’Souza. “Sure!” said Rao thinking he would get some measly clerical job. When he went to work he was surprised to find he was given a schedule and appointed as a lecturer at St. Joseph’s! Thus began the transformation from BR Ashwathnarayan Rao to Prof. BRA Rao.

He is said to have been extremely unpopular with his colleagues but most loved by his students. His ideas and methodologies were unconventional and even path breaking. Once, walking around the campus, he saw some boys writing in really good handwriting (in the European high school). He took their notes for a day and got four of his students to copy the notes neatly and give it back to him. Then it struck him, it seemed a waste of time getting the boys to copy notes, he hit upon the idea to make photocopies of the notes and distribute it to all the boys in class. He immediately asked for a typewriter and got a big Remington for very cheap at Rs. 80/-. He would then give his students typed notes instead of having them write down during lectures. His colleagues were very unhappy, probably because they didn’t think of this first!

In 1956-57 he would record his lectures on tapes and give it to his students, then he moved on to video tapes and today Prof. Rao’s lectures are on YouTube! Around two  years back his students opened an account on a free site called Telegram where anyone can ask questions and Prof. Rao answers them diligently spending 7 to 8 hours every day on it. He has 380 members on this channel with 101 regular followers.

As a young professor in college, Prof. Rao had come across a few students who asked him doubts on some other subject. He took them together to an empty classroom and began explaining their doubts away. However this became a major issue with other lecturers and there was a demand for his resignation. Prof. Rao looked straight at the principal and said he would give him a written apology, except that he would write “I AM SORRY” on the board of the classroom. The principal understood this would create a huge uproar with the students and the issue was dropped. Prof. Rao’s learning was that others never let you experiment and in his words “They don’t allow the apple to fall on your head! How are you to create, invent or learn new things?”

Following this incident, he went on to introduce a concept for lecturers to be given 1 hour a week to teach anything regardless of subject to any student interested. This was an innovative method introduced and continued for decades thereon. “Great ideas start as small germs!” says Prof. Rao.

Very few people know this fact about Prof. Rao, he was a lecturer at Mount Carmel’s College for one day but that is a story we weren’t lucky enough to hear about yet.

Dementia and Old Age.

Catching signs of age-related dementia at an early stage is best; the same can be managed and even bettered.

Around 20 years ago when Prof. Rao was 69 years old, he had gone to Vyalikaval and since he didn’t like eating outside food he decided to visit his Brother in Law’s house in the same area for lunch. As he was headed there, on foot, he suddenly forgot his brother in law’s name then he forgot his house and even forgot his own name. Completely disoriented he was fortunate to find a gate open so he went in and sat at the steps of a house. A man came out and enquired after him. On learning that he didn’t even know his own name, the man who was a doctor took him in his car and drove around the area slowly asking Rao to look around and see if he could recognize anything.  Rao suddenly remembered his brother in law’s house and was taken there. Thereafter he was taken to Dr. Srinivas at MS Rammaiah Hospital dwhere he was given some tablets after a series of tests. The Doctor said the best thing to do was to keep busy and especially keep the mind occupied. After that incident Rao sold his property to his younger son, closed his institute, Prof. B.R.A Rao’s Institute for Competitive Exams, and he took to online teaching. He says he would never want to keep quiet and works 7-8 hours a day even till date just to ensue he doesn’t let dementia progress and make things worse not just for himself but for his family members as well.

Family Life.

With 2 older brothers, himself and a sister, Prof. Rao admits that he came from what he terms as a lousy family. However with pride in his eyes he claims, rightfully so, that his children aren’t like that. They are extremely friendly with each other, very cooperative and make sure that he has no feeling of any want in his life. Ask him about the biggest challenges he faced bringing up his children and he quips without any hesitation whatsoever, “None, I didn’t bring them up, my wife brought them up. She would go to their school by bus everyday with freshly prepared food. I was always busy, I would leave home before the kids got up and come back only after they were asleep.”

Prof. Rao’s wife was diagnosed with cancer when she was around 74-75 years old and passed away the same year. Theirs was an arranged marriage. She was 16 while Rao was 25 years old when they were married. It was almost a child marriage but times were different then.

Although alone at home Prof. Rao’s doors are always open for his students. During our interview with him, it was refreshing to see his house bustling with students walking in asking to clarify various doubts. There were people coming in and going continuously and someone constantly monitoring his routine, including the cups of tea he needed, his time to eat and so on.

Words of Wisdom for Seniors and Youngsters Alike

“Gardening gives you what you need as you age. Vitamin D!”

“Always have the enthusiasm to learn and do new things.”

“Everyone needs to be given a little push. You can be the one who gives them that push.”

“There is no need to go to a temple or church. The temple and God is within you.”

“Always be aware of yourself. When you see the slightest sign of an age related illness, be open and honest about it with your family.”

In Conclusion

There are a lot of stories that could have been part of this Spotlight on Prof. B.R.A Rao but to us his story has many angles and we were able to focus on a few aspects hoping that readers will find inspiration where it most resonates with them.

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