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Professor and hero

August 14, 2006 14:21 IST
Had he been alive, Dr Munish Chander Puri would have celebrated his 67th birthday on August 15, India's Independence Day.

Unfortunately, terrorism had a different script prepared for Dr Puri, a retired Professor Emeritus in the mathematics department at the Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi.

Dr Puri, a mathematician and an immensely inspiring teacher, was brutally gunned down by terrorists at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore on December 28 last year.

He was at the Institute of Science to participate in the annual conference of the Operational Research Society of India. "He would make it a point to take part in this annual event every year, as it was very close to his heart. Nothing would stop him from going for it," says his son Saurabh.

Quite becoming of his nature, Dr Puri ensured the safety of his colleagues and foreign delegates when a terrorist(s) opened fire indiscriminately on that fatal night.

Among the group of delegates in the conference, he was the first to realise that what they heard was the firing of bullets and not fire-crackers. He shouted to the others to take cover. Unfortunately he could not get out of the line of fire himself.

C S Lalitha, Professor Puri's student and a teacher at New Delhi's Rajdhani College, was one of those who escaped that December night. 'If it wasn't for him, I would have been dead,' she then told the media.

The news of Professor Puri's tragic death was devastating news for his students, friends and colleagues, as it was to his family. "The memories of that evening still shatters me," says Saurabh.

Public memory may be short but sensitive people could not forget the heartbreaking savagery meted out to the scientist. Less than two months after his heroic death, a web site was set up by a group of students in his memory, enabling Dr Puri's colleagues, students, friends and others to pay their homage online.

Besides a biographical note and a gallery of his photographs at last year's conference in Bangalore, the site also provides insights into Dr Puri's work.

Wrote former student Sarbvir Singh: 'I was deeply saddened by that news, but could not help smiling when I read that he had pushed aside his colleagues while not being able to get out of the way himself. To me that was the essence of the man -- always others before self.'

Another former student Surendar Kumar wrote: 'He was the most dedicated teacher I ever had during my higher studies. The entire class loved to hear him.'

According to Saurabh Puri, the professor was a very disciplined man who was extremely committed to his profession. "Only from his student's tributes to my dad did I come to know how dear he was to them. It was moving," he says.

For a man who dedicated his life in shaping a new scientific generation and who sacrificed his life for others has our government done enough to keep his memory alive?

To this, Saurabh has a practical response. "We do not want to ask for any recognition, the government should realise it on its own. Moreover whatever they do, they cannot bring back my father."

"We have never really thought about recognition from the government. It is more important that people, including the government, understand and remember his bravery and sacrifice," he adds.

The 93rd Indian Science Congress in Hyderabad, held a month after Dr Puri's death, was inaugurated by Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh who saluted the professor's memory. "President A P J Abdul Kalam also wrote to us paying his respects," says Saurabh.

The Operational Research Society of India's 39th annual convention to be held in Kolkata in January has been dedicated to Professor Puri.

His colleagues and students think something more could be done. "It is to keep his memory alive and to draw motivation from his life that we set up a web site," says Ankit Khandelwal, one of the three individuals responsible for the the site.

Ankit says IIT-Delhi and Hansraj College, Delhi, plan to set up a scholarship or an award in his name. Professor Puri's students are working towards that objective.

Some former students feel that only by showing genuine commitment to mathematical research can they keep his memory alive.

"I guess the highest tribute that we as young research scholars can pay to Professor Puri is by doing research of high standards and secure India's name permanently in the world map of optimisation," says Joydeep Dutta.

When few have the time to remember our heroes, we can only hope that Professor Puri and his contribution is never forgotten. A teacher who died saving others from the terrorists' bullets deserves nothing less.

Jabir Musthari