From the social impact-driven, spiritual ideology of Ramakrishna Mission, since his schooldays, to becoming a legend in the Indian technology education landscape, Professor S. Sadagopan, an educator and thought leader, has embarked on an insightful journey. In a conversation with Sudeshna Das, consulting editor at EFY, he candidly shares the story of his life
Hailing from Mylapore, a neighbourhood exuding old-world charm in the heart of Chennai, India, Professor S. Sadagopan was born in 1951 into an educated, middle-class family. Despite losing his father at a young age, he spent his formative years amidst the quaint surroundings of Mylapore. His resilient mother, now aged 96, single-handedly raised him, instilling a strong foundation for his future endeavours.
“I lost my father when I was seventeen. Just on the day of the death, he said that he was dying as a happy father as he had instilled a better value system in me. He used to say that, for us, God is like a traffic cop and God is not confused. So obviously, there are only green and red and no amber in his signal. This lesson made me very intuition-driven. Before making any decision, intuitively, I see if it’s green or red. I do not question it; I consider it the Lord’s wish. My mother raised me almost single-handedly. It was quite tough, but she has done it extremely well. She is a big, big motivator and an influencer on my life.”
Traveling down the early years
“Mylapore used to be called a place for intellectuals. It was a nice neighbourhood with an old sandstone church and a beautiful sea beach. The church traces its origin back to St. Thomas!” Prof. Sadagopan describes. He started his schooling in a 100-year-old institute, named P S High School, in the same locality. Later, he was associated with the Ramakrishna Mission School in Chennai.
The association with Ramakrishna Mission made a deep impact on Prof. Sadagopan. The ideologies of Shri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda remain the guiding factor in Prof. Sadagopan’s journey of life. He got interested in meditation and began volunteering for social causes during his school days under different initiatives by Ramakrishna Mission. “As a school student, I got into the habit of volunteering. I volunteered in the free medical centre cum dispensary run by the Ramakrishna Mission. I used to distribute medicines as per the prescriptions.”
Prof. Sadagopan is to date quite fascinated by the libraries at his school and Ramakrishna Mission. He still remembers the amazing teachers that mentored him and encouraged him on a lifelong spiritual journey. Prof. Sadagopan opines, “My experiences at school and Ramakrishna Mission shaped my personality.”
“I have learned a lot while volunteering with Ramakrishna Mission for a charitable dispensary project. The patients had to pay five paise for availing of the consultation. Even in those days, five paise was a nominal amount, but collecting the same involved lots of work. So, I asked Swamiji the reason behind making the service chargeable with a nominal amount. He explained that those ‘5 paisa’ contributions from each patient were hardly making any difference in our overall cost. However, that contribution would ensure the sincerity and regularity of the patients for that service. Actually, after paying that nominal fee they valued the service more and stopped wasting medicines. It was a touching lesson for me.”
Pursuing the engineering dream
Prof. Sadagopan completed his schooling in 1967 and joined the College of Engineering, Guindy, University of Madras, India, to pursue BE (Hons) (1973). He narrates “It is one of the oldest engineering colleges in the country. I was a day scholar there. My house was about five kilometres away and I used to commute by bicycle.”
The college gave him a much wider canvas to paint. While remembering his learning days, Prof. Sadagopan says, “In those days, there was no separate computer science department. However, we started with analogue computers, and later, a very modest IBM 1620 computer in a government department. There was a professor in charge who used to allow us extra practice time, after office hours. However, there was not enough money to pay for IBM training; so we all used to dig up the manuals and learn to program by doing it ourselves.”
During his engineering days, Prof. Sadagopan got opportunities to participate in various interesting projects and to do an internship at a reputed company. However, the huge library at Guindy was the most important attraction. “I still remember there was a famous textbook called ‘The Dynamics and Thermodynamics of Compressible Fluid Flow’ by Professor AH Shapiro of MIT.” The librarian was struggling to find the right place—was she to put it under dynamics, thermodynamics, or fluids? I guided her to resolve this matter and we became good friends. As a result, I was allowed to borrow more books. I think books have been an integral part of my life.”
Then, the Indian higher education system was in an experimental phase concerning the engineering syllabus. It allowed Prof. Sadagopan to study more elective courses and interesting projects even outside the department. He focused more on mathematics and electronics and also did some unusual experiments.
Sdagopan defines himself as a ‘365 day holiday’ person as he has been enjoying his study and work just like his leisure. “When people talk about work-life balance, I get amused, because I think that it seamlessly flows into each other,” he explains. His zeal for learning manifested even in leisure pursuits, exemplified by his grasp of Hindi and translation of Prabhudutt Brahmachari’s lectures during his college days.