How the son of a poor school teacher launched himself into the orbit of India’s greatest scientists
India’s space programme is the cynosure of all eyes in the international community as ISRO (Indian Satellite Research Organisation) stunned the world by launching 104 satellites, including 96 from the US, in a single mission last month from its Sriharikota spaceport.
The Washington Post noted: “The launch was another success for the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), which is rapidly gaining a reputation globally for its effective yet low-cost missions.”
Associated with India's low-cost missions to the moon and Mars, thriftiness comes naturally to Dr Mylswamy Annadurai, director, ISRO, who grew up in a village near Coimbatore (Photos: H K Rajashekar)
ISRO had already pulled off successful low-cost missions to the moon (Chandrayaan I) in 2008 and Mars (Mangalyaan) in 2013.
And one man who played a key role in all the three projects is the incumbent director of ISRO, Dr Mayilswamy Annadurai, who was the project director of Chandrayaan I and programe director of Mangalyaan as well.
“India will be a major outsourcing destination for making and launching of satellites,” asserts Annadurai, looking much younger than his 58 years. His confidence stems from his belief that India would be able to make satellites at a cost that none in the world can match.
He says NASA’s Mars orbiter Maven – launched around the same time as Mangalyaan - was about ten times more expensive than Mangalyaan’s Rs 450 crore total mission cost.
It would seem that having someone like Annadurai at the helm is a definite advantage for ISRO, which is eyeing for a big share of the USD 330 billion global space market, with its ‘cheap and best’ USP.
For, thriftiness could be second nature to Annadurai, who grew up in Kothawady, a village that lies about 25 km from Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu.
Economic use of resources was the norm at Annadurai’s home. His family lived on the income of his father, a primary school teacher, who drew a monthly salary of around Rs 120.
ISRO has put India firmly on the global space market
Reminiscing his childhood days, Annadurai says it was his duty as the eldest among five siblings to preserve his clothes well for his younger brothers to wear after him.
His school textbooks too were well-maintained. You would find no scribbling or dog-ears on them and at the end of the academic year they would still appear brand new – ready for the next sibling to use.
“My parents said the books would be used by my siblings, and asked me to be careful with them. So I would not tear the pages or scribble on them as children normally do,” says Annadurai.
The family had just a five-cent land with a small house built on it. “It was our only land holding, we had no agriculture land,” he says.
Annadurai’s father used his tailoring skills and the sewing machine at home to make some extra money, since the income from his job was not sufficient to meet the family’s needs.
“He did his tailoring work after school hours and earned an additional income of about Rs 100 every month. He stitched women’s blouses, and shirts and trousers for men,” shares Annadurai, who would put buttons on the apparels his father made and get paid a few paise for each piece he worked on.
“I started assisting him when I was in Class III. My father charged around 50 paise for stitching a blouse,” he recalls.
During festivals he and his sister would get one set of dress each year, which his father would manage from the cloth given by the village headman for stitching dress for his children, who were around the same age as Annadurai and his siblings.
Though he grew up in difficult circumstances, Annadurai holds a brilliant academic track-record
“My father would cut the cloth in such a way that the waste pieces are good enough to be used for stitching an additional set of dress for me and my sister.
“We would wear the dress for the next festival, and of course, all our dresses need to be kept in good condition for the next sibling to wear,” says Annadurai laughing.
He began saving the five and three paise coins he got from his father and at one stage had Rs 5 with which he bought a chicken and started poultry farming. He also opened a savings account in the local post office.
When he was in high school, he even saved the bus fare his parents gave him by walking to the school sometimes.
On some occasions, he employed an ingenious method to save his ticket fare. “I used to go early to the bus stop and collect change from the students. The bus fare would be around six or seven paise and the conductor would not return the small change.
“If I planned it well, I could buy tickets for about five or six people and get my ticket free. It was a win-win for me, my friends and the conductor,” he says.
In fact, what ISRO is trying to achieve through its commercial satellite launching is somewhat like Annadurai’s free bus rides. If ISRO’s efforts succeed, the cost of India’s satellite programme could be largely offset through the revenue that accrues from the commercial launches of foreign satellites.
While on the one hand Annadurai was trying to save and earn money, he was shining in the academic front as well, bagging scholarships for his high school studies – Rs 1,000 yearly - and higher education – Rs 110 monthly.
He had his primary education at the village school, which was initially a cow shed that was converted into a classroom.
Annadurai's dream is to make India the global leader in the space industry
“We used to take the cattle out, clean the stable of the dung, and sit down. When I was in Class III, we had a new building, but there was no playground. We created one by cleaning up the surroundings,” he says.
He was a district topper in SSLC. He did his PUC from Nallamuthu Gounder Mahalingam College in Pollachi, where he was the college topper.
Later, he did his entire higher education from Coimbatore – his BE from Government College of Technology, his Master’s from PSG College of Technology, and his PhD from Anna University of Technology.
Annadurai, who was named after the DMK founder and former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister C N Annadurai, says he is inspired by the words of Bhagwad Gita – keep doing your duty and the reward will come!
His wife Vasanthi is a homemaker and manages his life too. “She takes care of my passbook, credit card, everything else, and I talk about Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan,” he chuckles. His son, Gokul Kannan, 26, works in Bosch in Bengaluru.
For someone who has received many awards including the Padma Shri in 2016, Annadurai has many more dreams to fulfill – the primary one is to make India the global leader in the space industry.