By Srabani Sen
I was born in England where my father spent his 14 years. My parents were both writers—my father was a journalist and my mother a short story writer. I have two sisters, and when my younger sister was born, my father left England to settle in India. I was then seven-and-a-half-year-old. My father joined Economic Times as the bureau chief of Kolkata and served it for 20 years.
Caught between social movements
As a student I excelled in studies. I went to Andrews School in Kolkata. In 1970-71, Kolkata was tensed due to the Naxalite movement and all colleges remained closed for most of the year. I lost an academic year in Kolkata. So I had to move to Ranchi to do undergraduation. But life had other plans for me. In Ranchi, too, I ended up losing a year as the JP movement had started there. So, I lost two academic years as I was caught between the Naxalite movement and the JP movement.
It is a common parlance that if you’re 20 and you’re still not a communist it means you don’t have a heart. And at 40, if you’re still a communist you don’t have a head. Kolkata, as we all are aware, is a politically sensitive city. I was influenced by the Naxalite movement but not to the extent of getting involved in it. I was never politically active. In fact, I was more active in sports and made my school and college proud of my sportsman skills. Losing two academic years and being away from college during the turmoil was like an extended holiday for me. I represented my school and college in many sports. I played hockey at the district level, cricket, football and badminton. Also, my tall and skinny stature helped me being a good wicketkeeper and a goalkeeper.
Education, an important part of my life
I come from a family where education is given a lot of importance. That was the major drive for everything I did in life. So like many youngsters, I was not carried away by the Naxalite and JP movements. I would not call myself a naughty child, rather I was mischievous. However, I took part in all competitions, particularly scientific model competitions, and won many prizes in school.
It is only when I was in college that I realised the importance of education and became very serious towards studies. I was overwhelmed by the thought that I have to do something that would make me successful.
After my undergraduation, I went back to Kolkata and did my Masters in pure science—solid state physics—from Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and M Tech in material science from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. In 1983, I proceeded to the US to obtain my PhD in engineering from Brown University, Rhode Island. My favourite subject in college was physics and I still like it.
The turning point
In college, I was determined to be a hardcore political physicist. But when I was doing my Masters, I realised that I am not fit for it. It happened so when I was writing an article where I had to explain what a political physicist do, that’s when I realised that I did not fit into the definition and decided that I will not remain in pure science and wanted to take up technology. That was a turning point in my life where I realised my limitations, both in terms of liking and my ability to think independently.
I always did what I wanted to do. Sometimes when I think back, I realise that the biggest support my sisters and I got from our parents was their faith in our ability and the freedom to do what we wanted to, so long as we had an objective. They never had any problem when I changed the direction of my studies. They never pushed me to be a doctor or an engineer, neither did they push me to be a journalist. They always gave me the freedom to figure out what I would like to do in life. This positive support from my parents has deeply influenced my life.
Writing is my passion
I started writing very young. My first story was published when I was 13 and was paid for it. My second story was published when I was in the ninth grade, however, my third story was rejected. After two of my stories got published, I was confident that I had become a writer and sent the third story to Sarika, a magazine for adult readers. Naturally, they would reject a child’s article. When I came back from school I saw the manuscript on the living room table which was corrected by my mother. As egoistic as I was, I stopped writing completely because I couldn’t digest the fact that my Hindi was corrected by my mother. I was being stupid. But that was the end of my journey of becoming a writer or a journalist.
My father learned several languages; both my sisters were taught various languages but I pronounced that if I wanted to learn any language I would learn on my own. My ego didn’t permit me to do the same things as other did. In fact, I felt a lot of competition from my parents, so I chose to do things differently.
I always felt, if my father could find his own bread why couldn’t I? My parents encouraged this attitude. I did everything on my own. My father let me move around on my own even in unknown places since I was a small boy. He used to say, “If you get lost, you have the house phone number and address. You should be able to find your way home.” I grew up in a family where there was a lot of pressure to do well in school and college. The rest was left to us. I think that is what made us so independent. My sister and I found our own ways and are doing well in life.
Solar just happened
One of my professors, Dr Dilip Paul, who was also my guide in PhD, persuaded me to do my M Tech thesis on solar energy. In 1978, he sent me from the US to Delhi to attend a solar energy conference at Vigyan Bhawan. I was extremely enlightened and took up solar as my career.
I did my thesis on solar energy. I feel extremely satisfied that I have chosen this line. I have seen people’s life taking a turn around with the help of solar. In late 1990s, there was a UN project in India on water pumping. I came to India to see how the solar powered water pumps were working. I landed in Hyderabad and took a car to visit a village in the interior. There was no electricity in the village, and no pacca road. I had to leave the car and walk for 45 minutes to reach the village. You can imagine how backward the village was. In such a village, when I saw the solar panels I was overwhelmed.
From a long distance I could see the solar panels in the fields. Then I saw three water pumps powered by the solar panels. When I was introduced to the farmer working in the field, he came and touched my feet out of gratitude. He took me to his home and fed me. He said that before the three solar powered water pumps came in the village, he used to cultivate only one crop annually. But with three pumps, he was cultivating three crops a year and also been able to send his three children to school. Even today, when I remember such incidents I get goosebumps!
I am happy that I never gave up on solar. Solar requires dedication and good technology. I think if my professor would have given me a different direction I would have taken it but since he showed me the solar direction I am grateful to him. So I can say that solar just happened. During my college days I did change lines but after solar happened I was very determined that this is what I want to do.
Road to success
If I am on the road to success, I owe it to a large extent to my family support. In 1979, I went to the US, and for the next 28 years I stayed there—first I did my PhD, then I worked for a small startup company. After leaving that I joined Solerex as a senior project scientist and left 19 years later as executive director (thin film technology). I was also the director of the Oregon Renewable Energy Centre in Portland, Oregon, where I led an organisation with a statewide charter for applied research and education in renewable energy systems. Next, I started a solar company along with five others. Initially, the company was called Gen3Solar in Hayward, California. Later, it was named OptiSolar Inc., where I worked as the chief technology officer. I also launched Arya International, Inc., a solar technology and business consulting firm, in 2003.
I joined Moser Baer in September 2007 and was instrumental in envisaging the company’s plan to attain 1 GW capacity across three verticals—silicon, thin film and concentrators. Presently, I am working as the chief executive officer. My work includes product design, process scale up, process transfer, piloting and start up of a thin film solar module plant.
With 25 years’ experience in thin film solar cells and modules, I have maintained a professional interest in many aspects of renewable energy components and systems. My R&D activities have centered on material and device aspects of three types of thin film solar cells and modules—amorphous silicon, copper indium diselenide and cadmium telluride.
Other roles in life
I got married in 1979, the year I left for the US. My wife, who has a Masters in social work, has been a psychiatric social worker. Our only son Rajat studied computer science and is working in the US. Rajat is also as independent as I was when I was his age.
I think I have well managed my roles as a father and as a husband. My son is like a friend but I think he is closer to my wife. Whenever he comes to India, we spend quality time together. We go to watch a play or a game, leaving his wife and his mother home. We like to spend time with each other despite a wide generation gap that exists between us. I am fortunate and feel blessed that I have this kind of relationship with my son and daughter-in-law.
However, I must admit that I may have neglected some of my responsibilities towards my wife. As I was very dedicated to my work, my wife had to give more time to my son and do most of the interactions with his school and college. She keeps my family going by filling in for me. What overwhelms me the most is how she compromised her career for mine. But we are both professionals and know each other for long. So there are no hangups.
I did stop publishing my stories after ninth standard but that does not mean that I have stopped writing. Besides studies, if I have done anything serious, it was writing poetry. I still write and recite poetry. I recite essentially in three languages, mostly in Hindi, but I have friends in south India who speak English, and for them I recite in English. There is a lot of pressure from publishers to publish my work but I don’t let any of my poetries go out. One day I may go back to writing and publish in those journals where my parents published their stories. But that is for later. I would never be as good a writer as they were. But I am absolutely sure, if I wanted I could have become a writer.
Once I was a big movie buffer but now I don’t watch movies. I would rather go and watch a play. I am very fond of watching plays.
Solar is close to my heart
The future of solar in India is very bright and the national solar mission will change the entire future of solar energy. India was not counted as a solar hub like Germany, Japan and the US. But in the coming years, India will be one of the leading solar countries for multiple reasons—shortage of electricity, 300 days of sunshine, and now we have a strong government policy.
Moser Baer will play a major role in achieving the target of the solar mission. In two-and-a-half years, Moser Baer will be the largest solar company in India. I want to capture the biggest share of the solar pie; we have the ability to do it.
Solar energy is very close to my heart and will always have a good place in my life. Even after I retire from work, I would continue working with it. Besides, I will teach languages—let me tell you, in the US I taught Hindi to little children. I will also pursue writing full time and I will give a serious try to see what level I can achieve.