March 30, 2020
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His Life, And Rocket Science

Nambi Narayanan’s career in ISRO is also a history of that national centre of excellence. Then, there are ugly warts—his shameful framing as a spy.

His Life, And Rocket Science
His Life, And Rocket Science
Ready To Fire: How India And I Survived The ISRO Spy Case
By Nambi Narayanan with Arun Ram
Bloomsbury | Pages: 372 | Rs. 499

On November 30, 1994, Nambi Narayanan, the person leading the team to develop a liquid propulsion rocket engine at Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was arrested by the Kerala police. He, along with other ISRO employees and two Maldivian women, were charged with working for Pakistan. The charge was that they had stolen the drawings and documents of the cryogenic engine. Nambi Narayanan was supposed to be responsible for giving the drawings through a series of intermediaries to the Maldivian women.

This book is a recounting and the den­ouement of this sensational case by Narayanan, and an autobiographical account of his life and career. Narayanan graduated as an engineer in 1965 and started working at ISRO in 1966, from where he retired in 2001. His long stint at ISRO also coincided with the evolution of ISRO from a small set-up which launched sounding rockets from Thumba near Thiruvananthapuram, to the powerhouse it is now.

The book could do with some serious editing—too many repetitions and grammatical errors, besides some factual mistakes, jar in an otherwise immensely readable book.

In the ’70s, ISRO developed the Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV), which used a solid propellant. This was follo­wed by the Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV), which was also solid fuelled. However, to be able to launch larger satellites, more efficient and powerful liquid fuelled engines were required. There was a lot of resistance to go for this, as opposed to the time-tested solid propellant one. Narayanan, a passionate believer in liquid propulsion technology, was chosen by Satish Dhawan, who was heading ISRO, to lead a team to bring the technology from the French and then indigenise it.

The book comprises two parallel narratives—one is the incarceration of Narayanan and his subsequent travails with the investigative agencies and the judiciary; the other is mostly his role in developing and testing the first liquid propulsion engine. The ISRO parts give a good insight into the evolution and the working of this behemoth. Narayanan does not pull any punches in describing the decline in ISRO’s leadership from the idealistic Sarabhai to the present dispensation. ISRO’s initial years in the ’60s were also years of tremendous economic stress for India, days of “from ship to mouth” and it was only Sarabhai’s closeness to the highest echelons that was instrumental in space research getting resources. Dhawan and U.R. Rao, who followed him, played a critical role in building ISRO’s capabilities in rocket and satellite technology. The fact that ISRO was an autonomous organisation, directly under the prime minister, und­oubtedly helped.

Narayanan’s account of his time at ISRO, though a bit tedious at times with a lot of details about his many colleagues, does have its interesting bits. When the nose cone of one of the rockets developed by a team led by Abdul Kalam (then at ISRO) got ejected on the launch pad itself, someone quipped, “Oh Kalam, you just had  premature ejaculation!”. Or when T.N. Seshan, then in-charge of administration at ISRO, offered an opinion on some technological deal with the French, he was told by Dhawan, “Seshan, this is technology. You please focus on administration”. Not to take a snub lying down, the redoubtable Seshan got back later. When asked his opinion on something else, a poker-­faced Seshan retorted, “It’s technology, sir. I will focus on administration!”

The narrative of the espionage case is, as expected, a lot racier. Sex, money, political intrigue, international spy agencies, commercial competition, and greed—it has all the ingredients of a spy thriller. However, what comes out is a story of how investigative agencies, in this case the Kerala police and the Intelligence Bureau, used all dirty tricks of the trade (including torture and blackmail) to extract confessions and to buttress a pre-conceived narrative. It is a riveting read, though at times a bit melodramatic.

The book could do with some serious editing—there are too many repetitions, sometimes in the same chapter. This, plus the many grammatical errors, jar in an otherwise immensely readable book. There are also some factual errors (the Chinese aggression was in 1962, not in 1964). One hopes that the publisher will take care of these in the final version.

Narayanan and all the other accused were exonerated of all charges by the Supreme Court in 1998. This brought the whole sordid saga to an end. However, Narayanan is still fighting a case for compensation and criminal action against the police officials who framed him. Developing a rocket might have been simpler compared to negotiating the Indian criminal justice system. As he quips in the book, “Life is not always rocket science”!

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