Dr. Mulki Vasudeva Kamath (BTech Elect Engg, 1987, Hostel 3, PhD 1993, IITB)
Dr. Vasudev Kamath passed away suddenly on 15 May 2001, in the US, leaving behind a stunned family and a huge number of friends. It is with great effort that one uses the past tense in this obituary. He was among the most colourful personalities that many of us knew, and among others, Indian Railways has lost one of its most knowledgeable and ardent fans. He died in the U.S. where he was travelling on work, and he was working for PSPL Pune at the time.
Vasudev apparently had twelve "official" names (at his naming ceremony), of which Vasudev was the last one, and to most of us, he was Vasu. To some of his hostel friends, he was also "Samir". But by any name, he was one of the most endearing personalities on the IIT Campus, in Hostel 3, in the Research Scholars Room in Computer Science and wherever he worked. He was associated with IIT for the most part of his 35 years, as a campus resident, as a B.Tech and then Ph.D. student and also as a part of the Tata Infotech Research Group lab in the CS department.
In retrospect, his fascination for detail, for history, for transport, for culture and the railways in particular seems to have been with him from early childhood, since he made it a point to document journeys and travelogues even from the age of 2 (based on anectodal verification of his mother)! Endowed with a photographer's keen eye and a photographic memory, Vasu was a great archiver and traveller of the country. Having done his Ph.D. at IIT Bombay itself, it was only while he was working that he travelled abroad and he was an equally keen chronicler of life and culture in the U.S., especially Native American culture, which fascinated him. He was a near professional photographer and had a large and varied collection of photographs.
Vasu was a good friend to many of us. Even in the weeks before his untimely death, he had helped out many with his own effort, time and money. Those with whom he interacted ranged from the local residents of Phule Nagar, near the IIT campus in Bombay, to a group of chlidren at the Timbuktu collective in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh. Vasu had picked up quite a bit of Telugu to interact with this latter group of children. In fact, Vasu had a working knowledge of an amazing number of Indian languages, ranging from Malayalam to Bengali. Vasu was associated with the Group for Rural Activities at IIT, and many other organisations to do with what he identified as development activities.
His love for travel, for local flavour and an empathy with life and people of different regions of the country gave him a unique perspective. Equally determined in his professional life, Vasu had sent ahead a copy of a planned presentation to the Railway Staff College just the week before he died. Eventually, he had to cancel his trip and that rendezvous with his beloved railways was not to happen. His work in Computer Science and Information Technology was carried out with typical intensity and he would not be happy till he had learnt most of what there was to learn about what he was working on. His work on a couple of railway projects was such that railway people working on those projects, were at first amused, then amazed, and then inspired, by his almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the railways.
A recent, but passionate group of friends was the 400 odd members of the Indian Railways Fan Club Association (IRFCA). He struck an immediate chord with his archival knowledge of the railways and almost all aspects of its working. Off hand, it is difficult to think of someone who could
• Rattle off ALL stations from, say Mumbai to Howrah via Nagpur
• Tell you all rivers, bridges and layouts of all stations between Mumbai and Ahmedabad
• recall timings, composition, traction and braking of almost all express trains in India
• sketch the entire railway network, and detailed maps of the Delhi area, of Nimpura yard in Kharagpur and the configuration of tracks in Lucknow and Madras.
Vasu Kamath was pleased that his initials VK were also the station codefor Vikhroli, the station he probably visited most often. As an example of his amazing flair for detail, the first time I visited Ahmedabad and asked Vasu for some general directions to my destination in the city, Vasu took up an envelope, and on the back of it, he sketched the railway lines in the city, the Sabarmati river, all the bridges from the old city to the new (and told me what contingency traffic plans came into force during a curfew!), told me all the relevant bus routes, what time I could get the first bus, where there was a good tea shop outside the station and finally instructed me to pick up an Ahmedabad bus guide, if I could.
Railway anecdotes about Vasu and those related by him, deserve a book for their breadth and experience. Some of them are in the archives of the IRFCA.
Personal memories are too numerous and varied to share. Almost every one who knew him, would be greeted by him on birthdays or anniversaries (by a phone call or letter from wherever Vasu was), would get books from him, or some news clippings which he thought would be of interest.
Vasu had a collector's attitude to many odd things. Apart from railway memorabilia like timetables, card tickets, maps and so on, he had requested me to get a copy of the Vishakhapatnam edition of the Indian Express to finish his collection of the countrywide editions. Somewhat like a comet, he blazed an intense, solitary trail, but for too short a time. I heard that the name Vasudev signified something like a title and that there could be only person on earth with such a title at any given time. Certainly, no dispute about that while Vasu was around.