Back in the last millenium, when I was still figuring out whom I wanted to work under for my doctoral thesis, I asked my friend and mentor Sridev for advice. I was leaning towards working with his advisor, Professor Asim Kumar Pal, so I figured he’d be able to tell me what the experience was like. I don’t remember much of the conversation, but I remember two things most vividly. The first was that he had no ego; you could have a heated argument with him on a technical matter, and he wouldn’t expect you to hold back simply because he was the professor and you were the student. He would, in fact, expect it. (He would win the argument, usually, but that’s okay.) The second was that Prof. Pal’s unit of measurement was work, not time. If I took a decade to finish the quantum of work he deemed acceptable for a dissertation, well, then I took a decade. He wasn’t going to let me off with five years worth of work simply because it was time to submit something. I listened carefully, nodded, and then went ahead with my plans.
Was it the misplaced confidence that I would breeze through my work in a couple of years? Maybe, but I’d like to think that it was because, when Sridev told me this, it wasn’t his words I heard, but the words from a book that influenced me profoundly as a high schooler: Jonathan Livingston Seagull. There is a line in that book that says, “Those who abandon perfection for the sake of speed go nowhere, slowly. Those who abandon speed for the sake of perfection go anywhere, instantly.”
The funny thing is, Prof. Pal said something similar to me a year later. I had to present a research paper to my faculty group, and perhaps the nicest way to describe the experience was that it was a disaster. I had started off by putting a fairly complex equation on the board without building up to it, and had spent the next couple of hours trying to explain it to an increasingly annoyed group of professors. Worst of all, that equation was only the first of many in the paper. By the time I was done, I was mentally cataloguing the list of belongings in my room that I would have to pack before leaving the institute.
Prof. Pal sat me down and said, “Ramsu, if you have to go fast, you have to go slow.” I responded with the first thing that came to my mind: “I feel like I am in the middle of a bad kung-fu movie, and am getting advice that I don’t understand.” Unfazed by my outburst, he explained to me that, if I had spent the first half hour or even the first hour laying out the fundamental concepts that led to that equation, and convinced the audience about the intuition behind the theory, they would’ve taken my word on the math. To this day, when I have to teach something, I go slow on the concepts and the intuition, and then zip through the math.
He was my elder gull. He taught me how to fly.
How to learn.
How to teach.
How to do research.
How to find joy, not in answering a question but in asking it in the first place, for the answer to any research question is complete only when accompanied by the newer set of questions it spawns.
How to ask why before asking how.
How to be a student and never stop being one.
I guess the mundane way of putting it is that Professor Asim Kumar Pal passed away today. The obvious follow up would include details of how he died, and how old he was. But remember what I told you earlier: his unit of measurement was work, not time. And by that metric, he has lived, and continues to live several lifetimes.
He lives through us, his students, his creations.
Asim is a Bengali name that means unlimited. I think his parents were onto something.