A tribute to Rene Abraham by Prof. Ashok Jhunjhunwala

It was 1983. I was a young Assistant Professor at IIT Madras (IITM). The institute had started to notice some stress amongst fresh undergraduate students. It created a Guidance and Counselling Unit (GCU) and I was made its head; we had a similar organisation when I was a student at IIT Kanpur and I used to work for it. We quickly created a team of students (C.V. Murthy, our Professor in Civil, was the student head) and started watching how the first-year students were doing.

We analysed their marks right after the first quiz and noticed several of them not doing well in multiple courses. Amongst them were four young kids, Rene Abraham, ShashikalaAshirwatham, Chacko and a fourth person whose name I do not remember. They did well in English and Workshop, but poorly in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics. They had come from Zambia and got admitted under a quota for Indian National Residents Abroad, without JEE.

A bit of conversation with them, and we found out that their high school was one year less than that of ours and they had not studied what is taught in India in the final year at school. Most of the topics in Maths, Physics and Chemistry, that we taught in the first year, required a background that they had missed totally. They would not be able cope up with our courses, even though they were bright.

Immediately, I brought it to the notice of Prof. P.V. Indiresan, the then director of IITM. He examined the matter and got his dean to do a bit of check to confirm our findings. I asked him what will we do? He said calmly that they will have to leave IITM and go back to Zambia. I argued that we can not do that, for it was our fault that we did not do the background check when we gave them admission.

These kids have come all the way and were already with us for six weeks. He told me that there was no other way. That afternoon, there was a senate meeting. Head GCU was now an invited member of the IITM Senate. There was an agenda item to get these four to leave the institute and Prof. Indiresan (Chairman, Senate) gave a brief background thanking me to have found out the issue. I got up and spoke that we cannot ask these students to leave without trying any other alternative.

Chairman said that there was no other alternative and did not want to discuss the matter further. I persisted, saying that it was our fault and we must figure out a way. Prof. Indiresan again explained that these youngsters will not be able to cope up with most of our curriculum and will never graduate, and it was best that they leave then. I however kept arguing. Members of Senate were stunned seeing a 30-year young faculty, who anyway did not belong to senate, speak like this against the opinion of the chairman. Prof. Indiresan got angry at some point and closed the senate meeting (I think it was the last item in the agenda) and walked out. I was stunned and did not know what to do.

I waited outside director’s office for about thirty minutes. Eventually he called me in. He was much calmer now and shot a question at me, “now that you have prevented the senate to take a right decision, what are you going to do.” I said I did not know, but maybe we can take them out of these courses for a year (they continue with English, Technical drawing and workshops where they were doing well), give them some tuition and bring them back after a year.

Prof. Indiresan immediately called a few people and handed over names and phone numbers of four of five best school-teachers in Physics, Chemistry and Maths in Chennai and told me that I can go ahead, contact them and see what could be done. We did exactly that and they opted out of three courses; and were going through four hours of these tuitions every week in each subject. They would come to my home twice a week initially and I will spend some time with them; Bhavani (my wife) will also talk to them and get them something to eat. Prof. Indiresan guided me throughout this period.

Next July, they did register for the first-year courses and were still struggling but could just about manage. Gradually, the three of them, belonging to Chemical Engineering and Aeronautical Engineering departments, started doing well. Rene Abraham was in Electrical Engineering. While he did well in Anthony Reddy’s course on circuits and courses on devices, he struggled with all those courses (like Communications, which I taught), which involved heavy mathematics.

He used to be a bit down. I talked to Dr. Kumaravel, who was heading Central Electronics Center, to get him to learn more on circuits; I would personally help him with those tough courses. It was a three-year struggle, but Bhavani and I were so happy, when he graduated. Rene and Shashi used to come home very frequently. Rene never called us by any other name, but Ashok and Bhavani. They later got married.

Rene got a job somewhere in Chennai and I did not get to meet him for several years. When I did a few years later, I found that he was designing complex stuff and had learned a lot. Bhaskar Ramamurthi, Timothy Gonsalves and I were about to take up our big wireless project to take telephony to villages. We invited him to join us along with several others. It was a joy seeing him learn and get to the job quickly. He was not just an accomplished designer but could train young graduates (that we had hired in large numbers) well and get them to deliver.

We had a great team, with people like Murugesh, Jawahar, Shirish, Deepak Khanchandani, Sanjay Nandi, Rolland Enoch, Sanjay Gupta, working along with Rene. They taught each other and we started doing what would have been considered impossible then. Rene grew fast to be amongst the best hardware designer. We managed to connect some remote villages in Andhra (in Kuppam district, if I remember right) with our system. Unfortunately, politics prevented us form going all theway, as CDOT took over our system and even the people. We knew that our efforts will go no further.

It was 1994, when we conceived of Wireless in Local Loop (WiLL), as a wireless alternative to landed lines for telephones. We knew that making a system with Government funding would go nowhere. We will create a company (the term start-up was not known then), which was named as Midas Communications and partner with it to develop the full system. We will get funding from companies, which will pay us advanced license fees. We will get our wireless team, including Rene, as founders and many more youngsters like Kutti Shankar, Peria Shankar, R. Thirumurthy, Prakash Khawas, Sampoornam, A Balaji, Anu and R. Balaji will join.Rene Abraham soon emerged as a key person driving the design of the main switching system hardware. He would train a lot of youngsters and soon had a great team. A large switch (we called it DIU) that he will design will rival those from Alcatel, Lucent and Ericson. In fact, the Chinese giant Huawei, signed up with us and took away all our designs without paying us.

Design and deployment of corDECT Wireless in Local Loop in India and several other countries, is a long and separate story. Rene had emerged as a key leader in Midas communication and kept upgrading the design to better and better switch to handle later generation wireless systems. In the process, he trained a large number of youngsters, now not just in hardware, but also managed the software with people like R. Thirumurthy. By the middle of the next decade, he was one of the best system designer in the country. He would later join Tejas Network and drive their 4G and 5G wireless system. In the next few months, his system will be deployed widely in India.

He was certainly the best system designer in india today. Over the last decade, whenever I was stuck with some design, he will be the first person that I will call. The problem will be solved promptly. Yesterday, I got a call that he is no more. I do not know who I will call when I am stuck now.

Our Ranchos leave us stranded…