This is the story of a backbencher; how an average student in school and college repurposed himself to rise up the career ladder to be one among the top toxicologists in India.
P V Mohanan, a member of the empowered committee set up by the central government to identify the Covid-19 vaccines to be added to the national programme, was once sidelined at a demonstration about vaccines at Ooty’s Pasteur Institute.
The Toxicology Department head at the Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute of Medial Sciences and Technology in Thiruvananthapuram is one of the nine experts entrusted by the Union Science and Technology Department to recommend the vaccines for the largest Covid-19 prevention programme in the world. He sits in nine expert groups set up by the central government in the fields of science, technology and vaccine.
He also serves as the technical manager of the Biomedical Technology department and an associate dean of the Ph.D. programme. He is a visiting professor at the Toyo University in Japan, the National Material Research Institute at Tsukuba in Japan, the Bio-Nano Electronics Research Centre at Satitama in Japan and the Bharat Institute of Higher Education and Research in Chennai. He is a fellow at the Royal Society of Biology in the UK and the National Academy of Sciences in India.
He leads a committee that picks Indian biotech researchers to Japan. He holds five patents and three design registrations. He has 231 research papers in toxicology to his credit. He has been awarded a slew of national and international recognitions, including a lifetime achievement award from the Society of Toxicology.
He is also an ordinary Kannur native, who yearns to get back home for every festival at the Cherukunnu temple and for every Theyyam ritual. It is hard to notice the distinguished professor when he gets back to his family home near the Kannapuram railway station. For the locals, he is still the son of the late P V Kunjambu Nair and Parvathy Amma. He is married to Bindu. They have a daughter, Dr Anushka Mohan.
Back to the backbench memories
Mohanan was a perennial backbencher through his education in the Cherukunnu Government Lower Primary School, Cherukunnu High School, Payyannur College, Government Brennen College, Thalassery and SN College, Kannur. “I was an average student. I just wanted to complete my SSLC (tenth grade). I was sure to flunk it. Those days the SSLC was the benchmark in our area. It was an achievement to pass it. Only about 30 percent of students passed the exams. Today the finishing rate is 99 percent. I had not even heard about first class. I passed the SSLC with marks that fell short of a first class,” Mohanan said in an interview with Onmanorama.
He said that he had his older brother Raveendran to thank for his early achievements. “I feared him then as I do now. I could hardly talk back to him. I would read aloud when he was around. He is the reason I passed the SSLC, pre-degree and degree. I had to show my face to him.”
Mohanan has five siblings. They had a modest upbringing. “Our family went through some financial crunch in the early years. My father lost his job. We are six children – Narayanan, Ravindran, Krishnan, Mohanan, Sarojini and Savitha. We got a better standing after all three of my older brothers went abroad to work. All my siblings supported me. All of us went by Raveendran’s words. Even now, we do, more or less.”
Ananda Krishna bus service
“Those days, the main bus service from Kannur to Payyannur was the Ananda Krishna bus service. They had several buses painted in green and red. We took one of those buses to go to the Payyannur College. On my first trip to the college, my brother told me that I could be a doctor if I studied well. I did not think much about that. I was just happy that I passed the SSLC. I joined the second group (science) in the pre-degree course as per the advice of my brother. (Congress general secretary) K C Venugopal was my collegemate. I knew him as a leader of the Kerala Students Union. He hardly knew me. I met him after a long time at the New Delhi airport.
“There were 90 students in the pre-degree class. I hardly remember any of my batchmates. I was assigned to the backbench as usual. I preferred it actually. The smart students in the class ended up with 2 or 3 marks in physics in the first year. I was among the three students to score 10. That was the only moment of pride as far as I remember.
“Two years just flew by – John C Jacob’s Nature Club, the Myna magazine and of course, my studies. T P Sreedharan was another memorable teacher. When the pre-degree result was published, I was disappointed to see my number missing. I was dejected by the thought of facing my brother. I was sitting in the shade of a tree when a classmate asked me what was wrong. He had passed the exam. He went and checked again and found my number on the list. I had missed it somehow.
“One of the teachers I have fond memories about is Govindan Kutty in the Botany Department. He was very considerate. I hardly have connections with the other teachers. There is nothing for them to remember me or for me to remember them.
“Students from the Pappinissery and Cherukunnu areas had to rely on the Ananda Krishna bus service to go to the Payyannur College. We launched a students’ strike for a students’ only KSRTC (Kerala State Road Transport Corporation) bus. The bus from Kannur started running from Cherukunnu to Payyannur exclusively for students. The locals used to complain about the noisy bus,” he reminisced.
Mohanan has never returned to the Payyannur College since he passed out. Curiously, the esteemed scientist never got an invitation to an old-students’ meet in his alma mater. Surely he must have had a crush in the college?
“Absolutely not. I was afraid even to look at girls. I used to get the shivers. Whatever I did, my brother would come to know of it. He was a Congress activist and he had connections everywhere. I even lost my autograph.”
The Brennen years
Mohanan joined the physics degree course at the Government Brennen College in Thalassery. He found an intimate friend in Vikas Naron, a resident of Palayad near Thalassery. They still remain friends.
“Vikas prompted me to shift to zoology. There were 20 students in the class. Finally I got a chance to sit on the front bench, but I retained the attitude of a backbencher. I was yet to convince myself that I could study. I had no idea about building my career after my education. I thought I would go abroad like my brothers.
“My zoology teacher was Mridula, wife of (CPM leader) Pattiam Gopalan. She took care of us. We discussed all our problems with her. She would console us. She lived near the SN College in Kannur. We went back home from college together. She remained my mentor even after I joined a postgraduate course in the SN College in Kannur. I used to meet her during my travels home after I got a job at the Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute in Thiruvananthapuram. I still revere that teacher like a god,” Mohanan said.
Mohanan also has a place in his heart for another teacher in Brennen, Bhaskaran, who was more like a friend. There were other faces which evoked unpleasant memories. When Mohanan was moving a microscope to another table in the lab, a teacher admonished him, saying the student could not pay for it even if he sold his house. These days, Mohanan works with a lens that costs Rs 1.5 crore.
Editor that was not
One of those days, probably in the second year at Brennen, Vikas came up with an idea. He wanted to publish a handwritten magazine and offered to make Mohanan its editor. Mohanan said that he didn’t know what an editor was supposed to do. Vikas replied that he was in the same boat. Vikas said that he would write and Muhammed would draw. Mohanan would be the editor for whatever reason.
The 10-page magazine, titled Thavala (Frog) was published nevertheless, probably the first editing assignment for Mohanan, who has since edited nine scholarly books published by international organisations including Elsevier, Springer and Cambridge Scholar.
Mohanan’s time at Brennen was an illustrious period. The college boasted of such legendary teachers as Dr M Leelavathi (principal), O N V Kurup, M N Vijayan, Vishnu Narayanan Namboothiri and George Irumbayam.
Mohanan had an affinity to the KSU even though he was not active in student politics. Mohanan and Vikas remained spectators as the student outfits went on with their strikes and other activities. That era was marked by a spike in violence between the RSS and the CPM. “I always read the evening daily to know how many people got killed. I had friends in all associations. Former MLA James Mathew was a student at Brennen.
“I went along with Vikas to invite the then sub collector Amitabh Kant for an environment-related programme at the college. Years later when Kant was the chief executive officer of NITI Aayog, I met him one day and shared the memory. It felt good.”
It was a long trip to the college every day. Mohanan had to take a bus from Kannapuram to Kannur and take another bus to Dharmadam. Then it was a short walk to the college. He passed out of Brennen in 1984. He was not the only backbencher who came forward later in life. Skin specialist Dr Tajuddin and eye doctor Dr Suresh Puthalath and Mohanan’s batchmates.
Mohanan had no skill in music, dance, painting or writing. He never cared though. He was happy being ordinary.
Swap of destiny
Mohanan planned to become an advocate. He went to Kozhikode and bought back an application form to join an LL.B. course. He went straight to Vikas’s house in Dharmadam. Another friend also landed there, with an application form to join an M.Sc. zoology course. As the three friends started discussing their careers, plans changed. Vikas’s parents nudged them too. In the end Mohanan swapped his LL.B. application with the friend who wanted to join M.Sc. Mohanan and Vikas joined an M.Sc. course. The other friend learned law and went on to become a police officer.
Mohanan could not be a backbencher this time. It was a round table! And there were only 10 students in the class. The subject was parasitology.
“We were a gang of five friends – Vikas, Surendran, Raveendran, Jayaprakash and Mohanan. Girls who were fluent in English dominated the classes. They were the teachers’ favourites and earned praise in seminars and record-writing.”
Mohanan and friends have only good words about the teachers at the SN College. Yet he was reduced to tears twice during the postgraduation years. He was sidelined during a seminar and study tour.
Though subjected to corrections, Mohanan is convinced that his record books were the best. He strived to do better than the performing classmates because he was aware of the scathing criticism awaiting him. He said that he wasn’t affected by the unfair treatment.
“After the seminar, I went to the college canteen. I was almost ok by the time I finished the snack. I forgot everything by the time I went home, took a shower and went to the nearby temple. My friends were worried for me but I laughed it off. Those things should not bother us. Mridula teacher played a decisive role in helping me overcome the period,” Mohanan said. She would console Mohanan and his friends.
The postgraduate students had to collect faecal matter from a nearby colony to study parasites. Mohanan, Vikas and the other friends would get it but ended up being admonished by the teachers for getting late. They would watch the striking students or sit on a boulder by the canteen on the way back.
The five friends were serious about their studies though. They learned together almost every night and on holidays. “We learned in Malayalam. I could grasp it better that way. We would then convert it into English. English was a problem until I finished postgraduation. Teachers should stop thinking that students fluent in English are better and others are not. I have students researching with me. I have never treated them as different. I help them find research opportunities in the United States, France and the United Kingdom for six months. I give them 10 to 15 research papers to write. I have never meddled with their ideas. I only correct their grammar. If I try to fit them into my style, they will lose interest. They will stop writing,” Mohanan said.
The acclaimed scientists said that he first faced a gathering on the farewell day of his college life. “Vikas organised a skit that made fun of the teachers. That was probably the first time I spoke aloud,” he said. Today, even if he chooses to sit on the backbench at a global toxicology meet, the organisers would usher him to the front.
All 10 of Mohanan’s classmates passed M.Sc. in first class. Five of them are still in touch – Vikas is a higher secondary teacher and a writer; Ravindran an insurance company manager; Jayaprakash a bank manager; Surendran a pharmaceutical company’s regional manager; and Usha a college teacher.
The hurdle of English
“English was a major challenge those days. I always had a dictionary along with my textbook when I studied. Science and math teachers were assigned to teach students English. Parents wanted teachers to discipline students. Teachers had a visible bias towards smarter students. Maybe that’s a natural tendency. Had the teachers paid a little more attention towards backbenchers those students might have had a better chance. All these happened about 40 years ago. The new generation may find it strange.
“The three-language scheme is essential for us. Let Malayalam remain the administrative language. We have to pay equal importance to English and Hindi as well. Many people are unable to express their talents because they don’t know English very well. There were a lot of students who struggled with English when they join pre-degree and degree courses. The questions were in English and they had to answer in English. Many of them stop education because of that. In north India, it is allowed to write even civil service exams in Hindi.
Mohanan attended his first full-length English interview in Bengaluru in March 1987. He had gone there to apply for a passport to prepare himself to go abroad with his brothers. He bumped into an advertisement for the post of a research fellow at Rallis India. He faced the interviewer.
“Where are you from?”
“Are you a communist?”
“You are from Kerala. Then you should be a communist or Congress man.”
“Nothing like that.”
“Are you veg?”
“Are you non-veg?”
“Do you know what is toxicology?”
“Something you connect.”
“Something connected to poison?”
“Oh good. That’s enough.”
The interview ultimately went well. Mohanan got the job. Bengaluru was a much needed exposure for the shy student. His English transformed in the new city. One of those days, he found a newspaper ad calling for scientific assistants in the Sree Chitra Institute.
On March 27, 1989, he joined the institute in Thiruvananthapuram. He met Dr M S Valiathan, who was the director of the institute. He was greeted with a lengthy list of instructions, all in English.
“Valiathan and his successor Dr K Mohandas have played major roles in my career growth. Both of them encouraged me a lot,” Mohanan said. Within four years, he was promoted as a scientist. He got married in 1993.
He received a Ph.D. in toxicology from the University of Kerala in 1997. He pursued post-doctoral studies in neuro-toxicity in the Tsukuba University in Japan. “I drank my first beer in Japan. That happened to be my last too,” he said.
Mohanan returned to the Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute after two years in Japan. He returned to Rallis later as a lab examination committee member. He represented India in an international committee for good lab practices between 2013 and 2018. The committee was to make sure that research labs in several countries conformed to the best practices to facilitate mutual recognition of data and coordination of research.
Yet the high point of Mohanan’s career was his involvement in the battle against Covid-19. “I would reach office at 7.30 in the morning every day. Documents of 700 to 800 pages would be waiting for me. I would have to study all that and return it with my opinion the next day. I have not taken a single day’s leave since I was included in the vaccine committee. I am a member of nine committees including the vaccine committee and there would be at least two meetings for each committee a month.”
He said that he is satisfied with the turn his career had taken. “I could even speak in front of Nobel laureates Harold Kroto and Makoto Kobayashi.”
He is equally happy about his interactions with school students. “I had gone to the Dharmadam Basic Mappila School on the Science Day. I was invited by Vikas’s wife who works as a teacher at the school. I was astonished by the questions the children asked. They asked about vaccines in detail. The new generation is very knowledgeable.”
Mohanan also went to the SN College years later. He was invited to inaugurate the zoology club in the college.
“The vaccination drive in India is impressive. India is not like the other countries. There are 139 crore people. It is a huge effort. We can’t compare it with the United States which has only 62 crore people. India is facing a bigger fire. We have to put out that fire first. The nationalisation of vaccines is not a good trend. Developed countries have to help India in vaccination. If we put out the big fire first, smaller fires may be easier to fight,” Mohanan said.