A couple of years ago, the then President of India, Abdul Kalam was visiting SHAR to witness a launch. He came to the Launch Control Centre to observe the launch preparations and recollect his old memories in ISRO. Almost everybody in SHAR had gathered there to see the most popular and respected president India has seen. There was a huge rush to catch a glimpse of him. He was moving around wearing his charismatic smile and waving hands.
In one corner of the LCC stood an elderly, frail man, carrying a tea can. He was serving tea to the people who were at work. Seeing him, APJ stopped, took a detour, approached him and enquired “Thankappayi, sukham aano? “ (Thankappayi, are you doing good?). Thankappayi is one of the most popular figures in SHAR, almost everyone who comes to SHAR knows him; but that was the day we realized that even the President of India knew him by name.
The name Thankappayi is synonymous with SOS in SHAR. Food, pass, accomodation, logistics – if you face an issue in any of these fronts, Thankaapayi is the name that you can reliably beckon. The selfless services rendered by this gentle old man during the launch campaigns over the last 4 decades are probably as significant as the hard work put in by our scientists. For our anniversary edition, Team Voyage met Thankappayi at SHAR for an interview.
Tell us something about you and your career at ISRO?
I was working as a tailor, when I got the job of a gardener in ISRO. At that time, there was a promotion option for non-technical staff to get into the technical stream by becoming a technical helper. I started my technical career as a helper; later I got certificate from soldering school (I was a topper) and became a technician. I retired as technician G. During my career, I was sent to Hyderabad for a soldering training and there too, I emerged the topper.
Even though my designation kept on changing, I continued to do all sorts of work that came my way - that of a casual labourer, loading worker, safaiwala, technician, tea supplier and what not!
I joined in 1971, from 78 onwards I am coming to SHAR. There is not a single year from 1978, in which I have not come to SHAR for one activity or the other. I retired in 2001 but still continue to work for ISRO in contract.
Who was your first boss?
I was working with Veeraraghavan sir and Madhavan Nair sir. My CR was written by Madhavan Nair sir. But unlike now, there was no single boss at that time, we used to work as a big family. I had the fortune to work with some of the big names in ISRO, people like Sreenivasan sir, John P Zachariah sir etc.. I was based at TERLS. From TERLS, if I go to Veli for some work and if I am given a job there, then I would do that as well. I was a floating resource at that time. I still remember what R.B.K Menon sir said about me after the success of SLV-3, “For the work that Thankappan has done for ISRO, his salary that we give till his death won’t be sufficient”
Can you tell us something about your experiences with Kalam sir?
Kalam sir used to spend long hours in office. He used to come as early as 6:30 am and would try to finish all paper work before other engineers came to office. I would also reach office at this time in the canteen vehicle that comes to TERLS. I would help him with the Gestetner cyclostyling machine (earlier version of Photostat). He used to be in office till 10:30 pm and I used to stay with him. I had the privilege of returning home with Kalam sir in the same vehicle.
One experience that you will never forget?
During SLV time, there was a strike by the trade unions demanding pay hike. A vibration test was planned the next day and for which lot of checkout racks had to be moved. Nobody was available to load these racks on the truck. Kalam sir was very worried. Seeing this, I voluntarily took charge of loading all the items on the truck single handedly. At those times, the components were so heavy. An aplab power supply used to weigh around 65 kg. Without any support, I loaded all these systems into the truck and the next day, the vibration happened as scheduled. Kalam sir was extremely happy.
From when did you start coming to SHAR?
I started coming to SHAR in the 70s, when the work on the block house for SLV commenced. We used to send checkout racks from VSSC. Once the items were loaded in the truck, I would board a train and reach SHAR. After all the items are unloaded, I would go back to Trivandrum. That used to be the first round of trips.
You have seen the launch campaign evolve over the years. What are the major changes that you have noticed?
Ever since my SLV3 days, I have never missed any launch campaign. SLV, ASLV, PSLV, GSLV, LVM3, RLV, ABPP, I have got the opportunity to work in all these campaigns.
From my personal point of view, in a pre-mobile era, during the last minute campaign activities, when different teams had to go to work at different times at night, they used to request me to wake them up for attending to the activity. I used to stay awake continuously for 3-4 days to ensure that all teams reached their work place on time. Nowadays, everyone manages with the alarm in their mobiles.
In the last couple of years, when ISRO’s activities were at their peak, how many days have you spent in SHAR?
I was in SHAR continuously for two years without going home even once during that period. Many people had asked me - Don't you have regrets about not being able to spend time with family?
As I mentioned earlier, I come from a very poor family. After so many years of service, I still don’t own a piece of property in my name. All my life, I have stayed in small houses with my entire family. I never had the luxury of staying in my own room. But see what ISRO has given me, I am provided an independent room with an attached bathroom, I have a table of my own, a cot to sleep. ISRO is taking good care of me and I have no regrets.
Do you know, perhaps I will be the most illiterate person in ISRO. I have studied only till eighth standard. With this qualification, I got an opportunity to work with some of the most educated people!
This is how I earn a living and I am happy doing it. Now at this age, I am trying to buy a piece of land for my granddaughter.
You had the opportunity of working with bosses like Shri.Madhavan Nair who later became chairman of ISRO? How do you recollect those memories of working with them?
I always had a cordial relationship with my bosses. They trusted me and I tried my level best to do justice to the trust they reposed on me. In all these years, I had so many bosses from all generations to the extent that I may be the individual who has worked under the maximum number of bosses. I have never differentiated between my superiors as senior boss or junior boss. I have never gone back to any of my ex- bosses asking for favours when they were promoted to prestigious posts.
You are popular in ISRO mostly as the man who provides food for people. How did you get associated with this?
While I was in SLV project itself, I used to book a couple of extra food coupons for people who land up in SHAR. At that time, this advance booking, online booking etc were not there. As the project progressed and activities peaked, the number of coupons increased and slowly I got associated with this. I still remember what Madhavan Nair sir publicly told after SLV3 launch.."Thankappan's hard and sincere work towards this mission will always be remembered. He is an allrounder!!"
As the projects became bigger and the number of facilities involved also increased, I used to go around all facilities asking for people in need of lunch, high tea etc. And gradually, that became one of my main occupations. I decided - let people do the technical work and I will manage their logistics requirements. I always carry a list of people who are working for various projects in the different facilities.
I got a complicated nick name because of this service "Anna Dada Chutti Bhavan" (Loosely translates to: the God who roams around and gives food)
Till a few years ago, I was arranging drinking water too for all the facilities.
At this age, it would be exceedingly difficult for you to carry out these logistics activities the way you managed earlier. How do you overcome these physical constraints??
I have my share of health issues as well. Especially towards the final phase of campaigns, when I generally have sleepless nights owing to the round-the-clock schedules in which people work, I have fainted a couple of times. During one of the launches, I was hospitalized for 5 days at the SHAR hospital. But I don't bother much about my health. I consider the job to be more important than my health. I am a strong believer in God and I feel that He gives me sufficient strength to carry out my work.
In my long career spanning all these years, I have never submitted a fake bill for anything that I have purchased - food, snacks, tea or anything else..I think it's only because of my honesty that God has blessed me with the endurance to carry out my duties at this age. I am 76 now.
Were there any complaints against you? Anything that you know of?
Once P.S.Nair sir (Admin officer during SLV period) called me to enquire about a complaint that he received about me. The complaint was that I sing whenever I am at work. I told sir about my past. When I was a tailor, I used to sing continuously as I did the stitching; it was a habit that I found difficult to stop. He replied that he doesn't have any issues with my singing during work. He also said that he knew that I did the physical labour of 4-5 people, so he would let me have my little joys while at work. At that time, for SLV, I was even carrying the furniture to different rooms for setting up offices.
Do you have any regrets about your career in ISRO?
All these years, I have done whatever job my bosses has asked me to do. I have never complained that this work doesn’t come under my purview nor have I asked how you can ask a technician to do this job. I did those jobs without expecting any thing, but howsoever you deny it, when awards are distributed and you see less- deserving people receiving them, you always have a feeling of dejection. That gloom I have experienced at various moments; but it I could always overcome that with the love that you people give me.
Do you know, one of our technicians has written a poem about me, praising my good services? Now I understand that such recognitions are more valuable than the excellence awards that we get.
Another regret I had is that I couldn’t participate in the last rites of my brother and sister who expired few days before a launch.
Owing to the extended working hours of this sincere man, we could schedule the interview only after repeated attempts and that too, late at night. Many a famished stomach has been satiated by the food coupons provided by Thankappayi; numerous brains, burning the midnight oil during launch campaigns, have been rejuvenated by the timely tea supplied by him. He continues to toil ceaselessly for ISRO and its people altruistically, without grumbling, defying age and exhaustion. The goodwill from the countless people served by him far surpasses the value of any excellence award. Team Voyage acknowledges the decades of diligence and labour put in by this gallant soul.