Anant Anantaraman: Scientist. Musician. Teacher. Marathoner. Born Dec. 26, 1928, in Mumbai, India; died March 5, 2023, in Yercaud, India; of natural causes; aged 94.
Few could overcome the hurdles life threw at them the way Anant Anantaraman did. He demonstrated that it is possible to triumph over challenges that would have crushed the rest of us. From losing his father at a young age and enduring a hardscrabble childhood to then losing his wife and daughters in the senseless and horrific bombing of Air India flight 182 in 1985, he served as an inspiration as he rejected bitterness and vengeance to live a life dedicated to others.
Born in Mumbai and growing up in Kozhikode, Kerala, he was awarded university scholarships at all levels. After marrying Bhawani, the couple moved so Anant could work on his PhD in thermodynamics at the University of Calcutta.
In 1962, he was recruited to pursue postdoctoral studies at the California Institute of Technology. The move to the U.S. came with some culture shock, too, as vegetarians in the early ‘60s, Anant and his wife found they had to eat a lot of potatoes. Anant was a pacificist and his aversion to the conflicts in Vietnam and the Cuban missile crisis, racism and other socio-economic injustices was a major factor in his decision to move to British Columbia and take a teaching job at Simon Fraser University. Here, he also obtained a second PhD in Quantum Mechanics.
The couple’s daughters were born in Vancouver, Aruna in 1971 and Rupa in 1973. Aruna was his first-born golden girl and Rupa was brilliant and challenged him. She refused to let him help with math homework, for example, insisting on figuring it out herself. Rupa was considered a prodigy from an early age. Both were violin players and in the early 1980s, on the advice of his daughters’ music teachers, the family moved to Ottawa so they could join the National Capital String Academy and Ottawa Youth Orchestra. Anant worked as a research scientist at the Department of National Defence and concluded his career at the University of Ottawa, where he was Director of Exploratory Research in Energy Systems.
In 1995, 10 years after the death of his wife and daughter, Anant established the Bhawani Anantaraman Foundation in Canada whose mandate is to further education and provide scholarships to youth pursuing music at all levels – a tribute to his daughters’ talent and promise. So far, almost a hundred students have benefitted from his generosity and love of classical music.
Anant returned to India when he retired in 1999 and set up a school in Tamil Nadu, a remote area in the south. He battled corruption and dug deep into his own pockets to build it, then trained the teachers (he had high standards). The school started with one room and seven students and now has an annual enrolment of more than 60 local children.
On Anant’s annual visits to Ottawa, which he proudly considered his hometown, he delighted in simple pleasures such as French fries, onion rings and pecan pie. Before his return flight every spring, we shopped for oatmeal and Thompson raisins to sustain him until his next visit. He relished reunions with his friends and colleagues. He was known to burst into song as he happily walked the many nature trails in Ottawa. Music transported him and we learned to wait patiently until he rejoined us at the end of a classical piece. Ever the scientist and teacher, he would pluck reeds from bogs to share their cell structure with whoever was accompanying him. He was a marathon runner who participated in many competitions and continued running, albeit not marathons, well into his 90s, putting most of his friends to shame.
Personally, professionally and philanthropically, Anant set a high bar and made a positive impact on the lives of hundreds. His hearty laugh and twinkling smile will be missed but he left us with a priceless life lesson: He never lost his humanity and capacity to love.
Bibi Zina Patel is Anant Anantaraman’s friend.
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