New Delhi, May 5 Seventy-two-year-old Shiv Balak Misra is hardly a pin-up hero. The frail, down-to-earth geo-scientist-turned-social worker and educator, wants to ensure that children in his backwater Uttar Pradesh village have easy access to higher education.
Misra, however, is a name to reckon with in the global community of geologists for having discovered 565-million-year-old fossils, the Ediacaran Fauna, off the Canadian coast — one of the oldest records of multi-cellular life on earth
belonging to the pre-Cambrian geological period.
As a boy, Misra had to walk 24 km every day to school and back to his village Deora, 40 km from Lucknow in central Uttar Pradesh. The memory lingered throughout his years abroad till one day he decided to give up his flourishing career as a geologist in the US to build a school for children in his village, which had not changed much since he left.
There was no school in Deora till he decided to build one.
A book "Dream Chasing" (Roli Book) that he narrated to son Neelesh Misra, tells the story of the geo-scientist's journey to recognition in the US from the remote village in Uttar Pradesh, his struggle to find space in the American scientific community and his return to the roots to serve his "underprivileged village".
"For me primary education was a problem. My school was 12 km from home and I had to walk 24 km every day to the school and back. I could not think of geology or any kind of higher education while in the village school. Once I completed my senior primary education, I moved to Lucknow with great difficulty," Misra said.
"Geology was accidental. After I completed Class 12, geology was one of the options in my bachelor's degree as most of my friends opted for the subject. I took up physics, math and geology," he said.
It was after graduation that Misra discovered his liking for geology and that was the subject he chose for his master's.
"I got a job in ONGC and was posted in Gujarat and Assam. My friends were applying for scholarship in foreign universities and I too applied. I was accepted by the Memorial University in Newfoundland," the former geo-scientist said.
"But I always wanted to be a teacher," he recalled. He taught briefly at the Kanyakubj Degree College in Lucknow. But that part of his ambition had to wait.
Misra went to Newfoundland in 1964.
He was assigned to work in the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland by his Swiss professor W.D. Brueckner.
"It was a remote area in the southern part of Newfoundland. No Canadian student would go there," Misra remembered.
The scientist began to map the coast -- a 25 km of rocky landscape.
Misra recalled: "It was in June 1967. One afternoon, while mapping the area, I was sitting on a rock on the west Atlantic coast. I noticed some ancient impressions on the rock surface.
"There could be no fossils in the area, so I looked closely. It was baffling. The impressions were of plants and leaves. The rocks were once in deep ocean."
The scientist knew he was on to something big.
Misra guessed they were more than 500 million years old, caused by years of deposition of sediments.
Next morning, he was back to the spot armed with a camera.
"There were hundreds and thousands of big and small impressions of leaf life. I sketched them as meticulously as I could, took several photographs and collected four specimens," he said.
The area was declared an ecological park after Misra's discovery.
But credit for the discovery of the only "Ediacaran fauna" in north America eluded him when his senior (who had replaced W.D. Brueckner at the department) published a paper claiming that it was a joint find by the Memorial University students and teachers".
"Some of the facts in the paper were wrong," Misra insisted.
He had to set the story right. Soon after, he went to Ottawa for a doctorate "and re-connected with 10 Indian friends, who were thinking of India".
"I was restless. I wanted to build a school in my village in India all my life," he said.
In 1972, Misra returned to India to build the Bharatiya Gramin Vidayalya from class 1 to Class 8 with wife Nirmala by his side.
The school with 757 students in a village without internet connection, surrounded by paddy fields, is the lone symbol of hope for the future. "It is a centre for socio-economic change," Misra said.