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An achiever in obscurity

Kunal Ghosh’s Unsung Genius is an exhaustive biography of India’s forgotten scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose — decoding his accomplishments in both modern physics and plant physiology while also unravelling the racial discrimination and academic plagiarism that the stalwart went through. Excerpts:

An achiever in obscurity
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It was to be a lasting friendship between Bose and Nivedita—but such an unusual one! What contrast! One, a scientist, born Hindu, turned Bramho, a believer in iconoclasm, while the other a Protestant Christian, turned a Hindu idolater, and in love with an alien land and its culture. She had followed her guru to India in search of spiritual fulfilment. Her attitude, reflected in her statement, 'I do for India all that comes my way', was also a part of that spiritual quest. Bose had admired Swami Vivekananda's mission to bring 'manliness' to subjugated Indians, only to be disappointed when the Swami set up a monastic order engaged in idolatry. These two remarkable personalities, however, were united in their love for India and faith in the Vedanta philosophy of the Upanishads.

Bose believed, like all Bramhos, that idol worship was nothing but superstition and the root cause of India's ailments. How could an idolater exert much influence in the West, steeped in monism, praying to a formless God? It was natural for those belonging to the Brahmo Samaj to underestimate the impact of Swami Vivekananda's preaching on Western society. Many orthodox Hindus too were aghast that a man born outside the Brahmin caste like the Swami could preach at all and hoped that his influence would not be too great at home or abroad.

However, an article written by Bipin Chandra Pal, a noted orator and leader of the Indian National Congress, set the record straight. It appeared in London's the Indian Mirror on 15 February 1899, and reads,

Some people in India think that very little fruit has come of the lectures that Swami Vivekananda delivered in England, and that his friends and admirers exaggerate his work. But on coming here I see that he has exerted a marked influence everywhere. In many parts of England I have met with men who deeply regard and venerate Vivekananda. Though I do not belong to his sect and though it is true that I have differences of opinion with him, I must say that Vivekananda has opened the eyes of a great many here and broadened their hearts. Owing to his teaching, most people here now believe firmly that wonderful spiritual truths lie hidden in the ancient Hindu scriptures.

Bipin Chandra Pal was not only a Bramho, but also a good friend of the Boses; Jagadish occasionally corresponded with him. Both Jagadish and Abala were readers of the Indian Mirror and kept up with the current affairs. Pal's article might have softened their attitude towards the Swami's monastic order, for we later find them travelling to one of the Ramakrishna Math monasteries set in the high Himalayas. They undertook another journey in the company of a few monks of the order to Bodh Gaya. From there, Nivedita brought back the figure of a vajra; Bose learnt to venerate the vajra symbol from Nivedita.

Nivedita leaves us many accounts of her trips—some of them taken with the Boses—to different parts of the country. She was a prolific writer and her numerous letters are a valuable record of events that transpired around her and in her life. Her biographer had Nivedita's writings at her disposal and gave us the following dramatized account. When she heard Bose asserting that life is present everywhere, even in inorganic matter, and that he would capture it first in metals and then in plants, she said, 'You must write down all that you are telling me. It's important. It's necessary.

'How do you expect me to seize on the idea that passes like a flash? It eludes me.'

'But I am here. My pen is an obedient servant; it will serve you well. It is yours.'

This conversation is significant, because quite a few manuscripts of Bose's books and papers were found to be in her handwriting. Nivedita had earlier written to Mrs Bull, trying to draw her affection towards the Boses, 'It is on your heart, I know, as it is on mine, and you and Yum [ Josephine MacLeod] and I will make these two people feel a warm circle of love and strength about them while there is still time to make the world feel like home…'

To spare the Boses the trouble of searching for an accommodation in London, Nivedita had travelled ahead of them after the Paris Exposition. Initially, Nivedita wanted to put the Boses up in her mother's home but the elderly lady was too feeble to entertain guests. So, she found an alternative before they arrived, and then helped Bose with his work and tried to surround the couple, as far as possible, with an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity. Mrs Bull remained in Europe for a little while and then joined them. She often helped them financially, in this case by bearing the house rent.

While in Europe, Bose kept up a steady correspondence with his friend Rabindranath Tagore. Their correspondence gives us a valuable record and chronology of events. Tagore wrote to Bose, 'I keep the Maharaja of Tripura well informed about your sojourn. I became delighted to learn that he holds you in very high esteem. A messenger has brought word that he is now prepared to contribute much more than what he had promised for aiding your work.'

This undated letter was most probably written within a month or two of the Boses reaching England. In another letter, dated 20 November 1900, Tagore wrote,

The Maharaja of Tripura is now in Calcutta. I can hardly express in words how happy and joyous he is at your success. …I shall show him your letter today—he would be very glad. On receiving your last letter some time ago, he felt highly honoured and expressed his delight in no uncertain terms. Now, he seems eager for an opportunity to come to your aid.

Both Bose and Tagore were extremely grateful to the maharaja and tried to keep him informed of all developments. Bose's research, in the meanwhile, was reaching a turning point. For about a year Bose had been following two distinct but overlapping lines of research—one on the physics of electric waves and the other on the responses of the living and the non-living to stimuli. The latter obviously had much to do with the subject of physiology. These two lines converged in the artificial eye, the galena crystal receiver, his latest creation. The lectures he gave in England were on both aspects, often running side by side. However, for the convenience of the reader, we shall trace the trajectory of the former first. While going over both facets of Bose's research, we may refer to the same letter multiple times.

(Excerpted with permis­sion from Kunal Ghosh's Unsung Genius; published by Aleph Book Company)

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