If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Asima Chatterjee and ...

It is wonderful to wake up and see Google celebrate the centenary of Dr. Asima Chatterjee, a scientist who is either unknown to or forgotten by her compatriots.
Asima Chatterjee is fortunate to have been just forgotten.
Subhash Mukhhopadhyay, a physician and a fellow Bengali scientist who independently created the second "test-tube baby" in the world almost single-handed in his primitive lab, was the target of intense envy of his fellow scientists and the all-knowing bureaucrats warming the chairs in the government secretariat in Kolkata.
Under the watchful eyes of a communist government lead by another "great" Bengali, a Commission was formed to verify the claims of Dr. Mukhopadhyay. The Commission, which included an atomic physicist among other luminaries, rubbished Mukhopadhyay's claims. Mukhopadhyay was humiliated as a fraud and transferred to a TB hospital. (I think, but will have to verify, the atomic physicist was the head of the panel.)
While we are proud that the world today recognises Asima Chatterjee's basic research in chemistry which has contributed to development of chemotherapy for treatment of cancer, let us also remember another Indian scientist of her generation who couldn't take it any more and committed suicide in 1981.
Durga, the baby who got her life thanks to Dr Mukhopadhyay, and Louise Brown of England, the first test-tube baby in the world, were both born in 1978, Durga 67 days later.
Twenty-nine years after Mukhopadhyay's death, in 2010, Robert G. Edwards, an English scientist, was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for developing the technique of in vitro fertilization.

23 September 2017



Monday, 2 October 2017

Stand calm and resolute

Statue of Mahatma Gandhi at Pietermaritzburg
These verses are from the The Mask of Anarchy by the English romantic poet Shelley. Gandhi once recited them to a Christian gathering in India.

As I woke up this morning in a country where hatred has become the dominating force in just a few years, I thought of the great man, and the lines which sum up his political creed.

Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war.

And if then the tyrants dare,
Let them ride among you there;
Slash, and stab, and maim and hew;
What they like, that let them do.

With folded arms and steady eyes,
And little fear, and less surprise,
Look upon them as they slay,
Till their rage has died away.

Then they will return with shame,
To the place from which they came,
And the blood thus shed will speak
In hot blushes on their cheek.

Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few!

It seems for us, Indians, the old chains of colonialism have been replaced by new shackles of meanness and mutual hatred. India always had many fault-lines like religious, social, and economic, which Gandhi managed to join, not seamlessly, but effectively nonetheless. And I believe our success, rather, our survival as a federal country largely depends on how well we manage these fault-lines on a continuing basis.

Astonishingly, at present, some Indians are working overtime to widen these fissures like never before in recent history. In fact, they are dividing the country far more effectively than our ruthless alien rulers could, except for the last two years of their miserable rule.

One hundred and forty-eight years after Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born, I think recalling these lines once again would be a fine way to pay tribute to the flawed genius, who perhaps was more a human with multiple failings (like you and me) than a Mahatma.

Bengaluru
2 October 2017

[Photo courtesy news24.com: Statue of Mahatma Gandhi at Pietermaritzburg. It is at this place in South Africa where Gandhi, while travelling to Pretoria, was thrown off a train at the instance of a white-man who objected to his travelling in a first class compartment, though he had a valid first class ticket. Did the makers of the statue "return in shame"?]

Friday, 8 September 2017

Being and nothingness

Swapna Chaudhuri

[On the Internet, we often come across brilliant writing by nameless authors. I often read wonderful writing on my friend Swapna's Facebook wall. Here is a translation of one of her pieces, followed by the original] The other day, Manju, one of my colleagues – she is an amazing singer – said with a touch of deep sadness in her voice, ‘Swapna, tell me, what have I done all these years? Nothing!’ I said, ‘even Rabindranath said, “Sadly, nothing has been done.”’ And that started me thinking. True, I’ve lived long, but done nothing. But in the autumn of my life, the song by Tagore is indeed a soothing salve on my utter futility. And there is some consolation: we can look at it from another point of view. The immortal writer Tarashankar Bandopadhyaya’s oeuvre is fascinatingly diverse and powerful. His novel “Ganadevata” (God among People) is an eternal jewel in Bangla literature. How many educated Bengalis have read it? In every short story, Jagadish Gupta fascinates us with his ability to bring in the unexpected in a myriad ways. How many Bengalis read him? I suspect that after a few generations, no one will read his work. I ask my husband’s students if they have heard Dhananjay Bhattacharya. The question of listening to his songs doesn’t arise; they haven’t even heard his name! But I always thought some of his songs would transcend generations. Abdul Karim Khan and Bade Ghulam Ali are two fulcrums of Indian classical music. But I’ve seen, even those who’re learning khayal haven’t heard their names. Let me stop, there is no point in extending this sad story. However, in my pointless life, they are my greatest solace. Should people read me, or Shirshendu Mukhopadyaya? Who will listen to my khayal when no one has time for Veena Sahasrabuddhe, Malini Rajurkar, or Kumar Gandharva? I am insignificant but happy. God hasn’t blown His bugle for me. But has given me boundless, profound peace. 08 September 2017 এক অনুভব ======= সেদিন মঞ্জু, আমার সহকর্মী, অসাধারণ গায়িকা গভীর মর্মবেদনায় বলে উঠল,"স্বপ্না, কি করলাম বলতো! কিছুই তো করা হল না।" আমি উত্তর দিলাম এই বলে যে, স্বয়ং রবীন্দ্রনাথ গাইছেন,'কিছুই তো হল না,হায়'?! তো বসলাম ভাবতে।আজ জীবনসায়াহ্নে রবীন্দ্রনাথের এ গান আমার অপদার্থতায় সান্ত্বনার প্রলেপ তো বটেই। সত্যিই তো, কিছুই করা হয়ে উঠল না এ দীর্ঘ জীবনে। তবে সান্ত্বনা-ভাবনা আরও আছে,এই ভরসা। অমর কথাশিল্পী তারাশঙ্কর--কি শক্তিশালী অসাধারণ বৈচিত্র্যময় তাঁর রচনাসম্ভার!'গণদেবতা' বাংলা সাহিত্যের এক চিরন্তন সম্পদ। কিন্তু শতকরা কতজন বাঙালি সে লেখা পড়েন বা পড়েছেন? জগদীশ গুপ্ত-তাঁর প্রতিটি গল্পে কি অতর্কিত বৈচিত্রাঘাত, কি সমৃদ্ধ তাঁর গল্পগুলি! কতদিন বাঙালি পড়বে তাঁর রচনা? এই বঙ্গে তো আর দুটি জেনারেশন এর পর বাংলা সাহিত্যের পাঠক পাওয়া যাবে কিনা আমার সন্দেহ আছে। অধ্যাপকের ছাত্র দের প্রশ্ন করলাম, ধনঞ্জয় ভট্টাচার্যের গান শুনেছেন কিনা। গান? নাম ই জানেনা। আমি ভাবতাম তাঁর 'চামেলী মেলোনা আঁখি' বা 'এমন মধুর ধ্বনি' একেবারে কালজয়ী। আবদুল করিম খাঁ সাহেব বা বড়ে গোলাম আলী খাঁ সাহেব ভারতীয় সঙ্গীতের দুই প্রধান স্তম্ভ। দেখেছি খেয়াল শিক্ষার্থীরাও অনেকে এঁদের নাম ও শোনেনি।
এ দুঃখের আলোচনা দীর্ঘায়িত করতে পারি তবে লাভ নেই তাতে। আমার এ তুচ্ছ জীবনে পরম সান্ত্বনা এঁরাই। শীর্ষেন্দুর বই পড়বে না আমার? কেন লিখব? বীণা সহস্রবুদ্ধে, মালিনী রাজুরকর,কুমার গন্ধর্বের খেয়াল শোনার লোক নেই আমার খেয়াল কে শুনবে?সময় থাকতে বৈজ্ঞানিক গবেষণা করতে পারলে হয়তো মানুষের কাজে লাগত! তুচ্ছ আমি,সুখী আমি! দুঃখের পথে আমার নীরব তূর্য জ‍্যোতির্ময় হতে দেয়নি আমায়! বড় শান্তি, নিবিড় আরাম।

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

NIGHT: “A slim volume of terrifying power”



When the slim volume arrived by courier, I’d been reading other books. I looked at the new arrival, read the blurbs, and smelled it for its deeply sensual pleasure. Then I decided to read a few pages before returning to Barbara Tuchman’s history of the Vietnam War.

I could put down Elie Wiesel’s NIGHT only after reading it completely, every word of it. 

If the lines above gave you the impression it was pleasure reading the 135 pages, you would be grossly mistaken. It was one of the most difficult and disturbing books I’ve ever read. It tells us about the monster that lives within each one of us. It is mind-numbing, and I wouldn’t even try to review it. I am just presenting the basic “storyline”. It will help you understand human nature better.

Eliezer Wiesel’s Jewish family lived happily in the small town of Sighet, Romania. Buffered by Austria and Hungary from Germany, they believed they were safe. Moreover, in the spring of 1944, “there was splendid news from the Russian front. There could no longer be any doubt: Germany would be defeated.” A deeply observant 13-year-old Elie watched elders going about their life, concerned about everything else except “their own fate”.

Their fate was foretold when Budapest radio suddenly announced that the Fascist Party had seized power in Hungary. In less than a week, the German army was in their street. And shortly, the entire Jewish population of the town was moved into and confined in two ghettos. Even then, they believed they would just live there in peace until the Red Army came to free them. “The ghetto was ruled by neither German nor Jew; it was ruled by delusion.”

Soon all of them would be packed in closed cattle cars so tightly that they wouldn’t even be able to sit down. They would be transported to Auschwitz death camps, where 90% of the deportees would be murdered on arrival, after being shorn of whatever valuables they had on them, including gold teeth. Most would die in gas chambers. Children would be thrown into a fire-pit.

The healthiest 10% would live on to deliver hard labour on near starvation diet … and die slow, miserable deaths.

As Eliezer’s family entered the camp facing SS men and their guns and clubs, someone commanded: “Men to the left! Women to the right!”

Just eight words “spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion” decimated a family. And many other families. That was the last time Elie and his father saw his mother and little sister, who – unknown to them – would be killed soon. He would meet his two older sisters after many years at a camp for war orphans.

The real story begins. The Nazis, with their famous eye for details, would have calculated the bare minimum nutrition needed for a person to survive. The prisoners got not a calorie more. Food consisted of watery soup, and bread, that too on good days. They went without any food many a day.

Hygiene was limited to a jar of disinfectants kept at the entrance of every block, with which the men had to soak themselves before having a luxurious shower followed by sleep on tightly packed hard wooden bunks without sheets. They would begin a day of hard labour early next morning.

They would be driven like than animals, but without the faintest trace of compassion that humans have for cattle, besides incessant abuses, threats, blows, lashes, and execution by public hanging for the slightest perceived lapse. (The extra effort was clearly unnecessary as people were shot at the drop of a hat, but I think the SS needed the spectacle to drive in the wedge of terror deeper into the heart of the prisoner.) Nazis had discovered a simple management principle, if you fell at work, you’d be marked for slaughter.

So the men toiled under the shadow of a chimney bellowing smoke a part of which had been living human beings a few hours ago. The men struggled to the limits of endurance literally under the shadow of death. Period.

If you thought things couldn’t be worse. You would be wrong, again. As the front came closer, Nazis decided to relocate the prisoners to another camp, this time, deep within Germany, in Buchenwald.

To the utter misfortune of the prisoners, the winter had set in. All they had for warm clothing were shirts and trousers removed from their dead comrades. Wiesel writes: “We each had put on several garments, one over the other, to better protect ourselves from the cold. Poor clowns, wider than tall, more dead than alive, poor creatures whose deathly faces peeked out from layers of prisoner’s clothes.”

An icy wind was blowing violently that morning. The prisoners were made to run on snow, pushed by gun wielding guards shouting, “Faster, you filthy dogs!” They ran through the day, they ran through the night. Their guards changed shifts when tired, but the prisoners ran on. Anyone falling behind was shot. But it was more for pleasure, because anyone lying on snow under a pitiless winter night sky didn’t have a ghost of a chance to survive in any case.

It is not clear how long the journey went until they are transferred to another cattle-car, this time, without a roof! And as the train trudges on through pouring snow and stops for eternity, the prisoners have nothing to eat or drink, except when curious German onlookers throw a few loaves of bread to the pitiable creatures on board. And as many men fight for the crumbs, people die. Eliezer – he is just 15 – watches a son snatching away bread from his dying father. They old man desperately clings on to his bread and pleads, “Son, you are killing me for a loaf of bread?”

By the time son achieves his goal, father is dead. The living desperately munches the food that might have saved the dead.

On the way, corpses are thrown out casually by men who themselves could have been cast away, dead. A hundred men boarded a wagon with Elie; only 12 get off at Buchenwald, where they would wait for death or liberation.


Some tragedy can only be described only in words, and not by pictures or films. Printed words can expand our horizon in a unique way and help us see the unseen, without which our world view would be much poorer.

Please read this book if you can. And think how well we have been able to deal with the monster that lives within every one of us.

06 September 2017


[Photo of Buchenwald Camp taken five days after its liberation by the Red Army; Elie Wiesel is on the second row from bottom, seventh from left, next to the plank. Courtesy the Wikipedia]