The least difficult part of writing this post has been to decide on a title, and one that would share some of the awkwardness and pain that one feels in writing of this, the belated realization that I have met the (internet) trolls and they are us.

UntitledThis Saturday on the occasion of Eid-ul-Fitr, I shared the following striking painting that was originally posted on FB with the annotation “Reproduction of an 18th century Rajasthan miniature depicting Lord Krishna sighting the Eid moon and pointing it out to a group of Muslim men and women. Shared by our great history teacher Prof. Harbans Mukhia. Let’s resolve on this Eid to win back the Indìa of magic the picture depicts.”  I’m glad I did this – so many of my FB friends have gone on to share it further… And I was pleased that my erstwhile colleague from JNU was responsible in some part for having spread the word, and the message. However, see the Addendum below, as well as an article that has appeared in the Indian Express. [Fact checks at this point: a) The painting is not Rajasthani, probably Kangra. b) it is not the Eid moon. Actually, it is not even the moon per se, it is a solar eclipse that Krishna and Balarama are pointing out, and c) it is not a group of Muslim men and women, it is Krishna’s adoptive family and friends in 18th century poshak.]

Apparently many other people had also sent out the image, so I was a bit surprised when shortly thereafter, someone commented on my FB post and pointed to a tweet from True Indollogy to say “This picture is fake. There is no such 18th century painting. I challenge you to reveal its whereabouts (where is it located?)”. And then, “Secularism is not a one way street.”

Even the straw-man in the argument would be bewildered. The painting is a charming remembrance of times past, when it was possible to keep one’s religious identity distinct from one’s politics, and when, one would like to believe, all these issues were not automatically conflated. I, in particular, had not talked of secularism, and believe it or not, for most of us who have liked or shared the image, it was just a nice way to convey Eid greetings. We may have been mistaken in what the image was about, we may have made our interpolations (mentally at least, if not in writing) but in any case, the image is not “fake”, and while its provenance can be debated, it’s message would be as compelling were it a thousand years old, or three. [Fact check: The image is in the Smithsonian. So much for that. And it is a solar eclipse, giving a sense of wonder. And Krishna and family are clearly enjoying the view of the eclipse, unlike modern day Indians who avoid seeing such natural phenomena for all sorts of superstitious reasons. Which is an equally good and compelling message from the painting.]

Other than to point out that the self-same image had indeed appeared on the pages of Swarajya some years ago, I have not said anything, and neither am I going to add to that debate here, but I have been bewildered (to the extent that age permits) by the ensuing discussion on the two-way streetness of secularism and so on, and the fairly large number of ‘plus’ or people-like-us who can find serious fault with either the picture, its purported image, or its use today. Or that the way in which the term secularism has become to mean something very different from its textbook definition, of the principle of separation of the state from religious institutions.

John-Tenniel-Humpty-DumptyWe are in a wonderland of sorts, so I can quite accept that words mean whatever the user intends them to mean, like this memorable interchange from Through the Looking Glass.

The importance of being master cannot be denied, but it is impossible to carry out a discussion, meaningful or or not, to establish mastery on the pages of FB, as this very helpful video on the science of trolls so carefully explains.  But the post and subsequent comments confirmed the feeling, much like Oliver Perry said, that we have met the trolls and they are us.

A Cave Troll, from:

Of course, the internet being what it is, there is already a FB page for Trolls-r-Us though this is not relevant here. Neither is a similarly named website, “an archive of misinformation and propaganda.” This struck a nerve, given that one had been accused of propagating fake news, so I did a random search of this latter website for the word India, and found this gem: Egyptian pharaohs were of Slavic origin, the true history of Russia is hidden by masons […]. The human species was evolved not in Africa, but on the territories of current Russia. The Russian ancestors were known as Aryans who came to India. These Russian ancestors are mentioned in the Indian Vedas.” The site goes on to say These claims contradict the available anthropological data. So yet another nugget of wisdom is said to be contained in the Vedas. Having heard so many claims these past few years of what all our ancients knew or had known and having been both privately and publicly embarrassed by it, I was mildly surprised that there were not more claims on that site.

And this then brought to mind a paper that I had seen many years ago with the title On the Remarkable Spectrum of a Non-Hermitean Random Matrix Model by Daniel E. Holz, Henri Orland, and A. Zee. What had caught my eye at that time was the abstract, and in particular the last phrase: A non-Hermitean random matrix model proposed a few years ago has a remarkably intricate spectrum. […] The spectrum is complicated because our matrix contains everything that will ever be written in the history of the universe, including this particular paper.

We are indeed living in the matrix. Verb. sap.

Addendum (my notes in blue, others comments in italics)

A friend (and a real one) on FaceBook commented: This was being shared as an example of  ‘secularism’. Later, one of my friends posted a long clarification that showed this was not as it was claimed to be. I will copy it here or refer to it.

My reaction when I first saw it in a WhatsApp group was somewhat like this: It is so anachronistic! Eid in the time of Krishna? Lord Krishna with Muslims? Islam arose around 7 CE. And, this is supposed to be shared “via Harbans Mukhia”? Really? What did Prof Mukhia say about this? A joke or fabrication? Or, something else? Need to know a lot more. I don’t know what to make of this. It is really problematic to say Islam existed in that period. Secularism shouldn’t attribute symbolism where it may not exist in that form. The interpretation associating it with Eid is puzzling. “

Well, it was indeed shared via Harbans Mukhia, although he does not say that it was  an example of secularism (see my post above) but he did identify the others in the picture as muslims and went on to say: Is this the India we have lost?

There are allegorical references in many paintings and this is something that all of us are used to, so anachronism may not be such an issue. If one were looking at the painting as a record of some incident or a depiction of some event, clearly more research is needed. He then went on to quote his friend on FB:

Since many people shared the of us shared the image, here’s a clarification: For all those who are interested, here is Prof. B N Goswamy’s response to Prof. Gulam Sheikh’s query about the “Krishna sighting Eid moon” image. Please also forward it to other friends who may be sharing the image with wrong details. Also, those of you who are Prof. Mukhia’s FB friends, could you please check if the post in his name with the wrong attribution for the image is “genuine” — and alert him to this?

B. N. Goswamy: “I must confess that I had not seen this image before, despite being quite familiar with the Bhagavata Purana and this series of paintings from the Tehri-Garhwal collection (painted by one of the members of the first generation after Manaku and Nainsukh). However the present ‘reading’ of it is completely meaningless based as it is, chiefly I think, on the appearance of Nanda who is dressed like a Mughal courtier: with that kind of beard, and wearing a long jama and a sloping turban. The anachronistic impossibility of a Muslim figure to be seen in the Bhagavata Purana or this series apart, this is the way Nanda appears in every single folio of this series whenever we see him! Even in this regard, if one notices from close the jama Nanda wears is clearly a Hindu style jama, tied as it is, in Hindu-fashion, under the left armpit. There is not the slightest doubt about this.

Topped by that is the silly statement that it is a Rajasthani painting! Of course it is not. It is a Pahari painting from the series to which I have referred above. […]

The pointing towards the moon in the sky by Krishna and Balarama seems to be from an obscure passage, possibly in chapter 28 of the tenth skandha, where Krishna, after rescuing Nanda from Varuna who had seized him and taken him to his dominions, leads him and other kinsmen, using his powers of illusion, to a vision of his domains. There, after the rescue, the text says, Krishna “manifested to the cowherds his own realm” which is beyond the range of tamas … One cannot be certain, however; it is not unlikely that the episode occurs more fully in some other rescension of the Purana and not the one generally in circulation.

I have no idea where the present folio is. If it can be located, surely one will find a text on verso, like on other folios of the same series.

Long answer? But hopefully of some use.

Indeed, very useful, but also see the article in the Express. To be honest, I had also thought the image was more Kangra than Rajput, but that was just a superficial impression. The interpretation above, replete as it is with references and with caveats is more along the lines of a collegial note of correction on an over-interpretation of the image. Many of us who shared the image did so without any reference to either the identities of the persons there and without scholarly interpretations. As I said above, we are used to allegories in all our religious texts, and therefore to take everything so literally and to find fault, in of all things, the coexistence of different religions seems extreme. Many people found that the image evoked a memory of the way things were (or we imagine they were, or hoped they were). And I am willing to let it be.

We may well be in a matrix where all pasts and all futures are possible.


Sunset in Cubatão

cubataoShortly after I moved to New Delhi in 1986, I got to spend six weeks in Campinas, Brazil. On the way to the beach at Guarujá one weekend I drove with some friends through the not so picturesque town of Cubatão, which, as Wikipedia will gladly tell you, was one of the most polluted cities in the world, nicknamed “Valley of Death”, due to births of brainless children and respiratory, hepatic and blood illnesses. High air pollution was killing forest over hills around the city.


It was a dull and soulless city abutting Santos in the state of São Paulo, but the high pollution also threw up so much particulate matter into the atmosphere that it helped to create some really spectacular sunrises and sunsets. My colleague at the University of Campinas, Alfredo, had this idea for his perfect movie noir – Sunset in Cubatão – along the lines of Blade Runner and to my possibly caipirinha fueled imagination it seemed like a great idea. It was the 1980’s after all.

Most of the cities here were not as polluted then, and environmental caution was not a matter of any concern. In the ’90s, when winter fogs became more common in north India, it was more a nuisance with flight schedule disruptions than any matter of serious concern. But the last ten days in Delhi have been a nightmare.

tenorBreathing hurts. The eyes smart, one can feel the acidity (or so I imagine) of the air as it passes through one’s nostrils. It does not smell particularly bad always, but the air is not fresh by any stretch of the imagination.  It is just impossible to take a deep breath and that has ruled out any exercise, even the most modest exertion. Schools were shut last week for a few days, but they have reopened, and there is little indication that serious political intervention is going to take place. The long term effects on us all, and on the environment is worth thinking about, else it may not be long before our city’s Wiki entry includes the epitaph “high air pollution killed Delhi’s urban forests”.

Photo on 13-11-17 at 11.55 AMYesterday, in particular, was very difficult- even in my office in JNU, arguably one of the greener parts of Delhi, wearing a mask made it somewhat easier to breathe. I posted this picture on Facebook and was inundated with invitations to move to Kashmir, Hyderabad, Manipur, Melbourne, and ironically, São Paulo! I hear that things have improved there since the 1980’s so maybe its a good option. Cubatão, here I come!

Kathmandu, 1969

jscoverWhen I was in the last years of high school in Mussoorie, a brand new magazine appeared- JS, or Junior Statesman. The first issue came out in January 1967, and it quickly became staple reading for me and my friends, especially during long study periods when it was also forbidden… Although published from Calcutta (I remember going to Desmond Doig’s office once in 1970 or ’71) there was a lot of Kathmandu in it, drawings of hippies, articles by Jug Suraiya, Sashi Tharoor, Zeenat Aman, all exotic names in our boarding school. It was our one great weekly escape that we shared. When I went to college later, I went on to send contributions to JS (and earned some pocket money in the bargain), but regrettably I never kept copies, even though one of the articles I wrote even made it to a cover. And The Statesman has either not digitized this classic (or has chosen to not make the files public) and as a result, the only illustrations I was able to find on the net are very unsatisfactory. See above.

But Kathmandu…

The gap between passing out of school and entering college was a long one: The Senior Cambridge exam was held in November 1968, and college admissions were not until June the following year. And for the not very professionally inclined – I was not going to do either medicine or engineering – there was a lot of time on my hands. As it happened, there was a to-do about the exams my year, and we all had to repeat the school final in February or March 1968, but still, there was a lot of waiting time, and I decided I wanted to travel “abroad”.

ic70-01I had already traveled outside India and found it quite underwhelming… One afternoon, driving beyond Tuensang in Nagaland, we stopped the jeep at a post along the road that said simply “Burma”. That was about it, but being a little over 14, I jumped out, ran into Burma, expecting I’m not sure what. Of course I could not have expected that it would be very different, but still, there was an unreasonable disappointment… And a year or so later, when living in Ukhrul in Manipur, we drove down to the border town of Moreh and crossed over into Tamu in Burma. Being heavily populated by Tamils at that time, it was actually possible to get by in Tamil, and the only sense of the foreignness of Tamu that I got was from the visibility of a lot of “Made in China” goods and Burmese parasols, neither of which were of interest to me then. But still, seeing the pagoda and having to change money into Kyat was a positive…

AUntitledt some point in early 1969, I decided to go to Nepal. Some cajoling of parents was needed, but they gave in soon enough- there was little enough to do in Ukhrul, and those were also days in which, in retrospect, our lives seemed surreally secure. I was a little over 15, and all I had as I set off for Kathmandu was the address of some people at the Indian Embassy, friends of friends. My travel plan was vague. I would fly from Imphal to Calcutta (via Silchar and Agartala) by the Indian Airlines Dakota, take the train (third class, no reservation) to Patna, and fly into Kathmandu from there…

Amazingly enough, it happened pretty much like that. I had an old sleeping bag and a duffel, some money- I’m not even sure how much, except that it was probably a few hundred rupees, a princely sum in those days- and an idea that Nepal was doable, and both exciting and inexpensive. In addition there were student concessions that made every trip half-price or less, and the Indian Airlines flights were adventures in of themselves. To this day I regret not taking the Agartala to Khowai flight when I could have- it was the shortest flight in the world at that time, and at Rs 7 ($1.40 then) surely the cheapest.

vvI took some train to Patna and landed up early in the morning, and eventually made my way to the Indian Airlines city office by a rickshaw. I managed to get myself the very last seat on the morning flight to Kathmandu, and it is another testimony to the times that none of the IA staff (and from talking to some of the old-timers, I know that they all regret the merger with Air India) found it odd that I would be traveling on my own on an international flight. I can’t swear to it, but from the little scouting I have done on the web and the few old timetables I could find, I think it must have been IC 245, the thrice-weekly Vickers Viscount flight at 9:05 in the morning. That day we were a bit delayed by a massive dust storm – I have a very clear memory of the sky turning a vivid brown – but soon enough, I was in my window seat and on my way…

1The window seat. Its funny what one chooses to remember – my eyes must have been glued to the outside for all the 50 minutes of the flight, but I can still see the roseate Himalayan peaks as we came into the Kathmandu valley in the early morning. Time has added hues and tinges to all memories, but I can still sense the excitement that I felt landing at Tribhuvan airport, more than a bit nervous since all I had was a school ID and an address in the Embassy compound that I needed to get to.

tigertaxi1And the arrival did not disappoint. In those days, all taxis in Kathmandu were whimsically painted in tiger stripes- and many were Volkswagen Beetles. The Tiger Taxis were a world away from the black and yellow Ambassadors of Calcutta and Delhi- but strangely I was only able to find a few images on the net. Anyhow, I was soon at the Embassy, and spent the subsequent few days doing much the usual things one did before there was Thamel.

Getting back was another trip. I had run out of money, so flying back was not an option, and people told me about taking a bus to Birgunj, on the border between Nepal and India, from where one took a rickshaw to Raxaul on the Indian side. My memory of the ride is a dimmed one, the only striking image I have of that ride is when I looked over my shoulder for that last view of the Himalayas…

And then Birgunj. By the time the bus deposited me in Birgunj, it was dark, all the better for me to make the crossing I thought. I had bought some “foreign goods” – some inexpensive perfumes and gifts for my parents, mainly – and was firmly convinced that this would going to land me in trouble with the border police. Although I had hidden these artfully in my luggage in case of a search, I was quite nervous as we made the cross into Raxaul, and to the train station from where one would take the train back to Calcutta.

mgsetupatnaI can’t decide whether Google and Google Maps are a good or poor way to recreate memories… There is so much that gets thrown up on a search that I’m not sure if these are my recollections or trancreations thereof. Anyhow, it has been a bonus to discover the old IC timetables and to realize that already in 1970, Indian Airlines flew between 62 cities in India. (The number today is not that much more within the country, while it has greatly increased the number of flights outside the country.) The train ride I took from Raxaul to Patna was via Muzaffarpur, and I do have a vivid memory of crossing the Ganga at Patna by ferry. These were the days before the Mahatma Gandhi Setu was built (as I discovered via G) or the Digha-Sonpur bridge… Blame it on the age, but the excitement of taking a boat trip- it was less than an hour long – to top off everything was a big bonus! And I can add in hindsight, it was one of the nicest ways in which I have arrived in Patna.

There really is not much more to tell. I got back to Calcutta the next day, took a plane the next to  Imphal (via Agartala and Silchar) and reached Ukhrul, feeling very “foreign-returned” and worldly wise. I had had my share of sightseeing, the living goddess, Hanuman Dhoka, Pashupatinath, Swayambhunath, renting a bicycle and riding out to Patan, eating momos for the first time… the works, but as the wise TSE had said, it really was all about the journey.

The Lesson

An invitation from Bangalore University to speak at a meeting on Pedagogy and Research in the Sciences in Universities (and to listen to other academics) has given me an occasion to think again of what it is that we do when we teach at university, what we do right, and what we do not. There is a certain amorphousness to the enterprise of instruction above a certain level, where intentions and motivations are (in my opinion properly) a bit blurred…

Untitled.pngIt also brought to mind, oddly enough, The Lesson,  that wonderful play by Ionesco that was such a staple of the amateur drama circuit when I was in college, and which is such a commentary on the nature of the teacher-student relationship and of pedagogy itself.

But I digress. Academic life at an Indian university – and here context is everything – has been undergoing considerable change in the past few years, both because the classroom is changing, and because the student is evolving. Sometimes a little too rapidly for one’s liking. And if truth be told, a little too rapidly for the average instructor’s comprehension, and that includes me.

What is so special about pedagogy and research in the sciences at universities? For one, these are now just one of the several institutions where a science-rich (i.e. a curriculum with a majority of courses in scientific areas) education can be obtained. The IITs, the IISERs and a few other institutions all vie to offer a range of sciences at the undergraduate and Masters’ levels, some in integrated five-year programmes. At the Ph. D. stage, the competition is even wider with all the national laboratories essentially being deemed-to-be-universities. So one difficulty that universities face in re science students is to get them there in the first place.

The difficulty is truly undeserved. There is enough evidence to suggest that students draw significant benefit from having an intellectually diverse academic environment even if their intended area of study, their specialization, is in itself quite narrow. But of course, the range of specializations at a given place is not as important as the quality of the people there, so its a toss-up as to what is preferable. And over the years, as we (as a nation – we are all responsible!) have encouraged the flight of intellect and academic talent out of the universities into the cloisters of research institutes, by policies of preferential funding for the latter over the former, by differential service conditions and numerous other marks of privilege, it is with a heavily biased coin that one calls the toss.

The advantage that universities have, of numbers, is one we should hold on to. A middling sized masters’ class in physics at JNU now has about 30 students, at Bangalore University this number would be 80, and at Delhi about 200. And these numbers offer several opportunities. There are always (and the emphasis is deserved) exceptionally gifted students in such classes, and also always, some really poor students. That’s just the law of large numbers at play. The width of the ability distribution makes teaching such classes a challenge, and (so long as one  is not terminally cynical) there is much to learn from the process.

There are matters we take for granted, such as the purpose of higher education (at the postgraduate level and above) in our country. Academic policy makers will trot out graphs to suggest that there is a positive correlation between GDP and the quantum of original research or the number of scientific papers published. So one purpose of university departments is to “produce” postgraduates, Masters and Ph D’s for somewhat ephemeral ends. But then some of these postgraduates will end up in research careers as well, and perhaps in teaching positions, so that the concerns of the seminar acquire an existential angst that is all too familiar.

One can go on. But to return to the theme of the seminar, namely Pedagogy and Research in the Sciences, my few points are the following.

The first is that the role of the teacher in the university classroom has changed drastically in the past few years. The teacher today is not the central source of information in the way he or she was say, twenty years ago. One still gets respect as a teacher, but not in the simplistic ways of the past – one has to earn it every day… This was always true, of course, but now there is a constant comparison with material all over the web, lectures on any topic easily available on YouTube, MOOCs, Wikis… the list is long.

Next, and this might not be true for all subjects, we tend to over-teach. At any rate, we do tend to over-regulate curricula. While that is grist for another post, it is true that students today are left with few real choices,  the real freedom to design one’s own learning that comes with the semester system being sacrificed for some form of academic uniformity. I’ve seen “elective” courses being made effectively compulsory year after year, the need for completing a set of credit requirements competing with a shortage of teaching staff. Students are integral to the pedagogic process, and not just as the intended targets. They are as responsible in determining outcomes as teachers are, in ways that need a somewhat more individualized approach.

My main concern however, relates to the modularization of pedagogic practice. Over the years the educational pattern in the country has evolved from the system of annual examinations to a semester system, much like the rest of the world. The standard model of academic teaching that has been adopted in most of our progressive universities is one of semester-wise teaching of a number of courses, each considered a stand-alone subject.  It is too late in the day to debate whether it is a good or bad thing, especially when there is so much regulatory pressure to conform to some mythical global standard, but one aspect of such instruction is that it poses new challenges to the didactic process and these challenges have not been seriously addressed.

The unity of a discipline – that which a Department of Study strives to convey – is often missed out in a compartmentalized approach to teaching. The modularity of semester based courses, and in some instances, this is broken up into even smaller modules- can make a discipline seem more granular than it necessarily is.

BJayasriThe contrasting styles of Hindustani and Carnatic classical music offer some parallels to these two pedagogic approaches. A night-long concert of Hindustani music may well be devoted to a single raga, developing and evolving a theme gradually. A Carnatic concert of a few hours, on the other hand would have several compositions in different ragas and with different tempi. There are those who swear by one and those that swear by another, but in the end, both have their adherents as well as those that simply don’t get either.

UntitledBut again, I digress. Modular teaching can lead to modularized learning, with some students feeling that specific topics belong to a specific courses (“… but Hermite polynomials are in quantum mechanics, not mathematical physics … “ or similar plaintive cries that can be heard when discussing the “unfairness” of a question paper…).  And this is a concern that is shared by many. Graduate schools in the US often (if not uniformly) have comprehensives and cumulative examinations to address these types of issues, and quite successfully, but our teaching practices have not yet adopted such measures. Some years ago I offered the graduating batch of students in the MSc programme an optional examination after all the others were over. It happened to be a Friday, 13th May and hence the drama in the poster; the few students who took it were enthusiastic  (if somewhat bewildered) but the answer scripts were more revealing of the outcomes of two years of teaching and learning…

In the end, my point is a simple one.   Our pedagogy can benefit from the explicit recognition of the collective nature of teaching, where the efficacy of what one teacher imparts depends crucially on what is taught by another. In addition, the question of timing is also important. Especially for core courses, a greater level of coordination and planning is needed. This can greatly improve learning outcomes in all disciplines, but it also requires that we rethink our practices.

Let me close by quoting from a blogpost by Keeling and Hersh on higher education in the US that has considerable resonance with some of the points above.  “One challenge […] is that it requires faculty to come together – collectively – and agree on which outcomes, expectations, and standards they share and endorse, and then reinforce them throughout their various courses and programs. It demands a different institutional culture of learning […].” And, I might add,  teaching.

A life unfinished

cc (1)Charusita Chakravarty, Professor of Chemistry at the IIT Delhi died last Tuesday, 29 March 2016.

Charu and I were married in 1992. In early 2013, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, the triple-negative subtype.  She won many battles against this form of the cancer, but in the end, we lost the war.

She would have been fifty-two this coming May.

Maudlin lines from a 1970’s novel run through my mind… morphing along the way to: What can you say about a fifty-one-year-old woman who died? That she was smart, witty, beautiful. And brilliant. That she loved Eliot and Tagore. And Kabir.  And life.

And that she was a scientist who cared passionately about her work, her teaching, her students, that last scientific paper, that seminar given at the last conference. That she brought intensity and genuineness to everything she did, from chemistry to cooking.

The last few years were a struggle against odds, but not always overshadowed by what we both knew. She found the time and the strength to do some of the many things she wanted. And made time for people, for friends.

The memorial service for her on Saturday included poetry which she truly enjoyed. Friends and family read out verses she loved or would have loved, and I know that she would have been surprised and pleased by some of the selections. Particularly these lines from Margaret Mead,

Remember me in your heart, your thoughts, your memories of the times we loved,
the times we cried, the times we fought, the times we laughed.
For if you always think of me, I will never be gone.

A Physicist and a Gentleman

Dr Deepak Kumar (1988)My friend and colleague, Deepak Kumar, passed away all of a sudden late Monday (25th January) night. I had seen him that day, sharing a cup of tea with another member of the faculty in the afternoon sun on the lawns of the School of Physical Sciences at JNU. The spot where he sat was directly visible from my office window- Deepak often sat there and had his lunch. I hadn’t spoken to him that particular day, but that was not unusual – there were many days like that. But it was not just another day, not like any other.

Deepak was one of the first to join the School as Professor when it was formed, and he brought a decade or more of experience at the University of Roorkee. As it happened that greatly helped the School in its early, formative years, and set the mark for how it developed subsequently, defined what it’s core values were, and the sense of purpose and commitment that it has had since.

Colleague for almost 30 years, Deepak has been a friend for a little over that, and if I were to have to characterize him, the title of this post says it as well as anything. Deepak was a scholar in the true sense of the word, and one for whom the world of physics was all absorbing. Although his professional interests were in condensed matter physics, he was both knowledgeable about, and was interested in a huge range of topics. One could go to him for just about any doubt, count on him to give the right bit of advice, and if the matter happened to be something that he knew well, his intellectual generosity was limitless.

This is not exaggeration. Not for nothing was Deepak the most collaborative colleague that we have at the SPS:  of the 20 or so faculty that we have in physics, Deepak has actually written papers with no less than seven of us. And with something like twice that many students, either as their formal or informal supervisor, as a mentor in the best tradition.  Indeed, he mentored the first Ph. D. that was awarded from the SPS, and both directly and indirectly showed many of us the way in which one could bring out the very best in our students.

There is so much to say about Deepak- his academic contributions in condensed matter and statistical physics, the several awards, the recognition. But this above all: This was too soon and too sudden. There were many many good years of physics one could have had from him, and many years of physics that he would have enjoyed.  Even the last day, on Monday, he gave a lecture, there was another scheduled this week. And last semester he taught a course for the MSc Physics seniors. He was working to the end, and he went with his academic boots on…

I know his ethos will continue to guide us, and I can only hope that we will not forget his calming spirit that often brought hot tempers down, his somewhat other-worldly smile, and his gentle sense of humour that helped us all see that there were many ways of reaching conclusions. We all will miss him deeply, the community that he helped build at JNU, and the larger community of physicists in the country that knew and admired him.

Reality and Myth

ddkSome years ago, a friend of mine at JNU proudly told me about a book that he had picked up from the library “sale”, a book that had once belonged to D D Kosambi (DDK). Apparently it had not been checked out for years, and was therefore deemed unworthy of staying on in the library, as if finding a place on the library shelf was just some sort of evolutionary game, a survival of the fittest and no more…

The JNU had, at some point in time, acquired Kosambi’s personal collection of books, that was, according to Mr R P Nene (DDK’s friend and assistant, in an interview in June 1985) “sold by his family after his death to the JNU at the cost of Rs. 75, 000.” Details of how this happened are not too clear- Kosambi died in 1966, the JNU was founded in 1969, and the initial seed of the JNU library was that of the “prestigious Indian School of International Studies which was later merged with Jawaharlal Nehru University.” Our website goes on to say that the “JNU Library is a depository of all Govt. publications and publications of some important International Organisations like WHO, European Union, United Nations and its allied agencies etc. The Central Library is knowledge hub of Jawaharlal Nehru University, It provides comprehensive access to books, journals, theses and dissertations, reports, surveys covering diverse disciplines.”

09d8db678a716ec2ebc8487af584ae82The amount paid suggests that the books were viewed as very valuable: Rs 75K in the late 1960’s was a huge sum of money. And given that, it was quite amazing that the collection had not been kept as one, but the books had apparently been shelved by subject (!) and were then like any other books, and so subject to the periodic culling that most libraries undertake to clear shelves and make space for new books. (In some sense I was not too surprised, having myself bought a book that had been owned by Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy and that had somehow made its way to Princeton. The initials AKC were pencilled in on the first page, but apart from the bookplate, there was little else to show that it had been his. Unfortunately that book is no longer with me, and in hindsight, I think that when libraries acquire collections from scholars of note, they should make some attempt to keep the collections intact. Mercifully the JNU has done that now with more recent acquisitions..).

Untitled 5Nevertheless, a chance conversation shortly thereafter on the vagaries of libraries and the nature of intellectual inheritances started me off on my exploration of Kosambi and his mathematics. The idea was, on the face of, a simple one. What was the extent of Kosambi’s mathematical contributions compared to, say, his contributions to history or numismatics. How would the math stack up?  Having been in TIFR before I came to JNU, I had also heard of how he travelled from Pune to Bombay every day on the Deccan Queen, how he was fired from TIFR, etc. etc. But I also found out that precious little was known of DDK’s other life by the historians. That the mathematics was too different and far too difficult is all too true, but still.

Untitled 2To start with, I thought it would be good to put together his life mathematical, namely all his math and stats papers. Much of that was on the web, except that it was in bits and pieces, and all over the place. No single bibliography was accurate, and no matter where I looked, there were gaps. Many of the Indian journals where he published were not (and still are not) digitized. Some of the names that were given in the existing lists were incomplete or incorrect, many papers were missing. The Rendiconti della Reale Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei or the  Sitzungsberichten der Preussische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Physikalisch-mathematische klasse were both uncommon journals that were impossible to locate anywhere in India, for instance. I went to the Ramanujan Institute in Chennai in late 2009, looking for copies of the Journal of the Indian Mathematical Society and Mathematics Student where DDK had published a lot of his work in the 1930’s and 1940’s. It’s too depressing to recount that visit… Nothing could be located, and I left empty-handed after a wasted morning.

Untitled 4In 2010, though, I was visiting professor at the University of Tokyo for a month, and luckily, the Komaba campus where I was located, housed the mathematics department and more importantly, its library. It took a few hours spread out over several days, but before long, I not only had the bulk of DDK’s papers in photocopy or in digital form, but I also discovered, via MathSciNet, of DDK’s nom de plume S. Ducray, under which name he had written four papers. I also had access to the reviews of many of his mathematical papers by others, and could see many very famous names among the reviewers. As an aside, I should add that the library of Tokyo University is one of the few that have the complete sets of Journal of the Indian Mathematical Society and Mathematics Student, including the volumes published during the World War II years, when Japan and India were on different sides…

UntitledIn addition to English, DDK wrote in German and French, and there were Japanese as well as Chinese translations, at least one of which was the original language of publication. I was able to put together the titles of about 67 papers that were on mathematics or statistics and then set about getting physical copies of all of them. Some were easy- the Indian Society for Agricultural Statistics is on Pusa Road in New Delhi, the Indian Academy of Sciences has digitised its entire collection, and so on. For some I was lucky- I was invited to Hokkaido University in Sapporo from where the journal Tensor (New Series) is published, so I was able to get two of his papers, and work took me to the Academia Sinica in Taipei where I was able to get one more paper that he had originally published in Chinese. The papers in Comptes Rendu (in French) came via an old student who was in Paris, the one in the Prussian Academy journal from a friend who used to work for JSTOR, and the paper in the New Indian Antiquary via an old student who was in Chicago. Some of this vast international effort was probably unnecessary (in the sense that I could have found some things closer home and with less sturm und drang if I were a properly trained historian of science) but it all seemed good fun as it was happening. And it was, so to speak, a side business anyhow…

In the end there are only two works by DDK that are now not available, both books. One was sent to the publishers a few days before he died: this manuscript, on Prime Numbers was never found. Its loss was not followed up, and now it is too late.  The other book, on Path Geometry was submitted to Marston Morse at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and that was also never published. It so happened that I had spent a sabbatical year there in 2004-5, and had actually met Mrs Morse, so I wrote to ask her if there was any record of the submitted manuscript among the Morse papers (Marston Morse had passed on in 1977). By then Mrs Morse was in her hundredth year, and although a search was made, nothing could be located. Other than these two “missing works”, copies of all other papers can be had for the asking; a listing of all DDK’s papers is now available in the Indian Academy of Sciences Repository of publications by Fellows, DDK having been elected one in 1935.

Photo 34But also in 2010, I was introduced to Meera Kosambi via email (I was still in Tokyo then) and she in turn introduced me to Professor Toshio Yamazaki who had by then retired from the History Department at Tokyo University, but who had been a student of DDK and H D Sankalia at Deccan College in the late 1950’s to early 1960’s. We met for a coffee one morning, and apart from taking a grim picture (a pre-smartphone selfie, as it were!) to mark the occasion, we chatted about DDK and Yamazaki-san’s Indian experiences.  Getting to know Meera Kosambi – Meeratai as she insisted she be addressed- turned out to be a major turning point in this enterprise. For one thing, it made it just that much more concrete and worth the effort involved when I realised that even she was largely unaware of her father’s contributions and the complexity of his mathematical reputation. A few conversations with her cleared up many things – of how he never had the Ph D degree for instance, or of the family dog Bonzo and how he had grown so fat that DDK called him a pig (dukker in Marathi) and so on.  All of which was summarized in an article that was published in EPW in 2012 on the mathematical legacy of DDK, the abstract of which I quote below:

Today, D D Kosambi’s significance as a historian greatly overshadows his reputation and contributions in mathematics. Kosambi simultaneously worked in both areas for much of his adult life, and to understand the body of his work either in the social sciences or in mathematics, an appreciation of the complementarity of his interests is essential. An understanding of Kosambi the historian can only be enhanced by an appreciation of Kosambi the mathematician. In a fundamental way, Kosambi embodied the multidisciplinary approach, channelling diverse interests – indeed combining them – to create scholarship of high order.

The same article was published in a book, Unsettling the Past (Permanent Black, 2012)  that Meera Kosambi brought out later that year. Perhaps conscious of the limited time that was left to her, she  was keen to see the intellectual legacies of Kosambi Père et Fils firmly in place. (For whatever reason, and in my opinion unfairly, she constantly judged herself by their mythical standards and fell short. As indeed, who would not…) In the aftermath of the the D D Kosambi centenary (2007-8), Meeratai published at a furious pace- Dharmanand Kosambi’s writings in translation, his autobiography Nivedan, Gender, Culture, and Performance: Marathi Theatre and Cinema before Independence, Crossing Thresholds: Feminist Essays in Social History, Mahatma Gandhi and Prema Kantak: Exploring a Relationship, Exploring History, Feminist Vision or ‘Treason Against Men’?: Kashibai Kanitkar and the Engendering of Marathi Literature, Women Writing Gender: Marathi Fiction Before Independence, something like ten books in the five years that I knew her. She always had a book to write, and as those who knew her more closely told me, when the end was near, she was ready to go only after she finished the very last bits on her forthcoming Pandita Ramabai: Life and landmark writings. 

Meera Kosambi also gave the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library most of what she could of DDK’s papers and writings so that they could be properly archived. But fortunately, this was after she let me, and more importantly, Rajaram Nityananda, then Director of the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics in Pune look through them. In the process Rajaram had many of the papers digitised, and there was much in there that was (and still is) waiting to be discovered – unfinished manuscripts, unpublished notes, letters and so forth.

00000328In particular, there are typescripts of many articles and notes. DDK’s notebooks from  Harvard, where he had taken lecture notes as an undergraduate are also among the papers. And not just mathematics notebooks, either- in short, material that is ripe for some amount of scholarly analysis. For instance, there is an article on C V Raman, (the somewhat more palatable) half of which was published in People’s War in 1945 by “Indian Scientist”. The latter half of the article seems to have been (correctly, in the opinion of several who have read it) deemed to be left better unsaid. There are also the edited typescripts of several essays.

And then there are letters, several of them. Like many in the pre-email era, DDK was a chatty correspondent. He made good and lasting friends as a teenager and young adult, those that stood by him pretty much through his life. Letters to the (R. J.) Conklins- a few of which have appeared in Unsettling give an unusual and somewhat American view of India in the 1930’s in the period when the freedom movement gained ground. Norbert Wiener remained a close friend, and professionally, he remained close to André Weil through his life, and for a brief while to Élie Cartan and Tulio Levi-Civita as well. Their correspondence, what remains of it, needs to be seen, as also his letters to Divyabhanusinh Chavda. The pictures that emerge of DDK, warts and all, need to be confronted. Of his personal angularities DDK was all too aware as he was of his many talents and his intellect. He was unapologetic, but also, occasionally, un-self-critical, refusing to see what he might have achieved through compromise and (academic) collaboration. As he says, when speaking of the Riemann debacle, at the end of  his autobiographical essay, Adventure into the Unknown, with ample self-justification and more than a hint of self pity,

“Let me admit at once that I made every sort of mistake in the first presentation. There is no excuse for this, though there were strong reasons: I had to fight for my results over three long years between waves of agony from chronic arthritis, against massive daily doses of aspirin, splitting headaches, fever, lack of assistance and steady disparagement. It was much more difficult to discover good mathematicians who were able to see the main point of the proof than it had been to make the original mathematical discovery. How much of this is due to my own disagreeable personality and what part to the spirit of a tight medieval guild that rules mathematical circles in certain countries with an `affluent society’ need not be considered here. There is a surely a great deal to be said for the notion that the success of science is fundamentally related to the particular form of society”.

ducray.jpegNot being au fait with either the historian or the mathematician’s insider view of DDK, I had to discover many things afresh, such as his use of pseudonyms. This is one area where it is clear that some serious work is needed, given the range of his contributions; I have only poor hypotheses as to why he did this. In three articles, DDK signed himself as Ahriman, Vidyarthi, Indian Scientist, but after he invented the persona of S. Ducray  in the early 1960’s  he used it professionally in no less than four papers. Meanwhile, Kosambi as Kosambi was publishing Myth and Reality in 1963, and The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline in 1965, as well as the occasional mathematics paper sent off to select journals! In many letters  to friends, DDK signs off as Ducray; in one of the papers in the Journal of the University of Bombay, Ducray says “My debt to Prof. Kosambi is obvious”, while in another, the acknowledgment reads “This paper would not have been possible without the constant labour of Prof. D. D. Kosambi.”

Weird. DDK had, as has now been recounted several times, been responsible for the first mention of the name Bourbaki in the mathematics literature. Although the name Bourbaki is a collective pseudonym for a group of (largely French) mathematicians, there is a somewhat light-hearted frivolity to the naming part of the enterprise while the mathematics itself is of the highest order. Not so with the Ducray business, and it is difficult to see it through a hagiographer’s eye, as a piece of childish chicanery and no more.

fcClearly there is much more work that needs to be done on Kosambi himself and this goes beyond putting together his articles and situating them. This blogpost started off as a way of my keeping track and not just a vehicle for self-promotion. Two of the discursive essays that were found among his papers have now been printed for the first time in the book Adventures into the Unknown that I have edited, and which is published by Three Essays Collective, Gurgaon. My “Collected Works” of DDK project is also under way, though it will probably take the better part of this year to complete, and will become a “Selected Works in Mathematics and Statistics” in the process.

Within a relatively short working life – he died at 59 – DDK made many original and fundamental contributions to many aspects of scholarly enquiry. The Promethean epithet applies very aptly to Kosambi, though- when the Gods give such gifts, and they do not give these to many, there is a price to be paid… A verse from Bhartṛhari that DDK surely knew (having three monumental contributions on the works of the 7th c. poet) says it all too well:

Nor do the gods appear in warrior’s armour clad
To strike them down with sword and spear
Those whom they would destroy
They first make mad.