Book Review | Jagadish Bose, idealist who shone against odds

The Asian Age.  | Soumya Bhattacharya

Wan is strong at delineating the overwhelming odds Bose had to overcome all through his life.

Cover photo of 'The Scientific Sufi: The Life and Times of Jagadish Chandra Bose' by Meher Wan. (Photo by arrangement)

In 1897, the Italian inventor, Guglielmo Marconi, met Jagadish Chandra Bose, the subject of this thoroughly researched biography. He suggested that Bose apply for a patent for a device he had invented to study electromagnetic waves. He told Bose that if  the patent came through, the riches would allow generations of his descendants to live in luxury. Bose refused. He said he was a creator of knowledge, and had no wish to earn money from it.

Four years later, during a speech at the Royal Academy in London, Bose showed a graph that revealed responses to stimulus from an inanimate object that were similar to those elicited from a living being. Bose was advised to own his discovery by publishing a paper about it. The next day, a billionaire gentleman came to meet Bose. He implored the scientist to not divulge all that he had discovered in his published paper. He said Bose was sitting on a mountain of wealth, and he saw the way in which that money could be generated. In exchange, he wanted half the money.

After this encounter, Bose wrote to his dear friend, Rabindranath Tagore. “This billionaire came to me like a beggar just to earn some more money. Friend, I wish you could see the craziness of these people with money – money, money and money all the time, how hungry! See, the work I have come here for is far more worthy than money… I turned down his offer.”

The scientist and scholar, Meher Wan, is adroit at capturing this unwavering idealism twinned with a lack of worldliness that lie at the heart of Bose’s life and work. Time and again, we see the scientist laud knowledge and invention for their own sake rather than a means to an end such as becoming affluent or building a flourishing career.

Yet, he did recognise the value of money had for others: he would rather starve than owe anyone anything. After his father’s death, Bose spent years – refusing waivers from his creditors – repaying the debts his father had run up through failed charitable enterprises. Bose’s father, Bhagwan Chandra Bose, a civil servant, was his hero. And it was his idealistic, charitable father who instilled in him his sense of principle, purpose, and moral rectitude.

It is interesting to discover that Bose was not initially destined to study science. After an undistinguished undergraduate degree from St Xavier’s College, Calcutta, Bose’s parents borrowed money, sold off jewellery and sent him to study medicine in London. But the cadaver room did not agree with him. Bose dropped out and applied and gained admission to study science at Cambridge.

Wan is strong at delineating the overwhelming odds Bose had to overcome all through his life. The colonial rulers at Presidency College, where he taught for decades. The administration that refused to give him time, space or acceptable equipment for his groundbreaking experiments. The nagging worries about money. And while he was praised and feted across the world, the scientific community abroad scoffed and ganged up on him when he produced evidence that plants respond to stimuli like living beings.

It is difficult – as Wan admits in his introduction – to encapsulate the life of such a colossus as Bose, the father of modern science in India, in a short book. Wan manages the feat.

Poor writing and slipshod editing, however, mar this otherwise fine effort. “Sleep was alluding him for months,” we read, when, surely, sleep must have been eluding him. On page 94,  the phrase, “failed miserably”, occurs in consecutive paragraphs. “Upliftment” (instead of the happier locution, ‘uplift’) is used without discrimination. Redundant scare quotes abound: ‘Isle of Wight’; ‘Buddha’; ‘peace’. Were Wan’s editor and copy editor asleep on the job?

The Scientific Sufi: The Life and Times of Jagadish Chandra Bose

By Meher Wan


pp 264, Rs 499