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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 17, April 22, 2023

The Rainbow that was Homi J Bhabha | Papri Sri Raman

Saturday 22 April 2023, by Papri Sri Raman



Let Us Talk About Bhabha
by S P K Gupta

Pages 818
e-book price in India Rs 50
Evelyn Publishers
ISBN 81-90004175

Homi Jehangir Bhabha has always been a mysterious character in science history.

The man died almost 60 years ago and had lived for more than fifty years before that. In the land of his birth, he is revered almost like a god, especially by the communal, right-wing, jingoist lot for he is ‘the father of India’s nuclear programme’, the man who empowered the land of Buddha and Gandhi with the ultimate weapon against her Muslim neighbour. But beyond that the people of India really do not know who Bhabha was. What kind of a man, what did he really think and feel?

The popular image appears to be that of a valiant rider on a white horse. The film Rocket Boys even has an elaborate scene showing Bhabha and friends pulling down the British flag and putting up an Indian tri-colour at the hallowed Institute of Science, during the visit of a grant benefactor. That is more than creative license in what is being passed off as a biopic of Indian scientists and science. You cannot inject nationalism into a real person just to suit your story. It is then not a biopic and the real person becomes a fictional character.

In that respect, particularly revealing and insightful is S P K Gupta’s monumental effort to compile all that contemporaries said of Bhabha in a tome aptly titled, Let Us Talk About Bhabha. The e-book is a direct, untouched, unedited transcription of written content that was generated half a century ago in the form of interviews of various associates of Bhabha, who the author calls ‘cohorts of Bhabha’. So, it is less about Bhabha and more of what who thought Bhabha was or did; what a researcher would call a secondary source of information. The book cannot be called a biography but it is hell of an interesting read that, perhaps, deserved a more scientific presentation. In its own meandering manner, it offers the reader the real story of India’s nuclear journey. The rapid rise of the bureaucracy in a newly-free nation, about the scientific temper of prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru which made him say ‘yes’ to Bhabha and Sarabhai’s dreams and many others’.

S P K Gupta began his career as a journalist in 1952 with the news agency Press Trust of India (PTI) and he was the PTI correspondent in Moscow in the tumultuous period of the 1980s. Among his other works is the book, The Rise and Eclipse of The Soviet Civilisation. Science inspired him and hewanted to be a doctor and kept his interest in science alive throughout his career as a political writer. Gupta searched hard and wrote the biography of Yellapragada SubbaRow (1895-1948), an Indian bio-chemist working at the Lederle Laboratories of an American conglomerate, one of India’s early scientists who discovered aureomycin, an antibiotic.

At the very beginning of the Bhabha work, Gupta offers the disclaimer, ‘This is my offering in the place of a biography I could not write.... It all began with my planning the biography of the man who dreamt of securing India a place in the atomic era, got every opportunity to make his dream a reality, invested India with nuclear capability and came so very near making India self-sufficient in the nuclear energy field.... I collected most of Dr Bhabha’s scientific papers, texts of his speeches and newspaper versions of his press conferences, annual reports of the Department of Atomic Energy, articles by those who knew him personally and some of his correspondence with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as well as a small collection of photographs.... I interviewed some sixty scientists and administrators associated with Dr Bhabha’s academic and scientific projects.’ This essentially comprises this work.

Perhaps the only Bhabha biography was published by NBT in 2003, written by a science communicator called Chintamani Deshmukh. The rest of Homi Bhabha rests scattered across the 800-odd pages of this tome, as ephemeral as the pieces on the icy hillside of ‘the city of peace on which looks down the Pale Mountain (Mont Blanc) where his bones now temporarily rest’, as the brilliant beginning to this story says. The book has many takeaways but it is not so much about the man as it is about an institution called Bhabha.

At the introduction, presenting a short biography of Bhabha, Gupta writes: Grandfather Hermasji Bhabha had built a large collection of books on history, literature and poetry and Father added to it Oxford illustrated books by master artists from England, Italy, Spain, Finland and France.... Homi spent time also among the rich collection of books at Sir Dorab Tata’s (his aunt was Sir Jamshedji’s wife).

It often looked as though the two libraries were Homi’s whole world.

But Homi’s interests widened to music and painting.... he once dreamt of a career as a composer and remained a great lover of music.
An accomplished ‘Sunday’ painter, he sent his friends Christmas cards bearing his drawings and filled the foyer of TIFR with his personal collection of modern art.

Three interviews of three well-known artists included in this book bring out the multi-faceted rainbow character Bhabha was. The artist Krishnaji Howlaji Ara, the distinguished photographer R R Bharadwaj and Kattingeri Krishna Hebbar. Hebbar says, ‘His (Bhabha’s) real monument is the TIFR (Tata Institute of Fundamental Research). Every corner sing about him. Every inch — the garden, trees,

Atmosphere — reminds one of Bhabha.... The last picture he ever acquired (of mine) was Heavenly Brides — moon and 27 stars.’ No one has researched the influence of Bombay’s Progressive Artists’ Group on Bhabha or his connect with it. No question has ever been asked about whether Bhabha was a socialist. People do mention his special concern about the welfare of all the workers in his departments, elsewhere and in the institutions, scientists as well as mere mechanics, but just as the influence of Soviet science on him has not been studied, nor has his political beliefs been studied.

Hebbar recollects, ‘He once said to me, ‘‘My scientists cannot look at blank walls. They must have creative works everywhere to inspire them.’’ I have not seen any institution anywhere in the world so well organised and so full of paintings. TIFR is more than a museum and yet not a museum because it is so relevant to the contemporary scene.... He loved creative work and encouraged young artists.’ Bhabha, the artist, however, remains unknown to the country. The TIFR is a high-security research facility. Bhabha’s art is not made available to the public by TIFR as the Jehangir art gallery set up by Bhabha and Cowasji Jehangir does of the works by other artists.

Bhabha’s love for art, architecture, music, dance and the other aesthetic aspects of life like fine dining, perfect dress sense come through in some of the interviews. The Mrinalini Sarabhai interview Is lost through negligence. The Shanta Rao interview is ambiguous. The recurring questions about Pepsi Wadia, somehow, appear to be prodding just because she was a pretty woman, implying on the part of the questioner much more than a ‘platonic’ friendship between two highly-educated, liberal young people. Says Alladi Ramakrishnan, ‘in my opinion, he was after intellectual excellence and cultural elegance. He had no time for anything else.’

The recurring questions about Meghnad Saha’s (who is said to have risen from poverty and often compared to rise of Bhabha from a rich business community) alleged animosity do not add to any aspect of Bhabha the scientist, and the Nagchaudhury interview clearly names Bhabha’s three important contemporaries, Saha, Mahalanobis and J C Ghosh. Ajit Saha, Meghnad’s son and an eminent scientist in his own right, in his conversation with Gupta recalls, ‘My father was partly responsible for persuading Bhabha to stay on in India.... My father was Palit Professor of Physics and he invited Dr Homi Bhabha to deliver the “Kamala (Asutosh Mukherjee’s daughter) Lectures” on cosmic rays. After that, Devidas Basu worked for a while with Bhabha at Bangalore. Bhabha and my father worked in AEC along with Dr K S Krishnan and Dr S S Bhatnagar.... It was Prof Saha, who made him editor of publications of the National Institute of Science.’ That Saha and Bhabha were antagonists and competitors is a misconception perpetuated sadly in India’s narrative of science history and also depicted on screen and this book does not do much to dispel this notion.

A few interviews (E C G Sudarshan) talk of Bhabha’s fear of competition, ‘... he did not allow theoretical physics to grow because then people would not have accepted him as the greatest theoretical physicist in the country.’ Bhabha’s scientific contribution, many have said, was cosmic ray research, wave equations. According to Alladi Ramakrishnan, ‘Bhabha is one of the few persons, who attempted to go beyond the framework of Dirac’s electron theory’.

What an average reader actually learns from these cache of interviews is how science bureaucracy took birth in India and grew; how electronics came to be introduced to the country; how institutions like BARC, TIFR and ECIL came to be built; how the Institute of Mathematical Science came about; how AEC and DAE were born; how PNE was pushed and what it did to the international image of India; how Bhabha’s dream of peaceful use of nuclear energy and atomic power stations became a matter of peripheral interest; how Bhabha’s protégés became demigods of Indian science, not by their contributions to science but as science administrators, policy makers and establishment head-honchos. Bhabha showed them how.

‘His vision was large and perception deep. The atomic energy programme in India is the creation of a single individual’ avers Alladi Ramakrishnan. He continues, ‘It would not have mattered at all if there had been nobody else. It is the creation of one man and one brain.... Equally important is Bhabha’s role in stimulating technology in India. He believed that technology could advance on the firm foundation of fundamental physics and mathematics, and to this can also be traced his conviction that mathematics should
come under the aegis of DAE’.

He adds, ‘He (Bhabha) was like a bold seer, who looked far into the future.... Then in the realm of pure science, extremely objective.’ Despite so much of material about Bhabha being available in the public domain, Homi Bhabha remains an enigma. A subject of deeper research for a proper, factual biography.

‘The loose sheets bearing Bhabha’s nuclear and mathematical noting which descended in a cascade on the mountain village of Chamonix, while he himself remained buried under Alpine snow, have a message for India’, says Gupta and that is a prescient observation.

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