Chitra Roy pens her reminiscences of Professor Meghnad Saha THIS is a memoir initially conceived as correspondence that I, the third daughter of Professor Meghnad Saha, exchanged with Professor Robert Anderson of the University of British Columbia, Canada, who was at the time writing a book on my father. This correspondence was exchanged through e-mails in 1999. May 31, 1999 Dear Chitradi, May I address you as my friend Sajni does? It is a pleasure to hear from you. What I am thinking about is the imbalance, or a symmetry of information I have about your father. I have read hundreds of his letters to colleagues and students and officials, so I do understand quite well his official and institutional life.
What is not clear is his “other life”, including family. He was a prodigious letter-writer — where did that take place? Did he type himself? At home? Apparently he (or your mother) liked to swim: when did he do that? Did he do other sports? Did he like music, or cinema? And if so, what kind? He doesn’t strike me as a person who had time to read novels or poetry, which is a major activity in Bengal — did he? Did he like to go for long walks? Where? Did your mother travel with him on his journeys abroad? What did she think of the things he did? Did they discuss his work more (or less) than his politics? Or neither? About his relation with his children (sorry, I am uncertain who and how many
you are), did he encourage the girls as much as the boys? One son was a physicist, but the others? Did he encourage you to do music, sports? Science? Medicine? Did any become government servants? Any further insight you can suggest would be most interesting. He was travelling and used to be away a lot — when he came home, what was it like? People say he oscillated between being very generous and very temperamental (or that he had “moods” like we all do) — did you see any of that side of him? I have seen photos of your father in the lab, or other official gatherings. But I would love to have one or two of him informally, doing things… It would be nice to have something of him when he was young, although
I understand in those days photos were rather “staged” for young people… I want the book to be an inexpensive paperback and would like it to have lots of photos. I hope you do not think my questions impertinent. I find him surely one of the most interesting people in the whole drama of science and politics in India in this century. I am sorry we have not met, or that I could not invite you for tea and simply talk in a friendly way about these questions. With my best wishes, Robert Anderson. Dear Bob, Rambling memories do not allow one to organise one’s thoughts. After several attempts to do that, I realised the best way is to provide direct answers to your queries.
Father’s “other life” , as you call it, was not wholly clear to his children as well. He did not communicate much with his children. Letters to Ma (written in Bangla) and to some of his students who were very close to him during his Allahabad days, for instance the late Dr PK Kichhlu of Delhi University, can offer you a fuller picture. Some of these have been preserved. The whereabouts you can get from my younger brother who has settled in California. We used to call him Baba, though here I am going to refer to him as Father. He was a great one for writing letters. But then, wasn’t that the only means of communication in those days? The letters were written in a clear, bold hand.
Father did not know how to type. The single typewriter in the house was used by a relative who acted as unofficial secretary and typed all the official letters. Personal letters were handwritten. All kinds of physical exercises were actively encouraged for the children. Walking and swimming were favourite pastimes. When he was younger and in Allahabad, Father followed a stricter daily schedule than the one he followed later in Calcutta. This included taking the children out in the evening, leaving them in the parks to play, and going for long walks with mother or paying social calls. He loved company and “adda” with friends and research students. The boys played cricket, badminton etc.
Father, on one occasion I remember, played what we used to call tenniquoit. There used to be picnics and outings with friends. The favourite spot was the confluence of the Yamuna and Ganga called Prayag, deemed a holy place. Both my parents enjoyed bathing. One of my early memories was Father dipping my younger brother, a baby then, in the river water. Father was an aetheist and agnostic and he did not go to Prayag for any religious purpose, but simply to bathe. But Mother was a very devout person, and during Magh-mela every year and Kumbh-mela every year, we would have pilgrim relatives swarming in our house. Father was a good host.
I also must have accumulated a lot of piety as a result of the innumerable times I was dipped in the holy water by the relatives whom I accompanied to Prayag. But we grew up Godless. Father’s aetheism had a stronger hold on us than Mother’s rather submissive and acquiescent devotion. As you know, almost all Indian households have or used to have in those days a “thakur-ghar”, a small room where the household deity was worshipped. Mother had none. But she would sit in a corner of the room after her bath and pray for sometime. This was a ritual with her. Some of the children reverted or should I say were converted to traditional thinking.
Now this is a digression I promised I would not allow myself. So coming back to sports, when we came to Calcutta (Father had joined the Calcutta University in 1938), we were lucky to buy a house on Southern Avenue, facing the Rabindra Sarobar, the lakes. So the family joined a local swimming club, the Anderson Club. My parents enjoyed swimming and going for long walks in the evenings on the promenade adjoining the lakes. Father taught me to swim but not in Anderson Club. In 1942 we stayed for a year in Rajshahi, North Bengal (now in Bangladesh), as evacuees during the Japanese war. The small town is situated on the bank of a branch river of the Padma.
During summer, the whole town used to pour out to bathe in the river. It was here in this river that Father taught me to swim. Both my parents enjoyed swimming. To Father it came naturally since he grew up in the riverine delta territory of what used to be East Bengal in pre-partition days. During the monsoons all the villages were water-bound. As a young school boy, during summer and winter, he would trek all the eight miles to school and back, with chira, a very simple fare, tucked in his dhoti for refreshment. During the rainy season, this stretch had to be covered by boat. Father was very proud of this hardship he had undertaken in his young days.
When we were reprimanded for laziness, he would often cite this example. As to music and cinema, he did not seem to be much interested. The cinema, I believe, was frowned upon. But Mother told me she had heard him humming a tune occasionally when he was younger. Two occasions when he attended musical soirees were when Dilip Ray, a very famous singer and father’s contemporary, sang in 1938 in Allahabad and in 1952 in Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi. I can’t make out whether the interest was in Dilip Ray or in music. But he did read novels and poetry. He even used to compose poems when he was young.
Unfortunately, nothing from his younger days — not even photographs have survived. We should have made an effort to collect these documents much earlier. Now they are irretrievably lost. Except Dada, my elder brother (the late Professor Ajit Kumar Saha), his first born and a special favourite, in whose education he took a very keen, day to day interest, the rest of the brood, there were seven of us, left pretty much to themselves, to browse in the library, and to struggle with our syllabus. When we were in school, Father often did not even remember what subjects we had taken up or which class we were in. But sitting with him on occasional evenings and reading aloud Tagore’s poetry, his shorter plays for children, or Shakespeare’s plays to him, was a pleasurable ritual.
… Sorry, I had to break up in the middle of the subject. I feel that I should be sending at least this bit to you now. I shall continue from here and get back to you within a few days. With best wishes, Chitradi. June 11, 1999 Dear Chitradi, I read your message with fascination this morning. I will print it later to contemplate it further. I had known about this love of walking (he once tried to walk from Allahabad to Kanpur I think, but did not complete the journey), and swimming. But the rest was such a breath of air because it brings him alive. I await anything more you can think of.
And when you communicate with your siblings, if any photos are found — alas not of his youth — of his later life which portray him in a more informal way, do tell me how I might see them for possible use. Thank you for the time and trouble you took to assembly this “memoir”. Very sincerely, Bob Anderson. (Curious how e-mail transcends the time and the space too.) Dear Bob, Sorry for the delay. Getting back to the ritual of reading aloud to Father, the slant, mind you, was on patriotism, social awareness, etc. My second sister, Krishna, I remember, had to read out Sun Yat Sen’s “San Min Chui” (The Five Principles) when we were on vacation in Madhupur, Bihar, in 1946.
She and my elder sister had to take lessons in Sanskrit as well, with him. We had a collection of Bankim Chandra’s novels in our library, and he had quizzed Mother of this novelist, when he went to interview the bride to be, so he must have read this novelist. And he had read Kalidasa (the Sanskrit poet and dramatist), because he knew Sanskrit and the Kalidasa Volume in our library was well thumbed. But he had not read many of the later novelists. Father knew German very well. He had taken up German as an optional subject in college, and the library was well-stocked with books on German literature. The prime concern was to read scientific papers in German.
When I was in college and built up my own collection of books, consisting mostly of the classics, Marxist literature and detective fiction and my college texts, once in a while he would come up to my room (mine was on the second floor, Father’s room was on the first), finger through these books and take down some to read himself to sleep. Or, he would ask me to bring down some, preferably lighter fiction, and relax with these in his bed. We were thrilled to see him handle him something not heavy going. Once I remember, he was rebuking Dada for wasting his time on what he thought was light literature.
Dada happened to be reading Thomas Mann, and Dada turned back on him and lectured him on Thomas Mann. Father listened quite sheepishly to the lecture. So I suppose he was capable of taking to new ideas outside science. The family or part of the family, went on holidays to different places — on and off to Delhi, East Bengal (now Bangladesh) to my maternal grandfather’s house in Dhaka, Bikrampur in 1937, Calcutta in 1936 and 1937, Kashmir in 1938, Darjeeling in 1940, Chhapra in Bihar and Rajshahi during the Japanese War between 1941-1943, Madhupur in Bihar in 1946, Shimla in 1949 (at that time Baba was writing the report of the Universities Commission along with other members and all were entitled to take their families.
Three of us, Krishna, my second sister, I and my younger brother, Prasenjit, accompanied him and stayed at the sprawling Palace, with other members of the commission; it was an exciting experience), and Delhi in 1951-52 during Father’s tenure as a Member of the Parliament. These were family holidays within the country. Mother had never accompanied Father abroad. I had heard that she was supposed to do that once, but later her tickets were cancelled. The family had to be considered. Mother was a very simple person. She had only completed middle school. She got married when she was only fourteen and father was twenty-six. She was completely dominated by Father and wholly devoted to him.
The only time that I had seen her upset was when with three or four families (relatives fleeing after the partition of the country in 1947) crowded in the house and the household chores became absolutely backbreaking. As a rule she was uncritical. She was Father’s confidante and would patiently listen to the day’s happenings after he came back home. He needed her and she was the old-fashioned accommodating wife and affectionate mother. She was extremely proud of her husband’s achievements which was rather hard on us, the children. We were expected to live up to the rather high academic standard that Father had set. Of course this led to all kinds of complications.
I had heard Father had been actively involved with the Dacca Anushilan Samiti (a revolutionary terrorist organisation in Bengal comprising freedom fighters in the early decades of the last century). Even earlier in 1905, as a school boy he had protested against the attempted partition of Bengal, and had participated in the boycott of the British official who had come to survey the school (he had gone barefoot along with the others). As a result he was expelled, lost his scholarship (this was a government school) and he had himself transferred to a private school. I heard that he was blacklisted for these activities. He was not allowed to sit for the Indian Financial Service.
His election to the Royal Society was delayed by two years as Sir James Jeans, an influential member of the Committee, had turned down his candidature because of police records against him. The British lobby (again this is hearsay) was also active in influencing the Nobel Prize candidature adversely several times. Father’s second involvement in politics came late in life, when he was elected to the Parliament in 1952. We were quite grown up then; I was twenty-one. I acted as one of Father’s polling agents. So we were actively interested. I don’t think Mother came out with any positive suggestion during their discussion, either of his work or politics. Mother’s role was that of a passive listener.
More later. First let me hear from you. Am I going along the right lines? By the way, where did you get this information about his plan to walk from Allahabad to Kanpur? Best regards, Chitradi. June 17, 1999 Dear Chitradi, What you have sent this time is in good continuity with the earlier message, and absolutely on the right lines. Thank you so much… It was always impossible to get this sense of him. And you write it all so well… The story about the walk from Kanpur to Allahabad came from DS Kothari’s son, LS Kothari, who lives in Delhi. Your father used to come to their house in Civil Lines a lot when he (LS) was a student, late in the ’40s — and I suppose even more when he was in Parliament.
Like the previous message, I shall print this one out and contemplate it a bit in order to see where/how I can bend it in to the text. Sorry to hear about the photos of his youth. May I refer to it as “Chitra Roy, personal communication, 17 June 1999”? I am writing away, as I need to finish it before I die (don’t worry, I am only 56). Very sincerely, Bob Anderson. Dear Bob, I might be repeating since I have lost track of the earlier bit. As I told you earlier, we were a family of three brothers and four sisters. Ajit the eldest, whom you have met, was a physicist.
Ranjit, a year younger, was an electrical engineer and worked for the Tata Hydro-Electrics at Bombay. Usha, my eldest sister coming next, also studied physics, but ended up as a housewife, having been married off at the age of nineteen. Very frustrating. My elder two brothers and elder sister have died recently, Ajit in 1991, Ranjit in 1993 and Usha in 1997. Krishna, my second sister, is a full-fledged doctor. She too had to give up the idea of a career since she too was married off at the age of twenty. Both the sisters were allowed to complete their education (Usha her MSc in Physics and Krishna her MBBS) after their marriage.
Next in the line was myself, who did rather an unambitious MA in English Literature, resisted all attempts to be maritally packed off and settled down to a teaching career in a government college in Calcutta and went on to acquire a doctoral degree and found a husband of my own choice. But when that was done, Father was tremendously pleased. I had opened the gates of rebellion and my younger brother followed suit. Prasenjit did not study Engineering as Father had wanted him to, but took up Geology, and married a girl of his choice. In this case also Father’s approval came in no time and he was about to make wedding arrangements when he died.
Prasenjit later retired as the Deputy Director of the Central Glass and Ceramic Research Institute. My youngest sister, Sanghamitra is much younger than all of us and she was just eleven when Father died. Like me, she also teaches in a college in Delhi and her subject is History. Prasenjit and I served in government institutions. Why do you ask about government service? From the above recounting you can judge what a curious mix-up the family was. The girls were encouraged to study as far as they wanted to, but one had to get married at the right age. That it interrupted one’s career was not considered. Going abroad for higher studies was a must for the boys.
Before they reached t hat age, the girls were married off. Antiquated ideas persisted in the family. Yes, the girls were encouraged to take music lessons, but accomplishment in this field was required for eligibility in marriage. Do I sound cynical? But this was the prevailing climate of thought not only in our family but all around. Father was away a lot. As we grew up we started taking interest in his travels abroad. My earliest memory was of his 1936 trip to the USA on Carnegie Fellowship which financed his visits to different laboratories, including the Mt Wilson(?) Observatory at Pasadena. He took Dada, who had just left school, with him, and put him in Paul Geheeb’s school in Zurich.
Paul Geheeb was a friend of Tagore, and had the same ideas in running a school as Tagore had about running Santiniketan. Dada stayed there for eight months or so and was collected back on Father’s return to India. The later travels abroad were in 1944 in wartime Britain, when he discovered that American and British intelligence were watching his movements. He happened to be working on a sensitive subject, nuclear physics. We listened to him telling Ma about food rations and the general hardship people in Britain were undergoing because of the war. In 1945 he visited Soviet Russia and wrote a book, “My Experiences of Soviet Russia”. Planning for India’s industrialisation had been uppermost in his mind and the Russian five-year plans, I suppose had been his inspiration.
He recounted how at a party he had swallowed vodka mistaking it for water. He was a teetotaller. Listening to these anecdotes was exhilarating but not when he asked us girls to take shovels and spades and work in the garden like our hefty Russian sisters did. It seemed Father along with American and British scientists had been inspired by the spectacle of Russian women working the fields. The scientists were agreed on one point. The Russian girls were not silken like their American and British counterparts. They were sturdier. You might consider this episode as his wanting to encourage physical exercise for the girls. Incidentally, I forgot to tell you that, when we were in Rajshahi, the girls had to take lessons in playing with daggers and long sticks, which used to be traditional in
Bengal. We could not complete the course, but we thoroughly enjoyed the few lessons given us. Going back to shovels and spades, thank God it was a passing phase. In 1946 Father had attended Empire Science Congress(?) in Great Britain. He came back with a complete set of Bernard Shaw’s plays in Penguin edition and I was the lucky one to receive it as a present. I still have it with me. I had hardly read up the set when he summoned me. Had I read Major Barbara? Could I take that as a model and write something in Bengali on the numerous religious and philanthropical institutions that had mushroomed all around? A tall order for a sixteen-year-old.
Father had read something that I had contributed to the school magazine when I was only eight. Ever since he was convinced that literature was my forte and I could be creative if I wanted to. Father made two or three more trips to the USA, England, France, Russia and Sweden. In Sweden he attended the World Peace Congress, which you know had a left bias. I happened to be around to pack his baggage most of the time. My sisters were married, my brothers abroad, and Mother not keeping well. Overhearing anecdotes he related to Ma, friends and students was always rewarding. Very seldom would he call us to him and directly relate his experience.
There always was a distancing, as became a patriarch. About Father’s “moods” as you call it, there was a certain abrasiveness about him, and with reason. This put off many people, it is true. He acted on impulse and displayed certain naivette. This was a carryover from his village days and he cared little to acquire urban sophistication. When we grew up we were delighted to listen to his broad East Bengal intonation. The abrasiveness could partly have been the result of the hardship he had to undergo as a young boy. Biographers now try to make out a story of abject poverty and backwardness in education in his native village.
But Father’s authorised biography (brought out on his 60th birthday and approved by him) says “the family belonged to the Hindu middle class, who had to work hard for a livelihood”. My grandfather had five sons and three daughters to look after and he ran a grocery shop which provided him with “an uncertain income”. But grandmother was a wonderful housekeeper, so I had heard from Mother. So whatever little my two grandparents managed to scrape up, was well managed and each member of the family was well looked after. Food and health were priorities. Thanks to grandmother’s efforts, the family “though it never tasted luxury or any surplus, had not to suffer from scarcity”.
There was no question of grinding poverty. As to educational backwardness, the authorised biography says “the literacy (in the village) was high, but was confined to reading, writing and arithmetic needed for business… It (the village) had about it an atmosphere of small business, money-lending and small farming… and the religious atmosphere was devotional Vaishnavism…” The hardship Father had to undergo concerned educational priorities beyond the primary level and the initial opposition of his own father. After a formal “English” education up to the matriculation standard given to his eldest son failed to augment the family income, grandfather did not much take to the idea of Father pursuing higher studies. Assisting in the grocery shop was the duty of all the sons and Father was no exception.
This was so despite his brilliance and the high recommendations of his teachers. It was my grandmother and my eldest uncle who encouraged him and provided him with assistance to pursue his studies. So his father’s opposition was the first hurdle he had to cross and could have contributed to his abrasive exterior. Middle-school education was arranged at Simulia, about seven or eight kilometres away from Seoratoli, Father’s home. The marathon walking feat belonged to this period. Later on it seemed such a wastage of time that his eldest brother arranged for him to stay in the house of a local doctor. Board and lodging were free and Father was grateful to no end.
In later life he tried to repay this debt by setting up an extended family in his own household. He believed that to be the ideal pattern, and in fact such extended families were very common in Bengal and elsewhere in those days. Our Allahabad household I remember had three wings. The nuclear family, the relatives who needed to be looked after, while they were studying, looking for jobs or actually working. And of course, the research students whose company was so invigorating that Mother had to look after all of us, poor soul! But she was uncomplaining and Father could be very generous. Caste discrimination was another kind of hardship Father had to endure in early life and could have contributed to his abrasiveness.
This happened when he left home and came to study in high school. We do not belong to the three upper castes in Bengal, the Brahmins, the Vaidyas and the Kayasthas. Father belonged to the Vaishya community, traders and businessmen. Socially the community was discriminated against I am told, we didn’t hear it from Father though, that during Saraswati Puja, observed in every Hindu school, Father was once acting as a priest, chanting hymns and offering prayers. Suddenly a group of upper caste boys came up and admonished him because they said he had no right to worship in that manner. Only Brahmins were supposed to do that. That must have rankled! At Eden Hindu Hostel, attached to Presidency College, meals were served separately for Brahmin and non-Brahmin boys.
Later Father and some of his friends moved out and stayed in a mess. Among Brahmins there is the “sacred thread” or “upanayan” ceremony observed. It is initiation into Brahminhood. All are invited to it. Father made it a point never to accept invitations to such ceremonies. He was impatient with rituals which made false claims to social superiority. Disappointment and discrimination had followed him in later life, in academic and political life. In an article on Henry Norriss Russell (The Scientific American,1989) De Vorken, curator of Smithsonian Institute, suggests that Russell was indebted to Father was a major breakthrough in Astro-physics. But when Father had desperately wanted funds to join the team setting up a new observatory in Mount Wilson, to secure experimental verification of some of his observations, it was denied him.
The letters between Russell and Father ( kept in the Princeton University archives ) make sad reading. This thing had happened earlier. Papers containing original observations sent to the Astrophysical Journal, were never published. Years later, when he was visiting Yerkes Laboratory in 1936, these were taken out of a drawer and handed back to him. Part of these observations published elsewhere, had been developed at great length by Professor E. A. Milne, and Father’s debt had been acknowledged. Had the whole observation been published, Father would have forestalled much of the work in this field. That would actually have got him his due credit. Encounters with political leaders and subservient bureaucrats were none too happy.
The National Planning Committee, as far as I know, was his brain-child, in which he managed to get national leaders like Nehru and Subhash Bose interested in pre-independent India. But after Independence, it was ensured that he had no useful role to play in the planning and organising of science and industry. He was given a raw deal, and letters written to political leaders and close friends, express his bitterness and anguish. No wonder he had become temperamental and irritable. And finally coming back to your query, we did see a lot of this side of Father and we kept as safe a distance as possible. But when there were personal encounters, I have always found him willing to come down and accept the other point of view, once he was convinced it was right.
And then he would appear so happy. To him nothing mattered as much as a happy family, with children, grandchildren, relatives and friends swarming around him. This letter is getting to be too long. I don’t know whether satisfactory answers have been provided. I have tried hard to keep within the framework of your questions. Rambling comes quite naturally at my age (born 1931). There are so few left alive who knew Father. Almost none of his contemporaries are here today. I thought it was my duty to record my reminiscences before I die. Friends and relatives here are pressing me to do just that. I thought of publishing these e-mail exchanges with slight editing.
Yes you can freely quote from my e-mail. If you think some bits are too personal, please feel free to use your discretion. I am always afraid of losing my objective view. You said you were in a hurry to complete your book . Let me hear from you and all the best for a speedy publication. Can I have a copy of the book when it comes out? With best regards, Chitradi July 7, 1999 Dear Chitradi, This is amazing, to have such complete stories from you, sitting on my screen in Canada. I am going to copy them all out. Strange, I thought about you last night and said, “ I will copy them out when I get one more.”… Yes, I shall refer to these with discretion.
I only hope that the gods will enable us to meet and sip tea together. I am fifty-six, so there is still time. You anticipated my question about publication. I was going to propose that you stitch these messages together , talk about them with your friends. Do them as an article, or series of short pieces, in Bangla and English…it could have two dimensions – one – what you can say about your father , and two – what all of that says about you the writer, your life, and conditions you see around you now….. I am getting this off quickly to confirm how delighted I am to have this interesting story from you.