Mallika Writes: Just Speaking

8th May - DNA

A few months ago I was interviewing the woman considered the mother of Indian nutritional sciences, Dr Vijaya Venkat. Talking about the need for sustainability in food production and consumption she said, “Unless we understand that we and the environment are one and the same, there is no solution”. What a profound idea, I thought. It is only because we, as humans, believe we are the superior race, with the world and its wealth as our plundering ground, that we are in the sorry state of want and degradation of the earth, soil, water and air that we are in.

It was with a sense of wonder then that I read the following passage from Rabindranath Tagore, quoted in Tagore: The Myriad Minded Man by Dutta and Robinson. “I feel that once upon a time I was at one with the rest of the earth, that grass grew green upon me, That the autumn sun fell upon me and under its rays the warm scent of youth wafted from every pore of my far-flung ever green body. As my waters and mountains lay spread out through the land, dumbly soaking up the radiance of a cloudless sky, an elixir of life and joy was inarticulately secreted from the immensity of my being. So it is that my feelings seem to be those of our ancient planet, ever germinant and efflorescent, shuddering with sun-kissed delight”. What a contrast to the rapacious way in which we view the earth today.

In talking of Tagore in this year of his 150th birth anniversary, how many of us know of his passion for science and its use for what we call social development today? In fact in foreseeing the need for scientific thought and technology in third world development he was probably one of the earliest people. In his scheme and understanding of things, imposed solutions and imported technology could never last. He felt that the developer and the development had to adapt to the local scenario. “It was not the Kingdom of the Expert in the midst of the inept and ignorant which we wanted to establish –although the experts’ advice [is] advisable” he is quoted as saying in Dutta’s book. His first experiment started with his own farm, near his home, in 1920. With the help of an American heiress and the Britisher, Leonard Elmhirst, he started experiments there. Though they in themselves were not hugely successful they inspired much further thinking along those lines, including amongst the newly Independ India’s decision makers. The Elmhirsts went on to set up the unique Dartington Hall in Devon, till today a home for radical and free thinkers and home to many of Tagore’s paintings and original manuscripts.

Tagore wrote about science from an early age and felt that science had to serve society and not vice versa. He even had a disagreement with Albert Einstein about this, where he felt that the latter put science at the center of the Universe rather than the human being. Strangely, it was nearly a century later, in 1984 that Nobel winner in Chemistry Ilya Prigogene is said to have acknowledged the poet’s prescience in demanding that since serve humanity. (As Vikram Sarabhai’s daughter I was brought up on this, and saw institutions like ISRO and PRL  fighting for ways to serve some of the most endemic of our problems as a developing nation. I still remember the early experiments at Pij with TV programming aimed at educating millions of farmers in their own homes.)

For too long have we seen this amazing man as a bard. For too long have Bengalis made him their icon (thought this happened only after his death – during his life time he was more often reviled than idolized there!) and have purloined him for Bengal. He was the rarest of men, one the likes of which this nation has not produced since. Let us celebrate then this multifaceted genius in all his spleandour.

May 8th, 2011, DNA


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