Posts Tagged ‘Nobel prize’

Globalization and the de-nationalization of Indian middle class

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on November 17th, 2010 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

Rajesh Kochhar

CSIR Emeritus Scientist

Indian Institute of Science Education and Research

Sector 26, Chandigarh 160019, India

[email protected]

Paper presented at the 39th annual conference of Mid-Atlantic Region  Association of Asian studies(MAR/AAS) Pennsylvania State University, State College, Pa, 22 October 2010

The most remarkable feature of the Indian middle class (IMC) today is that it has become extremely self-absorbed. There was a time, before and immediately after independence, when the English knowing people in the country saw themselves as a bridge between their less fortunate brethren on the one hand and scientifically and economically ‑­advanced countries on the other. Not anymore. Globalization has provided the IMC with an opportunity and a pretext to decouple itself from the rest of the country. The decoupling however is not complete. The onus of propelling Upper India into a global orbit still rests on the emaciated shoulders of the Lower India. As the irrepressible American film-maker Sam Goldwyn would have put it, IMC has opted to include itself out.

In the early days of the British rule over India, the number of British officers was small and they had a genuine interest in, and desire to interact with, the natives. However, as the British grew in number and power, their attitude changed to that of contempt and aloofness. Evolution of IMC has proceeded along similar lines. In the years immediately after independence, the middle class was still compact, its cultural distance from the elected representatives was small, and there was idealism in the air. The middle class considered itself to be duty bound to use its privileged position for the common good. Over the decades, as the middle class numbers have swelled, it has become more and more self-centred.

Caste constitutes the single most important factor in all aspects of Indian life.Caste situation is far more complex in North India than in South India. There are three major caste ensembles among the Hindus: Upper or forward Castes; Other Backward Classes (OBCs); and Scheduled Castes (SCs). (Use of terms like Upper and Lower is merely indicative; that is why they are written with the initial capital letter) These groupings are not monolithic. Within them there are structures, hierarchies and rivalries. Authentic break-up data in general is not available. The only complete data comes from the 1931 census. In the post-independence censuses so far only SCs (and Scheduled Tribes, STs) have been enumerated. According to the latest (2001) figures, SCs are 16 % of the total population (and STs 8%). Since the Hindus constitute 80% of total population, this means that 20 % of Hindu population is SC. The percentages of Upper Castes and OBCs are anybody’s guess. Figures of 30% for the Upper Castes and 50% for OBCs have been quoted, but many maintain that OBC numbers are not that high.

The British were able to rule over India for close to two centuries with relative ease because they forged an alliance with the Upper Castes, especially the Brahmins. Consequently, the Upper Castes came to occupy dominant position in education and (modern) employment as well as in public life. The spirit of the times is summed up in a popular award-winning 1954 Hindi film Jagriti (Awakening) where a poor (low-caste?) physically handicapped boy lays down his life to reform a rich spoilt boy who is the son of a zamindar (landlord).There has been steady erosion of the Upper Caste dominance in public life and education since then , though through different trajectories.

Normal electoral dynamics has politically empowered castes which though numerically strong were marginalized earlier. It has now become extremely profitable to have a caste vote bank – based political outfit, led by a caste man. Such outfits are not sensitive to issues of governance the way big parties are and therefore enjoy great bargaining power.

India enjoyed a long spell of political stability because Indian National Congress could forge a coalition of three distinct vote banks: BBC (Brahmin-Bania Combine), SCs and Muslims. It was of course led by the Upper castes.

After many elections, the populous North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh again has a single party government. It is a development of historical significance. The recipe is the old Congress one except that the coalition is now led by a Dalit rather than a Brahmin. Adjusting to new realities, the Brahmins have reluctantly joined in a subordinate position to enjoy fruits of power and to protect the interests of their caste brethren who dominate government service.

Political emergence of the OBCs in North India is a new phenomenon. Loss of political clout by the Upper Castes is made the more unpalatable by the deliberately offensive posturing by the OBCs and SCs. To make the situation more complex, the recently aroused OBCs maintain an uneasy relationship with those above and below them in the traditional hierarchy. The dominant castes among the OBCs have a clash of ego with the Upper Castes and conflict of agro-economic interests with the SCs. In fact it is the historical failure of OBCs and SCs to share political power in North India that even now gives the Upper Castes a role bigger than their actual numbers would suggest.

It is easier to tolerate a kick in the posterior than on the stomach. The Upper Castes would have reconciled to the loss of political power had it not been accompanied by shrinkage of educational and employment space for the benefit of the OBCs. This process is known as Mandalization, after the caste surname of Bindeshwari Prasad Mandal who chaired the Second Backward Class Commission, which submitted its report in 1980. The report was precipitously implemented in 1990.

The Constitution of India (1950) provided for 22.5% reservation for SCs (15%) and STs (7.5%). Now, another 27.5% reservation has been added for OBCs. Thus only half the seats are available in the general quota. What makes the matters worse for the Upper castes is that candidates from the reserved categories are eligible for a general merit seat if they qualify, without eating into the quota which others can use.Thus space available to the Upper Caste youth in the class-room has drastically shrunk. While the Upper Castes in the past were rightly made to feel guilty for the maltreatment of the SCs over the millennia and to atone for it to the extent possible, reservation for OBCs is seen as usurpation. An outcome of the OBC onslaught is that the Upper Castes have clubbed all reserved categories together and desensitised themselves to the needs of first-generation learners from among the hitherto marginalised classes. The government has baulked at excluding the creamy layers from both the OBC and SC categories, even though it is a well established fact that within these groups some castes have prospered at the cost of others.

Coincidentally or otherwise, the socially significant process of Mandalization began about the same time as globalization in India. If globalization had not taken place, it is very likely that Mandalization would have eventually produced a new equilibrium state in which the Upper Castes would have willy nilly accepted a diminished role consistent with their actual numbers. Globalization has disrupted this social process in the sense that the Upper-Caste dominated IMC has opted to effectively distance itself from the new mainstream and attach itself to the West. No wonder then that of all the aspects of globalization the ones that have appealed the most to the IMC are a West-inspired life style and education unencumbered by considerations of social justice.

As long as the students and teachers both were drawn from the same social segment, namely Upper Castes, state education was extremely good value for money. The class room today is more representative of the population in general. As a consequence, the state has retreated from education, leaving no hope for first-generation learners of today except fpor the brightest. More seriously, the state has also abandoned agricultural education which does not attract private funding. The consequences of this are all too obvious. Large numbers have made the education system rejectionist rather than enhancing. Good quality education is now in the private sector meaning , more expensive than before, but still the preserve of Upper Castes. As a first step, students can go abroad. The next stage will be to invite foreign universities to set up campuses in India. You often hear talk of Harvard and MIT’s being brought to India are often mentioned. Nobody talks of the success of American state universities and the need to emulate them.

The number of Indian students abroad has increased significantly. In 1998-99, a total of 37842 students enrolled in US. Five years later, in 2002-03, the number stood at 74603, an increase of 100%. The figure for 2008-09 stood at 103260. As the executive director of US educational foundation explained in the pre-meltdown era, “Students who do not gain admission in India’s premier institutions see the US as an alternative”. Unlike the situation a generation ago when students went abroad for post-graduate and doctoral studies on scholarship, Indians are now enrolling in foreign countries for basic degrees and diplomas and are being financed by their parents back home. The economic melt

down and the consequent small dose of protectionism have arrested the trend to an extent.

The number of Indian students in Australia went up from 30,000 in 2004 to 97,000 in 2009. In UK the number doubled in the ten year period 1999-2009, figure for 2009 being 19,205. These countries however stand apart from US. The main attraction for most students going to UK and Australia is not the degree but the possibility of working. Having cheap labour on student visa, rather than on work permit, suited the host country during boom times.

Today’s Indian economy is intrinsically not strong enough to maintain its ever-expanding ambitious middle class at high consumption levels. This can be done only through the services sector, where the money flows in from abroad, mainly USA. While it is a welcome addition to Indian economy, the fact remains that it benefits only the English-knowing young men and women, mostly drawn from the existing middle class. The service sector does not provide a passport to first generation learners to enter middle class the way manufacturing and government service sectors did or the former can still do.

India TV these days is showing an interesting commercial. A girl from a lower middle class aspires to become a cyclist champion and promises her mother a big house. Her kid brother tells her: There is no money in cycling. If you want money , play tennis. The girl does not give up and fulfils her dream. She starts using a skin-whitening cream. Prettier, she is hired by a big company as a brand ambassador!!

Emergence of a de-nationalised middle class

We are witnessing the emergence of a new young people-dominated class, which we may dub Denationalised Middle Class (DMC). If this class were asked to choose between a national award like Padma Shri and a US visa, there can be no doubt that it will opt for the latter.

DMC is carrying out a multi-stage exercise to establish its identity and acquire legitimacy. First, it is setting itself apart by describing the other, contemptuously referring to the general rural background and poor English language skills.A popular cricketer (Sehwag) is dismissed because his father keeps buffaloes in his backyard. Another (Kaif) is condemned because he could not speak a single sentence of English correctly. Contempt for the “Hindi medium types” is matched only by contempt for the language itself. One wonders if there is any other country where such inelegant and ungrammatical language is spoken as the Hindi on our TV and FM radio channels.

In early years, the brown memsahib, in imitation of the White original, deliberately spoke grammatically incorrect Hindi with the ayas, nannies and domestic servants to preclude the possibility of the common language’s acting as asocial leveller. The DMC has devised a clever stratagem to solve its language problem. It has co-opted the Mumbai street slang with its obviously connection with the romanticized underworld. The borrowing is through the Hindi movies. Sanjay Dutt mouths a tougher screen rendering of this slang, while Shahrukh Khan represents the cuter version.

Bombay slang is one of the elements that go into defining DMC as an entity. Additionally, there are global inputs such as SMS and Internet jokes. Earlier one could depend on Bushisms , but unfortunately no new international butt has emerged yet. There is a flourishing local industry churning out bilingual, Hindi-English, jokes and ditties.

The way a culture tells its jokes can provide valuable insights into its mindset. It has been said and rightly so that the number of original jokes in the world is very small. How the joke’s basic idea is contextualised and embellished tells us a lot about the narrators as well as their audience. We have already mentioned that earlier the IMC acted as a bridge between its compatriots and the outside world. In accordance with this role, whenever it came across a Polish, Irish, Scottish or Jewish joke, it would absorb its essence; apply its mind to think of a local context; and retell the joke in a local setting. But now if there is a joke on the Internet about a Texan and a Mexican at the expense of the latter, it will be narrated as such. Their villains are now our villains.

There is a reassessment of old popular cultural elements. Most are being rejected , such as famed film singers of yesteryears, Kundan Lal Sehgal and Muhammad Rafi. There is ridicule (“You may find it laughable that in earlier times, orchestra comprised only tabla and harmonium”), or condescending acceptance “Sachin Dev Burman is an example [of a film music director] that one could be trendy even in a dhoti”); or mutation as represented by catchy old songs, mostly by Asha Bhosle, literally being sexed up for video.

Identity alone is not sufficient; there must be legitimacy also. When sitting in your own country, you are doing work called off-shore, pretending to be somebody else and putting on a false accent, it is not surprising that the legitimacy comes from the Western connection. Since a whole lot of computer-based jobs are being outsourced to us, as a token of our gratitude we are outsourcing to the US the task of providing national heroes.

An India sports-person does moderately well in international events. A person of Indian origin wins recognition or administrative position in their host country. Honours, genuine and dubious, are bestowed on the Indians by the West (beauty titles, Oscar nominations, film jury membership, mention in the Time/Newsweek magazines). Hindi films find non-NRI audience in the West. An Indian slang word enters an English dictionary. All these call for celebration, because they enhance the De-nationalized Middle Class’ sense of worthiness.

Even the uniquely Indian institutions are being redefined as an exercise in reverse off-shoring. Now the Hindi film industry has been given an imitative name (Bollywood), making Hollywood the reference point, and asked to win Oscars. The dynamic and success-oriented Hindi film, with its hand firmly on the peoples’ pulse, has always lived by its own rules.

A successful Hindi film Masoom, made in 1983, borrowed the idea from Man , Woman and Child by Erich Segal, but not the denouement . In the novel, the family shuts its door on the husband’s love child. But the Hindi version very cleverly shows the married couple with two daughters so that the love child, a boy (a cute one at that), can continue the male line. The 1963 Billy Wilder film Irma La Douce (1963) had a fairly successful run in India. But when it was made into a Hindi film ( Manoranjan, 1974), it flopped. While the Indian viewers could enjoy the frolicking of Parisian prostitutes, they do not want their own to have any sense of job satisfaction. Similarly , when the successful Hollywood film The Indecent Proposal (1993) was faithfully made into Hindi as Sauda (1996), the film flopped because the male-oriented Indian audience was not ready to accept the idea of a husband’s renting out his wife. But when the story line was changed in Judaai (1997) to let a woman rent out her husband, the film did very well.

In the Hindi films of the 1960s and 1970s, the foreign-returned young man wore suits, smoked a pipe, wore a hat, acted like a villain and eventually got thrashed by the hero. Alternatively, he wore half-pants, acted like a buffoon and happily became the hero’s sidekick. A foreign-returned young lady did not plait her hair, wore boots, and screamed “shut-up” at everybody. If she remained like this, she died. Only if she redeemed herself by discovering her Indian-ness did she get the hero. Contrast this with the recent blockbuster Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995) in which the custodians of Indian values are the NRI hero and heroine. India as a setting for the film is quite irrelevant except to showcase the Indian young man as a petty crook who wants the virtuous heroin as a visa for settling abroad and having fun.

Where does Slumdog Millionaire fit into this scheme? There is a delicious irony in its commercial and critical success. Here is a movie with Mumbai-based story, Indian  actors and Hindi dialogues which has won as many as eight Oscar awards. And yet Upper India is not happy. That the present- day subjects of Her Majesty have made a movie about the former subjects has been duly noted. If the interest which the West is taking today in India’s underbelly had been taken two hundred years ago, there probably would have been no underbelly.The issue however   is not so much  the West’s  current interest in Lower India as its perceived  betrayal of its former ally, the Upper India. When the globalization-era  Indian upper crust seeks an Oscar for a Hindi movie  it is to  legitimize its own denationalization. If a British film on Mumbai slums is multiply honoured, it is a subtle indictment of the Indian non-slum. It is noteworthy that  in the movie the slum kid knows  about Benjamin Franklin’s image on a hundred- dollar bill but not  about Mahatma Gandhi’s on a  thousand- rupee note. The quiz master (the Anil Kapoor character)  gives an insider tip to the slum kid. It is remarkable that the boy instinctively recognizes the  deception, and succeeds by acting contrarily.

As an astronomer, I have been particularly struck by recent attempts at creating pseudo-mythology (as distinct from pseudo-science). Traditionally, solar eclipse has been considered to be an ill omen. Consistent with its grandeur, its effect has been taken to be large scale; on armies, kings and kingdoms, etc. In recent times, pseudo-scientific basis has been sought to be provided by postulating that the Sun emits harmful radiation during an eclipse (as if it knows it is being eclipsed). And yet, its effect was still very general ( e g on pregnant women). The recent eclipse saw the emergence of a new mythology, that is relating the ill effect of an eclipse to the birth sign. Somehow the eclipse should affect me differently than you! New jobs are paying well, but there is no job security. Consequently worship of the outermost geocentric planet Saturn (Shani) has increased. Construction of new malls and multiplex cinemas is well known; Shani temples are part of the same boom.

As a tribute to the spending capacity of the DMC and a concession to its thoughtlessness, many erstwhile national newspapers are vying with one another to become DMC house magazines, revelling in trivialization of issues, mindless clichés, stupid bilingual puns, wordplay and prurience. The ever-increasing irrelevance of the IMC has been arrested to an extent by two institutions: higher judiciary and the electronic media. Given the abdication of responsibility by the legislature and executive alike, the Supreme Court and High Courts are increasingly taking on extra-judicial responsibilities. Time is in fact ripe for India to to contribute a new term to the world lexicon, judiciocracy, meaning government by the higher judiciary.

Since the middle class has had hardly any role in the installation of democratically elected governments, the politicians had in the past tended to view the print media with disdain, treating it as a mere pinprick. Mrs Indira Gandhi, for instance, was very contemptuous of India’s English language press, which often criticized her but could not impact voting patterns. The emergence of the electronic media however has changed the situation. Television has anointed the middle class as the commentator and the critic. The political class must now hire the cleverness, wit and sophistry of the middle class for coping with the new media. The middle class’ sensitivity to the Western public opinion has had a positive fall out also. India cannot afford to perpetuate or condone aberrations that would give it an international bad-boy image.


The philosophical basis for the defection of the middle class to the West was created 200 years ago in the colonial context. The British could build an Empire in India and run it with relative ease because they were able to acquire legitimacy for it at the  very outset, thanks to the discovery of Indo-European linguistic commonality. This is a political correct phrase from today’s self-conscious lexicon. In its time the commonality was interpreted in purely racial terms. Indo-Europeanism provided the British with powerful means of “connexion and reconciliation” not with all Indians, not with all Hindus, but with upper-caste Hindus.

That the Kurds and Pathans spoke languages that were related to Sanskrit, Greek and Latin was not mentioned. That most Indian Muslims were converts was ignored. That there was no clear-cut ethnic division between upper and lower castes was glossed over. The legitimacy thesis went like this: Upper-caste Hindus and Europeans came from the same racial stock. Indo-Aryans had had their period of glory in the remote past; it was now the turn of their European brethren to rule and dominate. Needless to say the thesis was enthusiastically accepted by the upper-castes. Even the 19th century Mohandas Gandhi subscribed to this thesis. He became the Mahatma only when he jettisoned this thesis, stopped appealing to the British good sense and instead chose to put the Western civilization on the defensive on moral and ethical grounds

Colonialism may have ended but the thesis was never laid to rest from the Indian side.

Edward Said’s work, though seminal, is area-specific. The first lab for orientalism was India and not the Middle East. I would like to define orientalism more generally as “ideological and operational paradigm consciously created by the West to define and describe the East in such a manner as to facilitate and justify its control”. Orientalism would be confrontational in the Muslim world but was seductive, persuasive and interactive in India, where it took the form of Indo-Europeanism. Whenever an Indian scholar did well, he was described as having overcome the prejudices off his race. His Upper-Caste status was emphasized, which made him one of us. They were all examples of the success of the Western mission to improve the natives. The natives were proud to have been thus improved and praised.

Recently Prof. Chen Ning Yang who won the 1957 Nobel physics prize jointly with a fellow Chinese observed: “Before 1957, only Hideki Yukawa of the eastern world had won the Nobel prize, if scholars from India were excluded as India and Great Britain had a long history of interactions.” Scholars from India was an exaggeration, because only one Indian C.V. Raman had by then won the prize. It is interesting to note that he does not include Raman in the eastern world. Reference to India’s long history of interaction with England is of course to the racial connection.

Thanks to Indo-Europeanism, Indians do not feel competitive towards the West the way the Chinese do. Indeed, the Indians can rejoice at the Western scientific accomplishments by pretending to sense them in their own ancient texts. As the US-backed services sector (as distinct from the manufacturing) expands and as the West-based NRIs grow in numerical and economic strength, India feels more and more comfortable with a peripheral role in the Indo-European-dominated world. //

Pride and Peeve: India and the Nobel science prizes

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on October 12th, 2009 by Rajesh Kochhar – 1 Comment

Rajesh Kochhar

So far four genetic Indians have won the Nobel science prize: Chandrasekhar Venkata Raman (awarded 1930), Hargobind Khorana (1968), Subramanya Chandrasekhar ( 1983), and Venkatraman Ramakrishnan (2009). Of these only the first one, Raman, was an Indian citizen and the work done was in India. All others acquired US citizenship and worked in the West. While there is pride in the honour bestowed on them, there is also regret that our pleasure is vicarious.

India is still answering questions that were raised by the colonialists 150 years ago. When an Indian did well academically , he was declared to have overcome prejudices of his race and declared a scholar in “ our sense of the term. Times of India editorially saw Ramakrishnan’s Nobel prize as a proof , because proof is needed all the time, that “Indians are no less talented than people elsewhere in the world”.

Raman is the first non-White scientist to win the prize. It would have been better for Indian science if he had missed the prize. (He got it with the skin of his teeth.)This early honour has created such dazzle that India has been blinded to the reality of its pursuit of science.

Raman used to boast the prize winning equipment cost only 200 rupees. (There is some dispute on the exact figure he quoted.)Raman missed the point completely. The main point is not the equipment cost a paltry sum, but that it was easily available in the country. Modern science was still young and its infrastructural demands were modest which they could be met at the level of a college lab. This was true of Raman as well as of the physicist Jagadis Chunder Bose and the chemist Prafulla Chandra Ray before him. Both were professors in Presidency College Calcutta which a century ago ranked among the best equipped academic institutions of the world. High quality original research was a continuation, or a short step ahead, of classroom teaching, as is exemplified by the work of Raman himself, Chandrasekahar, Meghnad Saha and Satyendra Nath Bose.

Science has progressed very rapidly since the second world war. The academic threshold for entering research is much higher than before. In keeping with progress in science, our science teaching at school , college and university levels should have been upgraded. Contrarily it has deteriorated

Basic science has increasingly become a child of high technology. India’s economy and industrial development do not have the intrinsic strength to sustain cutting – edge science. Since the recent economic growth has been driven by property boom and service sectors which are science-less, there is much less interest in science than before.

Indian education system has precipitously been made a part of patronage system. As many as sixteen central universities were opened with the stroke a pen. There have been successful street level agitations for more of them. Their location has been guided by real estate considerations rather than even semblance of an assessment Eleven of them do not even have a building to operate from leave aside a campus. The appointment of all vice-chancellors has been challenged in the Supreme Court. Are these signs of a country aspiring for Nobel prizes for in situ work?

Take the case of a small state as Punjab. Its capital, Chandigarh, has a university and an engineering college of long standing. Punjab already has a functional central post-graduate pharmacy university (NIPER), and a central science university (IISER) . A technical university (IIT) has become operational. On top of it, an all-purpose central university has been sanctioned in a far-off place. Are we talking of institutions of excellence or of cyber cafes and beer bars?

Ramakrishnan published his path-breaking three-dimensional map of ribosome sub-unit in 2000. Western recognition followed immediately. He was made a member of European Molecular Biology Organization in 2002; fellow of the Royal Society of London in 2003; and fellow of National Academy of Sciences, USA, in 2004. Curiously it was not until 2008 that Indian National Science Academy could bring itself to electing Ramakrishnan as a foreign fellow.

We do not have the self-confidence to recognize talent pon our own. We recognize it only when it is certified by the West. And then we deify the certified celebrities. We place them at high pedestals so that we do not have to listen to them, learn from them or put them to any use. We make them into two-dimensional images so that they can be hung on the wall and saluted. (They have not yet reached the statue stage.)

Contrast this with China. Ramakrishnan’s counterpart in physics is Shanghai-born Charles Kuen Kao for whom the prize has come at the fag end of his life. It is however remarkable that he was asked in 1970 to set up electrical engineering department at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, of which he subsequently served as vice-chancellor (1987-1996).

Ramakrishnan and before him Amartya Sen while moving from US to UK took a cut in their pay. Quite obviously to them research facilities and ambience mattered more than the pay slip. Indian university faculty and national lab scientists may like to keep this in mind.

If India wishes to become a Nobel prize factory, it will have to see beyond the current fiscal year or the next general election. Lord Rutherford in the 1930s compared biology to stamp collecting. Biology has come a long way since then; it is now a full-fledged lab science. The present and the near future belong to it.

Ramakrishnan’s own career graph is worth studying. He spent four years, 1994-1999, at University of Utah before moving to the Nobel prize factory in Cambridge. Utah is not in competition with Cambridge. Rather it acts as a feeder. Utah’s vice-president for research has made a significant point: “ We do not have the money to hire the people who are already famous. We have to spot the talent and nurture it”.

Here then is a model for India. Set up a Cambridge-type national lab and surround it with Utah – type talent spotters and nurturers.//

Note added 13 october 2009. Also see R. Kochhar: “Some pride, some regret: From Raman to Venkatraman. Tribune , Chandigarh ( Op-ed) !3 Oct. 2009. URL is

Scientist in exile [ Subramanya Chandrasekhar]

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on August 28th, 2009 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

Sunday Times of India, 14 July 1991

Rajesh Kochhar

[This essay reviews Kameshwar C. Wali’s authorized biography of Subramanya Chandrasekhar, titled Chandra. The review was written when Chandrasekhar was still alive. I sent him a copy. His response makes interesting reading. He wrote in a personal letter dated 5 Aug 1991: “It is always interesting to read upon aspects of the book different reviewers select to comment. In this instance, there seems to be systematic difference between the reviewers in the “West” [his quotes]. When the biography came out in paperback, the blurb carried excerpt from this review. Subsequently I published two newspaper articles on Chandrasekhar, which may be seen as companion pieces:

R. Kochhar (1995) Transcending the limits: Chandrasekhar’s stellar contribution. Times of India, 19 Oct.]

R. Kochhar (1999) India-born U.S. astrophysicist. Chandra Observatory: Tribute to a legend. The Tribune, 27 Jul. {Cited in Wikipedia}


Chandrasekhar symbolises the practice of science at its noblest. A man of integrity, modesty, and exceptionally high standards, he is “the kind of person for whom and through whom the university existed”. His personality, like his mathematics, is self-consistent; there are no kinks, aberrations or loose ends. It is difficult to decide whether his research is an extension of his personality or whether his personality has been mounded by his research.Perhaps there has been a symbiotic relationship between the two.

Chandra’s life story by his compatriot Kameshwar C. Wali, himself a physics professor in the USA, is a labour of love. The biographer has reconstructed Chandra’s life mainly from material supplied by Chandra himself and has added his own comments and notes, at the end, which provide useful background material.

The best part of book starts after the author’s description of Chandra’s life. Entitled ‘Conversation with Chandra’, it describes in Chandra’s own words his thoughts on himself, his colleagues and his times. The book comes alive in these pages through Chandra’s sensitivity and honesty. Of special interest to Indian readers will be his views on men and matters in India.

This is not a scientific biography. As the author says, “it is biography of an individual whom I admired from a distance for many years.” It provides a splendid insight into the working of a great contemporary mind, and can be read with profit by lay persons for enlightenment, and by scientists for introspection.

Chandra – as he is universally known – wrote his first research paper in 1929 when he was an 18-year-old under -graduate at Presidency College, Madras. His uninterrupted research career, spanning six decades and three continents, has been marked by mathematical rigor and elegance. The award of a Nobel Prize in 1983 made him into science’s show boy and he found this rather unbecoming.

Chandra come of age a a time when western education had taken root in India; when modern physics was being founded in Europe; when the Imperial government in India has developed a mild sense of noblesse oblige; and when nationalism was assert in in self.

In 1930, when he was travelling from Delhi to Madras by first class (his father worked for the Railways), an English memsahib loudly expressed her disgust at having to share the compartment with a native, but added that at least he was in European dress. Chandra promptly left the compartment and returned in the typical south Indian dress of shirt and veshti.

Then again, Chandra once missed classes to go and listen to Jawaharlal Nehru who was visiting Madras. The principal, shocked to find Chandra among the “culprits”, exclaimed: ‘you too!’ But this did not prevent the college from creating a special scholarship to enable their brilliant student to go to England. Not surprisingly while the government did not hesitate to create a special scholarship to send Chandra to Cambridge for his PhD it would not create a job for him in India when he wanted to return.

In 1933 Chandra got his PhD and also the Fellowship of Trinity College which, 16 years previously, had been held by another Indian, Srinivasa Ramanujam. He now returned to the important question: what happens to a star once it is has burnt all its nuclear fuel? The leading lights of the day claimed that they already knew the answer: All stars finally retired as earth-sized white dwarfs.

Chandra was the first one to apply the theory of special relativity to understand the behaviour of stars. In his 1930 voyage out of India, he had done preliminary work on the topic and to remove all doubts about the results, he now got down to working out a complete, rigorous mathematical theory without taking any short-cuts.

Chandra found that all stars do not end up as white dwarfs, only low mass ones do. As to what happens to bigger stars, Chandra’s answer must rank as the understatement of the century: “. . . one is left speculating on other possibilities”. No white dwarf can be bigger than the Chandrasekhar mass limite, that is 1.4 times the mass of the sun. The “other possibilities” are the neutron star and the black hole, as even a school student knows today.

In January 1935, Chandra presented his results at the London meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society. He was hoping to be warmly received by the astronomical community for his path-breaking research, little realising what he was in for. Sir Arthur Eddington, the most influential astronomer of the time, stood up to present his own results and tore Chandra to pieces, not by pointing out mistakes in his analysis but by ridiculing him, not by logic but by rhetoric. Sir Arthur did not believe in black holes. With a haughtiness one associates with Viceroys rather than scientists, he declared, “I think there should be a law of nature to prevent a star from behaving in this absurd manner.”

Sir Arthur was blinded by his self-righteousness; the others by the glare of his self-righteousness; the others by the glare of his personality. It was not that one hypothesis was competing with another.It was an exact mathematical theory that was pitted against a refusal to listen. A desperate Chandra tried to enlist support form among the international community of astronomers and physicists. There was however no one who had the time or the courage to sit down with paper and pencil and see through the hollowness of Eddington’s arguments. After four long frustrating years Chandra gave up.

Having pitted himself against the dons of Cambridge and Oxford, young Chandra had no chance of a job in Britain or even Europe. The United States of America offered to take him in: “Out there, we don’t believe in Eddington”. Chandra left Sir Arthur’s England as well as the white dwarfs and headed for the University of Chicago in 1937 where he has remained ever since. He was the first non-white on the faculty of the university, which was, he puts it, “30 years ahead of its time”.

A lesser man would have been traumatized by the experience. But Chandra confronted the situation stoically and raarranged his thoughts. For one, he decided to never become an Eddington himself. He would retain a “certain modesty of approach”, and an open-mindedness. (In 1984, when I wrote to Chandra pointing out a mistake in one of his papers, his reply was warm and prompt; “Publish your results”) The second lesson Chandra learnt from the episode was even more momentous. He would never again try to canvass support for his work. He would let it speak for itself. Mathematics would be his only ally, and time his judge.

In a book that is now a classic, Chandra put down what he knew about white dwarfs and closed the topic. In his never-ending “quest for perspectives”, he would take up a new topic, work on it for a number of years, write a monograph, and move on.

All his work carries a uniform stamp of scholarship. And his later work tends to be the last word on the subject, unlike his early work on the white dwarfs, which was the first word. The first word took a long time to sink in. Chandra has won a number of prestigious awards, but for a long time there was no reference to his white dwarf work. In fact it was only in 1974, 40 years after the work, that a prize mentioned this work.

The belated Nobel Prize in 1983 tried to set things right. His citation refers to the work on white dwarfs “accomplished when he was in his 20s”. As if to compress the intervening time, the citation also mentions two pieces of later work on the relativistic instability of stars done in the ’60s.

It is futile to speculate what course Chandra’s life would have taken if the had won Sir Arthur’s support in 1935. There is, however, no doubt that Sir Arthur’s obduracy delayed the development of the subject by a generation. The recent work on neutron stars and black holes would certainly have been done in the late 30s and 40s as a natural extension of Chandra’s pioneering work.

Chandra has been good for American science. He would drive 100 miles, week after week, to teach a class of two American-Chinese students, both of whom went on to win the 1957 Nobel Prize. He has trained many generations of students and researchers, and taken extraordinary pains to set the standards for astronomical research journals.

Chandra has always kept in touch with India. It was his efforts that brought to light Srinivasa Ramanujan’s passport photograph, the basis for all later photographs, etchings and sculpture. As Chandra says, finding Ramanujan’s photograph has been one of his important discoveries.

From an Indian point of view, it is unfortunate that the country of his birth was not the theatre of his activities. Unlike Har Gobind Khurana who required sophisticated laboratories for his work, all Chandra has ever needed is a library and students. It is not that he did not try, or that India didn’t. He tried before independence, and India afterwards.

The first jog offer to Chandra came from Sir C.V. Raman, Chandra’s father’s younger brother and the director of the Tatas-sponsored Indian Institute of Science (IIS) Bangalore. He was offered an assistant professorship. Chandra’s father’s response was electric: “ My advice is keep out of his orbit.” Having an overbearing uncle in the family was enough of strain. Having him as boss would have been impossible. Not only did Chandra not want a job in his uncle’s institute, he also did not wand it through his influence.

In 1935 Chandra was interested in a mathematics professorship at Government College, Lahore (his birth place). But he withdrew when he came to know about the candidacy of S. Chowla, a personal friend “whose work and abilities I greatly admire”.

Chandra’s election as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1944 (for which he was supported by Eddington) enhanced his job prospects in India. He was offered the directorship of the Kodaikanal Observatory, for which he was ill equipped. He could not do observational work and did not want to do administrative work. He asked for a comparable post where he would do his theoretical research. Nothing came of it, just as his earlier attempts to find reader’s post at a university had yielded nothing. While sending Chandra to Cambridge was good for Cambridge, creating a job for him in India would have been good for the Indians but Imperial Government was not interested.

A positive offer came from Dr Homi Bhabha in 1951 when he was building the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) Bombay. Chandra was tempted, but not strongly enough. Soon after, he became a US citizen, and conditions changed drastically. In 1961 the CSIR, on instructions from Jawaharlal Nehru, offered him a national professorship, provided he relinquished his foreign citizenship.

Again, in 1963 when Dr Bhabha died, the government, forgetting that Chandra was no longer an Indian citizen, offered him the chairmanship of the Atomic Energy Commission. Of all the offers Chandra received, the most attractive was Dr Bhabha’s Looking back, he now feels that perhaps he should have accepted it, but at the time he was not quite sure whether he would fit in.

Chandra had had a ringside view of Indian science, first as Sir Raman’s nephew and then in his own right, and he did not like what he saw. The Trimurti of Indian physics: Raman, Meghnad Saha, and S.N. Bose, especially the first two, were always at each other’s throats. K.S. Krishnan, who worked with Raman but did not share the Noble Prize, was Chandra’s friend. (Chandra later obtained a copy of his diary for the Royal Society.)

Chandra liked Dr Bhabha and his cosmopolitanism but was dismayed by his autocracy. Once when Wolfgang Pauli and other foreign scientists came to India, they were transported in a bus. Dr Bhabha followed them in his limousine. An enraged Wolfgang Pauli left the country the next day.

Chandra did not want administrative power, but was not sure whether he would be academically free if he did not occupy the top slot himself. Raman’s advice was blunt: “Don’t play second fiddle”. The very fact that the concept of “first or second fiddle” existed put Chandra off.

The Chandra of British India had to leave his country for the sake of science. And the tragedy of independent India lies in the fact that if a Chandra, who wants academic freedom without administrative power or interference, were to appear today, he would still have to go into exile.