Immaculate lives

Visvesvaraya stre-ngthened the face of the public but damaged the vitality of the private by allowing little space for pain or trauma. His was an immaculate life, immaculately conceived and executed.

Birthdays and anniversaries often become occasion for hagiography. A full-blooded man who should be seen as a collection of hypothesis congeals into a saint. He freezes into archetype and loses content, becoming embalmed in a sanitised memory. Birthdays become favourite moments to commemorate people one wants to subvert for other purposes. The choice seems to be between canonisation and erasure. This seems to be the problem with many of our scientists. They seem to be perfect creatures living perfectly methodological lives. The façade rarely gives way to doubt and ambiguity. No one captures this archetypical tension more than the father of Indian planning, Sir M. Visvesvaraya. September 15 was the 152nd birth anniversary of Visvesvaraya, a folklore hero across Karnataka and a historical anchor for the visionaries of planning. Diwan of Mysore from 1912 to 1918, he was also awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1955. Legend reports him as an ascetic figure living a life of rectitude and exactitude. In fact, he is invoked as a beatitude, the life and sayings of a saint.
In these moments of invocation I hope I am allowed to go beyond the text book Visvesvaraya.
An acute observer once said that many of the scientists produced little science but produced something even more fascinating: autobiographies. They constructed their lives like scientific experiments, deeply obsessed with method. Autobiography for these men was not a confession, not a vehicle of privacy, an expression of inner torment and joy but an effort to create a public person. Visvesvaraya’s Memories of My Working Life (1951) did not differentiate between autobiography and public policy. One almost senses he is numbering the paragraphs and transforming his life into a policy document.
Reading Visvesvaraya one feels nation-building, character-building and dam-building are parallel but isomorphic activities. For them one’s life, like science, is a public morality play which has to end with policy recommendations. It reminded me of the jigsaw puzzle often given to students at management schools. They are given a wooden jigsaw often crudely made and asked to assemble it. As one assembled it, one saw a picture of Abraham Lincoln. The group was asked to invert the blocs and they discovered a picture of the United States. The lecturer would then conclude, “Take care of the man and you take care of the nation.”
The stories about Visvesvaraya’s achievements, especially his honesty, were legendary. Legend goes that he always carried two pens, one for official and the other for personal use. The separation of public and private was central to his life. But this role separation had interesting psychological consequences.
The private man often disappeared from these public narratives. And with that disappeared a certain sense of irony, ambiguity and humour.
Visvesvaraya was always immaculately dressed, Western in his costume except for the turban, which was a stern piece of clothing. Yet, as one explores his life, one realises he did not know how to tie a turban. These were assembled by a retired schoolmaster who was given a monthly sum of `30. One suddenly realises that the life of the man was a sheer costume ball, an authenticity of impression management which left untouched the private and the subconscious. Visvesvaraya wrote a book about how to deal with your wife and you hardly realise he survived three of them.
There was an integrity and generosity to the man which helped create the integrity and public face of the scientific role. In public life and science, the separation of public and private is the first guarantee in the battle against corruption.
One remembers in particular the making of the National Planning Committee. Meghnad Saha, physicist, had persuaded Subhash Bose, as president of the Indian National Congress, to convene the National Planning Committee. For some reason, Saha was late for the meeting. By the time he reached Delhi, Visvesvaraya had already been elected president of the National Planning Committee. Saha realised that these scientific bodies and science in general needed the support of the politician. Saha persuaded Visvesvaraya to step down and let the young Jawaharlal Nehru become the chairman. It was only the old man’s generosity that allowed Nehru this great opportunity.
One wonders how Visvesvaraya, an engineer who designed and patented floodgates in 1903, would have reacted to the tragedy of dams and dam displacement today. Would he have been an archetypal technocrat and claimed that large dams were the technical answer to the technical question of energy? Would the great engineer have responded differently to the issue of the Narmada dam and the tragedy of displacement? History wishes it had an answer, alternative definitions of reality. It could have added a playfulness to ethics and policy-making.
Deep down their definitions of the public created public policy and planning in India. Visvesvaraya, along with Saha, virtually conceptualised planning in India. He strengthened the face of the public but secretly damaged the vitality of the personal and private by allowing little space for ambiguity, pain or trauma. His was an immaculate life, immaculately conceived and immaculately executed. Yet, it was like watching a robot or a programmed doll.
One senses the same distance when one reads about the life and experiences of the great chemist, Prafulla Chandra Ray. In two long volumes where he talks of the symptoms of an ailing Bengal and India, he reveals little about himself except a terse reference to his constipation.
Years later, I remember seeing a picture of Jagdish Bose, P.C. Ray and Bose’s wife. The only other object is a bicycle which Mrs Bose is sitting on and Ray is running behind. It is a brilliant picture capturing the unsaid of these lives and the silences of patriarchal science in general.
Their lives were puritan, conducted with the inflexibility of a scientific experiment. There was a rigidity to it. One wishes there was more laughter in it. But these are our folk heroes, immaculate legends who lived immaculately. One wishes their tales were more endearingly human.

The writer is a social science nomad

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