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Book review: Homi J. Bhabha's new biography captures the hope and power matrix of his times

The biggest achievement of 'Homi J. Bhabha: A Life' is that it manages to capture an era of unvarnished hope, when scientists held the unadulterated belief that they could change the world for the better.

May 27, 2023 / 01:44 PM IST

Thanks to the popularity of the SonyLIV series Rocket Boys, the life and works of Homi Jehangir Bhabha (1909-66) have seen a resurgence in interest (the actor Jim Sarbh plays Bhabha in the show). Not only was Bhabha one of the most accomplished Indian scientists of the 20th century, his achievements as an administrator and educator are unparalleled in the nation’s history. He was founding director of two key Indian institutions — the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) and AEET (Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay), the latter now known as BARC (Bhabha Atomic Research Center) in Bhabha’s honour. A thorough, well-researched new biography attempts to place the man’s achievements in the context of Indian scientific development as a whole — Bakhtiar K. Dadabhoy’s Homi J. Bhabha: A Life, released in April 2023 by Rupa Publications.

Homi J. Bhabha: A Life by Bakhtiar K. Dadabhoy; 776 pages; Rs 995. Homi J. Bhabha: A Life by Bakhtiar K. Dadabhoy; Rupa; 776 pages; Rs 995.

This nearly 800-page doorstopper doesn’t really keep a laser-focus on Bhabha, as the author readily admits in the Foreword. This is really two books in one, perhaps more. We spend about as much time with Bhabha as we do with the early Indian scientific establishment (of the 1940s and '50s).

Dadabhoy does a fine job introducing us to the central characters of this grand scientists-and-politicians soap opera — the indefatigable but stubborn C.V. Raman, the misunderstood Meghnad Saha, the incurably enthusiastic Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar (nicknamed ‘Steamboat’ by Saha because of his irrepressible energy levels) and many others. And, of course, there is the towering Jawaharlal Nehru, who gave his favourite scientists carte blanche to lead institutions in whichever way they liked, with minimal governmental oversight.

To read about the friendships and rivalries of these extraordinary men is a pleasure. One also understands the career trajectory of Bhabha much better once we understand the basics of this world. For example, Bhabha’s work ethic, especially while collaborating with younger scientists, was impeccable and he developed this at a fairly early stage in his career. Could this have been influenced by the many fights-for-credit he had witnessed amidst fellow scientists? Dadabhoy describes one such disagreement between C.V. Raman and Kalpathi Ramakrishna Ramanathan, known as ‘Krishnan’. Krishnan held a grudge against Raman because he was denied co-credit for discovering the ‘Raman Effect’ (the phenomenon through which all matter scatters photons, resulting in a change in energy levels and the light’s direction) while he was Raman’s research assistant. The Nobel Committee decided not to recognize Krishnan’s contributions. As Dadabhoy describes in the book, Raman’s nephew, the scientist S. Chandrasekhar, believed that Krishnan deserved to win the Nobel alongside Raman.

“Chandrasekhar, who was in Calcutta almost immediately after the
discovery, thought that both Raman and Krishnan deserved credit.
He believed that the Raman Effect had been discovered because
two absolutely original scientists had complemented each other.
The common picture of science based on the premise of individual
genius is fallacious. Science does not issue from singular minds—it is
a community effort that thrives on fellowship and collective skill. The
Nobel Prize does not reflect how science is done; it merely reinforces
the fiction of individual genius. The Nobel is an individual prize but
this no longer conforms to the multidisciplinary and collective nature
of contemporary research.”

That last sentence is borne out by pretty much every headline-grabbing research discovery of the last 20-30 years, which have been largely developed by large teams with dozens of individuals, who are often working on opposite ends of the world.

What, then, of Bhabha himself? Dadabhoy takes great care to present Bhabha as an eccentric, intellectually restless man. A man who was pretty much in charge of India’s nuclear programme, and who also happened to be an expert architect, with rarefied and elegant ideas about design and liveability. He was also a talented artist, a connoisseur of classical and modern music—a true Renaissance man, to cut a long story short.

Most biographers are a little bit in love with their subjects, and Dadabhoy is no exception (he even spells this out in the opening chapter). But within those constraints, the author also does a fine job constructing Bhabha’s legacy, brick by brick. In a systematic way, we learn about each part of Bhabha’s world—his Parsi heritage, his education, how his attitude towards government and bureaucracy changed after he became part of the system, so to speak.

The biggest achievement of Homi J. Bhabha: A Life is that it manages to capture an era of unvarnished hope, when scientists truly believed that they could change the world for the better, transform the lives of millions of people across the country. And Bhabha, despite his studied cynicism about governments and civil servants, was at his core a believer in this cause. But then again, the specificities of the era Bhabha worked in are a crucial part of the puzzle, as Dadabhoy keeps reminding us.

“The consensus between the scientific and political elite was both strong and unprecedented, and it was this rapport with the highest political power in the land that allowed Bhabha to be as effective as he was. Nationalism and government investment in science contributed to the belief in the power of science to liberate India from poverty and ignorance. With Bhabha at the helm, nuclear energy started being seen as the way to speedy development: the authority of science became unequivocally established among the educated elite and the illiterate poor.”

A nation that’s anti-science is a nation that’s scripting its own demise, it’s safe to say. Just look at how anti-vaxxers routinely attack and demonize doctors and scientists online, characterizing them as enemies of the people. Reading Homi J. Bhabha: A Life made me wistful for a time when the general public and the scientific community had only each other’s best interests at heart.

Aditya Mani Jha
first published: May 27, 2023 01:32 pm