HomeArts & EntertainmentBooksReview: The Scientific Sufi by Meher Wan

Review: The Scientific Sufi by Meher Wan

A thought-provoking book, The Scientific Sufi takes readers on a journey through the life and experiences of Jagadish Chandra Bose. The title suggests that Bose believed in the coexistence of contrary things and the book itself is a profound exploration of the man’s personal growth, familial bonds, cultural influences, and dogged pursuit of knowledge. Meher Wan’s evocative storytelling leaves a lasting impact and his attention to detail immerses readers in Bose’s world.

Jagadish Chandra Bose demonstrating the horn antenna at the University of Calcutta. (SETI League photo, used by permission / Wikimedia Commons)

At the outset, the book draws you into Bose’s life, starting with his birth and the great anticipation surrounding his first cries. Nature’s laws are explored as the rapid crying of the newborn clears his windpipe and activates his lungs. The description of Bose’s father, Bhagban, eagerly awaiting his son’s first cries, heralds the deep bond that will grow between the two. The senior Bose envisions a future for his son that will go well beyond his own unfulfilled dreams. The growing child’s formative years are deeply influenced by his grandparents, who nurture his inquisitive nature and encourage his explorations of the natural world. Their guidance and attempts to stimulate his intellectual curiosity, shape him into a young boy fascinated by the wonders of the world.

Scientific Sufi(Penguin)
Scientific Sufi(Penguin)

It isn’t just the natural world that enthrals the child. He loves stories that influence his imagination and is deeply fascinated by the Mahabharata, especially admiring the character of Karna. His interest in literature and myth foreshadows his later passion for storytelling and its impact on his scientific pursuits. As with many Indians of the period and even in the contemporary era, young Jagadish had to take some hard decisions about his chosen career path. His passion for physics, instilled by Father Lafont, is at odds with his family’s expectation that he pursue a career in the Indian Civil Services, he has to navigate the conflict between personal aspirations and social pressures. Reading about this internal struggle raises, for the reader, some thought-provoking questions about personal fulfilment and the pursuit of knowledge.

The book’s final chapters delve deeper into Jagadish’s journey and look at his family’s financial constraints and the challenges posed by the pursuit of higher education in the sciences. His mother’s fears and cultural superstitions, and his father’s aspiration to uplift Indian agriculture and medicine all play a role in further shaping Jagadish Chandra Bose’s life and decisions.

Throughout, the author blends historical and cultural elements and presents a rich tapestry of familial relationships, societal expectations, and personal dreams to showcase the society of nineteenth-century Bengal.

Author Meher Wan (Courtesy Penguin)
Author Meher Wan (Courtesy Penguin)

However, the most important years of Bose’s life were those he spent conducting research in India and abroad. An extraordinary and radical researcher for his time, he breached the conventional separation of physics and physiology and proposed radical connections between the two. He found common laws between the living and non-living world, which stunned the scientific establishment. Publishing a total of six books to establish the correlation between physics and physiology, he experimented with intoxicants, drugs and poisons in plants and inferred similarities between the responses of plants and other living beings. His research output was immense and over the years, he sent many papers to the Royal Society of London. His books included Responses in the Living and Non-living (1902), Plant Response (1906) and Comparative Electro-Physiology (1907) and he developed an optical lever that could test light reactions to stimuli in plants. Bose dedicated many years to research at his laboratory at Presidency College in Calcutta. The difficulties he faced highlighted the urgent need for research capital and investment in India. He wanted to establish an advanced laboratory of physics in the country and was keen to ensure that aspiring young scientists did not lack any resources. His enduring friendship with Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore was especially significant. “I was dreaming of the day when people from abroad would visit India in the quest for knowledge and wisdom,” he wrote to Tagore. Even as he frequently lectured at prestigious universities like Oxford and Cambridge, he professed a great desire to extend the scientific spirit to India’s common masses.

The Scientific Sufi, an interesting work on the life of Jagadish Chandra Bose, stresses on the importance of following one’s passion, and highlights the power of knowledge to shape society.

Saleem Rashid Shah is an independent book critic. He lives in New Delhi.

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