March 31, 2007 12:02:33 pm
The art of biography has, till recently, been a largely neglected field in India. Most biographies have been hagiographies, with adulation taking precedence over a critical and detached perspective on the part of the biographer. Moreover, most biographers tend to go over the same old ground, and usually focus on pre-1947 personalities. There have, of course, been more than honourable exceptions to this trend. B.R. Nanda’s life of Gandhi , is now in its 50th year, but still unequalled; then, there is Ramachandra Guha’s gem on Verrier Elwin. But they remain exceptions.
This would have been reason enough to be heartened by this dual biography of agriculture scientist Boshi Sen and his wide, Gertrude Emerson Sen. For, except those who knew or worked with them, how many today will readily recognise this extraordinary couple?
But there is even more reason to read this book, for it is an experiment in biography also. Girish N. Mehra, a former civil servant, has given us not just a dual biography of the Sens, but a multi-layered book. It is a biography of the Sens, a memoir of the couple by Mehra and others who knew them, and an intriguing look at how the lives of others, an extraordinary galaxy including Tagore, Gandhi, Rolland and others, touched that of the Sens. This is a huge book, but if it had been shorter, one would have wanted it to be a little longer, in order to savour it more.
Boshi Sen was born into a Bengali family which had very strong links with the nascent Ramakrishna movement. Sri Ramakrishna’s wife, Sarda Devi, was a frequent visitor at the Sen home. The young Boshi himself came under the spell of Sadanand, one of Swami Vivekanand’s disciples. If there was an overarching, all-pervading influence in Boshi’s life, it was that of Swami Vivekanand. Nivedita, another disciple of Vivekanand, was instrumental in bringing Boshi to the notice of the scientist J.C. Bose, with whom he worked. Thus, science and spirituality were the two poles in Boshi’s life. He never saw any contradiction between the two.
Gertrude Emerson, a scion of the Emerson clan of the US, was an independent-minded young woman, who edited the magazine Asia, and traveled through the Middle East and Asia. There was meeting of hearts and minds, and Boshi and Gertrude married. They settled in Almora, in the Himalayas, near one of Vivekanand’s ashrams. Here, Boshi set up the Vivekanand Laboratory. He lived there till his death, continuing his experiments on plants. Gertrude stayed on, a benign presence till her death in 1982.
The Sen’s home, Kundun House, became a magnet for all those living in Almora, or just passing through. The high and mighty, and the low and ordinary, were treated with equal courtesy and regard. They included the likes of Uday Shankar, Lama Angarika Govinda, Julian Huxley and, occasionally, former jailbirds like Jawaharlal Nehru. Mehra ably documents this interaction of interesting minds and ideas.
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