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Open Features: One Of His Kind - Alive Or Dead

Hariharan Balakrishnan has an "encounter'' with J B S Haldane, an incorrigibly optimistic English scientist who abandoned his native land in protest and emigrated to India.

J B S Haldane, like R K Narayan, was one of the best of his genre to have never got a Nobel Prize. He made India his home from 1957, after emigrating from Britain in protest against his country’s policy regarding the Suez Canal. He was invited by P C Mahalanobis to join him in setting up the Indian Statistical Institute in Calcutta. This Scottish genius later shifted to Bhubaneswar at the invitation of Orissa’s Chief Minister Biju Patnaik in the early 1960s.

In 1962, on the threshold of my teens, I was told about this great man by my father, who had great hopes of my scientific talents. He had met Haldane, and became a great admirer of the man. Ever since, though I never became a scientist, I often thought of writing about Haldane. Now the time has come. How?

A couple of months ago, I was at Kakinada visiting Dr. Ravi Vadrevu who is doing yeoman’s service for HIV afflicted people. There I met Dr. Azad Khan from Amsterdam who had come on a visit in connection with his Good Samaritan work in that region. Over a beer, when we chatted about topics of mutual interest, the conversation veered to Haldane. Suddenly, his face lit up and Azad asked, “Do you know that Haldane’s skeleton and body parts are still preserved?”

“Really? Where?” I asked in astonishment.

“Right here- hardly two km away”, he said.

Azad’s father was a brilliant student of the King George Medical College in Vizag. J B S spotted him in the group of students who interacted with him, and later mentored and funded him for his research in the Netherlands.

Next morning, we set off to Rangaraya Medical College. True enough, there was a glass enclosure right in front of the Anatomy department. It was the “J B S Haldane Museum” and contained his complete skeleton, liver, kidney and internal organs in good preservation- full forty seven years after he passed on. These have been kept for “future research” as per his last wish. Alongside was a teak plaque with the poem “Cancer is a funny thing”, which he wrote soon after the diagnosis while he was in the US. Part of it went like this:

….I noticed I was passing blood
(Only a few drops, not a flood).
So pausing on my homeward way
From Tallahassee to Bombay
I asked a doctor, now my friend,
To peer into my hinder end,
To prove or disprove the rumour
That I had a malignant tumour….

(Before they did so, some good pal
Had knocked me out with pentothal,
Whose action is extremely quick,
And does not leave me feeling sick.)
The microscope returned the answer
That I had certainly got cancer….

I marveled at the man and his life- no less about his death and after….

Haldane was an incorrigible optimist who could laugh at himself and the world. During his lifetime, he had running battles with theologists, governments, the media and conventional wisdom on many fronts. His contribution to human genetics was legendary, as was his very human sense of humour.

He was a maverick of the first order, and was always on the move- physically and intellectually. He was an ardent member of the British Communist Party and was once considered for contesting for Parliament. Later, he was disillusioned with the ideology when the iron fist of Stalin and his oppression against his own people was exposed to the world. Essentially, he was a gentleman to the fingertips, with a tremendous sense of duty to science.


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