Four Angels

Nonfiction by Shiv Dutta

Four angelsProfessor J.B.S. Haldane, a world famous British-born geneticist and evolutionary biologist, a Fellow of the Royal Society of London with Oxford and Cambridge University affiliations, had permanently moved to India in 1956 and joined the Indian Statistical Institute in Barrackpore, West Bengal as a Research Scientist. Barrackpore is about 375 miles southeast of Laheriasarai where I lived. I had a break during my undergraduate schooling in 1961 and was having a terrible time due to a series of unfortunate circumstances in my academic and personal life. I had nothing much to keep myself occupied with except for the fear of depression that threatened to destabilize my life. In my youthful naïveté, with slender hope of hearing back from this giant of a scientist, I penned Prof. Haldane a letter explaining my sorry situation. Using an address I guessed from the newspaper accounts about him, I trudged to our local post office and dropped the letter in the outgoing mailbox.

“Could you please suggest some simple projects I could take on to keep myself engaged?” I asked.

A few days passed but no reply, and I started to wonder if the address was correct. I earnestly hoped he hadn’t trashed my letter. My impatience didn’t allow me to consider the possibility that he might just be busy, world-renowned scientist that he was.

*

Almost three weeks later, when my hopes had all but evaporated, the mailman left an envelope, addressed to me, in our mailbox. A glance at the return address sent me reeling with ecstasy:

Prof. J.B.S. Haldane, F.R.S.

18/1 Barrackpore Trunk Road

P.O. Belghoria

West Bengal

I rushed open the envelope. There was a letter inside, a full one-pager, typed single-spaced on both sides, and it started off (verbatim):

“Unfortunately your signature is not clear. So this letter may not reach you. P.O. Belghoria is somewhat inadequate, but your letter reached me.”

He went on to give me some advice on how I could use my year of hiatus to enhance my knowledge of physics and mathematics.

“But you’ll not learn science by reading books,” he warned.

He suggested an experiment that would not only teach me elementary statistics but also serve me well if I ever found myself needing to count alpha particles in nuclear physics experiments. The project required no apparatus or experimental setup and depended only on the time and efforts I was willing to invest.

“Find two or three jasmine bushes. You’ll see the number of petals in the flowers is variable. Collect flowers during a week or so, and count the number of petals in each of them. Do this every week through a flowering season, or two.”

He asked me to get back to him in a month or so, or when I had worked with a thousand flowers; he’d then tell me what to do next.

I couldn’t believe my good fortune. For a beleaguered teenager from an impoverished family in an obscure little corner in India, it was an incredible windfall to land a world famous scientist as a mentor.

It took me about six weeks to be ready with a set of data for Prof. Haldane. I counted the petals in more than a thousand flowers. In addition to jasmine, the flower he had suggested, I also worked with pink begonias, red peonies, golden marigold, and white roses, all readily available in our garden. I reasoned if the focus was on counting the number of petals, any flower with petals should work. After arranging the data in a structured tabular form, I sent it off to Prof. Haldane and waited. His response came a few days later. Using the numbers in the Table, he computed the mean, the variance, the standard deviation and skewness, terms I wasn’t familiar with at the time but would often use in my later life.

“Get hold of a book on statistics and see what more you could do with your data,” he suggested. “If you can make observations of this sort on several bushes through a season, you may have enough for a short scientific paper.”

Spurred on by Prof. Haldane’s inspiration, I continued my research with more vigor and enthusiasm. I made my observations on several bushes, and when I was done, I wrote a short paper and had it reviewed by Prof. Haldane. The paper eventually found a place in a science magazine.

*

Three years later in 1964, I moved to Kolkata for graduate studies in physics. During this phase, I often found myself needing to count the number of alpha particles in nuclear physics experiments, and I remembered the flower petals. Mean, variance, standard deviation, and skewness, esoteric words when Prof. Haldane had first used them, were now part of my everyday lingo.

I had not met Prof. Haldane, but since I was in Kolkata, not too far from Bhubaneswar (where he had moved and was working then), I planned to take a train and finally meet him.

“Are you going to be in town during Christmas?” I asked him in a letter about a month before the holidays. “I’d like to come and meet with you.”

“Yes. I look forward to meeting with you too,” Prof. Haldane wrote back.

I got goose bumps thinking about finally shaking Prof. Haldane’s hand in a few weeks. My mind swirled with anticipation. Would he be as congenial in person as he was in his letters? What would his voice sound like? Did he have a sense of humor? Would we be talking about his research or his life in India or both? The more I thought about him, the more I wanted to know what he was like in person.

But a few days before I was to see him, even as I was packing and making travel plans, he passed away. Suddenly I felt as if I was back in the dark days of early 1961 when I had found myself swamped by unexpected miseries in my academic and personal life with no support as my anchor. He had had a year-long battle with rectal cancer that I wasn’t aware of. He never told me anything about it. Maybe he didn’t want to freight me with the tale of his own adversity while he was trying to alleviate mine.

A few years later I would be in the United States, pursuing a Ph.D. degree in physics at Ohio University. A “Thank You” card hung from the wall above my study desk. I would often wistfully stare at it and remember a long gone period in my life. I had meant to give this card to Prof. Haldane during our planned meeting. The card bore the following message from me to him: “Thank you for your solace and support which pulled me through a very difficult time in my life. The sense of discipline and dedication you inculcated in me will get me through any research project, however daunting, I may choose to undertake in future.”

*

Paul Adams, a middle-aged French Buddhist from Paris, in search of a quiet sanctuary to practice his religion among kindred souls, had, in early 1960, settled in Darbhanga in northern India, about five miles north of Laheriasarai where I lived. Over six feet tall with shaven head, broad shoulders and a slight stoop, and always dressed in saffron monkish robe, he was a professor of French at the same college as one of my undergraduate English professors who was fond of me and knew about my keen desire to learn French. One day, in late 1961, I knocked on Paul Adam’s door with my English professor’s letter of recommendation and my long frustrations over my inability to understand Somerset Maugham’s literary writings that were often strewn with sprinklings of French. He readily took me on as his protégé.

For my twice-weekly lessons, each of which took place in the evenings and lasted about two hours, I took a notebook along, in which Paul wrote copious notes. In between, he broke for his dinner which was always the same: four chapattis and a bowlful of bland cauliflower curry. He had an Indian caretaker who cooked his meals and took care of his house. Paul and I made small talk as he gleefully munched.

During the lessons, Paul always spoke to me in French although he knew I wouldn’t understand half of what he said. In retrospect, it seems to have been a deliberate strategy on his part to ground me in conversational French, which I would sometimes find myself needing in later years.

By the time the lessons were over, it was quite late, and the roads were dark and deserted. The stillness of the night was occasionally punctuated by the raucous barks of stray dogs, accompanied sometimes by some shrill sounds which I couldn’t always recognize. Riding my bicycle on those dark and deserted roads made my hands cold and my legs shaky, but Paul’s encouragement and devotion, more than my own resolve, were enough to soften the fears that often frazzled my nerves on those uneasy nights.

The lessons continued even after I moved a year later to attend an out-of-town college because I often visited home during school breaks and weekends. But, after I moved to Kolkata for graduate studies, the distance made it impossible to continue. Still, whenever I went home to Laheriasarai, I often visited him. Thanks to him, I could already read and write French and speak some.

During one such visit one evening, more than four years since we first met, I found the door to Paul’s house locked and the lights out. I asked his caretaker, who lived behind his house, about Paul’s whereabouts.

“Paul went back to Paris a few weeks ago,” he said apologetically.

“When will he be back?”

“I don’t know, he said he may never come back,” he said, a tinge of sadness in his voice.

“Do you know why he went?”

He shook his head.

“Do you have his address or phone number?”

“No, he didn’t leave any of that.”

As I sluggishly pedaled back home from Paul’s house that cold winter night, myriad questions churned: What could have suddenly pulled Paul back to Paris? A call of duty? Pangs of nostalgia? Agony of loneliness in a foreign land?

I don’t know if Paul ever made it back to Darbhanga, or, for that matter, to some other sanctuary in India. During the few times I visited home afterward, I did try to see him, but he wasn’t back. In the meantime, I had started to read some of Somerset Maugham’s novels all over again: Of Human Bondage, The Moon and Six Pence, The Painted Veil, Cakes and Ale, and The Razor’s Edge. This time I could easily sail through the French expressions that once had stymied me.

Years later I’d become a full-time writer, and whenever the opportunity arose, I would sprinkle these writings with smatterings of French. I wished I could show some of these writings to Paul and thank him for his gift. Every time I delve back into memory of those lesson nights, I see his six-feet-plus frame with a slight stoop wrapped around in saffron robe; I see him hunched over my notebook. I see and hear him munching chapatti and cauliflower, and I hear the echoes of his deep resonant voice as he merrily went on mouthing another lesson for me.

*

I didn’t know Sujon until I joined the Ph.D. program at Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science (IACS) in Kolkata in early 1967. IACS was an institution of full-time research scientists, and aspiring scientists who sought Ph.D. degrees in the physical sciences. I had finished a master’s degree in physics from Jadavpur University about six months earlier. The employment situation in India for people with my kind of education was dismal at the time, and the few places I tried my luck at, save for one with unacceptable working conditions, led to naught. Joining the Ph.D. program at IACS was my way of biding time until something better turned up although I had no idea what that might be. Both Sujon, who had joined the same Ph.D. program the year before, and I were Research Associates in the Department of Theoretical Physics. The position came with a monthly stipend of Rs. 250 (about $4 then).

A few days after joining IACS, I noticed something interesting about Sujon. Every day, at the start of the lunch break, Sujon would leave the department, carrying a handful of 9” x 11” brown envelopes, and when he returned, those envelopes were no longer with him. My curious eyes observed this pattern the next few days. Although I didn’t know Sujon well yet, and it’d be downright impolite to ask him personal questions, one day my burning inquisitiveness got the better of me.

“Would it be too personal to ask you where you go with a bunch of envelopes during the lunch break?”

Instead of being miffed, Sujon gladly answered my question. He was applying to a number of graduate schools in Canada and the U.S. for a scholarship to pursue a Ph.D. degree in physics. Those brown envelopes contained his applications, and his lunch hour escapade was his trek to the post office.

“You mean to tell me these universities will financially support you while you pursue your degree?”

I was amazed to learn that they did. I was born and raised in a small town in India, and my outlook was necessarily that of a small town boy. Though, from newspapers and radio (we didn’t have a TV yet), I had some knowledge about Canada and the U.S., and how advanced and wealthy these countries were, the possibility of going there was not something I could ever dream. Even if I did manage to get admission to a North American university based on my academic achievements, the prohibitive cost of financing that education didn’t allow me to entertain such an outlandish idea.

Sujon’s revelation opened a whole new world and immediately gave an unfettered ride to my runaway imagination. Suddenly I found myself far beyond the crowded chaos of Kolkata, my joblessness, my family’s poverty, and my uncertain future in India. The inevitable loneliness of leaving my family behind and finding myself in a friendless, culturally alien place didn’t find the tiniest space in my euphoric thoughts. I saw in front of me the glitz and glamour of El Dorado. All I needed was an admission with scholarship in a university, and I would take care of the rest.

A few months after he had started mailing those brown envelopes, offers of admission and scholarship began to pour for Sujon from multiple Canadian and American universities. To say that he was elated would be an understatement. After considerable time figuring out which universities would provide the best opportunity for the kind of research he intended to pursue, Sujon decided on the University of Saskatchewan in Canada.

Soon after Sujon left for Canada in early September 1967, I began my lunch hour treks to the post office. In a few months, I too received offers of admission with scholarship for the 1968 fall session. I didn’t know anyone in North America except Sujon, and nervous about landing in a wholly strange place, I too decided on the University of Saskatchewan. At least there would be one person there whom I’d know.

Sujon and I stayed in regular contact even after our time in Saskatchewan, before our paths diverged because of different professional interests. He moved to Montreal and took up a job with a Canadian utility company, and I moved to the U.S. for further education.

Whenever I think of my life in the U.S., which is often, and the success, opportunities, and comforts I have been blessed with over the years, I am reminded of my serendipitous encounter with Sujon at IACS and his generosity in unlocking the door to what had, until then, been only a magical world for me.

*

It was about eight o’clock one September evening in 1968. I was waiting at Dum Dum airport in Kolkata to catch a flight for Saskatchewan to begin my Ph.D. degree. The airport was rather empty and quiet. Perhaps my flight was the last one to leave that night. My oldest brother, whom we called Dada, was among a handful of people who had come to see me off.

The oldest of my ten siblings, Dada had the mantle of family head thrust on him after our father passed away in 1961. He was still in college, an exceptionally bright student, and looked forward to a promising future with immense possibilities. He could have left home to pursue his dreams but didn’t. Still in his early twenties, this handsome young man of few words, with a florid complexion and a commanding gravitas, decided instead to defer his own dreams and joined the physics faculty of a local college as an instructor. The job did not pay much. He supplemented his income by tutoring a drove of students, crisscrossing the town in bitter winter cold, sweltering summer heat, and gusty monsoon seasons, and with the money he thus made, managed the family expenses, including his siblings’ schooling needs. To see his siblings stand on their own feet one day became the mission of his life. If he was sad or disappointed with himself, he never let on. We were awed by his personality and treated him with godly reverence.

Soon my plane was ready for boarding, and the hugs and good-byes ensued. I hugged Dada last, and as we were holding each other in a tight embrace, I could hear his squelched sobs. Tears were streaming down his cheeks, a sight I had never seen before. To us siblings, he was a strict disciplinarian. If we ever strayed off in our conduct, he never wasted any time to set us straight. Once, when I was ten years old, I had talked back to one of my older sisters and used uncivil language. She squealed on me when Dada came home that night. He had a baton with which he set us straight. That night, the baton came down on me a few times until my eyes welled up with tears. I didn’t protest. I was under the spell of my deep-seated reverence for him. I was not prepared, at the airport, to see such a tough man break down in tears.

As the shuttle took me to the waiting aircraft, he stood by the windows staring at me. After I boarded the plane, he was still staring, his eyes desperately searching, not knowing where I was inside the plane, but I knew where he was. I kept waving at him, aware he could not possibly see me, until the plane began to roll, snailing at first and then picking up speed, Dada reducing to a blur in the distance, and finally disappearing from view. His somber face, pressed against that airport window, following the path of the departing plane, is the last image of him I carried with me as the plane took to the skies.

Twelve years passed. One night in 1980, my wife and I were in our apartment in Hamilton, Canada, talking about our upcoming visit to Kolkata. This would be my first time back to my home country since 1968. Having been mostly on student stipends all these years, and with a family to take care of, a trip to India any earlier was for us a dream that never materialized. Now that I had just started my working life and could stand on my own feet, I was naturally excited about our visit, and a chance to see Dada again since our parting at Dum Dum airport.

We had already finished our shopping for gifts for siblings and hordes of nephews, nieces, and cousins. I had bought a Swiss watch, a tiny Japanese tape recorder, and a German camera for Dada, things I was sure he would like. I was looking forward to the conversations he and I would have, my heartfelt gratitude for his sacrifices, his curiosity about graduate schools in the U.S., his questions about my dissertation and the challenges I had had to face. Just as I was getting up from the sofa to check if I had packed his gifts in the suitcase, the phone rang.

“I’m sorry I’ve some terrible news,” the voice I heard was solemn and subdued. It was my older brother Sanjay, calling from Kolkata.

“What’s it?” my wife asked.

I do not remember how long I had the phone pinned to my ear or what else Sanjay might have said during that telephone call but I do remember I felt the gentle taps of Dada’s fingers on my back from our embrace at Dum Dum airport.

*

Against the backdrop of many friends, relatives and strangers, the faces of these four souls—Prof. Haldane, Paul, Sujon and Dada—who, quietly and unwittingly shaped who I am, loom largest in memory. I wonder how many among us have had the good fortune of such angels.

 

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About Shiv Dutta

Shiv Dutta’s personal essays have appeared in Under the Sun, Tin House, Connotation Press, The Grief Diaries, South85 Journal, River & South Review, The Evansville Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Hippocampus Magazine, Eclectica Magazine, Epiphany, The Evergreen Review, Silk Road Review, Pilgrimage, Front Porch, and other journals. He has also produced forty-five technical papers and two technical books. One of his personal essays was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Silk Road Review. Links to some of his essays can be found on his website, shivdutta.com. Shiv is currently working on a memoir.

Shiv Dutta

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