Look back as you rush ahead

| July 18, 2015 | 0 Comments

Look back as you rush ahead

Published in: The Tribune, Aug. 24, 2000

by Puspa M. Bhargava

ON a rainy morning in November, 1963, my wife and I drive into Salem from Cape Comorin, on our way to Hyderabad. One of the wipers of our car had given way on the way. The weather had almost cleared and there was only a trace of a drizzle — as we drove by a garage. The person in-charge was extremely polite and, suggested that we should go and have our breakfast and by that he would fix the wipers. He also offered to get the car cleaned, if we would leave the keys with him. We hesitated for one fleeting moment and then handed over the keys of the loaded car with unlocked suitcases and all our money and papers in them. We were given an escort and two umbrellas to reach the restaurant. Inspite of our telling our escort that we would find our way back, we found him waiting as we came out after our breakfast. The car was spic and span, the wiper fixed and working. A bill of Rs 7 which was the list price of the wiper was all that was given to us.

A few years later, my wife and I were driving back from Madras, and had planned to spend the night at Guntur. About 40 km south of Guntur, it started raining heavily. Soon, we crossed a causeway with just a few inches of water over it. A kilometre or two later we had a flat tyre. As we finished replacing the tyre, a car came from the opposite direction and stopped to enquire where we were going. We said that our immediate destination was Guntur. They gave us the information that just before Guntur a bridge was being constructed for which diversion had been created. A truck had overturned on the diversion and blocked the road from both sides. They too were going to Guntur but had to come back. We decided to take another route to Guntur for which we had to go back and cross the causeway again. But we could not cross it as the water had risen several feet.

The occupants of the car who had told us about the problem near Guntur had also mentioned a village nearby and said that they were going to spend the night there. We also found our way to the village where we were met by a number of inquisitive people. There was the language barrier but we managed to communicate. The villagers were extremely helpful. There was a dharmashala and we were welcome to use it. We went to the dharmashala and parked ourselves on the floor in its hall. A little later two thalis of food arrived, when we made the mistake of asking if we could compensate them in any way for the food and the facilities. We had forgotten that hospitality towards needy strangers has been an integral part of the traditions of our country.

These incidents took place some three decades ago. Going back further in time, let us look at the incidence of murder, rape and robbery five decades ago and compare it with what we have today. In 1953 we had 9,802 murders, and perhaps less than 600 cases of rape in the entire country. Some 40 years later, that is in 1993, we had 38,240 murders and 12,218 cases of rape. Even taking into account that our population had grown roughly two-and-a-half times during this period, the increase in such grave crime is substantial. Bride-burning was unknown in our country till 1950. Rape has increased well over 25 times since Independence while our population has increased only three times.

The loss of traditional values like the ones cited above could indeed be a consequence of increased awareness of human rights without concurrent provision of equal opportunities. The British had realised that, from the point of view of governance, lack of awareness of basic human rights coupled with lack of opportunities is better than awareness of human rights with the same lack of opportunities.

Let us go back further into history. A great deal of what is recorded in our ancient history would not stand the scrutiny of modern science-based knowledge. Yet what has been recorded by our ancestors, at least from the Vedic period onwards and has been shown to be valid using stringent internationally accepted criteria of validity, is extremely impressive. Our expertise, from the time of the Harappan civilisation onwards, in diverse areas such as metallurgy, astronomy, surgery, agriculture, perfumery, medicine and mathematics, to name a few, is well documented. It is, therefore, pertinent to ask what were the reasons of our successes in science and technology in the early period of our history, just as we must understand why during the same period we also perpetrated and advocated so many scientific untruths with religious fervour and dogmatic certainty.

Let me answer one of the two questions: the basis of our success in science and technology in ancient and medieval India. It was simple, “observation”. Our ancestors were compulsive observers. Nothing escaped their notice, no matter how trivial it might seem to the uninitiated. They also recorded their observations faithfully and accurately. We can learn more by observation than by formal education, if only we know how to observe and take note. We have simply lost this ability as a nation. First, we are not interested in observing. Secondly, we rarely record our observations with the objectivity of our ancestors. We see what we want to see, and record what is most beneficial for us to record. With the lack of this quality, we cannot be a nation of outstanding scientists.

Lastly a word about our legends. Just look at one element of commonality between the two epics, Ramayana and Mahabharat, which have shaped our lives over the millennia. I wonder how many of those who pay lip-homage to these two wonderful books, realise that many of the major events in these books have centred around the absolute importance of keeping one’s word. There would have been no banvas for Ram if it was not a religion for the rulers of that time to keep their word, and there would have been no Draupadi Cheeraharan if a word given by one in a closely knit group of five would not have bound all of them. For what percentage of our population today, specially the privileged ones, is a promise made a promise kept?

One of the most dismaying aspects of the present-day situation in the country is that we have history as no other country has, but we have the least sense of history among the countries of the world. We have never looked back as a nation at what is relevant and permanent in terms of values in our heritage and we have never taken the challenge of marrying these values with the compulsions of the time and the social and scientific advances that have taken place. We have all the ingredients of a new fabric that we and we alone in the world can weave — a fabric woven with threads of ancient history and of modern science, and dyed with the permanent and fast colour of traditional values validated and enriched by science. Such a fabric is what the world would need to protect itself against the onslaught of the devils of today and tomorrow.

Will we succeed? That is the question.

A Padma Bhushan awardee, the writer is founder and former Director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad. He is also a CSIR distinguished fellow.

Look back as you rush ahead. Pushpa M. Bhargava, The Tribune, Aug. 24, 2000.

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