My Year in Calcutta: Memories of the Saha Institute in the sixties
Points of View:
Fifty years ago, I spent a year (1962-63) in Calcutta, India, as a student in a post-MSc course at the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics. This remains my only visit to Calcutta, so my memories are encased in a time-capsule of that place and period. That year was important in setting me on my later career path. Today, in my season of reminiscences, I have the desire to record my Calcutta experience, before my memory begins to fade or to embellish.
I studied physics in Panjab University in Chandigarh, where I obtained my MSc in 1961. Immediately after graduation, I was appointed lecturer in the university's physics department. My ambition was to spend a couple of years gaining teaching experience and then to proceed to the US to earn a PhD.
My plans received a bit of a jolt as a result of a chance encounter with Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. The famous physicist came to Chandigarh for a day, presumably on the invitation of S. K. Trehan, a former student of his at the University of Chicago. Throughout that afternoon, he seemed to be in a very uncommunicative mood. But later, over dinner, he started to say what was on his mind. He had travelled to many places in India, he said, and had liked certain things, including the Atomic Energy Establishment in Trombay and the Bhakra-Nangal dam. But he was distressed that the one area of Indian society that had made absolutely no progress since his last visit was Indian higher education.
The standards were atrocious, he said. He gave the example of a university he had visited where he had met a student working on a PhD in theoretical physics. He said, "the man had never heard of the book by Morse and Feschbach. In Chicago you would not be allowed to start a thesis in theoretical physics until you had mastered the two volumes of Morse and Feschbach." When I heard that, the first thought that crossed my mind was, Thank God I am not going to be a theoretical physicist. The second thought was, If the standards in the US are so high, maybe I am being foolish to think of going there in my present state of unpreparedness. I decided to give up the job in Chandigarh and to go to Calcutta for the one-year post-MSc course in nuclear physics offered at the Saha Institute.
On arrival in Calcutta, my first sensation was of heat and humidity. On the drive from Sealdah railway station to the Institute, we passed a long stretch of pavement dwellings where people in rags lived next to piles of garbage. It was a distressing sight, and it revived my memory of the Partition of India in 1947.
Before the Partition, my family had a home and led a genteel existence in Lahore. When the city became part of the new country of Pakistan on 14 August 1947, riots broke out among Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. Fearing for our lives and taking with us only two bags and bedding, we fled. At the station where we arrived on the Indian side of the border, a chaotic mass of people lay sprawled on the platforms. Distraught families sought news of loved ones left behind. Trains rolled in with people clinging to the sides and roof, bringing fresh tales of horror. Outside the station, there was a hopelessly tangled melee of horse-drawn carts and automobiles. Like everyone else around us, we had, overnight, turned into refugees (later to be called displaced persons).
But we were among the lucky ones. My father could eventually resume his government job, and I was fortunate to get a good education. The pavement-dwellers who made their way to Calcutta were less fortunate. Uprooted by forces both human and natural, they had nowhere to go and had become permanently displaced.
Entering the compound of the Saha Institute was like drawing a breath of fresh air. It was quiet and shaded, and there was an atmosphere of tradition and learning. The building was weather-beaten and signs of decay were apparent, but the pictures on the walls testified that Meghnad Saha, Satyendranath Bose, C. V. Raman, and other great scientists had walked the same corridors and grounds. The institute abutted the science college of Calcutta University. Around the corner was the museum named after Jagdish Chandra Bose, who contributions to science and engineering were remarkable for their variety and significance.
My fellow post-MSc students and I resided in a hostel next to the institute. We students managed the kitchen ourselves, although two cooks were provided, who prepared the food according to our wishes.
One thing I noticed immediately in Calcutta is the love and pride that the local people felt for the Bengali language. They spoke with an innate courtesy and grace.
Too, I soon became conscious of their rich tradition in literature and music. The influence of poet, composer, and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore was everywhere. The sound of his Rabindra Sangeet songs wafted through the air every morning. The billboards proclaimed an abundance of theater and film. Bengali culture revealed itself in an aesthetic sense for color and in the simplicity and elegance of dress and ornamentation.
At first, I ventured out of the institute premises hesitantly. I went to a barbershop for a haircut. The barber tried to bring me up to date on the latest gossip and scandal, and to convey his unvarnished view of the local politicians. I did not have the heart to tell him that I did was not fluent in Bengali and could not understand much of what he said. I then visited a coffee shop. A group of young students were discussing something with great intensity. I could gather that they were talking about politics and a publication. At one point, I was startled when I heard one of them make a remark about the "Dirac gamma matrix." These were apparently advanced students from the University of Calcutta's science college.
The post-MSc course itself was a smorgasbord of lectures on special topics. Theoretical subjects were covered by M. K. Pal and T. Pradhan. My textbooks included Melvin Preston's Physics of the Nucleus, John Blatt and Victor Weisskopf's Theoretical Nuclear Physics, and Robley Evans's The Atomic Nucleus. A short course called Nuclear Electronics was taught by a lecturer who went to great pains to explain the working of a pulse height analyzer. I had a sense of achievement when I finally understood that electronic circuit. A seminar, conducted by S. Chatterjee, required students to prepare talks on different topics. I gave a talk on nuclear radii, which people seemed to like. I was discovering that my year of teaching in Chandigarh had sharpened my ability to present ideas.
There was also a lab course in which students measured spectra from a radioactive source. I remember sitting in front of a cathode-ray oscilloscope, fascinated that the signals I was measuring contained a message from an atomic nucleus that was a hundred thousand times smaller than the atom. I would get so immersed in such thoughts that I lost track of time. The lab supervisor (I think his name was Jagdish) had to come and tell me that it was time to close the lab.
In general, I noticed that my fellow students had less interest in experiment than they had in theory. The lab was sparsely attended, many preferring to spend the time in the coffee house. Some of these delinquents received their comeuppance some weeks later when the lab course ended. The radiation badges we wore in the lab were collected for measurement of the dosage received. My badge showed normal levels. But a couple of people who had scarcely shown up had dangerously high levels. They were forced to admit that they seldom came to the lab and had simply dumped the badges in a drawer where they had been absorbing radiation continuously.
I remember an oral exam given by the institute's director, B. D. Nag. It was in his office, and he was accompanied by two young assistants. The atmosphere was relaxed and cordial. Nag asked me if I knew something about the Mössbauer effect. Fortunately, I had read an article on this effect a year earlier, in October 1961, when Rudolf Mössbauer's Nobel prize had been announced. But I was not sure that I could recall the details. I went to the blackboard and wrote down a couple of equations (Doppler effect, energy-momentum conservation). I combined the equations and shuffled the terms. There were a lot of cancellations, and when the dust settled, out popped the Mössbauer formula.
Everyone in the room was taken aback. The examiners stared at the blackboard, then stared at me, and finally stared at each other. They were impressed. When I left the office, I was still puzzling over that Mössbauer result. How did it come to me so easily? I went over the steps in my head and discovered, with a shock, that I had at one point written a factor upside-down (a/b instead of b/a). In some strange way, that error had contributed to the brevity and elegance of my derivation.
Whenever I recall that episode, I am reminded of the story that Murray Gell-Mann tells about being a graduate student at MIT. His mentor, Viki Weisskopf, was at the blackboard trying to derive the Breit-Wigner formula. He started out confidently, but soon ran into heavy weather. Using all the intuition for which he was famous he managed to derive the answer. There was just one problem: The Breit-Wigner formula was upside-down.
Apart from attending courses, much of my time was taken up with correspondence with universities in the US. From November 1962 onward, I wrote applications to six or seven graduate schools. It was an arduous process, filling out forms, getting attested copies of certificates, and requesting recommendation letters. Even after posting a letter, one worried about the postal service—whether a letter had reached its destination, and when to expect a reply. Imagine my surprise and delight when one day I received a message from the local post office which said the following: "You have recently posted a letter to the following address in the USA . . . The letter did not have the required amount of postage. To avoid delay and inconvenience, we have affixed the extra postage needed, and sent the letter on its way. Please go to the nearest post office and deposit 25 nP." I remain beholden to the unknown postal official for his act of courtesy and thoughtfulness. You will never hear from me a negative remark about the Calcutta postal service.
Most of the universities to which I applied required applicants to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), which then, as now, was conducted by the Educational Testing Service. The results were to be transmitted directly from Princeton, New Jersey, to the university. One of India's GRE test administration centers was the US Information Service in Calcutta. It was my first experience of a multiple-choice test. The results came three months later in January 1963. I had a score of 99% in the physics test. It was a thrill and a boost to my morale. The result gave me assurance that I would be able to hold my own among American students. Chandrasekhar's dire words notwithstanding, I had nothing to fear.
Not unexpectedly, I received an offer of acceptance a month later. A letter from Carnegie Institute of Technology said they were offering me a fellowship that would cover my tuition and living expenses, an offer that I accepted. Shortly afterward, I applied to the US Educational Foundation for a Fulbright travel grant. The interview took place in Calcutta, and I was accepted. The grant paid for my travel expenses both ways. The travel arrangements were to be made by the Foundation. There was a condition attached that the recipient of the grant had to return to India on completion of studies. That was fine with me!
Now that this major challenge was over, I started to explore Calcutta a little more.
Billboards were heralding the movie Saat Paake Bandha, and I decided to see it. Not knowing Bengali was a handicap, but watching the actress Suchitra Sen was unforgettable.
I also made a point of seeing a film made by Satyajit Ray, a Calcutta native and arguably India's most accomplished film maker. I think it was Aparajito.
I was becoming more confident about using the tram services to navigate Calcutta. A few times I went to the central district of Chowringhee just to savor some rasgulla (syrup-infused cheese dumplings) and ras malai (fresh sweetened cheese soaked in thick cardamom-flavored cream) at a famous shop. I would take a stroll down Park Street. On one occasion, I stopped at a bar from which emanated the sound of western music. Peeping inside the curtained door, I saw a crooner singing English songs to the accompaniment of a live band. The lighting in the room was pale yellow. People at the tables seemed to have pale yellow faces, with pale yellow eyes staring into glasses with a pale yellow liquid.
I also chanced to meet an acquaintance who had been a classmate in high school and had studied physics in Chandigarh. He said he was working in a British bank in Calcutta. His salary was two or three times what he would have earned as a lecturer. He had to wear a tie to the office. He was not supposed to use public transportation, and used only a taxi to get around. I decided that his was not the profession for me; I was glad to be going on to my doctoral studies.
Festivals are inseparable from life in Calcutta. One I remember was a Bengali ritual connected with kite flying. The sight of kites in the sky transported me to my childhood in Lahore when, during a similar festival, the sky used to be resplendent with kites cavorting, darting, diving, and doing battle. I could not resist buying a couple of kites and some string and going to the roof of the hostel building, much to the bemusement of the residents. Soon I had a kite fluttering in the air, provoking the kites in the vicinity. One large kite decided to deal with the upstart. It swooped low and encircled my kite. The tangle lasted 30 seconds, at which point I ran out of string.
Life in the hostel had its charms. One month, I took over the management of the kitchen. The main challenge was to take care of the culinary preferences of the Bengali, South Indian, and North Indian residents in an equitable way. The food budget had to be kept to a limit of 80 rupees
a month (the stipend was 200 rupees). To keep track of expenses, I once accompanied the cooks on their grocery shopping trip, which included going to the fish market. The experience was less than edifying. The ground was slushy from the iced water in which the fish were preserved, and my shoes reeked of fish for days afterward. However, I must have made a reasonable manager, because I was asked to continue for a second month.
The course was coming to an end. The last part was a dissertation, in which I was to summarize a review article. My topic was the analysis of gamma decay data. I used as a reference an article in Fay Ajzenberg-Selove's Nuclear Spectroscopy.
When it was time to say goodbye, it was a wrenching experience. I had grown to like the institute and Bengali culture. People had been friendly and had treated me with respect. Without the option of going to the US, I may well have decided to stay at the Saha Institute and work toward a doctorate. I probably would have learned Bengali in a few months more. The one thing that might have deterred me was that I had begun losing hair at an alarming rate. I worried about acquiring the broad forehead and receding hairline that I saw in several of my Bengali colleagues.
But those concerns became irrelevant. Destiny had decided that my future was elsewhere. On 27 July 1963 I arrived at Bombay harbor to catch my ship. It was my 23rd birthday. My family had accompanied me from Delhi. My mother brought along some homemade sweets. An aunt residing in Bombay came to the harbor with her children. Also present was an uncle, who was a director in the Bombay film industry, together with his family. My ship, the SS Orsova of the Orient Line, was already in dock. The arrangements had all been taken care of by the US Educational Foundation. There were no tearful scenes. I remember only smiles and laughter.
As I walked up the ramp to board the ship, the thought did occur to me that it would be five years before I saw the family again. But I brushed such sentiments aside. I was eager to embrace the adventure ahead. The year in Calcutta had restored my optimism.
Lalit Sehgal lives in Aachen, Germany.