Indira Chowdhury and Ananya Dasgupta’s book, A Masterful Spirit: Homi J. Bhabha, is mediocre literature but an important work, given that journalistic life accounts of Indian scientists are rare. Bhabha, credited with setting up India’s atomic energy programme, as well as the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), ranks with S.S. Bhatnagar and Vikram Sarabhai as among the pioneers of India’s science endeavours.
Most biographies of Indian scientists are flowery essays usually penned by another scientist; this one too doesn’t read different. The language is dry and it isn’t clear if the authors meant it to be a biography or a medium-sized coffee-table book.
A Masterful Spirit— Homi J Bhabha: Penguin, 258 pages, Rs1,299.
While Vikram Sarabhai: A Life, an earlier book written by Amrita Shah, was a critical exposition of the space scientist, A Masterful Spirit deflects its literary failings with some excellent pictures— mostly of Bhabha’s little known skills as a first-rate artist—and well-chosen, insightful letters with some of the 20th century’s greatest intellectuals, from Paul Dirac to Homi Seervai, a childhood friend and one of India’s most influential jurists. Building almost entirely on archival material, the 258-page book is 95% photographs and letters with chapter-wise introductions that cleave Bhabha’s facets as scientist, student, institution-builder, physicist, artist and connoisseur of Western classical music.
In many ways, Bhabha was similar to 20th century intellectuals such as Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein—wealthy, precocious, Cambridge-educated, with a distaste for business and commerce and in love with pure mathematics and physics.
For a while, Bhabha, influenced by the European art world, considered art as a career. Photographs of sketches and paintings in the book bear testimony to the mastery over brush and easel. Over time, he set about working on the fashionable physics problems of the 1930s and 1940s—cosmic rays and quantum electrodynamics—and continued working on them well into his days at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.
There are several letters about his travels in Europe, the friends he made, and a slight interest in the political situation in India, which was just about getting ready for independence. There is, however, no insight on what prompted this gifted academic (he was nominated twice for the physics Nobel, some letters suggest) to give up the lab and plunge into the task of setting up research institutions.
That he was an excellent negotiator and networker is evident from his close friendship with Nehru and first-name-basis friendships with top scientists of the day, but there’s little information on how Bhabha used these skills to win over political leaders.
Notably, the book lists several short interviews with the first generation of India’s atomic energy scientists. From Anil Kakodkar to N.B. Prasad, several recount their meetings with Bhabha and the awe he inspired in them. Again, most of these interviews are strung together verbatim and contain nothing but praise for Bhabha.
Except for his childhood, there are no other references to his personal life. Why, for instance, didn’t he marry? Was he an atheist, an autocrat? Was he a nitpicker who bordered on the obsessive-compulsive? (He’d drawn plans for the buildings, designed the gardens and chosen the TIFR’s art collection.)
A more critical account might have answered these questions.