Tributes: a polymath, a Buddhist scholar, a filmmaker and a SF writer

The magazine edition of the Hindu today contains (quite unplanned I suppose), tributes to several interesting people.

  • Ramachandra Guha pays his tributes to the polymath Damodar D Kosambi, and his father and Buddhist scholar Dharmanand Kosambi:

    A friend who lives in Goa writes to say that he is greatly enjoying the series of lectures being organised there to commemorate the centenary of the polymathic scholar D.D. Kosambi. The historian Romilla Thapar had spoken in the series, as had the jo urnalist P. Sainath; two Indians one thinks the notoriously judgmental Kosambi would have approved of, both for the depth of their research and the commitment to their craft.

    Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi was a remarkable man. Trained as a mathematician, he then went on to train himself as a historian. His day job was as a Professor of Mathematics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. On the train up and down from Poona (where he lived), and during the evenings, nights, and weekends, he gathered the materials to write some pioneering works of historical scholarship, among them A Study of Indian History and The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline.

    Among the community of Indian historians there is almost a “Kosambi cult” in operation. It is good that the civil society of Goa is joining academics elsewhere in India in paying tribute to his memory. But mostly forgotten in the meantime is a Kosambi who was perhaps an even more remarkable man. This was the historian’s own father, Dharmanand.

    I first heard of Dharmanand Kosambi from a friend who taught for many years at the University of California at Berkeley and is arguably the greatest living scholar of Jainism. His name is Padmanabha Jaini. It was in Berkeley on a cold January afternoon, years ago, that Professor Jaini acquainted me with the elements of Kosambi pére’s life. As a young man he felt the urge to learn Sanskrit; finding the urge irresistible, he left his wife and baby boy to go to Poona and study with the great Sanskrit scholar R.G. Bhandarkar. His studies inculcated further desires and ambitions; among them to make a deeper acquaintance with Buddhism. He travelled around the country, spending time in Baudh Gaya, in Sarnath, and in Kausambhi, near Allahabad, where the Buddha lived after attaining enlightenment. It was from this last place that he took the name by which he and his son came to be known. So far as I know, this remains the only “Kosambi” family in Goa, India, or the world.

    Dharmanand Kosambi spent a decade in the United States, in which time his son studied mathematics at Boston University (to add to the Sanskrit and Pali that he learnt at home). Reading about Gandhi’s movement made the senior Kosambi turn his back on America (and the scholarly study of Buddhism) to return to India and court arrest during the Salt Satyagraha. He was deeply attached to Gandhi; when the Mahatma moved to Wardha in 1934, Dharmanand Kosambi moved with him too. When I visited the ashram in Sewagram some years ago, an elderly (and knowledgeable) guide showed me the hut Gandhi lived in, as well as the huts occupied by his closest associates, such as Mahadev Desai and Mira Behn (Madeleine Slade). Then he pointed to a structure, as modest as the others, which he called “Professor Sahib Ki Kutir”. This was where the one-time Goan, Buddhist scholar, and Harvard academic had spent his last years.

    Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this most remarkable man concerns the manner of his death. In the summer of 1947, with the country on the eve of independence, Dharmanand Kosambi decided he did not need to live any more. So, in the hallowed Buddhist tradition, he simply fasted to death.

  • Pradeep Sebastian’s interview with Pico Iyer is a tribute to Anthony Minghella, a filmmaker who passed away recently:

    When a long-time editor at Time Magazine asked Pico Iyer recently to name all the people in the world he would be interested in interviewing, he named only two: Orhan Pamuk and Anthony Minghella. For Iyer, Minghella had been a hero, a one-of-a-kind filmmaker. The one director Iyer wanted adapting his novel, Abandon, for the screen. I knew all this, so when I first heard about Minghella’s death, I thought at once of Pico. In the past, we had often spoken of how much both of us loved Minghella’s first film (with its lovely title) “Truly, Madly, Deeply”.

    He had told me once that after seeing “The English Patient”, he had been inspired to write the kind of fiction Minghella would have delighted in. I have no way of knowing if the filmmaker did read Iyer’s beautiful and radiant novel, but I have often fantasised about bringing it to Minghella’s attention. I would say, handing Abandon over to him, “Here is the book you have been looking for, stop looking elsewhere.”

    Minghella’s most underrated film is “The Talented Mr. Ripley”. It is a film I have come to admire more and more, though Pico himself thinks it an interesting failure. (While telling me once, “Minghella’s failures are more interesting than most people’s successes.”) The week before he died, Anthony Minghella had just completed making a television film of Alexander McCall Smith’s The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency for HBO and BBC.

  • Nalaka Gunawardane pays his tributes to Arthur C Clarke:

    “Do you know about the only man to light a cigarette from a nuclear explosion?” Sir Arthur C. Clarke was fond of asking his visitors a few years ago.

    Clarke, the celebrated science fiction writer and space visionary who died on March 19 aged 90, loved to ask such baffling questions.

    In this instance, the answer was Theodore (Ted) Taylor, a leading American nuclear scientist who designed atomic weapons in the 1950s and 1960s. Apparently, he just held up a small parabolic mirror during a nuclear test — the giant fireball was 12 miles away — and turned light into heat.

    “The moment I heard this, I wrote to Taylor, saying ‘Don’t you know smoking is bad for your health?’” Clarke added with a chuckle.

    In fact, he took an extremely dim view of both smoking and nuclear weapons, and wanted to see them outlawed. But he was aware that both tobacco and nukes formed strong addictions that individuals and nations found hard to kick.

    Years ago, Clarke had coined the slogan “Guns are the crutches of the impotent”. In later years, he added a corollary: “High tech weapons are the crutches of impotent nations; nukes are just the decorative chromium plating.”

Happy reading!

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One Response to “Tributes: a polymath, a Buddhist scholar, a filmmaker and a SF writer”

  1. Dharmanand Kosambi: continued « Entertaining Research Says:

    […] Kosambi: continued Ram Guha’s piece on Dharmanand Kosambi that I liked to a fortnight ago has become the first of a series; in the latest Sunday magazine edition of the Hindu, Guha writes […]

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