Thursday, May 21, 2015

J R Lakshmana Rao, Pioneer of Science Writing in Kannada

This is a translation of an article in Kannada about my father by Sri. T. R. Anantaramu, translated with his permission. Since some friends who do not read Kannada were interested in the English version of the article, I translated it.


This is an incident from 1937. Kuvempu*1 was still in his youth.  Just 32 years young. In the intermediate class of science students, before teaching Raghavanka’s Harischandra Kaavya, he said, “many of you believe that only what is in Gregory and Hodges*2 is science.  That is not right. As a part of the curriculum, two or three branches of science may be prescribed for study. When you take up more advanced studies, it may be limited to just one. But, you should not become a “turtle in the well” by limiting your studies to only that field. You should at least have a broad understanding of the other branches of science. You should understand the expanse of science and imbibe the scientific method. There are books written for laymen, not experts.  By reading such books you can learn about other branches of science.” He showed them the book The Mysterious Universe by Sir James Jeans. “This is a very interesting book. Even people like me can read and understand it”, he said.

We don’t know what impact Kuvempu’s words had on others but one student, J. R. Lakshmana Rao was mesmerised by that talk. That very evening, he went to the bookshops and searched for the book. Apart from the book suggested by Kuvempu, he also bought Sir Arthur Eddington’s Expanding Universe, J. W. N. Sullivan’s The Bases of Modern Science and Julian Huxley’s Essays in Popular Science, for all of two rupees. Lakshmana Rao reminisces now that he read all of them in the next seven or eight weeks. “For me, it was like opening the doors to a new world. He adds, “It was not the science teachers who made me aware of the greatness of the scientific view but the Kannada teacher, Kuvempu”.

Teaching chemistry, grasping the essence of life, creating popular science literature, editing science magazines, creating a dictionary, managing conferences, founding organisations such as the Karnataka Rajya Vijnana Parishat, and along with these nurturing an unshakable belief in Marxism – each one of these were paths he created for himself throughout his life. He asked himself the fundamental question - what kind of science does the common man need - and went on to say some interesting things in answer.

“There is a sort of elitism among many experts who have studied science. They feel that it is beneath them to come down from their ivory towers to the plane of the common man and write and talk about science. Theirs is the dry ideology of “art for art’s sake and science for science’s sake”.  While he cautions them so, he conveys another truth:  “They have not been shaken even by examples such as Einstein, Max Born, Huxley, Haldane and Gamow, who came forward to write for the common man because of their natural broad mindedness.”

Give up Elitism

Like Kuvempu who preached the mantra of scientific thought with the words, “give up temples, churches and masjids, and come out” Lakshmana Rao has swung the whip of righteous anger at researchers with the words, “Give up the elitism of scientists and come out”. He has been constantly calling for science to be taken to the common man. He has not just waited for results while giving that call. “There is science in the dOsé” he said and explained fermentation. He has written about the retrograde movement of planets clearly, in a way understandable even to a school student. Every article he has written in the last fifty years is in this vein. Each one of them could be a model for how popular science should be.

Lakshmana Rao is now 94 years young. Even now he is restless. He translated Arnold Kettle’s work, Karl Marx, The Founder of Modern Communism, at the age of 93. “Is it printed? It is already a month now. Please send me the proofs” - he has prodded the publishers affectionately and has placed a unique work in the hands of Kannadigas.  This Marxist, who has never addressed the likeminded as “comrade” in his whole life, got attracted to Marxism while still in his honours classes in Central College.


JRL was born in 1921 in Jagalur, in the then Chitradurga district, in a Shanubhog’s (Village Accountant) family. He had his middle school education there. Even though the name is Jagalur, (Jagala means quarrel, in Kannada) he never fought with his classmates. When he came to Chitradurga for his high school studies, he lost his way. He failed in the exams too. He has written about all this openly in his autobiography – Nenapina Alegalu. (Ripples of Memories). By the time he came out of the Intermediate College in Mysore, he had attained a certain maturity. When he did his honours in Central College, along with Chemistry he had an introduction to the evil of casteism that had already infected Central College. As if to make him forget all that he also got teachers like Veesee*3. Soon after he finished his M. Sc. Examinations, in 1943, he got a call to be a lecturer of Chemistry in Tumkur. There, he came into contact with the incomparable Rajaratnam. (G. P. Rajaratnam was a great Kannada writer and poet) When he says that he ‘worked out’ in Rajaratnam’s Gymnasium, his eyes light up, even today. Those days, Rajaratnam organised University Extension Lectures. He was instrumental in bringing out Lakshmana Rao’s lecture on food (Ahaara) in print. Inspired by this, he asked Rajaratnam to edit the manuscript of ParamaaNu Caritre (History of the Atom). Rajaratnam extended a hand of friendship and said, “No! Let us read it together. The mistakes in your writing will catch your own eye”. He went through the whole manuscript like this. Later, the Madras University awarded it its prize for the best book written in the languages of South India. It was also this jewel of Kannada who helped him bring out that book in print.

In 1966, when the University of Mysore formed a committee to edit its English - Kannada dictionary, JRL’s was the first name to come up for the expert on scientific terms. It was here that he was introduced to the famous poet Pu. Ti. Na.*4 The opinions of Pu. Ti. Na. and Lakshmana Rao diverged on the question of tradition. Lakshmana Rao did not argue when Pu. Ti. Na. declared, “However much science you may have studied, however much Marx and Lenin you may have read, you are essentially an Indian”. Nor did he agree with him. He also met the great teacher of English, H. K. Ramachandra Murthy, while there. With him, Lakshmana Rao translated beautifully, Berthold Brecht’s play Life of Galileo.

Multifaceted Talent

Lakshmana Rao is a well-read scholar with many interests. His interest in music was so deep that Doreswamy Iyengar*5 once gave a performance in his house. JRL has recalled the occasion and the unforgettable experience that it was, in his autobiography. JRL’s wife, Jeevubai, has been his companion and helpmate all his life.

Among the many books that Lakshmana Rao has written in his long journey, some have received the Karnataka Rajya Sahitya Academy award. He has received the NCERT award and the Sahitya academy award for his work Galileo. The play Galileo has received the Nataka Academy award and the Sahitya Academy award. Vijnana Vicaara, Archimedes, Meghnad Saha, and the collection of essays, Chakra, have received awards too. He is also the recipient of the Indian Government’s National Council for Science Communication’s national award for communication of science in 1992. Mudabidare’s Shivarama Karantha*6 Pratishthana has honoured him with its Shivarama Karantha award in 1977.

There are many high points to the achievements in JRL’s life. The two volumes on science brought out by him during the golden jubilee year of the famous Kannada magazine Prabhuddha Karnataka were path breaking for Kannada. He ventured to trace the history of science in those two volumes. He was the editor, for eight years, of Vijnana Karnataka the ‘daughter’ magazine of Prabhuddha Karnataka, and through it, made writers out of teachers who had never wielded a pen. He took on the editorship of the magazine Bala Vijnana in 1978 and breathed life into it and cultivated it. It is still being published uninterrupted. He founded Karnataka Rajya Vijnana Parishat on the lines of Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishat (along with another activist, teacher and Marxist classmate, M. A. Sethu Rao) and created a platform for publications in science and science communication.

The English - Kannada Vijnana Pada Kosha (Dictionary of Scientific Terms) that he published along with the famous science writer Adyanadka Krishna Bhatta has already seen many editions. Feeling that he had sinned by writing ParamaaNu Caritre, he wrote Baijika Vidyuttu as atonement. (ParamaaNu Caritre was pro atomic energy.  Baijika Vidyuttu is against it)  The part played by J. R. Lakshmana Rao, G. T. Narayana Rao and Adyanadka Krishna Bhatta in smoothing the path created by Bellave Venkatanaranappa, Shivarama Karanth, and R. L. Narasimhaiah is really big. The writers of the present generation are cruising on that path, like vehicles travelling at high speeds on a highway.

Recently he received the Shivarama Karantha Award for lifetime achievement, given by the Shivamogga Kannada Sangha. Like Shivarama Karantha, Lakshmana Rao has not moved away from the values he believed in all his life. In spite of old age embracing him, he has not jumped ship.

*1 K V Puttappa, poet laureate of Karnataka, popularly known as Kuvempu
*2 Experimental Science for Indian Schools, by Gregory and Hodges
*3 Verse, V. Seetharamiah, famous Kannada litterateur.
*4 P T Narasimhacahar – a great poet of Kannada
*5 Mysore V Doreswamy Iyengar, a great Veena player

*6 Shivarama Karantha, A great Kannada litterateur

Saturday, April 04, 2015

The World has not Changed Much

I was reading an article in a German magazine about a famous person. I read that she was raped by a neighbour when she was just eleven. I should not have understood the next sentence because it had two words critical to its understanding that were not in my vocabulary. But, I did, without even thinking about it.

It said that the police accused her of having seduced the rapist.

I could understand that  because the story has not changed, since then.

That was the year 1926.

A helpless child was raped.
A helpless child who was poor was raped.
A helpless child who was poor and belonged to a minority was raped.

And she was blamed.

The world has not changed much.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015


It was the year 1985. I had just then returned from a three month stay in England. It was mandatory visit that took me to a shop. The shopkeeper, Dada, said, “So! You are back!?” I said, “Yes Dada, how are you?” My question was ignored.

The greetings part done, the first question he asked me is indelible in my mind. “ಏನು? ಅಲ್ಲಿ ಎಲ್ಲಾ ಕ್ಲೀನಾಗಿದ್ಯಾ?” (“Is everything clean over there?”) I said “yes, Dada.” An imperious grunt of approval and satisfaction was the reply. I had visited Switzerland too on the way back from England and felt that Dada could teach a thing or two to the Swiss about cleanliness and orderliness!

Dada was always immaculately dressed in a simple way. Trousers and half sleeved shirt, not tucked in. A spotless chin and hair combed such that not a hair was out of place. This completed the picture. Surprisingly, I really do not remember what footwear he wore. I am sure, whatever they were, they matched the rest of the man.

Now the shop: It was called Mysore Curios, Arts and Crafts, selling, well, you know what. The shop matched the man. Every item on sale was placed or hung perfectly. Not a thing was out of place. If a dust particle settled on anything, it perhaps had a half-life of about an hour. The trusted shop assistant, Peer Saheb, (Who I referred to as the peerless Mr. Peer) would dust everything in sight with a short handled duster. Once in a while I would be worried that if I stood still too long in the shop, I would be dusted too!

There was a board in the shop. Fixed Prices. No Bargaining. (I think the latter is a figment of my imagination. The board said only the first. It sounded as if it brooked no argument and in my mind there is the other board as well.)

A customer walks in saunters around in the place, actually, pirouettes around carefully. That is all the space there was. He selects an item. He asks the price. There was no need. Every little thing for sale in the shop has a price tag. Dada either tells him the price by memory or looks at the price tag and reads it out to the customer.  He asks for a rebate, discount or asks what the ‘real’ price is. Dada either shows him the “fixed prices” board or just plain ignores him.

I have seen prospective customers leave at this point only to return later in the evening to buy the very item at Dada’s price. Once I asked Dada’s elder son about it. “Don’t you lose customers because of this?” He told me, “You just wait. He will come back”. Come back they did, with astonishing regularity.

I have been a witness to the scene any number of times.

To understand this in its true magnitude you need to know how this business usually works. Many shops do not have a price tag or list at all. When a customer enquires about the price, the price quoted is based on the person’s buying power. Tourists from abroad attracted the highest quotes, rich (looking) Indians a little lower and “ordinary” people the lowest and perhaps “actual” prices. The customers, mostly tourists, would bargain and finally either bought or left. Many times, those who left Dada’s shop, not able to strike a bargain, would come back when they realised that Dada’s strictly fixed price was fairer than bargained prices at other shops.

Dada’s sales technique was unique and simple. He ignored everyone! Or so it appeared. He was aware of what the customer was doing and so on. But he never intruded. I asked Dada’s son, why the customers were ignored. By long experience, they all knew that the customers felt comfortable when no one was trying to sell them anything. They never felt unwelcome.

I was a careless dresser when I was a student. Trousers, a kurta or a shirt, Kolhapuris or tyre soled* Gandhi slippers.  That was my usual attire. I shaved once in three days or so. The only thing relatively neat was my (tending towards shoulder length) hair. The reason was my father permitted me to grow my hair long provided it was clean and combed neatly. I suffered the ignominy of that for the sake of the other. If you are wondering why I am suddenly talking of myself, wait!

One day Dada took me to task. “Why are you young people so slovenly. You should dress well. You should look trim. Look at me! Have you ever seen me differently?” No I had not. He went on and lectured me “at length” for all of about three minutes. For such a taciturn man, to go on like that, you can imagine how I must have irritated him!

Dada was a man who lived by some very high standards at the pinnacle of which was cleanliness, orderliness. He expected others to do so too. He was also tolerant and never preached. He just practiced what he did not preach.


Dada was Nagesh Rao Nikam.

The “elder son” is Niri, Niranjan Nikam, my high school classmate and friend.

The younger son, not mentioned in this post is, Giri, Girish Nikam.

If you wonder why I spent so much time in the shop it was because it was our aDDa.

I had been planning a note on Dada a long time. When Giri posted a note on him, on Facebook, I did not want to miss doing this.

Sunday, March 08, 2015


We climbed down from the trees,
We ventured out of our caves.
We clawed our way out of the abyss of ignorance,
We waded out of the morass of stupidity.
With passion and compassion in our hearts,
With science and humanism as guides.
We have paid for it dearly,
With the heads of a Plato and a Bruno,
We have paid for it dearly,
With the freedom of Galileo, Rushdie, Badawi…
We have paid for it dearly,
With the blood of a Gandhi and a King and countless others.
In the cause of a freedom from indignity,
Freedom from vengeance and barbarism.
Let not religions dictate what is right,
Our humanity is enough to put us straight. 
Let us not lose the hard won battles
Let us not let medievalism hurl us back to where we started.
Let us soar up so that one day We can say,
“we are humans”, justifiably proud.

*Triggered by some recent trends and events. The last one being the lynching in Nagaland

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Arakere Narayana Rao (ಅಣ್ಣಣ್ಣ)

A cousin and I were studying Engineering in the same college. He was my senior by a (academic) year. When the examinations appeared far away we both read novels, mainly popular novels. Those were the days when Alistair McLean, Arthur Hailey, James A Michener, Harold Robbins, to name a few, supplied a large part of our reading. One day, the two of us were talking away about some of the books we had recently read. My father and this cousin's father were listening to us. But we were unaware of it.

Suddenly a soft voice asks, "ಅವನು ಯಾಕೆ ಬರೀತಾನೆ?" (Why does he write?). It emanated from a diminutive man with unkempt grey hair, clad in a faded white cotton, perhaps khadi, dhoti and an un-pressed, nondescript bush shirt. An expectant pair of inquisitive eyes stared at us from behind fairly thick, glasses. We were stumped. We struggled for an answer. Did not find any, convincing or otherwise. Eventually I came to the conclusion that he/they wrote for money, fame and so on. Did they really have something to say? Perhaps Michener had. Did we get an idea of what the characters in the novel felt deep inside them? The answer surprised me – perhaps Harold Robbins’ characters did. Did the problems the characters faced have any bearing on my life? I later read about literature and art and got a ghost of an idea of what makes good literature. Perhaps this question had a lot to do with it.

That innocuous sounding soft question triggered a lot of things.

The man behind the question passed away recently, aged about 96. When I looked back at the times I  had with him and what I had heard about his life, as happens when we lose someone, my admiration for and fascination with and respect for him were all renewed.

My sisters and I called him ಅಣ್ಣಣ್ಣ (aNNANNa). He was the elder cousin of my father, whom we called ಅಣ್ಣ (aNNa), which means elder brother. Being aNNa’s aNNa, he became aNNANNa. He was one of the most well-read people I have met. His formal education ended perhaps at intermediate (12 years of formal education). Though he had to take up a job, (as a ticketing clerk in a touring kannaDa drama company, if I remember right) he kept in touch with his deep interest in literature, mathematics, philosophy and politics (leftist philosophy) and life and the world in general. When younger, he read mathematics in his spare time.

Later, he managed the agricultural lands of a landlord, in a place called kilAra. He bought a small house in Mysore to enable his children to study further. That is when he became more of a regular visitor to our place. He came home and talked to my father about various things. Sometimes the discussions would get really heated and voices would be raised. My mother had to come out and calm them down – “The neighbours will think that there is a fight on!” The discussions were most illuminating.

He was shy and unobtrusive. After talking to my father for an hour or so, my mother would offer him something to drink. Invariably his drink of choice was hot water as he suffered from Asthma. He used to drink coffee, once upon a time. He was an ardent Gandhian. Once he was trying to make a man from his village give up alcohol. That man challenged aNNaNNa “it is easy for you to ask me to give up drinking. Let me see if you can give up coffee!” He never touched coffee again.

It was almost impossible to make a biased, sweeping, generalized statements in his presence. With a sweet and inquisitive smile on his face, he would challenge it. I had to either withdraw it completely or modify it so much that it was no longer as broad or as sweeping or as biased as it once was. I have a feeling that it taught me to weigh my words before I speak. And eventually it made me wary of almost all kinds of generalisations and biases.  My father had a very big role in this too. But what aNNaNNa did was different.

He passed away when I was on travel. I was back for the 13th (?) day rituals. At lunch that day, along with the usual “tAmbUla” all those who attended were given a copy of DVG’s “mankutimmana kagga”. I thought that THAT was a befitting way to end those rituals.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


Boy of marriageable age. Parents seek alliances. Boy sees many girls. Does not accept anyone. A relative asks him what kind of girl he wants to marry.

He wants to marry someone who is like the girls he has read about in literature. A girl with lotus-like eyes, rose-like cheeks, moon-like face, Champak-like nose, snake-like hair. Arms like the stem of a banana plant, etcetera.

One evening, the young man is asked to go into a room where a girl with all the characteristics is waiting. He walks into the room, screams and falls unconscious.

Soon, he marries a comely girl and lives happily thereafter.

The elders had created a mannequin with lotus for eyes, roses for cheeks, a champak for nose, arranged over a picture of the moon. The face is adorned by a rubber snake for hair, banana stems for arms and legs, all draped in a saree. The boy sees this abomination in the dim evening light and faints.

This is the gist of a delightful kannaDa short story by M K Indira, if I remember right, I read decades ago.

I was reminded of this story when everyone went hyper because URA talked of leaving the country. I felt that they all acted like this immature young man.

Instead of taking it as an exaggerated expression of his dislike, they took it as literal truth. They urged and taunted a feeble old man to leave the country a la Husain.

"Hyperbole is the use of exaggeration as a rhetorical device or figure of speech" - Wikipedia

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Maria, Sachin and all that - 2

Sequels hardly ever match the first creation, whether in movies or novels. I am almost certain that the same fate befalls this post too. But these stories are struggling to get out. I will let them out and inflict it upon whoever reads them. The other reason for writing this is a comment to the original post.

Dr M R Raghavendra Rao had narrated another story. A bit of background: MRR Rao had played cricket in his college days. He had represented the state and had played in a few Ranji Trophy matches too. Later, he thought that cricket was a silly game and a big waste of time - especially for a poor country like ours.

He was once on a flight from Bangalore to Delhi. I tall and handsome young man came and sat next to him. He soon realised that the other passengers and the air hostesses were all excited and were fussing about him. Once the flight took off and things settled down, he talked to the young man. Now I switch to the as-if-in-his-own-words mode.

"I said, "I see that everyone is making a fuss about you. May I know who you are?" He said, “I am Roger Binny, Sir". He spoke with great respect and he was very well behaved. I said, "I see that that is your name. But, what do you do?" He did not seem to be offended and said, "I am a cricketer, Sir." I asked him, "At what level do you play?"  "I play for the country Sir", he said.

"I told him what I thought of cricket and gave him my lecture on cricket. You know my lecture. (This was said with a self-deprecating smile). He agreed with all I said - smiling and with respect. Finally I asked him, "you agree with all that I say. Then, why do you still play cricket?"

"He was completely disarming and said, "I simply love the game Sir" "

This speaks volumes about both of them.

The next incident I want to narrate is something I read about forty years ago. I take no responsibility for the accuracy of my version of it. I just tell you the story as I remember it. This is from the autobiography of Mohammad Ali, "The Greatest".

It was the height of the Vietnam war. Ali was to be conscripted into the US army. Ali refused. He even wrote a poem which went something like "I ain't got nothing against the Viet Cong" He was to be arrested and sent to jail. When the world was abuzz with this news, Ali received a transatlantic call. The caller announced himself as Bertrand Russel and asked Ali if it was true that he was against the Vietnam war and that he had refused to join the army and was ready to go to jail for it. Ali confirmed it. Russel congratulated him on his stand and the courage to stand by his convictions.

Ali said to Russel, "Hey man, you are not as stupid as you look". Russel chuckled and ended the call.

Ali indeed went to jail, lost his title, came back from jail years later and regained it. A sporting legend to beat all legends!!

After this, he was in his publisher’s office in connection with his book - "The Greatest". He had some free time and was browsing through the Encyclopaedia Britannica and came across the entry on Russel. It described him as one of the greatest mathematicians and philosophers of the twentieth century, a pacifist, Nobel laureate in literature and so on. Ali had remembered the name of Russel after the phone call and was mortified that he had talked so lightly and disrespectfully to so great a man.

He called Russel and apologised profusely. As Ali puts it, the two years (?) of school education he had received had not prepared him to know about Russel. Russel brushed off the apologies and made light of it.