I subscribe to about a dozen journals, these published in several different countries. With one exception all deal with social science and the humanities. The exception is Current Science, published by the Indian Academy of Sciences in Bangalore.
I was myself born into a family of scientists. My father, grandfather and two uncles spent their working lives in Indian research laboratories. A third uncle is a distinguished physicist in America. A cousin is one of India’s top nutrition scientists.
With this lineage I was expected to become a scientist myself. At high school, while I fared moderately well in chemistry, I was modest in mathematical ability and disastrously unsuited to the study of physics. On the other hand, I liked reading novels and biographies, and liked writing essays for the school magazine. Left to myself, I would have studied English literature in college, but my family thought the subject too soft. So I settled on economics, a subject deemed to have at least some pretensions to being a ‘science’.
As it turned out I was rather ordinary at economics too. When I got a low second class in my MA, one of my teachers advised me to look for another subject, which, as he put it, would be a ‘Pareto Optimum’: Good for Me, Better for Economics. I followed his advice, doing a doctorate in sociology and moving over time to an even more descriptive, less analytical, subject, namely history.
Why, with this background and training (or lack thereof) do I subscribe to Current Science? A Freudian may see it as an subconscious attempt to retrospectively ingratiate myself with the family elders whom I failed by moving away from the path they had laid out for me. In truth, I began subscribing to the journal because a friend told me that its editorials were excellent, and largely comprehensive to the aam admi.
I shall come to those editorials presently, but first a brief word on the journal’s history. Current Science was started in 1932, soon after C.V. Raman won the Nobel prize for physics. Raman strongly backed the new journal, as did other major figures in Indian science such as Birbal Sahni and S.S. Bhatnagar. However, the main work in those early years was done by two lesser-known men, the first editors, who were C.R. Narayana Rao, professor of zoology at Bangalore’s Central College, and V. Subrahmanyam, professor of biochemistry at the Indian Institute of Science.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the journal built a decent reputation, but then began to slowly decline. It was only in the 1980s, when the crystallographer, S. Ramaseshan, took over, that the journal began to revive. Ramaseshan encouraged younger scientists to write for it, sourcing articles from all across the country.
The process of renewal begun by Ramaseshan was carried on by his successor, Padmanabhan Balaram, who became editor in 1995. A molecular biologist educated at IIT-Kanpur and Carnegie Mellon, Balaram is reckoned (in terms of the quality of his research) to be among the dozen or so best scientists in India. His character is rather special, too. Unlike some of his peers, he spurns networking with foreigners and politicians. He has a keen interest in the younger generation of researchers, and in scientific disciplines other than his own. He is also widely read in literature and history.
I first began subscribing to Current Science for Balaram’s editorials. These sometimes analysed the less salutary aspects of science (as when he wrote about the politics of prizes or the prejudices against women scientists), sometimes noted anniversaries of important or critical discoveries, sometimes explained the origin and spread of new sub-fields, sometimes spoke of the need for scientists to communicate to a wider public. The last injunction he put into practice, for his own editorials were written in an elegant, understated style.
Soon, I found other reasons to read Current Science. For one thing, it carried well-researched essays on climate change and on biodiversity conservation, two areas that I had an interest in. For another, it had really excellent obituaries. Indians are notorious for not knowing how to write about their recently deceased compatriots. For example, if a great Kannada writer passes on, the Bangalore editions of our English-language papers are prone to reproducing the boiler-plate condolences of the state’s chief minister, rather than carry a proper appreciation of the writer’s work and legacy.
In a culture marked by philistinism and amnesia, Current Science stood out. This was a journal that cared about the traditions and histories of the men and women of Indian science. The obituaries it carries (averaging one or two an issue) are a model: sketching the scientist’s intellectual development, his or her major contributions, while not forgetting to mention personal landmarks (where born, where died, whether married, how many children, etc).
In making the journal the standard-bearer for Indian science, Balaram was assisted by an excellent editorial board, its members drawn from across the disciplines. Meanwhile, he was appointed director of the Indian Institute of Science, adding to an already heavy work burden. Balaram now began inviting other senior scientists to write editorials. Then, earlier this year, he relinquished the editorship itself.
The latest issue of Current Science (Volume 105, Number 4, dated August 25, 2013) has just reached me. It contains an interesting review of a new and controversial book on the Indian lion, and two obituaries of the great biologist, Obaid Siddiqi. Known for attracting contributions from all parts of India, the journal has also (it seems) acquired a modest international reputation. One contributor is Estonian, a second, American.
Two pages of the current issue reprint letters to the editor. Eleven scientists, writing variously from Mohali, Chennai, Solapur, Hyderabad, California and New South Wales, all reflect on (as the headline to the correspondence columns has it): ‘A Current Science journal without Balaram?’ One letter-writer says that he had “come to take an Editorial by Balaram in every issue of Current Science for granted”. Then he adds: “I slowly realized that the stepping down was inevitable, but then hoped that the inevitable will always be pushed back a little further”. A second thinks Balaram’s “boldness in expressing some of the radical views on many issues” might not be replicated by his successors. A third says Balaram stood out “because he was never cynical and he never wrote anything that undermined the idealism of young scientists”. A fourth praised his “multi-disciplinary” approach in an intellectual climate of ever narrower specialization. A fifth appreciated the fact that “all good things must come to an end”, but then asked, hopefully: “Would it be too much to ask whether Balaram would care to continue to write a guest editorial every now and then, whenever he is in a mood to do, in a leisurely and unpressured way, for the benefit of a very large circle of readers?”
In the 20 years I have lived in Bangalore, I have come to know Padmanabhan Balaram slightly. I count him as an acquaintance rather than as a friend. He is a reclusive man, who is never in the newspapers. He rarely leaves the area around C.V. Raman Road, on one side of which is located the Indian Institute of Science, and on the other side the Indian Academy of Sciences. Shunning the limelight, he stays with his lab, his students, his colleagues, his family, and (one supposes) his books. When I have met him it has always been at the IISc., at an ecology seminar or at the felicitation of a mutual friend.
As a failed high school science student, I cannot pretend to remotely understand Balaram’s scientific work. My understanding of the content of his professedly general interest editorials in Current Science varied from roughly 40 per cent to 80 per cent. However, the prose always brought me in, and I often found an arresting aphorism or allusion that resonated. In print and in person he always seemed — in the argot of my generation — to be ‘a good chap’. Even so, nothing became the editor of Current Science more than the manner of his leaving. I don’t know whether Balaram has any interest in the game of cricket. To me, his retirement from his journal —when in full command of his powers — reminded me of the similarly graceful and exquisitely timed exits of those other (and in this regard unrepresentative) Indians, Vijay Merchant and Sunil Gavaskar.