In May 1901 he wrote to his friend Rabindranath Tagore: "...the
proprietor of a reputed telegraph company...came himself with
a Patent form in hand...He proposed to take half of the profit
and finance the business in the bargain. This multi-millionaire
came to me abegging. My friend, I wish you could see that terrible
attachment for gain in this country, that all engaging lucre,
that lust for money and more money. Once caught in that trap there
would have been no way out for me."
Exasperated by Bose's "quixotic" approach towards money, two
of his lady friends, British-born Margaret Noble (better known
as Sister Nivedita) and American-born Mrs Sara Bull on their own
initiative obtained in 1904 an American patent in Bose's name
(for his " galena single contact-point receiver"). Bose,
however, remained unmoved and refused to encash the patent. The
irony of the situation seems to have gone unnoticed. Here in Nivedita
we have a spiritualist advocating the cause of patents and royalties
and a physics professor dismissing the idea. The reason must be
sought in their backgrounds: Nivedita was a product of industrial
Europe while Bose was a child of the orientalised East. There
can be no doubt, as P.C. Ray reminded the audiance assembled in 1916 to greet Bose
on his knighthood, that "If
he had taken out patents for the apparatus and instruments which
he had invented, he could have made millions by their sale".
More importantly, he would perhaps
have become an Indian role-model for production of wealth through
science. As it is, Bose abandoned radio waves altogether, there were no trained students to continue the research;
and India's tryst with technical physics came to a premature end.
position is explained in his authorised 1920 biography written
by his close friend Patrick
Geddes, "Simply stated, it is the position
of the old rishis of India,
of whom he is increasingly recognised by his countrymen as a renewed
type, and whose best teaching was ever open to
all willing to accept it." Bose carried on his shoulders
the full weight of his country's defensiveness. He was the proof,
because proof was needed, that Indians could do modern science.
As Tagore wrote to him, Bose was God's instrument in the removal
of India’s shame. Bose did not want want to make hay for himself
in the European sunshine.
It is not often realised that
the European recognition won by J.C. Bose and P.C. Ray on the scientific front was the first
tangible proof that Indians could be equal to, and command respect
from, the Europeans. It thus had
a political dimension. Bose illustrates Henry David
Thoreau's aphorism: "A man is wise with the wisdom of his
time only, and ignorant with its ignorance",
with the added proviso that the same calenderic time can denote
different cultural times. For Europe (modern) science was the
key to prosperity. To India, science was the cause of its
misery and humiliation. Industrialisation
artisanised the European society. In contrast, in India, since
the new middle class was derived from upper castes, science itself
Insistence on the addition of Bose's name as
a foot-note in Marconi's biography will be an exercise in historical
nitpicking. There may be some solace in the invention of an unhistorical
J.C. Bose who would mirror our current economic and technological
frustra- tions. But what is needed is the positioning of J.C.
Bose in a temporal context and the discovery of a new J.C. Bose
who would be active and relevant in the present context.
Prof Rajesh Kochhar is Director, National Institute
of Science, Technology & Development Studies (NISTADS) and Director-in-Charge, National Institute
of Science Communication (NISCOM).
Originally published in The Economic Times (18 March
1998) under the tit. "Time warp as an escape from the future"