By Manju Gupta
Born in Seoratali (now in Bangladesh) on October 6, 1893 to an owner of a small grocery shop, Meghnad Saha joined the primary school at the age of seven. His teacher was struck by his uncanny memory and aptitude for learning. He had no other interest apart from his books. Should his mother forget to wake him up or if he were to run out of slates, pencils or books, he would begin to cry. This earned him the nickname?Kanduna (cry-baby). His father was against education but Meghnad was not the one to give up.
The next hurdle was the middle school which was ten kilometres away at Simulia. The young Meghnad went to live with his sponsor who was a local doctor. Every evening he would walk back home. He finished middle school and earned a scholarship. Mathematics was his first love in school, while history was a close second. He was exceptionally fond of reading Todd'sRajasthan and Rabindranath Tagore'sKatha o?Kahini. At the age of twelve he went to Collegiate School in Dacca. He attended Dacca Baptist Mission to attend the Bible classes. He topped in the all-Bengal examination of the Baptist Mission.
However, he never learned to dress up in style, being a simple, rustic boy, the son of a grocer. It made his friends call him an ?uncut diamond?. His childhood experiences were not really pleasant. Once the Saraswati puja was on and the local priest asked him very rudely to leave the dais as he was not from the right caste. It had such an impact on the proud boy that he stopped taking part in all rituals of worship.
In 1911, Meghnad joined the Presidency College for graduation in science. He completed B.Sc. (Honours) in mathematics and M.Sc. in mixed mathematics. He was so dedicated in his approach to his field of science that anything else outside it was secondary to him.
Soon Saha was shifted to the physics department. In 1919, he was awarded the degree of doctorate of science for his dissertation on the ?Harvard Classification of Stellar Spectra?.
In 1921 Saha formulated his Theory of Thermal Ionisation which opened up a new horizon in astroph-ysical research. In 1938 he returned to Calcutta University to teach. In 1952, he was appointed a full-time Director of the reconstitu-ted Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science.
He detested both films and sports, particularly cricket, which he considered nothing but a waste of time for five long days. Once, some of his students decided to go and watch the Test match in the Eden Gardens at Kolkata, without informing him. The students were so engrossed in their match that they practically jumped up when they heard their names being announ-
ced over the loudspeakers, asking them to return to their laboratory.
Interesingly enough, he got involved in a controversy on Hindu religious scriptures which his lecture provoked in 1937. Being well versed in the Vedas, he had once declared that he had ?first-hand ?knowledge of all books (the Vedas).? Once a lawyer of Dacca wanted to know the nature of his scientific work. Saha told him in great detail the comp-osition of stars, but the listener was unimpressed and remarked, ?But this is nothing new, we have all this in the Vedas.? Disgusted, Saha asked him, ?Would you be kind enough to tell me exactly in which part of the Vedas do we find the theory?? To Saha'sdismay, the undaunted gentleman replied, ?Well I haven'tread the Vedas myself, but it is my firm conviction that whatever you people claim as a new scientific discovery is all contained in the Vedas.?
Saha spent the next twenty years of his life in studying the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas and all the Hindu texts on astronomy.
He was dead against Gandhi'skhadi and charkha doctrine. He never lost a chance to take a dig at Gandhiji's?thoroughly outdated? and somewhat romantic concept of ?back to the village?. His favourite ideals were ?industrial planning as the Russians had done? and ?river control as in the Tennessee Valley?. What particularly appealed to his well-organised mind was the way the Soviets had gone about entrusting the task of scientific survey to the Academy of Sciences as the prime step.
Saha even stood for the first Constituent Assembly elections and won to join politics. But his heart lay in science. He never tired of saying, ?The key word of the present civilisation is science. As I have said earlier, in order to survive we have to struggle with Nature and to win this battle we must have science as a tool. The young generation must prepare themselves to take part in the future utilisation of the natural forces for the benefit of the people.?
Saha died in 1956.