Sunday, 2 March 2014

'Nedunsalai Vizhakkugal' (Highway Lamps). By P.K. Ponnuswamy

Nedunsalai Vizahkkugal (Highway Lamps)

P.K. Ponnuswamy

New Century Book House. In Tamil. First published 2013.

I read the original Tamil version. This PKP's second book. The first novel, 'Padukalam' was based on his experiences as a child in Udumalpet/Pollachi, and dealt mainly with rural life in those parts, of the land-owning class (caste, actually, Gounders), to which PKP belongs. It was interesting, and though the names were confusing, and the characters and their intrigues unremarkable, and the writing staccato, there were extended descriptions of slices of rural life, such as the temple festival, and the making of molasses from sugar-cane, which earned a B grade for the book. 

The present book earns only a 'D'. Again based on the author's experiences, this time as a PhD student at the University of Madras (though not named as such), the story follows the happenings at the Department of Crystallography and Biophysics, a history with which I am personally familiar. Briefly, the true story is the following. In 1953 G.N. Ramachandran (GNR), along with G. Kartha, used fibre X-ray analyses to propose a structure for collagen. This structure was disputed by Crick and Rich, who went on to propose their own model. (This is the one largely accepted and referred to today, though it is different from the earlier one only in detail. Subsequent experiments have not been able to establish either structure as unequivocally correct, and in any case, the matter is of only very little interest to the science and industry today.) In response to the criticism, GNR, along with students and colleagues, went on to try and show, by computation, that his was the correct structure. He failed in that objective, but his quest led him to develop methods to analyse molecular structures that continue to be in use today, and continue to be expanded upon. These exploits brought GNR international scientific renown, and greats like Dorothy Hodgkin and Linus Pauling were his personal friends. He was not as well regarded or treated within the country, and, especially, by the administrators of the University of Madras. The political situation in Tamilnadu (then called Madras state) changed dramatically in the late nineteen-sixties, when the DMK came to power, riding on the anti-Hindi, anti-brahmin movement. There was a concurrent change of Vice-Chancellor at the University of Madras - N.D. Sundarvadivelu, a man steeped in the traditions of the Dravidian movement, replaced Sir A.L. Mudaliar, until then an almost eternal VC, as head of the more than 100-year old institution. GNR, and his colleagues, brahmins most of them, came under great pressure to diversify the caste composition of the department. GNR left the University and moved to IISc. The department came under the charge of R. Srinivasan (RS), a well-published crystallographer, who, apparently, was even less liberal in his views on caste than GNR. It was during this period, just before GNR left, that PKP joined the department as a PhD student, under the mentorship of a professor who was a career rival of Srinivasan's. 

PKP appears in the book (as Sellamuthu), and so do many other erstwhile members of the department, as thinly disguised characters. GNR (Anandamurthy) has a starring role, though the character is poorly developed, and sometimes positively embarrassing. The major, if villainous, role goes to RS (S. Ranganathan) who is depicted as a really nasty man, responsible for the downfall of the department and of GNR himself. I know that PKP had a venomous hatred of RS, going so far as to vindictively block the latter's retirement benefits when the eventual turn of events made him the VC of Madras University just after RS had retired. All that hatred is evident in this book, and though Sellamuthu himself has only tangential interactions with Ranganathan, it appears often that PKP has embarked on this literary endeavour to express his loathing for and bitterness against his former Head.

There is another storyline involving a chaste, not fully expressed, and ultimately unresolved love affair between Sellamuthu and a medical student, Sathya, who, like him, hails from Kongu Nadu (Udumalpet/Coimbatore/Pollachi...). There is the narrative of the anti-Hindi agitation, taking part in which are Sellamuthu, Satya and several other characters who, probably, are based on students PKP knew at that time. There is the story of one of Ranganathan's senior students, named Mannady (Ambady?), who is treated badly by his boss, and neglects his health and family. There is the story of Mythili, Ranganathan's lady student, who, distastefully to her, is made the object of his amorous advances (which, today, would lead to Ranganathan spending some time in jail). 

But none of these stories jell together, each one is unsatisfactorily and incompletely dealt with. There are no situations and events, or even conversations, which are authentically, or even interestingly described. With better, much better, planning and writing, the book could have had value as a factual account of the rise and fall of a small, but intensely productive and famous academic community. It could have been a psychological study of the people involved. It could have simply been a pleasant read. However, it is none of these. It is partly a rant, and partly a boastful and self-serving depiction of a portion of the author's life, and nothing more.

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