Saturday, June 12, 2004

Khushwant SinghTHIS ABOVE ALL
CRI turns 100: No sound of celebration
by Khushwant Singh

THERE was a time when the very mention of Kasauli raised peoplesí eyebrows: "Kyoon paagal kuttey nay kaata hai" (why, have you been bitten by a mad dog?) was the knee-jerk verbal reaction. It was much the same if you said you were going to Agra or Ranchi. People asked you with a smile: "Are you all right in the head?" Agra was known for its paagal khaana (lunatic asylum):, Ranchi for its hospital for people suffering from mental problems. Likewise, Kasauli got a bad name because of its Pasteur Institute which treated people bitten by mad dogs. The Pasteur Institute became the Central Research Institute (CRI). Even locals who do not know what the letters stand for know it as "see-are-eye."

In May, the CRI celebrated its hundredth birthday. The word Ďcelebratedí should be put in inverted commas as there was no visible signs of celebrations of any kind ó nor did the media give it much coverage besides a stingy disclosure of corruption in its functioning. There was a preeti bhojan. Perhaps, the present Director Usha Soren Singh cut a birthday cake in her office and sent a slice each to her senior colleagues. No cake would be large enough to go round the entire staff of 800 men and women: doctors, nurses to peons and bottle-washers.

Actually the story of the CRI goes back more than a hundred years. The Pasteur Institute was set up in 1900 under the directorship of Major David Semple. Kasauli was chosen for its salubrious climate and pine-scented air. It was initially an army-based institution to prepare vaccines and sera against diseases which most afflicted the British. On May 3, 1905, it was designated a research institute and Dr Semple elevated in rank and knighted, became Lt. Colonel Sir David Semple and its first director. To his credit go the production of anti-snake bite serums and vaccines for the prevention of typhoid, malaria and kala azar.

My family connection with the CRI began (and ended) during the tenure of Sir J. Taylor who became Director in 1932. My father got the contract for building additional laboratories, offices, and classrooms required for research, production of sera and vaccines and teaching facilities. He rented a house for his staff on an offshoot of the lower Mall, where I spent two summer vacations. A tenuous connection was re-established after Independence when Lt Colonel M.L, Ahuja took over as the first Indian head of the CRI. And a much closer one when Dr A.K. Thomas who had been with the institute since 1948 took over from Dr J.B. Srivastav as Director in 1965. Thomas, or Tommy as we knew him, lived in Sanawar School, where his wife Lila was teaching. Instead of moving into the spacious Directorís bungalow, he continued to stay in Sanawar. Every morning, rain, snow or sunshine, he strode downhill to Garkhal village and two miles uphill to Kasauli with his Alsatian following closely on his heels. Tommy was passionately attached to his dog. It stayed with its master in office and walked back with him to Sanawar in the evening. We got on very well and soon our two families were meeting occasionally for dinner either in Sanawar or Kasauli. I was hoping they would settle down in Kasauli. They preferred to be among their own people, Syrian Christians, and have made their home in Ooty. We keep in touch.

My only contact with the CRI now is the youthful Dr Santosh Kutty, his wife Lila who teaches in the local convent and their son Varun. Santosh drops in at times to check my wayward blood-pressure, Lila sends me cooked fish, which appears in the market once a week. And Varun comes to borrow books: Kasauli has no library and he is a voracious reader.

Man-motivated tragedies
June 5, 2004
A verdict in favour of secularism
May 29, 2004
Charm of the Shivaliks
May 22, 2004
Meditating upon the Gayatri Mantra
May 1, 2004
Idol speculation
April 24, 2004
He couldíve been Betaaj Badshah
April 17, 2004
The potent Gayatri Mantra
April 10, 2004
It is time to revive Hindustani
April 3, 2004
Recipe for cooking bestsellers
March 27, 2004
Relative appeal of beauty and films
March 20, 2004
Khayyam was a rationalist
March 13, 2004
Look for your goldmine
March 6, 2004
Of scarecrows and political satire
February 28, 2004
The importance of punctuating thought
February 21, 2004
Ghalib knew his worth
February 14, 2004
In the sunset of their lives
February 7, 2004
Chennai, the city of achievers
January 31, 2004
Pakistanis are like us only
January 24, 2004

I have two grouses against the CRI. Next to the IAF which destroyed Kasauliís picnic spot, Ladies Grove, at the base of Monkey Point, the CRI has the ugliest building atop Kasauliís prominent ridge. The exterior is a multi-storeyed edifice of garish pink colour. If I had my way I would send for its architect and confiscate his licence. Or make him redesign and rebuild it at his cost. The second grouse is more serious. Like other institutes in the country, there is not much research done in Kasauliís CRI. They merely replicate research done abroad and reproduce it in quantities required. It has not been able to evolve research culture. I can add a third shortcoming. For years, it has been plagued with trade unionism and indiscipline. At times that spills out in the open when workers assemble at the gate close to the bazaar and shout slogans. Their only audiences are monkeys and langoors. When peopleís main obsession is with extracting more money and benefits for themselves, their minds become unfit to produce anything worthwhile. However, it maintains its stocks of horses, sheep, white mice, guinea pigs and poultry to produce sera and vaccines for those bitten by mad dogs, snakes or afflicted by a variety of diseases. If Maneka Gandhi ever becomes the Health Minister (Heaven forbid) even this activity may be closed down.

Final word on Gayatri Mantra

My honest admission that I had been unable to comprehend the inner meaning of Gayatri Mantra and why it is regarded as the most important in Hindu theology landed me in more controversy that I had bargained for. Some well-meaning readers sent me books on the subject, some sent me tapes which I should listen to in complete silence; some abused me for questioning the validity of their beliefs. I remained unfazed and persisted in my quest.

At long last, I got a simple translation of the words used in Mantra from Ashwin Sharma of Chandigarh and the light of understanding dawned on me. I reproduce his translation for the benefit of readers who chant the Gayatri Mantra without knowing what it means:

Aum (The one Supreme God)

Bhur Bhuvah (Who is lord of this world and the worlds beyond)

Svah (who exists by his own Omnipotence)

Tat Savitur Varenyam (of that enlightened self (Noor) we make the choice to worship)

Bhargo Devasya Dhimahi (of that God we do the meditation in our mind)

Dhiyo Yo Nah Prachodayat (May He impel us towards noble thoughts (and deeds).

Matchbox wisdom

Being a heavy smoker, I have to buy a lot of matchboxes. A leading tobacco company is marketing a particular brand of matchboxes on which there are some interesting lines:

1. If moths are attracted to bright lights, how come they sleep during the day?

2. 7/5th of all people do not understand fractions.

3. A fine is a tax for doing wrong. A tax is a fine for doing well.

4. The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits.

5. If you do something youíll regret in the morning. Sleep till noon.

(Contributed by Reeten Ganguly, Tezpur)