What’s Jagadish Chandra Bose and his hair oil doing in a sci-fi column?

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02-Dec-2016

 

Two days ago was Jagadish Chandra Bose’s 158th birthday, and Google duly celebrated it with a doodle — a fitting homage to a man of his stature and achievements.

You’d think he needs no introduction, but then as it was pointed out here on FactorDaily, he has not often received his due. There’s a strong opinion that he should be credited with inventing the radio, for he did more than just tell us plants have feelings.

He also wrote what is arguably one of the earliest modern Indian science fiction stories, and that is why he’s on New Worlds Weekly. Readers of this column would be familiar with Jayant Narlikar, but if you though he was the first Indian scientist who wrote sci-fi, well, JC Bose beat him to it by almost eight decades, and why he did so is just as interesting as the story itself (as is what he did with (to?) that story later).

He also wrote what is arguably one of the earliest modern Indian science fiction stories, and that is why he’s on New Worlds Weekly.

Amongst many other things, like being the first Indian to manufacture gramophones, the entrepreneur Hemendra Mohan Bose was also the manufacturer of a brand of hair oil called Kuntalin. In 1896, he hit upon a novel marketing idea to promote the product – the Kuntalin Puraskar, a short-story competition that anyone could enter, the only condition being that the story submitted for the award should feature Kuntalin hair oil. And one of the entrants – and the eventual winner – was JC Bose with a story of weather control called Niruddesher Kahini (Story of the Untraceable).

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A bi-lingual story written primarily in Bengali, it featured a lot of science that was in English, presented as excerpts or snippets from science magazines including The Scientific American. The story starts with a scientific mystery – that of a cyclone which was threatening to decimate Calcutta and suddenly went missing, without a trail. That too a cyclone so massive, that a newspaper agent sends in a report to England saying “The heart of our British Empire is in danger”.

The story starts with a scientific mystery – that of a cyclone which was threatening to decimate Calcutta and suddenly went missing, without a trail.

Only one person knows what happened to the cyclone and why it disappeared. Our balding protagonist, with his trusted Kuntalin Hair Oil. On a voyage to Ceylon, his ship is threatened by large waves, caused by the cyclone in question starting to grow. Staring at imminent death, he remembers his loved ones, especially his daughter who’d put the bottle of hair oil in his bag. Hair Oil! In a eureka moment, he remembers reading a scientific piece about how gravity acts differently on different objects, why oil floats above water (and hence ‘calms the surface of moving water’). In a mood to try anything, he empties the bottle of Kuntalin into the sea, and voila! The waves calm, the cyclone dissipates and Calcutta is saved.

The scientific explanation given to it is that the film of oil spread rapidly over the troubled waters, and produced a wave of condensation, thus counteracting the wave of rarefaction to which the cyclone was due. The superincumbent atmosphere being released from its dangerous tension, subsided into a state of calm. Catastrophe averted!

Bose updated this story and included it later in his 1921 collection of essays, as Palatak Toofan (The Runaway Cyclone).

No wonder then, with Kuntalin Hair Oil being the real hero, the story won the competition. Bose updated this story and included it later in his 1921 collection of essays, as Palatak Toofan (The Runaway Cyclone). The updated version, revised by Bose himself, slightly expands on the story and is completely in Bengali unlike the original. The Scientific American bits are removed, it is less politically loaded, gone is the mention of threat to the capital of the Empire, and instead of Kuntalin Hair Oil, we have Kuntal Kesari, which is given mysterious origins involving a British sahib, a bald lion and a sanyasi. But the crux of the story, that of using oil to calm the waves before the cyclone could grow, remains the same.

Niruddesher Kahini is perhaps the first known literacy usage of ‘butterfly effect’, or sensitive dependence on initial conditions; in other words, where a small change can result in large differences later – like calming a wave out at sea takes the wind out of a cyclone later to make it disappear altogether. And this was decades before Edward Lorenz described the concept and coined the term, before Chaos Theory formally came to be, and before Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder, which is widely (yet wrongly) considered to the first story to feature the Butterfly Effect.

Niruddesher Kahini is perhaps the first known literacy usage of ‘butterfly effect’, or sensitive dependence on initial conditions

And it is on the strength of this story that JC Bose is popularly considered the ‘father of Bengali Science Fiction’, with many claiming this to be the first science fiction story in India. The former is perhaps well-deserved, given the fact that his story was more popular and more well-read than any sci-fi story that came before. The latter is a contentious claim bolstered by popular imagination.

But then, popular imagination also considers Marconi to have been the only contributor to the invention of the radio, not JC Bose, and the first use of the Butterfly Effect in a story to have been by Bradbury, not JC Bose.

Depending on what your definition of sci-fi is, and how willing you are to stretch it, there can be many claimants to the title of first modern Indian science fiction story. That’s a story for another day, but for now, it should suffice to point out that in Bengal itself, 17 years before Bose’s story, there was a sci-fi story written by Jagadananda Roy called Shukra Bhraman (Voyage to Venus) featuring a travel to another planet and aliens that evolved from apes. It was published in 1879, though it was written much earlier in 1857. Just to put the year in perspective, that was the year of the First War of Indian Independence.

17 years before Bose’s story, there was a sci-fi story written by Jagadananda Roy called Shukra Bhraman  

But that’s not to take anything away from the genius of Jagadish Chandra Bose. A man of many talents, including that of being a good writer who wrote a sci-fi story which, first or not, is definitely among the very early ones in the modern era to be scientifically sound as well as entertaining. And if you’re wondering where you can read the story, I’m sorry to say that I was not able to dig out the original story, which I’d read ages ago, but here’s the 1921 version in Bengali, followed by a translation in English by Boshisattva Chattopadhyay. And as you click on to read Palatak Toofan or The Runaway Cyclone, I bid you good bye till next week, when I hope to see you again with another edition of New Worlds Weekly. Live long and prosper!



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