Look­ing at women sci­en­tists through Ami­tav Ghosh’s eyes

DNA Sunday (Mumbai) - - OPINI N - SAKOON SINGH

It was as if a flam­ing sword had de­scended from heaven to shut her out of Eden, for­ever de­priv­ing her of the chance to in­scribe her name in the an­nals of botan­i­cal ex­plo­ration.”

— The River of Smoke The bi­na­ries em­ployed to in­ject a schism in man-woman sym­bol­ism have been pretty much car­ried over to the do­main of sci­ence. The wa­ter­shed mo­ments in the lin­ear con­tin­uum of sci­en­tific dis­cov­er­ies are all but male dom­i­nated. The “shoul­ders of giants”, pro­vid­ing a per­spec­tive to new re­search are male by de­fault. But there are New­ton’s sis­ters and Bertha Ma­son’s hid­den in the dark gothic para­pets of sci­ence, whose voices em­anate from the dingy at­tics. Ami­tav Ghosh is one for these voices.

In Sea of Pop­pies and River of Smoke, Ami­tav Ghosh high­lights the is­sue of women sci­en­tists in Vic­to­rian times. The botanist Pierre Lam­bert’s daugh­ter Paulette be­ing a case in point. It is sig­nif­i­cant that Paulette ma­tures into a self as­sured young woman who fights all odds upon her father’s death to ful­fill her dream of be­com­ing a botanist. She first tries per­sua­sion, and when it does not work, dis­guise, to find a berth on the Ibis to em­bark on her jour­ney as a botanist. In the midst of mul­ti­ple chal­lenges, Ghosh dile­neates the fig­ure of Pierre, who is bit of an Ori­en­tal. Paulette works as an as­sis­tant to her father in clas­si­fy­ing his col­lec­tion of plants at the Botan­i­cal Gar­den. To dis­charge her du­ties, she learns not only Latin and French but also San­skrit and Ben­gali ap­pel­la­tions from the In­dian mun­shi. In due course, she be­comes an ac­com­plished botanist and a de­vout reader of Voltaire, Rousseau and M Bernardin de Saint-Pierre.

The father dies and in quin­tes­sen­tial Dick­en­sian fash­ion, Paulette is en­trusted into the care of the Burn­hams, a mer­can­tile cou­ple. Their world smacks of Vic­to­rian prud­ery and hypocrisy, and fur­ther, their evan­gel­i­cal zeal of con­vert­ing Paulette into a de­vout Chris­tian be­comes in­creas­ingly op­pres­sive. Out of des­per­a­tion to es­cape this sor­did ex­is­tence, she de­cides to flee and get on­board a schooner to Mau­ri­tius where she can start life as a botanist. Her at­tempts are foiled as women are not per­mit­ted to sail.

It is here that she re­mem­bers the story of her grand-aunt, the botanist Jeanne Baret, who had un­der­taken a voy­age in dis­guise and met her botanist hus­band on board.

“Even as a girl, she had a most heated pas­sion for sci­ence. She read about Lin­naeus and …these di­verse facts made her burn with a volon­tee (sic) … but it was not to be ex­pected that the men would per­mit a woman to join the ship…She did the sim­plest thing, Mr. Reid. She tied up her hair like a man and ap­plied to join un­der the name of Jean Bart...this is how it hap­pened that Jeanne Baret, my grand-aunt be­came the first woman to sail around the Earth.”

In evok­ing this fam­ily anec­dote, Paulette forges a con­nec­tion with scores of women sci­en­tists of the 19th Cen­tury who went be­yond con­ven­tion to un­der­take per­ilous jour­neys, of­ten in dis­guise. Thus Paulette is able to un­der­take the voy­age and reach Mau­ri­tius. While an­chored off the Chi­nese coast, Paulette in­dulges in botanis­ing on the lim­ited area in her reach in Hong Kong.

An­other noth­ing-like-Paulette woman sci­en­tist fig­ure that Ghosh cre­ates is Man­gala in The Cal­cutta Chro­mo­some. She is the high priest­ess of an In­dian gnos­tic cult in the quest of in­vent­ing what is, the “Cal­cutta Chro­mo­some”. This book, which is part fact, part fic­tion, re­vis­its the cir­cum­stances of Ron­ald Ross’ dis­cov­ery of the anophe­les as a vec­tor of malaria. The book tra­verses many time frames. She is god­dess to some, sur­rounded by pi­geons that she rou­tinely de­cap­i­tates with the dis­pas­sion­ate cu­rios­ity of a sci­en­tist, steely master mind of a strat­egy in (mis) guid­ing Ross through his ex­per­i­ments while main­tain­ing the façade of an in­nocu­ous lab­o­ra­tory staff. Whereas Ross can­not see through her, she is eons ahead of any re­search he can pos­si­bly en­vis­age. He is painted as quite a comic fig­ure, son of a gen­eral who has blun­dered his way into the then pres­ti­gious In­dian Med­i­cal Ser­vice. So while he stum­bles upon his in­ven­tion for which he is awarded the No­bel, she oc­cu­pies the back­yard cham­bers, an­te­rooms of the colo­nial lab­o­ra­to­ries, shrouded in mys­tery, painted in the im­agery of blood and gore, sub­ver­sively ap­pro­pri­at­ing si­lence as speech of the sub­al­tern.

And for once, a brown woman sci­en­tist steals the show.

The writer teaches English

Lit­er­a­ture at a col­lege in Chandi­garh. Views are per­sonal.

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