Looking at women scientists through Amitav Ghosh’s eyes
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.