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Science, poetry and prejudice

Published Dec 06, 2009 12:00am

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ABDUS Salam's 15th death anniversary went unnoticed recently. The 25th death anniversary of Waheed Murad that fell on the same day was celebrated with fanfare. They say nations which do not honour their great men cease to produce them.

Pakistan, for sure, has produced no scientist of Salam's stature nor perhaps an actor of Waheed's popularity. Whether it is serious research or playful acting, the national scene remains barren.

Forgotten or celebrated, Pakistan's few great men were born of accident. In the case of Abdus Salam it was not just one but a series of accidents. More strikingly, in converting accidents into opportunities, help to Salam came not from friends but from strangers. Ironically, when the people who should have been helping him created hurdles even that opened the door to new opportunity.

Having earned every degree that he could, setting new records before he was 19, Salam's urge to go for research abroad would have remained unfulfilled had Sir Chhotu Ram, Punjab's revenue minister and a benefactor of the rural poor, not arranged a scholarship for him at Cambridge. That was the first accident with help coming from an unexpected quarter.

As a Cambridge wrangler (first class of the mathematical tripos) and PhD in theoretical physics, Salam came back to teach at his alma mater. He thus seemed set on a course which, with luck, would have some day made him principal of Government College unless he was persuaded to join the ICS. Then came a second accident. He had gone to Bombay to attend an international scientific conference with the permission of the principal. He defied an order to return, leaving the conference halfway, because the education minister had not approved of his participation.

He resigned rather than face the charge and went back to teach at Cambridge. Three years later he became the youngest ever professor at London's Imperial College and fellow of the Royal Society. There he freely debated with atheist Bertrand Russell the existence of God and with Albert Einstein the Islamic view of the unity of forces.

In 1959, there was to be yet another accident. India's high commissioner in London brought to him an invitation from Pundit Nehru to visit India. There Nehru offered him a minister's rank at a salary he would himself name with no questions asked about money spent or wasted on particle research. Taken unawares, Salam sought time to think it over, came back and reported to President Ayub what had transpired. He declined a similar offer from Ayub, but agreed to act as his scientific adviser while remaining at Imperial College. That was the period when the foundations of Pakistan's atomic energy commission and nuclear power plants were laid.

He also advised the president to establish an international research centre in Pakistan where scientists from across the world would meet to exchange ideas and knowledge. The finance minister opposed the plan because he felt it was tantamount to setting up a five-star hotel for Salam and his friends. Again declining an Indian offer to host the centre, whatever the cost, he founded the centre at Trieste with a major contribution coming from the Italian government. Thousands of scientists have since passed through Trieste — no less than 500 from Pakistan. The centre is now named after Abdus Salam. Surely, by now Pakistan would have been a hub of scientific research had Ayub's finance minister not ridiculed Salam's plan.

After winning the Nobel Prize in 1979, Salam was not invited to his own college. He did not even figure in Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's count of distinguished old Ravians. It was Pakistan's darkest period of prejudice and intellectual sterility. By contrast when he went to Aligarh Muslim University to receive an honorary doctorate, the whole city turned up to greet him and students pushed his car for a mile to the campus. The scene at Guru Nanak University was no less exhilarating.

Salam's repeated pleas to Islamic countries to contribute just one per cent of their export earnings to a research fund went unheeded. No wonder that Salam is the only one from the Islamic world ever to have won the Nobel Prize in the physical sciences.

Scientists who benefited from Salam's Trieste centre — Mujahid Kamran, Ghulam Murtaza and Pervez Hoodbhoy among them — now struggle to make up for the lost time and opportunities. A school of mathematics named after him is fast gaining recognition. LUMS too has established an Abdus Salam chair.

Even the people at large are fast shedding the prejudices fostered by politicians. The scientists and citizens of today alike would go along with what Prof Ahmad Ali of Aligarh had to say in 1979 “Abdus Salam is not the name of a person but of a movement that seeks to wipe out poverty and ignorance. It is a movement for knowledge and wisdom, action and endurance, to restore pride in our own culture and to wage jihad against prejudice, tyranny and exploitation”.

When Salam came to deliver the Faiz Memorial Lecture at Lahore, people wondered what a hard-nosed scientist and a romantic poet had in common. “We both are persona non grata in our own country,” Salam explained. Then he showed to the audience the couplet Faiz once wrote in his own hand in Salam's diary when they met at a foreign airport Nisar mein teri galiyon pe ai watan keh jahan chali hai rasm key koi na sar utha ke chaley (My life is dedicated to the streets of the motherland where custom demands that no one should walk with head held high). It is a sad thought that Pakistan's most brilliant scientist and most popular poet should have been the prime victims of that custom.

Finally, here is an example of Salam's humour and humility thrown into one. Asked whether Jhang, the village of Heer, would henceforth be known as the village of Salam, he replied “Remember there is only one Heer, Nobel laureates are many.” Indeed there are but only one came from Pakistan. When we can walk the streets with our heads held high will be the day to remember Salam and Faiz. It would not be possible without them.

kunwaridris@hotmail.com

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