When Sir CV Raman won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1930, he broke down at the award ceremony because the Union Jack was behind him as India wasn't free at the time. Uma Parameswaran's biography looks into the mind of a low-profile genuis

For most Indians, November 21 might not have initiated a dialogue or stirred a conversation. That it is observed as the death anniversary of one of India's greatest scientists will help clear things a bit. Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman, the first non-white and first Asian to be honoured with the Nobel Prize for Physics paved the way for India's scientific revolution at a time when the West had not warmed up to the idea. The Guide spoke to Uma Parameswaran, his biographer on the legend's life, before and after The Raman Effect.

Prima Vera

How and why did you decide to select a globally respected scientist and individual like Sir CV Raman as the subject of your biography?

My primary interest being women's lives and women's writings, I wrote on the early life and times of Lady Lokasundari Raman to highlight the restrictions and opportunities for women of her times. I sent the manuscript to an agent in India.  She said she could not find an interested publisher, but did find that Penguin India would welcome a commissioned biography of her husband, the famous scientist. So I accepted the commission and wrote on the scientist -- who is of course more famous than his wife. Now I have to get around to finding a publisher who is interested in his wife's life story!  

He recognised that each award was a fully-merited distinction for his
science and not a political sinecure, and that is why he kept his knighthood
a time when some others returned such British-conferred distinctions.
-- Uma Parameswaran

While it was a challenge to write the biography of a scientist, I had plenty of material to work with. My cousin, the late Sivaraj Ramaseshan, worked hard to keep the Raman legacy alive through his work at the Indian Academy of Sciences and Raman Research Institute, and it is good to know that all that material is available free for anyone interested in perusing archival holdings of these two institutions. Also, there are several earlier biographies, as I have mentioned in the book.

CV Raman, Uma Parameswaran, Penguin Books, Rs 350. Available at
leading bookstores.

Raman was a charismatic figure whom I did not dare approach when he was alive, and now I wish I had attended some of his public lectures, which were very down-to-earth and easy to understand as I found in my research. My father was one of his early students but I did not talk to him about his days in Kolkata.  My cousin Sivaraj had many fascinating anecdotes about Raman and I took some notes of my conversations with him in 1972 but at the time, I was focusing on Lady Raman.

Who knew I would end up writing on Raman? What impressed me during my research is Raman's insistence that India should stand on its own and not depend so heavily on  imported equipment and expertise. His type of nationalism was opposed to government science policies of the time, and made him an isolated figure. One of the ideas I had for the  cover is to have the tree that is now on the back cover in the front and the title as C.V.Raman: The Lone Tree! But of course he was not alone -- he mentored scores of young scientists.

What were some of the lesser-known, insightful facts that you stumbled upon, which helped create a whole new dimension to the great man?
One was the fact of his marriage, which was unconventional for those times and postponed because it was objected to, even though all he did was to marry into another sub-sect! Another was my discovery that he was subjected to racism both in England and in the United States despite his scientific status. There are other details, such as the unfair manner in which he was ousted from his directorship of the Indian Institute. What boots it to boast that he was the first Indian director if he was also the target of administrators who acted so unfairly and communally? One also has to admire his insistence on not accepting government funding, though one need not agree with it. He was a self-made man and scientist.

What did worldwide fame and recognition as a great man of science mean to Sir Raman?
He valued his personal scientific achievements, but the idea that he represented his country was equally strong. For him each award, and especially the Nobel Prize, was both an individual honour and an honour for India. As one of the incidents shows, he broke down in tears at the Nobel ceremony because he realised that the flag behind him was the Union Jack and that "my poor country, India, did not even have a flag of her own."
He recognised that each award was a fully-merited distinction for his science and not a political sinecure, and that is why he kept his knighthood at a time when some others returned such British-conferred distinctions.

How did he balance out Advaita philosophy, Vedantic transcendentalism and his scientific orientation?
That paragraph in my book is my own summation of his philosophy as one can deduce from his actions. He did not align himself with any particular school of philosophy.  He said often enough, though, that ancient India had found answers to many questions of aesthetics, science and philosophy. It was very rewarding for me to go through the numerous newspaper clippings at the Raman Research Institute to read about his speeches. Unfortunately, the many technological recording devices we have today did not exist in his days.

Did you know?
The Prima Vera was planted in 1973 in the RRI law at the spot where CV Raman was cremated in 1970. Coincidentally, it blossomed with a magnificent gold crown on National Science Day on February 28 1988 and later on the concluding day of the Golden Jubilee of the institute on February 4, 1999.