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Home > Tributes and Remembrances > In memory of Sudarshan Punhani (1933-2009)

In memory of Sudarshan Punhani (1933-2009)

by Dr. Daya Varma, 5 May 2009

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I have known Sudarshan for nearly 58 years. Even if I take one minute for each year I have known him, I will be speaking for an hour. I have lots to say. Even one hour is not enough. However, as my respect to the occasion I have compressed one year into 15 seconds. I will end my tributes to my comrade and friend Sudarshan Punhani in about 15 minutes.

I am older than Sudarshan. I had designated Sudarshan to speak at my funeral. I am utterly saddened at this reversal of the role.
When I saw Sudarshan the last time on March 12 at the Jewish General Hospital, it was not the Sudarshan I had known all these year. I did not think he would come out of the hospital. Yet he wanted to know if the dates for the Indian parliamentary elections have been announced. Indeed I did not know how he has survived so long with so much insult to his body. I phoned Shree to tell her that even Tamara cannot keep him alive much longer. So when I saw an email from our friend Jonathan titled Sudarshan I knew its contents before I opened it.

I came to know Sudarshan in 1951. He was in the main campus of Lucknow University, then called Canning College and I was in what was then known as King George’s Medical College; the two campuses separated by the river Gomati. There was another friend of ours, Anand Bhatnagar. Sudarshan and Anand Bhatnagar were already members of the Communist Party of India or CPI; I had just joined. Anand Bhatnagar was a whole time worker of the party. The three of us used to meet almost every day. Our favourite meting place was the Coffee house in Hazrat Ganj.

This Coffee house was an institution, in which coffee was the least important. It was a meeting place of nihilists, communists, socialists, journalists, middle-of-the-roaders, intellectuals as well as of non-intellectuals whose ambition was to be mistaken as intellectuals. These coffee house people knew only each other and no one else; and yet, they used to sit there for hours every day and decide the fate of Lucknow University, India and the world.
Whenever Sudarshan returned to Lucknow he visited this coffee house. On his return he would tell what any one of significance, especially one Kakkar, the most talkative of them all, and Dilip Biswas, the ever-confident communist, said.

Sudarshan adored mathematics but he had tremendous respect for academic excellence in general. There are many examples of this. One relates to the Lucknow University Economics Professor Saran. Gomati River frequently inundates the adjoining areas during rainy seasons. Sudarshan narrates how during one of these floods, Professor Saran loaded his books on a boat to safety leaving everything else in the house to its fate.

Some stories, Sudarshan used to repeat; I don’t know if he had forgotten the previous time he had told it or liked to repeat them for the sake of the elegance of the subject. One such story is about a Ph.D. student of philosophy in Lucknow University. He was undoubtedly brilliant but he shunned water and almost never bathed. As a mark of his admiration for this bath-detesting philosopher, Sudarshan told me how the great discipline of philosophy has been vulgarized so much so that reporters ask the American football coach: what is your philosophy for the game?

By 1951, the Communist Party had emerged from underground and was legal. The armed struggle, which was an adventurist continuation in an independent India of an earlier armed resistance against the autocratic Nizam of Hyderabad, was officially withdrawn. That is when some of the most brilliant intellectuals of India came out of hiding to become the top academics in both humanities and sciences. That also helped Sudarshan complete his PhD. It was a new atmosphere. Sudarshan was a product of this period.

Anand Bhatnagar used to live in a joint family. He had a room to himself. In that room hung a picture of Stalin and next to it a picture of the popular film actress Nargis, whom all the three of us admired. A party functionary who came to the house felt that this was an insult to Stalin. Anand was served a disciplinary notice. Sudarshan came to Anand’s rescue; he suggested - just remove the picture of Stalin.

The Communist Party of India split in 1964. Sudarshan felt closer to CPI and detested the newly formed CPI-Marxist. On his visits to India he would meet old guards of CPI. He was especially fond of one Guruprasad, who later became a member of the UP legislature; Sudarshan told me that the only change in his life style was the presence of a telephone on the desk. One of the old guards Shrimali decided to do PhD in economics in Lucknow University. His supervisor was another communist Professor VB Singh. Sudarshan kept track of Srimali as well. One of Sudarshan’s friends was Salman, who later took a position in one of Delhi University colleges.
India has only one billion people so every one knows every one else. You cannot go to India without being spotted by some one you know. So whenever Sudarshan and Tamara went to India, Salman would know and would not allow them to stay anywhere else but at his home. Salman died about a year ago and his family remained in touch with Sudarshan and Tamara.
Sudarshan would have preferred to do PhD in mathematics but circumstances led him to choose theoretical physics, which is almost but not exactly mathematics. Sudarshan felt that like mathematics, theoretical physics too could not be put to human use. However, all scientists can be outdone by technologists. Sudarshan told me that Thompson who proved the existence of electron hoped that his discovery would not serve any human use. What happened must have been a great shock to Professor Thompson. Sudarshan distinguished between science and technology. For example, he told me that the discovery of electromagnetic waves was science but the transmission of signals by Marconi or Jagdish Chandra Bose was technology.

The PhD supervisor of Sudarshan in Lucknow was one professor Vachaspati. He had just returned from the US and according to Sudarshan was brilliant. Sudarshan used to tell how Vachaspati would sit motionless in the seminars except when a student said something of significance.
While in Lucknow University, Sudarshan had picked up a few of the brightest students as a part of his retinue with whom he would have long discussions. Indeed, animated discussions were the highest entertainment for Sudarshan through which he made both friends and created distance. Sudarshan had definite views on practically everything of social, political and economic relevance. He had the uncanny ability to note aspects of an event which would normally escape the attention of many. For instance, when the Soviet Union collapsed, many questions came up. Why did it happen? Sudarshan had a view on this as well. However, Sudarshan pointed out something which, to my knowledge, no one else except the communist leader late Mohit Sen, did. This is what they asked: How is it that a communist party with millions of members collapsed in one stroke and there is not even a rumbling of protest? This, he said, cannot happen in India.

Sudarshan was a treasure house of critical knowledge on a wide variety of subjects – history, politics, economics, religion and so on. For some reason, I wanted to buy a bible instead of taking it from a hotel room. He said buy the Old Testament. He was my dictionary and a source of ready-made knowledge. Every conversation I had with Sudarshan gave me new ideas and insight on different matters including medicine, which he did not think was really a science. He told me the story of how when a certain doctor was trying to provide evidence that the source of cholera in a working class locality in South London was contaminated water, he was shunned by colleagues and authorities alike, who argued that the contagion was imported from India. Butchery of Africans by the Europeans was monetarily rewarded. Sudarshan told me how to facilitate the reward process, the murderer had to only bring the severed ears of his victim as an evidence of his accomplishment because carting the whole body was too cumbersome.
Although I knew Sudarshan for 58 years, I knew little about his personal life. He almost never talked about himself. I did not know his family name until we met in Montreal. Like nationality and parentage, every one in India has a caste, neither of which is of your choosing. I do not know what caste Sudarshan belonged to. I did not know he has a sister until Shree enquired about the secret of his superb Indian cuisine. He said he learned it all from his sister. I do not know which place of India he was born. May be he was a true son of the soil of India. His knowledge of and admiration for India, to my knowledge, have been matched by no other person I know. He was a great admirer of Nehru and a devotee of Gandhi, not so much as a nationalist but more because to him these men had a vision of no match in the world.

Although Sudarshan did not talk about himself, he did talk about his friends. Almost any one in Marianopolis who knew Sudarshan knew me. However I don’t think any one really knew him – they only knew his views and his intolerance for contrary views. And Sudarshan had definite views on everything.
Sudarshan believed in communicating face to face and not by letters, telephone or e-mail. If I ever wanted to send something for Sudarshan, I would email it to Tamara to be transmitted in appropriate form to Sudarshan. So when I left Lucknow in 1959 and Sudarshan was still struggling with his PhD, our contact was broken. I got letters twice; once when our friend Anand Bhatnagar died and another to let me know he is about to finish his PhD. After that I met him years later in Purdue where he was a professor and then later in Montreal.

Many people associate Sudarshan with brash temperament. He himself told me that he knows that he is not polite in conversations. I suppose Sudarshan never wished to undermine the significance of important issues by adulterating it with politeness. Yet, Sudarshan was a very tender person and very forgiving. He inspired many students at Marianopolis and was immensely proud of the success of his students. One of his Marianpolis students of Indian parents got admission in Caltech. Parents sought Sudarshan’s advice for they thought they could not afford it. Sudarshan told them that if it had been his son, he would mortgage the house to get him through the school.

I once took Anjali Abraham, who had done her bachelor’s in mathematics and is now completing her PhD in Education at McGill, to Sudarshan for advise. Anjali told Sudarshan she wanted to be a school teacher. Sudarshan did not think even for a moment to tell her that she should still do her PhD in mathematics following which she could do whatever she wished.

Sudarshan always wanted Tamara’s eldest son Paul to pursue an academic career; however when Paul decided to channel his talents in pursuit of other areas, Sudarshan used to narrate Paul’s accomplishments with a sense of pride.

Sudarshan was an atheist. And yet he broke down when Anand Bhatnagar died. Anand’s sister-in-law Hem Bhatnagar was very attached to Anand. Following his death by suicide, Hem told Sudarshan that if his dear ones sit and meditate in a certain way, he would come back to life. So here was Sudarshan, the rational, the atheist, the uncompromising sitting with Hem meditating in a certain way to get his friend comeback to life.
Sudarshan could relate to little Alice like he was just a bit older. One day when I visited Sudarshan Alice was there. Of course Sudarshan and I started talking to each other to the great disappointment of Alice. At some point Alice could not take it any longer and said something, which I did not understand. Sudarshan did. Sudarshan had told Alice that he would play with her when his friend is gone. What Alice wanted to know from him - when is his friend leaving?
Tamara’s father was an accomplished mathematician. Tamara is a mathematician too. Sudarshan told me that Tamara was prevented from blossoming as a mathematician just because she was a woman and had to look after the family. When I met Sudarshan in Montreal, they had a dog. The dog actually belonged to his son Siddhu, short for Siddhartha, a name given by his grandfather, the distinguished Hindi writer Yaspal, as a mark of his admiration for Buddha. Sudarshan looked after this dog as any animal lover would.

Sudarshan had tremendous affection and admiration for Tamara and Tamara more than reciprocated it. The last few months of Sudrashan were very trying for him and for Tamara. He was on peritoneal dialysis. As long as he could he would tell elaborate stories of how loads of dialysis bags were delivered to the house and how he can no more visit India because these facilities may not be easily available while traveling. The kidney is an important organ. A distinguished physiologist Smith titled his book on the kidney “From fish to philosopher” merely to emphasize that the kidney is solely responsible for the transition from aquatic to terrestrial life.

Once Sudarshan developed kidney trouble, he was sentenced to death. He fought it bravely but eventually even he was not strong enough. His helplessness at Jewish General was heartrending to his family and friends. He wanted to come home but he belonged to a hospital. His suffering could only be freed by death. And death did come.

In the passing away of Sudarshan, Tamara and her children and grandchildren have lost an unusual personality. I trust that they can, no matter how hard, adjust to it. Tamara is a strong woman but the challenge was not in keeping Sudarshan alive. It is now when Sudarshan is no more at 65 Palmerston, TMR. Would she meet this challenge? I wish and hope as all of you do that she would.

St. John’s, NL
- May 3, 2009