ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Forgotten Subalterns

Meenakshi Tyagarajan’s fascinating book review (November 24) states that the suggestion of the name, Mount Everest, came from Waugh, the successor to Sir George Everest as the Surveyor General of India, who “actually carried out the measurement” of the height of the peak. In fact, the basic calculations and measurements were made by a subordinate Indian Surveyor, Radhanath Sikdar, a little known fact which also points to the studied neglect by historians of the contributions of Indian subalterns to scientific and cultural development during the raj. For instance, the primary archaeological excavations at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro were designed and executed by Dayaram Sahni and R D Banerji, but all the credit was garnered by John Marshall and Mortimer Wheeler. Who remembers, or even knows, that Shiyali Ranganathan (university librarian, Madras) is authoritatively rated as “the only librarian of genius who made a contribution to the profession without parallel” (20th Century Culture: A Biographical Companion edited by Alan Bullock and R B Weedings) through his seminal formulation of librarianship as a systematic body of knowledge based on his Five Laws of Library Science; Prolegomena to Library Classification; and Colon Classification. Upendranath Brahmachari discovered the vector and specific for the dreaded ‘kala azar’ (black water fever). Ramnath Chopra’s monumental survey of the medicinal plants of India is a landmark in materia medica. All these and many other examples are a standing challenge to Indian historians to research and publicise the role of intellectual subalterns, the forgotten tribe of ‘Little Known Indians of Distinction’. As the Bible reminds us, even high priests need Levites for their vocation, a teaching fully absorbed by Rudyard Kipling who in his classic Kim featured only subalterns: Kim, the orphan; Mahbub Ali, the horse dealer; Teshoo Lama, the Tibetan monk; and Hurree Chunder Babu, the surveyor who might well have been modelled on Radhanath Sikdar. Indian historians can do worse than emulate Kipling.

A footnote. Mount Everest (1863) was never a nameless peak. It was already known by its Nepalese name ‘Sagarmata’ and the Tibetan name ‘Chomolungma’ which aptly reflect its location on the Nepal-Tibet border. And a cautionary note. No Himalayan peak has been ever conquered without a Sherpa.

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