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Aseem Shrivastava: Meher Engineer RIP… “Ami ki korbo?”


Prof. Meher Engineer, physicist and formerly Acting Director, J. C. Bose Institute, Kolkata and former Chairperson, Indian Academy of Social Sciences, passed away on April 24, 2019. Involved in many people’s movements working on human rights, livelihood and environmental issues, he was also an authority in climate science and active in the climate justice movement.

Aseem Shrivastava, Modernamaste

In a world whose imagination is choked by chronic notoriety (for just fame is no longer possible in the deafening chorus of today’s cultural barbarism), we may readily fail to perceive that human greatness often comes without a big name to announce it.
 
It was in one such way that I first met Meher Engineer who died tragically from a stroke recently in a Kolkata hospital. He lived alone (his two children both live abroad) in a small place near Chowrunghee and was found unconscious early one morning some ten days back. He had had a stroke the previous night and was hospitalised only the next day. Alas, too late.
 
Meher Da was, in 2007 (when we first met), as a decade later, a thin and tall, bespectacled man in an ordinary shirt and trousers. What stood out were his old sandals. In his less than modest appearance, few would have seen the veteran professor for what he was: an accomplished physicist, who had just retired as the Director of the Bose Institute, set up in 1917 by one of India’s greatest pioneer scientists, Dr. Jagdish Chandra Bose.
 
In 2007, we were both in Dehradun for a meeting on Special Economic Zones which the Indian governments of the day were actively promoting, after a Chinese fashion, around the country (they have not stopped this wicked activity yet), seizing forcibly the fertile lands of the peasantry all around the country, in the holy name of ‘development’. It was a policy which had the de facto blessings of most (though not all) economists, including Nobel-winning Amartya Sen.
Meher Da and I were introduced by our common friend, the stalwart Lohiaite activist, Vijay Pratap. Meher Da reported on the ‘Nano’ acquisition for the Tatas in Singur. I was expecting a somewhat ‘technical’ presentation from a physicist. It turned out to be anything but that. His talk was titled the same as his conclusion, the words of a 75-year-old woman, whose little plot had been taken by the CPM government to hand over to the Tatas: Ami ki korbo?    
 
    
I still had in my slow mind the dull residues of a little naiveté in those days and remember feeling utterly shocked to realise that a popular communist government could do something so cruel. It was Meher who made me see for the first time exactly how nefarious and dangerous the CPM rule of three decades and more had proved for Bengal, beginning with what is probably the greatest massacre in the history of Independent India: Morijhapi in 1979. He proceeded to enlighten us further on the gallant business ambitions of Buddhadeb, who he described accurately as a ‘Corporate Stalinist’. I began to see the remarkable affinity between communism and capitalism, an insight I owe almost entirely to that first meeting with Meher Da.
 
In subsequent years we grew closer, the traffic of emails always on the rise, so much so that I did him an honour I do for few friends (and parents): name a whole archive in my Gmail account after my physicist friend. More than any other single individual I can think of, it is Meher who has educated not just me but thousands of others, I am sure, about the great perils of global warming and climate change.
 
I am no scientist to be able to comment on Meher Engineer’s professional work in his discipline. But about one thing one could always be very sure. If something was coming via Meher it would be 100% reliable information and analysis. I have seen Meher at work at his table in his cubby-hole of an apartment in Kolkata: he was ruthlessly clinical in his investigative rigour, bringing to bear all his long, arduous years of scientific training on whatever theme he was examining. The first thing he always did before claiming anything was to test, as would befit a scientist like him, the contrary hypothesis. It was a sine qua non for him before opening his mouth in public.
 
As a result, many of us first learned from Meher Engineer what we reliably know now about flooding seas, melting polar ice caps, retreating Himalayan glaciers, and ocean acidification. The ‘Meher Engineer’ archive in my Gmail box could be the basis of an excellent public primer on the subject of climate change. Always up with the work of IPCC and other authorities, Meher would keep us updated on what is probably the decisive survival issue for humanity in the 21st century, the smug complacency of Ivy League economists notwithstanding.   
 
For Meher Da, all science should have been citizen science, in the first place. He would often quote lines from Einstein or DD Kosambi to that effect. ‘MacScience’ (often serving military interests too) was to him a personal professional offence. He would have some choice sarcasms to describe the eager intellectual conformity and pusillanimity of those among his colleagues who contributed their brains to such corrupt projects. Meher Engineer could never have been a promoter, a fund-raiser or a salesman!
 
When it came to one of my disciplines, Economics, Meher Da would call me frequently to check a piece of World Bank data, or some argument made by a government economist in a newspaper column. He would assiduously go through any references I gave him, following them up with further questions. He had a brainy child’s curiosity which could trouble any professional consensus.
 
Over the years, our friendship grew deeper as we began to stay at each other’s homes on visits to Kolkata and Delhi respectively. Gracious and generous as a host, Meher Da would always find room for me in his tiny place on Lenin Sarani, engaging me in long conversations on his delightful balcony over a cup of tea. Then he would take me out to have jhaal-bhaat or a dosa at a favourite restaurant near Esplanade. Not merely that. He would invariably arrange a discussion or a meeting for me with people who he felt I would benefit from meeting. It was originally through Meher Da that I came to know such invaluable friends and advisors (for my research on Tagore) as Probal Dasgupta, Dhrubajyoti Ghosh, Samar Bagchi, and Subhas Roy. Each of these astonishing people has opened further doors for me in Bengal, a relatively mysterious place to those of us still halting in the lingua franca of what was the original laboratory for the British Raj in this part of the world. 
 
Meher Engineer was such a sensitive soul, and approached the sufferings of humanity with so much compassion that he all but withdrew from formal physics in his later years and devoted all his time to social work, public education, and activism. His contributions are large and, true to character, hidden behind many a flourishing bush. They are unlikely to be known to the world through his name even in the future.
 
A model of professional and personal rectitude, Meher Da maintained high moral standards throughout his life. For this, he had the respect and friendship of many who shall mourn him now and miss him ever after.
 
Rest in peace, Meher Da. You have played your innings with exemplary integrity and done your daring best to delay the catastrophes that await humanity.

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