Lonely crusaders: A common Indian phenomenon

Such individuals, who dedicate their entire lives to unusual projects, deserve our attention and appreciation.

Published : Apr 20, 2023 11:00 IST - 6 MINS READ

The human spirit of creativity is ceaselessly amazing. It is difficult to predict or explain why and where it will manifest. I have always been inspired by individuals who undertake unusual tasks, dedicate their entire lives to it without expectation of gain or fame and produce extraordinary results.

In most cases, the work remains unknown to the world. Worse still, the work may get recognition but the one who spent a lifetime creating it remains unknown. In India, we have no way of knowing much about the makers of our great monuments, though some of them carry name tags of their patron-kings who funded them. I have often wondered if the names of all the craftspersons from various communities of Ayodhya who physically “constructed” the Babri Masjid were to be known, would anybody have thought of demolishing it?

All of our folk literature has continued to live on without known authorship. In the case of folk traditions, the songs and stories are at least known since they remain in circulation. In the case of monuments, at least they can be seen and admired. But there are several other instances of great creativity, courage, compassion, or talent that simply go unnoticed.

I have known individuals who have spent their entire lives planting trees and greening barren hills; set up rural schools and hospitals for the poor; fed and raised generations of poor children; cleaned beaches; set up small public libraries; spent a lifetime archiving old recordings of music to keep music traditions in circulation; stocked unused medicines for use in natural disasters. Some of them receive media attention; most work without the expectation of recognition or reward. Of course, if the work is in the social sphere, recognition may follow at least in limited circles, but not quite in the case of intellectual work carried out privately.

For reasons not known to me, many individuals engaged in their lonely pursuits have tried to get in touch with me over the last four decades. The event unfolds as follows: a phone call comes while I am in the middle of a serious piece of work; a stranger speaks in a faint voice somewhat incoherently trying to introduce herself or himself. I curtly ask the person to call later. A second call comes and my address is sought. I ignore the call. Several days or weeks later, there is another call and I send my address.

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Then comes a book parcel. It remains lying around for weeks, months, even a year. More calls follow, attempting to draw my attention to the work. On some lazy afternoon or sleepless night, I open the book, hoping it might put me to sleep. More often than not, I am surprised to notice that what is in the book is of great importance, in tune with some cutting-edge positions in the frontiers of knowledge. Since I do not save unlisted numbers, I cannot get back to the person immediately; but in another call from her or him, I start discussing the “why” and the “how” of the work. An amazing story unfolds.

In many cases, such individuals are in their late years, waiting to close their account of life. They are normally not able to say exactly why they turned to the work; but their fascination with the subject and theme is unmatched. If I mention any new books or essays, they ask me to hold the line till they find a pencil and paper to make a note.

These persons are different from those who try to contact you in the hope of getting awards, foundation funds, fellowships, and reviews or other media coverage. They just want one or two persons who will understand their passion for extending the frontiers of knowledge, and not being from the professional communities of scholar-researchers, they have no idea how their research is to be circulated. These are India’s lonely crusaders.

The number of such lonely crusaders in India is quite phenomenal. Let me mention, in just a couple of instances, the work of a doctor and an Adivasi poet.

A doctor unknown

Lele was a physician based in Nasik, Maharashtra. When we established contact a decade ago, he was already in the last decade of his life. For decades, he had been trying to figure out when exactly humans could have invented language, when in the process of evolution Homo sapiens would have learnt to use the throat, tongue, teeth, and lips to make a coordinated effort to produce meaningful sounds, exactly the same in every instance of those sounds being used.

Dr Lele was not trained for this kind of research, for neurology was not his discipline, nor did he have any training in linguistics. Yet, he had spent some 30 years of life chasing the problem. He had no idea where his research could be published since he had not published in any scientific journals. So he just kept making notes until it became a book-length manuscript.

Quite frankly, when he first got in touch with me, I thought he was a quack. Suspecting that he might have plagiarised or rehashed materials from other authorities in the subject, I remained sceptical of his claims.

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Then one day his manuscript arrived. On reading it, I realised that my suspicion was unfounded and his was a case of the lonely crusader. His findings, well corroborated by the then newly developing discipline of genetics, were in tune with a fairly respectable level of scientific authenticity. He had established that the emergence of language in human evolution was a result of multiple genes and not just a single “magic” gene. I wrote a foreword to his book, and the book was published. As expected, I have not come across any person who mentioned having seen or read the book. So his work has just sunk into oblivion.

Dr Lele’s hypothesis and the fascinating range of proof and evidence he provided to support his theory—of how the evolutionary process has multitasked the neurological and physiological apparatus provided within the brain and the body for making language possible as a cultural product—deserved attention since it opened spaces for discussion on the intimate link between culture and nature, between human triumphs and the process of natural selection. His thesis also had relevance to the process of synesthesia and cognition, on the inter-domain neurological powers of Homo sapiens as a basis of creating as complex a cultural phenomenon as speech-based communication.

What I point out is not just the case of a non-institutional research, but the fact that the lonely crusader is a phenomenon in Indian society that deserves attention as an ethnographic enigma. The case I have discussed is not one of “indigenous knowledge”. That is a different track of enquiry altogether. The point here is the “spirit” that keeps alive great curiosity in the midst of an intellectual nowhere.

“The point here is the “spirit” that keeps alive great curiosity in the midst of an intellectual nowhere. ”

As I write this piece, scientific advancements in genetics and linguistics have far surpassed the research that Dr Lele produced in his lonely journey. Yet, it underscores the spirit of going on alone on paths not travelled by others as an essential feature of Indian society. So far, sociologists have normally characterised Indian society as “community-bound”, and somewhat deficit in individualism. Perhaps, that view needs to be taken up for autopsy.

Ganesh Devy is Obaid Siddiqi Chair Professor, National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Bengaluru.

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