Alt/ Urban: Making room for the possible
A generalist mindset is not mired in the valorisation of the past. It realises the present is the result of several iterations of history, and inclusiveness is essential for nation building
Why is a general called a general? This word, referring to an officer of the highest rank in an army or church, derives from a 12th century old French root that is far broader, meaning ‘of wide application, generic, affecting or involving all’. Could these traits also be seen in another type of general—the leader of a country?
Around 15 August every year, a number of audio/ film clips made during the early days of our nation state are shared, particularly the seminal “Not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially” speech by Jawaharlal Nehru on the eve of Independence.
This year, yet another speech by our first prime minister made the rounds that led me to the hypothesis in the previous paragraph. This was the one Nehru made on the occasion of laying the foundation stone for the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) on 1 January 1954.
Nehru spoke spontaneously, first in Hindustani and then in English, setting out, as he saw it, the purpose of research and the role this institute should play. “Why is science promoted in recent years?” he asked, “Why is so much money spent on it?”
He explained the value of scientific pursuit in two ways, one for problem solving, the second, and more fundamental, as a means to understand our world today.
He used the famous example of Benjamin Franklin, an amateur scientist (also a synonym for a generalist) and a founding father of the American Constitution, who flew a kite in a thunderstorm to divine the nature of electricity. In Nehru’s words, “Aasmaan se bijli ko pakad ke laaye.”
Of course, this was a speech given in the Cold War years, and Nehru repeatedly mentions the arms race and the need for India to develop its own weaponry. The developed countries were able to produce sophisticated armaments, because they ‘served’ science (“Vigyaan ki seva kee”).
He also talked about the ills and the potential positive applications of nuclear power. “History teaches us that often the ones who make a revolution become victims of the revolution itself.”
But what made the speech exceptional was his insistence on unravelling the essence of what he meant by ‘fundamental’ (buniyadi). In a remarkable bit of exposition, he presented his case both at a philosophical and pragmatic level.
We might not immediately understand the value of the research being carried out at TIFR, but over time, this new knowledge should benefit all. In a new country that had shrugged off the colonial yoke not ten years ago, and one that faced myriad immediacies, like war, hunger and resettlement after the Partition, Nehru’s unabashed support to scientists and mathematicians to do their thing without quotidian restraints stands out in its clarity.
The ease with which he did this tells us about the ease he felt in speaking about subjects that he was not necessarily schooled in. Given our contemporary positions, Nehru should have stuck to his ‘core competency’—law. What could he tell us of fundamental research in the sciences? Was he, as the pejorative goes: ‘a Jack of all trades and a master of none’?
Throughout his life, and during his years as prime minister, Nehru exemplified the word ‘generalist’. His comfort level with a wide range of issues could be seen in his patronage of a broad swathe of national projects, of which the IITs and the IIMs are the most talked about.
We do tend to forget his role in the setting up of the National Laboratories under the CSIR (Council of Scientific & Industrial Research), the Atomic Energy Commission, and the Bhakra Nangal Dam, which he famously described as one of the ‘temples of modern India’.
He was the first president of the Sahitya Akademi, inaugurated just two months after TIFR. His choice to lead it was not based on his post as prime minister, but because he was already seen as a substantial contributor to the world of letters.
Nehru was equally at ease in Hollywood and Disneyland, attending film premieres in India and hobnobbing with the glitterati of his time. His interests were wide as his curiosity was deep. Only a generalist by temperament could have dared to write books like Glimpses of World History and The Discovery of India while in prison.
What is this generalist mindset? It is one that accepts—even while seeking to know as much as possible—the limitations of knowing everything. One important trait is a discomfort with certitudes, and the courage to accept tentativeness as a state of being.
Another is the wisdom to know that there are multiple ways of looking at any one thing, and the realisation that the present is the result of several iterations of history.
A generalist mindset is not mired in the valorisation of one’s own past. This is reflected in his views about India. Consider these lines he wrote in 1946: ‘She (India) was like some palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously.’
These thoughts underlie an acceptance of diversity as a necessary state and inclusiveness as an essential for nation building.
A third trait is openness to the shock of the new, the unfamiliar. Corbusier, the Swiss-French architect, artist, poet and visionary was considered one of the finest of the modernist period, but his early training was in watchmaking and the applied arts. He had no experience in city, urban or regional planning.
When Nehru hired Le Corbusier to design a new capital city for the Punjab, it was the generalist’s openness at work. Nehru liked the creative approach, not being tied down, as he said in a later speech, by what has been done by our fore-
fathers, but thinking in new terms. In the ultimate analysis, he said, a thing that fits in with the social function is beautiful. His words, delivered to a gathering of architects, describing Le Corbusier’s version of the Capitol Complex in Chandigarh resonate to this day: “It is the biggest example in India of experimental architecture… It hits you on the head and makes you think.
You may squirm at the impact but it has made you think and imbibe new ideas, and the one thing that India requires in many fields is being hit on the head so that it may think.”
As an architect myself, this attitude is an article of faith. A lesson we learnt early in our days as students of architecture and design is that there is no ‘one answer’. Design is synthesis, the coming together of various disciplines. Architectural thinking is enriched by all other fields.
At a pragmatic level, an architect must be ready to design any building, and in order to do so, must have a breadth of knowledge. In essence, s/he must be a generalist. We should know everything about everything, I sometimes tell my students, only half in jest.
Interestingly, the notion of multi-disciplinarity is the flavour of the season, underlined over and again in the New Education Policy. Architects were already comfortable with this approach. From the hard sciences to governance at the level of a country, this piece of advice from science fiction writer Robert A.
Heinlein needs to be heard and emulated: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialisation is for insects.”
I’m sure Nehru would have approved.
(Mustansir Dalvi teaches architecture at the Sir J.J. College of Architecture, Mumbai)