TO BE MODERN, Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya thought, is to be serious, and the trouble with Indians is that they don’t know how. Engineer, scholar and statesman, Visvesvaraya was the very model of the modern Indian gentleman. “If we are to follow in the wake of other countries in the pursuit of material prosperity,” he said in a 1916 speech to the Mysore Economic Conference when he was the Diwan of Mysore, “we must give up aimless activities and bring our ideals in line with the standards of the West, namely, to spread education in all grades, multiply occupations and increase production and wealth.”
Visvesvaraya would have been proud of a certain boy born in Mysore the year he gave that speech. The career of MN Srinivas—as scholar, teacher and pioneering sociologist—reeks of the seriousness Visvesvaraya esteemed. Everything about it exudes purpose, design and achievement. But the dour facts of his professional CV conceal his true life, which was marked by quite different things: aimlessness, accident and luck.
Consider the near-legendary fire of April 1970. An anti-war protestor with a fondness for arson picked out Stanford’s Centre for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences for his target. The fire consumed large parts of the building, including the study where Srinivas, a visiting scholar there, had imprudently left all three copies of his fieldwork notes and analysis, accumulated over 22 years of fitful labour. 1970 was supposed to be the year his definitive monograph on south Indian rural life would finally get written. But, when the fire-engines had driven away, Srinivas was left, a balding man now well into his fifties, walking disconsolate among the charred Californian-redwood walls of his once study. His friends helped him sweep every scrap of paper on which any writing could be read into a sorry bundle. It was all that was left of his life’s greatest scholarly labour.