Pankaj Sekhsaria, Instrumental Lives: An Intimate Biography of an Indian Laboratory. Routledge, 2018
Reviewed by D. Madhav, Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts
In an interview with B.V Doshi that I once watched on YouTube (Vyas, 2014 [Video]), the acclaimed architect claims that ‘Indianness’ as an idea is not to be found in history, or achievement, or culture. The real ‘Indianness’, he claims, is in Jugaad. Jugaad is the ability to imagine multiple uses for a single object, and use it in a manner that allows for its various material meanings to manifest. In the interview, Doshi discusses this idea of jugaad with the dhoti; it can be used as a piece of clothing, as a floorspread, and to dry oneself after a bath, among other things. It is this versatility of function that is critical to keep in mind when examining, or designing for, anything to do with India. Jugaad is evident in Doshi’s beautiful structures, in the TV cables or other wires being used as drying stands for clothes in the alleys behind one’s house, and, as Pankaj Sekhsaria, a researcher at IIT Bombay’s Centre for Technology Alternatives for Rural Areas, writes in Instrumental Lives: An Intimate Biography of an Indian Laboratory, it was instrumental in the development of India’s first Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM), and Atomic Force Microscope (AFM).
Sekhsaria is a scholar in the field of Science and Technology Studies, an area of study which attempts to understand both the influence of scientific discoveries on policy, politics, and culture, and also the cultural and political state of, and dynamics within, the scientific community itself. In his doctoral research, the outcome of which is this book, Sekhsaria uses primarily ethnographic methods consisting of detailed conversations with C.V. Dharmadhikari, Department of Physics, University of Pune (now called Savitribai Phule Pune University), his students and colleagues, merged with a historical understanding of the events which he studies, which will be explained more in detail a little further down in the review.
Sekhsaria’s book is a love affair with jugaad. Not only are three full chapters dedicated to it, the book even embodies it in some sense. He uses the story of the construction of the STM to make three separate arguments, in true jugaad style, with the only connection between them being the story. These arguments are:
- The development of the STM was an embodiment of India’s scientific policy, which emphasised self-reliance, despite lack of funds and support,
- The emphasis on research not for science in itself but for innovation, capitalisation and marketing not only hampers the process of science, but dismisses several alternative voices in the scientific world as unscientific, and
- The attitude towards jugaad in India often tends to cheapen it, or find it inefficient or dangerous, when it is not
However, the most important part of the book is undoubtedly the story of the development of the STM in the laboratory of Dharmadhikari at the University of Pune (now called Savitribai Phule Pune University), starting in the late 1980s and continuing for the next two and a half decades. The story is important because it marks, almost certainly, the definitive beginning of research in Nanoscience in India. As such, it is a story that almost nobody knows of. While figures such as C.V. Raman and J.C. Bose are mythified, stories such as these are almost never publicised.
Initially a surface scientist, Dharmadhikari was gradually inducted into the instrumental community, which included among its members the scientists who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986 for the development of the STM — Heinrich Goehrer and Gerd Binning. Dharmadhikari attended conferences in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, and Oxnard, California, and visited various labs in the United States. He also cultivated a friendship with Richard Colton, a scientist who was building his own STM. This was a connection that would last a long time. Although he was initially intimidated by the idea of building an STM in India (he in fact thought it would not be possible), Dharmadhikari went on to do so, and in a way that is quite unique to his context. An STM is a device that is used to examine surfaces at subatomic levels. The first image by the use of an STM in history revealed the atomic structure of a 7 square inch piece of Silicon, and further use has revealed insights into the behaviour of electrons and other subatomic activities (Chen & Smith, 1994).
The feature that stands out most about the construction of the STM by Dharmadhikari and his research group is the use of what Sekhsaria calls ‘technological jugaad’. Several materials that would conventionally not be considered for an STM, were used. The group used a plastic bobbin taken from a local tailor to attach a coil, which was then put in a magnet and hammered together with a wooden hammer. They used piezoelectric sensors from ink jet printers, a fridge shell to insulate against acoustic noise, stepper motors from junked computers, tubes from car tyres, and several other such unconventional materials. Most of these materials were sourced from local markets, and some were custom made with the help of small workshops. Several scientists and labs from across India approached Dharmadhikari and his team, and their use of the instrument allowed for the team to refine its construction. The STM went on to be used for research that would be published in several leading international journals.
In his book, Sekhsaria also examines attitudes towards work by the research group, and uses this examination to underscore his arguments. Dharmadhikari’s approach was relaxed. His emphasis was on wisdom and knowledge, rather than on publications and movement up the career ladder. Further, scientific research in universities in India was not heavily funded, and most of the funding was directed to work done in research laboratories. As a result, good students did not stay back, and the lack of research coming out of these universities due to a lack of motivated researchers made it harder for Dharmadhikari’s group to ask for greater funding and infrastructure. Also, with most scientific research in India, success is measured by the commercialisation of research. Research for its own sake had never been looked upon very favourably. This can be seen as a result of the connection made between scientific innovation and the progress of the nation in Indian science policy formulated in the early years of independence. This meant that Dharmadhikari’s group, who, according to Sekhsaria, never considered commercialising their instrument, immediately suffered from a lack of credibility.
Further, the jugaad approach taken by Dharmadhikari had people doubting the efficiency and accuracy of the instrument. This, as analysed by Sekhsaria, is partly due to the unvalued status the term Jugaad occupies in the scientific community, and broader society. It is also due to the general idea that jugaad is ineffective, cheap and faulty. Sekhsaria does not elaborate on this, but in my opinion, an argument linking this to issues of class can be made, since it is mostly in rural areas and lower economic classes in urban areas that jugaad as a phenomenon is pervasive, although it exists in some form through all classes.
Finally, Sekhsaria writes about the culmination of this journey — Dharmadhikari’s retirement. A couple of years into his retirement, when Dharmadhikari’s students had completed their research and moved away, his lab was taken up by other researchers, and the equipment was junked. This marked a rather inglorious end to decades of research and also a fascinating story. However, in my opinion, Sekhsaria does not elaborate on this enough, especially since it is possibly the most crucial part. This is the fate of several labs in India, especially since laboratory space is prime real estate. This is the real story that needs to be told, and probably the reason Dharmadhikari agreed to participate in Sekhsaria’s research. Once scientists have retired and their students have graduated, equipment and labs are consigned to ignominy. While it could be due to the lack of infrastructure in universities, the takeaway from this is that there must be some way to preserve and showcase this scientific heritage, if only to show to younger generations alternative voices in the world of scientific research and, simply as a scientific achievement.
Sekhsaria’s book is well written, well thought out, and connects various aspects of the issues associated with scientific research and innovation in India. It helps that the vehicle for these stories is an incredible story, one of the most fascinating I have personally come across. However, certain sections of the book seemed unnecessary, or at least, did not warrant as much elaboration as they received. There are long sections regarding the history of India’s science policy, the nature and use of jugaad. These sections are no doubt contextually important, however, the length of the sections devoted to this information detracts from the reading experience. It also results in lesser emphasis being placed on the crux of the story, which is Dharmadhikari’s story and experience. In my opinion, more emphasis ought to have been placed on the epilogue, which talks about the fate of Dharmadhikari’s lab.
When I was much younger, I would wait excitedly for February every year, for the Open Day organized by the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru. My parents would let me skip school for two days and accompany me to IISc. I would go crazy trying to attend every talk and demonstration they had and simultaneously visit every lab. I would stare in fascination at the equipment in the labs, especially the more exotic ones, like the cryogenics lab. I have always hoped that this access was not limited to two days a year, and only at possibly the most well-known and recognised science institution in India. If there is anything to learn from this book, it is that scientific innovation and research exists everywhere, in forms that we may never imagine. It is important to showcase such innovations just as much as it is to showcase expensive cryogenics equipment. This book is a fine start to highlighting scientific jugaad.
Chen, C., & Smith, W. (1994). Introduction to scanning tunneling microscopy. American Journal of Physics, 62(6), 573-574. https://doi.org/10.1119/1.17525
Vyas, S. (2014, March 15). Doshi Chapter 3- “Indian plan is not centric” [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FqyqjqNEFKg&t=70s.