In 1979, Pakistani scientist Abdus Salam took home the Nobel Prize for Physics. His remarkable work in particle physics laid the groundwork for the discovery of the Higgs Boson, which is popularly known as the ‘God Particle.’
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Ideally, an achievement like this would be celebrated in Salam’s home country even today. Unfortunately, four decades since the Nobel Prize, Salam remains mostly forgotten in Pakistan. This is because he was from the Ahmadiyya community, an Islamic sect long persecuted by the establishment in Pakistan.
A recent must-watch documentary on Netflix titled, “Salam, The First ****** Nobel Laureate” seeks to shed light on his scientific achievements.
In the midst of that, there is a profoundly poignant chapter which deserves a mention.
When Dr Salam won the Nobel Prize in December 1979, he issued a request to the Indian government seeking to locate his teacher Professor Anilendra Ganguly, who had taught him mathematics at the Sanatan Dharma College in Lahore.
However, following Partition, Professor Ganguly had migrated to India.
Finally, two years after winning the Nobel Prize, Dr Salam went to pay his respects to Professor Ganguly at the latter’s residence in South Kolkata on January 19, 1981.
But why did he seek Professor Ganguly?
Well, Dr Salam believed that it was him who had inculcated his passion for mathematics.
“The teacher was feeble and unable to sit up and greet him when Dr Salam visited him in his house. Dr Salam took his Nobel medal and said that ‘Mr Anilendra Ganguly this medal is a result of your teaching and love of mathematics that you instilled in me,’ and he put the medal around his teachers’ neck,” writes Zia H Shah MD, a New York-based physician and Chief Editor of the Muslim Times, in this article.
His son narrates another version of the story in the Netflix documentary.
“He took the medal to his teacher in India, who was a very old [man] by then. His teacher was lying flat on his back and couldn’t get out of bed. And there is a picture of my father putting the medal (Nobel Prize) into his hands… And he told him, ‘This is your prize Sir. It’s not mine.’”
It was the ultimate tribute to a teacher that went far beyond the parochial limits of religion and nation.
But this isn’t where the story ends.
According to this fascinating Twitter thread by Indian journalist Sanobar Fatma, in 1981 the University of Calcutta decided to award Dr Salam the Debaprasad Sarbadhikary Gold Medal to honour his achievements. Instead of accepting the award, Dr Salam refused and said it was his teacher who deserved it.
“The University later held at an award ceremony in an ailing Anilendranath’s South Calcutta residence in 1981, Dr Abdus Salam was present to see his revered teacher getting his due respect at last. A contented Anil babu died shortly thereafter in 1982,” read the tweet.
This was in line with the famous guru-shishya (teacher-disciple) tradition that many around the world, particularly Indians, hold dear.
It’s a real shame Dr Salam never received the same regard back home from his people except for a few students because of his faith, something which he held very dear.
However, his magnanimous gesture of paying respect to a teacher, who because of historical events was now from another country, is a testament to the fortitude and humility of the physicist who was as devoted to science as he was to his faith and nationality.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)
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