Early Quest for Science and Adventure
There was one incident which shows how early Birbal acquired his curiosity for the unknown and love of adventure. In 1905 the entire family moved to Murree for the summer. One fine morning he collected a few handkerchiefs and one or two small empty tins and asked his elder sister and brother to accompany him. Little did they realize what they were in for. They left home quietly, without a soul knowing, and descended into the ravine on the north side of the town. They descended further and further till they reached the stream. The downward journey did not seem too difficult though occasions were numerous when Birbal had to help them across ditches and boulders. In the excitement of the chase all count of time was lost, except when the pangs of hunger made things unbearable. And when they started on the return journey, it was already nearing dark. It became more and more difficult to climb and Birbal was faced with the task of first helping one and then the other over the huge boulders which even today appear as mountains in retrospect. Night had already fallen and meanwhile the entire household was in a state of turmoil. The servants had been sent out with lanterns to look for the young explorers, little knowing where to find them, since no one imagined for a moment that they could have gone beyond the environs of the town. They reached home late at night tired, hungry and with bleeding feet, not to speak of the unrestrained stream of tears rolling down our cheeks, with the best prospect of receiving, in addition, a good talking to, to say the least. But young Birbal was quite composed, and when father asked him what he meant by leaving home without permission and taking the youngsters, too, with him, he merely answered that he wanted to collect crabs. This unusual reason almost spelt tragedy though ultimately it also proved their saving. “Crabs, indeed!" was father's first outburst and with it he took a step forward. For a moment everybody thought all was over and their backs began to itch with a queer feeling of expectancy! But such was his own love of adventure and for search after things new, that he immediately checked himself and said nothing more. Birbal accompanied his father on many excursions much more difficult and dangerous. The most notable and exciting of these was crossing of the Machoi glacier not far from the Zoji la Pass in 1911, with little more equipment than rope-made chappals for footwear and a local guide. It was here that looking down, he saw in a gaping chasm a horse standing upright, frozen and preserved in its icy grave. As he bent down to peep into the dark, awe-inspiring fissure, it gave him a shudder and a premonition of consequences, unprepared as he was for such an adventure. It was here that Birbal found and collected red snow (a rare snow alga) during the summer of 1911, just before his departure for England. A part of the sample collected was examined by Prof. Seward and is perhaps still preserved at the Botany School, Cambridge. This was a good introduction for the young botanist at Cambridge, for this alga had not been found for a long time past in India.
Besides his spirit of adventure he had in him a liberal measure of mischief in his early days. Once family stayed at Simla in the house which adjoins the Brahmo Samaj and which they shared with another family. In the small plot that lay between their residence and the Samaj building we had jointly reared vegetable garden. Somehow holiday was cut short, and family had to leave the cool heights of Simla - and of course with it the cucumbers and the half-ripened maize cobs as well. This was too much of a blow, and Birbal conceived the plan to remove all the edible fruit. As if that were not enough, the night prior to our departure, he cut off, under his leadership, the roots of the plants just below the stems with a large pair of scissors. After family left, the plants naturally began to wither slowly, steadily, mysteriously. Was it a fell disease, his erstwhile neighbors thought? They had watered the plants hard enough. Indeed the more they had been watered, the faster they had withered. But neighbors never knew of the secret till they returned to Lahore! and well remember it even now.
In later years the bent for mischief took turn for playfulness. Many will remember his favorite toy monkey which toured with him over many continents and with which he often used to amuse children. This monkey was bought in Munich from a pavement vendor. Birbal had seen some children playing with a similar monkey and was himself much amused at it. After ransacking many shops he was able to purchase an exact replica and often went to the garden where he had erstwhile seen the children at play to 'perform' during the lunch interval to the great pleasure of the little ones.
Birbal was of a rather sensitive nature. He formed deep attachments from his early days, which may be illustrated by an incident during his college career. when the results of the Intermediate examination, at which one of his close and inseparable friends had appeared, were announced. By an inexplicable stroke of misfortune his class fellow was declared unsuccessful. This created not only storm in the house, but almost spelt tragedy, because for at least two days Birbal wept like a child and refused to eat. For a number of days his movements caused anxiety, and it was only very gradually that he reconciled himself to the idea that a friend of his was left one year behind him at college.
Most outstanding was his desire for equity and fair-play. Partly by virtue of being the eldest brother at Lahore (the eldest was then in England) and partly because of his affectionate temperament, the younger brothers and sisters recognized him as an impartial arbitrator in the family. Whether it was a dispute about the ownership of a pencil or a book, or as to who should last switch off the light in the cold winter nights, we all looked to him for a decision, and what is more important, everybody abided by it.
Wide Scientific Interests
Birbal's interests were wide and his discovery of the coin moulds at Rohtak in March 1936 bears witness. This archaeological discovery by a palaeobotanist, with the stroke of a geologist's hammer, symbolizes the vitality and versatility of the man. It is a tribute to his genius that not only did he make this unique discovery, but also threw himself heart and soul into the study of these coin moulds. He published his results in a masterly monograph in the journal of the Numismatic Society in 1945, setting, according to a numismatist, a new standard of research in the subject. For this purpose he set himself to the study of some of the Indian coin moulds as well as those from China. He took keen interest in all geological problems, even those that had no direct bearing upon his palaeobotanical work. But it must be said that, if one scratched him deep enough, one always found a botanist in the core.
Apart from his scientific interests, he was much inclined towards music and he could play on the sitar and the violin. He was also interested in drawing and clay-modeling and he utilized opportunities, whenever he was free from his other work, to visit the Arts School, Luc know, for further acquaintance with these arts.
There was another aspect of Birbal's attitude towards life which comes forcibly to mind and which shows his independent outlook and his love for the science to which he remained devoted throughout life, and in which he was subsequently to make a name for himself and for his country. Father was one of those disciplinarians from whom a mere suggestion was usually enough to settle where the decision lay. He and his friends had sometimes discussed what career the sons were to follow. In the summer of 1911 came Birbal's turn to proceed to England for higher studies. Birbal was asked to prepare for his departure. There could not be much argument about it, but I distinctly remember Birbal's answer: that if it was an order, he would go, but that if his own inclinations in the matter were to be considered, he would take up a research career in Botany, and nothing else. Though this astonished father for a while, yet he consented, for in spite of his strong disciplinarian attitude, he gave perfect freedom of choice in essential matters. Thus it was that Birbal took up a career as a botanist. In this case, perhaps, father's acquiescence was not so difficult, as he had been himself always keen on research and, indeed, after years of service as a professor of chemistry, he went to Manchester where he carried out investigations on radioactivity with Prof. Ernest Rutherford, results of which were subsequently published. Indeed, Birbal helped him there in photographic and other incidental work during the vacations, though he had himself to take the Natural Science Tripos, Part II, in the same year. It scarcely needs repetition that father's example gave the incentive and inspiration for research to all those around him, and not only that; he inculcated a spirit of fearless, shedding the lustre of freedom around himself which played its own part in the independence movement.
Although Birbal gained many academic distinctions but he did not plan to seek them. He invariably had an independent outlook where such matters were concerned, irrespective of consequences. Once during his B.Sc. examination of the Punjab University sitting down the Botany examination he found that question paper set was an exact, or almost exact, replica of the paper set at a previous examination. He thought that such a question paper might give undue advantage to some and an undue handicap others, and that, in any case, it could not be a fair test of knowledge. He got up, handing the (blank) answer sheets to the invigilator against all persuasion, walked out of the hall in protest. When came home within less than half an hour of the commencement of the examination and met father at the doorstep, it was a worthy sight! The surprised parent could not decide whether to show anger or laugh at situation, such as even he as a professor of long standing had never been faced with – a situation comic enough, but, nevertheless, potentially fraught with serious consequences for the University was in no way bound to set a fresh paper to please the impetuosity of a young student. The matter went to the University Syndicate. Birbal one the day, for it was decided that no examiner could be so easy going or disinterested as to pick up an earlier paper and inflict it upon the students, almost to to. A fresh paper was set for him. This shows how well he held the courage of convictions, where even an older man might have been afraid to lose a year so unnecessarily, being well able to answer the questions set.