Nearer Heaven Than Earth (The Life and Times of Boshi Sen and Gertrude Emerson Sen)

Item Code: IDK994
Publisher: Rupa Publication Pvt. Ltd.
Author: Girish N. Mehra
Edition: 2007
ISBN: 812911092X
Pages: 840 (Illustrated Throughout In full Color and B/W)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.4" X 6.3"
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Book Description
From The jacket
Nearer Heaven Than Earth is the story of a remarkable couple. Boshi Sen did his country proud as one of its foremost agricultural scientists, helping the advent of the Green Revolution. A devotee of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, he was an unusual amalgam of rare scientific temper and unwavering faith. His wife, Gertrude Emerson, an American, belonged to the famous Emerson family, one of whose illustrious forbears was the poet-philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson. A founder member of the Society of Woman Geographers, the founding editor of Asia, and generally regarded as the best woman editor in American, she was often referred to as 'Miss Marco Polo', by her peers in America.

The social milieu in rural Bengal at the time of Boshi's birth, his early upbringing. His spiritual journey of two years with his guru, Sadananda, the first disciple of Vivekananda; his twelve years with J.C. Bose in pursuit of science, and his trip along with his master around the world demonstrating the truth of Bose's dictum that one could not draw a line of demarcation and say, 'Here he physical ends and the physiological begins'; his continued spiritual sustenance from Maharaj and the Holy Mother; the coming together of Boshi and Gertrude and their two month stay in the summer of 1972 in Almora where they delved together not only in the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda lore but in the entire gamut of philosophy spanning centuries, of diverse countries in the East and the West and discovering for themselves the underlying unity therein; their marriage and life together later in Almora, on whose horizon rose several, peaks; their home Kundan House, where they, the main dramatis personae, drew unto themselves people from all walks of life - artistes, authors, thinkers, poets, musicians, statesmen, diplomats; how they straddled the Almora scene along with other spiritual colossuses - all together makes for a fascinating and uplifting experience.

Also, in reading about Boshi and Gertrude we come across warm and human glimpses, away from the commonly held impressions and images about them. Of Gandhi, Nehru and Indira Gandhi, Eddington and Einstein, Tagore and Romain Rolland, Carl Gustav Jung and Uday Shankar, with many of whom they had long-lasting, meaningful relationships.

Girish N. Mehra was born in 1932 in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh. His father, a teacher of English in a local high school, drummed into the young but eager ears of his son the rules of the English language and provided him the impetus to excel at it. Mehra did his MA in History in 1952, and simultaneously completed his law degree. He batch with Uttar Pradesh as his cadre.

he was India's director-general of tourism; chief secretary of UP; secretary, Information and Broadcasting; and secretary, Public Enterprises and Company Affairs. He retired in 1992, as India's high commissioner to Canada.

In 1960, he was posted as deputy commissioner, Almora, where he had the good fortune to meet Boshi Sen and Gertrude Emerson who, in no time, became the 'hub' of his universe. He has authored Bhutan - Land of the Peaceful Dragon, which he wrote at the behest of the late king of Bhutan. The present king, Jigme Singye Wangchuk found in him, a man of great sensitivity and refinement.

Currently, he spends his time going for long, walks, befriending the unfortunate and unloved stray dogs, reading and playing bridge.

The book, Nearer Heaven than Earth will remain one of the greatest classical of our time, since the author has brought out, in a very lucid manner, the many dimensions of the life and message of this unique couple. Boshi and Gertrude were not only the true disciples of Swami Vivekananda, but they practised in letter and spirit, his dictum:

Since the book covers the spiritual, scientific, political and humanistic aspects of their lives with authority and precision, i will confine my remarks to certain aspects and incidents relating to my personal contact with this unique couple.

I first met Boshi Sen and Gertrude in the late fifties when I used to go to the Wheat Breeding Station of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) at Bhowali. I knew that Boshi Sen was one of India's leading plant physiologists and that his mission was to take India to a leading position in the world in the field of high altitude crop physiology. It was always a real pleasure to talk to him and to Gertrude on ways of converting poverty into prosperity for the people of the Himalayas. As pointed out by the author, the Sens were great plant introducers and conservers of the environment. They demonstrated the science and art of water conservation in the hills. If Boshi Sen's idea had been followed in other areas like Meghalaya, we would not have witnessed the spectacle of Cherapunji facing acute water shortage during summer months. Gertrude used to point out to me how the pine trees were being killed on the pretext of gum extraction.

The close relationship between the Sens and Jawaharlal Nehru and later Indira Gandhi, will be evident from the various events described in this book. in the early sixties, Jawaharlal Nehru asked Boshi Sen to set up a high altitude research laboratory at Leth to help the people of Ladakh to improve their agriculture. I was at the time the Head of the Division of Botany of IARI, and Boshi Sen used to visit me to collect a wide range of seeds of temperate vegetables, legumes, barley, etc. His enthusiasm for transforming the agriculture of Ladakh was infectious. He was fascinated by the opportunity for green house horticulture in Ladakh, supported by geothermal energy. He used to bring huge cauliflowers and cabbages from Ladakh and explain how long days (i.e. over twelve hours of sunshine) and mild temperatures help plants to exhibit a high degree of physiologic efficiency. He exhibited an enthusiasm which, unfortunately, we do not see in scientists half his age today.

I would like to narrate an incident in support of the author's portrayal of Sen as one to whom science and spirituality were two sides of the same coin. In 1962, I had proposed to the Government of India (Ministry of Agriculture) through Dr. B.P. Pal, the then Director of IARI that we should launch a dynamic programme of dwarf wheat breeding and that for this purpose we should invite Dr Norman E Borlaug from Mexico to visit us and also provide seeds of his dwarf wheat varieties. Dr Borlaug visited India for a month 1963 and I look him to various wheat farms. As a result, he sent us a wide range of dwarf wheats in September 1963. Some of the Mexican wheat varieties like Lerma Rojo 64-A and Sonora 64 did very well under our conditions. They constituted the initial material for launching India's wheat revolution (See, M.S. Swaminathan 1993, Wheat Revolution - A Dialogue, Macmillan & India Ltd, Madras pp. 164) The Rockefeller Foundation then offered to provide a wheat scientist to intensify our programme. I had met Dr Glen Anderson of Canada in 1963 in Lund, Sweden at a Wheat Genetics Symposium. I requested the Rockefeller Foundation to provide the services of Dr Anderson. Glen came on a preliminary visit to India in March 1964. I took him to various parts of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Towards the end of our field visits, I took Glen to Almora and we stayed overnight with the Sens. In the evening, Boshi asked Glen whether he would also like to join in the evening prayer. He did not want to leave him alone, since Gertrude and I were to be in the prayer room. Glen enthusiastically welcomed the invitation. Towards the end of the prayer session, Boshi suddenly took out a small box containing a few hair of Swami Vivekananda. He then placed it on our heads and said, "The wheat programme will be a great success. "Even today, I feel Boshi Sen's blessings at the beginning of our important factor in ensuring its success on the lines envisaged in the IARI publication Five Years of Dwarf Wheats - 1963 to 1968.

In July 1968, Indira Gandhi released a stamp titled 'Wheat Revolution'. I then wrote to Boshi Sen that his blessings in April 1964 had provided the spiritual force behind the wheat revolution. Dr Anderson and I also called on him to express our gratitude. It is sad that both Drs Boshi Sen and Anderson are no more. They were both not only great scientists but equally great humanists.

Boshi Sen started getting worried about the future of the Vivekananda Laboratory which he, ably assisted by Gertrude, had built up with love and dedication. After I became the director general of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), Boshi Sen asked me whether ICAR could take over the Institute in order to ensure its long tern sustainability. I welcomed the idea with enthusiasm and got the approval of the Governing Body of ICAR for incorporating the Vivekananda Laboratory in to ICAR family. Boshi Sen made only the following two requests.

First, the name Vivekananda should always be associated the institution. Second, Kundan House should be available to Gertrude during her lifetime for her stay.

Both these conditions were accepted and I requested Gertrude to serve as honorary advisor to the institute, in which position she served until her death. Today, the seed sown by Boshi and Gertrude Sen in the form of the Vivekananda Laboratory has grown into a large institute known as 'Vivekananda Parvatiya Krishi Anusandhan Sansthan.'

Gertrude's love for trees and nature was infection. I wish to quote Joyce Kilmer's poem which Gertrude used to refer to often:

"I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest

Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all days,

And lifts her leafy arms to Pray:

A tree that may in Summer hear

A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;

Who infinitely lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree".

My wife Mina and daughter Soumya, Madhura and Nitya have stayed at Kundan House a few times. The children were very happy there and they loved seeing the Himalayan peaks from the varandah of Kundan House as soon as they woke up in the morning. Gertrude was a shrewd observer. My youngest daughter Nitya was very attached to me and used to come to my bed at night when she was only eight or nine years old. Gertrude somehow guessed that Nitya liked to stay with me at night. Such was her thoughtfulness that she used to arrange a large bed for me and tell Nitya at night, "You better get into your father's bed." Nitya was extremely touched by this gesture and always used to wonder, "How did Auntie guess what I would like to do?

I hope G.N. Mehra's book will be widely read by young scholars since it deals with not only the life and message of two extraordinary persons, but also the importance of matching the technology push with an ethical pull. Boshi Sen always looked at opportunities and was not overwhelmed by difficulties. On the day he arrived in Almora to set up his laboratory, he wanted to start his scientific work. He had no instruments or laboratory. He took out a litmus papers and studied whether the rain water was acidic or alkaline. This was his scientific temper. I hope this book will help everyone to imbibe this spirit.

As an admirer of Boshi and Gertrude and a believer in the values they represented, I am personality grateful to the author for his labour of loved in dealing with their many splendoured personalities with understanding, sensitivity and warmth. Be it about Boshi's spiritual journey with his Guru, Swami Sadananda or his pursuit of science with J.C. Bose; about the aura of grace and dignity that sparkled their personalities or the love and concern that flowed from their persons; about their cheerful resignation to whatever life had to offer them or their love of fun; about the serenity and beauty surrounding their home or the wit and wisdom permeating Kundan House itself; and about the deeply moving account of the author's own remembrance of them; all these and more have been delineated with insight, passion and panache.

I would like to conclude with the following poem of Rainer Maria Rilke which captures the personalities of Boshi and Gertrude Sen.

"Again and again in history

Same special people wake up

They have no ground in the crowed

They move to broader laws

They carry strange customs with them

And demand room for bold audacious actions

The future speaks ruthlessly through them

They change the world."

Author's Note
For the convenience of the readers, especially western readers, I have, in the main part of the book, referred to the Sens by their names - Boshi and Gertrude. I must confess, though, that I feel small in doing so as it goes against the Hindu tradition which teaches us that one does not call loved and respected elders by their names. So, when I came to write my personal remembrances, I just could not bring myself to address them by their names, they being my spiritual parents. I have, therefore, referred to them as Boshida and Boudi, the way I addressed them while they lived.

Back of The
'I am glad know that you have completed your book on Boshida and Boudi. I first heard of Boudi when I was in Mysore ashram in 1920s, reading regularly the Asia magazine of New York to which was associated a Gertrude Emerson. Later on Gertrude Emerson came to India to become (our) Boudi. I visited more than once in Almora their residence…I loved them very much.

'By this book you are doing a great service to bring (alive) the memories of great ones.'

'Nearer Heaven Than Earth is not only written lucid account of the lives of Boshi Sen and Gertrude Emerson Sen but also gives into life and thoughts of Vivekananda, Sadananda, Sir J.C. Bose and others. There are also many interesting vignettes of people they knew such as Indira Gandhi. But what I found particularly moving is how this incredible couple affected the life of the author and his family. An enjoyable read.'


Foreword by M.S. Swaminathanxi
Author's Notexxiii
1.Boshi - The Beginning1
2.Boshi - The Spiritual Search21
3.Boshi - The Pursuit of Science 53
4.Gertrude - The Origin83
5.Gertrude - Wandering of a Tumbleweed Fascination with the East133
6.Gertrude - More Wandering of the Tumbleweed Through the Lands of the Prophet and Omar Khayyam181
7.Boshi - Science and Saintliness229
8.Boshi and Gertrude - A Miracle in the Making309
9.Boshi and Gertrude - One in a Million407
10.Gertrude - Sans Boshi600
11.Remembering them - A Touch of Bliss691
12.'90 Pounds of Courage'738

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