Civility’ of speech has become a scarce commodity. I am especially inclined to explain the dictionary meaning of the word ‘civility’ which is derived from the French word civilite and civilitas from Latin. The word refers categorically to behavioural courtesy or speech which now transpires to be a rare quality in our society, particularly in India.

Indian politicians are engaged in mud-slinging against their opponents, the use of street language, and showing discourteous behaviour. This has tarnished our democracy, the standard of decency and etiquette in political discourse. Civility has also been relegated in the centres of higher learning, in universities and colleges too, with learned teachers with sagacity and sensitive students confront each other with disrespect and belligerent behaviour.

The situation prevailing is unfortunate, indeed the manifestation of grave intolerance. It recalls the statement of the distinguished Professor and author, Pramathanath Bishi, of the University of Calcutta ~” I have the privilege of witnessing foolishness of learned man, as also the sagacity of fools, both during the entire tenure of my career in the university. About 75 years ago, when I was a student in school, the teachers frequently reminded us that the holy institution is sacrosanct and we should speak here with fear.

Amidst this distressing ambience prevailing in the political sphere as well as in the seats of learning, I remember the dignity, polite, amicable, affable and easily approachable, gentle, hospitable human being, with the heart of a Bengali mother. He was a personality of the Bengal Renaissance, who was born in the same year as Tagore and was a man of vision, courage and indomitable energy. He is Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy, now a forgotten soul. Mahatma Gandhi wrote: “I had the privilege of knowing Sir PC Roy for the first time when Gokhale was his next-door neighbour in 1901 and I was undergoing tutelage under the latter. It was difficult to believe that the man in simple Indian dress and wearing simple manners could possibly be the great scientist and Professor he even then was. And it took my breath away when I heard that out of his princely salary he kept only a few rupees for himself and the rest he devoted to public uses and particularly for helping poor students.”

The association of plain living and high thinking is always very rare; in addition to these qualities, there was in Sir PC Ray the element of vigorous action which knows no rest. The combination of such qualities in a single individual is indeed rare in any country, and there can be no higher example for the young generation to emulate than the life of this great teacher, as Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose had observed. Prafulla Chandra Ray achieved greatness by his remarkable activities in numerous fields of life. A renowned professor, pioneer of chemical research and chemical education in India including the establishment of chemical industries, he should be identified with the spirit of selfless service to humanity. Acharya PC Ray is also regarded as a great scientist ‘outside the test tube’. He rushed to the affected areas during famine, floods or natural calamities and his relentless social work for the under-privileged is really a rare example.

Acharya Ray led a crusade against all forms of superstition and obscurantism. He earnestly tried to eliminate the prejudice of ‘untouchability and casteism.’ He advocated proper emphasis on the mother language in the learning process. At the same time he was in favour of English education. He established the Chemical Society of India, and nurtured several eminent students, who later promoted modern chemical education in the country.

They include JC Mukherjee, JC Ghosh, JC Roy, Prafulla Kumar Bose and many others. The renowned scientist and professor, Ashima Chatterjee of Calcutta University, was closely associated with Prafulla Kumar Bose for the advancement of research. Acharya Ray’s students were stalwarts, pre-eminently S N Bose and Meghnad Saha. He was in favour of spreading the ideology of Bramho Samaj throughout his life. He was also remembered for his remarkable sense of humour, satire and wit. During his felicitation at the University of Calcutta, when the title of Knight was conferred on him, Prof Ray had modestly said: “The British Government does not want to keep me under the sun; on the contrary it has arranged to plunge me in the darkness of ‘night’.”

Admiring Sir Ray’s intellectual accomplishments, Dr HE Armstrong said: “In type Prof. Ray, was perhaps more like a Frenchman than an Englishman. The nearest comparison I can make is to contrast him with Berthelot, not only a many-sided chemist but also an agronomist, a man of letters and a politician.” Coming from a British scientist, it was an unusual tribute, for it was not only recognition of Dr. Ray’s genius as a scientist but also recognition of his worth in other fields as well. Obviously it is an appreciation of his work as a man of letters.

In the present sordid scenario of human values, it is absolutely imperative to recall this appreciation and to apprise the present generation that the father of Indian chemical science was not only intellectually astute but possessed many other qualities. Acharya Ray was an affectionate teacher, patriot, nation builder, master of languages, fostered industries in the country, a humanist, possessed a fine literary culture, and has been held in loving remembrance by his countrymen.

According to Rajendra Prasad, India’s first President, ‘Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray, a scientist, social reformer, was not only a pioneer of chemical education, research and chemical industries in the country, but he was also something more. The interest which his name arouses is much wider and his title to recognition is much greater. He practically immersed himself for the social, intellectual, cultural and economic regeneration of India, struggling for a place among the free nations of the world. His sincere patriotism, his life of an ascetic, his sympathy for the poor, his unfailing solicitude for the welfare of students, and his ready accessibility won him love, reverence and admiration of all. Acharya Ray revived and handed on the flame ~ the pursuit of truth ~ which once burnt so brightly in India, and he has left behind an example of service and sacrifice for his countrymen to follow for the fulfillment and enrichment of their lives.

I had the privilege of being his pupil, while studying in Presidency College, Calcutta, and it will be no exaggeration to state that many of us were infused by the spirit of our Master and even inspired by his ideal and example to dedicate ourselves to the service of our country. Sarojini Naidu, who was known for her remarkable sense of humour, once remarked, “We have to spend enormous sums of money to keep Bapuji living in poverty”. But this remark is in no way be applicable for Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray, who may also be referred to as a ‘half naked fakir of India’.

(The writer, a former Reader in Chemistry at Presidency College, Kolkata, was associated with UGC and UNICEF)