Bouquet of Flowers Emerging from the Grass, Northwestern India, Bundi, Rajput Kingdom of Rajasthan, c. 1750

The Man Who Listened to Plants

Reading Jagadish Chandra Bose’s botanical language

IF A PARENT WORRIES FOR THEIR CHILD, what do the childless worry about? This is not a question that has been put to me yet, but it is one that I have imagined a few times. Every time you hear of a plane crash, you think of your own child. You are grateful that they were not on that plane. I read these words in Reader’s Digest when I was in middle school, when I couldn’t have known what it meant to be either—parent or child. A life with my parents, and later with friends and acquaintances, produced this shorthand: a parent was someone who worried for their children, the worries changing contours at different stages of life. But none of this might have come to me had I not met a similar strain of worry in the work of Jagadish Chandra Bose.

Bose, if you don’t know him, was the scientist who managed to convince a largely skeptical world that plants are living beings. I first encountered his work in an essay called “Ahoto Udbhid” (“Injured Plant”), in which he records a plant’s response to different kinds of stimuli. Passionate and defensive in his argument, Bose, groping for analogies that would convey the emotional and intellectual stature he discerned in plants, turns to schoolchildren:

I hit the plant with a cane. The plant’s growth reduced immediately. It took the plant more than half an hour to forget this injury. After that it began growing spontaneously as before. O cane-wielding schoolmaster, there is no doubt that some have become judges of the High Court because of being pulled by the ears by you. That boys would grow tall because of being struck by your cane is doubtful though. All kinds of injury stunt growth.

Who was this man who hit plants with a cane and imagined how it would feel to pull them by the ears, if they had ears?

Born to a Brahmo Samaj family in Munshiganj (what is now Bangladesh), Jagadish Chandra studied in Kolkata’s Hare School and St. Xavier’s College, though he also spent time in Faridpur and Bardhaman, where his father, Bhagawan Chandra Bose, was posted as deputy magistrate. Bhagawan insisted that his son study in a Bangla language school before he was forced to acquire the English language, and he would maintain affection and patriotism for his native tongue throughout his life. “The language that a man learns in his mother’s arms is the language in which he expresses his happiness and sorrow,” he writes in the preface to Abyakta, a collection of his essays published in 1922.

Jagadish Chandra went on to study the natural sciences at the University of Cambridge and University College London, following which he returned to teach at Presidency University in Kolkata. He would eventually establish the Bose Institute in 1917, where most of his research instruments are still preserved. But even as his international profile rose, his ambitions remained rooted in Bangla:

About thirty years ago, a few of my scientific writings and other essays had been written in English. I had started researching on electric waves and life, and that led to my involvement in several legal cases. The court for this is abroad, where arguments can only be made in the European languages. . . . Isn’t this insulting to our national life, to the life of our jaati? To redeem this, I have tried to establish a scientific court in this country. I might not live to see the fruit of this; the fate of scientific institutions is in the hands of god.


BOSE IS SAID TO HAVE ACCIDENTALLY stepped on Mimosa pudica (lajjabati in Bangla, meaning “shy one” or “shameplant”) and, surprised by the folding of its leaves, decided to find out more about plant behavior, their response and ways of communication. “Is there any possible relation between our own life and that of the plant world?” This question, which we find recurring throughout Jagadish Chandra’s work, propelled much of his research. He names Western scientists who have refused to accept that plants are living beings. Writing to his friend Rabin-dranath Tagore, he says:

What I am doing is against accepted opinion. Just as cutting a tree from near its root leads to its fall, its rest on the earth, similarly with many old theories. Many things will need to be rewritten, and written afresh, and, for this, battles will have to be fought with old conventional thought. What I have discovered gives me a lot of courage, but patience—patience patience. This virtue we lack.

Thirteen years later, two months before the start of World War I, Jagadish Bose gave a talk entitled “Plant Autographs and their Revelations” to the Royal Institution of Great Britain. The concept of autographs, scripts, and handwriting is of great important to Bose. It is a manifestation of response that he understands as the claim of the living: to argue in language, to argue in writing. The talk begins with the science of handwriting:

There are professors of sciences bordering on the mystical, who declare that they can discriminate the character and disposition of anyone simply by a careful observation of his handwriting. As to the authenticity of such claims, skepticism is permissible: but there is no doubt that one’s handwriting may be modified profoundly by conditions physical and mental.

Bose recognizes the unreliability of such a science, but still adopts it to frame his discussion of plant behavior:

Such, then, is the history that may be unfolded to the critical eye by the lines and curves of a human autograph. Under a placid exterior, there is also a hidden history in the life of the plant. Storm and sunshine, the warmth of summer and the frost of winter, drought and rain, all these and many more come and go about the plant. What coercion do they exercise upon it? What subtle impress do they leave behind? Is it possible to make the plants write down their own autographs, and thus reveal their hidden history?

What Bose seeks, therefore, is not “autograph” alone, but rather the auto-biography that it reveals, the “hidden history,” the “unsaid” (abyakto) of the plants. Writing at the height of modernism, when autobiography was the entry point for those who had been kept out of “literature” and “culture” by gatekeepers, this urge seems natural. After all, the sciences can tell a story—of an animal, an object, an element, a star, or, of course, a plant. Bose is signaling for a move away from a literature about the other and toward a directness that has been denied to almost everyone. He is challenging the Aristotelian hierarchy of “living beings” in which plants sink to the bottom. He is trying to parse a language where none was said to exist.


I’M OFTEN TOLD THAT JAGADISH BOSE and his wife, the feminist and social activist Abala Bose, had no children of their own—as if this information was meant to ferry some deeper meaning. A colleague at a college where I once taught, a professor of physics, first told me this. “You are like Jagadish Chandra Bose,” he said to me, “a plant-mad parent who could not have children of his own.” It was a lack, my childlessness. Or not just a lack, it was a wrong.

I can’t quite remember how the lack began, though I do remember the transition from “When will you have a child?” to “Why don’t you have a child?” At some point later, it changed to “Because you don’t have children . . .” as in, because I didn’t have children, I had become a “plant parent.” I dislike that phrase, dislike its characterization, dislike how it alternates between consolation and moral superiority, how it turns plant life into an other, how parenting is turned into the likeness of a genre. But there it was—because I did not have children, I had started mothering plants. Had Jagadish Bose done the same?

He would go on to propose a torulipi, a plant script based on a record of a plant’s responses to different kinds of stimuli, condensing a metaphor into a compound word: brikkhoshishu, or plant-infant. In “Udbhider Jonmo O Mrityu” (“The Birth and Death of Plants”), he writes, “Infants do not have teeth; they only drink milk. Plants too do not have teeth—that is why they can only partake of liquid and air.” A few sentences later, he returns to the image: “Leaves have many tiny mouths. Seen closely with a microscope, all these mouths reveal tiny lips. When they no longer need food, the lips close.” The metaphor occurs repeatedly throughout his work: “The seed hides under the earth for a long time. Months go by. Spring follows winter. Then the rains start—a day of rain. There is no need to hide anymore. It is as if someone is calling the child from outside, ‘Don’t sleep anymore, climb out now, you’ll see the light of the sun.’” And: “Have you seen a seedling sprout out of the earth? It seems like a child is raising its tiny head to watch a new world with wonder.” And: “Rejecting the darkness of the marginalized forests, the plant-child lifts its head.”

As a metaphor, this would mean little had it not driven his curiosity to actually articulate a language of plants. In another essay, we see Bose defending his ambition to understand plant linguistics—if I may call it that—by referring to the plant-child equivalence:

Do plants say anything? Many will say, What kind of a question is this? Have plants ever spoken? Can man express himself clearly? And what he cannot express, is it not language? We have a child—he cannot speak clearly; the few words that come out of him are so half-formed and even broken that it is impossible for anyone to understand their meaning. But we can understand everything that our child says. Not just that though. There are many things that our little boy does not say aloud in words; his eyes, the movements of his face and hands, the shaking of his head—he speaks through these gestures, we understand that language as well, but others don’t. One day a pigeon from a neighboring house came and sat on our house—it then began cooing and grunting at the top of its voice. Our little boy was thus introduced to the pigeon; he soon began imitating the pigeon’s doob doob. How does the pigeon call? As soon as we asked him this, he would imitate the bird’s call. . . .

Returning home one day, I found the little boy with fever; a severe headache had made him lie limp on the bed. The naughty boy who prances around the house restlessly all day was now struggling to even open his eyes. I sat by his bed and ran my fingers through his hair. Recognizing me from my touch, he opened his eyes with a lot of effort and looked at me. He then made the pigeon-sound. I heard many things in his pigeon-call. I understood that the little boy was saying, “You’ve come to see the little boy? The little boy loves you a lot.” I understood several other things, things that I wouldn’t be able to express in words.

If you ask me how I could hear so many things in that pigeon call, there is only one answer—it is because I love the little boy. You have seen that by looking at her son’s face a mother understands what he wants. Often there is no need for words. If one observes from love, many qualities are revealed, one is able to hear many things.

In his presidential address at the literary conference in Mymensingh in April 1911, which would later be published as “Literature and Science,” Bose deliberates on the “caste system” in academia, the relationship between poetry and science, the “invisible” and the “unvoiced,” the first being light, the second being living forms whose language we do not understand. He then turns to communication between plants and humans, and how it is necessary for plants to write their own “script.” “It is comparatively easy to make a rebellious child obey; to extort answers from plants is indeed a problem!” The words that follow are borne of guilt, confessions of “various acts of cruelty” he has enacted in his research. “I have from time to time perpetrated on unoffending plants, in order to compel them to give me answers. For this purpose, I have devised various forms of torment—pinches simple and revolving, pricks with needles, and burns with acids. But let this pass. I now understand that replies so forced are unnatural, and of no value. Evidence so obtained is not to be trusted.” This is the voice not of a scientist but of a parent—one who realizes, in retrospect, the guilt of having had their way.


I’ve often found myself distracted by the word nursery—a word for a space where both saplings and children are nurtured in their early life.


IT IS HARD TO SAY, EVEN WHEN propelled by great investigative energy such as what possessed me, where Bose’s emotional vocabulary, of plants as children of those without offspring, might have come from. The writer Dakshinaranjan Majumdar had collected grandmothers’ tales from villages and provinces in Bengal in the late nineteenth century and published them in 1907 with a preface by Rabindranath Tagore: “Sadly, this bag of mouth-watering tales is being supplanted by imports from England,” Tagore writes. “The worst sufferers are the children. . . . Can a newborn baby who is fed barley water instead of nourishing mother’s milk ever grow into a healthy child?” (It’s the same anxiety about language we hear in Bose’s thoughts about the use of Bangla in scientific argument; the child-mother metaphor is not an accident.) Through these tales of kings and queens, good and evil, and fantastic kingdoms runs a common motif— perhaps only visible to those who would have noticed it, for deprivation and accusations of lack make us notice things we might not have otherwise. The queen—the woman—must bear a child, and, for this, different cures are invoked: worship, fasts, sacrifices, donations, rituals, austerity, piety, and, when everything else fails, a trust in the miraculous power of plants. A wandering yogi, passing through the kingdom of the childless king, would leave a root, a tuber, or some leaf for his many wives to grind into a paste and then share among themselves. Then the miracle would happen: the queens would all get pregnant. There are many variations on what followed after this: sometimes the women bear animals instead of humans, sometimes the newborn are kidnapped or smuggled out of the palace by jealous queens, and so on.

We find the same preoccupation in Tagore’s own work. Bose, whom Tagore refers to as his “first friend,” often visited the Tagore household. He taught Tagore’s son, Rathindranath, to trace turtle footprints and search for their eggs. “He would make all of us dig pits in the sand and with wet towels round our heads lie down in them to sub-bathe,” Rathindranath recalls. It was a friendship rich with the exchange of ideas: Tagore would read a new short story to Bose, and Bose would share the results from a new plant experiment. Rathindranath continues:

Jagadish Chandra was at this time making experiments to compare the reactions on the Living and Non-living to different kinds of stimuli. He believed the results he had obtained with the help of the delicate instruments he had invented would revolutionize the current conceptions held by the scientists regarding the nature of life. . . . When Jagadish was satisfied that he had obtained sufficient convincing data to acquaint the scientific world of his discoveries, he wanted to go to England to give actual demonstrations of his experiments to scientists in order to convince them of the truth of his deductions. Father approached the Maharaja of Tripura and was able to get from him sufficient money not only to enable Jaga-dish to go abroad but to fit up his laboratory with the equipment that he badly needed.

In Tagore’s novella The Broken Nest, the childless Charulata discovers her romantic feelings for her brother-in-law, Amal, while discussing the “garden of their dreams.” But there is a difference between the two quasi-lovers in their botanical imagination: the woman is an internationalist, the man is more of a local patriot. “The plan was to get seeds of cloves from Mauritius, of sandalwood from Karnat, and of cinnamon from Ceylon, but when Amal proposed replacing them with seeds of everyday Indian and English plants from the local market, Charu looked glum.” The relationship doesn’t flower, and neither does the garden.

In Malancha (The Arbour) we see Neeraja, a sick, childless wife, worrying about her garden endlessly. “Neeraja couldn’t help but recall an image from the past. It wasn’t all that long ago, but still it felt like history; from eons ago, from across a vast continent. An ancient neem tree stood on the western side of the garden. It had had a partner in a similar tree, but that one had decayed and died a long time ago.” The garden, with a neem tree losing its “partner” to “decay,” is of course a metaphor for Neeraja’s marriage. Her husband, Aditya, had once made a habit of leaving a handpicked flower by her bedside. “Since we’ve been married,” he tells her, “I have come to realize that your garden is as precious to you as your heart; I considered the garden no different from myself ever since. Or else I’d have quarreled bitterly with your garden and I’d never have been able to bear it. It would have been my rival in love. You know how I have merged it within myself. How I have become one with it.” Neeraja is at first uneasy with this equivalence: “Are you telling me that my garden should be on a sickbed just because I am?”

“For the first time he forgot my regular morning flowers,” Neeraja recalls later in the novel. “And now Aditya had chosen to send the day’s special flower with Sarala,” an attractive, playful relative. In her grief over her marriage, Neeraja feels “banished from the very garden—so near and yet so far—that had claimed her heart, the heart of the childless mother.”

I will confess that I’ve often found myself distracted by the word nursery when reading these novels by Tagore—a word for a space where both saplings and children are nurtured in their early life.


EVERY TIME YOU HEAR OF A PLANE CRASH, you think of your own child. You are grateful that they were not on that plane. And every time a heat wave comes, I think of my plants, particularly of the thin ones, the ones that look like children even after years in a pot, and I worry for them. Even if I had children, I think I would still worry about plants, both those in my house and garden and elsewhere. “Seeds are a plant’s children,” Bose writes. “All plants leave behind children before they die.” Like a vulture, I orbit around this statement. Is this what distinguishes plants from humans? It is possible that we are all parents, irrespective of our age. It is also possible that to care for others, even for those who do not look like us or do not bleed when injured, is not necessarily the exclusive mark of a parent.

In another essay, Bose writes about a plant’s sacrifice: “The plant nurtures its seeds with the juice in its body. It does not care for its own body anymore. It distributes everything of itself bit by bit to its children. The body which was alive and healthy even until a few days ago begins to wither. The wind would once shake its leaves with a hoo hoo sound. Now the drying plant cannot bear the pressure of the air. Thhor thhor—the plant trembles with just one slap of the wind. Branches break one by one. And one day the plant breaks, it falls to the ground. This is how a plant sacrifices its life for its children and dies.” But what about Charulata and Neeraja in Tagore’s stories? What about Rathindranath and Bose and myself? Without children, can we not distribute everything of ourselves “bit by bit” to another? How are we to die? Should we be allowed to die at all, without this “sacrifice?” Bose and Rathindranath were allowed to die—but, then, one investigated plant behavior, the other designed gardens. I, I’m still here.


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Sumana Roy is the author of several works of nonfiction and poetry, including How I Became a Tree. She teaches at Ashoka University in Haryana, India.