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Pioneering science writing in Tamil

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P.N. (PéNaa) Appuswami Iyer
P.N. (PéNaa) Appuswami Iyer

My reference to P.N. (PéNaa) Appuswami Iyer as a science writer (Miscellany, July 15) has a couple of readers wanting to know more about him.

A prolific writer on science and other cerebral subjects in both Tamil and English, Appuswami came to the attention of the public in 1917 when, as a 26-year-old, he translated Einstein’s Theory of Relativity into Tamil, attempting to make it understandable to the average Tamil reader. A Chemistry and Law graduate, Appuswami thereafter began to concentrate on what was best done with what he in time began to be called, ‘PéNaa’. Starting with science textbooks for high schools and colleges, between 1925 and 1935 he moved on to writing popular books on science for children and the lay reader in Tamil and English. Among his titles, most of them brought out by Higginbotham’s during its publishing heydays were books explaining electricity, the radio, the atom, and X-rays and what could be achieved with these marvels of science.

He was clear in his mind about what he wanted to achieve by focussing on such writing. He once said, “I want to impart the message of Science and Scientific spirit to the people of Tamil Nadu in their own mother tongue. This is my life’s passion and mission. In order to pursue and achieve this objective, I want to impart lessons in elementary science following the traditional pedagogic method of serving bitter pills of scientific knowledge suitably dressed as sugar-coated pills.” Recognition of his efforts came in the form of awards from the University of Madras, the Central Government and UNESCO, recognising not only academic excellence but effective mass communication.

In the last two decades of his life, Appuswami undertook two major translation projects. One was under the American PL-480 programme when Higginbotham’s published a series of titles on serious subjects translated into Tamil. Appuswami’s translations included books on the nuclear future, the literature of the United States and a biography of Lyndon Johnson. For the Sangam translations into English when he was in his early 90s, Appuswami kept in touch with V. Sundaram, I.A.S., who at the time was Chairman, Tuticorin Port Trust. He told Sundaram that “Sangam literature … (was) the one serious and enduring achievement of the Tamil race…” and sought “careful scrutiny and helpful criticism.”

His original work and translations on a variety of subjects drew to him experts in several fields and these interactions led to lifelong friendships. His role in Kalaimagal (Miscellany, July 15) drew many others to him. The result was a weekly gathering of a host of intellectuals, every Saturday at 4 p.m., in his house in Mylapore. These gatherings, from nearly a quarter century before Independence, were occasions for scholarly discussions on a plethora of subjects by those who came to be called ‘The Bloomsbury Group of Mylapore’.

But that was not the only discussion group Appuswami founded. He founded two informal ‘clubs’, ‘Vignana Peravai’ and ‘Vignana Medai’ that organised popular lectures on science and welcomed public participation. Indeed, spreading knowledge among the Tamil people was the focus of PéNaa Appuswami’s life. No wonder V. Sundaram calls him ‘The Apostle of Scientific Writing in Tamil’.

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