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Discovering what we don't know

Last updated on: July 27, 2007 15:41 IST

I stared at the sheaf of photocopied reading material that the instructor had distributed to our class, anger welling up inside me.

"Many years had passed during which nothing of Combray . . . had any existence for me . . .," said the opening line of the reading. What possible relevance could this reading in old-fashioned, stilted English have to what I had joined this class to learn?

I glanced around at the rest of the class of two dozen or so New Yorkers who had committed themselves to the gruelling schedule of two hours of evening class after work every week to polish our creative non-fiction-writing skills at New School, New York.

It was shortly after the dramatic events of 9/11 and everyone in New York was trying to find meaning to things through writing and reading and activities like that. The Whoopi Goldberg look-alike African-American woman, who usually sat next to me, seemed unperturbed. Was I the only one who found this old-fashioned reading material irrelevant?

I took another shot at the reading: ". . . one day, in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, something that I did not ordinarily take. . ." My sense of frustration only increased. Why didn't the instructor just give us a list of five things to do to improve our writing styles instead of making us wade through this kind of stuff?

I could barely wait for the class to end that day. As I stepped out into the cold, New York night on my trudge back home, I did not even stop to drop a coin, as I usually do, into the bowl of the man and his mangy dog huddled in one of the doorways on 10th Street.

Later that night, with no deadlines to chase I decided to take another shot at the reading, picking up at the point where I had left off, the part where the narrator is in the French town of Combray and has just been offered tea by his mother.

". . . I declined at first, and then for particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for those short, plump little cakes called 'petite madeleines'. . ." I found myself getting drawn into the reading now. When I looked up an hour had passed and I had unwittingly read several thousand words of the reading.

As many a reader may have guessed by now, the reading which I had found "irrelevant" and caused me so much irritation but which I was now deeply engrossed in was the opening passage of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Published in 1913, many consider it the first novel of the 20th century, setting the stage for the "modern" novel. Graham Greene called Proust the "greatest novelist of the 20th century", and W Somerset Maugham called the novel the "greatest fiction to date".

What had caused this intense sense of frustration and irritation in me when the young instructor at New School in Manhattan first gave me this reading? Was it that I did not "know" that Proust was such a great author or that In Search of Lost Time was such an epochal novel? If he had told me this, would I have then got to know something that I did not know -- that Proust was such a great author?

Recognising solutions to problems, both in science and management, often can be traced to a similar phenomenon -- not knowing that we don't know something.

One of the instances of this proved to be a turning point for Ayurveda. Immunising people against small pox through "variolation", a process where dried small pox scabs were blown into the nose of an individual, was known and practised in parts of India as early as the 17th century.

But for this to be part of public health policy in India, it had to find its way first to the Ottoman Court in Istanbul, where a British diplomat's wife, Lady Montagu, encountered it in 1717 and took the practice to England. There it was realised that since variolation could lead to the small pox disease in a high proportion of cases, a safer version was needed.

With this knowledge, the solution to small pox entered the zone where many knew that a solution was possible and all that was not known was how to make it safer. Edward Jenner, an English physician, saw that dairymaids infected with cowpox were immune to small pox and hit on the safe solution in 1798.

Vaccination as a public health measure that saved millions of lives in India had to wait for British public health policy to bring it back. And Ayurveda missed a crucial breakthrough by not knowing that a nascent solution to small pox epidemics existed right here in India.

"And once I had recognised the taste of the crumb of Madeleine," recounts Proust's narrator at the end of the famous passage, " . . . immediately the old grey house upon the street . . . rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden . . . and with the house the town . . . the square . . . the country roads . . . all the flowers in our garden. . .the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea."

Ajit Balakrishnan is the founder and chief executive officer,
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Ajit Balakrishnan
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