ANITA’S LEGACY: An Enquiry into First Cause by Gurpur M. Prabhu. 2000. Viresh Publications.

Paperback. $13.95.

A book like this may evoke two kinds of responses. From those skeptical and “secular” it may get a dismissive, “Yet another Indian scientist’s doubtful attempt at making sense of Indian scriptures”, or from “believers” a full-throated hurrah for the “genius” of Indian sages who long ago knew everything about everything, and how this is “discovered” by authors like Prabhu. This is a different kind of book, no doubt, postulating as it does the nature of the cosmos through the rather improbable but endearing story of Anita and Major Kay.

Prabhu unravels the enigma of the nature of the universe through the story of Anita, born to Alan, a physics graduate student, and Meg, an undergrad whose math teacher he is. Alan, the quintessential modern academic, is both skeptical and dismissive of his daughter’s precocity. Meg, increasingly concerned about her husband’s attitude towards her and the world, breaks up with Alan when she comes to know of his affair with a colleague. As the drama of their life in Urbana-Champaign unfolds, there enters Major Kay (Norm), a neighbor down the street. From baby-sitting Anita to becoming her best buddy, Major Kay is the crusty, wise, troubled, scotch-loving ex-army officer through whose musings we learn a lot about the world’s attempts at finding answers to fundamental questions about the universe.

What allows Norm and Anita to begin thinking differently about these matters is a set of experiences and accidents in their life. Anita dies young, two weeks before she turns sixteen. We come to know that her life reflects and is a strange imitation of the life of the great Hypatia who lived in Alexandria at the time when Christianity began to spread and be thrust around the world. The great library of Alexandria, it is speculated, was burned by either fanatical Christians or Arabs, and Hypatia was tortured to death.

This book can take you by surprise. Prabhu says the book was written “through” him. For a scientist to confess to such an experience could mean professional disaster. That he tells it, and weaves a good story, despite that professional danger should challenge the reader to pick up this book.—

Ramesh Rao