Thursday, September 4, 2008

DD Kosambi, the Detective

This is a most unusual aspect even for those who are aware of DD Kosambi's multi- faceted personality. Thanks to Dr. Indira Chowdhury for sharing the article.

This column appeared in Mid Day Bangalore on 11 February 2008 'Postcards from the Past', (in .pdf format)

D.D. Kosambi: A Most Unusual Scholar

‘I am fairly familiar with all forms of secret writings, and am myself the author of a trifling monograph upon the subject, in which I analyze one hundred and sixty separate ciphers, but I confess that this is entirely new to me.’ So said Sherlock Holmes when presented with a tricky cryptogram in the story The Adventure of the Dancing Man first published in 1903. It took the genius of Holmes to figure out that the hieroglyphs of the dancing stick figures actually contained a message that had been rendered incomprehensible through the use of a substitution cipher. Logical elimination and understanding of word patterns would make TK IL KQ JKT TK IL TBST CR TBL OULRTCKJ turn out to be Hamlet’s self-doubt: TO BE OR NOT TO BE THAT IS THE QUESTION. Newspapers put out cryptograms in an effort to entertain their readers. At least I had assumed that until recently.

Sensitive and secret information has been protected through the use of cryptograms for centuries. But it was only during World War II that modern technical code breaking was born. The sophisticated machines designed by Turing at Bletchley Park were, however, never brought to India during the War. After independence, the Joint Cipher Bureau still functioned with hand-operated ciphering machines that were supplied by the UK War Office. In 1948 even as the Indian state was trying to stabilize itself politically, the Ministry of Defence was making plans to reorganize the Joint Cipher Bureau, the agency responsible for cryptanalysis. The Defence Ministry had found an unusual advisor in the mathematician and renowned historian, Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi for developing a cryptography branch. By September that year, Kosambi, the eccentric and passionate polymath had, with the help of his Institute’s workshop, designed and manufactured a small, hand-operated decoding gadget that used the Russian Square arrangement.

There were at that time, very few experts available in India to train technical staff in the basics of coding and decoding. Kosambi, however, urged the Bureau not to invite a foreign cipher expert. Instead, he recommended that the technicians at cipher bureau devise simple cryptograms either by themselves or by using Kosambi’s decoding gadget. He also advised them to read Edgar Allan Poe’s story, The Gold Bug and Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Dancing Man because, as he put it, ‘the model and the methods of cryptograms are carefully explained in such literary efforts’. The only technical book he recommended was a book of mathematical problems, inferential puzzles and cryptograms called Caliban’s Problem Book published in 1933. If an Indian newspaper or magazine editor would agree to carry such problems just as The New Statesman did, perhaps then cryptograms would catch on as a hobby among the youth in India.

Whether Kosambi’s idea was responsible for the proliferation of cryptograms, puzzles and Word Games in Indian newspapers later on is difficult to say. But what seems obvious from his correspondence with the Joint Cipher Bureau is his fervent and wholehearted interest in creating a culture of logical problem-solving that was till then absent in India. In the year of Kosambi’s centenary, it might be worth recalling this unconventional scholar who despite being an exceptionally talented mathematician and a respected historian did not shy away from building trivial gadgets. More significantly, he put forward a larger vision – one that sought to motivate young Indians to take up mathematical and logical puzzles for enjoyment and pleasure and instil in them love and curiosity for ways of solving problems.

Indira Chowdhury is a historian and consultant archivist based in Bangalore.


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