Need to revive the “marhaba” culture in science:

Marhaba (مرحبا, मर्हबा), a word of Arabic origin, used in Persian, Urdu and even in Hindi is an expression with multiple contextual meanings. Its original literal meaning is said to be “God is love”; but its use is not religious. The context in which I came across this word is in welcoming and appreciating a novel and somewhat surprising idea, art form or achievement. It’s an appreciation of the idea as well as of the thinker, art as well as artist, achievement as well as achiever. So often used in art, music or poetry appreciation, marhaba comes immediately and spontaneously when an unexpected and pleasant piece of melody, an astonishing phrase of words or an unusual imaginative idea is recited. Appreciation is a universal human attribute but a marhaba kind of appreciation is a different culture, prevalent in certain languages, certain schools of music and certain forms of poetry. A marhaba cannot be replaced by a clapping applause, how so ever loud it is. Clapping is a monotonous collective act. Marhaba has a private, personal, informal and insider’s touch. Clapping is more appropriate at the end of the performance. If people clap in between it is disturbing. A marhaba comes spontaneously the moment you like something and it is not disturbing. There is not one but many phrases of this appreciation including vaah, kya baat hai, shabash, sunder, aha or just with a different shade of meaning which correlates with subtle but wide vocabulary of facial expressions and body language. Unlike clapping, each expression reaches the performer separately as if the performer has a separate receptor for each of these expressions. I am using Marhaba here as a generic name that represents the entire repertoire of dialogues between the artist and the audience. Hindustani classical music, Persian and Urdu poetry had this marhaba culture until very recently, or is still there to some extent, but as the distance between the performer and audience is increasing in the modern theatres, and the audience itself is changing, the clapping culture is rapidly replacing the marhaba culture. Incidentally the same change of scenario seems to be happening in science too.

I am fortunate to have experienced many marhaba responses in music-poetry as well as in science; in both the fields from both sides, as a performer and as an appreciator. I came to science and remained committed to it for life, not because I got a well-paying job as a scientist, or had prestigious publications, breakthrough discoveries or sumptuous funding but because I experienced many marhaba moments. Although qualitatively I experienced them throughout my career, quantitatively, my feeling is that, the marhaba culture is vanishing rapidly and being replaced by a ‘success’ culture. While marhaba is not objectively measurable, ‘success’ is measurable in terms of high impact publications, successful grant proposals, promotions and prestigious positions.

While reading Erwin Chargaff, “…our era is extremely ambivalent when it comes to the problem of how scientific research ought to be supported. … The less the people are willing (to support science), the more promises must be made. Instant longevity, freedom from all diseases, a cure for cancer – soon, perhaps, the abolishment of death – and what else? Whereas, no singer did ever have to promise to make a better man of me if I listen to her trills.” I had to stop at this sentence, it was just impossible to go ahead. Is it possible, I wondered, that listening to science can be as absorbing as listening to music. And I said why not? I have experienced it at times, but at rare times. Throughout so many talks, lectures, seminar and conference presentations not more than a dozen times I felt I was listening to music. Not only there was very interesting science being talked about, but it was being delivered in an artistic way. On at least three occasions, I received precisely this comment after my talks. Three listeners from three different countries and three different cultures expressed it as “There were moments we felt like saying kay baat hai”. In Arizona once an old American lady who knew nothing about me came straight to me after my talk and asked “Are you a singer?” I said “No, my father was.” “But you talk like music.” I still don’t understand why she felt so. Perhaps the performer in me is not dead. So what Chargaff remarked is not a fantasy, science can become music. It would attract people as if music would. Just that it is rare, and the reason it is rare is not that it is uninteresting but because it is not there in the culture of scientists. Science is not dry, scientists are.   

But since the performer culture is lacking, are we trying to engage people in a different way? Are we trying to create a culture where claims of breakthroughs, tall promises, triumphs of publishing in high impact journals, successes of obtaining massive grants overwhelm so much that the joy of understanding some mystery of nature, an opportunity to say marhaba to nature or to oneself for getting insights into one, is of little value?

When in my 20s and 30s I started intermingling with the research community, I could overhear across coffee tables people talking about novel and crazy ideas frequently. My time in the C mess of IISc was always enriched with crazy ideas cutting across all fields of science. If I overhear now, it’s a different picture. I hear more about celebrations of getting papers accepted, remorse over rejections of funding proposals, obsession over getting latest tools and technologies in one’s lab, worries about how to handle notorious students and how to manage the routines. These are being talked about more frequently than ideas and insights. Young researchers are being nurtured to think about how to publish in high impact journals rather than about the feel of the moment of having made sense out of a puzzling data set. My sample size is bound to be small and perhaps biased too. Is this happening everywhere? I have no idea.There is this field of research called meta-science. Researchers in meta-science need to look into whether there really is such a trend in the researcher community. If there is one, it is a matter of serious concern. Are all advances in science henceforth going to be Galisonian over Kuhnian? Tool and data intensive over concept intensive? If yes, people of my nature should better keep away from the field. Is the marhaba culture vanishing from science? Meta-science should answer such questions. But the chains and the handcuffs of objective and measurable variables are so heavy that meta-science is only busy looking at quantifiable trends in published research. Isn’t what goes on in the mind of a researcher worthy of research by itself?

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