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Lahore’s forgotten laureate

By Amit - February 22, 2020

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Written by Khaled Ahmed

Updated: February 22, 2020 9:55:25 am

The great Ravian was not a Muslim but a Hindu, Har Gobind Khorana. (Photo: AP/Paul Shane via Al Jazeera)

Lahore’s premier institution, Government College University (GCU), has decided to remember an old Ravian — the name given to old students — who became a Nobel Laureate in 1968. The great Ravian was not a Muslim but a Hindu, Har Gobind Khorana. Vice Chancellor Asghar Zaidi announced last month that GCU Lahore would soon establish a research chair at its chemistry department in Khorana’s name.

The occasion was the “98th birth anniversary of Har Gobind Khorana” whom the university decided to own as well as “correct” the earlier misinformation that Abdus Salam of the GCU was the “first Nobel Laureate”. (Let it be remembered that after Salam got his Prize, he went to India to put the medal around the neck of his village math teacher who had migrated in 1947.)

Two Pakistanis have earned the Nobel Prize — Abdus Salam and Malala Yusufzai of the Swat Valley. The irony is that both are rejected by the overwhelmingly religious population of their homeland. Salam’s Ahmadiya Muslim identity was rejected by the constitution of Pakistan. Exiled Malala was not allowed to visit her home in Swat Valley, Pakistan, lest she be killed by the Taliban who had earlier shot her in the head for advocating girls’ education while girls’ schools were being put to the torch in the Valley.

Khorana was born of poor Hindu parents on January 9, 1922 in a village called Raipur near what is today Kabirwala in South Punjab. Ironically, home to the most powerful jihadi madrassa in Pakistan. His father was a poor patwari but was alive to the importance of education. His children turned out to be the only educated family in the village of a hundred inhabitants. After DAV College in Multan, Khorana moved to Lahore, got his MSc degree there, and lived in India till 1945 when he got a scholarship to go to England.

He studied for a Ph.D. degree at the University of Liverpool. He returned to India after Partition in 1949 but the following year returned to work at the Cambridge University in 1950-1952 before moving to British Columbia Research Council. In 1960 Khorana, he was in the Institute for Enzyme Research at the University of Wisconsin, becoming a naturalised US citizen. Khorana married Esther Elizabeth Sibler of Swiss origin in 1952. Significantly, “Khorana felt out of place everywhere and at home nowhere”. He died at the age of 89 in 2011.

The great biochemist had made his contribution: “In 1972, Dr Khorana had reported a second breakthrough: The construction of the first artificial gene, using off-the-shelf chemicals. Four years later, he announced that he had gotten an artificial gene to function in a bacterial cell.”

Khorana is not the only great Hindu that Lahore is now getting ready to remember. There was a boy called Ganga Ram who left his big mark on the city. Ganga Ram was born in 1851 in a Sikh saadhu’s hut in Mangtanwala, about 40 miles from Lahore.

His father Daulat Ram was a Hindu who had fled from Muzaffarnagar near Delhi to escape the post-Mughal chaos. Ganga Ram (1851-1927) passed his matriculation joined the Government College Lahore in 1869. He was a scholarship holder and stayed frugally in a hut in Sutar Mandi to save money. He was good at mathematics, and won another scholarship to Thomason Engineering College at Roorki in 1871 where Colonel Maclagan was principal. He sent half his scholarship of Rs 50 to his poor parents while he worked hard to obtain his engineering degree.

It is as chief engineer that he literally “built” Lahore and is today called the Father of Lahore. Ganga Ram contributed to Lahore as executive engineer of the city: Planning and construction of its first Sanitation System and Water Works, the Lahore Museum, the Mayo School of Arts, the High Court, the Lahore Cathedral, the General Post Office, Aitchison College, Chemistry Department of the Government College Lahore, the Albert Victor Wing of the Mayo Hospital.

This article first appeared in the print edition on February 22, 2020, under the title “Lahore’s forgotten laureate”. The writer is consulting editor Newsweek Pakistan.

Also Read | Who was Har Gobind Khorana?

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