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Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase)

When I was young, my grandfather (my mother's father) used to read to me a poem by the English poet, Leigh Hunt, entitled "Abou Ben Adhem". The poem narrates the story of Abu Ben Adhem, who wakes up one night from a deep sleep of peace to find An Angel writing in a book of gold. Emboldened by the exceeding peace of the setting, he asks the angel what he is writing. The angel tells him that he is making a list of those who love the Lord. Abu asks whether his name is on the list. He's told that it is not. In that case, says the self-effacing hero of our poem, write my name down as one who loves his fellow men. Later, my father read the poem to me as well. He, like my grandfather was a mathematician by profession, but an autodictat as far as English literature is concerned, an omnivorous, eclectic if somewhat eccentric reader of any book he could lay his hands on. The fact that those two South Indian Brahmin gentlemen, related to each other only by marriage should have, as far as I know, independently of each other read me this particular poem might mean something. A metaphysical portent, perhaps. I was reminded of this poem when I recently heard talk by a colleague on Demodex folliculorum. This, in case you have never heard of it, is a microscopic little mite that lives in the hair follicles of your face, particularly those associated with your eyelashes. It sleeps through most of the day, and at night it wanders over your face, devouring dead keratinocytes that your skin has exfoliated through the day. Most, if not all of us have them. I am told that you acquire them extra-chromosomally from your mother, much as your do your mitochondria, when you suckle at her breast. The talk was captivating, at least to me. The speaker talked about Demodex folliculorum from cats in Siberia and rats in Manchuria and people from Terra del Fuego. He talked of them within the abiding personal love of someone who has spent a life with them, as though these creatures were his sole passion. A stamp-collector par excellence, to use Dr. James Watsons pejorative phrase to describe biology before the molecular biological revolution. I guess talks like that are something of a personal taste -- you either love them or you don't. I happen to love them. There is something about scholarship, unfashionable as it is, that I empathize with. I have come to the realization, after 30 years in science, that while most of my colleagues in science are highly intelligent, few are intellectual. They are activists by and large, who seem to say implicitly if not explicitly, why are you sitting there thinking, why dont you just go do an experiment. I guess those who most appreciate scholarship and revel in it are incipient or confirmed scholars themselves. A confederacy of interest, if you will. I find it captivating to hear someone talk about something that they have spent all that life learning about. Oh, I realize that people who work on obscure organisms and diseases are not the ones you go to hear from at the latest

T.V.Rajan FASEB meeting. People who patiently collect and classify Demodex folliculorum from wildebeeste of the Serengeti or oryxes of the savannah do not go jet-setting off to the latest, high-powered International meeting. I used to think, when I was young, that the last stanza of the poem was somewhat hokey, not unlike the mindless sitcoms that are so popular on commercial television, those miraculous little vignettes in which long-standing, chronic, incurable disorders like insomnia and somnambulism, obsessive-compulsive neuroses and schizophrenia, stammering and echolalia, hirsutism and alopecia, you name it, are magically cured by banal insights (usually from precocious pre-pubescents) in 30 min. intervals, much to the near-hysterical merriment of the canned laugh track. But now that I am older, I think I understand what the poet meant when he wrote,
The Angel wrote, and vanished. The next night It came again with a great wakening light, And showed the names whom love of God had blessed, And, lo! Ben Adhem's name led all the rest!

Call me a sentimental fool if you will, a shameless hankerer after sepia painted images of a non-existent past, but somewhere someplace and not just some mawkish 19th-century English poem, there may be some justice.