The Square Root of a Sonnet: Backstage with the Playwright
14 August, 2023
Einstein, Fermi, Bohr, and Oppenheimer. We’ve all heard of and celebrated these men: the greatest physicists of their time. But this list of names is far from comprehensive. After all, what do we know of the astrophysicist who discovered the greatest mass a star could exceed before collapsing into itself? The man who laid the foundation for the study of the wonders we call black holes? What do we know of S. Chandrashekhar, the second man of Indian origin to win a Nobel Prize in Physics?
The Square Root of a Sonnet, by Nilanjan P. Choudhury, tells the story of Chandra, from his discovery of the death of stars at the age of nineteen, to his relationship with his guru, Sir Arthur Eddington, to the devastating consequences of the betrayal that followed. This play is a story of ambition, friendship and betrayal set against the backdrop of the twentieth century, with its two world wars, the Indian freedom movement, and above all, the birth of the new sciences of relativity and quantum mechanics.
Below is an exclusive interview with the mind behind this groundbreaking play, Nilanjan P. Choudhury himself.
Netra: Tell me about the inspiration behind this play. What compelled you to write this story, of Chandrashekhar and Eddington, over so many others?
NPC: I studied physics at both the undergrad and post graduation levels. I even aspired to become a physicist, but somewhere down the line I lost confidence in myself. So I gave up on my love for physics, and chose a more practical career path instead. It hasn’t been a bad life, but you know, first loves are first loves. So even during this journey, I kept in touch with science. I read about it, and listened to lectures, and talks, and things like that.
And then, about eight years ago, I came across this news article, which spoke of this book called Empire of the Stars by Arthur Miller. At the time, I was doing theater, which I suppose you may call my second love. And when I read this book, I just got the feeling that it had it. The potential to be dramatic content. I glimpsed a chance to combine my three loves: physics, drama, and a good story.
So I bought the book. Then I started researching. Luckily, because Chandra had stayed in the US, there was enough documentation about his life to build on, including almost 300 pages of interviews, straight from the horse’s mouth. So while I had started the spark, there was also the gunpowder available to light, in the form of pre-existing research. And when I started writing, this turned out to be the work that took me the least amount of time.
Netra: So you knew, then, from the beginning, that the Square Root of a Sonnet was going to be a play?
NPC: Yes. The play form was partly due to the influence of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, which always inspired me tremendously. Also, I thought a novel based on this story would be far too long, and without many takers. But most importantly, the play format allowed me to explore imaginative spaces which other formats don’t.
For example, this is a story in which four ghosts are talking in the afterlife. It is a story which spans all the way from the publication of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity in 1905 to the time that Chandra’s wife, Lalitha passed away in the 2010s. It isn’t just one life story, but a story of several lives, intertwined. So I chose this device, which I actually picked up from Copenhagen, wherein people in the afterlife look back on their lives. And then you have the non-linear narrative, and other such elements, which really work best within a play.
Netra: You spoke about the groundwork that was already laid down for you, in the form of pre-existing data. So how much of the story is fact and how many gaps did you have to fill in yourself?
NPC: Every historical event in the play is accurate. In fact, the play’s been proofread by various physicists, including some of Chandra’s colleagues, even his family members! While none of them has pointed out any factual errors, when it comes to some dialogues, the emotions the characters express, Chandra’s private conversations with Lalitha and Eddington’s with Winifred, who knows what they talked about when they were alone? So obviously I am overlaying my own imagination there, but within the boundary of the facts.
I actually quite like to keep the audience guessing a little bit, about what’s fact and what's fiction. When you yourself grow old and look back on your own life, you start creating all sorts of fictions in your mind. So this is also about the illusion of truth because the nature of truth is often just the nature of memory.
Netra: Something else that's very intriguing about the play is, of course, its title. The Square Root of a Sonnet. Was this phrase actually coined by Eddington? And what makes it fitting for this story?
NPC: Yeah, this phrase is actually from an essay of Eddington’s. He explains how no human being is as straightforward as a mathematical puzzle. Understanding one is therefore as impossible as extracting the square root of a sonnet.
Why is the play so named? At one level, it refers to the question with which this whole story begins, when Lalitha asks Chandra how he can keep on paying homage to Eddington after the man suppressed his seminal research and damaged his early career. Chandra behaves in this very puzzling way. Second, why does Eddington go out to mess around with Chandra so much? And again there it is: there is no clear reason behind his behavior.
And while the last scene of the play tries to throw up a few answers, none of them is agreed upon as the sole truth, and that's where it's left. So again, the play basically centers around this impossible task of understanding people and their motivations, which is like trying to find the square root of a sonnet.
Netra: Moving on to the more social aspects of the play, it does deal with racism in academia, an issue prevalent both in the past and in today's world. How did you go about representing this issue in your play?
NPC: If you look at the way Chandra thinks of racism or colonialism, he is actually arguing against its existence in the other scientists’ treatment of him. Lalitha, on the other hand, even in real life, was far more politically and socially conscious. So I brought in the aspect that Lalitha is conscious of the racism that Chandra faces, which he himself is unaware of.
So yes, the portrayal of racism in this play is a little complex. While the question is brought up, it’s never really answered one way or another.
Netra: On the scientific side, meanwhile, I believe your aim is to spread love for science among the youth. How do the play and initiatives like your Curiouscity Discovery Centre support that?
NPC: My whole life, I have derived a lot of joy from literature, storytelling, theater, and science. Of all of these, science for some reason is considered to be cold, calculating, without emotions, lacking human spirit, etc. But because I can see the utter beauty of some of these advances in science, I’ve realized that any layperson can appreciate these marvels. I don’t need to be a physicist to appreciate a scientific work, in the way that I don't have to be a painter to appreciate a painting or a musician to appreciate music. So as I have derived so much joy from science, I want to give others the chance to derive the same joy from it. And that’s what I aim to do at Curiouscity.
It is tragic in a way, how science is being taught across the country. It's also tragic to see kids of classes five and six, slogging away at JEE preparatory classes. It just creates a generation of, well, drones. And at some point, you have to realize that while yes, bread and butter is important, employment is important, there is also great beauty to life. Like Roald Dahl says in one of his stories, “ah, the sweet mystery of life.” So it really comes down to this: I feel the sense of this sweet mystery of life, and I want to share it through my various initiatives. I know I sound very pompous, but I'm speaking from my heart.
Netra: Finally, what’s next for you? Do you have any other scientific and theatrical endeavors in the works?
NPC: There is a play which I've written long ago, called the Trial of Abus Salam. Salam is probably the greatest scientist to emerge from the Indian subcontinent, that is, from Pakistan. I've written a play on him which has actually been performed in Karnataka, translated to Kannada. So I want to showcase that play.
And then, I don't know yet whether it will be a screenplay, or a play, or a novel, but I want to write the story of the remarkable Janaki Ammal. She’s actually India 's first cytogeneticist, responsible for the sweetness of Indian sugar by gene editing, as early as the 1940s. She has a fascinating life: from being born into a lower caste family in Kerala, to doing her Ph.D. abroad and returning to India, to being one of the first activists in the Silent Valley Movement. That’s something I’d like to write about, though of course, I’ve got my hands full with the Square Root of a Sonnet.
Netra: Coming back to the Square Root of a Sonnet, the performance at the Infosys Science Foundation on August 12th was a resounding success. For those of you who missed it, never fear: you can purchase a copy of the book here!