Birbal Sahni was a combination of
genius and graciousness. In his college days one of his close friends was declared
unsuccessful in the Intermediate Examination. Birbal felt extremely sorry. Through he
himself had attaineddistinction, Birbal wept like a child refused to eat. His condition
caused extreme anxiety to the parents. It took a few days for Birbal to overcome the
grief. His keen sense of fellowship was revealed in many incidents. Once, his father took
the members of family on a visit to the Himalayas. The road from Narkand to Baghi lay
through a thick forest infested with bears and other wild animals. They had started from
one camp to the next camp late one evening. By the time they reached the edge of the
forest darkness was falling fast. Then they found that one of their porters had not come
with them. That porter had an attack of malaria and he was alone in the jungle.
Immediately Birbal went back to the forest and joined the porter.
Among Birbals fellow Indian students at Cambridge were the scholar Sripraksha,
who later became a national leader, C.D. Deshmukh, later a Finance Minister of India, and
S.Ramanujam, the mathematical genius. When Ramanujam was ill in Cambridge, Birbal nursed
him for some days.
Birbal Sahni suffered in the suffering of others. Associations with him not only made
the younger people better scientists but also better men and women.
Birbal Sahni was always neatly dressed. Earlier, he used to be dressed in silk suit and
turban. But after his academic tour of Europe in 1930-31, he changed his style. When the
went to Lucknow University after the tour, the students and colleagues were quite
surprised for a moment. Birbal Sahni had put on a cap and a gracefully flowing Khadi
sherwani in the typical Indian style. Students greeted him in the Indian style too and
offered him flowers and garlands. Birbal Sahni blushed. He said, "You have flattered
immensely. Now let us get to business." Once at a meeting in Madras, Birbal Sahni
declared, "I never use cloths made in foreign countries." The British Governor
of Madras was in the chair. But Birbal Sahni was a courageous and stouthearted patriot to
the tips of his fingers. He often sent substantial monetary contribution to the leaders
fighting for the freedom of the country.
In spite of his academic interests Birbal Sahni enjoyed refined pleasures. He was fond
of games. He represented his school and his college in hockey matches and was also very
keen on tennis when in the college. At Cambridge he was included in the university tennis
team. He was a keen player of chess. He drew and painted occasionally. He was an
enthusiastic clay modeler and collector of stamps.
Once, the Indian students at Cambridge staged a fancy dress celebration. Birbal was a
participant. He turned up as a Sadhu; a role, which was not, altogether
unrelated to his inner self.
Birbal Sahni was a gifted speaker. His lectures were interesting. He was able to speak
for hours at a stretch using both hands to draw neat sketches swiftly. His agility often
left the audience amazed. In 1947, meetings of the American Association for the
advancement of science were held at Chicago. Then, Birbal Sahni was in Chicago for a
different purpose. Through his name was not on the agenda he was requested to be a guest
speaker twice. At the meeting, routine addresses were a dull affair and on many occasion s
people to sleep or left the hall. But when Birbal Sahni spoke there were big crowds and he
was heard with rapt attention.
No single botanist in India has contributed so much to botany as Professor Birbal Sahni
did in his all too brief life. He was one of the few all-rounder in botany. Tempting
opportunities in various directions came to him throughout his life; but he remained
steadfast in his devotion to the branch of science he had chosen.