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Lalji Singh has found a way of tracing india’s common genetic heritage

THE COURT SUMMONS had been clear. He had to be there on time or an arrest warrant would be issued against him. Lalji Singh, snake-catcher and molecular biologist, whose 55-page PhD thesis was published en-masse in the scientific journal Chromosoma, was on unsure ground. He hadn’t been to Kerala before and no one understood a word of what he spoke and thinking of all the things that could go wrong, he’d hardly slept a wink. With the dire words of the court summons still running through his head and keen not to fall afoul of the law, Singh reaches the court well in time only to spend the next two hours sitting on the floor of an empty courtroom in Thalassery, waiting for the judge to come and silently cursing the day that brought him there. Finally, the judge arrives, the trial is set to begin and Singh, a projector, box of slides and extension board in hand, takes the witness stand.

But there’s a problem. A projector needs a screen and the only one available is the wall behind the judge. But wait. The judge cannot stand up because that would adjourn the court. The judge, a good sport, drags his chair to the side and smiles at the man with the projector. But a projector also needs electricity to power it. The search for the power socket begins, and ends, successfully, several minutes later. The third problem has the judge’s assistant in a rage. What is the meaning of this, he demands. Is the man not aware that this is a court of law! But Singh argues that he will need to step out of the box to show the honourable judge which DNA bands match and to explain some of the stuff. Granted. the trial gets underway.

Singh has walked into his lab to find baby crocodiles ambling about. He has also been an expert witness in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case

So began the India’s first court case in 1988 where DNA evidence was used to establish a person’s identity – in a small Kerala town with a mad rush for an electrical socket and the problem of keeping the judge seated.

Decades later Singh’s advice to the young seems to be a pithy summary of his own life – if you want to discover something new, take the path that’s less trodden. For Singh, the unfamiliar has involved everything from walking into his lab to find dozens of baby crocodiles ambling about, to being an expert witness in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, when he helped identify the co-accused Dhanu and Sivakasan.

After having found a way to differentiate human beings based on their DNA, Singh, now 62, is involved in tracing us back to a common genetic ancestry; part of the scientific endeavour that bears evidence to what what the Enlightenment and humanists-to-follow have long suspected; that we are one and that although our guises might be various, we come of the same pod. It was the findings from this work (that Indians can be divided into two genetic lines – one that comes from Africa and the other from the Western Eurasia) that made it to the headlines in September, and to the cover page of Nature – hallowed peer- reviewed journal that is the preserve of past, present and future Nobel laureates; and in whose pages the Indian scientific establishment has had a very rare showing.

Back in 1988 that Thalassery court the man with the projector became the man who gave India an indigenously developed DNA fingerprinting technique that can be used to uniquely identify a person based on his or her DNA. The technique had been developed before, but Singh’s work based on his studies of the chromosomes of snakes meant that India had access to a cheap patent-free technology which would have otherwise cost millions in royalties and which was actually an improvement on the original. That court case was to change the legal traditions of the country that now admits a person’s DNA as incontrovertible proof of his or her identity. Over five hours, the judge, his assistant and the assembled people of Thalassery listened with slackened jaws and looked with intense concentration at a man with an accent, a curious mix of Jaunpuri and Scottish, who told them all about DNA. How within its double strands lies the story of not just us as a commonly categorisable species, but also the story of each of us as distinct, unique individuals and how he could use that to tell you, to use that elegant phrase, who’s your daddy.

A consummate storyteller with an infectious laugh, if you ever run into him, get him to tell you about the time he got stuck with a basket full of snakes on a desolate road in Bengal.

SAMRAT CHAKRABARTI

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