American Social History Project • Center for Media and Learning

The Nature of the Chemical Bond

By Vijay Seshadri


On our drives into the northern and central reaches of the Confederacy, my father—a scrupulous person, slow, deliberate, rule-bound, reflective, melancholy, orderly (and all of this from birth)—would suddenly become adventurous. If there was a way to get to where we were going that was innovative or idiosyncratic or held out the promise of drama, or just gave him the chance to improvise and navigate that the road suggested by common sense and the Triple A map didn’t offer, he’d be on it in a flash. When he heard—and he always heard—the words “back roads” in his head, his inborn caution vanished. Visions of horse farms and weathered barns with Mail Pouch chewing-tobacco signs stencilled and fading on their sides and big woods with little hollows where the people lived a life that had gone on long enough to look as if it had gone on forever clouded his brain and turned him away from his dharma-ridden self. In his crisp, musical Bangalore accent, he would say “Let us take the back roads” at some point in our trips, even though this was when the interstate-highway system was still an unelaborated sketch on the landscape, so, apart from the occasional few hours on a turnpike, most of the roads leading to our largely rural destinations could safely be called back roads. My mother eyed him with exasperation, but, in those days, when she was young and hadn’t freed herself completely from inherited imperatives of wifely deference and was, besides, still daunted enough by America to keep her natural rebelliousness to herself, she usually gave in. I was in the back seat with my sister (a toddler, oblivious, often car-sick), nursing a flourishing skepticism about my parents’ ability to negotiate the New World. I thought we’d get lost, and we did fifty per cent of the time, because the roads that looked straightforward on the map would turn out to have uncanny forks and folds and confusing crossroads. We would find ourselves on one or another of those wrong forks, and have to heave the car around or drive on, sometimes for miles and miles, until we came across a gas station or a store, where my father, embarrassed but still game, would ask for directions. If the people we were petitioning to set us straight were amazed or affronted by the sudden appearance in Arcadia of a family of East Indians—something unthinkable in those years—they didn’t let on. Polite and prolix, they told us carefully what to do; and once, in Virginia, on a hot August day, when I was nine, a white-haired, wet-eyed old man gave me a cold eight-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola (I can still taste it) and took me out to the back of his antique store to show me a duck pond he had built—with, he said, his “own two hands”—which had a miniature artificial grotto and a miniature blue-washed water wheel being turned by an artificial waterfall.

Where were we going while we were getting lost on those long drives? We were going to Civil War battlefields. We were on our way to Manassas and Antietam and Chancellorsville; to Harper’s Ferry, the MacLean house, Petersburg, and the Wilderness. We were rolling through the monotonous low-lying country between the Alleghenies and the Blue Ridge to Gettysburg, which we stopped at five times in the early and mid-sixties. We were pointing the nose of our 1960 two-tone coppertone Chevy three-speed station wagon—three-on-the-tree the transmission was nicknamed, because the gear shift was built into the steering column—in the direction of Vicksburg; though, to my father’s bitter regret, we never quite made it to that sleepy river town, crucial to the canvas of the war he was painting in his head because its investiture and seizure by Grant in the summer of 1863—exactly a hundred and one years before we approached its vicinity—secured the length of the Mississippi for the Union and brought the defeat of the Confederacy almost to inevitability. We didn’t get any farther than Shiloh on that trip, Shiloh of terrible memory. Whose memory, though? That is a question my father didn’t, and still doesn’t, ask, a question which, when lifted up and turned over in his mind, is found to be crawling on its underside with the things designed to excite his intellectual disgust—metaphysics, cultural, racial, and national identity, psychology, historicity. “It was interesting,” he will say when I ask him what on earth he had been thinking. When pressed, he will counterattack and throw the burden of those vacant and interminable drives—with my mother mystified in the front and my sister car-sick in the rear—back on me. “We wanted you to learn American history”—though we never went to Faneuil Hall or Plymouth Rock or the Liberty Bell or Valley Forge or Colonial Williamsburg or Monticello or Fort Ticonderoga or Fallen Timbers or the Great Snake Mound, which is not far from Columbus, Ohio, where we were living through those years. And our explorations of Washington, D.C., hard by a lot of the battlefields we visited, were perfunctory, and mostly involved Ford’s Theatre, Mrs. Greenhow, and the Lincoln Memorial.

It was always the War Between the States for my father. Dred Scott. Stoneman’s cavalry. Mosby’s rangers. Bloody Kansas. The affair of the Trent. The Monitor versus the Merrimac. He read and re-read Carl Sandburg’s biography of Lincoln and “The Stillness at Appomattox” and “Andersonville.” “The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War,” with its beautiful reproductions of chromolithographs and Winslow Homer oils, was a fixture on his night table. He collected battlefield brochures by the dozen. He knew the odd facts: Miss Laura Keene starred in “Our American Cousin” on Lincoln’s fatal night; the Empress Carlota lived on, demented in Paris, until 1927. He knew the even facts, the awful facts: six hundred and fifty thousand dead in carnage up to that time never inflicted on humankind. He rehearsed the great battlefield eloquences: It is well that war is so terrible—we should grow too fond of it; We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. By day, he was a physical chemist. By night, he was bivouacked with the Army of the Potomac. By day, he investigated the nature of the chemical bond—the three-electron bond; the partial ionic character of covalent bonds between unlike atoms; the hybridization of bond orbitals; hyperconjugation and fractional bonding in metals; clouds of electron probabilities along that mysterious border where the atomic and the molecular realms interpenetrate, where matter becomes number and number matter, revealed to him by infrared and nuclear-magnetic-resonance spectroscopy, electron-spin-resonance spectroscopy, absorption and emission spectra. Instruments other than the human eye have articulated the properties of light: it has a dual character, wave and quanta; it has different wavelengths. Newton, Herschel, Ritter, Young, Fraunhofer, Kirchhoff, Bunsen, Angstrom, Michelson, Bohr, Benoit, Fabry, Perot, Coblentz, and Raman are some of the people who have discovered these astonishing things. There exists light of wavelengths longer and shorter than the wavelengths of visible light. From discrete bands on either side of the tiny band of the electromagnetic spectrum that makes an impression on our retinas, light directed onto a sample compound of given thickness will make the atomic particles glow or will be swallowed up and leave a shadow. The glowing or the shadow (these are, of course, just metaphors) can be captured by spectroscopes (from the Latin for appearance, from the Greek for to see), in the form of spectra. These spectra my father brought home to work on at the kitchen table. He covered the graph paper on which they were captured in inky lines with mathematical runes in his firm, elegant script.

When he took a break, he turned to the Great Rebellion. A socialist of the mild, Fabian, Congress Party variety—Nehru and the vegetarian George Bernard Shaw were among our household gods—he might, if asked, have described the war as a socialist war, prosecuted, whatever the concomitant or efficient reasons, to eliminate capitalism’s most vicious practice, chattel slavery. No one was around to ask him, though, except me, and I couldn’t have framed such a question. So he was required to confess nothing. I can’t remember his ever telling me anything about the Civil War that carried the faintest odor of morality or politics or interpretation. He seemed to accept unquestioningly the then (and still) prevalent notion of the war by which the imperatives of the North were balanced by the valor and passion and superior skillfulness of the underdog South, lifting the conflict beyond partisanship, beyond good and evil, clarifying it until it became a smooth, simple drama whose meaning was contained deep within itself. He fell in step with the thinking about the war that saw motives as local, and the deeper causalities subsumed by tactics, strategy, movement, battle lines, salients and bridgeheads, preponderant forces and materiel, clemencies and inclemencies of weather, and chaotic mischances and coincidences. In the books he read, in the brochures he collected, there was no interest in justification, no question of right or wrong. Everybody was forgiven in the end, except that small gallery of characters that includes Vallandigham, Quantrill, and John Wilkes Booth. This was perfect for him. It gave scope to his instinctive empiricism and his discomfort with generalities, which were suspicious with hidden and untenable assumptions. The Civil War was as fundamental, as immutable, as the submolecular realm, a modernist war made for the modernist he was then, and still is, as clear and impenetrable as a line by Wallace Stevens or a Calder mobile. It referred to nothing but itself. Wrapped in its structures, though, was a human heroism pure and appalling and desperate, so pure and appalling and desperate that it, too, seems immutable. This was something my father understood. These were the desperate frequencies that set his atomic particles vibrating. He had been orphaned of his father at an early age in a cholera epidemic that almost took him away at the same time (he’d also survived smallpox). His family had been thrown into poverty and a humiliating dependency. They hadn’t experienced the most terrible Indian destitution, but India has many destitutions, and they always heard one or another coughing and shuffling outside their door. His education had been financed entirely by the scholarships and fellowships available in what was then the princely state of Mysore—which may have been the most advanced of the Indian princely states in the decades before Independence—and the world beyond. If the massive silence that lies at the center of his psyche is any indication, his character had not only been defined but pretty much exhausted by frugality, anxiety, and constant labor. His one chance—his one grace—had been science. He once said to me, in wonder rather than bitterness, “If I hadn’t found science, I would have been nothing.”

Hundreds of thousands of men throwing themselves against the merciless fire of a technology that had left the tactics of their officers far behind. The desperation. “Fundamental and astounding,” Lincoln called it, meaning that even he had no words. The self moves beyond dread and terror and confronts its essential poverty and nakedness and isolation. This my father understood, too well and too immediately. The conflict was vivid to his moody, wordless fatalism, his sense, so strange in the bountiful Middle America of the early sixties, that all choices narrowed to one choice, which wasn’t a choice at all but was construed as such by our incorrigible gift for deceiving ourselves into thinking we’re free. The following, suitably edited to disguise their violence, were some of the bedside staples of my childhood’s middle years: in the twilight of early May, a mistaken fusillade from his own men cuts down Stonewall Jackson, out scouting the enemy lines (Lee, my father says, will miss him at Gettysburg); the citizens of Cherbourg come down to the quays to watch the Alabama and the Kearsarge trading broadsides in the harbor (eventually, my father says, the captain of the Alabama will strike his colors and then throw himself overboard); Forrest’s cavalry harasses the flanks, exploding out of the woods and forcing the Union soldiers to scatter across the deadfall and the scrub; in one half hour, after a blundering delay by the high command, Grant loses seven thousand men, dead or maimed. These stories had no interest for me when I was a kid. Their ontology was all wrong. Their being was continuous with the being around me. They took place in a terrain undifferentiated from the terrain we inhabited. The fields and woods were the same fields and woods we saw and knew, except for the fact that they were in Virginia or Tennessee. We knew people in Columbus whose great-grandfathers had been Union soldiers, which excited my father but, secretly, depressed me because of its quotidian lack of access to the different geographies where conflict and war, I thought, quite reasonably, should occur, places like the ones in the movies I loved—Ardennes (“Battleground”), medieval England (“The Adventures of Robin Hood”), or full fathom five in the Pacific Ocean (“Run Silent, Run Deep”). When my father walked me over battlefields, instructing me about unwavering lines and salients, I felt as heavy as mercury, inert, bored, baffled, as baffled as I was when, years before I had the requisite mathematical knowledge or skill, he sat me down and with excruciating patience explained the concept of a limit and the mysteries, stunning to me now but impossible then, of the fundamental theorem of calculus. I did, though, understand something in those excursions. I took something away. Something came along, prodigious as a revelation. I understood him, my father. I developed a precocious awareness of his difference. And I felt guilty about having seen him as he really was. I understood something about him that a son should probably not understand about a father, at least not at that age. The passage to America had, happily for him, thrown him free, but it had also stripped him down to his naked soul. Almost to this day, like the sons of Noah, I have longed to walk backward and cover up the nakedness, the drunkenness of his intellectual obsessions, his naked, unheard-of obsessions, irritably reaching after fact and reason to fold him back into motives less uncanny and more reminiscent. Occasionally in recent years, I have engaged him in the game of Twenty Questions with which he tends to deflect assaults on his privacy.

“Was it America, Dad? Was it because you liked America?

“No. It wasn’t America.

“Was Lincoln like Gandhi? They were both assassinated, right?”

“No. Gandhi was religious.”

“Was slavery like Untouchability?”

“That was India. This is America.”

“Did it remind you of the war in the Mahabharata? That was a fratricidal war.”

“The Mahabharata is just a story.”


My parents didn’t go on vacations when they were young in India before and after the Second World War. India hadn’t yet experienced the benefits of industrialization. Time wasn’t broken up into units that represented work and leisure. Rest for the body and the soul were found in the many religious festivals that dot the Indian lunar calendar, and that bear the stamp of a cyclical rural life and an ancient nature-worshipping religion: Sankranthi, in January, the rice-crop festival; Shivarathri, in February, when the males of Shaivite families fast all night in the temple, and Shiva, creator and destroyer, the embodiment in the Indian imagination of time itself, brushes against their inner life; Ugadi, in March, the new-year festival, which my mother’s feast-loving family—like my father’s from a Tamil-speaking community in Bangalore, a Kannada-speaking city, where the new year falls on a different day than in Tamil Nadu—would celebrate not once but twice; Ramanavami, in June, the birthday of Rama, famous in South India for its day- and nightlong music concerts; the birthday of Krishna in August, Gokulashtami, a long fast followed by a feast at midnight on the appointed day, the moment of Krishna’s birth; Ganapathi, in early October, the festival of Ganesh—fat, affectionate, elephant-headed god who eases the passage from life to death; and, finally, in late October and early November, the dates determined by the phases of the moon, the two great harvest festivals—Navarathri, when for nine nights the grahas, the elements that make human life possible, among them earth, water, fire, the implements of the field, and the benisons of the cow, are given a grateful devotion; and Depavali, the festival of lights, dear to my mother’s heart because when she was a girl her father, who was the chief engineer for Mysore state, would every year be invited with his family to the festivities at the rococo palace of the Wodeyar Maharajah of Mysore.

The closest my father ever got to the rococo palace of the Wodeyar Maharajah of Mysore was a brother-in-law of his who for a while owned a small bakery that sometimes supplied the royals with bread. This brother-in-law, the only source of income in my father’s family after the death of my grandfather, decided one day to run off to Bombay with a young girl of his acquaintance, forcing my father’s sister to move back to my grandmother’s crowded, anxious household. When my mother rhapsodizes about the feast of Depavali at the palace, with its army of cooks, its spectacular illuminations and fireworks—or when she describes the great yearly darbar where her father, dressed, along with the other servants of the crown, in a black silk waistcoat and a turban, offered the prince a silver rupee as a token of his fealty, and was subsequently reëndowed with the same coin by that generous, far-sighted sovereign—my father can be counted on for a snort of derision. He is partial, though, to South Indian vegetarian cooking, and like all people who have been truly poor thinks of food as the ultimate wealth. So he fell in with my mother’s desire to re-create at least some of the feasts of her youth. In those years, the only store in America that sold authentic Indian groceries was Kalustyan’s, on Lexington Avenue, in Manhattan. From 1961 to 1968, we drove to New York every summer to shop there, staying with a physicist friend of our family who worked at Brookhaven National Laboratory, on Long Island. With the Chevy loaded down with supplies for a year—hundred-pound burlap sacks of rice, ten-pound bags of every kind of lentil and pulse, little vials of precious Kashmiri saffron, ginger roots in the dozens, crystals of camphor, tens of thousands of black mustard seeds, chilies, fresh and dried, fresh and dried coconut, coriander, seed and plant, peppercorns, rock candy, dried curry leaves, cardamom, fenugreek, asafetida, Japanese eggplants, and Chinese melons—we would drive back to Ohio. On the Pennsylvania Turnpike that first time, my father saw a sign pointing to Gettysburg. He decided to turn off and take a look, and liked what he saw. This was what set him off, the Aristotelian efficient cause. On each trip to New York after that, until my mother put a stop to it we would visit the battlefield. During one trip, we went to Gettysburg twice, on the way east and again on the way back west because he had seen in a bookstore in Manhattan a photograph of a Confederate sniper’s nest built from rocks and wanted to find out if it had been preserved.

“We have been here already,” my mother said. “We have been here ten days ago.”


We were strange—doubly strange, because Indians are strange even in India, having been exiled from time and history by an overdeveloped, supersaturated civilization, and strange also because no one remotely resembling us had ever before lived where we lived. But I was the only person in my family beset and burdened by this strangeness. My parents were absorbed in the details of our material and spiritual survival—my mother, gregarious and active, was busy with her intense domestic arrangements; my father was either working on his spectra or bivouacked with the Army of the Potomac. But I was transfixed by our image reflected in the order that surrounded us. It was painful to look, but I couldn’t tear myself away, and became trapped by what I saw us as in the mirror of our benign, distant, Protestant Midwestern world. I was like Shakespeare’s liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass, and eventually had to ooze my way free through the cracks formed in that glass by the earthquakes of the nineteen-sixties. This confused us as a family, forced us to expend psychic resources we had always carefully husbanded, and made us all unhappy, especially my father, who had wanted me to climb up, climb up to his impossible level of concretion and discipline. I didn’t come back to the Civil War for a long time. But then, slowly, peculiarly compelled, I did, watching the documentaries on public television and browsing in the history shelves of libraries and bookstores. I kept this resurrected interest secret from my father for years. One Thanksgiving in the mid-nineteen-nineties, though, when I thought I was safe, I mentioned that I’d recently read Shelby Foote’s account of Gettysburg, and was surprised at how clearly I could visualize the battle, and see it unfold hour by hour. He didn’t say much at the time. His response was delayed, and when it came it was calculated and massive. Three weeks later he sent me a Christmas present, a first edition of the two volumes of the “Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant.” When I called to thank him, I told him that Gertrude Stein had had a high appreciation of the memoirs. He said that was good, and that he might read Stein (he never did). And then, with both of us recognizing that the long interregnum had finally ended, that we were stuck with each other, we got into it about Grant. Grant was fine until he became President, I said, but what a terrible President. The corruption! The railroads! This agitated him. It wasn’t Grant’s fault, he couldn’t be held responsible for his corrupt companions. The Civil War had brought changes that no one could have encompassed, not even Lincoln. Look at how right he was about the Mexican war. Look at how he wrote those memoirs while he was dying of cancer, in order to provide for his wife. That alone was enough to wipe away the blemishes of his Administration. Grant was always impressive. His only fault was that he was too trusting. Grant, my father said, had requited himself. Grant, my father insisted before we hung up, was an underestimated man.