Fr. Lafont was born at Mons in
Belgium on March 26, 1837. He received his early education at the College of St.
Barbara in Ghent and entered the Society of Jesus in December 1854. He studied
Philosophy and Natural Science at Namur. It was here that he developed an
aptitude for experimental physics, later acquiring high proficiency in this
But, at the early age of 28 he
abandoned a promising career that lay before him, bade good-bye to friends and
country and left Belgium to join the Bengal Mission which had been entrusted to
the Belgian Jesuits in 1859. Fr. Lafont landed at Calcutta in December 1865; he
was attached to St. Xavier’s College.
The Golden Jubilee of Father
Lafont was celebrated at St. Xavier’s on the 12th and 13thd December 1904.
Father Lafont was a humble teacher who went out of the confines of his classroom
to mingle with other exceptional men of his age and the interaction produced the
first impetus to the recumbent Indian scientific spirit in modern times. The
gentry of Calcutta dubbed him “the Father of modern scientific education”.
On the recommendation of the
Viceroy, the Earl of Lytton, Queen Victoria made him a Companion of the Order of
the India Empire (CIE). The Government of France made him ‘Officer de L’Academie
de France” and the King of Belgium made him in 1898 a ‘Knight of the Order of
Fr. Lafont spent his last years
amidst the beautiful Darjeeling hills at St. Joseph’s College. He died in 1908
while demonstrating to the boys the working of a gramophone.
The following is an excerpt
taken form the Novel, First Light by Sunil Gangopadhyay. It brings out Fr.
Lafont’s love for India and his support to Jagadish Chandra Bose.
"Sitting in the first row Colonel Alcott and Father Lafon watched the play
entranced, not at the glory of Hinduism, but the acting ability of Binodini.
‘I’ve seen performances in England by the best of actresses,’ Colonel Alcott
murmured in his companion’s ear. I’ve seen Ellen Terry in the roles of Portia
and Desdemona. But I’ll say, without prejudice, that this actress’ performance
is not a whit inferior. I hadn’t expected anything like this. Most amazing!’
Father Lafon did not reply but his eyes shone with pride. He loved India and
Indians. Triumph surged within him at the thought that the much-despised natives
had proved themselves equal to the British in one field at least. And, that too,
in the highly sensitive, creative field of the theatre.”........
"At the end of the first act,
when the curtain had descended for a brief interval, a man came huffing and
puffing up to Mahendralal. ‘Would you come to the green room for a moment Daktar
Babu,’ he whispered urgently. Mahendralal rose to his feet instantly and
followed him. As soon as they were out of earshot the man hissed in his ear,
‘Binod has fainted Daktar Babu. She came tottering out of the stage after the
Hari Bol sequence and fell down in a heap. We’ll have to stop the play if you
can’t revive her in a few minutes.’
‘But I haven’t brought my box
of medicines,’ Mahendralal exclaimed. ‘And the shops must have shut by now. It’s
past eleven o’clock.’ Then, seeing the stricken look on the man’s face, he added
quickly, ‘Take me to her, anyway, and let me see what I can do.’
Binodini lay in a dark passage
behind the stage her head cradled in the lap of a white man in a cassock whom
Mahendralal recognized instantly as Father Lafon. Binodini’s cheeks were pale
and marked with tears. Her hair spilled out of the priest’s lap and fell to the
floor in rich curls as he massaged her head vigorously with long white fingers.
Lying like that she looked young and vulnerable and every inch a woman. Even as
the eyes of the two men met, Binodini’s lips trembled into life. ‘Ha Krishna! Ha
Krishna!’ she muttered. Mahendralal smiled wryly. The crisis was over. Father
Lafon had done whatever there was to be done and his presence was not required.
He knew what had gone wrong of course. The girl had pitched her emotions too
high and had cracked under the strain. Anyway, she would recover very soon now
and the play could go on..............
‘Do hear the rest Dada. Then deliver your verdict. Jagadish couldn’t become a
doctor but he’s become a scientist. He got his degree in Physics from Cambridge
University. And, while in England, he recovered from kala azar. The air in that
part of the country is extremely healthy. He’s back now with a teaching
assignment in Presidency College.’
‘Aaah!’ Mahendralal’s eyes nearly bulged out of his head. He stood up in his
excitement, ‘A Bengali boy teaching Physics in Presidency College! That’s a
white man’s aakhra. How did they allow an infiltrator?’
Astute lawyer that he was, Durgamohan knew how to build up a case. The trump
card had to be hidden in the sleeve to be brought out with a flourish right at
the end. Smiling at the older man he said gently, ‘Consider the boy’s calibre
Dada. Has any Bengali achieved what Jagadish has? You are doing so much for the
spread of science in the land. Have you received any recognition? Yet, do you
know who recommended Jagadish for the post? Lord Ripon himself.’
‘What!’ Mahendralal almost screamed the question. He started pacing feverishly
up and down the room. ‘You know Father Lafon, don’t you Dada?’ Durgamohan went
on. ‘Jagadish was his favourite pupil in St Xavier’s College. When Jagadish left
for England Father Lafon gave him some letters of introduction one of which was
for Mr. Fawcett - the famous economist and now Post-Master General of England. Mr
Fawcett helped the boy in many ways. Just before Jagadish was to return to India
Fawcett sent for him and said, ‘You’ve done exceedingly well, my boy, and I’m
proud of you. I would like to make sure that you get the job you deserve." Then,
handing him a letter he added, "The Viceroy is a friend of mine. Go to him as
soon as you reach India and give him this." Jagadish did as he was told. Lord
Ripon examined his papers and interviewed him for over and hour. He was
obviously impressed because he sent a communication to the Education Secretary
to find suitable employment for the boy.’
I’ve never heard of the Viceroy
recommending a native. It’s unbelievable!’
It happened, nevertheless. But
there is more to come. The Education Secretary, Sir Alfred Crawford, was of the
view that a native had no head for science. He might be allowed to teach Bengali
or Sanskrit or Philosophy at the most. But Physics was out of the question.
Charles Tawney, Principal of Presidency College, was of the same opinion. Yet
they couldn’t ignore the Viceroy’s recommendation either. Crawford offered
Jagadish a job in the Provincial Service on the pretext that there was no
vacancy in the Imperial Service. But why should Jagadish, with all his
qualifications, accept a post in a lower service? He turned down the proposal.’
He was right. Absolutely
But Lord Ripon had remembered his promise. When, on examining the Gazette, he
found the boy’s name missing he sent for Crawford and demanded an explanation.
Crawford hastened to make amends. He offered Jagadish a teaching assignment in
Contributed by Fr. Felix Raj, SJ