Persian Jones in Old Calcutta / Jeremy Bernstein

The only time I have visited Calcutta was in September 1988. I was on my way to Bhutan to go trekking and our group assembled in Calcutta for the flight to Paro, Bhutan’s only airport. I was glad for this stopover because I wanted to visit the South Park Street Cemetery, which was established under the British Raj in 1767. The sons of Captain Cook and Charles Dickens are buried there, along with William Thackeray’s father Raymond. I was looking for the grave of William Jones, a late-eighteenth-century genius and polymath. By the time of his death at age 47 he had a working knowledge of twenty-eight languages, including Tibetan, Middle Persian, Hebrew, Bengali, and Turkish. He was actually a colonial judge but in his spare time he translated from Sanskrit and founded the field of historic linguistics.

Jones was born in London in 1746. His father, also William, was a mathematics tutor who introduced the notation ‘π’ for the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle. He died when Jones was three but left enough of an estate that Jones was able to go to Harrow. A childhood accident had seriously affected his vision in one eye, inhibiting his participation in athletics, but his eidetic memory was already apparent to his fellow students. They once wanted to performThe Tempest but could not find a copy of the play; Jones obligingly wrote it out for them from memory.

recommended by Darius Kadivar