Dr Pyaralli Rattansi (or ‘Piyo’ as he was known to most of us) was Emeritus Professor of the Department of Science and Technology Studies (DSTS), at University College London (UCL) where he headed the Department of History & Philosophy of Science from October 1971 – September 1995, a period of 24 years.
He was born in Nyeri, Kenya, where he did his schooling. Before travelling to the UK to join the London School of Economics and Political Science,
he spent a few years working as a cub reporter with the South Asian-owned Daily Chronicle newspaper in the late 1940s. This was the heyday of the anti-colonial struggle in Kenya and the Daily Chronicle was a strident voice in support of this struggle. Its offices were the meeting ground for many of Kenya’s nationalist leaders and these included Makhan Singh, a Communist and the founder of Kenya’s Trade Union Movement. It was in this latter context that the AwaaZ editors first met Piyo.
It was in December 2003 – Zarina Patel was writing Unquiet, Makhan Singh’s
biography, and we had embarked on the research, when we met Piyo who was visiting Nairobi to attend his brother, Hassan Rattansi’s funeral. He graciously agreed to an interview where he spoke to us of his interactions with Makhan Singh during 1947-51.
Piyo’s father was well versed in Gujarati literature and the head of his Ismaili community, the Aga Khan, was very keen on education, especially for girls. Piyo had nine siblings and all completed secondary schooling, Piyo went on to the London School of Economics (LSE). At the age of thirteen he had already shown an interest in Chemistry and Psychology. To pursue the latter subject he was told he had to first study Medicine so he applied for entrance to UK Universities. While waiting for a response, he joined the Daily Chronicle where he became politicised.
His father was not very pleased with the influence of this ‘very left-wing subversive newspaper,’ but Piyo had a mind of his own. He not only continued working at the Chronicle but decided to take on Journalism as a career. He opted to study Economics in order to get a better understanding of Politics. Hence LSE. The plan was that he would then return to Kenya.
The degree in Economics included ‘logic and scientific method’ which was taught by Karl Poper, a very charismatic teacher and this radically changed Piyo’s career path. He started a PhD course and got immersed in the contemporary debates on the culture of literature and arts versus the culture of science. Taking a historical perspective he explored the literary attack on science in XVII century England between 1620 and 1665 and worked on it for five years.
He now found the University College of London (UCL) too limited and began to make his own contacts in the wider academic world. A comment he made about the story of Gulliver’s Travels is indicative of his philosophical direction. ‘People think of it as a children’s book, but actually it is a very deep satire on human beings.’
He met and built close relationships with major figures of the historiography of the history of science like Walter Pagel, Needham, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Thomas Kuhn and others. These people played a role in his academic life. From an economic setting he moved to the sociological aspect and was given a 4-year scholarship in Leeds. Two years on Piyo realized that returning to Kenya was no longer an option and took up a post as lecturer. He met Ted McGuire, a philosopher of science, who was studying Newton and showed some of the latter’s papers to Piyo. Piyo realized that while Newton’s scientific experiments were being studied; little attention was being paid to the sociologic and philosophic aspects of his work and became engrossed with this challenge.
From Leeds Piyo moved to Chicago in the USA where he met and got married to Zarine Merali, an ex-Kenyan. As head of the Department of History & Philosophy of Science at the UCL he taught courses at universities in the UK and USA. He was approached by Professors Ana and Jose Marcia who taught in the History of Science Dept in Cesima, Brazil and were visiting UCL. Piyo was working with them on a joint project at the time of his death.
Going back in time to 2006, AwaaZ launched Unquiet – the Life and Times of Makhan Singh and held the first Memorial Lecture in his name at the same time. Who else could be more appropriate as the keynote speaker at this inaugural lecture than Piyo (Pyarally Rattansi)?! He had not only known Makhan Singh personally but was well versed in the politics of Kenya and its labour movement. The speech can be read in Building African Working-class Unity – The Makhan Singh Memorial Lectures
Piyo leaves behind 2 sons who are both journalists, Shihab and Afsin who are currently attached to Al Jazeera and RT. His wife Zarine passed away previously some years ago.