A House for Mr. Narayan

Generations of Indians have grown up on RK Narayan’s writings. If you have not read his novels, maybe you have seen ‘Guide’, starring Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman? Or the charming TV series ‘Malgudi Days’? Well, suggest you visit or re-visit all of the above!

RK Narayan was one of the first Indian authors to gain international recognition. His first novel, Swami and Friends, which he wrote in 1930 did not find a publisher for many years. But sometime in 1933, his friends in Oxford to whom he had sent the manuscript, showed it to the famous author Graham Greene. The senior author liked it so much that he recommended it to his publishers and the book saw the light of day in 1935. It got good reviews across the world. RKN followed this up with The English Teacher and The Dark Room, which also won appreciation. From then, it was a steady stream of novels, short stories and articles.

Narayan created the fictional town of Malgudi as the setting for his novels. So authentic was it to his readers that many even today believe it is a real place.

But why the sudden piece on RK Narayan, one might ask.

Well, it has been triggered by a visit to his house in Mysuru. Just last week, when I was there, I was lucky to get to visit this house. RKN spent many years in Mysore (as it was spelt then)—some of his growing up years, as well as his adult life when he accepted a commission in the State of Mysore.

It was in the second stint that he built a house which I visited. Set in the quiet area of Yadavagiri, it is a beautiful house typical of the 1950s, full of light and air, with red oxide floors and a beautiful balcony.

It was indeed gratifying to see the house so well preserved. Especially after we heard the story of how it was almost demolished. The author passed away in 2001. All of his family had left Mysuru by then. The house was falling to rack and ruin, when a builder wanted to pick it up and re-develop it. It was at this time that Mysuru woke up to this legacy. Led by a journalist, the people of the city protested. Finally in 2011, the city corporation bought the house and restored it.  

And we must be thankful for this! For not only is the house in good shape, it seems to have been restored fairly faithfully. There is also an exhibition of several artifacts, including his awards, personal items etc., many photographs, as well panels of text for those who have the patience to read them.

But…

And it is a very big BUT!

When one thinks of the potential that the house has for the students, literature lovers and citizens of Mysuru, not to mention the thousands of tourists the city attracts, it is a tragedy to leave it to routine care-taking and not very imaginative management.

As we reflected on our visit, we could come up with more than 10 ideas in less than 5 minutes:

  • Have a lively permanent exhibition, along with special temporary exhibitions to explore specific themes: maybe selected books; his relationship and collaboration with his brother, the famous RK Laxman, who illustrated so many of his books; maybe the process of turning his books into movies or TV (he is said to have hated the movie Guide), RK Narayan compared to comtempory Indian writers, etc., etc.
  • Sell RKN’s books (no, unbelievably, they don’t!)
  • Make it the hub for meetings of book-clubs
  • Make it a venue for book-launches
  • Host lit fests
  • Have literary events for children
  • Have screenings and discussions of movie and TV shows based on his books
  • Have an author-in-residence programme
  • Develop an archive related to his life and work
  • Create and sell souvenirs based on Malgudi
  • Start a café in the lovely little garden space around the house, and serve his favourite dishes
  • Make it a wifi café, so young people hang out
  • And charge a small fee for entrance (the Corporation has kept entry free..generous but it would be more sustainable to charge something).

Ideas are of course easy. Execution is difficult. But do this for RK Narayan’s house we must. He is a very important part of Indian writing in English.

While India does not have a great tradition of making author’s houses into educational and enjoyable experiences, there are more than enough international experiences to learn from: Shakespeare’s birthplace; Mark Twain’s house; Emily Dickenson’s House; Jane Austen’s House; Milton’s House are among the many which are successfully keeping the legacy of these authors alive.

Maybe RK Narayan House can set the example for homes of other Indian authors?

–Meena

Janakidevi Bajaj: Embodying Gandhian Values

Jamnalal Bajaj was considered Gandhiji’s fifth son, and adopted all his values—from Ahimsa to his dedication to the poor, to his commitment to locally made goods and his patriotic spirit. He was an active member of the Congress Party, and gave up the Rai Bahadur title conferred on him by the British Government, and joined the non-cooperation movement.

Importantly, Jamnalalji, in line with the trusteeship concept propounded by Gandhi, felt that inherited wealth was a sacred trust to be used for the benefit of the people and dedicated most of his wealth for the poor and under-privileged.

It was a stupendous level of sacrifice. Would it have been easy to accomplish without the support of his family? Probably not. But Jamnalal Bajaj was lucky in his life’s companion, Janakidevi Bajaj, who not only supported his ideals, but was a freedom fighter and social activist in her own right.

Janakidevi was just eight years old when she married the 12-year old Jamnalal. Both of them were highly influenced by Gandhiji. When Jamnalal took to the Gandhian way of life, Janakidevi was not far behind.

In letter and spirit, she willingly and happily gave up the comfortable lifestyle of a successful industrialist’s wife. At the age of 24, answering the Mahatma’s call, she gave up all her gold ornaments. To her dying day, she never wore any gold again. At the age of 28, she took the vow to give up foreign clothes, and to wear only Kadhi. She burnt all the foreign clothes they had in the house at the central chowk of Wardha. These included expensive saris, silks, suits, woollens and even tapestries depicting Gods. She spun khadhi and encouraged others to take up the vocation. She also gave up purdah in 1919, and motivated other women to do the same, striking a blow for freeing women.

Jamnalal and Janakidevi lived by every ideal they professed. With a deep desire to abolish untouchability, they were the first to open the doors of a temple to Harijans. On 17th July, 1928, the couple threw upon the doors of their family temple in Wardha to Harijans. This was a revolutionary move. Going further, she also hired a Dalit as part of her household staff to serve food to the family.

Throughout the years of the freedom movement, she travelled across the country and addressed and inspired thousands with her message of Swaraj, of the need to boycott foreign goods, of the importance of spinning cloth, the need to eradicate the evil of untouchability, and for social reform.

Janakidevi Bajaj

After 1947 when the country became free, she continued her social work. She was an ardent follower of Vinobha Bhave and worked tirelessly in the Bhoodhan movement. She came out with the innovative idea of ‘koopdaan’, the donation of wells, and collected resources with the ambition that every household could have a well. She also worked for education of women, and espoused the cause of gau-seva.

She was a respected and inspiring figure for those working in the development sector in India, and was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1956, in recognition of a lifetime of service.

It was men and women such as these who kept the spirit of Gandhiji and his ideals alive. As we mark the Mahatma’s martyrdom day, it is an appropriate time to remind ourselves of these ideals—non-violence, brotherhood, a burning desire to correct social and economic wrongs, tolerance, and goodwill towards all.

–Meena

A Parade to be Proud Of

26 January always evokes many memories of waking up at the crack of dawn in the chill of the Delhi winter, bundling up in our warmest clothes, packing sandwiches and hot coffee, and setting out to see the republic day parade. This was one of the highlights of the year during the time my family lived in Delhi.

The parade itself was a magnificent spectacle with the many components that made it so special. The perfectly synchronized marching of the many contingents of the armed forces, the display of the new developments in different fields from technology to trade, and the exuberance of the participating school children and cultural troupes; the vibrant “floats” as we called them, and finally the breathtaking ‘fly past’. Every part of the long march of the passing groups made us swell with pride that we were also a part of this ‘unity in diversity’ that is India.

It is only this year that I stopped to wonder about what went behind this parade.

The Indian Constituent Assembly adopted the Constitution of the newly independent India on November 26, 1949. This came into effect one year later, on January 26, 1950. Hence this day marks Republic Day. On 26 January 1950, the newly-sworn in President of India rode through the roads of Delhi to reach what was then called Irwin Amphitheatre (now the Dhyan Chand National Stadium) to take the salute of the first ever national parade where 3000 officers of the armed forces and more than 100 aircraft participated.  The parade was led by then Brigadier Moti Sagar of the Gorkha Regiment. From 1950 to 1954, the celebrations took place in different parts of Delhi including the Red Fort and Ramleela Maidan. The format of the current parade was adopted in 1955, and Rajpath (then called Kingsway, and now Kartavya Path) was chosen as the permanent venue.

Since the first parade when the Indonesian President Dr. Sukarno was the chief guest, it has been a tradition to invite the head of state of a country to be the chief guest for the event every year.

Every step of the parade is meticulously planned and coordinated so that there is perfect accuracy in the movement without the slightest hitch or delay. While the participants in the parade seem to move in perfect precision and coordination, this is the end result of months of rigorous training.

All the participants from the different participating groups across the country are notified in July of the preceding year. The practice begins right then at the respective centres and goes on till August. The participating groups reach Delhi in December where the intensive training commences which culminates in the ‘dress rehearsal’ a few days before the big day. While the practice march covers a distance of 12 km, the actual march on 26 January covers a distance of 9 km. On 26 January the participants reach there designated places on Rajpath at 3 a.m. for the ultimate Great March. By then they would each have put in over 600 hours of training!

All army personnel that take part in the parade go through four levels of investigation. All of the defence vehicles and equipment are housed in a dedicated camp near India Gate.

After the regimented procession of foot marchers the parade takes on a smoother and slower pace as the tableaux roll (at 5 km an hour) along the wide avenue of Rajpath. As children it was these ‘floats’ as we called them that provided animated lessons in the geography, history and culture of our country. At the time all we looked for was the sign that indicated what state the tableau represented, and then sat back and took in the diverse “scenes” as it were from that state, complete with live people doing activities on the moving tableaux.

It is only recently that I discovered that behind the creative presentations lies a long and bureaucratic process. The process is spearheaded by the Ministry of Defence. States are invited to submit proposals for a tableau that represents some historical event, culture, heritage, development programmes, and environment of that state. The tableaux proposals received from various states, Union territories, central ministries, and central departments are evaluated in a series of meetings by a panel of experts comprising of eminent persons from various disciplines such as art, culture, painting, sculpture, music, architecture, choreography, etc. The expert committee examines the proposals on the basis of theme, concept, design and its visual impact before making its recommendations

The selection process of the tableaux passes through various stages of development and evaluation. It begins with an initial appreciation of sketch/design and the themes of the demonstration. It culminates, after many interactions between the expert committee and the states/UTs/departments/ministries, with a three-dimensional model of the tableau. For the selected tableaux, the Ministry of Defence provides, free of charge, one tractor and one trailer upon which the tableau can be fabricated. There are also a series of other guidelines regarding the use of logos, animation, electronic displays, music and much more that need to be adhered to. And finally, the tableaux that ‘float by’ to mark the tail end of the awe-inspiring parade!

In recent years there have been a lot of controversies and contention with respect to the selection/rejection of tableau proposals from different states. Sad indeed, for an occasion that started as a celebration of the diversity that made our republic so unique and rich.

I certainly prefer to hold on to my youthful memories of the spectacular spectacle that made me proud to be a citizen of this republic. I celebrate the warp and weft of diversity that weaves the rich tapestry of this vast and varied country.

–Mamata

Thanks for a Spelunking Time!

Humans and caves go back to the dawn of time. In popular media and imagination, people of the Palaeolithic era are cave-dwellers, armed with rocks and clothed in animal skins and furs. While it is true that human ancestors did live in caves in that period, these were probably not their predominant dwellings. But since bones, artefacts, weapons and paintings in caves are sheltered and preserve better, a lot of objects used by early humans are found there rather than anywhere else, giving rise to the perception that humans mostly inhabited caves.

Mawsmai Caves
Mawsmai Caves, Meghalya

Our fascination with caves is long-standing. These dark, mysterious places figure in many an adventure story. Aladdin for instance, found his magic lamp in the Cave of Wonders. The thieves in the Ali Baba story hid their treasures in a cave which opened with the famous spell ‘Open Sim Sim’. Pirates are often associated with caves, as are many children’s stories involving lions and tigers.

Most caves are formed by the dissolution of limestone. Why does this happen? Rainwater as it falls to the earth dissolves carbon dioxide that it encounters in the air it passes through. As this carbon-di-oxide laden water percolates through the soil, it turns into a weak acid. The acid slowly dissolves the limestone along the joints, planes and fractures in the soil to form cavities. Some of these cavities in time become large enough to form caves.

India has its share of breath-taking caves which are of interest from a geological standpoint as formations;  from the archaeological stand point in that they house ancient cave paintings and artefacts; and from an aesthetic and religious standpoint—as the home of fantastic carvings and temples.

The earliest evidence of humans in India have been found in the Bhimbetka caves in Madhya Pradesh, with some of the shelters showing evidence of being inhabited 1,00,000 years ago! The cave paintings here go back to about 8000 BC. The Ajanta and Ellora caves in Maharashtra have Hindu, Buddhist and Jain temples, with the oldest dating as far back as 2nd century BC! Badami, Elephanta, Amarnath and Borra are among other popular and highly-visited caves.

But Meghalaya may take the prize when it comes to caves. The Krem Liat Prah caves in the Jaintia Hills are listed among the longest caves in the world, with a length of 30,957 meters—and this is only the explored length! In fact, the top nine out of the ten longest and deepest caves in India are in Meghalaya!

Another interesting cave is the Siju Cave of the Garo Hills, also known as the Bat Cave, which spans over 4 kilometres long, but with nearly all of it is filled with underground streams and rivers, is not easy to explore.

During my recent visit to Meghalaya, we were able to visit three touristy caves (Mawsmai and Arwah caves, and the Garden of Caves at Laitmawsiang) which easily are accessible and not too difficult for even the inexperienced. And that gave me a small taste of what it would be to be a spelunker —a person who walks and climbs in caves as a sport (from the Latin spelunca, which in turn derives from Greek spelynx, both of which mean ‘cave’).

A lot of the work of discovering, exploring and bringing to light the caves of the state has been done by the Meghalaya Adventurer Association founded by Brain Dermot Kharpran Daly and his group of dedicated spelunkers.

But all is not well with the caves of Meghalaya. Limestone mining for the cement industry is a major threat to the caves. As one drives across the state, one can see hill after hill carved and hollowed out. In fact, this has already led several disasters including the collapse of the Krem Mawmluh Caves, the seventh-longest cave system of the state. Much of this mining is now illegal, but that does not mean it has stopped!

Is there nothing we can do to stop the depredation of these amazing structures that have formed over million years?

–Meena

2023: The Year of the Rabbit

Three weeks ago we bade farewell to the old year, and welcomed the New Year, 2023 according to the Gregorian calendar. This month also marked the start of a new year for several different communities in different parts of India. Other parts of the world are also celebrating new beginnings. In many countries in East and Far East Asia it is the Chinese New Year that will herald 2023 as the Year of the Rabbit on 22 January this week.

The Chinese zodiac follows a 12-year astrological cycle in which a zodiac animal is assigned to each year in an ever-repeating rotation. The 12 zodiac animals are, in order: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. Each year has an animal sign according to the 12-year-cycle. The Year of the Rabbit signifies the fourth year in the 12-year cycle of Chinese zodiac

There are several myths and legends related to the origin of this. According to one story, the legendary Jade Emperor invited all the world’s animals to a banquet, but only these twelve animals accepted his invitation. Thus he honoured them by dedicating one year on the Chinese calendar to each.

Another Chinese zodiac origin story claims that the Buddha himself called for 12 sacred animals to protect his palace. He thus organized a race that involved all animals on earth to identify the most worthy. At the end of the race, the first 12 animals to complete the race were selected as his guards. Now, they represent the 12 Chinese zodiac signs.

The most popular tale is that of The Great Race that explains the order of the animals in the zodiac has many variations, but the essence is the same.

According to legend the Jade Emperor decided that in order to determine the order in which each of these twelve animals would be placed in the zodiac, they would have to run a race, and they would be assigned their places depending upon the order in which they reached the finish line.

All the animals set off on the course. On the way to the finishing point there was a big river that they had to cross. The Rat had got up and started early, but when it reached the river it felt helpless; how could it navigate the swirling waters? But then it saw the strong Ox about to enter the water, so it used its wits and climbed onto the Ox’s head. The Ox was kind and let it ride with him. But as soon as they reached the other side, the wily rat quickly slid down and scampered to the finish line. And so the Rat came first, followed at number two by the diligently plodding Ox.

Year of Rabbit

Tiger and Rabbit were not far behind. Both were fast, but Tiger was faster and came in third. Rabbit though fast on the ground, was stumped when it reached the river; it could not swim but it used its strong legs to hop from stone to stone in the river. However at one place it slipped and fell in the water, but it grasped a floating log and hung onto it, and was tossing with the current.

Dragon who everyone thought would easily win the race because it was believed to have magical powers fell behind as it took  a detour on the way to help some villagers to  extinguish a fire. When it returned to the river it saw the rabbit clinging to the log which was being carried away by the currents. Dragon used its breath to push the log to the shore. Thus the rabbit was the fourth animal to complete the race. Rabbit never found out where the breeze that had helped it ashore came from. The helpful dragon thus came after the rabbit, to be fifth in the race.

The story goes on to describe the adventures and machinations of the other seven animals who completed the race.

2023 is the Year of the Rabbit. The Chinese zodiac assigns an animal and its attributes to each year. Those born in a specific year are said to possess certain characteristics of the animal, as defined in the Chinese belief system; and their fortunes are determined accordingly. The years of the Rabbit include 1915, 1927, 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011, and now 2023.

The rabbit is historically known as the gentlest of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac. The attributes also apply to the people born in the year of that animal. Thus those born in the year of the rabbit are believed to be gentlequietelegant, and alertas well as quick,ingenious,skilfulkindpatient, and very responsible. Those born under the sign of the Rabbit are known for their calm and decisive nature, which helps them to navigate difficult situations effectively. They are sometimes reluctant to reveal their minds to others and have a tendency to escape reality, but are always faithful to those around them. In the Japanese zodiac that also follows these 12 animal signs, rabbits represent fortune, moving forward and cleverness.

In addition to these traits, according to the Chinese theory of five elements, each zodiac sign is also associated with one of the five elements: Gold (Metal)WoodWaterFire, orEarth. These occur once in a 60-year cycle. According to this, 2023 is the year of Water Rabbit. Water rabbits are characterized as being gentle, amicable, able to adjust readily to different conditions, but with a firm mind set and principles.

In today’s world where there is an increasing prevalence, (indeed even positive recognition) of more aggressive traits of competitiveness, and ruthlessness, this year is a reminder of the value of gentleness, tenderness and empathy. In Chinese and Japanese cultures the sign of the Rabbit is revered as a symbol of longevity, peace and prosperity.

According to Chinese astrology, 2023 the year of the Water Rabbit will be less tumultuous than last year which was the year of the Tiger. It is predicted to be a year of Hope. This is what the world needs so badly now.

Here is to the Year of the Rabbit 2023—a year of hope, peace, and moving forward with empathy. 

–Mamata

Bridging the Past and Future

Bridge-building brings to mind heavy equipment; tonnes of steel and concrete; engineers and overseers by the dozens. And lakhs of rupees.

Well, what if there were bridges which involve some rubber trees; centuries of traditional knowledge and skill passed down from one generation to another; and a lot of cooperation? And very little money.

And indeed there are such bridges by the dozens in Meghalaya. Built by the Khasi and Jaintia communities, the Living Root Bridges, locally known as Jingkieng Jri, play a key role in rural connectivity in the dense forest areas of the state, which are also among the wettest areas of the world (think Cherrapunji).

Living Root Bridge

The process begins with the planting of two rubber trees– Ficus elastica—one on either side of the river. These trees take about 10 years to grow and give rise to secondary aerial roots.  A bamboo scaffolding is created across the river, and these roots are woven together and trained onto to this to start creating the structure. The aerial roots thus grow across the river, and when they reach there, they are planted again on the opposite side. The roots along the scaffolding grow thicker and intertwine. The roots need to be guided to grow in the right direction for the next few decades, after which they can stand on their own.

The planning and engineering skills required to build these bridges is enormous– they often rise 50 to 100 feet in the air and may be as much as 175 feet in length. Many are ‘single-storey’ bridges, but there are ‘double-storey’ ones as well. They have always been built and cared for by the local communities, and the tradition continues.

The bridges need loving care—for instance, every two years, the bamboo scaffolding has to be changed since the moisture and humidity might damage it. Properly cared for, these can last for a hundred years and more.

These bridges have been around for centuries and are even today, about 100 are in use, connecting over 75 villages. While local communities use them for their normal day-to-day movement, these bridges are also now major tourist attractions. They also act as corridors for animals to safely cross the rivers—barking dear and clouded leopards have been recorded to use these bridges. The bridges support the growth of moss and provide a habitat for squirrels and other small animals, and nesting sites for birds.

The technique is used not just for making bridges but also other structures that are needed locally, for instance,  ladders and steps to provide a reliable mode of movement especially during the monsoon season; platforms and towers which serve as lookout points; erosion and landslide prevention structures to protect slopes and help in soil stabilization.

A true testimony to the patience, skill and cooperative spirit of the communities who build, use and care for them. And also to the effective methods of transmission of traditional knowledge, so that generation after generation is able to do this work effectively.

This sustainable and eco-friendly tradition has been recognized internationally. In fact, as of last year, the Living Roots Bridges or the Jingkieng Jris has been included in the UNESCO’s tentative list for World Heritage Site status.

I was lucky enough to see such a bridge and walk across it. It was an amazing experience. The one I visited was very accessible to tourists. But some other intrepid members of our group went to see a double-storey one, which involved six hours of trekking. And came back exhausted and with aches and pains in every joint. But they said that every pain, ache and stiff joint was worth it, and given half a chance, they would do it again!

So take the soft route or the hard, but if you can possibly see a Living Root Bridge, it will be a memorable experience.

–Meena


Aquarium Inventor: Jeanne Villepreux-Power

A few weeks ago Meena wrote about modern-day aquariums. Quite by chance I recently discovered that the first inventor of the aquarium was a woman! Her name was Jeanne Villepreux-Power and she was much more than just an inventor. She was a leading 19th-century leading French naturalist and marine biologist. With just a basic education, and very little knowledge of more than simple reading and writing, Jeanne Villepreux not only taught herself much more, but did ground-breaking work in marine biology.

Jeanne was born in 1794 in a village in France in a family of shoemakers. Her mother died when she was eleven years old, and the young Jeanne dreamt of becoming a dressmaker. To follow this dream, when she was eighteen, she set out on foot for Paris, a journey of over 300 km. After many hardships enroute, she finally made it to Paris and spent the next few years as a dressmaker’s assistant, making hundreds of dresses for the rich and famous. It was at one of the weddings for which she had made the dresses that she met a successful English merchant James Power. The two married in 1818, and the couple lived in Sicily for the next several years. It was here that Jeanne became fascinated with the island and its natural environment. Jeanne had never had any science education but she immersed herself in reading everything she could about the natural history, geology and ecosystem of the island. She also closely observed and noted the flora and fauna, she collected specimens of minerals, fossils, butterflies and shells. Gradually her interest focussed on marine life and she began walking along the shoreline and wading into the ocean in her long cumbersome skirts to closely study fish and shelled marine creatures.

The creature that began to dominate her interest was a small octopus Argonauta argo which was also known as Argonaut or paper nautilus because of the thin, intricately corrugated shell of its females. These octopuses spend their lives drifting near the surface of tropical and subtropical seas, whereas most other octopus live on the sea floor. The females of the argonauts make a fragile, translucent shell to carry incubating eggs. The shell also acts as a ballast tank which aids their movement in the water.

The argonaut had fascinated naturalists since Aristotle with the mystery of its spiral shell—did the octopus ‘borrow’ a discarded shell as the hermit crab did, or did it make its own shell? Why was the shape of the shell so different from that of its dweller, and why did only the female have a shell?

Jeanne set out to unravel these mysteries. As she wrote in her research memoirs: Having for several years devoted to the natural sciences the hours that remained to me free from my domestic affairs, while I was classifying some marine objects for my study, the octopus of the Argonauta transfixed my attention above the rest, because naturalists have been of such various opinions about this mollusk.

But observing these shy creatures was a daunting task. While they appeared on the surface they quickly plunged deep into the sea as soon as they sensed anything close by. Jeanne spent hours, and years, quietly and patiently waiting and watching, and sketching (she taught herself). She realised that the mystery of how and why the shell was made could not be solved through preserved specimens. She had to regularly observe the living creatures. Towards this end Jeanne designed a system of huge cages complete with observation windows through which she could study the argonauts undisturbed. She anchored these off the coast of Sicily. Every day she would row out to the cages, and spend hours observing the creatures from a platform above the cages. This was wet, uncomfortable, and back breaking work. She needed to have some way of continuing her observations in a different way. 

Jeanne the marine scientist applied her mind to engineering now. She made a series of large glass tanks in her home, and populated these with living argonauts. Now she could conduct observations and experiments of all types in a lab-like situation which still provided the marine organisms with a near-natural environment. And so in 1832, the first recognisable glass aquarium had been designed! Jeanne also developed two other aquarium designs: a glass apparatus placed within a cage for use in shallow water and a cage-like aquarium capable of lowering its contents to various depths.

After a series of ground-breaking experiments with these captive marine creatures which she began in 1833, and five years of hours of patience and persistence, Jeanne was able to observe how the argonaut makes its own spiral home, and also is capable of repairing it in case of damage. In doing so she not only solved a long-debated mystery of whether these creatures made their own shells, but also revealed the innate “intelligence” of the octopus in a period when science was yet to recognise the consciousness of non-human animals.  

Jeanne wrote papers to support her research, but as a woman she was unable to present these at scientific conferences or societies, so these were read by male scientists on her behalf. In 1839 Sir Richard Owen, an eminent scientist of his time, presented her findings before the London Zoological Society. Jeanne’s work attracted attention and began to be published in many languages.

In 1839 Villepreux-Power published a book describing her observations of the Argonaut and other animals. In 1842 she published a comprehensive guide to the island of Sicily. The following year Jeanne and her husband relocated from Sicily to London. During the move, the ship carrying most of her scientific documents and collections sank, and these were lost forever. After her move to England Jeanne no longer did scientific research, but she continued with her writing. It was only towards the end of her life that Jeanne Villepreux-Power was accepted into scientific societies in England and Europe. She died on January 26, 1871. Sadly, Jeanne was forgotten for more than a century after her death. It was only around 1997, that her work was rediscovered. In the same year, Jeanne’s name was given to a major crater on Venus discovered by the Magellan probe. 

–Mamata

On Orchids

For most of us:

Orchids = Rare

Orchids = Exotic

Orchids = Beautiful.

I recently went to Meghalaya where I visited an orchid park. And of course the variety and beauty of the orchids we saw were amazing. But when I tried to figure out a little bit more about these flowers, I found all the three equations mentioned above, which have been firmly planted in my mind for decades, to be false!

Orchids in fact belong to one of the top two most-common families of flowering plants on earth! This is the family Orchidaceae which comprises about 750 genera and close to 28,000 species!  So orchids are not rare!

Orchids

The dictionary meaning of ‘exotic’ is ‘origination in or characteristic of a distant foreign country’. Actually, with their wide distribution, orchids may be among the least exotic flowers. Orchids grow on every continent except Antarctica. At least four species have been reported from north of the Arctic Circle. So orchids are not exotic in most parts of the world! 

And while most orchids are beautiful, there are some which are warty, bumpy, hairy and unbeautiful. In fact, the latest orchid to be discovered—the gastrodia agnicellus–from a forest in Madagascar, has been dubbed “the ugliest orchid in the world” by the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew in the United Kingdom. It has been likened to a soul-sucking eyeless worm. While I am not very comfortable to have anything castigated so severely on the basis of looks, I have to admit after looking at pics of this flower, orchids are not always equal to beautiful!

Ok, easy enough to demolish myths. Now time to look at some facts.

To begin with, what are orchids? Orchids come in different sizes, different shapes, grow in different parts of the world. But the one characteristic which unities them, as well as differentiates them form other flowering plants, is the fusion of the male portion of the flower (stamen) with the  female portion (pistil), into one structure called the column—often visible protruding from the center. Orchids have three sepals and three petals, which all appear to be part of the flower. The middle petal is modified and is usually brightly coloured and exudes a scent.  

Orchids are among the oldest flowering plants known. A few years ago, Harvard University scientists discovered a fossilized bee carrying orchid pollen which dates back at least 15 million years. However, scientists speculate that orchids have been around much longer than that, maybe as much as 100 million years.

Orchids

Orchids have the tiniest seeds in the world. A single seedpod can have up to 3 million seeds in it.  The seeds are so small they can only be seen under a microscope. The plants take about 5-7 years to bloom once germinated, and can live up to a hundred years.

Incidentally, the vanilla bean comes from a species of orchid.  It is the only orchid which is commercially grown and harvested, not for its flowers but its beans!

India has a vast orchid diversity—a total of 1256 species have been recorded, out of which 307 are endemic to the country. But our orchids are under pressure. This pressure mainly comes from illegal harvesting and exploitation for trade. Orchids are illicitly collected from the wild and traded as ornamental plants.

So yes, do get orchids for your home-garden. They will surely add a touch of colour and beauty (unless of course you choose the gastrodia agnicellus!). But make sure they are sourced ethically. For many of them are indeed under threat.

–Meena

Underground Treasures: Tubers

This is the season of relishing a variety of underground edible delights. These are the root and tuber vegetables that are consumed in numerous ways, in a variety of dishes. In Gujarat these are celebrated in the undhiyu, a mix of winter vegetables led by several kinds of tubers including yams, sweet potatoes and potatoes, traditionally slow-cooked in an earthen pot. The winter season is also a multi-coloured celebration of root vegetables like carrots, beets, radish, turnip, fresh turmeric and ginger that add crunch, colour and flavour to salads, and sweets (carrot hawa!).

The distinction between tubers and roots is more botanical than culinary. Both root vegetable and tubers are geophytes, a botanical classification for plants with their growing point beneath the soil. All tubers fall under the root vegetable umbrella, but not all root vegetables are tubers. Root vegetables are aptly named because the meat of the crop is the root of the plant, growing downwards and absorbing moisture and nutrients from the soil. Above ground are the leaves, below ground, are the roots which are eaten as vegtables. Tubers, however, form at the base of the root. Tubers store energy and support new stem growth. You can get several tubers from one above-ground plant, while root crops will have one root vegetable from each plant.

The general belief is that tubers are starch heavy and difficult to digest. Many people feel very full after eating tubers. In fact, the complex carbohydrates found in tubers balance the glucose levels in blood, and help remain full for a longer period, thereby prevent cravings and overeating.  While they do contain more carbohydrates than protein, tubers are a rich source of essential nutrients—vitamins (especially vitamin C), minerals like copper, manganese and potassium, and beneficial enzymes. They are also high in fibre that helps to keep the digestive and excretory system healthy. 

Indigenous people all over the world have traditionally consumed a variety of local tubers to supplement their diet as a balanced and healthy food source. In the Andean region of South America, tuber-forming or storage root crops have been continuously domesticated from wild ancestors and improved via selection and breeding during centuries by the local indigenous people. Some have been used as part of traditional medicine for their healing properties. Tubers thus provided food security as they could survive the vagaries of weather conditions, especially drought.

Tubers are slowly attracting attention again for all these reasons. Tubers are packed with nutrition, but majorly neglected in our diets. They are naturally resistant to pests and diseases, and are chemical-free unlike most fruits and vegetables. Unlike other food, tubers survive for three-four months after being pulled out of the soil.

Realising their multi-faceted potential for a hunger-free world, the Food and Agriculture Organization has categorised tubers like the sweet potato, along with pulses and millets, as Future Smart Food (FSF). 

However with the spread of monocultures and new varieties of cereal crops, as well as accessibility and popularity of other vegetables, over time the genetic as well as nutritional properties of tubers have been largely forgotten or neglected.

This is what motivated Shaji NM, a farmer from Kerala to take on a one-man crusade to save and celebrate tubers. Shaji grew up in a family of farmers that often resorted to subsisting on a diet of different tubers that they cultivated, or collected from the nearby forest, when they could not afford any other food grain. While Shaji himself became familiar, early on, with a variety of tubers, as he grew he saw that these were slowly being forgotten as the market became flooded with cereals and vegetables from far and wide. He also realized that while traditionally most farmers had cultivated some tubers in their fields, these were being increasingly replaced by the cultivation of cash crops like pepper, cardamom, nutmeg. Shaji felt that he needed to do something to protect and preserve tuber varieties before they disappeared altogether. And thus began a mission that has been continuing for almost two decades now. 

Shaji began travelling across Kerala to look for wild tubers. He went deep into the forests to meet the local tribal communities. It is here that he discovered a variety of wild yams and other tubers that were part of their traditional diet, grown in small patches near their homes, or collected from the forest. These were not grown nor available commercially. Shaji saw that many such varieties were on the verge of disappearing and he began to collect the seeds of all the varieties that he came across. He brought the seeds back and started growing these on his own one acre of land. But he also began to give the seeds back to the local communities, encouraging them to cultivate these and include these in their diet.

Today Shaji has accumulated a rich basket of tuber species. Greater yam, lesser yam, elephant foot yam, arrowroot, colocasia, sweet potato, tapioca, Chinese potato are just a few among the over 200 varieties of tubers that he grows on his small farm named Kedaram that means ‘cultivation’ in Malayalam. Shaji’s passion has extended to preserving other endangered plant varieties as well. He cultivated over 52 varieties of indigenous and traditional rice varieties, 100 varieties of vegetables and fruits, as well as medicinal plants. With a small fish farm, rearing of honey bees and a few cows and goats, Shaji has demonstrated the enormously rich potential of even a small landholding.

Shaji organizes a seed festival at his farm every year. He generously gives away, for free, the seeds of tubers and rice to others who want to cultivate these with the strict condition that the people return the same amount of seeds they take from him once they harvest the crop. This helps to ensure that the seeds are properly cultivated.

Shaji N.M., a truly grassroots biodiversity champion, strives to spread his mission every way he can from personal interactions, to technology like Facebook to connect and train farmers. The Tuber Man of India as he is popularly called has been recognized for his efforts through several state and national level awards.  He was awarded the India Biodiversity Award 2021 in the individual category of Conservation of Domesticated Species.

I will certainly relish my undhiyu with more respect this year!

–Mamata

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A Sweet Welcome to the New Year!

A sweet dish popular in Karnataka, but not too well-known in other parts of the country, is Hayagreeva. Intensely sweet and very rich, the major ingredients are ghee, chana dal and jaggery. How can you go wrong with that?

One should indulge a bit in the New Year, so here is urging everyone to make it during the week (before guilt catches up!).  I shall leave the recipe for you to look up—it is easily available (as what is not, these days?).

I would rather get into the Who, How, Why?

Few of us would associate the name ‘Hayagreeva’ with a sweet. Let alone the sweet, in fact not many may even be aware of Hayagreeva the god. So let’s start at the very beginning.

 Hayagreeva is an avatar of Vishnu. Hayagreeva means the ‘horse-necked one’, and that is how this avatar is depicted, with a human body and a horse’s head, and a brilliant white in colour. He is shown clothed in white garments and seated on a white lotus. Hayagreeva represents knowledge and wisdom, and the triumph of knowledge over the evil forces of passion and darkness. He is shown as having four hands. One of these is in the gyana mudra—giving of knowledge, while another holds books. The third and fourth hold a conch and discus, the traditional items associated with Vishnu.

So how does the transition from the name of a God to the name of a sweet happen? Many centuries ago there was a devout disciple of Hayagreeva called Vadiraja Thirtha (1480 to 1600 AD). He was a renowned philosopher and a great scholar, who translated many works of Madhavacharya from Sanskrit to Kannada. He served as the pontiff of the Sodhe Mutt in Karnataka. He was particularly devoted to the Hayagreeva avatar of Vishnu.

It is said that Vadiraja Thirtha would make a sweet by cooking chana dal and jaggery (the two items most beloved to horses) in ghee, and place the dish on a tray on his head. The Lord Hayagreeva would emerge out of his statue in the temple in the form of a horse, and partake of the prasaada. He would spend time playing and dancing for his bhakt, and then go back into the idol.

And thus the tradition of hayagreeva as an offering to the gods was born.

There is another interesting story associated with Hayagreeva. It is said that a goldsmith was once trying to make a statuette of Ganesha. But every time he did this, the head kept taking the shape of the head of a horse. The artisan tried many times, but it was always thus. The goldsmith got frustrated and started to hit the statue with a hammer to break it. But however hard he tried, he could inflict no damage to the idol. That night, in his dream, Lord Hayagreeva himself appeared, and told him to give the statue to a holy man whom he would meet the next day.

And sure enough, Vadiraja Thirtha met the goldsmith the next day. Lo and behold, he knew about the statue and asked the goldsmith about it. He of course gave it to him, and Shri Vadiraja consecrated it and started worshipping it.

May your New Year be as sweet as the hayagreeva!

–Meena