Another Word For…

Every writer knows well the sudden point in the flow of words where you struggle to find another/better/appropriate word. And where a dictionary will not serve the purpose. That is the time to turn to the trusted Thesaurus with its rich listing of synonyms.

The word thesaurus itself came to the English language in the late 16th century, via Latin, from the Greek word thēsauros meaning ‘storehouse or treasure’. It was used in the early 19th century by archaeologists to denote an ancient treasury, such as that of a temple. Soon after that, the word was metaphorically used to describe a book containing a “treasury” of words or information about a particular field.

In 1852, the English scholar Peter Mark Roget published a book in which he compiled lists of related words which were organised according to specific categories. The book was titled  Thesaurus of English Words, Classified and Arranged as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition. This led to the common acceptance of the term “thesaurus” to describe a book of words and their synonyms. In the years to come the word Roget itself became a synonym for Thesaurus.

One would have imagined that the Thesaurus was the magnum opus of its author Peter Roget who spent his life as a wordsmith. In fact, Roget was a multi-faceted individual who wore many hats in his lifetime.

Peter Mark Roget was born on 18 January 1779 in London. His father was a clergyman of Swiss origin, and his mother was the sister of a notable law reformer Sir Samuel Romilly. After the death of his father when Peter was only four years old, the family moved to Edinburgh. The young Peter was a brilliant student, graduating from medical school in Edinburgh at the age of 19. His ardent curiosity led him to research and experiment in numerous fields of knowledge. As a young doctor he published works on tuberculosis, and on the effects of nitrous oxide, known as ‘laughing gas’, then used as an anaesthetic. He then moved on to Bristol and Manchester where he worked as a private physician and also as a tutor.

In 1808 he moved to London, where he continued to pursue his diverse interests in medicine and science. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society, Britain’s national academy of science, and served as its secretary for 21 years. The government asked him to explore London’s water system.  He sought to improve sanitation and food preservation, even discussing the concept of a ‘frigidarium’. He helped to found Manchester Medical School and the University of London. He wrote numerous entries for various encyclopaedias. He invented a pocket chessboard, and a new type of slide rule. He was also interested in optics and wrote a paper on how the kaleidoscope could be improved.

While his professional life was marked by prodigious achievements, Peter Roget’s personal life was traumatic and tragic. He hardly knew his father who died when he was very young; his mother suffered from paranoia, and his sister experienced mental breakdowns. His wife died of cancer when she was only 36. And Sir Samuel, his favourite uncle and surrogate father slit his own throat, even as Roget tried to pull the blade from his hand.

Roget himself was afflicted with depression, and developed such a repugnance of dirt and disorder, that would today be diagnosed as OCD. Perhaps as a reaction to all this turmoil, he also became obsessed with numbers and lists. The obsession also worked as therapy.

From the time that he was a young boy, Peter made lists. The process of sorting and classifying provided a sense of order and logic. As early as 1805 when he was 26 years old, he had compiled, for his own personal use, a small indexed catalogue of words which he used to help his prolific writing. He continued with this exercise of classifying and cataloguing words even as he continued his distinguished career in medicine and science.

It is only when he retired from medical practice age the age of 60 that Roget devoted all his time and energy on the project that would, in later years, eclipse all his former achievements.  For four years he worked on the task of arranging ideas, meanings and concepts. The contents were not arranged alphabetically but put in an order where a given idea fitted into his own classification, within six classes: Abstract Relations, Space, Matter, Intellect, Volition, and Affections.

Whereas a conventional dictionary starts with words and provides their meanings, pronunciations, and etymology, Roget’s Thesaurus was the converse, namely, an idea was given alongside the word or words by which that idea could most aptly be expressed. Although philosophically orientated, the Thesaurus was a compendium of thematically arranged concepts, a classification of words by their meaning.

Roget’s Thesaurus was finally published in 1853, when Peter Roget was 74 years old. It had a print run of 1,000 copies. The 15,000 words it contained were arranged conceptually rather than alphabetically, incorporating 1002 concepts. But shortly before publication, he inserted an alphabetical index as an appendix, thus enabling its easier use.

The first American edition of the Thesaurus was published in 1854. In the introduction to this, Roget explained: “The present work is intended to supply, with respect to the English language, a desideratum hitherto unsupplied in any language; namely, a collection of the words it contains and of the idiomatic combinations peculiar to it, arranged, not in alphabetical order as they are in a dictionary, but according to the ideas which they express.” The Thesaurus initially did not do as well in America. It only became popular in the 1920s when the crossword craze swept the United States.

Roget continued to make changes until his death at the age of ninety, by which time there had been twenty-eight editions. His son, John Lewis Roget continued its revision. Roget’s Thesaurus has never been out of print and by its 150th anniversary in 2002 had sold thirty-two million copies. From his original six classes, by the time of the eighth edition in 2019 it included 1,075 word categories.

Today while the word Roget immediately brings to mind the word Thesaurus, its author’s illustrious career in medicine and science is not as well known. His birthday week is a good time to remember the many other words to describe Peter Roget: Physician, physiology expert, mathematician, inventor, investigator, writer, editor and chess whiz.

–Mamata

Save the Paradox!

An impossible creature like the platypus cannot but fascinate.

  • It has the beak of a duck; the tail of a beaver; the feet of an otter.
  • It is a mammal but it lays eggs.
  • It is bio-luminescent–a rare charecteristic for a mammal.
  • It is a rare venomous mammal–the males of the species have a spur on the hind feet which can deliver venom.

No wonder early scientists thought it was a hoax—that the preserved specimen they were shown had been made up by sewing together parts of various animals.

It was certainly an animal which changed world views.

It shook up the scientific world. Robert Persig, the American author and philosopher thought this pointed to the inadequacy of scientific thinking, when he said, “…when the Platypus was discovered, scientists said it was a paradox. But Pirsig’s point was it was never a paradox or an oddity. It didn’t make sense only to the scientists because they viewed the nature of animals according to their own classification, when nature did not have any.” ― Robert M. Pirsig, Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals.

It also shook up the world of religion, with anti-evolutionary theory proponents using it to cast doubt on Darwin and his theories.

The animal is found in Australia and Australia alone. Till recently, the overall conservation status of the platypus was not a matter of very deep concern. But recent reports are throwing up some red flags. Platypus habitat is reported to have shrunk by almost 25% in the last three decades. In the last decade or two, they have not been sighted in some of the areas which they traditionally inhabited. The reasons are not difficult to find—urban sprawl encroaching upon creeks and waterways which are platypus habitats; land clearing; disruption of the natural flow of rivers; building of dams and weirs; erosion of river banks; and unstable climate and increased droughts due to climate change.

Fortunately, conservation scientists don’t think the situation is beyond repair, but feel it is time to sit up and take steps. And let us hope they do! The world cannot lose this creature, for then, where would be our sense of wonder? Where the hope of a world which still holds secrets waiting to be discovered? Of the sense that ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’?

The platypus has inspired its share of lore, legend, stories and poetry. My visit to an aquarium in Australia was the only time I ever saw a platypus. And a story from Native Australian lore re-told there inspired me to write ‘Who Will Rule’, a children’s book brought out by Tulika and translated into many languages.

And to end, a classic platypus poem:

THE PLATYPUS

by: Oliver Herford (1863-1935)

A sad example sets for us: From him we learn how Indecision

Of character provokes Derision.

This vacillating Thing, you see,

Could not decide which he would be,

Fish, Flesh or Fowl, and chose all three.

The scientists were sorely vexed

To classify him; so perplexed

Their brains, that they, with Rage at bay,

Called him a horrid name one day,–

A name that baffles, frights and shocks us,

Ornithorhynchus Paradoxus.

–Meena

Wisdom of the Ages: Thiruvalluvar Day

What was his name?

What was his faith?

What was his occupation?

When did he live?

Who knows? And more importantly, who cares?

For the heritage of poetry, philosophy, dharma and wisdom he has left us is beyond all these.

Thiruvalluvar, the revered Tamil poet, whose Thirukural even today is taught in every school in Tamil Nadu, and whose couplets on a range of subjects, from love and family life to economics and politics, are quoted by politicians, movie stars, professors, and common people alike, to clinch any argument.

I am but a poor Tamilian, who can neither read nor write Tamil, and am hence missing out on the riches of one of the world’s most ancient languages. Maybe to make up, I decided to do this blog on Thiruvalluvar on the occasion of Thiruvalluvar Day, Jan 15. The Tamil Nadu government has been observing this day as part of Pongal celebrations for many decades now.

Very little is known about him. Even his name is not certain—his works do not name an author! In fact, the Thirukural as a book itself does not carry a name! The French translator Ariel has referred to it as ‘the book without a name by an author without a name’.

His works have been dated by various scholars from 4th century BC to 5th century AD! In 1935, Govt. of Tamilnadu recognized 35 BC as the Year of Valluvar.

He may have been a Hindu. Equally, he may have been a Jain. Some claim Christian influences in his work. Many scholars hold he was beyond religion. For instance, Mu. Varadarajan says he probably “practiced religious eclecticism, maintained unshakeable faith in dharma but should have rejected religious symbols and superstitious beliefs.”

He may have been a weaver, a farmer, a priest, a drummer or an ‘outcaste’.

What is of moment are his works, especially the Thirukural, a collection of 1330 couplets. Each couplet consists of just seven words (termed ‘kural’), but pithily encapsulates wisdom. The 1330 verses have been divided into three sections by the author: the first is Arathuppaal which gives norms and codes for a virtuous life; the second, Porutpaal deals with the right way of acquiring wealth and expounds the fundamentals of politics and statecraft; the last, Kamathuppaal deals with family life and love in all its manifestations.

While urging you to visit any of the many sites devoted to the Kural and its translations, here is just a taste to whet the appetite:

Verse 211: Kaimmaru venda kadappadu marimattu ennarrun kollo ulaku.

Meaning:  

The benevolent expect no return for their dutiful giving.

How can the world ever repay the rain cloud?

Verse 541: Orndhukan notaadhu iraipurindhu yaarmaattum therndhusey vaqdhe murai.

Meaning:

Investigate well, show favor to none, maintain impartiality

Consult the law, then give judgment-that is the way of justice.

Verse 1032 : Uzhuvaar ulakaththaarkku aaniaq thaatraadhu ezhuvaarai ellaam poruththu.

Meaning:

Farmers are the linchpin of the world

For they support all those who take to other work, not having the strength to plow.

–Meena

Based on Wikipedia (of course!), as well as ‘Tirukkural-Arathuppal’ Prof SN Chokkalingam, Vanitha Press; https://ilearntamil.com/thirukural-with-english-meaning-athigaram-104/ and https://tamilnation.org/literature/kural/kurale1

Conversations in Many Tongues

The Millennial Matriarchs (Meena and Mamata) have been partners in drafting and crafting words for over three decades, co-writing and co-editing numerous publications. 

As fellow environmental educators in CEE at a time when EE was a nascent discipline in India, one of the greatest challenges was how to design and develop communication material that would be meaningful to as wide an audience as possible, in a country with tremendous diversity, not just of language and culture, but also bio-geography as well as experience. How could one share concepts and ideas that were universal, yet communicated in a way that each recipient responded to them with a sense of comfort and familiarity.

One of the important initiatives in this direction was to encourage ‘trans-adaptation’ of our materials and programmes. This became possible with the help of a wide circle of committed fellow educators across the country who volunteered to translate and support the language editions. In the 1980s CEE could proudly claim that one of its seminal publications The Joy of Learning was available in 16 Indian languages. This was in the days when publications were printed and published on paper.

With time, everything moved on—people, as well as technology. While no longer in the same physical space, Meena and Mamata continued to pursue our common love for writing and communicating. We tried to teach ourselves the language of new technologies (albeit it took us longer than many), and to explore new avenues to communicate and connect.

In March 2018, we started this blog www.millennialmatriarchs.com. As the tagline says, it is a blog capturing ‘Musings on Life and Times: Views, Reviews, Previews, Interviews…and Advice’. We took it as a challenge, and therefore as a “learning experience” (as we had done with all our work at CEE!).

With a minimum of two posts a week, it has been indeed been an exhilarating learning experience. It has given us the opportunity to express our angst and our appreciation; to articulate and analyse, and to celebrate and lament. The challenge of a weekly deadline has kept us on our mental toes every day of these three years. It has led us to explore and discover the most amazing variety of topics; to become better researchers; to be more disciplined, as well as better writers. And above all it has given us a voice that has helped us connect—with old friends as well as many new friends, far and wide. It is these conversations that motivate us, encourage us and enthuse us, day after day.

We thought that a wonderful way to extend these conversations and friendships would be to take the blog into many Indian (to start with) languages! And so we reached out to friends who share our wavelength, but also have the facility of writing well in regional languages. And many responded enthusiastically.

We wanted a name that would capture the essence of this of diversity and variety (Vividha), while continuing the common conversation and dialogue (Vada).

So here is https://vividhavaada.in/!

We are starting with Telugu and Tamil, but we hope to see this go into many more languages. These will not be translations, but rather, adaptations into the languages, with relevant context and localization. And we look forward to expanding our multi-lingual family of contributors.

Meet the VVers

Meena Raghunathan:  Environmental educator for two decades and CSR professional for 15 years. CSR, education, pre-school education, skilling and livelihoods are areas of professional interest. Writing and editing are personal passions.

Mamata Pandya: An environmental educator for over three decades, she wears many hats–instructional design consultant, writer, editor, and storyteller. Lover, collector and translator of children’s books, and avid crossword cracker. In a continuous explore, discover, think and share mode.

Bharthi Kode: A development worker by profession and loves to work on the development projects that affect children, youth and women.  Writer, poet and translator. A firm believer in humanity and always finds herself stuck between her desire to do endless things and her love to sleep! The Telugu tongue!

Sumitra Seshan: An executive of over two decades, she runs the operations of her own technology company that has offices in Canada, India and Mexico. She is interested in painting, cooking new recipes and spending time with family. The Tamil tongue!

We welcome you to join us on our journey of Many Ideas. Many Conversations. Many Languages.

Fruit Salad

Last week someone gave us a fruit that was perfect in form and colour. We learnt that this was a persimmon.  I had read poems and descriptions of persimmons in Japanese literature, but had not seen nor tasted this ‘exotic’ fruit before.

This is one of the many exotic fruits that are now being seen and sold in India. Some children today are perhaps more familiar with the taste of fruits like kiwi and dragon fruit, than fruits like ber, custard apple, mango, guava, and the ubiquitous banana, that we grew up eating.

With a lot of the new fruits being introduced and cultivated in India, and several being imported from other countries, the lines between indigenous and exotic fruits are rapidly getting blurred. Along with this, and better storage systems, so is the concept of fruits that are associated with, and available in specific seasons.

Perhaps it is a good time to go back to the roots of the fruits, as I did, with the help of A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food. Here are some interesting facts.

In terms of food, fruit falls in the category of items called phala that refers to crops that are not cultivated using the plough, in contrast to food grains (cereals and pulses).

Fruits that are indigenous to India, or have been here since recorded history include ber, pomegranate, amla, sweet orange, lemon, lime, mango, sugarcane, jamun, and grapes; as well as coconut, banana and jackfruit. There is mention of these in texts as old as Vedic literature, and their use prescribed in ancient medical treatises.

Interestingly several of these have, today, gained international celebrity as Wonder Foods. Like the amla or gooseberry which is recognised as one of the richest natural sources of Vitamin C

Later arrivals were some forms of the apple, mulberry, peach, pear, plum and apricot. These were not originally of very high quality, but many of these were improved by grafting in Mughal times.

After 1500 AD there was a wave of immigrant fruits from South and Central America that included the papaya, sapota, guava, pineapple, custard apple, and avocado. But over time these began to be widely cultivated, and eventually became fruits of the native soil.

Ancient texts such as Sushruta Samhita, one of the most important surviving ancient treatises on medicine, prescribes fruits as the first item in a meal, beginning with a first round of fruits that could be chewed such as pomegranate, grape and ber; and a second round of fruit to be sucked, like sugarcane, dates, oranges and mangoes.

Fruit was traditionally preserved in India in the form of spicy pickles of mango, lime etc., or with the sweet sour flavouring of Gujarat.  With the Muslim Unani medical tradition came the murabba in which fruits were preserved in a thick sugar syrup, and flavoured with spices like ginger, cardamom, and cloves. The British took a liking to these “preserves” and started to export large quantities of these along with chutneys.

Sweet anticipation: Waiting for the papaya in the garden to ripen!

One of the major use of fruit was to ferment it to obtain alcoholic beverages. The Charaka Samhita, believed to be one of the oldest and the most important ancient authoritative writings on Ayurveda, has a long list of fruits used for this purpose which included sugarcane and its products like molasses and jaggery, grape, mango, wood apple, date, ber, banana, jackfruit and pomegranate.

While we certainly enjoy pickles and fruit wines in all seasons, it does feel a bit strange to be having a mango or watermelon in the winter. For me the anticipation of biting into the first mango in the searing heat of May, or seeing the first custard apples around the time of the Diwali festival, or picking the ripe purple jamuns that match the dark monsoon clouds is an integral part of the seasonal calendar. The pleasure of eating local and seasonal fruits is unmatched by the thrill of buying and trying exotic fruits like the dragon fruit and persimmon.

As we start 2021 which is the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables it is a good time to think about the fruits we eat, where they come from, how we buy them, and how we eat and enjoy them. After all the word fruit itself comes from the Latin fructus, whose root is frui, which means “to enjoy.”

–Mamata

What Will 2021 Mark?

Hopefully, safe and effective vaccines against COVID, a fair, equitable and swift distribution of the same, and life back to normal!

It will also mark, as decided by the international community, several other things:

World Health Organization has appropriately designated 2021 as the International Year of Health and Care Workers in recognition of the dedication and sacrifice of the millions of health and care workers at the forefront of the Covid-19 pandemic, unanimously

United Nations (UN) has, through various resolutions, decided that 2021 shall be marked as:

  • International Year of Peace and Trust
  • International Year of Fruits and Vegetables  
  • International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour
  • International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development 

The first three are self-evident, and much needed, especially in the post-Covid world. But I was not familiar with the fourth—i.e., what is a Creative Economy?

Well, it seems that Creative Economy is not easy to define, and there are about 27 definitions floating around. Apparently the term was introduced by Peter Coy in 2000, and at its crux, it is an economy driven by “the growing power of ideas.”  John Howkins was the next to define it, and referred to it as ‘a new way of thinking and doing that revitalizes manufacturing, services, retailing, and entertainment industries.’ Ana Carla Fonseca  says that creative economy is about ‘products and services that rely on creativity to generate innovation, added value and differentiation”.  According to UNESCO and Ernst and Young, as of 2015, about 3% of the world’s GDP (more than US$ 2.25 trillion in revenue) pertained to creative economy.

As per a fairly accepted classification, there are four major sectors of the creative economy:

Media

– Editorial (books, magazines and digital content)

– Audiovisual (video content, television schedule and broadcast in general)

Consumption

– Architecture (building, landscape and environmental design, space planning)

– Design (products and visual and multimedia content)

– Fashion (clothing design)

– Advertising (creation of publicity pieces, marketing, market research and event organization)

Culture

– Arts and Cultural Heritage (museology, cultural production and heritage sites)

– Music (recording, edition, creation and music interpretation)

– Performing arts (acting, production and direction of shows)

– Cultural expressions (handcraft, folklore, cuisine and festivals)

Technology

– Research and Development (academic research)

– Biotechnology (bioengineering and lab research)

– Information technology (software, systems development and robotics).

Well, I suppose that doing a blog is a creative enterprise. So I shall count myself as a part of the creative economy (though sadly this one adds nothing to the GDP nor our personal bank accounts, so I wonder if it is an economic activity!).

And on a more serious note, this blog shall do its best and its bit to mark the other themes– Peace and Trust; Fruits and Vegetables; Elimination of Child Labour; and Health and Care Workers.

Happy 2021. May it be Peaceful and Healthy!

–Meena

Time on Pause

This week, as we think about, and even celebrate, microbes, it is all of 2020 that will be go down in history as the Year of the Microbe. Or the year when a microbe put the world on ‘pause’.

While scientists created microbe art in petri dishes, the pause created by the microbe led to the burgeoning of creativity in homes across the world. From home baking (yes using one of the friendly microbes!) to painting, embroidery, composing music, to innovative ways of virtual communication—this year was indeed one of activity amidst inactivity.

This is the time of year when much is being written about how people’s lives changed in this ‘year in pause’. The underlying point that comes through is that we all became much more aware about Time than we had probably done before.

We also learned to use time in ways that we had not done so earlier. While most of us were accustomed to thinking of time in the Fast Forward mode, the Pause mode made us also look back to reflect and reminisce, to unwrap long forgotten memories, and most importantly slowly sip, and savour the Present. In doing so we could explore our immediate surroundings and discover things which were ‘hidden in plain sight’ as it were. While not being obliged to be in a continual ‘planning ahead’ mode, we could stop and stare, and look around with new eyes.  

Picture courtesy Daksha Raval

As Rabindranath Tagore once put it:

I was tired and sleeping on my idle bed
and imagined all work had ceased.
In the morning I woke up
and found my garden full with wonders of flowers.

On the other hand it was a year when time seemed to slow down. When each day was counted in slowly ticking minutes and hours, as weeks telescoped into months… and here we are, at the end of a never-before year.

As Arik Fletcher, a poet, has succinctly summed up, it has been…

a time to cheer, a time to cry,
a time to live, a time to die,
a time to sleep, a time to wake,
a time for real, a time for fake,


a time for truth, a time to lie,
a time to laugh, a time to sigh,
a time to stand, a time to fall,
a time for one, a time for all,


a time for love, a time for hate,
a time to run, a time to wait,
a time to stay, a time to flee,
a time for you, a time for me.

And so here we go…
Bidding adieu

A year that crawled at the pace of a snail

Leaving behind indelible marks.

–Mamata

The Artful Microbes

2020 has been a year dominated by a microbe. In our imaginations and our nightmares, microbes are demonic creatures which have brought the world to its knees, and are out to destroy us. The year has served to reinforce a general belief that bacteria and viruses are villainous creatures behind disease and death.

However, as all of us who have gone through middle-school biology know, on the balance, microbes as a class do more good than harm.  To recall, microbes are microscopic living organisms, too small to see with the naked eye, There are five main groups of microbes: bacteria, viruses, fungi, algae and protozoa. While some of them do cause disease, many microbes are beneficial, and many, many others do neither active harm nor good but are an intrinsic part of the ecosystem. Bacteria and fungi in the soil are essential for decomposing organic matter and recycling old plant material. Some soil microbes form relationships with plant roots and help provide the plant with important nutrients like nitrogen or phosphorus. In fact, we could not digest food without gut bacteria. They protect against infection and even maintain reproductive health. We would not have bread or yogurt without microbes. Scientists say that nearly fifty percent of the oxygen that is present in the atmosphere is produced by bacteria.

But listings are boring and a picture is worth a 1000 words! And that is what the work of the American Society for Microbiology does for microbes through its annual ASM Agar ArtContest. The results of the 2020 edition were just announced. And they help us appreciate microbes–not through a recital of benefits, but by creating art with them!

First Prize: “Strands of Antisense” by Riley Cutler, Mississippi State University Starkville.

This annual contest is for ‘art created in a petri dish using living, growing microorganisms. Creators use either naturally colorful microbes, like the red bacteria Serratia marcescens, or genetically modified microbes, like the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae transformed with violacein genes, as ‘paint’ and various types, shapes and sizes of agar as a ‘canvas.’

The contest has been gaining popularity and this year’s edition had close to 200 countries entries from 29 countries across the world. It vindicates Fleming (yes indeed, the discoverer of penicillin) who was probably the first agar artist but whose art form was not appreciated in his time. He would fill Petri dishes with agar (a medium used to grow microbes), and then use a lab instrument called a loop to introduce different types of bacteria on different parts of the agar. He created many ‘paintings’ by culturing microbes of different natural colours—brown, violet, pink, yellow, orange etc., in Petri dishes, planned in way to create colourful patterns. It is not that simple either. Because he had to find the right colour of bacteria and dexterously introduce it on the exact spot on the dish. Further, different bacteria grow as different speeds, and hence have to be introduced at different times, with the end result in mind. And the art is ephemeral, because soon one bacteria will grow into another’s space and blur things out.

Second Prize: “Microbial Peacock: Balaram Khamari. Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning, Puttaparthi, India

Agar art thus is not just about creating beautiful things where they are least expected. But today, is also being recognized as a part of the art curriculum in some countries, and incorporated into biology curricula in some, since it has the potential to help students learn so much about microbes in such a hands-on way.

Thank you ASM, for showing us beauty where we least expect it, for helping us to put things in perspective, and for providing a platform for art to take wings! In 2021, may we too be able to do this in our everyday lives! May the year bring victory over the ‘bad’ microbes!

–Meena

Though these words did not make it to any listings, here are two words without which it is impossible to study microbes:

agar

agar (noun) · agar-agar (noun)a gelatinous substance obtained from certain red seaweeds and used in biological culture media and as a thickener in foods.

Petri dish

A Petri dish is a shallow transparent lidded dish that biologists use to hold growth medium in which cells can be cultured, originally, cells of bacteria, fungi and small mosses. The container is named after its inventor, German bacteriologist Julius Richard Petri. It is the most common type of culture plate. The Petri dish is one of the most common items in biology laboratories.

Pics from: https://asm.org/Events/ASM-Agar-Art-Contest/2020-Winners

The Mathematician Priest

This week as we celebrated Dr AR Rao, a great teacher of mathematics, it is the right time to make it a double celebration. Coincidentally this teacher of mathematics was not only a contemporary of Dr AR Rao, but also made Ahmedabad his karmabhoomi, and the teaching of math his life’s mission.

He was Father Carlos Valles, a Spanish Jesuit priest whose contribution to mathematics education, as well as to the Gujarati language and literature left a significant mark in both fields. The life and work of Father Valles are inspiring, as well as humbling.

Carlos Valles was born in Spain on 4 September 1925. His father, a respected engineer died when Carlos was only 10. But he left a very strong impression on his young son, who through his life reiterated “My father trusted me. I would never let him down.” Soon after his father died, Carlos’ family lost everything in the civil war that broke out in Spain. His mother took refuge with a sister of hers in a city where the Jesuits had just opened a school, and Carlos and his brother got scholarships to study and board in the school. When he was 15 Carlos joined the Jesuit religious order as a novitiate. This was also when he wrote his first book The Art of Choosing, where he reflected on this turning point in his life—detaching from the family for Christ and a lifetime of service. His next ‘detachment’ was leaving the country of his birth. On his own request that he be “sent East”, he was asked to go to India. As it happened, his Jesuit order was planning to start a new St Xavier’s college in Ahmedabad, and the young priest was given the task of helping to set this up. And so, in 1949, Carlos Valles left his mother country for India, which became his home for the next many decades. As he later wrote “There I went in the fullness of my youth. My father had taught me never to do things by halves”.

He also wrote that right from the moment he arrived, he felt so at home in India, that his Indian friends were convinced that he had been an Indian in his previous reincarnation. It was here that he completed his education with a Mathematics honours degree from Madras University in 1953. For someone who knew only Spanish, the course led him to become proficient not only in math but also in English, the medium in which the course was taught.

Around the same time he was also became convinced that if he were to work and teach in Gujarat, then his teaching would need to be in the local language. As he wrote “English was enough to teach mathematics, but not to reach the heart. The heart is reached through the mother tongue”. He had already studied basic Gujarati but he realised that this was not enough. So he went on to hone his language skills at Vallabh Vidyanagar University in Gujarat, living in the hostel for one year with fellow Gujarati students, immersing himself in the language and culture, until he gained mastery over Gujarati.  This was followed by four years of theological studies in Pune, where he continued to practice writing in Gujarati for two hours every day. Carlos Valles was ordained to priesthood in 1958, in the presence of his mother who came to India for the first time.  

Finally it was in 1960, the year that Gujarat separated from Bombay and became a new state, that Father Valles started his mathematics teaching at St Xavier’s College in Ahmedabad. The story goes that on the train from Bombay, he could not get a seat, and so stood all the way, and when in the melee one of his slippers fell off the train, he also threw the other one out, saying that now there is a complete pair that someone can use.

And there started the transformation from being a student to a teacher who was eager to give his body and soul to his teaching. And Father Valles was not one to take the easy path with tried and tested teaching techniques. He not only devised innovative ways of communicating math concepts, but also took upon himself to coin appropriate Gujarati terms for the concepts. He was also convinced that it was his duty not only to reach the minds, but also the hearts of his students; through dialoguing with them on all aspects that affected their life beyond the classroom. He started by writing a small book in Gujarati. Many publishers rejected the manuscript as they felt that no one would read such a book. Eventually Father Valles published it himself with some money that his mother sent him. The book titled Sadachar went onto see twenty editions in three languages.

Thus began the double life of Father Valles—as a Mathematics teacher and as a writer—both in Gujarati. Father Valles soon became a regular columnist for Gujarati periodicals and newspapers. In his original Sunday column in Gujarat Samachar titled To the New Generation he wrote about a wide range of topics– youth, family, society, religion, psychology, morals and contemporary issues. He secretly hoped, as he wrote, that the old generation would read it first. His writings became hugely popular over the years and were compiled and published as books. He did not ignore his first subject either, and with his colleagues, he wrote a whole series of mathematical textbooks in Gujarati which were used and remembered by generations of students in Gujarat.

But it is not only through newspaper pages that Father Valles entered the hearts of Gujaratis. He was a familiar sight riding on his bicycle across the city with his cloth sling bag. To learn from close quarters about the lives, mentalities, attitudes to life, beliefs and traditions of the people of the city, he lived with families in the narrow pols of the old city. As he wrote, “…so I lived the whole day with them, sharing their two daily vegetarian meals, their floor space on a mat at night, and their family life in all its richness, blessings and problems for a few days till I knocked at the door of another family in a continuous pilgrimage. I cycled daily to and from the college for my classes, but for the rest I lived fully as a member of the family I lodged with for the time. I spent ten years in that happy way. Perhaps that is possible only in India”.

For 22 years, Father Valles carried out his mission with heart and soul, in a city that he thought would be his home for life. However as he wrote, “circumstances shaped new and unexpected paths for me.” His mother turned 90 and expressed a wish for her son’s company. Without a second thought, Father Valles moved to Madrid to be with her until she died at the age of 101. He continued to write, now in three languages—English, Gujarati and Spanish, and travel. In 1999, at the age of 74, with his undiminished passion for reaching out, he bought a computer and started a website in Spanish.

Father Valles continued to live in Madrid, but he could make a trip back to his beloved Ahmedabad in 2015. Ahmedabad had changed much since he had left, but his gentle presence reminded its citizens once again about his life’s mission of bringing harmony. As he once said “I would like the word Harmony to be the summary of my life.”

Father Valles passed away in Madrid on 9 November this year, 5 days after his 95th birthday.

Sadly I was not living in Ahmedabad in the years when he was here, but the heartfelt reception he got on this last visit, made me wish that I could have had the privilege of having met this innovative teacher, prolific multi-lingual writer, and above all, an incredible human being.

–Mamata

Go Figure: National Mathematics Day

December 22, the birthday of the mathematical genius Shri Srinivasa Ramanujam, has been observed as National Mathematics Day in India since 2012, the start of the celebration of his 125th birth anniversary. The Day has, since then, been marked in schools and colleges by special events like maths quizzes, competitions etc. Hopefully, the enthusiasm will be carried over to the digital medium this year.

Those of us who fear math will also recall they feared their math teachers. In fact, the fear of math stems in most of us because we just did not understand what was happening in the class. And math teachers seldom felt the need to do anything differently to help students understand the abstract concepts better.

It is in this light that Mathematics Educators like Shri AR Rao stand out. He dedicated his life to math education and inspired generations.

Born in the small village of Jakka Samudram of Salem district, Tamilnadu, he had his initial schooling at Tanjore—not far from Kumbakonam, where Ramanujam and studied lived when he was young.  He studied chemistry, not mathematics at graduate level, and then took a post graduate degree from Chennai. But his karmabhumi was Gujarat. He joined Bahauddin College, Junagadh in 1933, as a Professor of Mathematics and spent 27 years there. After that he taught in various other colleges in the state.

After ‘retirement’ in 1974, he started his second innings. He became a mathematician at VASCSC (Vikram Sarabhai Community Science Centre), a pioneering science education facility in the county. The teacher of formal mathematics became the flag-bearer of non-formal mathematics as a means to popularize mathematics. His mission was to make mathematics enjoyable for students and everyone else.

His innovative mind came up with dozens of puzzles, games, models and teaching aids towards this.

He set up India’s first Mathematics Laboratory at VASCSC. He traveled, attended workshops and seminars, and spoke all over the country to popularize these ideas.

I had the great good fortune of having interacted with Shri AR Rao to some extent. When I was helping at VASCSC, his 90th birthday came up. It was decided to throw a surprise party at the Centre. Just to ensure that he did come in that day, a message was sent to him that the Trustees wanted to meet him.

I still remember the joy and the excitement of the many students and bhakts who came for the party. And at last the guest of honour, Shri AR Rao, walked in. He was truly surprised and thrilled. He almost broke down when it was his turn to speak. He said that he had come in very nervously, thinking that the Trustees had wanted to meet him to ask him to retire now that he was 90! Such was his love and passion for spreading the word on mathematics education that he wanted to come in to work at this age. And indeed he did, till the age of 100. He passed away on 4th April, 2011.

If today the teaching of mathematics in India has become more comprehensible to the average student, if students appreciate and enjoy the beauty of mathematics, and if teachers have begun to employ innovative methods to teach the subject, Prof. AR Rao had a lot to do with it.

It would be appropriate to end with a quote from him:

“Although everyone concedes that without mathematics, modern science and technology can hardly make any progress, it is common knowledge that the students everywhere consider mathematics as a very difficult subject. Of the many reasons that can be found for this, perhaps, the most important are, some defective methods of teaching, over emphasis on exams and indiscriminate cramming of materials from the text books and the so-called guides. So what is really needed is inculcation of a power of understanding and a capacity of creative thinking.” AR Rao.

Blessed indeed to have met such people!

–Meena

Much of the material has been drawn from http://www.vascsc.org/images/pdfs/Glorious-Innings-of-Prof.A-R-Rao.pdf.