BOOKAROO!

What is more fun than a barrel of monkeys? A bunch of bubbly Bookaroons telling stories at the Baroda Bookaroo! No this isn’t a new tongue twister, nor the setting and characters from Dr Seuss. This describes the two-day Festival of Children’s Literature recently held at Vadodara in Gujarat.

Bookaroo, as the festival is called, is a celebration of the magic of books that brings together children and tellers and creators of stories (writers and illustrators). The Festival that focuses on Reading for Pleasure, began in 2008 with its first event in Delhi. In the decade since then, it had grown bigger, and also travelled to 13 cities in different parts of India.  Besides the main two-day event that brings children to a common venue, Bookaroo also reaches out to those children who cannot come to the festival for various reasons, with authors visiting schools for the underserved, and with special needs; hospitals, construction sites, orphanages and remedial homes. Another form of outreach has been storytelling and art activities in public spaces like parks, metro stations, monuments, museums and public libraries.

I was privileged to be a part of this wonderful festival held in IMG_20191114_104834.jpgthis past weekend. The venue itself was unique—the Art District in Alembic City with its sprawling lawns, old trees, and intriguing studio spaces housed in what was Alembic’s (remember those ubiquitous Yera glasses?) first factory, over a hundred years old! Imagine this coming alive with the colour, sound and movement of thousands of children—a vibrant tapestry seamlessly weaving the past, present and future.

The two days were packed with parallel events catering to children from ages 4 to 14. There was something for everyone—listening and reading, doodling and drawing, singing and crafting, meeting favourite authors in person, discovering new stories and books, and of course, making new friends. Gandhian Jyotibhai Desai, all of 93 years, with a twinkle in his eyes, answered children’s questions about Gandhi and his life, inspired each one to become a change-maker. Others carried children far and wide on the magic carpet of tales old and new.

The same excitement permeated the storyteller Bookaroons. The time that we spent together was bubbling with fun and laughter. A motley group from far and near, each of us passionate about telling tales in our own ways, all of us were immediately bound by our common love for words and passion to reach out to children. For those two dizzy days we Bookaroonas put aside our hats as mothers, daughters, mothers-in-law, daughters-in-law, and grandmothers, and donned our favourite kiddie-hats—giggling and teasing; chatting and chortling late into the night; sharing ice-cream rolls and shopping tips, and swapping ghost stories!

Bookaroo’s journey started in 2003 with the setting up of India’s first exclusive children’s bookstore Eureka–a place that children could call their own, choose books of their choice without parents or teachers dictating what a good book is. Bookaroo has travelled far since then, connecting children and books in so many ways. Bookaroo is a winner of the Literary Festival Award at the London Book Fair’s International Excellence Awards, 2017. It was the first time that an Indian children’s literature festival was recognised in the international arena.

For myself, who often agonises in this blog about the dying age of the printed word, and the joy of reading, it was exhilarating to see so many happy children with paint-smudged fingers clutching their new books, and looking for the authors to autograph them. Thank you Bookaroo for a wonderful reiteration and reassurance that all is not lost!

–Mamata

14 November is celebrated as Children’s Day in India. For Bookaroo, every day is Children’s Day!

 

Tribute to India’s Birdman: Dr. Salim Ali

330px-Salim_ali_mnsSalim Ali’s birthday falls on 12 Nov. He was born in 1896 and passed away in 1987. He may be credited with single-handedly bringing ornithology to India. And this interest in ornithology, as it spread, led to interest in wildlife and biodiversity; in environmental issues; in conservation; and in sustainable development.

He inspired generations in India and created a culture of systematic and scientific study of wildlife. If his ‘Book of Indian Birds’ is the easy guide which every bird watcher starts with, the landmark ten volume Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan which he wrote with Dillon Ripley is the authoritative guide. Dr. Salim Ali was respected across the world, and decorated with the Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan.

On this his birth anniversary, here are excerpts from an interview of Dr. Salim Ali (when he was 85+ years of age!), with Dr. HSA Yahya of Aligarh Muslim University, and taken from http://wgbis.ces.iisc.ernet.in/ envis/doc97html/biosalim24.html. My only contribution is to have picked out two sections that I found of particular interest.

MONEY MATTERS NOT A JOT

‘Then I told Prater ” look we have so many places in India and we know nothing about birds.”  Hyderabad for instance, was a complete blank on the ornithological map. So I said ” if you write to the British Residents who are really interested in these kinds of things we can probably get some financial support. I do not want any pay. I only want my expenses paid and I will be quite happy to go, study and collect birds.”So the Society got in touch with the Hyderabad Government which had largely British heads of Departments. They were very glad. But it is really quite laughable, the amount we asked for and which we got and in which I was able to complete the survey. I think for the whole of the Hyderabad State survey for six months we got about 6000 Rupees (NOTE: THIS WAS WAY BEFORE INDEPENDENCE!).  Yes, six thousand which included the food of the skinner, our own food, cost of travelling and everything (laughter)! We were able to do it with a lot of trouble, many of our camp shifts had to be done by bullock carts because there were no roads in the places where we were camping. After Hyderabad I did Kerala which was then two states, Cochin and Travancore. Then one after the other Central India, Gwalior, Indore, Bhopal. So all these were done under the same system: asking for small amounts and doing it. I could do it because I had the time, I mean, I was just doing it and nothing else and I did not have any ambition to try again for some bigger job somewhere and so on. Not because bigger jobs were not there and perhaps I would have not got them, but they were not in the line in which I was interested.’

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF A LIKE-MINDED PARTNER IN FOLLOWING A PASSION

‘I tried all kinds of jobs for a long time. Finally, I said that, well, I have all these trainings and I have my chief interest in birds so why should I not do this on my own. My wife had a little money and I had a little investment and so on. Then we worked out and found that we had just enough if we left Bombay, which was very expensive and went to live in some quieter place which would give more facilities for bird study, we will be far happier. My great fortune was that my wife who had had all her education in England and been used to quite a different sort of life to what she would have in the kind of work I wished to do. She insisted that I should take up only the work that I was interested to do. She said ” now we have enough to live quietly, we would go to some small place, I will be quite happy.” She was keen on poetry and Urdu and various kinds of reading and so on. Then she got very interested in birds too, and in outdoor life and in things she had never had any experience in England of.’

From: TRANSCRIPT OF AN INTERVIEW WITH SALIM ALI by Dr H S A Yahya Reader, Centre for wildlife & ornithology, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh.

–Meena

PS: ‘The Fall of a Sparrow’ his autobiography,  is a must-read.

Name Fame

Sodawaterbottleopenerwala. Quite a mouthful isn’t it? Imagine that you had to fit in this every time you filled a form which asked for your surname! Yes indeed, this is a real Parsi surname! While this may be the longest of them all, many surnames incorporate the suffix wala or vala, which indicates a vocation, or association with a particular food or item. In colonial Bombay there were Masalawalas –the sellers of spices, Narielwalas—the coconut vendors and Paowallas who served up the Pao—the distinctive Portuguese-influenced bread. Supporting the culinary individuals were Canteenwalas, Confectioners, Messmans, Bakerywalas, Hotelwalas, and Commissariats.

The Parsis are not the only community in India that took names that reflected their traditional professions. We have Doctors, Contractors and Engineers who today may not necessarily ply those trades. Similar in a sense perhaps to Mr Baker, Mr Cook, Mr Carpenter, and Mr Mason.

While we not have as colourful a gamut of names as Mr White, Mr Green and Mr Brown, we do have a menagerie that includes Mr Elephant (Hathi), Ms Mosquito (Macchhar), Dr Horse (Ghoda), and little Miss Mankad (Bedbug)!

Every state and every community has a huge melange of surnames, the study of which has engaged scholars over the years. The study of names is called onomastics; this covers the naming of all things, including place names (toponyms) and personal names (anthroponyms). Given names, often called first names, and surnames, often called last names, usually derive from words with distinct origins.

On a less academic note, I found a listing that tried to imagine a fit match between the possible titles of books with probable authors. These are certainly very English, but good for a chuckle!

Bits and Pieces    Miss E. Laneous

Without You I am Nothing   Dee Pendent

Arranging Letters   Ann A. Gram

Fall of an Empire   De Cline

Stringed Instruments   Vi O. Lin

Cardiac Attack   Hart A. Tack

Jean Machine   Den Him

Don’t be Small   B. Tall

Not Very Nice   Terry Ball

Lazy Medic   Dr Doolittle

Comedians   Joe Kerr

Runny Nose   Hank A. Chief

Time    San d’Glass

Horoscopes  Zoe d’Iack

It would be fun to make similar lists for desi names too. A good game for the next party!

–Mamata

0 to 51 in 10: The Panna Tiger Story

The verdant forests of Panna, Madhya Pradesh. We were able to visit two weeks ago. And were lucky enough to see a tigress and her cub. What a majestic sight! The tigress was pretty big and healthy, the cub frisky and curious. The mother was contemptuous of the humans in their vehicles going into contortions to catch a look, to take a pic, to exclaim to each other. She moved when she felt like, sat down and relaxed when she felt like. Not looking in the direction of the vehicles even once, though she knew we were there. She was the queen of her territory and saw no reason to acknowledge us.

It was a wonderful feeling. To see the healthy tigress and her confidence in her security. The active cub, about 5 months old. The number and variety of herbivores. And the thick forests and healthy, lush greenery.

falls

It would be good to have seen this in any of our protected areas. But especially gratifying when we go into the story of Panna. Panna was declared a National Park in 1981, and subsequently a Tiger Reserve in 1994. The tiger population in Panna was down to zero in Feb 2009, thanks to poaching. It was a sad time indeed for India’s conservation efforts.

Things started to change with the posting of Mr. Sreenivasa Murthy, who took over as Chief Conservator of Forests and Field Director, Panna Tiger Reserve. They speak of the tough measures he took in securing the Park, coming down hard on all incursions, trespass, illegal activities and poachers. Even as he protected the area and worked on the morale of the Forest Staff, he built on the already initiated plan for re-introduction of tigers into the Park. Starting with one tigress in 2009, six of the species were introduced from different parts of the country. And it was not an easy task. As the Panna website tells it, one of the re-introduced males strayed out of the protected area into unsafe terrain, and 70 Park staff led by the Field Director followed it on elephants for 50 days, securing it from gunshots, poisoning and electrocution, till at last they were able to tranquilize it and bring it back into the safe area. All the hard work paid off and the re-introduction worked, with the first litter of cubs born in Panna in 2010. The results are obvious today, with the Park now home to 51 tigers. Several cubs have been born this year too.

Nothing is achieved by one man alone. But equally, individuals make all the difference. And in the case of Panna, this individual was Mr. Murthy. He has been posted out of the Park, but even today, drivers and guides speak his name in hushed tones, in tones of awe. And when respect and admiration penetrate to all levels, it is surely the greatest homage to the real difference someone made.

 

bear

So a huge THANK YOU Mr. Murthy and all our Forest Dept. staff who work in extremely difficult situations to ensure that our biodiversity and natural heritage are safe. The thick forests of Panna, the variety of animals and birds we saw, of whom of course the tigress and cub were at the peak, the flourishing trees and plants—all of these stand testimony to your efforts.

–Meena

(There are many trees like the pic, with nail marks made by bears climbing them to get at honeycombs.)

 

PS: We did not get any pics of the tigers—we were too busy looking at them. And anyway, they were far away and our phone-cams were not up to the task.

But a few other pics from the Park and Pandava Falls nearby. Photo credits: Prof Samir Barua.

Carved in Stone, Carved in Our Memories

Khajuraho. Memories of history textbooks. Also of sniggers and side glances among us as school girls.

When our friends and we decided to visit, it was on a whim. We wanted to see the monuments which are counted among the best in terms of the flowering of Indian art, architecture and creative expression. But we half-feared we would see badly maintained ruins.

What an amazing surprise! We were awe-struck with the boldness of imagination and design of the 25 out of 85 temple structures still standing. We marvelled at how, more than a 1000 years ago, buildings of such complexity and technical perfection could have been built. Even in terms of just moving material and creating such huge structures—how did they manage it? Truly a civilization at the height of its cultural powers.

We were equally impressed with how well the structures have been restored and how well they are being maintained. No ugly and inappropriate renovation. No vandalism. No graffiti. No unpleasant solicitation by guides or vendors. No garbage. No muck.

The cluster of temples (85 at the peak), were built between about 950 and 1050 AD, by kings of the Chandela dynasty. And the eclectic collection of Gods to whom they were dedicated is interesting—Shiva, Vishnu and even Jain temples (Devi temples being conspicuous by their absence).  The erotic nature of the carvings in Khajuraho is much talked about, but it constitutes only 10 per cent of the total. And done in a completely matter of fact way, juxtaposed with everyday scenes of life and times.

varahaWhat I found most fascinating was the Varaha temple. A temple dedicated to the 3rd avatar of Vishnu–Varaha or Boar. I don’t recall any other temple devoted to this avatar. The sculpture is a humungous sandstone monolith—2.6 metres long and 1.7 metres tall.  It boggles the mind how they got the stone up there and carved it. Because carve they did—every inch of the boar’s body is covered with numerous figures. Between the nose and mouth is a carving of Goddess Saraswathi, with the Veena in her hands—a tribute to knowledge. In the Varaha avatar, the demon Hiranyaksha kidnapped Goddess Earth and hid her under the cosmic ocean. Varaha battled the demon for a 1000 years and brought back the Goddess. Well, the Varaha statue has battled the elements for over a 1000 years, and stands testimony even today, to the skill of its creators. It looks fresh, exudes power, and is almost shiny metallic looking.

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telescope

 

Other sculptures that stand out are a dancing Ganesha. You can see his paunch swaying as he dances! An elephant with a sense of humour, who looks with a twinkle in his eyes, at an amorous couple.

And most interesting of all, a man who is ‘upskirting’ a voluptuous beauty with the help of a device that looks like a telescope. But the telescope was invented only in about 1608!! So what could this device be?

 

 

While Khajuraho was an amazing experience, getting there was not! There is an airport, but flights seem seasonal, and only connect to Delhi, Agra and Varanasi. There is a station there, but only serviced by a few trains. We got there by road from Jabalpur. A distance of about 250 kms which took about 6 hours, thanks to 30 kms of potholed roads, and 20 kms of no road at all!

So while I bow to those who conceived and created Khajuraho, and bow to those who have restored and are maintaining it, I definitely do have a bone to pick with those who are doing their best to make getting there such a pain. A real disservice to anyone who wants to see India’s heritage in its glory, a disservice to the world in making access to a World Heritage site so difficult.

–Meena

Silent Reading

Remember how in school we were sometimes asked to read aloud a poem or text to rest of the class, and sometimes we were told that we had to do ‘silent reading’ in which each of us was to read silently to ourselves? I recalled this when I recently read about a concept that is apparently becoming popular. The idea of a silent book club!

The name itself is a bit of an oxymoron.  A book club conjures up a picture of a group of bibliophiles earnestly meeting at designated intervals to discuss at length the ‘assigned’ book. Silent reading brings to mind the concentrated academic reading done in a library, or the simple joy of curling up in a favourite chair with a friendly book; and most often this contentment is a solitary pleasure enjoyed in one’s own home.

The Silent Book Club combines the act of reading, surrounded by other people in a common space, with each person engaged in ‘silent reading’ of their own book. The concept was started in 2012 by two friends in San Francisco–Guinevere de la Mare and Laura Gluhanich. While both loved to read, and also enjoyed the idea of having someone with whom to discuss something they had read, they were equally uncomfortable with book clubs and the pressures of assigned readings and presentations. They imagined a situation where friends could meet together, but with each one reading whatever they liked for a designated time; after which the option to mingle and share remained open.

Unexpectedly, this simple idea has started to become global movement with chapters of the Silent Book Clubs opening in towns and cities across the world. The mandate is simple–bringing people and books together once a month to read in companionable silence in what the founders describe as “introvert happy hour!”

I was intrigued when I read about this concept. Even amused when I read that people are willing to pay handsomely for sitting in a café and drinking coffee while browsing through their book. Why? Because they feel that they cannot make the time for this at home, what with the continuous and overbearing demands of their virtual universe, and distractions of Netflix! Imagine having to wean yourself away from social media for just a couple of hours by physically putting yourself in an alternate space! And I wonder, after the designated time, would one be able to put aside a gripping murder mystery book for the next month, without finding out ‘whodunnit’?

Somewhat difficult for me to get wildly excited over! Luckily for me, (or so I believe) I belong to generation where books were as much a part of, and way of life, as eating and sleeping. When reading could happen at anywhere, anytime, without needing to carve out a special time and space for this. And reading was for one’s own pleasure, rather than an activity to be seen and heard being done. I can’t but help feeling a bit sorry for a generation that needs to be lured into ‘switching off’ and opening a physical book for the simple joy or reading. But if that’s what it takes today, I’m all for it!

The words of Hermann Hesse on the magic of books are reassuring, and timeless: “We need not fear a future elimination of the book. On the contrary, the more that certain needs for entertainment and education are satisfied through other inventions, the more the book will win back in dignity and authority. …And for every true reader this endless world of books looks different, everyone seeks and recognizes himself in it… A thousand ways lead through the jungle to a thousand goals, and no goal is the final one; with each step new expanses open.”

–Mamata

 

Mole of Memories, Table of Nostalgia

I saw in a dream a table where all elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper, only in one place did a correction later seem necessary. Mendeleev

An appropriate year and time of year to remind myself of my all-but-forgotten Chemistry roots! It takes quite an effort to remind myself of the time four decades ago, when I was a student of Chemistry at Delhi University.

But reading about the declaration by the UN, of 2019 as peridic table.jpgYear of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements, did bring back some memories.

Why is 2019 so marked? Well, because 1869 is considered as the year of the discovery of the Periodic system by Dmitri Mendeleev, the Russian physicist, and it commemorates 150 years of the Periodic Table.

The Periodic Table, if you can recall your school chemistry, is a table of the chemical elements arranged in the order of their atomic numbers, so that elements with similar atomic structure (and hence similar chemical properties) appear in vertical columns.

Chemistry is usually looked upon as a swot or ‘rattu’ subject. The introduction to the Periodic Table is the first time students get to understand the pattern and logic of chemistry. From being a random assortment of letters, elements and their properties being to make sense. It becomes possible to predict the types of chemical reactions that a particular element is likely to participate in. Without memorizing facts and figures about an element, students can, from looking at the position of an element in the table, understand about the reactivity of an element, whether it is likely to conduct electricity, whether it is hard or soft, and many other characteristics.

And hence a whole world opens up!

And coming to the Day. Oct 23 is Mole Day. Not MOLE as in the four-legged creature. But the MOLE that chemistry students struggle to understand. The definition of this mole, as the base unit of a substance having 6.02 x 1023 particles is really confusing to begin with. Exploring another definition– mass of a substance that contains 6.023 x 1023 particles of the substance—does not really help either. As a Masters’ student of Chemistry, I was expected to help younger kids in my colony with the subject. And how I struggled to explain this concept! (I shall not venture into such an attempt now, but I think those struggles helped me understand it better).

But at least Mole Day and Year of Periodic Table have reminded me of some claims I may make to be scientifically literate!

Happy double Chemistry Whammy!

–Meena

Going Back to the Roots

Last week a friend from France was visiting, and we had bhindi vegetable for lunch. The conversation turned to what this vegetable was called, and how it was eaten, in different parts of the world– from crisply fried Lady’s Fingers, to Okra soup.  This not particularly fancy nor exotic vegetable boasts of a long list of synonyms including gombo, gumbo, quingombo, okro, ochro, bamia, bamie, quiabo!

Fruits and vegetables are such an integral part of our daily diet, but most of us are not aware of their intriguing histories. Many vegetable names simply refer to their shape, colour and taste. In the case of Drumstick, this makes sense, but to imagine bhindi as Lady’s Fingers does take a leap of imagination!

The names of many vegetables and fruits in English have their origins in languages like Latin, Spanish, and French; and sometimes the original meanings lie hidden in their names.

Eggplant was given its name by Europeans in the middle of the eighteenth century because the variety they knew had fruits that were of a whitish or yellowish colour, and the shape and size of goose eggs. The purple variety that we are most familiar with, and call baingan or brinjal may have been derived from the Sanskrit vatimgana. This word travelled through Persian to the Arabic name al-badinjan, and further filtered through Portuguese and Catalan to become aubergine in Britain and Europe.

Cabbage gets its name from Middle French caboche which means ‘head’. It was derived as a diminutive from Latin caput which means head as it resembled the head of a person.

Orange, the fruit on the other hand, was not named for its colour, but the other way round.  The word is believed to have its origins from the Sanskrit naranga; which explains why, in several Indian languages, it is called narangi.

Pineapple seems to be a simple joining of two English words–pine and apple.  But surprisingly this word was originally used for what we call pine cone; although it is inexplicable why an inedible, hard piece of a tree should be called a pine ‘apple’. To confuse things further, melon is the Greek word for apple!

In a similar vein, Gooseberry has nothing to do with geese. It was originally gorseberry, derived from the ‘gorst’ which meant rough. This berry was so called because it grew on a rough and thorny shrub.

Raspberry comes from the German verb raspen which means to rub together or rub as with a file. The marks on the berry were thought to resemble file markings.

Strawberry is a corruption of ‘strayberry’ which was so named because of the way the runners from this plant stray all over the place!

Currants were so called because they first came from Corinth. Cherries got their name from the city of Cerasus. The term grape is the English equivalent of the Italian grappo, and the Dutch and the French grappe, all meaning bunch. Raisin is a French word that comes from the Latin racenus, a dried grape.

Kiwi however takes the cake! It is so called not because it originated in New Zealand—the home of the Kiwi bird. It is the Chinese missionaries who brought the fruit to this country, and they called them Chinese gooseberries because they were from China and similar in flavour to gooseberries. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when New Zealand began exporting the fruit, that people started calling it Kiwi fruit.

IMG_20191017_110116.jpg
Vegetable or Fruit?

And then there is the tomato. In culinary terms we consider it a vegetable; but this is actually a fruit in terms of its botanical characteristics—it is edible, contains a seed, is at least somewhat sweet, and grows on a plant.

16 October is celebrated every year as World Food Day. This marks the date of the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations.  Let each day be one of thanksgiving and celebration of the food we eat, by whatever name we may call it. After all, a mango by any other name will taste just as delicious!

–Mamata

 

Technology And the Sweet Smell of Success

c51a218268e55a64559428ab06f2eff5Last week, at a Rotary event, I heard Kavita Misra speak. She  is a woman-farmer-entrepreneur from the backward district of Raichur, Karnataka. A diploma and PG in Computer Applications, she was married into a traditional family. Though offered a lucrative job in an IT major 20 years ago, she did not take up the offer as her family was not happy to have her take a job. Her husband threw her the challenge to stay in the village and do something. He gave her an acre of land—which was rocky, barren and water-less. Because that was all that was available there. From there to becoming the millionaire famer-entrepreneur she is today was a long and hard journey.

The most important lesson to me was the role her technical education and training have played in her success. Her actively seeking new and better methods of farming, and quick adoption of innovations has been at the heart of her achievements.  And it brought to me that if we want a paradigm shift in the way farmers do agriculture, they need to be more comfortable with technology, in sync with scientific developments and more technically savvy.

To give an example, Kavita is one of the most successful sandalwood growers in the country, and has sandalwood nurseries which sell sandalwood saplings all over India. Sandalwood is one of the very high value trees, and farmers who cultivate it can earn in crores. The tree fetches about Rs. 1 crore per tonne. A 15-year old tree yields about 15 kg of heartwood (though waiting 20-25 years gives more yields), and one acre can support about 300 trees.

One of the biggest challenges in sandalwood cultivation is theft. Given the high value of the wood, thieves and smugglers are constantly looking for ways to get into plantations and make away with trees. Farmers usually deploy guards and guard dogs, apart from physical and electrical fences.

Recently, Institute of Wood Science and Technology (IWST), has developed a microchip which can be inserted into the growing sandalwood trees, and linked to a smart phone. And you can monitor your tree from anywhere in the world! Alerts go to the farmer as well as the nearest police station if any movement of the wood is detected.

This has been developed, field tested and improved over two years by IWST and Hitachi India Pvt. Ltd. There were many problems to overcome..from the battery size which was too big for the tree trunks to bear, to need for increasing battery life, to the sensitivity of the chip to wear and tear and exposure to the elements.

Even though it is expensive, progressive farmers like Kavita have been able to see the potential and have quickly come forward to adopt the technology and popularize it among others. It is this mind-set and appreciation of the benefits of technology which will be game-changers in agriculture.

–Meena