Mr Kindness

Last week I wrote about Children’s Day. Earlier this month two other important international days passed almost unnoticed. 13 November which is designated as World Kindness Day, and November 16 which is marked as International Day for Tolerance and Peace.

For its fiftieth anniversary on 16 November 1995, UNESCO’s Member States adopted a Declaration of Principles on Tolerance. Among other things, the Declaration affirms that tolerance is respect and appreciation of the rich variety of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human. While this is a universal ideal and aspiration, it is at the level of the individual that the foundation of tolerance and respect is laid.

And this is what the World Kindness Day seeks to do–reinforce the understanding that compassion for others is what binds us all together. It is this that has the power to bridge the gap between people, communities and nations. This global day promotes the importance of being kind to each other, to oneself, and to the world.

The idea of this day was promoted by an international non-profit organisation called the World Kindness Movement which works to inspire individuals towards greater kindness to create a kinder world; and their guiding tenet: The world is full of kind people. If you can’t find one, be one.

Nothing, and no one, exemplifies the spirit and practice of all the three days better than the beloved Mr Rogers whose TV show celebrated kindness, and helped millions of children to develop empathy.

I came upon the inspiring story of Mr Rogers via Tom Hanks when I saw the movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood. After seeing Tom Hank’s version I wanted to know about the real Mr Rogers!

Fred McFeely Rogers grew up in America in the 1930s as a shy, somewhat awkward, and sometimes bullied child. After getting his first degree in music, he returned home for the vacation before he prepared to enter the seminary and study to become a priest. It was then that he saw television for the first time at his parent’s home. He was appalled to see the kind of programmes where as he said ‘people were throwing pies in each other’s faces.’ While he found this disgusting, he also saw the enormous potential that TV had for connection and enrichment. That eureka moment changed his life—and the lives of millions of Americans.

Fred Rogers went on to create a TV show called Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which first aired on 19 February 1968 and continued for over 30 years. The last episode of the 31 seasons was aired on 31 August 2001. Fred Rogers was the host of all 895 episodes, the composer of its more than 200 songs, and its puppeteer.

The set of simple hand puppets featuring 14 characters from his first show continued to be with the friendly Mr Rogers, clad in his trademark red cardigan and sneakers, for over 40 years. The puppets who inhabit the Neighbourhood of Make Believe, portray real-life feelings as they live and learn with the help of their neighbourhood human friends who represent a wide variety of interests and talents. The puppets and the humans live together, care about and learn from each other. As they often reminded viewers “We all have different gifts, so we all have different ways of saying to the world who we are. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.”

Mr Rogers was far from preachy. He did not shy away from difficult topics like bullying, divorce, and death; he talked honestly and openly about subjects that adults are hesitant to discuss with children, but that children wonder and worry about silently. He reassured children and adults that it was ok if there were some things that they could not understand. He addressed children’s fears and insecurities, and instilled a sense of faith and trust. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping”.

Although Fred Rogers later acquired graduate degrees in child development as well as divinity, he always consulted with his close associate and child psychologist Dr Margaret Mcfarland, to ensure that his scripts would authentically reflect the real concerns and feelings of children.

His show also offered children the tools to be lifelong learners—a sense of wonder, a curiosity about the world around us, the willingness to ask questions. “Did you know, when you wonder you are learning?”

The concept of neighbour and neighbourhood in the leitmotif of Mr Rogers’ life and work. “Neighbours are people who live close to each other. Neighbours look at each other, they talk to each other; they listen to each other. That’s how they get to know each other.” In his neighbourhood everyone was welcomed and valued, and the characters taught how to appreciate and respect others.

Mr Rogers’ ‘neighbourhood’ in a sense becomes the symbol of community; it extends beyond a residential address to embrace the city, the country, the continent, and ultimately the planet that we all inhabit. It metaphorically embraces the universe. And it reminds us of the dire need for, and the gentle power of sharing and compassion. “All of us, at some time or other, need help. Whether we’re giving or receiving help, each one of us has something valuable to bring to this world. That’s one of the things that connects us as neighbours—in our own way, each one of us is a giver and a receiver.”

Today teaching and learning respect, tolerance, sharing, acceptance of differences, and celebration of diversity are highlighted in “values education” curricula. This is the kind of education proposed by UNESCO in its declaration of four pillars of education, i.e. learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together and learning to be.

Over 50 years ago Fred Rogers planted the seeds of basic human values in millions of children, who must themselves have grandchildren now! And for all this he offered only one mantra: “There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.”

–Mamata

Toilet Travails

Last week we marked World Toilet Day. Continuing on the theme, I thought I would share some experiences of constructing and running urban public pay-and-use toilets. Never a dull moment in this game, I assure you. But the stories about operations I shall keep for another occasion. Here I would like to share some feedback from a survey we did of women in Hyderabad, as part of our planning exercise before we took up construction of toilets when the city decided, for the first time, to open up this activity in Public Private Partnership mode. The survey is over a decade old. But sadly, most of the challenges we found still probably stand.

Here are some of the findings from a survey of close to 400 women:

  • About a fourth of the respondents were not even aware that there are Pay-and-Use toilet facilities for women.
  • About half the respondents reported that they wait till they reach home even if they feel the need to use a toilet when they are out. 
  • Women in higher economic strata, non-working women and students use these facilities significantly less than women from lower economic strata and working women.
  • 64.2% of those respondents who used public convenience had a bad experience. The reported major reasons for the  ‘bad experience’ were:
ReasonPercentage
1. Unhygienic Conditions92.5
2. Insufficient water availability69.2
3. Bad smell62.8
4. Caretaker being male57
5. Joint infrastructure (both male and female facilities in one building, with a partition)53
6. Feeling of insecurity36.4

The respondents also made several valuable suggestions:

  • About 53% women suggested that there should be exclusive toilets for women.
  • Around 57% women opined that the caretaker of the public toilet should be properly trained and should be gentle, and he/she should be educated and middle-aged.
  • Respondents also expressed that the following facilities are needed by women in  public toilets; dustbins for disposable things; small shelves for women carrying things; mug and bucket provision; mirror; good lighting and alternative lighting arrangement in case of power fails.
  • Indian and western toilets both to be provided for convenience of various types of users.
  • Security is paramount.
  • Proper maintenance, cleaning at regular intervals and supervision.
  • In some cases, men are using the space around the toilets as the toilets! This not only leads to bad smell but also a feeling of embarrassment on the part of women who want to enter.
  • In many toilets, there is no proper indication for “gents” and “ladies”, which creates problem for women in using public toilets.

Public toilets are definitely more prevalent today than a decade ago. And the maintenance is not as bad as it was. But I think some of the survey findings and recommendations are still very relevant to those concerned about public sanitation, and about making the most basic of facilities accessible to one half of humanity!

–Meena

Of the Children, For the Children

A recent article titled What We Want Our Parents to Know was a poignant reminder of the difference between what adults think they know about children, and how children perceived adults. Written by a child psychologist, with specific reference to the impact that the corona-imposed lockdown is having on the mental health of children, it reflected some of the (often unheard) pleas of children to be heard and respected.

The profound idea that children are not just objects who belong to their parents and for whom decisions are made, or adults in training; rather, they are human beings and individuals with their own rights got international recognition when world leaders came together and made a promise to every child to protect and fulfil their rights. This was by adopting an international legal framework that laid down that children have their unique set of rights, and that these need to be articulated, advocated, protected, and implemented.

On 20 November 1989 this commitment was officially endorsed when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).

The Convention says that childhood is separate from adulthood, and lasts until the age of 18 years. This is a special, protected time, in which children must be allowed to grow, learn, play, develop and flourish with dignity.

The Convention views children not as objects of compassion or pity, but as subjects of human rights under international law. It protects children’s rights by setting standards in health care, education, and legal, civil and social services. It sees children as active participants in their own development and agents of change.

The four core principles of the Convention are: Non-discrimination; devotion to the best interests of the child; the right to life, survival and development, and respect for the views of the child.

The UNCRC is a detailed document with an explicit list of 54 articles covering a wide variety of rights all children automatically enjoy, regardless of where or when they are born. Broadly these rights fall under four main categories–rights to:

  • Life, survival and development
  • Protection from violence, abuse or neglect
  • An education that enables children to fulfil their potential
  • Be raised by, or have a relationship with, their parents
  • Express their opinions and be listened to.

The Convention provides a universal set of non-negotiable standards to be adhered to by all countries. These were negotiated by governments, non-governmental organizations, human rights advocates, lawyers, health specialists, social workers, educators, child development experts and religious leaders from all over the world, over a 10-year period. The standards set minimum entitlements and freedoms that should be respected by governments. They are founded on respect for the dignity and worth of each individual, regardless of race, colour, gender, language, religion, opinions, or origins.

The Convention obliges the State and other responsibility holders (parents, guardians, care-givers, civil society, etc.) to address the needs and interests of children as entitlements or rights.

The UNCRC has become the most ratified international human rights treaty in history, now signed by 196 countries. But as with most international treaties, while the intentions are noble, there is often a wide gap between intent and implementation. It has been thirty-one years since the Convention came into force, yet every day one hears and reads of children in tragic situations—from the home to the school; from the homeless to those deprived of education; from those who are suppressed and exploited in so many ways–from the local to the global.

The time is well past the Victorian norm of “children should be seen and not heard.” It is the time when children should be heard. And while governments and non-government organisations continue efforts towards protecting and ensuring these rights, it is the family, as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members, where children should experience the empowerment of having rights, and not just the onus of having duties. And it is for every parent to remember that these rights need to be respected.

India celebrates Children’s Day on 14 November, and November 20 is marked across the globe as World Children’s Day. A good week to remind ourselves of the UNCRC.

–Mamata

‘Down in the Dumps’ Day

No, let me hasten to clarify that there is no such Day. But there is indeed a World Toilet Day which is observed on 19th November every year, and ‘celebrates toilets and raises awareness of the 4.2 billion people living without access to safely managed sanitation’. The Day is about taking action to tackle the global sanitation crisis and achieve Sustainable Development Goal 6: Water and Sanitation for all by 2030.

Well, if we were to ‘celebrate toilets’ as urged in the mission, I would advocate for  a lovely little book called ‘Toilets of the World’ by Morna Gregory and Sian James, and published by Merrell Publishers.

The book begins with a very brief History of Toilets which is followed by a continent-wise round-up of interesting toilets. The beautiful colour plates are themselves an education of how creative photographers can make art out of not conventionally photogenic items!

Here are some interesting nuggets of information from the book.

  • The oldest known flush toilet is that of the palace of Knossos on the island of Crete, dating back to 1700 BC.
  • Solid waste generated by astronauts in space is compressed into round, flat discs and brought back to earth. NASA’s toilet engineers refer to them as ‘people patties’.
  • Toilets on board ships are referred to as ‘heads’.

And here are some toilets mentioned in the book which caught my attention for their ‘extreme’ qualities:

Public Toilet, Ephesus, Turkey. About 200 AD.

Keith Siding Road, Crandon Wisconcin: Someone as part of their garden decorations has put up an outhouse with the sign ‘Up North Rest Stop’. The door of the facility is open, and on the toilet sits a life-like lady in full view of the road, using the facilities!

Incahuasi Island, Bolivia: In the middle of 12000 sq. km. salt desert is a toilet carved from the trunk of dried cactus, with the needles removed to allow for comfortable seating.

30-Gold Store, Kowloon: This gold washroom put up in his shop by a Hong Kong jeweler is down in the Guinness Book of Records as the most expensive washroom. Fixtures, sinks, toilet brushes, toilet paper holders, all are made of gold.

Ancient Roman City, Ephesus, Turkey: Built around 200 AD, these communal pay-and-use marble latrines were for men only, and were a place for social gatherings and where many business deals were struck. Slaves used to come in early to literally warm the seats so that their masters did not feel the chill of the marble on their bottoms. There are many other yucky details, which I will refrain from sharing. (The picture is from an unforgettable family trip there.)

For more interesting information on toilets, the place to visit would of course be the unique Sulabh International Museum of Toilets at  New Delhi, which, to quote the museum website ‘has a rare collection of facts, pictures and objects detailing the historic evolution of toilets from 2500 BC to date. It provides a chronological account of developments relating to technology, toilet related social customs, toilet etiquettes, prevailing sanitary conditions and legislative efforts of different times. It has an extensive display of privies, chamber pots, toilet furniture, bidets and water closets in use from 1145 AD to the modern times. It also has a rare collection of beautiful poems related to toilet, their usage.’

In India, where close to half the population does not have a toilet at home, and where no ‘nudge’ or carrot or stick or government slogan seems to work towards reducing open defecation, every day has to be Toilet Day, and every person a Toilet Warrior!

Let’s get Vocal for Local Toilets!

–Meena

PS: I had borrowed this book from a dear friend David Foster and hope to meet him soon to return it.

PPS: Photo credit: Ashok Seshan

Birdman

When Meena and I joined CEE, both with non-natural-history backgrounds, we were often told to refer to “the book”. The Book of Indian Birds was our first introduction to birds, and more interestingly, to the Birdman of India, Salim Ali. Over the years as we developed environmental education material, “the book” was one of our trusted references. Some years later when we edited a book on stories of inspiring wild-lifers, it was a given that we would open with a piece on Salim Ali.

Born on 12 November 1896, Salim Ali lost his parents when he was very young. He grew up in a large loving family with uncles, aunts, cousins, relatives and friends in Khetvadi, which is now part of the overcrowded area around Charni Road in Mumbai. None of the relatives were very interested in birds, except as part of tasty meal. Favourite among the cousins’ pastimes was going out with an airgun to shoot small birds in the countryside around which they lived. This was still an era when hunting and shooting were considered a ‘manly’ sport.

When Salim Ali was nine his uncle presented him with an airgun, which became his prized possession. He became quite an expert at using it, and loved to show off his prowess. When they could not go out, the cousins practised shooting at house sparrows. It was during one of these domestic hunting prowls that Salim, then nine years old, began to observe a female sparrow that was nesting in a hole in one of the stables. He also noted down his observations of how every time he shot the male sparrow that came to the nesting female, another one took its place. Primarily, this was to keep a record of how many male sparrows he felled, rather than a note on the behaviour of the birds. But the observations were so mature, and the notings so meticulous, that 60 years later they were reproduced in The Newsletter for Birdwatchers, more or less as originally written.

During the summer vacations the family moved to Chembur, which was at that time surrounded by forests rich in flora and fauna. One memory of those vacations that Salim carried with him all his life was that of the dawn song of the Magpie Robin that he heard while still tucked in bed.

As a schoolboy in the early 1900s Salim was an average student, but he enjoyed outdoor sport, of which his favourite was sport shooting of birds. He dreamed of becoming a great explorer and hunter, and his reading consisted mainly of books on natural history, hunting expeditions and travel.

It was another family vacation hunting incident that led him to a new dimension of birds; and ignited his first scientific interest in birds that was to grow and develop into a lifetime passion.

The 10-year-old Salim felled a sparrow.  Just as the bird was going to be turned into a tasty morsel, he noticed that it had an unusual yellow patch on the throat, almost like a “curry stain” as he remembers it. Intrigued, he carried the dead bird back to show his uncle—the shikari of the family. Uncle agreed that the bird was somewhat unusual and felt that it might be interesting to find out more about it.

Now this uncle was also one of the earliest Indian members of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). He asked Salim to take it to the BNHS along with a letter of introduction to Mr Millard who was its Honorary Secretary. The young boy Salim was very nervous about having to meet a foreigner face-to-face. He fumbled with the dead sparrow wrapped in a paper packet as he walked through the rooms of the BNHS with showcases displaying a fascinating collection of natural objects.

He found that Mr Millard was a gentle man who not only identified his specimen as a yellow-throated sparrow but also showed him similar stuffed specimens from his collection. He also gave him some books which Salim was to read again and again over the next sixty years.

This was Salim Ali’s first contact with the BHNS—an institution that was to play such an important part is shaping his life and his career. The incident with the yellow-throated sparrow opened up a whole new world. Salim decided that he wanted to know everything he could about birds. But as he later wrote “I contracted the germs of ornithology at a time when the disease was practically unknown among Indians, and nature conservation was a phrase only rarely heard”.

After doing a BSc in zoology, Salim looked for employment that could use his education as well as support his passion. But in those early years, there were no jobs to be had for an aspiring naturalist in India. Facing unemployment, Salim went to Burma to work in the family timber and mining business. On return he tried for a job in the Zoological Survey of India, but found that his educational qualifications were not adequate. The best he could get was the job of a guide in Bombay’s Prince of Wales Museum. With no further prospects, he went to Germany where he trained under Professor Stresemann, an acknowledged ornithologist, whom Salim Ali considered his guru. However on return, he was still looking for suitable employment.

It was then that he hit upon an idea. He offered to the BNHS that he would carry out ornithological surveys in what were then the numerous princely states. These regions were rich in avifauna, but largely unexplored and undiscovered, and many of the princely rulers were eager to have this recorded. Salim Ali offered his services for free provided his travel and camping expenses were met. This arrangement suited all the parties. And so for the next two decades Salim Ali roamed every corner of the subcontinent, studying and recording birds in the field. The conditions were tough, the terrain often remote and difficult, but it was a dream come true for the avid bird watcher. Salim Ali recalls these decades as the best years of his career.  

In those days there were hardly any illustrated books on Indian birds that would help with identifying birds as well as providing accurate information about bird behaviour. Throughout his travels Salim Ali spent hours in observation of birds and making detailed notes on his observations. Many years later, these acute observations and meticulous notes grew into The Book of Indian Birds that would remain the bible for Indian birdwatcher for decades to come.

Salim Ali the sparrow-hunter became India’s most widely respected Birdman. When asked about what it takes to be a birdwatcher, he explained that bird watching by nature was a most peaceful pursuit. But the excitement lay in searching out clues, and following them up, step by step, to prove or disprove one’s hunch. As he wrote “with the richness and variety of bird life in India, exciting discoveries are awaiting to be made by any birdwatcher who has the requisite enthusiasm and perseverance”.

Salim Ali was not only a great ornithologist. His life and work in natural history have inspired a whole generation of Indians towards environmental conservation—including us matriarchs. 

–Mamata

Winter Is Coming….

Unlike the Starks, I don’t need to worry about endless nights and freezing cold; or White Walkers and scary creatures breaking through the Wall.

But I do have to worry about keeping my skin moisturized.

I am bewildered when I go into a shop these days, with the multiplicity of choices. When we were young, there was a default setting. It was cold cream—in fact, Ponds Cold Cream. It was used on face, on arms, legs or any other exposed parts of the body. For particularly recalcitrant dryness, there was Vaseline, also used on chapped lips. There was the weekly ‘oil bath’ in Tam households wherein til oil was mercilessness massaged into the skin till it saturated every pore, and then washed away with shikai powder or besan.

We were simple and naïve. We didn’t even know there were other types of creams and lotions and potions. There was one dream product though, that our hearts yearned for. But seldom did we get our hands on it. I am not sure why—was it very expensive? Or was it that it was a ‘frivolous’ beauty cream and not a ‘useful’ moisturizing cream? (I saw a recent article mentioning  Afghan Snow as a fairness cream, but I don’t have any memory of it being billed in those days as such). Whatever the reasons middle-class mothers of those days had, I do remember the longing of my young heart for Afghan Snow.

I am not sure if it is still available, but I do remember the light, sparkly, ethereal look of the cream. It came in a blue glass bottle and had a lovely gentle smell. It was the most exotic thing that we knew in terms of cosmetics.

Recently, trying to figure out a bit more about this, I unearthed the fascinating Atmanirbhar story behind this product.

Ebrahim Sultanali Patanwala, originally from Rajasthan, made his way to Mumbai in the early 20th century. He found work with a perfumer and quickly picked up the techniques of blending perfumes. Soon he branched out and set up as an entrepreneur. His first product was a hair oil called ’Otto Duniya’ which met with quite some success, enabling him to set up his own lab and offices.

Messrs. E.S.Patanwala was established in 1909. The company sold oils and perfumes—both those they made, and imported ones. He developed quite a clientele among the Britishers as well as Indian royalty. This did not content him and he took himself off to Europe to learn more. He knew little English, but his earnestness and desire to learn opened doors for him. He connected with Leon Givaudan of Switzerland, at that time the world’s biggest manufacturer of aromatic chemicals. With the training and mentorship he got in Europe, he developed the formula for what was to become one of India’s most popular cosmetics—a cream.

He came back to India and set up a factory in Byculla to make the cream itself, but imported the glass bottles from Germany and the labels from Japan. Around that time, King Zahir of Afghanistan was visiting India and wanted to meet some Indian entrepreneurs. Patanwala was one of them, and he presented the King a hamper of his products included the new, as-yet-unnamed cream. The King is supposed to have opened the bottle, been charmed by the look and perfume, and made the remark that it reminded him of the Snow of Afghanistan. The enterprising Patanwala immediately asked if he could name the cream as Afghan Snow, and the King agreed, and product was launched in 1919 (making it more than 100 years old!)

The product was extremely popular, but ran into some rough weather during the Swadeshi Movement. Because the bottle and labels looked (and were) imported, people thought it was an imported product and listed it as one of the items to be boycotted. Patanwala sent a letter to Mahatma Gandhi, telling him that the product was wholly indigenous and manufactured in Byculla. Mahatma Gandhi then wrote in his newspaper about Afghan Snow, saying that it was a mistake to boycott it, and that he was appreciative that such a good product was being made in India, and that he personally endorsed it.  

I yearn even more for the product now that I know the story! What I would not give for a dark blue glass bottle full of beautifully-perfumed, light frothy shiny white snow, promising to transport me into a fairy tale!

Even more, I yearn for biographies of these amazing people who broke so many barriers, who did so many pioneering things, and who made products whose name still evokes so many memories a hundred years down the road! How they succeeded and why they did or did not sustain.

–Meena

Mamitu and Emaye: Women Warriors

This year the term ‘frontline warriors’ has become deeply embedded in the vocabulary around the world.  As we show our respect and appreciation for these tenacious, dedicated health workers, here is a much older story of two remarkable women who saved and changed the lives of thousands of others. The story spans over 60 years, and starts from two different places.

It begins in 1959 when a young doctor couple in Australia, Reginald and Catherine Hamlin, saw an ad in The Lancet looking for gynaecologists in Ethiopia.  With the zeal to do something useful, the idealistic couple flew across the oceans and continents to land in a tiny airport in Addis Ababa. They had plans to stay for 3 years, but they never went back.

Among the many gynaecological and obstetrics cases that they treated, the most common and most horrendous was a childbearing injury known as obstetric fistula. The condition is caused when prolonged labour opens a hole in the birth canal, leaving many women incontinent. For Ethiopian women, the injury often led to their being rejected by their husbands and ostracized by their communities.

When the Drs. Hamlin arrived in Ethiopia, there was little or no treatment available for such patients anywhere in the country, causing of thousands of women to barely survive, with life-threatening and life-changing injuries. Poring through medical books, journals and drawings of operations by other experts, the young doctors developed innovative surgical techniques to repair the damage.

One day in 1963, a 16 year-old girl was brought to them from a distant village, carried for twelve hours through mountainous terrain, on a primitive stretcher made from eucalyptus branches, and then on a bus to Addis Ababa. She had been in labour for four days, and her baby had died. She was in excruciating pain, and close to dying.

Her name was Mamitu Gashe. She was illiterate and terrified. She had never left her village, nor seen white people before; in her delirium she thought that they were angels. The agony, and the trust of the girl immediately touched the hearts of the doctors. Her injuries were the worst they had handled. It took months of repairs and treatment to heal her ravaged body. By then the innocence and indomitable spirit of Mamitu had created a special bond between the patient and her saviours.

As she gradually started her road to recovery, the young girl did not know how to show her gratitude to her doctors. Even while she was still in hospital, she started helping with chores like sweeping and changing sheets. Then as she regained her strength and confidence, Mamitu started to greet and comfort new patients, remembering her own terror when she first came. She refused to go back to her husband and village, and declared that she would stay and help the doctors. They in turn treated her like a daughter. She started calling them Emaye (mother) and Abaye father).

Over the next ten years Mamitu worked shoulder to shoulder with the Hamlins, helping out in the operating theatre, and then assisting in their operations; initially sewing up at the end of the surgery but progressing to learn all the steps in an operation. She learned to operate on fistulas by placing her hands over the surgeon’s and tracing her intricate incisions as she worked to save the women. In 1987, at the age of 40, Mamitu began operating on her own. She still could not read nor write, or speak English, but she had the gift of dextrous fingers, and just the right touch. Under the training and guidance of the Hamlins, Mamitu went on to be recognised as one of the finest fistula surgeons in the world. In 1989 she won the Gold Medal for surgery from the Royal College of Surgeons in London.

Emaye Catherine and Mamitu Source:https://hamlin.org.au/

In 1993 Reginald passed away, but Catherine continued with her life’s mission, with Mamitu by her side. In 1995 they built another new hospital, one of a series that had started with their first in 1975–Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital. Today an estimated 60,000 women have been treated, and cured, by the Hamlins’ hospital and clinics. 

Mamitu and her Emaye were inseparable companions for 57 years. In the later years, Mamitu became the caregiver of the one who once gave her a new life and purpose. The two were finally separated in March 2020, when Catherine Hamlin, passed away, aged 96. Seven months later, the still-grieving Mamitu has recently returned to the operating theatre. Now 74 years old Mamitu carries on her parents’ legacy, and continues to be a formidable frontline warrior.

–Mamata

Reading ‘Judgmentally’

India has its fair share of Book Fests and Lit Fests. Some generic, some specific to a genre or a language. A well-known one among these is the Bangalore BizLitFest—as the name suggests, an event devoted to the Business Literature genre.

The 6th edition of this Fest, held online (of course) this year, concluded this weekend. While I have attended this Fest over the years, this time I had a special role—as one of the panel of judges to pick the best Business Book of the Year. This award was instituted in 2017, by the family of the universally-known academic Prof CK Prahalad (of ‘Bottom of Pyramid’ fame). The CK Prahalad Best Business Book Award is given to ‘the most original, impactful and thought-provoking business book written by an Indian author’.

It never ceases to amaze me how many contenders there are every year!  The competition process is a multistage one. Out of the business books published in the previous calendar year, a longlist of the top 25 is made based on ratings and reviews. Of these, the five which get the top ratings and number of reviews on Amazon, Goodreads and Flipkart in the first six months of the current  year are shortlisted. And a jury selects from among these, using two major criteria: Originality of theme, and second, Potential of the book as a game-changer, inspiration and influencer.

I was in the distinguished company of Prof Rishikesha Krishna (IIM-B), Manish Sabarwal (Teamlease), Narayan Ramachandran (formerly Morgan Stanley, writer, social entrepreneur) in the Jury Panel.

The five shortlisted books were:

Saying No to Jugaad: TN Hari, MS Subramanian

Bridgital Nation: N Chandrasekaran with Roopa Purushottaman

How I Almost Blew It: Sidharth Rao

The CEO Factory: Sudhir Sitapathy

Big Billion Startup: Mihir Dalal.

The unanimous winner was Mihir Dalal’s Big Billion Startup, the story of Flipkart.

For me, there were two levels of learning through the process:

Each book was a fascinating journey and provided enormous learning! Four of them were the story or stories of specific enterprises or entrepreneurs told so as to offer lessons to any manager or entrepreneur. Bridgital Nation was different in that it provided a broader framework of using IT to solve the nation’s problems.

At the second level, I realized that reading as a judge was a different ballgame from just reading. One has to read much more consciously, comparing and contrasting, articulating what works and what does not work. One has to be aware of content and style. Whether the ‘lessons’ are coming out clearly. And whether it will work for the audience it is meant for. While I have graded student essays and evaluated children’s fiction, judging business books was a new experience of reading ‘judgmentally’!

One comment I have on the books is that most mention dozens of names. While completely necessary to acknowledge and bring out the contribution (or otherwise) of all concerned in the making of the company, it is quite confusing for the reader who does not know any of these people. At times, I found myself going back and forth to figure out who a person was, more than even in a Russian novel!

All in all, a very interesting experience, and I thank BBLF for it.

Look forward to the next edition in Sept/Oct 2021!

–Meena

The Madness in the Method

A recent piece by one of my favourite columnists bemoaned the fact that there is increasingly reduced use of physical dictionaries because of instant and easy access to online dictionaries.

It made me feel a bit guilty as I have begun to succumb to the same short cut, but I still keep my trusty Concise Oxford Dictionary and my bilingual dictionary within hand’s reach on my table, and yes, I do look up words from these tomes. As my erstwhile colleagues may recall, the COD was a permanent fixture on my desk at work. This old friend continues to give me a sense of familiar comfort, as well as continuity in my work and play with words.

While COD is the friendly go-to dictionary, it is the Oxford English Dictionary or OED, which is widely regarded as the accepted authority on the English language. The OED today, is an unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of 600,000 words, past and present, from across the English-speaking world. It contains not only not only present-day meanings, but also the history of individual words from over 1000 years of the English language, traced through 3 million quotations from a wide range of sources, from classic literature to cookery books.

What is equally fascinating is the history of the early development of the OED.

Until the 19th century, the English language did not have a complete dictionary. In 1857 the members of the Philological Society of London decided that it was time for a complete re-examination of the language, and embarked on an ambitious project to compile a comprehensive compendium of the English language.

The new dictionary was planned as a four-volume, 6,400-page work that would include all English language vocabulary from the Early Middle English period (1150 AD) onward, plus some earlier words if they had continued to be used into Middle English. It was estimated that the project would be finished in approximately ten years. However, no one realized the full extent of the work, or how long it would take to achieve the final result. After the first grand announcement, the project took a while to take off. And five years after it was launched the editors had only reached as far as the word ‘ant’.

Then in 1879 James Murray a little known school teacher and philologist was given the editorship of this challenging project. His first task was to advertise in all the leading newspapers of the day that the project was looking for ‘volunteers’ in the English-speaking world to send him quotations which would show how the meanings of words had changed over time.

This early experiment in crowdsourcing attracted many volunteers. The most prolific and systematic contributor was a man called Dr William Chester Minor. He regularly sent in meticulously detailed slips tracing the etymology of words, accompanied by relevant examples and quotations. The return address on his letters read simply: Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire.

For almost a decade, Murray assumed that his favourite volunteer was a reclusive doctor of literary tastes with a good deal of leisure. Then, by chance, Murray discovered that Minor was a murderer who had been committed to the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, which was less than 40 miles from Oxford where Murray was based. In 1891, ten years after they had started corresponding, Murray visited Broadmoor and met Minor. This was the start of a close friendship between the two men that continued for the next twenty years. And one that enriched the OED immeasurably.

Minor’s own story was tragic, as well as inspiring. Born in America, he qualified as a surgeon and joined the Union Army just before the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. After being released from the Army, Minor left for London in 1871 with his books and paints in the hopes of starting a new and more peaceful life. However the war experiences left deep scars on the sensitive and clever young man. He became delusional and paranoid. In one such moment he unintentionally shot a man and killed him.

Minor’s ‘insanity’ plea helped him to avoid going to prison. But he was incarcerated in the Broadmoor mental asylum in 1872. He was a well-behaved, quiet, scholarly inmate. With the approval of the asylum authorities, and using his US army pension he managed to accumulate and build a library of rare and antique books in his cell. It was this collection that provided the useful information about nearly 10,000 words, and examples of their usage, which he shared with Murray. The subsequent close friendship between the two which was marked by a common love for words and their history, scholarship, mutual respect and drive, was crucial in the compilation of the OED–the last word on words for over a century.

Murray acknowledged Minor’s invaluable contribution when in 1899 he said “we could easily illustrate the last four centuries from his quotations alone.” Murray also petitioned tirelessly for the release of his friend arguing that a mental asylum was no place for a man of his intellectual calibre. Sadly, Minor’s mental condition deteriorated. Finally he was released, and died in obscurity at his home in 1920.

The two men who gave half their lives to a project of unprecedented historical and cultural importance, did not live to see the publication of their magnum opus. It took roughly forty years for the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary to be completed.

So it was, the story that made the words, rather than the words that made the story!

–Mamata

A-Rated History

I am living in 40 BC. Or the 13th, or 15th, or the 18th century. Really depends on which series I am watching at the moment. And my favourite ones are all set way, way back.

And boy, am I learning! Whether it is the Roman Empire, or the Mongols, or the Medicis, or South America, here is the most interesting way to get a feel of the time, the place, the world-changing events. Fully of course realizing that as per reviews (and my own shaky knowledge of history), these series range in accuracy from about 80% (Boilvar), to about 30% (Marco Polo). But I suppose it is up to me to read more authentic scholarly accounts and get my facts straight. I have started on Marco Polo: The Travels. But that, I suppose is not really very factual either. Marco Polo and his co-author have reports on the most fantastical things, whose authenticity is very much in doubt. But nevertheless the television series got me eager to read it.

The point I am coming around to is that this may be the best way to get young people interested in history. Just as David Attenborough and Jacques Cousteau used television and film to bring nature into the house, and thus awaken a whole generation to interest in the environment, here is an opportunity to do the same with history.

And there are several, several such popular serials which can lend themselves to this. My question is: why are they made such that the 13 and 14-year olds who I really feel would be inspired by them, cannot watch them? I understand the Romans had their orgies, the Mongols their harems, and all of them their bloody wars and brutality. But is there no way to bring them into the family room to be family watching? Surely, there can be a way to avoid so much frontal nudity, explicit sex and the level of gore that is shown. Creative film-making is about that!

This is not a plea for censorship. It is to only reiterate that more than soap-value, these topics have educational value. And as an educator, it saddens me when the opportunity is missed. Billions of dollars and so much creative talent spent. But no teacher dealing with these topics in classroom can prescribe these as required watching. Because of the nudity, sex, strong language, drug use and violence, they are not rated for this age group.

If producers feel that their core audience is not this age group, and only putting in a lot of this will bring in the audience and generate revenues, maybe expurgated student-friendly versions available in the daytime?

There MUST be a way around. Surely technology can find a fix!

–Meena