I Have Met God—He’s a Bureaucrat

My God is a bureaucrat

In the best traditions of Indian bureaucracy

 

I pray and plead

But He has no time

For petty, individual sorrows and requests

Because He is looking

At the bigger picture

 

I rant and rave

Against the unfairness of the order of things

But His look tells me

That He can only worry about

The overall order of things

 

If you and I and a little ant

Feel aggrieved

That is really our problem

For the macro-indicators

Are showing a positive trend.

 

I try to make sense of things

But when I ask Him to explain

He tells me that it is not for me to understand

All these things are decided ‘at a higher level’

 

I try to get in touch when I need him

But He never responds

Maybe because He is in meetings

Or on tour

 

And so I have learnt

To cope with my problems

My tragedies, my questions

Because though

Right to Information is now an Act

God won’t respond if he doesn’t want to

And usually, he doesn’t.

 

–Meena

Tell Me Why

A reIMG_20190319_101149.jpgcent news item about a telephone helpline for children caught my attention. This was not the usual helpline for children in trouble or distress. Called First Question, this is an open line that children can call with questions related to science and nature, and their questions would be answered by real scientists. A novelty indeed in an age where increasingly Google is the ultimate guru that provides all answers.

This reminded me of the TELL ME WHY series. For myself and my children, these were among our favourite go-to books. These comfortingly solid volumes were not glossy nor profusely illustrated, but they were jammed with questions What, Why, How, Where, and answers to these.  From the bizarre ones like ‘Are armadillos edible?’ to the logical query ‘Where does water go when it dries up?’ to the dreamy ‘How did fairy tales originate,’ to the puzzled ‘Why don’t women have beards?’ every volume had over 300 questions, and short answers that were well researched and reliable.  While flipping through the pages in looking for an answer one would come across a dozen other questions that made one stop and read and wonder! A learning experience that was not compartmentalized into subjects and periods, and test papers; just an adventure in exploring and discovering.

Alas in the digital age, while the whole world’s information is at our fingertips, our children, and even we, seem to have lost the charm of wandering in search of answers, and chance discoveries. The TELL ME WHY series also seems to have gotten lost with the advent of media that are rapidly replacing physical books. However the innate curiosity of a child can never be quashed.

First Question, an initiative of the Kerala Forest Research Institute, seeks to bring back the humans in an age of AI. Launched as a response to the concern that our educational system that does not encourage children to ask questions, the Helpline, considered to be the first of its kind for children in India, is being managed by 20 research scholars from the Institute with help from around 50 subject matter experts and scientists across the state.

Students can call the helpline number 0487-2690222 from Monday to Friday between 9.30 am and 5.30 pm and ask their science-related questions in either English or Malayalam. Students from outside the state can also ask their questions in Hindi.

What a wonderful initiative, and what joy for a child to be able to talk to an adult who takes them, and their questions, seriously.

–Mamata

 

Sweet Potato Garden

First it was Green Tea.

Then Quinoa.

And now, the latest magical health food—the humble Sweet Potato.

All these years, I knew of only two ways to eat it. Boil, peel, cut, eat. Or roast, peel, cut, eat.

Now the net has tens of recipes. Outnumbered only by articles which list the benefits of eating sweet potatoes.

IMG_20190311_091629__01So were we excited when someone told us a super-simple way to  grow them! Just cut the bottom half off (cook the rest!). And put this bottom half into a container of water, partly submerged in it. Put the container in a place with good light (outside for a few hours is good). Don’t forget to change the water every 3 days. And you will see magic in a week! Small leaves in shades of green, red and purple, then more leaves. Growing lush and tall

 

Once you see enough leaves, plant this in the ground or in a pot.

And voila, you will have your own sweet potato farm!

Be green, have fun, eat healthy!

–Meena

PS: Apparently, bandicoots and rats love sweet potatoes. So I think the first part involving the container is the easy part. Who knows what will happen when we put them in the ground!?! But we will be optimistic.

PPS: A joint project of Anuradha, Sudha and Meena.

The Beauty of Ordinary Things

lockWhy should a lock be shaped like a lady? Perfect to every last detail—the braid at the back, the holes in the ears and nose for ornaments, the necklace, the drape of the dress. Every feature sharp and defined.

Did someone commission the craftsman, saying ‘I want a very unusual lock. Shaped like a lady.’ Or did the craftsman himself decide to create something original, a break from his routine, a need to speak to his buyers and to the future about his skills, his imagination? And if he did, did he show it off to lots of people? Did the owner show it off, or since it was a lock, was it hidden away somewhere, fastened on a secret cabinet or door? What drove the artist to take so much trouble and pour in so much of his energy and love into this?

 

 

 

chuna spreader

Even more mundane, a chuna-spreader (used by paanwallahs to spread lime on betel leaves). Was it a particularly quirky shopkeeper who commissioned this? Or a nawab or zamindaar addicted to paan, who wanted to add a touch of beauty to the ritual of making his beedas? Or was it just the artist indulging himself?

 

The two preceding objects were probably custom-made or made in small numbers. The first is about 200 years old, and the second may be from the turn of the last century.

 

 

bird

 

But this whistle, available at Rs. 20 in many melas today, is contemporary. A potter’s piece, this is shaped like a bird. But even more fascinating, it sings like a bird! Fill it to the halfway mark with water and blow into it, an unsuspecting guest will think that a melodious bird co-habits the house with you. Who dreamt this up?

 

I just picked three random objects from my house. The beauty and aesthetic of Indian crafts! But sadly, much of what is produced today in the name of craft displays neither the aesthetic nor the pride of craftsmanship. How is lost pride brought back?

–Meena

Beyond ME!

It’s Women’s Day, and as the media reminds us, a time to celebrate the ME! A time to indulge oneself, pamper oneself and assert oneself, with all the accompIMG_20190308_102230.jpganying gloss and glamour.

But is “all about me” really the formula for happiness? Consider this:

“Someone once asked me what I regarded as the three most important requirements for happiness.

My answer was: A feeling that you have been honest with yourself and those around you; a feeling that you have done the best you could have in your personal life and in your work; the ability to love others. Happiness is not a goal, it is a by-product. Paradoxically, the one sure way not to be happy is deliberately to map out a way of life in which one would please oneself completely and exclusively. After a short time, a very short time, there would be little that one really enjoyed. For what keeps our interest in life and makes us look forward to tomorrow is giving pleasure to other people.

It is easy to slip into self-absorption and it is equally fatal. When one becomes absorbed in himself, in his health, in his personal problems, or in the small details of daily living, he is, at the same time losing interest in other people; worse, he is losing his ties to life”.

Words of wisdom from Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt who was the President of the United States during the Great Depression and World War II. Eleanor was more than First Lady, she went on to play a leading role as a diplomat in the United Nations, and was one of the most loved and influential women of the 20th century. At the age of 76, she compiled her thoughts and experiences into a simple guide to living a fuller life based on her own philosophy on living, and informed by her personal experiences as a daughter, wife, parent, and diplomat. Titled You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life, this is a simple but powerful reminder of enduring common sense ideas and heartfelt values that resonate even 60 years after the book was first published.

A good day to share her words, and remind ourselves how enriching and invigorating it is to be able go beyond the ME! Let us celebrate the power of caring and sharing!

–Mamata

Did You Not Want to Ask…

A woman’s greatness is measured by the ‘sacrifices’ she makes. Has much changed?

As Women’s Day approaches, these unasked questions trouble me…

Sita:

A question I have asked myself

Did you not have the option

To leave the kingdom to your brothers

And come with me?

You left the kingdom to them once before

Oh, I remember!

That was your duty to your father.

Duty to a wife

Obviously does not come

Above duty to a kingdom.

Radha:

You vowed you loved me

But you knew you were never coming back

And you went ahead and married so many women

Did you ever look back?

Draupadi:

You fought for me and won me

But you didn’t utter a word

And went out of your way to not show special love for me

And why did I, such a confident princess

With a powerful father,

Accept this?

Was it that you felt inferior to me

And powerless.

And you wanted to prove you were powerful

By your treatment of me?

Parvati:

Your indifference

And I had to keep

Coaxing you

Sati always hovered over my head

Like Rebecca.

IMG_20190304_154701__01__01

–Meena

PS: Picture is the cover of DURYODHANA, By V. Raghunathan. Harper Collins. Illustrator: Nilofer Suleman

Caring and Sharing

The excitement began in the first week of March. What shall we do this year? Shall we have a theme? What about the lunch? Shall we order it or have a pIMG_20190302_112325.jpgot luck? Shall it be a particular cuisine or a celebration of diversity? And of course, it will be our Sari Day, but shall we have a colour code this year? Intercoms buzzed and Prepcoms were held.

It was the run up to Women’s Day at CEE! This was not the day to make a great political statement, nor a significant feminist event. It was simply a time to meet, eat, laugh and play together—a celebration of sisterhood.

For me this sisterhood was one of the many things that made CEE so special. What may have been the first link in the chain was a true “sense of belonging” to an organisation. But that was lengthened and strengthened by numerous bonds that brought the new and the old; the different tiers of formal designations, and the several generations that made up the ‘woman power’ of the institution.  It was the shared cups of tea and the lunch dabbas; it was the shared agonising over children, parents and in laws; it was the exchange of news and views, and the show-and-tell of things bought or made. This was a constant underground stream that flowed round the year, giving energy to our daily tasks at work. This seamless blending of many generations, and the mutual caring and sharing that made our lives so rich.

For us the Matriarchs, this sisterhood was the mainspring of our daily life. And we revelled in it as we scolded and moulded the fledglings; laughed and cried with our contemporaries; celebrated births and mourned the passings; bedecked ourselves for weddings, and planned office parties with much gusto. It was in many ways a time of innocence, a time when comfort and joy was derived from the feeling of going through life together. It was so much more than a coming together on a single day of the year.

“You are the sum total of everything you’ve ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot – it’s all there. Everything influences each of us, and because of that I try to make sure that my experiences are positive.” Maya Angelou

In this week, we look back and remember with gratitude and love all the wonderful women that we had the fortune to have met and worked with, and who have enriched us in so many ways.

–Mamata and Meena

 

Institutional Campuses: Biodiversity Havens

Those who sanctioned academic, scientific and other national institutions in the days of yore, were generous in their land allocation. So you have such organizations sitting of tens, and sometimes even hundreds of acres of land.

Some institutions have built up on much of the land. But in others, the land is either landscaped, or left wild. Or a witting or unwitting mix of the two. Any which way, a boon in today’s rush for land development. Often, because these institutions are under-funded, they are not able to maintain lawns etc. and let the land go wild, which is also a good thing. These campuses are like havens, where both green cover and biodiversity thrive.

To take just one example, I go back to the campus of IIM Ahmedabad (see also my blog of last week, ‘Living in a Louis Kahn’).

I had commented in that piece that there was no landscaping to speak about on the campus. I was mistaken, as comes out from this personal communication from Prof. Marti Subramaniam, eminent academic, in a comment on the piece:

‘The high point of my contact with Kahn’s work was when I spied him with Kasturbhai Lalbhai, early one morning, walking right outside the house where we lived as students.  I quickly followed them to overhear their conversation which went roughly along the following lines:

Kasturbhai: What trees should we plant here, Louis?

Kahn: Of course, in one line they should all be of the same species.  Otherwise, how would they talk to each other?’

So in fact it seems, a lot of thought had gone into the landscape! My ignorance indeed!

IIM A campus is a mix—from the manicured lawn of the Louis Kahn Plaza, to the utter wilderness on the edges. And this mix, it seems, has given rise to a good deal of biodiversity. And the great thing is, that as part of the Golden Jubilee celebrations of the Institute, these have been captured and documented in coffee table book called Natural World at IIMA.

725A7EA1-5F1C-4DD8-95C8-861F797A653B

A work of love and passion indeed! Close to 200 pages of colour plates, documenting the flora—trees, shrubs, climbers, sedges, grasses and herbs; as well as the fauna—birds, mammals, reptiles, insects, spiders, butterflies and moths.

One hears of pressures on several institutions to ‘not let the land go to waste, put it to use.’ Or worse, institutional lands being taken away for other uses, including commercial uses. We need to resist any such diversions. These are among the few remaining islands.

And documenting and disseminating these in the form of books, databases etc., helps to communicate the value of this diversity, and is the first step in making the campus itself an educational resource. And a matter of pride and joy for alumni.

Here is to large, unmaintained campuses, and books on them!

–Meena

Ant Man

The other day my grand-nephew, not quite nine months old and just starting to discover the world around him, was crawling towards a line of ants on the veranda. Immediately there was a chorus of calls from the vigilant adults around him. “Be careful, the ants will bite him”. “Be alert that he doesn’t put a few in his mouth!” “Mind the ants don’t get into his clothes.” The little boy was picked up and taken away many times, and just as many times he determinedly crawled right back to the tiny creatures that were neatly marching away on their own business.

The ants took me back to my early days as an environmental educator. One of the first publications of CEE was a simple 8-pager called Ant. I was fascinated at how much one could write about creatures that were either not noticed, or when noticed, decried as pests! Further down the line I ended up putting together an entire teaching-learning manual on Insects. Besides opening up a whole new world this also led me to EO Wilson whose writings became a great inspiration, not just for what he studied, but equally for how wonderfully he shared his thoughts.

Edward Osborne Wilson is not just the world’s foremost authority on the study of ants (a myrmecologist!) but one of the founding fathers of, and leading expert in, biodiversity. His autobiography titled Naturalist traces his evolution as a scientist. Young Wilson knew early that he wanted to be scientist. A childhood accident left him with weak eyesight and hearing, so instead of focussing on animals and birds he concentrated on studying the miniature creatures. Thus the dreamy child turned into the focused scientist. Naturalist also reveals how these steps from daydream to determined endeavour involved a mix of random encounter, enthusiasm and opportunism.

My little nephew’s first explorations reminded me of EO Wilson’s words. “Why do I tell you this little boy’s story of medusa rays, and sea monsters nearly sixty years after the fact? Because it illustrates, I think, how a naturalist is created. A child comes to the edge of deep water with a mind prepared for wonder. He is like a primitive adult of long ago, an acquisitive Homo arriving at the shore of Lake Malawi, say, or the Mozambique Channel….The child is ready to grasp this archetype, to explore and learn, but he has few words to describe his guiding emotions. Instead he is given a compelling image that will serve in later life as a talisman, transmitting a powerful energy that directs the growth of experience and knowledge. But the core image stays intact. When an adult he will find it curious, if he is at all reflective, that he has the urge to travel all day to fish or to watch sunsets on the ocean horizon.”

In the current age of over-protective parenting, and educational systems that feel that rote learning is the key to science, EO Wilson’s words hold truer than ever: “Hands-on experience at the critical time, not systematic knowledge is what counts in the making of a naturalist. Better to be an untutored savage for a while, not to know the names or anatomical detail. Better to spend long stretches of time just searching and dreaming.” 

–Mamata

 

Cook-up in India

There are few inventions and innovations which are ‘Made in India, For India’.  We either reverse engineer, adapt, copy or adjust!

BBE8D84D-41D4-4E22-9002-0996A7ACFA45So from that perspective, I think the Coimbatore Wet Grinder is a marvel. The need for batters on an everyday basis is Indian. How can households run without a steady supply of idli batter, dosa batter, vada batter, adai batter, pesarattu batter, appam batter, paniyaram batter etc., etc.? While these dishes are all South Indian, they are extremely popular across India too.

In the days of yore, women used to grind these batters in a stone device. Frail-looking mamis turned into Karnam Malleswaris and Kunjarani Devis, wielding huge stone pestles with nonchalance! It took an hour or more of this heavy duty work to grind the breakfast batter for a large family and clean out the device.

Then came electric mixer-grinders. But always the refrain: ‘Oh, so small a jar. I have to do so many rounds for the quantity I need.’ Or ‘The motor heats up the batter as it grinds. Dosas never taste the same.’ Or ‘Uff, so much time it takes, I have to stand holding the lid.’ Because the mixer-grinders were not really conceived for our needs.

And then came WET GRINDERS! Magic! Small enough to fit in a corner of the kitchen but fairly good capacity; using the familiar stone-on-stone approach, thereby making mamis fully comfortable; no heating while grinding; and pretty easy to clean too!

An amazing individual called P. Sabapathy developed the wet grinder in Coimbatore in 1955, after much trial and error. Sabapathy introduced the grinders to other cities such as Chennai and Madurai. From the basic model, others innovated the tilting wet grinder, the table top grinder etc.

Coimbatore developed as the center for the manufacture of wet grinders. This was helped along by the fact that granite was available nearby. Also, as Coimbatore is anyway an industrial hub, manufacturing equipment, electrical motors etc. were all available within the same area. The city contributes to about 75% of the 1 lakh total monthly output of wet grinders in India. And apparently, there are 40 types of wet grinders today, from domestic to commercial.  In 2007, Tamilnadu Government opened a center for manufacturing raw materials for wet grinders and a research center here.

Historian CR Elangovan has written the history of Coimbatore wet grinders ‘Automatic Aataangal: Kovaiyin Seetanam. Alas, I cannot read Tamil. But I shall search to check if there is an English translation.

It is said that Mr. Sabapathy invented the wet grinder to save his wife labour. In the process, he has saved lakhs of women-hours. But who even knows his name? Shouldn’t he be in textbooks, as a supporter of women’s emancipation and a designer-inventor-entrepreneur of the highest order? We may even classify him as a social entrepreneur in today’s jargon! Shouldn’t he have got the Padmashri?

And coming back to one of my recent-favourite topics, the Coimbatore Wet-Grinder is GI (certified for Geographical Indicator).

–Meena

PS: This one is for my Mother in Law

Tiger! Tiger!

Gujarat is aIMG_20190221_103219.jpgll agog with the news that a Tiger has been spotted within its political boundaries. Papers are full of speculation about where it came from and where it went. In the meanwhile the state has quickly laid claim to be the only one in the country with three big cats—lion, leopard, and now tiger!

The news led me to relook at a book the Matriarchs had done for teachers over a decade ago. Called Tales of the Tiger it was an attempt to create awareness and excitement about the tiger through providing interesting information and activity ideas for students.

Compiling information for the book was in itself an exciting and educative safari. It was not just looking at this awe-inspiring cat from the zoological point of view, but seeing it as an integral part of the ecosystem, as well as the social and cultural environment.

Beyond the roar to the lore, as it were!  Sharing a few fascinating facts.

Tigers do not simply roar, growl and snarl. They have a wide variety of vocalisations such as chuffing, hissing, grunting, and mewling. A ‘chuff’ or ‘prusten’ is a friendly and non-threatening sound made when two tigers meet. The ‘pook’ sound is a sound similar to the alarm call of the sambar, a favourite prey animal of the tiger. It has been variously interpreted as a way of locating prey, a mating call, or to announce its presence to other tigers. A tigress uses moans to communicate with her cubs. Tigers also use body (especially tail) language to show aggression, affection and curiosity.

Beyond the jungles, tigers have long been a part of folklore and literature in every culture. The tiger is variously feared, respected, admired, and distrusted, depending on the context. According to stories from Indian mythology the tiger is believed to have powers to do everything from fighting demons to creating rain; keeping children safe from nightmares, and healing. Tribal beliefs, arts and crafts often place the tiger as a central symbol of worship. For example the people of the Warli tribe offer a part of their harvest every season to the worship of the tiger. The people of the Bhil tribe believe that they have descended from tigers. Songs, proverbs and sayings in most Indian languages feature the tiger.

In India the earliest visual representations of the tiger are found on the seals and terracotta figurines on the Indus Valley Civilisation. A seal found at Mohenjo Daro, believed to date back about 5000 years shows a man sitting in a tree angrily addressing a tiger waiting below for him.

Even as scientists have studied and tracked tigers in an effort to understand them better, tigers all over the world are threatened and endangered. In India Project Tiger, launched in 1973, has been an important milestone in the history of tiger conservation in India. 

While the new sighting of the tiger may possibly turn into a contest of “Mine, Mine!” it may be wise to remember and respect that this magnificent cat knows no political boundaries. May it always walk in majesty, wherever it may roam.

–Mamata