The Sounds of Silence

When we were children and started becoming overly excited or noisy, our aunt would say “OK time for Shantini Ramat!”(the game of silence). All we had to do was to close our eyes and stay still and silent. This was not in the form of a “fingers on lips” punishment, but rather always had the most calming effect. Even as young children it made us aware of the many sounds that even silence was made up of, and sensitized us to the power of Quiet.

Many years later, as environmental educators, one of the exercises we often did in our workshops, with teachers or children, was to ask everyone to close their eyes and sit silently for just 5 minutes. After that we would ask them what sounds they heard / how they felt. It was interesting to note that they found this hard to describe or pinpoint. They were so unused to distinguishing individual sounds—even if they were obvious and strident like the honking of horns, the rumble traffic, the hum of the fan; or less obvious like the chirping of birds or squirrels.

We all live in a continual clutter of noise. Most often our ears are so tuned out of the subtle sounds around us, we can hear only the loudest, glaringly harshest and strident noises. We no longer know what silence sounds like. In fact we are almost afraid of the Quiet. Yet there is much to hear in silence. Even amidst the clamour of urban life, there are sounds that we can hear if we really listen—the early morning call of the lone bird, the rustling of leaves in the breeze, the buzz of the bee, the plop plop of the first raindrops and the steady gush of a downpour.

There is magic in silence, in being quiet. There is great power, beauty and creativity in silence.

This is beautifully captured in The Book of Quiet, a wonderfully sensitive children’s book by Deborah Underwood. Each page, lovingly illustrated by Renata Liwska, is dedicated to a different Quiet moment, beginning with “first one awake Quiet” and ending with “sound asleep Quiet.”

Some excerpts


Best friends don’t need to talk Quiet (Comfortable)

Trying not to hiccup Quiet (Embarrassed)

Last one to get picked from school Quiet (Nervous)

Sleeping sister Quiet (Tender)

First look at new hairstyle Quiet (Shocked)

“Silence is itself the stuff of substance; the moments it fills are not the in-betweenery of life but life itself — rich and nuanced and irrepressibly, if quietly, alive.” (Maria Popova)



A Magical Walk

I remember it well—a mere 400 metre walk on our office campus in Ahmedabad. That day we were walking along the path that all of us took regularly; walking along with us was Professor HY Mohan Ram, a member of our Governing Council, who was there for the Council meeting. As we walked, Professor Mohan Ram talked—gently, softly, but with passion and excitement, pointing out plants that we saw every day, but, as we realised, we never really ‘looked at’.

“Look at this one”, he pointed at a plant, “this is Aduso. Its botanical name is Adhatoda vasika which means ‘that which the goat will not touch’. This is what is used for making medicines for cough and cold.” Going just two steps ahead, “You know the cactus, but did you know that there is not a single native cactus in the whole of Asia and Europe? All cactii are from the New World—Mexico, North America and South America.” ”Look at this magnificent neem tree.  Its botanical name Azadirachta indica comes from the Arabic for azad meaning ‘free’ and drakhta meaning ‘tree’. This is thought to be a tree indigenous to India, but there is some doubt if it is originally Indian. It may have originated on the Burma border and come to Bangladesh from there.” “Did you know that Lutyens, when planning the landscaping of Delhi’s roads, planted only native species. Each avenue was planted with one species of fruit tree.” Three steps ahead, we come to the white flower commonly called Chandni. Professor tells us, “Have you noted carefully the arrangement of petals of flowers? Most flower petals are usually in multiples of 3 or 5 (except in the case of the mustard flower).” “Many high school students know this as the shoe flower that they got for dissection in the exams. But why the name shoe flower? Because it is used to polish shoes! Its other name is hibiscus, and is believed to have originated in China.”


Professor HYM had a fascinating story for every step that we took, drawing attention to the tiniest of flowers that we carelessly trampled underfoot, to the towering culms of bamboo. The path that took us 5-7 minutes to traverse became a magical mystery tour that took close to two hours. Through his eyes the blur of vegetation turned into a veritable treasure trove, with each plant glowing with its own special attributes.

Not long after this visit, Meena and I invited Professor HYM to contribute to a collection of tales of ‘Nature Heroes’ that we were putting together. He graciously agreed, and shared with us some of his journey, experiences and inspirations in a piece titled Reflections of a Botanist.  He writes “I have not pursued any single course. I have done what interests me and not what is in style. I have a deep interest in Indian classical music and photography.”

He concludes the piece with this, “What enlightenment have I received as a student of plant biology? I wish I could be like a tree: deep-rooted and firmly fixed, bearing a lofty bole and a broad canopy, continuously absorbing, synthesizing and renewing, unmindful of stresses and insults, resilient to changes and perpetually giving.”

In the passing away of Professor HY Mohan Ram the world has lost not only a botanist par excellence, but a much loved and respected teacher, researcher, and writer. For us, the Matriarchs, Professor Mohan Ram will always be remembered as a gentle, unassuming guide with a twinkle in his eyes, and a life-long inspiration whose visits to the Centre were like the Open Sesame to a fascinating world of flora.

A page from my notes on the Walk!  (Date 22 August 1998)




Sights That Make Me Smile As I Walk By

Our Indian cities don’t have much by way of street art. And what there is, looks typically municipality-commissioned.

Which is why i thought i should share a few examples of street art that ticks all the boxes of what this should be–creative, imaginative, quirky and brilliantly executed.

So I am going to let the pics speak for themselves!

A brilliant 2-level piece, partly on the compound wall, and partly on the building wall. (Note the line across the boy’s shoulder. Below that, is the the portion on the compound wall, and above on the building wall). Yelahanka, Bangalore.


Compound wall of a house. Yelahanka, Bangalore.


Discarded dish antenna. GMR Institute of Technology. Rajam, Andhra Pradesh.



My Crores vs. Your Millions

India gave the world Zero. So should we not be a bit more assertive in the matter of numbers?

I have grown up with lakhs and crores. And I have not heard that India has officially moved to millions and billions.

2018-06-15 17.29.16_resizedWhy then does my newspaper headline inform me that 55 million Indians are pushed into poverty every year due to health spending? Isn’t it a sad enough fact for me to take in, without having to contend with doing mental callisthenics?

And an Indian research journal in which I hope to publish a paper also says that figures must be in millions and billions, not in good old familiar lakhs and crores.

Well, in the case of the research study, maybe it has been done in collaboration with American researchers? And in the second, maybe it is that the journal hopes for an international audience?

Whatever the reasons, when communicating to Indians, would it not make more sense to use familiar number-names? Is 55 million a lot? Or not so much? What proportion of the population is it? I can’t do these calculations early in the morning.

And writing numbers too! I write and relate to 10,00,000. Not 1,000,000. But will Excel allow me to? NO!

India, we hear has a lot of soft power (as well as software power). Can we not prevail upon companies making programs to have an ‘Indian number variation’, like there are options for UK and US spellings?

And even more important, can we in India—the media, academia, use lakhs and crores? The Americans have proved that a country can get by in the comity of nations without switching to the metric system. Mine is a relatively small ask!




Just about fifteen years ago, as I lay in bed at night, I could hear the howling of jackals, the rhythmic beat of the distant train, hoots of owls, and the chorus of frogs after the first rains. I would waken to the call of the Sarus cranes, and the meowing cry of the Jacanas in the open ground across from my house.

Today I lie awake all night to the rattling, shattering clangour of the monstrous mechanical cranes and concrete mixers as they dig deep into the soil where the Sarus sang and Jacanas nested, and from where rise the gigantic metal skeletons of multi-storey towers. On the weekends I can no longer listen to the music that used to be a part of our evenings, over the incessant honking, beeping, screeching and yelling from the traffic jams outside my gate, as a noisy, rambunctious crowd heads for the ‘happening’ mall that looms in neon-lit glory, where once the buffalo wallowed and the froggies sang.

Our lives are so cluttered with noise, we do not know silence any more. We are almost afraid of the quiet. We get anxious if we are not continuously reassured by the hum, buzz or ringtone of our phone…Why no calls, no messages, no alerts?? Does nobody ‘like’ us anymore? We feel unmoored without the 24/7 din around us. Is there a moment in our day when we can hear simply silence?

On a visit to Bali last year I learned about Nyepi–the Day of Silence. This day falls (usually in March) on the day after the dark moon of the spring equinox when the day and night are of approximately equal duration. It marks the start of “Caka” year – Balinese New Year – which is celebrated over six days. The first two days are marked by parades, noise and revelry, and Nyepi falls on day 3. The observance of the Day of Silence is based on an ancient myth that, after the boisterous and active celebrations of day 1 and day 2, the Island goes into hiding to protect itself from the evil spirits, fooling them to believe that Bali, enveloped in an atmosphere of complete tranquility and peace, is a deserted Island.

The quietest day of the year is guided by the four precepts:
No fire or light, including no electricity.
No form of physical working other than that which is dedicated to spiritual cleansing and renewal.
No movement or traveling.
Fasting and no revelry/entertainment or general merrymaking.

Everyone stays indoors, engaged in fasting, prayer, meditation, reflection and introspection—erasing the clamour, and cleansing the body and spirit. What a wonderful tradition and even more, how wonderful that it is so well honoured and celebrated in spirit and deed, even today.

If only we could all disconnect from the din, and connect within.


This year for Nyepi all phone companies on the island of Bali agreed to shut down the mobile internet for 24 hours. Imagine a day without internet, Facebook and Instagram and instant messaging apps! And this, on one of the world’s most popular and busy tourist destinations! Yes, they did it, and survived!



Living Magic!

How can you not be cured by a medicine called Living Magic! That is what ‘Zinda Tilismat’, translates to! With a name like that, can you wonder that it claims to cure everything from colds to upset stomachs to toothaches, to ‘new’ ailments like swine flu and bird flu? (But no, I haven’t heard of its use in Nipah, I have to admit!)

The ‘wonder drug’ was formulated by Hakim Mohammed Moizuddin Farooqui, way back in 1920, and has been manufactured in the Zinda Tilismath Karkhana in Hyderabad since then. This Unani medicine is basically made from aromatic herbals—mainly eucalyptus, and also some camphor, menthol, thymol, etc. Amazingly, you can apply it externally or ingest it.

The pack seems to have been unchanged for all these 100 years too. It carries a picture of a spear-toting African. The reason, it seems, is that the founder was so impressed by the Siddhi guards of the Nizam that he thought that such a picture on his medicine would give it an association with strength and well-being.


I have no idea if there have been clinical trials on this medicine to substantiate any or all the claims. But can you argue with a sale of 1 crore vials every year?

And the romance of the name! I am ready to be cured of anything with this. And, to its credit, the ingredients cannot do me harm!

As a Hyderabadi for some years, I obviously knew of this magic potion. But as we do with things which are local, I didn’t bother to buy it or try it. Now that I have left Hyderabad and someone reminded me of ZT, I became obsessed with it! So I made some friends buy and send me some. Now I am waiting for some (minor) illness to strike me, so that I may be magically cured.

So I suppose my message is, everything is in a name! An invaluable lesson to product managers (I began my life as one), innovators, company founders,


A Feast for all the Senses


Mango looks like gift-wrapped sunbeamsIMG_20180608_203804.jpg

Mango sounds like ‘slurp’

Mango smells like only a mango can

Mango tastes like Kesar    (*pick your favourite!)

Mango feels like one can survive the summer after all!

Ah Mangifera indica!


About 1,500 varieties of mango are grown in India, including 1,000 commercial varieties. Each of the main varieties of mango has a unique flavour.

* Take your pick!


1. Taimoorlang
2. Husnaara

3. Aabehayat

4. Zawahiri
5. Dussheri
6. Chosa
7. Lucknowi
8. Langra
9. Neelum
10. Rumani
11. Alphonsa
12. Bombay Green (Sarauli)
13. Banganpalli
14. Samar Behest Chausa
15. Fazli 16. Kishenbhog 17. Himsagar 18. Gulabkhas 19. Zardalu 20. Airi   21. Malkurad (Goa) 22. Kesar 23. Rajapuri 24. Jamadar(Gujarat) 25. Beneshan 26. Bangalora
27. Suvarnarekha 28. Mulgoa 29. Raspuri 30. Badami 31. Allampur Beneshan 32. Himayuddin 33. Jehangir 34. Cherukurasam 35. Bathua 36. Bombai 37. Sukul
38. Fernandin 39. Mankurad 40. Vanraj 41. Mundappa 42. Olour 43. Pairi 44. Safeda
45. Raspoonia 46. Mithwa Sundar Shah 47. Mithwa Ghazipur 48. Taimuriya
49. Sharbati Begrain 50. Gilas 51. Nauras 52. Rasgola 53. Hardil-aziz 54. Cherukurasam
55. Peddarasam 56. Totapuri 57. Kothapalli Kobbari 58. Chinna Rasam 59. Cheruku Rasam 60. Pedda Rasam 61. Mallika 62. Ratole 63. Kaju
64. Himayat 65. Khatta Meetha 66. Panchadara Kalasa 67. Manjeera
68. Amrapali 69. Arkapuneet 70. Sindhu



Matchmaker, Matchmaker….

Shared memories are probably what define a community or nation or any grouping.

And one indelible memory shared by millions of Indians is seeing miles and miles of walls painted with:

‘Rishtey hi rishtey

Prof. Arora

Mil to lein’.

Prof. Arora rocked social media before social media was invented!

But this piece is not so much about the ‘world-famous in India’ professor, as about how matches were and are made.

Detail from ‘Matchmaker’: A painting by Nilofer Suleman



When we were young (and for centuries before that, I would imagine), it was about

Pushy pishis

Mission-mode mamas

Chatty chachis

Anxious ammammas

Each activating their network of relatives, friends, acquaintances; chatting up people chance-met at weddings or house warmings or whatever; reaching out to guests of their neighbours, sisters in law of their cousins, whoever. But the fundamental strategy was ‘pass the word, pass the word’.

And boy, did it work! Everyone (except the resolutely resistant), did end up getting married.

‘Matchmaker’: Nilofer Suleman



And then came a generation where it was considered OK to put up a matrimonial ad in TOI or Hindu or whatever the local dominant newspaper was. This seemed to work fairly OK too.

Today, with so-called efficient networks and all manner of specialized networking sites, that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. I meet so many 30+ people who are not married. It could be that they don’t want to get married. But I know at least half of them do want to. But they never seem to find the right person. The trick seems to be to find a soulmate in school or college. It seems to get increasingly difficult afterwards.

Then parents come into the picture. And they are pretty clueless!

Which makes me think that we have to find some other means to fix matches. Have no idea what, but maybe go back to real-live human beings as intermediaries, rather than just bits and bytes of information floating in the ether?


The Upside-Down Tree

A Tree-Tale on the occasion of World Environment Day

I first saw a Baobab tree in Tsavo National Park, on safari in Kenya. With a huge bulging trunk and branches that looked like roots spreading in a wide canopy, it was unlike any tree I had seen. I was intrigued. As I read more about Africa I found that this tree, which was native to Africa, Madagascar, and Australia, played a significant role not only in the ecology, but equally the folklore of these regions.

Across Africa, there seem to be many stories passed on from generation to generation, that explain why the Baboab looks the way it does. One of the most popular, and my favourite one, goes like this.

The first Baobab grew near a small lake, along with many other trees. One day it saw its reflection in the water, and it was shocked. It saw a huge fat trunk covered in bark that looked like the wrinkled hide of an old elephant; small leaves and pale flowers.

Now this Baobob was a complainer. “Why did you make me so ugly?” it asked the Creator. “Why did you make me so big and fat? Why can’t I be tall and slender like the Palm tree?” “Why is my bark so rough and tough? Why can’t I have a smooth trunk like the Mahogany tree?” “And such insignificant flowers, why not bright ones like those of the Tulip tree?”

And the Baobab went on whining and complaining, comparing itself to every other tree, and feeling short-changed in every aspect. Until finally the Creator had enough! In a fit of exasperation, he came down and yanked the Baobab up from its roots, and replanted it upside down! No longer could the Baobab see its reflection, and no longer could it compare and contrast!

But the Creator could not be heartless. The vain whiner had to be taught a lesson, but after all this too was one of his own creations! So the Creator gave the Baobab some special features that would make it one of the most valued of trees for countless other living beings, including humans.

This Tree of Life, as it is called by some tribes in Africa, creates its own ecosystem, as it supports the life of countless creatures, from the giant elephants to the thousands of tiny creatures scurrying in and out of its crevices. Weaver birds nest in its branches and owls and Hornbills roost in its hollows; baboons and warthogs devour the seedpods and the fruit; bush babies and fruit bats drink the nectar and pollinate the flowers. The tree can store hundreds of litres of water in its trunk, an adaptation to the harsh drought conditions of its environment. This water is tapped in dry periods by elephants and Bushmen.

P1130244.JPGEvery part of the tree is valuable for the local communities; its lumber is used for storage, its bark is pounded to make rope, fishnets, mats, baskets, paper and cloth. More recently, its fruit has joined the ranks of international Superfoods–it is known to contain six times as much vitamin C as oranges, twice as much calcium as milk, and plenty of B vitamins, magnesium, iron, phosphorous, and antioxidants.

Baobabs can reach up to 75 feet in height, and the trunk can grow more than 60 feet wide. Humans have used the hollowed trunks for a variety of purposes—from a post office, to a jail, and even a pub!

Baobabs are some of the longest living of trees, believed to live for more than 2000 years!  When they do die, they simply rot from the inside and suddenly collapse, leaving a heap of fibres, and so the local belief is that they do not die at all, but simply disappear!  No wonder the Bushmen call it the Magic tree!

Some years after I returned from Kenya, we visited Diu, an island just off the coast of Gujarat. As we walked around, we were astonished to come across a Baobab tree! Solidly ensconced in majestic, solitary splendour among the Hoka palms and green fields, it brought back memories of our Safari days!  No one seemed to know when and how it came to be there. Thereafter, on our annual Diu trip with the children, we all eagerly looked forward to spending a morning exploring the Baobab. Over the years, as the children grew, it remained a reassuring and comforting presence. This year, the Baobab was introduced by my now-grown daughter to her husband, as an old friend!


Happy World Environment Day!