Giving Thanks

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift
.

Mary Oliver Contemporary American poet

As we look back into the tunnel of darkness that we are cautiously tiptoeing out of, one step at a time, the overwhelming emotion that many of us are experiencing, is that of thankfulness. We are grateful to be fortunate enough to have come out of a very dark and difficult period to face a new day.

The last year-and-a-half has led most of us to re-evaluate our life and our priorities. It has humbled us to be grateful for what we have, rather than always aspiring for what  we do not have. It has opened our senses and sensibilities to the smaller joys of living, and simply, just to count our blessings.

Well before the unprecedented pandemic taught us how to look for, and appreciate, the small rays of light in dark skies, wise people had recognised the power of gratitude. In 1965, during a Thanksgiving gathering at the International East-West Center in Hawaii, Sri Chinmoy, a spiritual leader and meditation teacher, had suggested that a day be designatedwhen the entire world came together for the message of thanks. After the meeting in Hawaii, many attendees began marking Gratitude Day in their own countries on the autumnal equinox in September. In the following years, Gratitude Day became bigger and bigger, and in 1977 the United Nations Meditation Group requested a formal resolution to give recognition for World Gratitude Day to be celebrated every year on 21 September.

The ideal of World Gratitude Day is to give people the opportunity to offer personal gratitude, but also to remember that gratitude is an essential emotion that should be universally shared.

While we usually think of giving thanks to people for all the happy things, we also need to think of situations and experiences that may have seemed difficult or painful, but that have taught us something, and made us wiser and stronger. This is a gift that makes us realise that no one person is an island, and that we are all interconnected in one way or another. Gratefulness shapes how we relate to each other, and to our circumstances. It stems out of generosity, compassion, and respect…towards those things that nurture peace.

Feeling and expressing gratitude imbues both the giver and the receiver with a sense of peace. When the emotion transcends the personal to embrace the universal, it could be the first step towards a peaceful global order. Perhaps this is what prompted the United Nations to also designate 21 September as the International Day of Peace–a day devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace. In a time when so many parts of the world continue to be ravaged by so much violence, in all its explicit and implicit forms, the theme for the United Nations International Day of Peace this year is “Recovering better for an equitable and sustainable world”. This reminds us to be grateful for what we may be fortunate to have, as individuals and as communities and nations, and to join hands for a world that is more equitable, inclusive, sustainable and healthy.

Human memory is short. Even as we rapidly try to regain the “old normal” and the climb back onto our treadmills and into the rat races, this is a good week to remind ourselves to give thanks for the new day, and all that it may bring. 

As the Sufi poet Rumi beautifully puts it:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

–Mamata

Poet with the Piercing Gaze: Subramania Bharathi

The image of Che Guevera, his hair flowing to the shoulders, eyes looking off-camera and a beret on his head, is the international image of revolution, of the oppressed fighting against the powerful, of idealism, of nobility.

No less iconic for Tamilians is the image of Subramania Bharathi, turban on the head with the end wound around his throat, a mustache, and eyes that seem to pierce into the soul. It stands for all of the above, and in addition, for sublime poetry and an idealistic vision for India.

Poet Subramania Bharathi
Mahakavi Bharathi

We mark a century of Mahakavi Subramania Bharathi’s passing this month. He died at the age of 39, tragically trampled to death by the elephant at the Parthasarathy Temple, Triplicane, Chennai. He used to feed the elephant regularly, and they were friends. But on that particular day, something went drastically wrong. His death, as his life, was completely out of the ordinary.

But he is very much alive today, a living tradition. The versatility of Bharathi’s composition is one reason—his songs of national pride, his songs of revolution and social change, of romance, of bhakti—there is something for every occasion.

There is no schoolchild in Tamilnadu who does not know his poems and writings. Not a musician—classical or light-classical or filmi or pop–who does not have a repertoire of Bharathi songs. Not a film-maker who has not used a song or at least a verse from one of his compositions at one time or the other. Not a Tamilian who has not been touched, moved, affected by his poems.

He was something of a child prodigy, being conferred the title of ‘Bharathi’—one who was blessed by the Goddess Saraswathi—at the age of 12, by the Raja of Ettayapuram, for his poetic genius.

He knew 14 languages, but chose to write in Tamil. He was a teacher, a journalist, a poet, a writer, a freedom fighter. He was deeply spiritual, delving deep into Hinduism. It is said that he adopted his trademark turban in admiration of the Sikhs.

The British Empire feared his pen so much that there was an arrest warrant out for him. He spent almost 10 years in exile in Pondicherry (a French territory), so escape imprisonment.

He was an ardent proponent of the emancipation of women, and advocated that they take their place shoulder to shoulder in the freedom struggle and in the development of the nation. In fact, traditional Madras of over a century ago was shocked and agog when he insisted on walking in public, holding hands with his wife!

Poetry in translation seldom works anywhere as well as the original. But even with that, a poet’s words speak louder than anyone else can, of his thoughts, ideas and ideals. So here is an excerpt from one of his most stirring songs:

‘With the name of Bharat Desh on our lips

Let us shake off our fears and poverty

And overcome our sorrows and enemies.

We shall stroll on the snow-clad silver heights of the Himalayas

Our ships shall sail across the high seas

We shall set up schools—scared temples for us.

We shall span the sea to reach Sri Lanka

And raise the level of the Sethu and pave a road on it

We shall water Central India with the bounteous rivers of Bengal.

We shall have such devices that sitting at Kanchi

We will listen to the discourses of scholars in Varanasi.

We shall make tools and weapons

We shall produce paper

We shall open factories and schools

We shall never be lazy or weary

We shall ever be generous

We shall always speak the truth.

Both scriptures and sciences we shall learn

The heavens and oceans we will explore

The mysteries of the moon we shall unravel

The art of street-sweeping too, we shall learn.’

Be inspired, be elevated. Listen to renditions of Bharathi even if you don’t understand the words. And do look out for translations of his work. This translation is from a 1984 publication brought out by NCERT, which also has a well put-together summary of his life. Proving once again that NCERT has done some wonderful work!

https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.231768/2015.231768.Poems-Subramania_djvu.txt)

–Meena

Fire Cat

Source: en.wikipedia.org

I first got acquainted with the Red Panda not in the lush forests of North East India but in the hot and arid environs of Gujarat. In fact, I shared office space with it in Sundarvan, the small-animal park in Ahmedabad, as I embarked on a new journey as an environmental educator. How it reached all the way across the country to live a solitary life surrounded by humans is a story that I cannot clearly recollect. But the memory of starting the day by seeing the quiet furry creature with its bright curious eyes is as clear as if it was just yesterday.

For most of us, the word Panda immediately conjures up the image of the teddy bear-like black and white animal that bears little resemblance to this cat-like animal with reddish brown fur and a bushy tail. That is because the Red Panda is not a panda at all!

Scientists have determined that although they share a habitat (and a love for bamboo) with the Giant Panda, Red Pandas are genetically closer to skunks and raccoons. Their taxonomic position has long been a subject of scientific debate. For many years, Red Pandas were classified as part of the Procyonidae family, which includes raccoons and their relatives. But DNA studies show that Red Pandas represent a unique family that diverged from the rest of the Carnivore Order, and taxonomists place them in their own unique family: Ailuridae. Red Pandas are the only living member of the Ailuridae family. Ailurus fulgens fulgens, the scientific name of this rare and beautiful species literally means ‘fire-coloured cat’.

While the word Panda is a misnomer, the adjective Red is an apt description of this animal which has thick reddish brown fur. While its body is the size of a large cat, its bushy tail, marked with alternating red and buff rings, is almost as long as its body. Red Pandas have large, round heads and short snouts with big, pointed ears. Their faces are white with reddish-brown ‘tear’ marks that extend from the eyes to the corner of the mouth. Dense fur completely covers their feet which have five, widely separated toes and semi-retractable claws.

Their form is beautifully adapted for life in the mountain forests which are home to these animals. They spend most of their time on trees—sheltering, feeding, and sunbathing in winter. The structure of the feet and extremely flexible ankles which can rotate 180 degrees, help them in adeptly climbing headfirst down tree trunks. A  special thumb-like wrist bone helps them get an extra grip when climbing.

The russet coat provides perfect camouflage among the clumps of reddish-brown moss and white lichens that cover the branches of the fir trees in which they dwell. The top cover of long coarse hairs, and the soft dense woolly undercoat provide a double layer of warmth. The long bushy tails which they curl around their body provide protection from the harsh winter winds. The tails also provide support and traction to these nimble arboreal acrobats. If a red panda starts to lean in one direction, it can swing its tail the opposite way to steady itself.

While different from their namesake in form and family, the one characteristic that the Giant Panda and the Red Panda share is that they are both bamboo eaters. But while Giant Pandas feed on all parts of the bamboo plant, Red Pandas feed selectively on the most nutritious leaf tips, and when available, tender shoots. Both pandas have a pseudo thumb, a modified wrist bone which helps to grasp the bamboo while feeding. In fact the name Panda is said to come from the Nepali word ponya, which means bamboo or plant eating animal. Bamboo is not a great food source for energy, and is hard to digest. In fact, Red Pandas digest only about 24 per cent of the bamboo they eat; so they need to eat 20 to 30 per cent of their body weight each day—about 1 to 2 kilograms of bamboo shoots and leaves. In one study, female Red Pandas were found to eat approximately 20,000 bamboo leaves in a single day. While bamboo constitutes about 95 per cent of the Red Panda’s diet, they may also forage for roots, succulent grasses, fruits, insects and grubs, and are known to occasionally kill and eat birds and small mammals.

Red Pandas are usually active at dawn and dusk, sleeping during the hottest part of the day. They begin their “day” by licking the front paws and then cleaning the fur all over the body in a cat-like, sitting posture in the tree; and then “washing” their face with fore and hind paws

Red pandas are solitary except during the breeding season. They scent-mark their territories using anal glands and urine, as well as scent glands located between their footpads. The scent is odourless to humans, but the Red Panda tests odours using the underside of its tongue, which has a cone-like structure for collecting liquid and bringing it close to a gland inside its mouth.

Red Pandas are generally quiet, but subtle vocalizations—such as squeals, twitters and ‘wha’ sounds—can be heard at close proximity. They may also hiss or grunt, and young cubs use a whistle, or high-pitched bleat, to signal distress.

It is the “wha” cry of the Red Panda which was the key identifying feature of this creature when it was first introduced in the Western world.  In 1821, the English naturalist Major General Thomas Hardwicke made a presentation on the creature at the Linnean Society in London. In his presentation titled Description of a new Genus of the Class Mammalia, from the Himalaya Chain of Hills Between Nepaul and the Snowy Mountains, he described this hitherto unknown creature and suggestedthat the animal be called a “wha,” because as he explained It is frequently discovered by its loud cry or call, resembling the word ‘Wha’, often repeating the same: hence is derived one of the local names by which it is known. But Hardwicke’s paper was not published till 1827 by which time the French zoologist Frederic Cuvier published a description of the species along with a drawing. He claimed it was the most beautiful animal he had ever seen and named it Ailurus (from the Greek word ailouros, which means cat, and fulgens, meaning fire-colored or shining. Thus the species was named Ailurus fulgens fulgens. 

In its Himalayan habitat, the animal is still known by its local names.  In Nepal, it is called bhalu biralo while the Sherpas call it ye niglva ponva or wah donka.

Red pandas live in high-altitude, temperate forests with bamboo understories in the Himalayas, and other high mountains in Asia. They range from northern Myanmar (Burma) to the west Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces of China. They are also found in suitable habitat in Nepal, India and Tibet. Scientists have now identified two sub species: Ailurus fulgens fulgens which lives predominantly in Nepal and can also be found in India and Bhutan, and Ailurus fulgens styani (or Ailurus fulgens refulgens) which is primarily found in China’s Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.  

Today this unique animal is endangered. As with most species in the wild, its habitat is under threat, with destruction of its nesting trees and food plants. The animals are often killed as they get caught in traps meant for other animals such as wild pigs and deer. They are also poached for their distinctive pelts. Conservation organisations are working with local communities to create awareness, and take steps to reduce the human threats to the fragile habitat of the beautiful fire cat which has its own special part in the web of life. The Red Panda Network, an international organisation focusing on this, encourages local people to become forest guardians to keep an eye on these creatures, track poachers, and replant bamboo in the forest.

18 September is marked as International Red Panda Day. A good time to learn about this Panda that isn’t a Panda!

–Mamata

Queue-jumping

Last week, newspapers in Bangalore were full of reports of a man who jumped a queue at a super-market. Happens every day, everywhere, right? So why did this hit the news? Well, a determined lady ahead of him in the queue stopped him and asked him not to break the queue. In response, he abused and manhandled her. Other customers stopped him. A police complaint was lodged and he was arrested.

Cover illustration: Nilofer Suleman

A sad commentary on the casual rule-breaking and the casual violence that pervades our lives. It sent me back to ‘The Good Indian’s Guide to Queue-jumping’ by V. Raghunathan (Harper Collins), to refresh my understanding of the phenomenon of queue-jumping. A whole book that deals with the sociology, psychology, and several other ‘ologies of the phenomenon! Fortunately, it also helped me smile a bit, even though the issue itself is disturbing.

To share a few insights from the book gleaned from research:

  • Research shows that more than half the time, queue-jumpers get away scot-free.  In only about 54% of the cases does anyone protest, and it is only 10% of the times that queue-jumpers are thrown out of the queue.
  • In most cases, the person protesting is the person immediately behind where the queue is broken. People further back in the queue don’t react much.
  • If the first and the second person behind the point of the queue breach don’t protest, there is 95% chance that the queue-jumper will get away with the it.
  • When someone gives a reason, however absurd, people are ready to let him or her get ahead of them in the queue.
  • When a single person breaks a queue, there was not much opposition. But when groups break queues, there is more likely to be resistance.
  • Different nations have different propensities for queuing and queue-jumping. The devotion of the English to queues is legendary. In fact, a popular saying is that if there is one Englishman, he will form a queue. Sadly, India is among the nations with a great propensity for queue-breaking.

Physically muscling in is not the only way to break queues. Here are some other ingenious ways to do it:

  • Use professional queuers: Yes, that is a profession! It is essentially a person who takes a payment to stand in a queue in your place. Remember the old days when we used to queue up for railway tickets? We used to often pay someone to do it. In some countries, there are agencies which will send people for this. In a variation of this, when some US states brought in a regulation that car-poolers would get access to fast-lanes, there were professional companions who would ride the car with you so you could join the fast-lane—essentially a form of queue-jumping.
  • Become a VIP: In India of course, it is not at all difficult to break a queue. Every official and politician with a light on their car to speed through traffic is essentially a queue-breaker. The practice, curbed by law is less prevalent today, but has not disappeared. But it’s not just on the road. You go to a government office, and someone who is ‘someone’ will cut in front of you. When you go to the hospital, a person wearing the hospital-employee tag will escort someone to the head of the queue, even as those have booked appointments wait. You go to get a vaccine, you will face the same. But we experienced the most ironical situation of all once when we were waiting to cast our votes on election day. A politician tried to cut-in in front of us. He was a candidate in that very same constituency. Democratic elections based on universal adult franchise are founded on the premise that we are all equal. But the politician-VIP obviously did not believe in this!
  • Pay to get fast-tracked: There are several instances where one can pay to jump to the head of the queue. Temples for instance have free queues, Rs. 100 queues, Rs. 500 queues etc.
  • Fake it till you make it: From across the world there are reports that more and more people citing illness or old-age use wheelchairs at airports, thereby cutting queues and getting express entry. Only to walk away briskly once they clear all the obstructions!

While many of us would hesitate to physically jump a queue, hand-on-heart we cannot say we have not used any of these other ingenious ways. Often we even convince ourselves that these are not instances of queue-jumping at all. But in our heart of hearts, we know they are!

To end on a lighter note, here is a story about the English: ‘During the London riots in August 2011, I witnessed looters forming an orderly queue to squeeze, one at a time, through the smashed window of a shop they were looting. They even did the ‘paranoid pantomime’, deterring potential queue-jumpers with disapproving frowns, pointed coughs and raised eyebrows. And it worked. Nobody jumped the queue. Even amid rioting and mayhem – and while committing a blatant crime – the unwritten laws of queuing can be ‘enforced’ by a raised eyebrow.’ Kate Fox (Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour).

–Meena

A Teacher’s Reverie: Divaswapna

India marked Teacher’s Day on 5 September. It was once again a time to celebrate teachers, and also a time for articles and discussions on education. The dream of an ideal educational system has found expression in numerous forms—from fiction to inspiring real life stories; from policy documents, to pockets of practice. In all these the focus has been on the teacher as the key. In India this is once again reiterated in the New Education Policy 2020 which states that: The teacher must be at the centre of the fundamental reforms in the education system. The new education policy must help re-establish teachers, at all levels, as the most respected and essential members of our society, because they truly shape our next generation of citizens.  

The NEP 2020 also  adds that: A good education institution is one in which every student feels welcomed and cared for, where a safe and stimulating learning environment exists, where a wide range of learning experiences are offered, and where good physical infrastructure and appropriate resources conducive to learning are available to all students.

This vision is not new. Over years, and generations, educators have imagined such an educational system. It was the same vision that, a hundred years ago, drove a young teacher in Gujarat to become of the great educationists of our times.  This was Gijubhai Badheka.

As he experimented with new approaches and methods of eduaction, Gijubhai closely observed the responses of the children and noted these down. He also realised that his experiments with children would be effective only if teachers and parents were to understand and apply the same in their dealings with children.  All his experiments, observations, notings, and vision for a different kind of education culminated in the book titled Divaswapna (Daydream). First published in 1931, Divaswapna is a fictional story of a teacher Laxmishankar, which has close parallels with Gijubhai’s own experiments in education.

The story is set in a time when the British were ruling India. Education was bound by a prescribed curriculum, belief in corporal punishment, and supervised by white Education Officers.  But in every situation, there are a few outliers, and Laxmishankar was one of them. Divaswapna journals the young teacher’s experiences in his own words.

Laxmishankar a young and idealistic teacher with very different ideas about what good education can be, approaches the British Education Officer for an opportunity to teach in a school and put some of his theories into practise. 

The Education officer at first laughs at him, but then reluctantly gives him permission to teach class 4 for one year. But with the condition that at the end of the year the students would take the same examination as the rest, and show good results.

Laxmishankar takes up challenge. Armed with all his theories and academic reading he enters class 4. He is shocked to finds that it is like a fish market—with rowdy students screaming, running around and fighting. He realises that to make his daydream into a reality he would have to find different ways to reach the hearts of the students.

The next day he starts by telling them a story. The class becomes quiet and attentive. In fact they are reluctant to go home. The stories continue for the next ten days. When he is reprimanded for this, and for not following the curriculum he explains: I am teaching them orderly behaviour through story sessions. They are being motivated. I am exposing them to literature and linguistic skills.  

This initiation leads the students to want read, they begin to perform the stories, and share them with other students. Laxmishankar sets up a small class library. Students who have never read anything other than their textbook, are curious and interested.

Laxmishankar begins to use games as a way to instil the concept of rules, discipline and team work. 

His bigger challenge comes when he has to convince parents to send their children to school in clean clothes, with neat hair and clipped nails. Both educational authorities and parents deride him saying that personal hygiene was none of his business. But Laxmishankar felt that the first lesson to be learnt was neatness, cleanliness, and

Lakshmishankar is a teacher with passion, ideals and zeal to try something different. But he faces innumerable challenges from all quarters. All the while he has to face the derision and challenges from all quarters. Not just in handling the students and other teachers, but equally in meeting the expectations of the parents. “I had believed that giving a talk and a little explanation to parents would suffice. But the parents here know only one thing. “Teach the boys” they say. They don’t have time even to listen to anything else and they don’t understand either.”

His colleagues look upon him as a misguided individual. “My colleagues the teachers have no faith in me. They look down upon me as an out and out impractical person. Maybe I am rather. Besides I have no experience. But I have no faith in their beliefs and methods of teaching. They annoy me. …The other teachers say that I am spoiling the boys by overindulgence; they complain that I tell the boys stories only and don’t teach them, that I make them miss their classes by taking them out for games.

I am sure mine is the right approach. We shall see. These games and stories are, to my mind, half their education.I will have to bear in mind that my task is going to be difficult, and I should not lose sight of this.

The higher authorities want quick results. The Education Officer has now become rather impatient. He has his own problems. He has to contend with his superiors and opponents. He wants to share the glory and therefore want results but he wants them quickly.  He has his limitations in helping me.

Undaunted, Laxmishankar continues with these experiments for the first three months. In the third month, he starts looking at the prescribed syllabus. Knowing that the students would have to pass exams in all the subjects, Laxmishankar adopts innovative methods like dictation from storybooks to develop language skills; history through stories; spontaneous play-acting instead of rote learning and recitation; grammar through word games; language through riddles and puzzles; geography and nature study through field trips and outings.

As the year goes on, Laxmishankar continues to try new approaches to teaching different subjects. His students do well in the terminal exams. Some of the teachers too begin to see that changes are possible, but most of them are still sceptical. They feel that Laxmishankar can afford to do these experiments because he does not have to worry about money, and that he reads English books from where he gets his ideas, and that he has the time and leisure for such things. Laxmishankar refutes this. Experiments do not succeed merely because one knows English. That is a lame excuse one resorts to when one doesn’t want to work. The main thing is the intuition to innovate. And that comes from the yearning of ones soul for a cause.

At the end of the academic year the Education Officer sees the real change in the students of Class 4. Not just their academic performance but equally their appearance and behaviour. He recommended that the entire class be promoted. But Laxmishankar himself recommends otherwise in the case of a few students. He feels that these had not come up to the mark. It is not that they are unfit for the school. Rather this school is unfit for them. The school is unable to teach them what they have an aptitude for.

It was decided that instead the prize money of Rs 125 which every year was distributed among the students was instead to be used for starting a school library, and would be continued every year. 

At the Annual Day function the Education Officer concluded by saying: When this gentleman came to me last year with the request for permission to make an experiment in Class 4 of the primary school, I considered him to be an impractical fool. I had thought that he was just like many others of his kind and would run away at the first opportunity when put to the test.  So I gave him permission. I had no faith in him. But I must admit he has achieved success in his experiment. He has changed my ideas.

Divaswapna echoes the continuing quest for an educational system of our dreams, while it tells the story of a teacher who dared to do something to make the dream a reality.  Divaswapna the book is also considered to be one of the greatest contributions to pedagogy in the last century.  Originally published in 1931 in Gujarati, the book was later published by the National Book Trust in 11 Indian languages.

–Mamata

Blender-Composting for the Lazy Gardener

Compost as we all know, is decomposed organic matter. Rich in nutrients, it is also known as ‘black gold’ for the vigour and fortification it brings to soil. Compost is the end-result of the natural degradation of biomaterials like garden waste and kitchen waste. Everything in nature will degrade in the natural course. But left to itself, it may take years or even decades. Composting is a way to nudge the process along. Win-win, because it reduces the amount of green and brown waste entering the garbage management system, and because the end-product enriches soil.

During composting, microorganisms—bacteria, fungi etc.–decompose the bio-materials. Among these, bacteria play a large part—they secrete a variety of enzymes which chemically break down organic materials. Worms, bugs, nematodes, and other critters in the soil contribute by physically breaking down those materials, which makes it easier for the bacteria, fungi and others to do their work.

The resultant compost provides the soil nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, along with a host of micronutrients and trace minerals.

Fundamentally, there are two types of composting processes which can go to work. The first is aerobic composting, in which the kind of bacteria at work use air to help speed up the breakdown of materials. The other is anaerobic composting, where the bacteria do not need oxygen to carry out the process.

There are several types of composting methods which can be used, basically classified as:

* Hot Composting: This quickly turns organic material into usable compost, but requires a lot of time and effort. Hot composting involves keeping the temperature at the center of the compost pile elevated, ideally to somewhere between 43-60o Celsius. The pile needs to be kept turned once a week or so to move colder material from the outside of the pile to the inside where it is heated and so breaks down into rich humus more quickly

* Cold Composting: Cold composting essentially means creating a compost pile and leaving nature to do its job. It requires less input from the gardener, but does mean that useable compost can take up to a year to be ready.

* Vermicomposting: Here worms are added to hasten the process of composting.

Popular domestic composting methods include open air composting, bin composting, tumbler composting and vermi-composting.

On and off, I have tried my hand at composting my kitchen waste. But being both lazy and inept, it was a mess each time!

Then I came across a method called trench-composting, which basically involves digging up the area around your plants in a shallow ditch, spreading the cut-up kitchen waste in the ditch, and covering it back with soil. I liked this method. Kind of no-fuss, no-muss; possible even for the ten-thumbed like me; and can be done on a daily basis. But then I ran into a problem. This was possible in the kitchen patch or even in the flower-beds. But what about the lawn? I could obviously not dig trenches there.

Then an idea struck. Why not blend up the kitchen waste and just pour it on the lawn? I reasoned that it would return nutrients to the soil, and would also results in a huge reduction of the kitchen waste going out into the waste management system. I started doing this.

And also decided to check if this idea had struck anyone else. Well, yes. Looks it has! The internet has accounts of what is called Blender-Composting. Several gardeners use it, though I could find no scientific papers on it. As some of the participants in the debates point out, this is not composting at all, since one is only physically crushing the pieces. But since that is the starting point of the composting process, I suppose it will help the bacteria and other micro-organisms do their work faster. Gardening experts say that addition of reasonable amount of bio-waste in this form can only have positive effects on the soil, even though it is not clear how much. However, they do caution against adding too much of this, as the early stages of the composting process could deplete nitrogen from the soil.

I can vouch that there is no smell and the goop, properly diluted and spread, attracts no flies or other insects. But depending on what goes into it, the goop can sometimes be yucky-looking, in fact referred to by some as ‘dragon-vomit’. I can vouch for this also—the day the goop is papaya-based, I definitely have to hide it in the soil in the hedges and bushes!

I am sold—it is either trench composting or blender composting for me!

–Meena

Beware the Kiboko: Hippo Alert!

My grandfather, Gijubhai Badheka went to East Africa as a young man in 1907. Recently I was reading some memoirs of his time in what was then truly an unknown continent. One of the pieces described how he and his friends were chased by a hippo. This led me back to my own stay in Kenya, almost 75 years later, and to remember some other hippo stories.

While in Kenya, we often went camping in the national Parks. In our early days there, whenever we were setting off on safari we were told “Beware of the kiboko!” In a big game park, one would assume that it was the simba or lion that we needed to keep a safe distance from. As it turned out, we were being warned about the hippopotamus!

Till then, the only time that I had seen a hippo was in a circus. I remembered, from years ago, a big ungainly creature lumbering into the ring and being made to open its mouth, revealing huge ugly teeth. Into this wide cavern, its keeper placed a cabbage, whereupon the hippo closed its mouth, turned around and lumbered out of the ring. End of hippo act!

To be told, that in the wild, the vegetarian hippo, if disturbed, could be more dangerous than the big carnivores was somewhat hard to believe. More interesting was to also discover many fascinating facts about this animal.

The word hippopotamus comes from Ancient Greek, and loosely translates as “river horse.” Indeed this creature spends most of its time in water in rivers or lakes, keeping its massive body cool under the hot African sun. Although a hippo can hold its breath for up to five minutes, it must also come up for air. Its eyes and nostrils are located high on the head allowing it to see and breathe as soon as its head rises above the water. Just as breathing and blinking are automatic actions for us humans, a hippo subconsciously, and regularly, surfaces for taking a breath even while staying fast asleep.

Although these mammals spend a considerable amount of time underwater, and even give birth underwater, hippos cannot really swim! Instead they simply walk or run along the riverbed, pushing up periodically through the water for air.

One of the main reasons hippos spend so much time submerged underwater is to prevent their skin from drying out and cracking under the hot sun. They also love wallow in the mud which provides a protective and cooling layer over their sensitive skin. They even secrete their own sun screen lotion, moisturizer and germicide—an acidic substance that turns red when exposed to the sun. This has given rise to the myth that hippos sweat blood.

Hippos are huge—among the largest land animals on the planet after the African elephant and rhino! Male hippos can weigh up to 3,200 kg and a baby hippo can weigh up to 50 kg at birth. And like the elephant and rhino hippos are vegetarian. Hippos feed mainly on grass; but considering their enormous size, a hippo’s food intake is relatively low—between 30 and 50 kg per night. For this, while they spend the day in water, they come on to land at sunset, walking up to 10 km a night as they graze on grass. 

Hippos and their habits play an important role in the ecosystem. On land, their grazing keeps the short grasses trimmed, and the swath cut by their huge bodies creates a trail that other animals also use. As they walk under water they stir up the mud, and as they defecate in water their dung provides microorganisms that are an important component of the aquatic food chain. 

Hippos are celebrated and revered in Africa, and feature prominently in African folklore. There are several folktales about why the hippo has its distinctive features. One of these is a delightful tale from South Africa that sums up all the characteristics of the Kiboko.

Long long ago in the dry and dusty plain Kiboko sat on the bank of the river under the blazing sun. Kiboko had never been in water before. Like the rest of his kind, he lived on land and ate grass. This was what the great mountain spirit Ngai had ordained. As he looked at the fish swimming in the cool water, he thought how wonderful it would be to like them. He thought, “Why don’t I ask the great spirit Ngai?” So Kiboko walked and waddled and lumbered and plodded all the way to meet the Great Spirit. At last he reached, and begged for a chance to live in rivers and streams.

The great Ngai was angry. “The river is no place for a huge fellow like you. You would eat all my little fishes!”

“No, no” promised Kiboko. I will continue to eat grass. And I will open my mouth wide whenever you ask, to show you that I have not eaten even a little fish. I will even stir up the water with my tail so that you can see that I have not hidden any fish bones.”

“Well” conceded Ngai, “you may live in the water, but…you must come out of the water every night so that you do not eat any fish at night, and you will eat only grass that grows on land”.

Kiboko agreed to all the conditions. He was so happy! He ran all the way back and jumped straight into the river with a mighty splash! But he forgot that he was not a fish; he could not swim! He sank straight to the bottom. He never learned to swim, but he learned to hold his breath, and to run along the bottom. This he does to this day. He also wags his little tail and stirs up the silt, to show that he has not hidden any fish bones. And every now and then he surfaces and opens his mouth wide as if to say “Look Ngai, no fishes!”

The seemingly benign hippo can be surprisingly aggressive, when its ‘safety zone’ is threatened. This may happen when humans visit rivers to collect water, wash clothes or bathe. With growing human encroachment into wilderness areas, this leads to human-hippo conflict which could lead to fatalities. But today hippos are under threat from Increasing human encroachment that is leading to their habitat loss; they are also hunted for their skin and teeth. The hippopotamus once ranged from the Nile Delta to the Cape, but now is mostly confined to protected areas. Currently, the species is listed as “Vulnerable” by the IUCN. As with all other species, the hippo too struggles for survival amidst the humans.

While Ogden Nash once captured the humour in the mutual perceptions, sadly today we look like the biggest threat to the hippo.

Behold the hippopotamus!
We laugh at how he looks to us.
And yet in moments dank and grim
I wonder how we look to him.

–Mamata

Telling Stories on Cloth: Patachitra

Patachitra, from ‘patta’ meaning cloth, and ‘chitra’ meaning picture, is an art form of East India, which tells stories on cloth. Believed to have originated in the 12th century in Odisha, Patachitra traditionally depicts stories of Krishna. So what better way to mark Janmashtami than to talk of Patachitra!

The art probably originated around the Puri Jagannath temple, serving both ritual uses and as souvenirs for devotees visiting the temple.  The pieces depict Lord Jagannath and the other deities of the Puri temple—Subhadra and Bhalabhadra, and temple activities. These are called Badhia paintings. Other themes include the exploits of Krishna as a child (Krishna Leela); Dashavatara (the ten incarnations of Krishna); and scenes from the Geeta Govinda. Some Patachitras are centred on Ganesha, usually depicting him with five heads (Panchamukhi). There are also Ramayana-themed ones, as well as those which are based on Lord Shiva and the stories about him. The art-form is also well-developed in West Bengal with several schools of Patachitra. Here, the Goddess Durga is a very popular theme, along with other mythological tales and folktales.

The Patachitra is not just a painting to be put up and worshipped or admired (or both!). Especially in Bengal, it is often a prop used by itinerant story-tellers called patuas. Some of these paintings are made up of several panels which are kept rolled up. The story teller unfolds the cloth to progress the story, accompanied by songs and verses which narrate the events depicted—the original moving pictures! Such paintings and story-telling are not confined to religious or mythological tales, but extends to contemporary news, juicy scandals, and even messaging for social change!

The paintings are made on strips of cotton cloth prepared by coating the clothing with a mixture of chalk and a special gum made from tamarind seeds. The coating is rubbed using two different kinds of stones to smoothen it. After this, it is dried before the artist starts work. The process results in a leathery surface.

There are specific rules that all Patachitra paintings follow. For instance, paintings are enclosed in borders decorated with flowers and other motifs. Krishna is always painted in blue, while light pink, purple or brown are used to paint Gopis. There are usually no landscapes, distant views or perspectives. Only natural colours—vegetable dyes or mineral colours–are used in Patachitra. The luminescent white comes from ground conch shells.

The master-craftsmen are so skilled that they do not draw outlines of the figures and motifs with pencil or charcoal. They directly paint it on the cloth using fine brushes. After this, the colours are filled in. A single panel may take 5-10 days, while a more elaborate work may take months.

Contemporary artists are now adapting the style to make new products, from saris to bags to decorative items, which can be commercially viable At the forefront of keeping the art form alive is the heritage village of  Raghurajpur in Odisha. About 160 families here practice this art, and even the younger generation, many professionally qualified, follow the tradition and continue to paint.

May their tribe increase!

–Meena

The Montessori Touch

Source: ageofmontessori.org

What do a young Jewish girl and her diary; and a young man and his online encyclopaedia have in common? What is the link between the Google Guys, one of the richest men in the world, and a Nobel Prize winning writer?

It is the name Maria Montessori!

All these renowned names, spanning different periods of time, began their education in a Montessori pre-school. And all of them attribute a large part of who they are, and what they achieved, to the strong roots of the philosophy and practice of the Montessori system of education.

Anne Frank is synonymous with her Diary. The young Jewish girl who penned her experiences and thoughts of two years of hiding from the Nazis in an attic in Amsterdam, died in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945. She was only 15 years old. Her diary remains one of the most poignant pieces of literature from World War II. It is in this diary that Anne recorded how her early education began. I started right away at the Montessori nursery school. I stayed there until I was six, at which time I started 1st grade (Montessori elementary). …My parents never worry about report cards, good or bad. As long as I am healthy and happy and don’t talk back too much they are satisfied. (But) I do not want to be a bad student. …I was supposed to stay in the seventh grade at the Montessori School, but Jewish children were required to go to Jewish schools…”

As a child Anne was always asking questions, and her father felt that the Montessori approach would give enough room for her curious mind to blossom.  She attended the 6th Montessori School of Amsterdam from age 3 to 11. She then attended a year at the Montessori Lyceum (high school) until German authorities prohibited Jewish children from attending school with Christian children. Anne spent the rest of her short life in hiding, where the diary with the red checked cover that her father gave her, became her special secret. Maria Montessori once said: A child without a secret becomes and adult without a personality. Sadly Anne never attained adulthood, but her diary with her attention to detail, her observations and her honesty bears proof of her Montessori education.

What is the first place to check when one is looking for information? Wikipedia! The brain behind the online encyclopaedia is Jimmy Wales. Another curious child, Jimmy used to spend hours perusing the physical tomes of the Britannicas and World Book Encyclopaedias. This passion bloomed into Wikipedia. Jimmy credits his ability to think outside the box to the Montessori method that his school followed. Jimmy was a  true example of an Absorbent Mind that Maria Montessori wrote about in her book of the same title.

Julia Child is known as the woman who popularised French cooking in America with her famous cookbook and her funny TV cookery shows. Julia Child worked at diverse occupations from being a copywriter, to being a research assistant for Secret Intelligence, until she discovered her passion for cooking. 

Julia’s life and work was strongly influenced by her Montessori education. She always claimed that Montessori learning taught her to love working with her hands. Equally important was Montessori’s approach to making mistakes.  “[Maria] Montessori wanted kids to develop ‘a friendly relationship to error,’ – to understand that mistakes are a normal part of learning, and that to learn, you must be willing to make mistakes, and then to move forward.” 

Julia Child’s early Montessori experiences led her to endorse that involving children in the process of cooking did much more than teach them to cook. “Influenced, perhaps, by my early experience at a Montessori school, and surely by living in a clan full of carvers, painters, carpenters, and cooks of all ages, I am all for encouraging children to work productively with their hands. They learn to handle and care for equipment with respect… The small rituals, like the clean hands and clean apron before setting to work; the precision of gesture, like levelling off a cupful of flour; the charm of improvisation and making something new; the pride of mastery; and the gratification of offering something one has made — these have such value to a child. And where are they so easily to be obtained as in cooking?

If using her hands and learning from mistakes was Montessori’s lifelong lesson for Julia Child, it was the spirit of exploration that marked Montessori’s influence on Will Wright. Wright, one of the most famous video game designers in history, is best known for SimCity. His games rarely conclude with The End, rather they let the player tinker towards perfection, with each player defining that perfection.

Wright always claimed that his schooling until sixth grade in a Montessori school “was the high point of my education”. As he wrote “Montessori taught me the joy of discovery. It showed you can become interested in pretty complex theories, like Pythagorean theory, say, by playing with blocks. It’s all about learning on your terms, rather than a teacher explaining stuff to you. SimCity comes right out of Montessori — if you give people this model for building cities, they will abstract from it principles of urban design.”

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, best known for his book One Hundred Years of Solitude won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1982, “for his novels and short stories, in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent’s life and conflicts.”

As a child he struggled to read, but when he joined a Montessori school his language skills were transformed by the phonetic way of learning. Marquez credited many of his successes to the Montessori form of education. As he said “I do not believe there is a method better than Montessori for making children sensitive to the beauties of the world and awakening their curiosity regarding the secrets of life.”

Montessori acknowledged that the only valid impulse to learn is self-motivation itself. She believed that children possess a natural motivation to learn and absorb knowledge without effort if given the right kind of activities, at the right time of their development.

Perhaps the most famous examples of the success of this approach is the story of Larry Page and Sergei Brin the co-founders of Google. Both have attributed their Montessori education as the foundation of their future professional life. We both went to Montessori school, and I think it was part of that training of not following rules and orders, being self-motivated, questioning what’s going on in the world, and doing things a little bit different that contributed to our success. They specifically credit the curriculum of self-directed learning where students follow their interests and decide for themselves what they want to learn that inspires students to become life-long learners with a love of education.

And last, but certainly not the least, one of the world’s richest men, Jeff Bezos could leap into space from a strong Montessori launch pad. He remembers: I went to Montessori school [for] about a year and a half, starting probably at age 2 1/2. … I have these very clear visual images of tracing out letters on sandpaper. I remember having a little special board that you can use to practice tying your shoes.

His mother remembers: He would get so engrossed in his activities as a Montessori pre-schooler that his teachers would literally have to pick him up out of his chair to go to the next task.

Bezos who started his amazing journey from a Montessori pre-school has come full circle by launching a $2 billion project called Day 1 Families that aims to bring quality early education to those who may not otherwise have access to it through supporting Montessori pre-schools in minority and low-income communities in America.

31 August marks the 151st birth anniversary of Maria Montessori. A century and a half later, her path-breaking philosophy and approach to education remain as relevant, if not more. The Montessori legacy lives on through the generations who have experienced the Montessori touch.

–Mamata

Beauty and the Bees

If last week was about boring bees, this week it is about beautiful bees—bees in art, bees and art.

Bees have been depicted in art through the ages, the oldest known been a Spanish cave painting dating back 15,000 years. These insects also have great symbolic value—variously standing for peaceful coexistence, teamwork, industriousness. In some cultures, they are symbols for fertility and healing. In Hindu mythology, Kamadev’s sugarcane bow is strung with a row of bees, thus symbolizing the sting of love.

One of the most popular works depicting bees has to be the Fontana delle Api, or Fountain of Bees in Rome. In a city replete with fountains, this one stands out for its elegance and creativity. Built in 1644, it prominently features bees because it was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII, who belonged to the Barberini family, whose symbol was the bee. The 3-bee symbol of the family was also immortalized with St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, in the Baldacchino sculpture.

Fountain of Bees
Fountain of Bees, Rome

Napoleon did his part for bees—they were one of his imperial symbols. His red coronation robes were embroidered with gold bees. It was not just the beauty of bees which captured Napoleon’s imagination. He consciously used this symbol as a rejection of the fleur-de-lis, which was the symbol of the previous regime of the Bourbons. His use of bees started a rage, and they were used as decorative symbols on everything, from porcelain to textiles.

Coming to contemporary arts, in something called bee sculpture, artist Tomas Libertiny collaborates with bees and bee keepers, to re-create famous sculptures in beeswax. He makes 3-D replicas of the originals—from the Nefertiti bust to Micaheangelo’s sculptures—and creates a wire frame of the same shape. He gives these frames to beekeepers, who encourage bees to build their hives on these. In a matter of months (or years if it is a large and complex structure), the bees build in the desired shape. Not a simple process though—Libertiny compares it to doing bonsai, with the constant need for adjusting, trimming and building the growth in the desired shape. The result is a beautiful and very durable piece of art made of beeswax.

The Hive is a huge immersive exhibit at the Kew Gardens. It is a huge structure made of metal. It reflects the activity of a real bee hive in the Kew. An accelerometer (a device which detects vibrations) is placed in the real hive. It picks up the vibrations of the bees and transmits them to the metal hive in real time. There are 1000 LED lights in the structure, which light up in tandem with these vibrations. There are also recorded sounds from hives to add an audio dimension. It is the closet a human can safely get to being in a beehive!

Then there are artists for bees. The Good of the Hive initiative of artist Mathew Willey has made it a mission to depict 50,000 bees in murals and installations across the world, towards raising awareness of the role of bees in our lives, and the threats they face. The number 50,000 is chosen because that that is the number of bees which can sustain a healthy colony. Louis Masai Michel is another artist with a similar mission.

On the one hand there are humans celebrating bees in art. On the other, there are bees exhibiting a developed sense of art recognition! There is a fascinating experiment concerning bees and art conducted by scientists in Australia. Bees were shown 8 paintings, four by the French artist Claude Monet, and four by Australian Indigenous artist Noŋgirrŋa Marawili. The scientists placed a small blue dot at the centre of each painting. The ones on the painting by Monet had a bitter quinine drop in it. The ones by Marawili had a drop of sugar solution. After letting the bees interact with these paintings for some time, the scientists replaced the paintings with two new paintings which the bees had not seen, one by Monet and one by Marawili. The bees made a beeline for the painting by Marawili! In other words, they were able to distinguish the styles of the two artists, and knew which painting would yield the sugar!

Long live bees!

–Meena