The small screen is definitely dominated by GOT currently. Whether the much-awaited HBO release, or the Indian elections.
GOT-HBO is a debate at some level on the divine right of kings and queens; defining bloodlines and who has the right to inherit; and on the need for popular support even if one thinks one has the ‘divine right’.
Not unlike the Indian elections!
But that is not the substance of my Election Day piece.
What’s in a Word?
It really started with a confusion about the word ‘suffrage’. We learnt it by rote in middle school Civics, as in ‘India has Universal Adult Suffrage.’ Such a strange word. Seems more related to suffering than anything else. But surely that couldn’t be!
The origin of the word is not clear. To quote Merriam Webster dictionary, ‘suffrage has been used since the 14th century to mean “prayer” (especially a prayer requesting divine help or intercession). So how did “suffrage” come to mean “a vote” or “the right to vote”? To answer that, we must look to the word’s Latin ancestor, suffragium, which can be translated as “vote,” “support,” or “prayer.” That term produced descendants in a number of languages, and English picked up its senses of “suffrage” from two different places. We took the “prayer” sense from a Middle French suffragium offspring that emphasized the word’s spiritual aspects, and we elected to adopt the “voting” senses directly from the original Latin.’
Another theory says that the voting meaning comes from the second element frangere, and the notion is “use a broken piece of tile as a ballot”, and seems to go back to the 1530s. The meaning as in “political right to vote” in English is first found in the U.S. Constitution, 1787. (https: //www. etymonline.com/word/suffrage)
Making It Universal
Well, as our Civics books told us, India has Universal Adult Franchise. At 12 years of age, I did not understand how profound that was. Each and every citizen of the country who has crossed a certain age, irrespective of gender, education, caste, creed, religion, properly ownership, can vote. And this has been in force from our very first elections in 1951-52. Many countries of older democratic tradition came to adult suffrage only by slow and painful steps. For instance, in most countries, originally only land owners could vote. Universal suffrage came to South Africa only in 1993. Between the 1890s and 1960s, many state governments in the US insisted that voters pass a literacy tests before they could be allowed to vote—a ruse to exclude African-Americans and other racial minorities from voting.
The most vigorous battles of course were for Women’s Suffrage—fought by women on the streets of many countries including the UK and the US. In most countries, there was a lag of a generation between adult men getting the franchise, and women getting it.
Women in India got this automatically from 1950. But while we had the vote from the very first elections, there were many women who did not exercise this the first time around. Here are some very interesting insights from a piece in the Economic Times: ‘During the creation of the electoral roll, a number of women, nearly all in North India, wanted to be registered not under their own names, but as “wife of..” or “daughter of…”. This was the practice in their communities and when this issue first came up in provincial elections in the 1930s, colonial bureaucrats allowed this. But now the officials of independent India refused. “The introduction of adult franchise is intended to confer on every adult, male or female, the right to participate in the establishment of a fully democratic system of Government,” the government of the United Provinces (now UP) wrote, emphasising the need that “no adult, male or female, is as far as possible left unrecorded in the electoral rolls”.
Something to be said for the strength of conviction of the Chief Election Commissioner!
While most countries—over 100–have 18 as the minimum age for voting, there are some countries who hold the age as 16, and a few at 17. There are a handful of countries who have set the age at above 18. For example, South Korea’s legal voting age is 19 years; Nauru, Taiwan, and Bahrain hold it at 20 years; Oman, Samoa, Tokelau, Tonga, Singapore, Malaysia, Kuwait, Jersey, and Cameroon at 21. The United Arab Emirates has the oldest legal voting age in the world. Citizens can only vote when they attain the age of 25 or older.
Many may not remember, but in India, we started out with a voting age of 21. The Sixty-first Constitutional Amendment brought about in 1988, lowered the voting age from 21 years to 18 years.
Vote, vote thoughtfully, vote with the hope that exercising suffrage reduces suffering!
April 6 was Ugadi—Kannada and Telugu New Year. Occasion for an amazing spread at a friend’s place. Puran poli, payasam, and countless dishes served on a banana leaf.
April 14 is Puthandu–Tamil New Year. Occasion for a spread at my place, with its share of special dishes. The most special being the ‘maanga pachadi.’ Made with mangoes, jaggery, neem flowers, salt, chilli and turmeric, it captures all the tastes: sour, sweet, bitter, salty, chilly. To remind us that the year to come will bring joy, sorrow, losses, gains—the gamut. And that we need to be prepared for all of these, and take them in our stride.
The New Year is fairly arbitrary. There is no particular reason it must fall on Jan 1 or April 14 or any other date, for that matter. Indian New Years are often based on regularly recurring celestial occurrences.
The Tamil New Year (as also several other new years not only in India but even in Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand etc.) follows the Spring Equinox. Now that is a bit confusing, since the Spring Equinox falls on March 22nd! But we celebrate New Year on the Sidereal Equinox, April 14nd because we follow the sidereal year, with the Chitra star as the reference point. I am assured by sources that: ‘Sidereal is calculating the movement of the Sun vis-a-vis Earth by noting the position of certain stars. i.e. with respect to fixed positions on the sky and not just the position of the sun. From around April 14, Chitra star is visible. The Sun is in the Aries (Mesham) zodiac constellation. So currently, tropical Equinox is March 22 and sidereal equinox is April 14.’
I kind of get it (I think!), but not well enough to explain it in my words. Hence the quote. Go figure!
At any rate, how wonderful that we celebrate New Year so many times a year! Vishu, Bihu, Navroj, Gudi Padva, Vikram Samvat…call it what you will, it is an occasion to enjoy the company of family and friends, to do up the house, to make and eat goodies. And the more of such, the merrier. (Except maybe the Financial Year which is a scramble to finish activities and budgets and tally accounts and other unpleasant things!)
And of course, if you have ‘forgotten’ to make resolutions, or forgotten the resolutions you have made, there are so many New Years through the year to make/renew them. No excuses!
A crossword clue led me to this by chance. The clue was ‘word was first coined in the book If I Ran a Zoo by Dr Seuss’. The answer was Nerd! This immediately caught my attention because Dr Seuss is one of my all-time favourite children’s writers. I adored his books when I was young and tried to pass on the love to my children by reading out his quirky verses night after night, twisting our tongues over his wonderful, wacky invented words.
But it is only now I discovered that the word Nerd is thought to have been coined by none other than Dr Seuss in his book If I Ran a Zoo published in 1950! The book is about a boy named Gerald McGrew who, when visiting a zoo, finds that the exotic animals are “not good enough”. He says that if he ran the zoo, he would let all of the current animals free and find new, more bizarre and exotic ones. Among these fantastical animals is a critter called a Nerd! To quote directly: “And then, just to show them, I’ll sail to Ka-Troo/And bring back an It-Kutch, a Preep and a Proo/ A Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker too!”
One year later, in 1951, Newsweek magazine included the word in an article using it to define someone who is a “drip” or a “square”. Today the word ‘nerdy’ is used to describe someone who is not attractive, and awkward or socially embarrassing; or someone who is extremely interested in one subject, especially computers, and knowing a lot of facts.
A ‘word-nerd’ would tell you that when we use Twitter, and Tweet away today, it would be worth remembering that the word was coined by Geoffrey Chaucer, known as the father of English poetry, who died 620 years ago, to describe the continuous chirping of a bird.
And that, well before a search engine was named Yahoo, the Yahoos appeared as legendary creatures in Gulliver’s Travels published in 1726.
Surprisingly a number of words that we tend to believe are so ‘trending’ and ‘21st century’ were coined well over a hundred years ago. These can be attributed to 19th century authors, many of whom were creative wordsmiths–inventing, importing, adapting, and generally messing about with language!
The revered Bard, Shakespeare was one of the first to print words like Obscene and Eventful, as well as much-used phrases such as Bated Breath and Love is Blind.
And for those of us who plodded through Charles Dickens it is he, himself who coined the word Boredom! Writing in the early 1800s Dickens also coined very not-boring words like Abuzz, Flummox, and Devil-May-Care!
And to think that bureaucratic red tape is an affliction of modern times, Wait! The word Red Tape comes from the English practice of using red or pink tape to tie official documents and, as early as 1851 Dickens coined the apt term ‘red tape’ as slang for “the collection or sequence of forms and procedures required to gain bureaucratic approval for something, especially when oppressively complex and time-consuming.” Thus according to the OED, a Red Tape-worm’ is “a person who adheres excessively to official rules and formalities.” Sounds like a breed we all know too well!?
For those of us who describe our calling as ‘Freelance’ writers, we may be interested to learn that in 1820 author Sir Walter Scott used the term free-lance to describe a mercenary soldier, one whose lance (a long spear) was not exclusively in the service of a single master, but was hired out along with its owner to those to needed, and paid for, the service.
Today the lance has replaced by the pen (or its electronic version) but the nature of service remains the same!
It’s that time of year again…the start of the summer holidays and the flurry of planning how to spend the long lazy days ahead. I always recall this excitement of my student days. It was a time when vacations did not mean a hectic schedule of “constructive activity classes and camps” nor travels to exotic destinations. For most of us, the greatest joy was the anticipation of the uninterrupted and unmonitored hours of reading. The great fun was in planning how to get and read as many books as one could—buying (only a few as a summer treat), borrowing from family and friends, and going to libraries.
Books were the best gifts, the best companions and the best friends. Even today, for me books are just that!
Coincidentally, I just read a wonderful piece that beautifully articulates why books are BFF! A letter to children by Swiss-born British contemporary novelist, essayist, and philosopher Alain de Botton.
We wouldn’t need books quite so much if everyone around us understood us well. But they don’t. Even those who love us get us wrong. They tell us who we are but miss things out. They claim to know what we need, but forget to ask us properly first. They can’t understand what we feel — and sometimes, we’re unable to tell them, because we don’t really understand it ourselves. That’s where books come in. They explain us to ourselves and to others, and make us feel less strange, less isolated and less alone. We might have lots of good friends, but even with the best friends in the world, there are things that no one quite gets. That’s the moment to turn to books. They are friends waiting for us any time we want them, and they will always speak honestly to us about what really matters. They are the perfect cure for loneliness. They can be our very closest friends.
The letter is one of 121 letters in a recent publication titled A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Edited by Maria Popova, the book celebrates reading and books through letters by some of today’s most wonderful culture-makers—writers, artists, scientists, entrepreneurs, and philosophers whose character has been shaped by a life of reading. Each letter is accompanied by an illustration by a celebrated illustrator or graphic artist that presents that artist’s visual response to the text. All the pieces and artworks are donated, and the profits from sales are to go to New York Public Library. What a wonderful tribute by book lovers, for book lovers. I look forward to savouring the whole book.
A recent relatively short train journey was an unexpected eye opener. When we were young, travel meant long train journeys. This was a much-planned programme, and one of the highlights of a vacation whether it was the annual summer holiday at the family home, or a Diwali get-together at the home of a close relative.
It was a while since I had travelled by train. I was looking forward to re-experiencing the small things that had characterised those train journeys. One of these was the sampling of ‘speciality snacks’ of different stations. Almost every station traditionally had something sizzling—being deep fried in large cauldrons on the platform, and wrapped steaming hot in old newspaper or banana leaves, depending on the region. Between stations there was a constant stream of hawkers calling out their special wares—from masala peanuts to the fruit of the season to the ubiquitous “chai garam.” Another ritual while starting a journey was the buying of ‘filmy’ magazines and comics from the cluttered AH Wheeler stall—a treat that marked the mood of a textbook-free month.
Buoyed by these memories I embarked on my journey. The first disappointment was to not find a single newspaper vendor around. There was no AH Wheeler stall on our platform, and the one on the platform across was shut even though it was not so early in the morning. So no “time pass” magazines or newspapers. Disappointment two was the food scene. No sizzling pans and oily bhajiyas and puri bhaji. Every station had the same looking stalls with their array of packets of chips, chips, and chips and similar packaged snacks in the standard multiple ‘international’ flavours—ranging from schezwan to barbeque to French onion! Oh yes, they all had a small pile of cold stale bread pakodas and vada pao that no one seemed to want. What a homogenization of the rich, savoury and distinctive flavour of railway platform culture, and a sterile tribute to an age of rip, crunch, munch and throw-away culture.
In the train itself the story repeated itself. I think I learned a great deal of geography simply by looking the passing landscape, with my father pointing out to the different crops that were growing in the fields, the changing appearances of the people and the houses, flashes of birds, animals or trees as the train rushed by. This was supplemented by a railway timetable that listed the names of the stations en route, and comparing the arrival and departure time of our train with what was scheduled as per the time table. Even the names of different stations had their own stories and histories. Till today, I can travel for days by road or rail happily gazing out of the window.
This time it was a bizarre sight to see every person in the compartment—old and young—glued to the small screens of mobile phones as the wonderful 70mm mega screen scenery flew by unnoticed. Children whined and complained of being “bored” when they tired of whatever it was they were watching on their phone, and were presented with yet another packet of chips or frooti drink; not one parent looked up to point to the window and say, “why don’t you look out?” I watched helpless and sad…What a sad waste of opportunities.
Perhaps the ultimate blow came when some of the passengers ordered food online, which was delivered at the notified station. One young woman stopped watching her third movie on her phone only long enough to alight at the next station to pick up her order of Domino’s pizza!
I can never forget mum meticulously grinding whole spices using a mortar and pestle and cooking Meen Kuzhambu (fish curry) in rustic looking manchattis (earthenware). Mum loved cooking fish in clay since it retained nutrition and made the dish flavoursome.
As a tribute to the good old days, one of the first things I did as a married woman and novice cook-in-charge of an entire kitchen for the first time, was to purchase a manchatti. I resolved to carry and pass on mum’s traditional ways. This was my favourite piece of cookware until I was introduced to Longpi.
I first read about Longpi in a blog post. What drew my eyes to the article were beautiful pictures of black earthenware with cane trimming. I was intrigued! I quickly dialled the numbers mentioned in the post and got in touch with Ms. Priscilla Presley. As luck would have it, she was in Bangalore at the time and had an exhibition-stall at the famed Chitrakala Parishath. The very next day, I met Priscilla, who enthusiastically introduced me to the history of Longpi stone pottery.
Traditionally called, “Loree Hamlei”, this pottery was historically used exclusively by the royal and noble families of Manipur. The original name is derived from the village of Longpi in Manipur where the Tangkhul Naga tribe specialise in creating this pottery.
The materials used are called weather rock and serpentinite found in abundance along the river banks of Longpi. The two rocks are crushed together and mixed in the ratio of 5:3, using very little water, and are then kneaded and shaped by artisans with bare hands and placed in moulds. This makes it one of the rarest forms of pottery as it does not use the potter’s wheel. Once it is dried and hardened, the mould is placed in a kiln and fired for about 5 to 7 hours till the temperature reaches 9000 C. It is then removed whilst still hot and rubbed with a local leaf known as Machee(Pasania Pachiphylla).
These vessels get better with age and can easily go from cookware to serveware due to their elegant and simple designs. They can also be popped into the oven and microwave provided they do not have the cane accents. Additionally, they can be easily cleaned using a mild soap solution.
Today as my cooking improves (slowly), I beam joyfully whenever guests ask me about the origin of the black beauties laid out before them.
To learn more about Longpi pottery you can contact Priscilla at 9902370318.
PS: Intrigued when I saw her collection of this pottery, I requested my friend Sudha to do a piece. Meena.
On the occasion Malaria Day (April 25), marked across the world to focus on efforts to rid humanity of this scourge, here is a short sketch of the life of Sir Ronald Ross, who made a life- mission of cracking the puzzle of the spread of malaria.
From: ‘Beyond the Call of Duty’. V. Raghunathan, Veena Prasad. Harper Collins.
Ronald Ross was born in 1857 – the year of Indian Mutiny — in Almora, to Campbell Ross an army officer. When ten, he was sent home to England for his schooling. Ronald was an average student, interested more in composing music and writing poems and plays than in academics. But his father would have none of it and forced Ronald into taking up medical studies, threatening to stop his money if he did not!
Young Ronald respected and trusted his father enough to give up his own ambitions and in 1875 ended up at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, in Smithfield, London to study medicine. This was the oldest hospital in all Europe, established in 1123, and then re-founded by King Henry VII in 1546. The hospital occupies its original grounds even today.
Completing his medical studies, Ronald Ross landed up at Bombay on 23rd October, 1880 to join the Indian Medical Service in the army the following year.
Ronald, thanks to his mediocre performance in the LSA examination, was at first relegated to the Madras Services, considered the least attractive of the three presidencies – Bengal, Bombay and Madras. Then he was posted as acting Medical In-Charge to the 17th Madras Infantry for six months at Vizianagaram. Later Ronald would reminisce about his life in Vizianagaram as being “better than the home life of a professional man in England”.
He soon was sent to the Presidency General Hospital in Calcutta where his early work on mosquitoes took shape. Visitors to Kolkata can still find the beautiful red brick Hospital within a stone’s throw of the Victoria Memorial. Today, it houses the Post Graduate Medical Education and Research Centre. The hospital, built in 1707, was probably the first hospital ever built in Kolkata, and was initially meant only for the British army. It was probably only after 1770 that the hospital was thrown open to the non-Europeans.
Malaria: The Mother of All Killers
In ancient times, it was assumed that malaria spread through bad air; hence the name mal-aria – Italian for bad air. Perhaps malaria and humanity evolved around the same time, somewhere in Africa (fossils of mosquitoes as old as 30 million years old have been found). It probably came to be recognized as a disease as early as 4000 B.C.
Malaria has killed millions over the centuries. Fortuitously, at the turn of the sixteenth century, Peruvian Indians found a cure f in the bitter bark of the Cinchona tree. By mid-seventeenth century the bark reached England, where quinine – the toxic alkaloid extracted from the bark – was used for the benefit of victims suffering from “agues”.
Quinine notwithstanding, as late as the turn of nineteenth century, the British Army in India which at the time had a strength of about 180,000 men, some 75,000 were found to be suffering from malaria. In 1897 alone, an estimated 5 million Indians would succumb to malaria. In 1935, about 1 million Indians died of malaria.
Ronald’s Medical Career in India Unfolds
Following his transfer to the Presidency Hospital, Ronald spent the next seven years in Calcutta, though from here was constantly being shunted to various other places including Calcutta, Bangalore, Burma and the Andaman Islands. His experience in Madras and Calcutta presidencies undoubtedly brought him close to the strange battlefields in which thousands of soldiers suffered at the hands of an enemy called malaria. Ronald an inquisitive and dogged mind which he would bring to bear on solving the mysteries of malaria.
Some kind of association of mosquitoes with certain diseases was not entirely unknown. For instance, only five years before, around 1878, one Patrick Manson had discovered that mosquitoes could be hosting the parasites responsible for filaria. Around 1880, another scientist, Charles Lavarean, had shown that the malaria parasite must in all probability lie outside the human body.
Since both mosquitoes and malaria are abundant where bad air prevailed, mosquito was beginning to emerge as a seriously shortlisted suspect in relation to malaria, and if, as Lavarean had shown, malaria probably had an external carrier, the mosquito was the the prime suspect– and the mosquito-malaria hypothesis was born.
In 1883 Ronald Ross built a small residence at Mahanad village on the Bandel-Burdwan line, and housed a little laboratory there. He would frequent this house every now and then journeying from Calcutta on mosquito-collecting forays to Mahanad and nearby villages, rich in mosquitoes, and peer into the innards of the pests for hours in his makeshift lab, trying to make the link with malaria in some way.
His work was interrupted when he was transferred to Bangalore as Acting Garrison Surgeon. Here he was attached to the well-known St. John’s Hospital. For most, the transfer would have been excuse enough to let the study he had commenced in Calcutta to be disrupted. But not for Ronald Ross, who seems to have found a mission in life – to solve the puzzle that mal air, mosquito and malaria together seemed to present.
In Bangalore, Ronald, still only in his twenties, found his living quarters quite acceptable, though he could hardly relax here, what with the buzz of mosquitoes forever assaulting the eardrums. He noticed too that his own quarters seemed to be a more attractive destination of for these mosquitoes than the adjoining ones. The specific beacon to which the mosquitoes were drawn seemed to be an old drum with some stagnant water, near one of the windows. A closer inspection into the contents of the barrel revealed a mass of tiny grubs writhing in the water.
A very basic demonstration of cause-effect relationship between stagnant water and mosquitoes seems to have revealed itself to Ronald.
Ronald would take the lead from here and work on and on to study the malaria parasite – the grubs – all the way through their life cycle. Such was his diligence and sincerity of purpose that he spent his own money and earned leave to go collecting mosquitoes for his studies, because research into Malaria was not part of his official responsibility!
His laborious exertions through 1880s and 90s, would ultimately prove the precise mosquito-malaria hypothesis, resulting in his winning the Nobel prize in 1911. Ross became Kolkata’s first Nobel Laureate (also the United Kingdom’s first, and the first laureate to be born outside of Europe).
With his growing fame and influence, it was only a matter of time before his admirers set up a prestigious Institution in his honour. Ross Institute and Hospital of Tropical Diseases and Hygiene was set up in London and Ronald Ross appointed its President for life. He also remained the President of the Society of Tropical Medicine.
In fact his fame had spread far and wide. There were few countries with scientific culture where Ronald had not been honoured for his many contributions. His was an extraordinary story of the triumph of perspiration over inspiration.
A recent 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.