Ode to the Saree

It is the day of tributes and nationalistic fervour. The news is replete IMG_20190815_101428069.jpgwith people sharing thoughts and feelings about what India means to them. This is my small paean to what, for me, represents the essence of India. It is an ode to the saree!

I wore my first formal saree when I was 16 years old. I still remember it—a magenta-pink Venkatagiri brought by my friend’s mother from Chennai. And I fell in love with sarees. Not just the finished draped version but simply this seemingly endless flow of fabric, with its mind-blowing variety of textures, weaves, designs, and colours. It was the start of an enchanting journey of discovery—learning, over the years, about the unique features of sarees from every part of India. Luckily for me it was the period of rediscovery of the rich heritage of our textiles which manifested in national handloom exhibitions where weavers displayed their wondrous skills. Oh the excitement of adding, one by one, traditional sarees of different states—the stunning kanjeevarams; the intricate ikats; the rustling golden tussars; the vibrant bandhanis and patolas; the summery kotas, and the sturdy handlooms. With every piece was the attempt to know more about the place and people who wove the masterpieces, the dyes and the motifs, the warp and the weft. It was an exploration of my country—its geography and history, culture and tradition, and craft and craftsmanship.

I was already part of a committed saree-wearing cadre when I started my career as an environmental educator. To my delight, one of the early statements by my Director Kartikeya Sarabhai, beautifully summed up the very special features of the saree. “The saree is a designed piece of clothing worn all over India. Over the years very beautiful designs, patterns and textures have been printed and woven into the Indian saree and yet, several thousand years of Indian history has not tried to stitch the saree. It is worn in many ways and fits all sizes. It is equally good for working, dressing up or sleeping in. The final effect is the combined effort of the person who designs the cloth and the person who wears it—of the designer and the user. This is a very different concept from that of designing, say, a well-stitched dress. The garment either fits or doesn’t fit, and where it fits, leaves very little room for the wearer to be innovative in its use.”

I have worn a saree every day of my working life. I have looked forward to choosing the one for the day, and it has become the symbol of my identity. I have worn my saree at home and at work; while travelling and sleeping; rain and shine. I have experienced the joys of putting together my own collection of the multitude of woven flavours of this wonderful country, and revelling in the rich bequest that is ours to savour and share

I am saddened at the ebbing of the saree today. Appalled that it has been reduced to a hashtag; that sarees have become exclusive “designer outfits” with tips on outre ways of draping a saree or, even worse, the stitched saree! I am amused when people think I am an ‘amma from the days of yore’ when I am the only one in a large gathering wearing a saree.  I am disturbed that in our race for globalisation and international Brands, we seem to be losing a crucial common thread of identity.

For me the saree represents the essential spirit of my country—the heritage and the history; the multiplicity and the uniqueness; the weaving of warp and weft to create a strong resilient fabric. It represents a unique common identity which subsumes the incredible diversity of textures and motifs. It represents the magic of being a seamless length of fabric that takes on the individual character of its wearer.

I may not wear my patriotism on my sleeve, but every time I wear my saree I celebrate the wonder that is India!

–Mamata

Vikram Sarabhai Centenary

header_leftA remarkable man was born a hundred years ago in our country. He dared to dream impossible things and proceeded to make them possible. I would have thought the country would have been abuzz this year, with multitudes of events to remind the younger generation of his achievements in myriad fields from space science, to management, to atomic energy, to textile research, to education. That the institutions he had set up would not just celebrate the moment but also introspect and re-dedicate themselves to his principles.

ISRO is the only one which seems to be doing it at any scale. Chandrayaan went up, and all those associated with ISRO did remember and thank him. The mission’s lander is appropriately called Vikram. They are also launching a year-long calendar of programs for schools; awards for journalists in space science, technology and research; releasing a commemorative coin, a coffee table book, a space education van, etc.

But what is really disappointing for me is that his contribution to management and institution building is not being celebrated. Everyone acknowledges that his greatest achievements were probably in institution building. ISRO, IIM, PRL are just some of the prominent institutions which stand testimony to this in the public eye, but ‘Sarabhai was a prolific institution builder. He set up an institution every year beginning from 1947 till his death in 1971. He left his imprint in fields as diverse as space technology and performing arts.’

That makes it about 2 dozen institutions!!

There are a few old papers on his approach to institution-building. But I would have thought it should be seriously taught in management schools; there should be training programs for all levels of managers based on his thinking; that academics would delve into it and write papers by the dozens; that seminars and workshops would be held. In this year at least! But I haven’t heard of any such.

Indian organizations wither and die (if not physically, in spirit and achievements), within decades of their birth. Is it not important for managers in both the public and private sectors to understand how institutions that Dr.Sarabhai built have been able to retain the spirit and reaching the heights—literally the moon—close to five decades after his passing away? Dr.Sarabhai straddled the worlds of industry, government, academia and research, and used the same approach to all. So his approach to institution building should have messages for every manager.

Well, I owe a lot to his approach to institution building. So I thought to put together something as my tiny tribute. (The following are quotes majorly from two sources, one whose authorship it has not been possible to find. Since this is not an academic paper, I have taken liberty to quote from it.).

On Institutional Culture:

‘Trust was an important element of both personal and organizational relationship’.

‘The operating culture of (his) institutions were such that administration played a supportive role and helped the institutional growth through implementation of research programmes. This is unlike many organizations, especially educational, research, governmental, and public sector organizations, where the tail wags the dog.

He believed that an institution based on caring for people gave assurance to individuals to innovate and to respond to situations creatively.

Sarabhai was opposed to rigid controls and often wrote and spoke against controls which, he believed, “damaged innovative behaviour and consequently the growth of new institutions.”

On Building People to Build Institutions:

‘Sarabhai’s institution building philosophy was centered around development of individuals. For him people were more important than buildings. He created and nurtured various institutions through developing and nurturing young individuals. He gave trust, freedom of work and autonomy and showed care and concern to them in return he received creativity and commitment, which ultimately strengthened the institutional goals’.

On Institutional Leadership:

‘Vikram Sarabhai was very particular in selecting the head of an institution. The chief executive can make or mar the institutional fabric.’

In selecting a head of institution, it was very important to Dr. Sarabhai to see ‘how suitable he is as a human being’.

‘According to Sarabhai, a basic requirement of an institutional leader is the ability to provide the appropriate operating culture which would be created by the attitudes and assumptions of its people rather than by the formal organizational structure’.

On Staffing A New Institution:

‘In selecting researchers for ATIRA, Sarabhai insisted on recruiting fresh candidates with knowledge of scientific methodology and preferred those without previous experience. This was a deliberate move, for he believed that taking away experienced and trained people from universities and research institutions would create a vacuum which would weaken them.’

Respect for Individuals:

He showed tremendous respect to each individual he, met. Parikh (1972, p44) described this “Many times I have seen Dr, Sarabhai patiently listening to people who would go on with long incoherent monologues which seemed to convey nothing. Yet, In the end, Dr. Sarabhai would summarise the monologue, giving it a very constructive interpretation and meaning. I am told that when asked why he suffered fools so lightly, Dr. Sarabhai had replied that in a vast country like India where people come from diverse backgrounds not everyone has had a privileged upbringing. One should, therefore, allow for this in listening to people and try to see behind the words what they are trying to say.”

Summing up the Spirit:

And finally, in his own words: ‘There is no leader and there is no led. A leader, if one chooses to identify one, has to be a cultivator rather than a manufacturer. He has to provide the soil and the overall climate and the environment in which the seed can grow. One wants permissive individuals who do not have a compelling need to reassure themselves that they are leaders through issuing instructions to others; rather they set an example through their own creativity, Love of nature and dedication to what one may call the ‘scientific method.’ These are the leaders we need in the field of education and research’.

References:

Institution building: Ganesh S.R., Joshi P. (1985) Lessons from Dr. Vikram Sarabhai’s leadership. Vikalpa. Vol. 10, No 4.

https://shodhganga.inflibnet.ac.in/bitstream/10603/46629/9/09_chapter%204.pdf

–Meena

 

Two Sides of the Mirror

Time was, not so long ago, when photo albums were treasured family heirlooms.  Looking at old photos was one of the shared activities at a family get-together, with the elders pleasurably sinking into nostalgia, and youngsters playing guessing games at identifying the people in the pictures. There was a special excitement in flipping through the pages and sharing a laugh at “how much hair dear uncle had”, as compared with his bald pate today; or comparing the picture of the slim young girl with the comfortably chubby aunt today!

Photographs recorded the phases of life—the baby pictures taken by fond parents to record milestones; the awkward and self-conscious pictures of the gawky teenage years; the fancy wedding photo album; and the next cycle of young parents, their babies and doting grandparents.

There was a certain charm in seeing these transitions through the captured images. There was also a certain ceremony attached to the process of documenting. In the early years, this took the form of special posed pictures taken by professional photographers. With cameras becoming more user-friendly and available, it brought the process closer to home, but there was still the waiting period between the giving of the film for developing and getting back the prints and the negatives to discover what they revealed! Over time the technology and format of film, cameras and processing changed. The Polaroid camera was magic in a box—click, and voila the photo appears. …And then came the mobile phones with the ease of capturing images in an instant; along with all the many many Apps to do what you wish with the image. And everyone went crazy…every second of every day to be not only recorded, but immediately shared. Followed by the anxiety of how many views and how many likes. A deluge of images, sweeping across the screen of life, fleeting, momentary and, alas not as magical as turning the pages of an album to peruse history.

And now the new rage—FaceApp! The wand that reveals what you will look like when you are OLD! Celebrities across the world are posting pictures of what technology turns them into, projecting into the future. Of course every one of them looks suitably dignified and gracefully old, and feels reassured that “I am going to age well.”

Even more thought provoking is the news that this may also be used for not-as-legit facial recognition purposes. This makes me wonder. One the one hand, for millions of millennials, self-esteem and self- image hinge on being, at all times, visible on social media and “liked”. Then how can this be selective?

I am totally flummoxed by this. Here is a generation of self-obsessed young people living in an age where Image matters most. Here are the celebrities who spend millions on “looking young”. Here are the people who believe that life is in the here and now. Here is the technology which allows you to Photoshop away every trace of wrinkle or sagging skin, every blemish or hint of the passage of time. And yet these same people are clambering on the new high of “looking old.” Sadly, if only they stopped to think, life is more complex than an App, and who can tell what traces the ravages of time and experience will leave on our visage.

As for me, I would rather browse through the passage of time from my photo albums, than fast forward to the future!

–Mamata

ARE STUDENTS LEARNING?

The New Education Policy has gone through long debate and discussion. It is time to put it into action.  But the crucial issue is how will all the lofty ideas be translated into better learning?

It is essential to worry about this. Because what students seem to be learning in government schools today, or rather what they are not learning, is a matter of grave concern. This may seem to be a sweeping statement to make, but many of those concerned with school education would agree. A large number of studies, including the well-respected PROBE reports endorse this.

But sometimes, large numbers, averaged statistics, and thick, academic reports don’t really communicate effectively. So let us look at one small example. A test was administered to a group of 457 youth, of whom 7 were below SSC, 104 were SSC Pass, and the remaining were Inter Pass, Diploma, Graduates etc. Meaning, 346 of the candidates were at least Inter or Std 12 pass. The test consisted of a few basic math and science questions administered in the mother tongue, and a middle-school level comprehension passage also administered in the mother tongue. The test did not include anything beyond Std 8 competencies, and in fact, many of the questions should theoretically have been answered correctly by Std 4 students.

The questions and results are summarized below:

Observations for Math and Science Competencies

 

Question Level Question % of Students who have answered correctly
Math
1 What is the addition of the following numbers:    6578 + 9342 91.40
1 Multiply the following:  782 x 421 68.40
2 Solve 4 × 5 ÷ 2 + 7 =? 71.90
2 If you have got 763/800, what is your percentage? 63.00
2 What is the average of Average of 98 and 62? 63.20
2 You have Rs. 219. You give 2/3 to your brother. How much money are you left with? 52.90
3 Identify the ‘right angle’ triangle 84.00
3 What is the next number in the sequence 1 4 9 16? 51.60
3 What is the next number in this sequence 1 1 2 3 5? 55.10
Science
2 H2O is the chemical name of which common element? 68.90
2 What is the name of the satellite that revolves around Earth? 49.20
2 Approximately, how long does the Earth take to complete one orbit around the Sun? 64.70
3 If you have poor eye sight, you are likely to be suffering from the deficiency of which vitamin? 44.80
3 Name the process used by plants and other organisms to convert light energy into chemical energy? 75.40
Question Level
1 Class III-IV level questions
2 Class V-VI level questions
3 Class VII-VIII level questions

 

Observations for Reading Comprehension

  • Overall 41% of the total youth were able to answer all the questions correctly in Reading Comprehension and get a score of 100%
  • 9% students were not able to answer any question correctly and thus scored ‘0’ in Reading Comprehension

 

Admittedly this was not very scientific test, maybe not on a representative sample. There could many questions about the methodology and process. But to my mind, that still does not excuse the results!

What is wrong with our schools? We are revising curricula and re-writing textbooks; we are training teachers ad infinitum; we are giving grants for everything from school toilets to teaching-learning material. But at the end of the day, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And this pudding doesn’t taste at all right!

Increasing the financial allocation for Education is the first big step. But this is the time to take a serious and hard look at how this money should be spent. Doing more of the same is not going to get us anywhere, because what we are doing is obviously not good enough. There needs to be a National Mission to ensure that our children learn—our future depends on this.

–Meena

Gentle Birdman Leaves Us

Many mornings, sitting in our little garden with our cups of tea, as we watch the birds already busy going about their day’s business, we may spot one that we had not seen before. And before it disappears we say, “Bring Lalsinhbhai’s book and let’s find out what this is.” Lalsinhbhai’s handy bird book is always close at hand. With the help of the beautiful life-like illustrations we open to the description, and always learn so much more than the name of the bird. Written in simple conversational Gujarati, Lalsinhbhai’s bird books are over and above the traditional description of birds. They capture nuances of birds that make them truly our Lifelong Companions, as one of his books is titled.

Lalsinhbhai Raol, passionate nature lover, the birdman of Gujarat, and an inspiration to countless nature lovers, passed away recently. For the Matriarchs, who both stepped into the charmed campus of CEE with relatively little prior exposure to the natural world, he was one of the wonderful guides that gently led us to explore and discover the world of birds.

Lalsinhbhai was then working with CEE on a book series called Introduction to Nature. For many generations, Salim Ali’s book had been the Bible for all birdwatchers. Lalsinhbhai’s series, in Gujarati, not only opened up the fascinating world of birds to non-English speaking audiences, but also opened windows to the birds of Gujarat—starting with the most commonly found birds, to birds of wetlands, of grasslands, and of the forest and its environs. Lalsinhbhai not only translated his long years of bird observation into succinct, interesting descriptions, but also coined appropriate Gujarati names for several of these.

His was a quiet, unobtrusive presence on CEE campus, but whenever you met him, he would always have a gentle word of concern and encouragement, and an exciting bird fact to share.IMG_20190801_110849.jpg

I had the privilege of sharing his great knowledge and passion when he kindly agreed to be the author of NatureScope Birds, one of a series of Teachers’ Manuals that I was editor of. This involved not only putting together a compendium of information about Indian birds in a teacher and student-friendly style, and also linking this with relevant and exciting activities that could be easily done. For me this was a greatly enriching and inspiring collaboration. Even today, I often dip into the book for facts, ideas, and activities with the confidence that every word is accurate and vetted by an expert ornithologist.

Meena has her own special memories of learning from Lalsinhbhai. I had the privilege to work with Lalsinhbhai on developing a proposal for a project of Bird Study for the Visually Challenged almost 30 years ago. It was a unique project, in that its purpose was to make ‘bird watching’ possible without the ‘watching’. Recorded bird sounds were of course an important part; but we also proposed providing tactile experiences such as touch-and-feel albums of feathers; collection of birds’ nests; true-size models of birds, birds’ feet, beaks, eggs; and trips to bird areas to experience the environment, sounds, etc. As always, Lalsinhbhai could empathise with the needs, and gave wonderful insights and ideas. The Ministry of Human Resources accepted the proposal and the team carried out a very successful project in Ahmedabad.

We feel fortunate for having known, and learnt from this gentle soul. May his spirit always soar high with the birds that he so loved.

–Mamata and Meena

 

It’s Not Easy…Being Parents

This piece is continuing Meena’s recent angst about parenting.

Indeed, parents need counselling more than the children. In many ways it seems that children today are more the receptacles of the parents’ own aspirations and, yes, peer pressures. How does the parent participate in conversations which centre around–What school does your child go to; what does she/he excel at; where did you go for your last family holiday; which are the different types of special coaching your child has… and so on. So the child has to live up to the expectations of not only the parents, but the social circles that they move in. And somewhere in all this circle of “well-meaning concern” the child begins to feel inadequate and undeserving, and there starts slow seeping of confidence, which sadly may end in extreme consequences.

At another level is the insidious guilt of the parents—for being so busy with their work and leisure; for delegating a lot of the traditional parenting tasks to external help; for not giving what they feel may be adequate time and attention; for not giving the child “the best that money can buy, after all what are we working so hard for?” This manifests in the over-concern, over indulgence and over coddling by parents; and a sense of birth right to privilege, self-centredness, and “my parents can set it right for me” on the part of the child. This too may have disastrous consequences should the well-planned map of “how we see our life” go awry.

Every generation of parents feels that the times that they live in are the most challenging, and that they require bespoke answers to child raising.

Interestingly, over 80 years ago, my grandfather Gijubhai Badheka, wrote several volumes on the challenges of parenting, with the apt title It Is Not Easy…Being Parents.  Gijubhai was not trained in child psychology; but his deep concern for the welfare of the child led him to observe, reflect, and note his thoughts. He described the dilemmas faced by both parents, as well as by children, and explored possibilities of how these could be handled.

For me, these simple yet profound notings are as fundamental and relevant even today. Sharing a few excerpts, translated by me from the original in Gujarati.

The young boy strenuously clambers up two rungs of the ladder. As he raises his foot to reach the third rung, the father says, “Come down; you are too young to climb ladders. If you fall you will break your bones.”

The young girl carefully wields a knife to chop vegetables or to sharpen a pencil. The mother scolds, “Put down that knife; you will cut yourself.”

The daughter wants to put the pan of dal on the gas stove. Mother says, “You will get scalded.”

The daughter says “Can I carry the glass of water for the guest?” Mother says, “You will spill it.”

The adults are trying to solve a problem. As they discuss the child offers some suggestions. All say, “Now you don’t try to act too big for your boots.”

Every day in innumerable situations we react in this fashion, unknowingly squashing the confidence of our children. Every time it takes up a task, it hears echoes of its parents’ cautionary warnings, and drops it forthwith, overcome by the fear that it will not be able to successfully accomplish the task. If someone asks it to climb up, carry something or use a tool, it may refuse, or if forced to do so, ends up falling or spilling or hurting itself. The child ends up even more ashamed at its own inadequacy to carry out the task.

By corroding our children’s confidence, we truly do make them unable to perform. In some ways our lack of confidence and trust in our children is a reflection of our own lack of confidence.

We need to have the strength to have confidence in our children. Encouraged by that trust, our children will prove themselves more than worthy of what we have bestowed. A child is human, a human striving to grow. We must enable this growth, the blossoming of its personality.

Removed from all the outer trappings of “success,” ultimately what do we, as parents, wish for our children? I think it should be “the confidence and courage to take on life!”

–Mamata

 

Parenting an Instinct? Dangerous Assumption

Sanjeev 15 years old. Son of good friends. Committed suicide a few days before his Std 10 Board exams.

What would lead to a situation where a 15-year old is so defeated by life, or is in such despair that he takes his life?

Madhuri and Amar are wonderful people. They loved their two children and worked hard to give them the best of everything. Madhuri would get up at five every morning to cook breakfast and lunch, before coming to work. Amar would take them to the movies every alternate Sunday. They both worked hard to earn enough to give them the advantages they never got.

But were they good parents? I am not so sure.

Madhuri and Amar had married young—defying their parents to make a runaway match. Sanjeev came along before they knew what was happening. They coped with jobs, insufficient money, newly reconciled relatives, sleepless nights, and a fairly new marriage, as best they could. They couldn’t really draw upon any experienced parents, even if they wanted to.

But it was fairly obvious to many of us standing on the side and looking on, that though they were loving parents, they were not good parents.

Why do we assume that parenting comes naturally? That it is an instinct? That it requires no preparation, no conscious effort?

We have recognized the importance of telling young couples that the health of the mother and child are endangered if the mother is too young and her body too immature. But have we ever told them that the psychological and emotional well-being of the child are in danger if the parents are too immature to bring them up? Have we told the bride’s parents and the groom’s parents this?

We take the trouble to inform new parents what they must feed the child, what the symptoms of various illnesses are, when the infants must have their various shots, etc. But does anyone tell them how they must deal with their children? Give them a glimpse of child psychology and child behaviour?

Yes, my great-aunt had eight children, starting with her first one when she was 15. No. No one gave her lectures on child psychology. And all the children grew up quite well, thank you very much! Yes, true.

But surely the world today is a much more complex place than it was 75 years ago. Or 50 years ago. Or even 15 years ago. Were children then exposed to internet, Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok, and all kinds of things I am not even aware of? Did they live in a world where a percentage point in Std 12 marks made the difference between making it into medicine or not? Did they live in a world where violence and sex were daily fare? Where corruption and cynicism were the order? Where possession or non-possession of branded shoes and jeans, or Facebook pics of exotic holidays, decided whether you belonged or didn’t? Where the family was two young adults who left in the morning and came back late in the evening?

The answer is obvious. We talk of education to cope with change. Then why do we not see that education for parenting is a–maybe the–most crucial part of this education? We know that data analysts need training; carpenters need training; engineers need training…. But we seem to think that we can take on the most important job in life—that of taking responsibility for another human life—without any training or education or preparation or even thought.

The increasing number of cases like Sanjeev’s that one sees reference to in the media clearly indicate that we need such education. But who is provide it? Where? When? How? Indian society must answer these questions. It is no longer enough to say that our traditional structures and family values are so strong that these things will get taken care of. It is obvious that the family and social structures are not being able to cope.

Someone has to act! This kind of education or sensitization hast to reach each and every young person. Reach them at a time when it is needed. Reach them in a way that it makes a difference. Is the Public Health Centre the venue? The anganwadi? The school? The college? TV the medium? Radio? All of these?

Whatever the answer, let us at least ask ourselves the questions. Believe me, a Sanjeev you know may break your heart.

–Meena

 

Effortlessly Antique

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Raghu has a weakness for antiques and the house is a bit overboard on old bric-a-brac, carpets, furniture, etc., which he has been collecting for 30 years now.  He used to scour antique shops, flea markets, craft shops, furniture shops and what not, spending enormous amounts of time. And much more money than we could afford.

But a few days ago, I looked around and wondered why he even made the effort! Just by sheer living and reaching the age of 60ish, even our most mundane belongings are antique!

My wedding saris are over 35 years old.

My own jewellery is 40 years old. But my mother and grandmother both gave me pieces of their jewellery over time. So some of it is close to 65 years old. And a few pieces close to 85 years old.

Raghu has his first watch, which was a hand-me-down from his father–easily 70 years old. Also, his father’s fountain pen, probably of the same vintage.

My silver kodam (water pot), was given to my grandmother from her mother’s time and is probably a century old, give or take.

The idols in the puja cabinet may again be a 100 years old, since some of them belonged to great-grandparents.

We did go out of our way to buy some old pieces of furniture, but some of the most mundane pieces like the kitchen cabinet, by growing old with us, are close to four decades old.

My ever-silver (stainless steel for the non-South Indians) vessels come down from my mother-in-law’s treasured hoard, and may well be over 60 years old.

I have dessert bowls that my parents bought when they were in the UK in 1962.

I have a doll that was bought during the same visit.

Our photographs rest in albums dating back to the ‘50s.

So whether or not you know it, whether you want to be or not, you are an antique collector. And your house is a museum. Because life happens…

–Meena

Hidden Figures, No Longer

This is the week of moon missions—past, present and future. Fifty years since the first man walked on the moon, and very soon, India’s own Chandrayaan-2  will become the first space mission to make a soft landing on the South Pole of the moon. Another ‘first’ worth celebrating is the fact that this moon mission is being led by two women, along with a team that comprised 30 per cent women. While programme director Muthayya Vanitha has nurtured Chandrayaan-2 over the years, the journey will be navigated by mission director Ritu Karidhal. Much to be proud of indeed!

Interestingly, while today women are rightfully making the headlines in science and technology, the scene was very different just 60 years ago. The booIMG_20190718_102016.jpgk titled Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race traces the true story of black female mathematicians who worked as ‘computers’ (then a job description of those who did calculations by hand) at NASA, during the space race. The book describes how the three mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, overcame discrimination and racial segregation, with determination and hard work, to use their brilliant mathematical minds to contribute substantially to some of America’s greatest achievements in space.

The book traces the period from the 1930s through the 1960s in America, when women were still expected to be at home, and faced social, racial and gender discrimination.  Through sheer tenacity, force of will, courage and intellect, these women scientists ensured their stamp on history.

Written by Margot Lee Shetterly, herself an African-American, whose father was a research scientist at NASA during that period. His accounts of the work, and of his co-workers inspired her to research and tell the story of some of these women whose contributions were hardly known, let alone recognised. Shetterly is the founder of The Human Computer Project which is an endeavour to recover the names and accomplishments of all of the women who worked as computers, mathematicians, scientists and engineers at the NACA and NASA from the 1930s through the 1980s.

Just this year, the street outside NASA’s headquarters has been named “Hidden Figures Way”, in belated honour of these three African-American women whose work helped pave the way for future generations at the space agency.

The book Hidden Figures has also been adapted as a film by the same name, which captures the spirit of the book, although not the details of the work environment at the NASA Langley Research Centre, and the lives and experiences of these women.

In the meanwhile we are proud to honour all the women who are, rightfully, no longer simply hidden figures. What all the women (hidden and otherwise) do have in common is the passion that drove them to achieve their dreams.

As Ritu Karidhal has said “Since my childhood, I realised that science was not just a subject for me, it was a passion. When you are passionate about something, it just keeps you going, it doesn’t matter who is in front of you or what obstacles comes.”

Yes, even the sky is not the limit for those who not just dream, and but also dare!

–Mamata

 

Musings on the Moon

The moon is in the news! This week marks 50 years since the first man landed on the moon, and the papers are full of it, including reminiscences of that milestone year–1969. This took me back to my own association with the moon landing. It was my final school year, and we were told by all our teachers that this was a sure bet as a topic for the essay in our English and Hindi Board papers. So we read all that we could find, and mugged up the names and the dates, and the famous quote “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”—the first words by Neil Armstrong as he stepped onto the moon (20 July 1969), and wove them into our creative writing practice.

Those were simple times. Television had still not come to our home. The whole family would avidly listen to the All India Radio news read by familiar comforting voices as they conjured up word pictures of events at home and abroad (the highlight of which was the live broadcast of the Republic Day parade on 26 January). Newspapers in black and white print, and sometimes fuzzy photographs provided the visual support to the audio coverage. We first saw a colour picture of the moon landing in the Span magazine published by the American Cultural Centre.

Being a teenager in Delhi was more about innocent pleasures, than pressures and angst. We had real friends (not virtual) with whom we spent all our time, in school and at each other’s homes, plied with home-cooked food by the much-loved aunties. We had music playing on LPs—Beatles and Woodstock; and the occasional Beat Show, when one of the parents offered to pick us all up and ferry us home for a giggly night-spend together. But we also sated ourselves on the rich offering of music, theatre and art that was easily accessible in Delhi in the 1970s. Books were our BFFs, and sources varied, from the American Library to the hole-in-the-corner neighbourhood lending library.

We were one of the early (now reviled) Khan Market gangs, when ‘hanging out’ meant simply walking around Khan (then not so up-market), and treating ourselves to a coke! Choices were limited, and aspirations were achievable—to join the Administrative Services or become a college lecturer if you were an ‘arts type’, or to become a doctor or engineer. Cut-off marks in lists were in the 60s, and annual fees in the best colleges were still in three figures.

And yet we all got somewhere meaningful, in our own ways, even though by today’s standards we did not “arrive in style” as it were. And we are still there, doing our best to live by our values, in a very different age. It has, after all, been quite an age–half a century–since those days. Since then science and technology have indeed made a giant leap forward, We can be proud that very soon our own moon mission Chandrayaan-2 will be up and away on its way to land on the moon.

Even as we now have the ability to probe the crevices and craters of the distant moon, wonderfully, the moon has not lost its magic for the dreamers and the poets and painters. moon.jpg

We need the moon more than its needs us—look up at the full moon today, and you will know why!

–Mamata