Things That Got Our Teachers’ Goats

A few weeks ago, I wrote about something that had our teachers and school management paranoid—so called ‘contraband books’. We had a well-stocked school library, but obviously we had an urge to read something beyond—like comics and M&Bs! Which our teachers and the nuns were determined to stop us from doing. One of the things that used to happen irregularly regularly were surprise checks. Suddenly about four teachers would walk into the classroom, and order us to open our desks and bags, and would riffle through them. Anyone caught with any book other than textbooks or school library books was sent off to the Principal, and had the book confiscated.

I marvel at those days of innocence, considering that as far as I know, no one was ever caught with anything more wicked than an Archie comic. Or yes, a Barbara Cartland. While Georgette Heyers were completely kosher and in fact, in the school library lists, and even M&Bs were tolerated (which meant we were not too nervous if a teacher heard us mention them), for some reason BCs really got the teachers paranoid.

They were also paranoid about what our hair was fastened with. It had to be black ribbons. Rubber bands, even black ones, got them. What to talk of ‘love in Tokyos’!

And socks. They had to be plain white, and NO DESIGN! The faintest sprays of flowers or creepers, even white on white, would get them on a trip.

Skirts had to be just above the knee. Anything shorter and there would be consequences. The girls with more oomph and guts found their way around this. They used to roll up the waist band of the skirt two or even three times, so that the skirts were at a daring mid-thigh. And roll them down, oh so innocently, when any strict teacher happened by.

All this was at Carmel Convent Delhi. But I am sure that readers of my generation would all relate to this.

I thank my teachers for the discipline they dinned into us. For the values they made a part of our lives. For the seriousness with which they taught us. For how earnestly they took their mission of making something of us.


Word Play

I am a logophile. Before you leap to dangerous conclusions, let me explain! I am a lover of words! Words fascinate me, excite me, and intrigue me—the sound of words, the use of words, and the play with words. While I run scared from attempting a Sudoku puzzle (I guess that makes me Numerophobic or Arithmophobic!) I cannot resist any kind of word game or puzzle. Scrabble is the only board game I enjoy. I feel insecure without the presence of my faithful dictionaries on my table, even when I can Google up a word with a single click.  I enjoy the act of turning the pages to find the word I am looking for and, in the process, discover at least a few new ones while browsing.

Perhaps the first word that got me hooked was supercalifragilisticexpialidocious from the film Mary Poppins. It sounded as wonderful as it meant. It took many hours to learn how to say this, and much longer to even dare to spell it out! Though an invented word, it later found its legitimacy in the Oxford English Dictionary. But it could not lay claim to being the longest word in the English language, the title of which is claimed by—take a deep breath—pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis! (a lung disease caused by inhaling very fine ash and sand dust.)


Source: Google

Over the years I have been noting down interesting words and word-related things.

Sharing some fun and games with words!


These are words or phrases that read the same in both directions. According to language experts palindromes are the most difficult kind of phrase to create.

The best known example: Madam I’m Adam.

An interesting one: A Man, A Plan, A Canal, Panama.

And a very clever one!

Doc, note, I dissent. A fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod.


This is a literary work in which one or more letters of the alphabet are excluded. The term lipogram comes from the ancient Greek leipográmmatos, which means ‘leaving out a letter of the alphabet’.

As far back as the 3rd century BC, Greek poet Tryphiodorus wrote an epic of 24 books, each one omitting one letter of the alphabet.

One of the most famous lipograms of more recent times (1939) is a 50,000 word novel called Gadsby. The author Ernest Vincent Wright makes no use of the most frequently used letter of the English alphabet—E.

A tiny extract illustrates how: ‘Upon this basis I am going to show you how a bunch of bright young folks did find a champion: a man with boys and girls of his own; a man so dominating and happy as individuality that youth is drawn to him as is a fly to a sugar bowl.’

From selective exclusion to all-inclusion—that is the Pangram!  This is a short sentence containing all 26 letters of the English alphabet. All the worthies who learnt touch typing on a manual typewriter will be glad to learn that the one sentence they pounded out, in endless practice, is the most famous Pangram: The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

Cheers to all fellow logophiliacs, wordaholics, word fanatics, word nuts, logolepts, verbivores and, the even nobler, epeolatrists (worshipper of words).

May our tribe increase!



Starry, Starry Village

Last week, I was in interior Andhra Pradesh. We were felicitating high-performing Std. 10 students from government schools of villages in our project area.

All was routine, till they announced one of the winners as Keerthi Chawla. I wasn’t sure I had heard right. It was too North-Indian a name for a village in AP. So I asked again what the child’s name was, and she reiterated that it was Keerthi Chawla. And she was speaking Telugu. I asked her if she belonged to those parts or her family had moved there. She told me she was very much from Dosari village. And also told me her full name, which was Vangapudi Keerthi Chawla.

I couldn’t wait for the function to finish to catch hold of my colleagues to ask what this was about. They told me that the trend in Dosari village was to name children after film stars. That is not an unusual trend—we all know that many a Rajesh or Dilip or Aishwarya were named about the eponymous stars. What was unusual of course was the adoption of the name—lock, stock and surname!

We thought we should get a little more into it. A very quick count in the primary school and Bala Badi in the village threw up 81 children who were named after stars: from Trishas to Tamannas to Anushas (these ladies don’t use surnames, I think). From among those who do use surnames, we found apart from Keerthi Chawla, also a Vidya Balan. Among the boys there were Nageswar Raos, Ram Charans and Prabhas.

(I have met many a Jhansi, Jhansi Rani and Jhansi Lakshmi from AP/Telangana. Not sure why these names are so popular here.)

I thought mine was my Keerthi Chawla was the most exciting find. But I was deflated when my colleague told me that in her previous job, where they used to provide education support for children from Tamilnadu slums, they had one child called David Beckham (Muthu David Beckham).

With what dreams do parents name their children?

How we look up to the stars!

Do they know?


The Sounds of Silence

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

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

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

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

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

Some excerpts


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

Trying not to hiccup Quiet (Embarrassed)

Last one to get picked from school Quiet (Nervous)

Sleeping sister Quiet (Tender)

First look at new hairstyle Quiet (Shocked)

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



A Magical Walk

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

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


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

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

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

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

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




Sights That Make Me Smile As I Walk By

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

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

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

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


Compound wall of a house. Yelahanka, Bangalore.


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



My Crores vs. Your Millions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



Living Magic!

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

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

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


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

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

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

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