Magnificence—Endangered

Not just endangered, critically endangered. We are talking of the Great Indian Bustard (GIB). There are only about 200 birds left in the wild in India, mainly in Rajasthan and Gujarat. There are a few birds still in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. But they have completely disappeared from Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa and Tamil Nadu.

GIB has been listed as Critically Endangered in 2011 on the IUCN Red List, which means that it faces an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. When we say that a species is extinct it means that there is not be a single living member left of that species.

The Great Indian Bustard is a magnificent bird, standing about 1 metre tall. Its wingspan is more than 2 metres. It is mostly brown, with a light-coloured head and neck. The distinguishing feature is the black crown on the head. Interestingly although they look closer to ostriches or cranes, most recent research shows that the Bustard family is more closely related to the cuckoo family!

At about 15 kg, it is the heaviest flier in India, but not in the world. The world record is held by a relative, if we may call it that, the Kori Bustard which is found in Africa. The Kori often weighs upwards of 18 kg.

These birds live in wide open landscapes which have sparse grasses and shrubs. They spend most of their time on the ground. Their long legs and front-facing toes help them to run fast. Although they are usually seen striding or running, they also have strong wings and can fly well.

Their diet varies depending on what is available during a particular season. These birds feed on grass seeds, agricultural crops such as groundnuts, millets and legumes, as well as insects like grasshoppers and beetles, and rodents and lizards

They usually breed in the monsoon season which is when food is most easily available. The female scrapes the soil in a secluded place to lay her egg. Generally, she lays only one egg. She incubates the egg for 25 days before the chick is hatched. The exposed egg is always in danger from predators. The mother has to be alert to keep the egg and the new chick safe. The male does not play any part in making the nest, incubation or raising of the chick. It is the Mother GIB who does this alone!

What are the threats? Plenty! GIB can be found in some parts Pakistan also, and there, it is still hunted. There is also some amount of poaching occurring in India. Apart from that, the natural home of these birds is reducing in size. A major cause for this is expansion of agricultural fields and increase in mechanized farming in the areas where the GIB live. This also means that human settlements get closer. Then there other very mundane reasons. Dogs are a major threat to GIBs. As I told you, GIBs lay their eggs on the ground. With the villages so close, dogs often eat the eggs. Also, there has been a huge increase in high tension electric wires in the habitat area. GIBs often dash against these and get electrocuted. They may also get hit by fast-moving vehicles.

Only urgent mission-mode action can save the GIB. Can we let this magnificent bird got the way of the Dodo?

–Meena and Mamata

What’s in a Moth?

When is a butterfly not a butterfly? When it is a moth!

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Butterflies have always hogged the limelight with their beauty and colour. Moths have always been the Cinderella, perceived as drab and uninteresting, and usually overlooked. Yet, moths greatly outnumber butterflies by a ratio of 10:1 and there are more than 12,000 species of moths.

There’s a lot in a moth for Dr Shubhalakshmi Vaylure, the first woman in India to study moths! “Why moths?” she was often asked when she started her research over 15 years ago. In fact, as she related in an interview, once she was asked why she chose to spend the nights studying moths (not quite suited to being a girl!) when she could study butterflies during the day, she replied “Well, someone’s gotta do this unpleasant night shift.”

It is that approach – Passion, Persistence and Push that sums up India’s Moth Lady!

Shubhalakshmi started by studying zoology and entomology in college, which is also when she signed up with Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) as a student member to use the library, and volunteering, joining nature walks and trails. After graduation she joined the Conservation Education Centre of the BNHS as an administrative assistant. At the time BNHS was the only institution in Mumbai which was offering a master’s degree through research, and she signed up for this.  Isaac Kehimkar, an eminent butterfly expert, suggested she study moths as they had not  been much studied in India. And that is where it all began. On completing her master’s degree, she became an Education Officer at the CEC, and went on to head the Centre.

As fellow environmental educators and Fulbright scholars, Shubha and I have met several times, and her energy and enthusiasm have been inspiring and infectious. Over the years I have been following Shubha’s journey and have seen how capably she has combined her passion for nature with smart use of technology and successful entrepreneurship.

Shubha is one of the pioneers of Citizen Science in India which empowers and enables ordinary citizens to be part of wildlife and environmental research by observing, collecting and sharing local data.

In 2014 she started a social enterprise Ladybird Environmental Consulting. The first project that Ladybird undertook was the development of three mobile-based applications iButterflies, iTrees, iNaturewatch birds under iNaturewatch Urban Challenge, a citizen science programme that worked with schools in Mumbai, New Delhi, Kolkata and Hyderabad to collect data on their city’s flora and fauna. Following this she set up iNaturewatch Foundation, to continue such urban biodiversity citizen projects.

For those who are inspired to become citizen scientists, and follow in the steps of the Moth Lady, a great start will be Shubhalakshmi’s book Field Guide to Indian Moths. The culmination of 15 years of research, this reader-friendly field guide features descriptions of 733 species of moths, supported by over 1000 colour photographs. Shubha also coined for the first time, common names for several of the species. Way to go Shubha!

What better way to mark this week which is designated as National Moth Week.

–Mamata

What Say You?

When I lived in Kenya, and learnt a little bit of Kiswahili, it was great fun to discover curious words or phrases. One of the best ones was to the local word for curd/yogurt. This was called Mazeevaa Lala—literally “sleeping milk!”

I was reminded of this recently when I chanced upon a Maltese saying My eye went with me, to mean that you have fallen asleep, as not taking your eyes with you would result in a sleepless night!

This is one of the many sayings in a delightful book titled Speaking in Tongues: curious expressions from around the world–a compilation of proverbs, idioms and sayings from different languages of the world, put together by Ella Frances Sanders. What brings the words alive are the accompanying illustrations, also by Ella who describes herself as “a writer out of necessity and an illustrator by accident.”

IMG_20180725_181146775.jpgFrom Finnish to Igbo, Armenian to Yiddish, each double spread presents delectable sayings and drawings that blend the wit and wisdom of the ages while also placing these in their cultural context.

Cannot resist sharing some:

Even the monkeys fall from trees. This well-known Japanese saying reminds that even the best and the cleverest can still make mistakes, and cautioning to keep overconfidence in check!  Perhaps the recent World Cup surprises where the superheroes fell from grace is an apt analogy!

You are my orange half. A Spanish term of endearment that means that someone is your soulmate or love of your life. Not quite sure what is so endearing about an orange, but reminded of the Amul chocolate ads that urged us to “Share it with someone you love!”

Horse horse Tiger tiger. To describe something that is so-so, or neither here nor there. This is a Mandarin expression; its origin lies in a story about a painter who painted a half tiger half horse but nobody bought it as it was neither one nor the other.

To pull someone out of their watermelons. A Romanian idiom that means to drive someone crazy! Not much light on why being in or out of watermelons can be harmful to mental health!

Stop ironing my head. An Armenian way of saying “Stop bugging me!” Popularly used when someone keeps asking irritating questions and won’t leave you alone. In many Indian languages we have our own equivalents in the form of “Don’t eat my head.”

To give a green answer to a blue question. A Tibetan reference to when the answer is completely unrelated to the question asked. Something that people in politics are adept at!

This is just a sampler of the 52 proverbs, expressions and idioms that have been passed on from one generation to another in diverse cultures. Interestingly, they reflect not just diversity, but also the sameness as it were. As I read I immediately thought of similar ones in Hindi and Gujarati, as will surely be the case in all languages. Remember how we had to memorise proverbs in our language subjects in school and what a pain it was? Maybe it is time to revisit these!

A perfect one to end with. To have a head full of crickets. 

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How the Spanish describe a mind buzzing with crazy, wonderful ideas, whims, and flights of fantasy…(what some would call nonsense!)

Nicely sums up how I often feel!

–Mamata

Reading Word Pictures

I am re-reading Markus Zusak’s ‘The Book Thief’, set in Nazi Germany in World War II. It is about a girl who steals books and is fascinated by them, but cannot read too well.

Which got me thinking of the ASER (Annual State of Education Report) test results, which year after year show children in India are simply not reading at the required level. Reading is the most important pathway to learning, and if our children don’t read, they can’t learn.
Which then brought me to techniques for teaching reading more effectively.
Research avers that reading and learning improve if children visualize what they are reading. They not only are able to understand better, they are also able to relate better to the text. But it is not something all children will do automatically. Sometimes, they need to be encouraged and supported in doing this.

Continue reading “Reading Word Pictures”

Otherness and Sameness

When we were in school one of the most assigned topics for essay was Unity in Diversity. We prepared hard for this by finding out many examples from India to demonstrate this. We were proud of living in a country where people of such diversity could co-exist, and celebrated this diversity. We also sang with fervour a school song in Hindi that proclaimed that all people of Hind were one, even though there were many colours and features, attires and languages. Hind desh ke nivasi, sabhi jan ek hai, Rang, roop, vesh-bhasha chahe anek hai.

 My heart breaks today, day after day, to read about a country and a world where it is this very diversity that is broken into identity fragments that divide rather than unite; a world that is increasingly emphasising the ‘otherness’ to create chasms, rather than the ‘sameness’ that builds bridges.

This sentiment is beautifully expressed by Maria Popova:

“Where Walt Whitman once invited us to celebrate the glorious multitudes we each contain and to welcome the wonder that comes from discovering one another’s multitudes afresh, we now cling to our identity-fragments, using them as badges and badgering artillery in confronting the templated identity-fragments of others.”

And then, this past month there was a ray of hope in the World Cup with the multi-ethnic compositions of many of the teams, and much was written about how the not-so-long ago ‘outsiders’ had become integral parts of National teams. This was best demonstrated by the multicultural French team that lifted the Cup…where the Otherness was transcended by the Sameness.

“You gave me blue and I gave you yellow

Together we are simple green. You gave me

What you did not have, and I gave you

What I had to give—together, we made

Something greater than the difference.” (Alberto Rios)

Yes it can happen, and yes there is hope, even in these strange and uncertain times, as Barack Obama said in his centennial memorial lecture to Nelson Mandela, and reminding us of his words: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart.”

–Mamata

 

Well Spun!

Ponduru, a village in Srikakulam, Andhra Pradesh, arguably produces the best khadi in India. Well at least Gandhiji thought so. He was highly impressed with the fineness of the khadi produced here and preferred it to other khadis. The best dressed (khadi-mode) contemporary politicians even today get their saris, dhotis and shirt material from here.

Ponduru khadi is hand-carded, hand spun and hand woven—truly khadi in letter and spirit.

What makes it special? Well, more than one factor, it seems. For one, the raw material itself is of a special quality—it is made from special varieties of hill cotton and red cotton which are grown in Vizianagaram and Srikakulam districts. For another, Ponduru khadi is very smooth, especially the higher count variety. This is because the jawbone of the Valunga fish found in Srikalkulam is used to comb the cotton  fibers to separate them from the seeds, and the process lends a soft sheen  to the cotton.

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There was a time when every home in this village had a loom. But like in most of India, the number of khadi workers in Ponduru is falling. The low remuneration is of course a major reason. Those involved in the sector do not want their children to follow them—they would much rather they got a ‘professional’ degree and got a ‘secure’ job.

Fortunately, there are some efforts to improve the situation, including dedicated NGOs working in the sector. Chitrika is one such which has been working closely with the Ponduru khadi sector for over a decade now. They are helping the workers organize themselves into Producer Cooperatives, find newer markets, and improve their capacities. New and innovative designs are being brought in. All this is enhancing the incomes of the weavers, almost doubling them in the last decade.

But without a pull from the market, no government subsidies or NGO efforts are going to lead to sustainable results. An eminent Gandhian once mentioned that if every Indian bought one khadi garment a year, the sector would thrive and all our khadi workers would be able to earn decent incomes.

A small thing to ask! And this is in our hands.

So this piece today is a call to action. We are about a month away from Independence Day. Go out and buy some khadi! It is a practical and easy ‘good deed’ for 15 August!

Buy khadi, and specially buy Ponduru khadi, best of all khadis!

–Meena

 

 

 

 

Up My Wall

Of course house lizards must climb my walls in summer. They must eat up the nameless insects and the mosquitoes and the what-nots. I don’t love them, though I respect their role. And the translucent babies are amazingly cute.

Moths must rest on the walls of my room occasionally. Grey, brown, black, white, small, big. Love all of them. Also spiders.

I have found a slug or two climb the outside-wall. Don’t mind too much, though they do leave a yucky trail.

But the one that really stunned me was a tree frog up my bedroom wall, next to a portrait of my mother! The wall of my first floor room, on the side with no window. How did it even get up there? Climb a tree, jump through the open window, hop across the whole room and then climb the opposite wall? Wow!

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Ten minutes of full-on excitement. Lots of jumping around ( frog, Raghu and me, with the frog winning on agility and grace— hands down, or is it feet down??); screeching (mainly me, not at all the frog);  some sleight of hand with newspapers and a bucket. And we managed to get the frog out safely.

Oh, how boring  life would be without things that climb my walls!

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—Meena

 

Talk Time

All through school and college, one of the best parts was the ‘night-spend’ (before it was called ‘sleep-over’!) at a friend’s place. The high point of this was staying awake till very late, sometimes even till dawn, simply nattering the hours away. Though well past our school and college days, for myself and my friends, this continues to be so, even today!

We never seemed to run out of conversation. Conversation was comfort, it was catharsis, it was heart-to-heart and tête-à-tête, and more. Conversation was face-to-face communication.

It was not just with friends–face-to-face communication was a way of life. Families caught up with doings and happenings/news over daily meals, and at family get-togethers; colleagues exchanged views over a cup of tea; housewives met at the corner for a chinwag to exchange neighbourhood gossip, and senior citizens bemoaned the state of the world as they took their constitutional in the park. We communicated daily with the shopkeepers, the domestic help, the essential service providers like the milkman, the presswalla, the newspaper supplier, and the auto drivers.

Today we are told that the world is “connected” like never before. We are in constant communication, as it were…Through the press of a button we can order our groceries and daily requirements; we can book tickets for movies or order in food; we can upload pictures of our latest travels; we can stream live the family wedding from the exotic destination; we can open our hearts to the BFF through Twitter and Instagram…and we can even text our children in their bedroom to say that dinner is ready!

The world is “connected” 24/7. Time saving, effort saving, technological marvels we say.  But somewhere in all this, have we not lost something precious? Something that is a basic human need–Face-to-face communication, an ancient and abiding human gift? Are we losing a vital connection?

“When you speak a word to a listener, the speaking is an act. …Listening is not a reaction, it is a connection. …And it is a mutual act: the listener’s listening enables the speaker’s speaking. It is a shared event, intersubjective: the listener and speaker entrain with each other.  …When you can and do entrain, you are synchronising with the people you’re talking with, physically getting in time and tune with them. No wonder speech is so strong a bond, so powerful in forming community.” (Ursula K. Le Guin in a piece titled Telling Is Listening.)

Perhaps the next time, before we sign up for “Unlimited Talk Time” offers, let us see if we can make real Time for Talk.

–Mamata

Keeping Tradition Alive

July is here. And along with it, the festival season. Pujas—a time for festivities, fun, enjoyment with the family. A time to get back in touch with our traditions. A time of solemnity and also gaiety.

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But also today, a time for stress! Who knows what the auspicious grass for Ganesh Chaturthi is? Or the prasadam to be made for Thiruvadarai? What is the rangoli to make for Rathasapthami?

And how to answer questions from the kids? Why is Naga Panchami celebrated? Who is Ekadashi? Why do we make sundal for Navaratri?

“Follow the Hindu Moon: A Guide to the Festivals of South India’, by Soumya Aravind Sitaraman, will answer all these questions and more. Brought out by Random House about 10 years ago, this magnum opus is in two volumes, totaling to over 800 pages. But don’t be put off by the weight and the bulk. The publication is erudite and comprehensive, but extremely easy to read and refer to. The text presentation is clearly organized and simple.

What really brings the book to life are the more than 400 colour plates. Beautiful, un-posed, real—they bring alive the beauty of our traditions. Whether it is the decoration of Varalakshmi or the photographs of the delicacies made for different pujas, you wish you could be there in the photo, living that moment. The photographer is Usha Kris, Soumya’s mother!

Volume 1 is called  ‘Celebrate’. It covers: “Puja Basics’—everything from aartis to vastram; ‘Embracing the Almighty’—a guide to pujas;   ‘ Getting organized’—pooja checklists to annual festival planner; and ‘Celebrate’—detailed walkthroughs for every festival of South India, including procedures, observances, rituals, sankalpams, stories, etc.

Volume 2 called ‘Understand’ has sections on everything from ‘Reading the Panchanga’ to shlokams, to naivedya recipes, and festival-specific rangoli designs.

The books work at several levels: as a ‘Do-it-yourself’ guide for novices; as a reference book on details for experienced mamis; and as a fascinating browse for anyone.

At first look, Rs. 3500 seems a bit of an investment. But this book is bringing to you almost those many years of tradition!

So whether you are an experienced puja veteran, or a student in the US who wants to celebrate festivals the traditional way, or an ‘armchair cook’ like me, you are going to enjoy this book. So buy it for yourself. Or share the joy of a festival and gift it to a loved one!

–Meena

129 Pages Open Up a World

‘The Buddha in the Attic’. What an innocuous book title. And such a pretty cover.

But the world it opened for me was neither innocuous or pretty.

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A confession first. I am pretty ill-informed of historical migration to the US. I knew about Italians and Irish going. And other Europeans—like the Polish. But I never thought of Asian migration as significant. Hence the very moorings of the book were an education. ‘Oh, Japanese migrate to the US in numbers in the 1880s?’ was the question that struck me. I had to do some little surfing and reading to give myself a context.

Just a quick wiki-glimpse of the highlights of this for those of my readers who may not be familiar with the issue:

 

Coming back to the book, it traces the stories of ‘picture brides’ who came to the US from Japan. And therein lies the brilliance. It is not the story of one woman or family. The technique that Julie Otsuka uses is such that through a tiny 129-page book, I begin to understand the history of the whole Japanese community in the US in the pre-WWII period, and get powerful insights into what might have happened to a whole set of picture brides.

Read it to understand history from the perspective of immigrants; read it to understand history from the perspective of women; read it to understand xenophobia is not new and that history does repeat itself; to learn that the stories of some women are the stories of all women; to learn that the stories of one diaspora are the stories of all diaspora; to learn how so much can be conveyed with so few words.

Bottom line, READ IT!

–Meena

P.S: Feel really ill-informed. I never knew about this book or Julie Otsuka till recently.