Nobel Paths

October is the month when the Nobel Prizes for the year are announced. The months preceding the announcements are full of expectation and speculation about who the winners would be, especially in the case of the Nobel Peace Prize.

While the Nobel Peace Prize is one of the most prestigious and honoured awards, it is ironic that the man after whom the prizes are named was an eccentric Swedish chemist, engineer and industrialist, who after a long study of explosives, produced the first dynamite, which was then labelled Nobel’s Safety Powder. He also went on to make other advanced explosives and detonators. These inventions made him a very rich man.

Interestingly, Nobel was essentially a pacifist who hoped that the destructive powers of his inventions would help bring an end to wars. This was reflected in his will which he made two weeks before he died, donating most of his wealth for the setting up of  a Trust to establish five world-wide prizes for peace, physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, and literature. His family contested the will and his selected award committee also refused to carry out his wishes. It was five years before the first Nobel was awarded.

The general principles governing the awards were also laid down in his will and are followed to this day.

The process leading up to the selection starts almost a year before the actual announcement when the invitations are sent out to those competent under the Nobel statutes to do so, for nomination of candidates. Proposed names need to reach the proper Nobel Committee in writing before February 1st of the year of the awards, following which the Committees consider the nominations—the deliberations and voting are secret at all stages.

As stipulated in Alfred Nobel’s will  which was opened after his death in 1896, the Nobel Prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine and Literature are awarded in Stockholm, Sweden, while the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo, Norway.

Since 1901, the Nobel Prizes have been presented to the Laureates at ceremonies on 10 December, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death. The ceremonial presentations for physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and economics have been taking place at the Stockholm Concert Hall (Stockholms Konserthus) since 1926; and that for the Peace Prize takes place in Oslo. From 1947 till 1990, the setting was the auditorium of the University of Oslo; in 1990 the event moved to the Oslo City Hall.

By happenstance, a few years ago, I had the opportunity to attend another awards ceremony (not quite Nobel!) in the Stockholm Concert Hall. It was an awe-inspiring experience. And earlier this year my daughter attended a function in the Oslo City Hall!

If not Nobel Laureates ourselves, we can at least lay claim to have followed the footsteps of the great and the Nobel, on the hallowed carpets where the exalted ones have tread!

IMG_20180619_205027544 (1).jpg
Oslo City Hall



Hiss Gets Knotty

How Hiss hated his name! Every second snake in his class was called Hiss. Surely, his parents could have been in a little more imaginative!


Now the only thing he could do was to get himself a prefix or suffix to his name. Like his cousin Happy Hiss, who got that name because he was always laughing and joking. Or his friend Speedy Hiss, who got that name because he was the fastest slitherer around! He was very envious of his senior Astro Hiss, who got his name because he knew the names of all the stars and constellations in the sky, and was forever looking through his telescope. And of course of the school captain Hero Hiss, who got his name because he was a whiz at all games and helped the school win every match and tournament.

But our Hiss didn’t have any special characteristics. He was just a normal little snake.

Secretly, Hiss’ ambition was to be called Naughty Hiss. It sounded such fun. But Hiss wasn’t naughty at all. He didn’t sneak into people’s houses just to scare them, like some of his friends. He didn’t hang upside down from trees by his tail as some of his cousins did, just to irritate their mothers. He didn’t participate in ‘curls’ where about 15-20 of his friends would curl themselves into a ball and roll pell-mell down slopes, giving old ladies the hysterics.  He didn’t like to do such things. He was really a very well-behaved and nice snake!

But still in his heart he longed to be called Naughty Hiss!

So he thought and he thought and he thought.

And one day, during his Scout class, when the teacher was teaching them to tie themselves up into knots, an idea struck him!

Why not be called Knotty Hiss? That sounded just like Naughty Hiss!

If he practiced and practiced his knots, he could be the best knotter around, and then he would be called Knotty Hiss!

So he secretly practiced and practiced tying himself up in to different kinds of knots, not just the ones his Scout Master taught him

He practiced his Reef Knot

And the Sheepshank

The Bowline

And the Timberhitch

And of course his favourite Constrictor Knot…after all, he was one!

And when he had practiced and practiced for many a day and many a night….

He was the best!

No one could tie themselves up into knots as quickly as our Hiss could.

And that is how Hiss got Knotty, for everyone started calling him Knotty Hiss.

He couldn’t have been more pleased!!!!


My Tribute to Mother India

‘Mother India’ considered one of Bollywood’s classics, was released 61 years ago today (Oct 25). It was India’s first entry for the Oscars.

I saw the film when I was in my twenties, probably on Doordarshan. I remember thinking it was over-dramatic, over-emotional, over-the-top. It just seemed too much–one woman facing one tragedy after the other; struggling every day, every month; everyone out to exploit her. And still holding nobly to her values.

30 years have taught me quite a few lessons. One of them is that there is a Mother India in every street, in every lane.

This was brought home to me poignantly only last week, when I had occasion to spend a lot of time with the lady who takes care of our office. At personal inconvenience, she was going out of her way to help me in my time of need. The time we spent together gave me insights into her life.

Born in a family of agricultural labourers, she dropped out of school at 10, to take care of younger siblings. At 12, she joined her mother in the fields. Her father died of cancer, and things got even worse. She did any work she could get—from labour on construction sites, to digging wells, to everything in between.

At about 17 or 18, she was married off. Her mother was told that the groom was on the verge of getting a permanent government job, and she would live a life of comfort. The husband was semi-handicapped, but more devastating to her, completely lazy and good-for-nothing. As a three-month bride, she started work as a domestic help.

Life went its usual course. A son came along, on whom she pinned all her hopes. The husband worked at casual jobs about 10 days a month. The other 20 days, he lazed around the house. She slaved from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day of the month, at multiple jobs, to put the son through a good school, and he got his polytechnic diploma.

She thought her troubles were almost over. The son, rather than find a job, announced he wanted to get into engineering through lateral entry. She was thrilled—an engineer in the family. She worked harder than ever, as the husband lazed, and the son bought himself a motor cycle and fancy phone in keeping with his status as an engineering student.

One year went by and then tragedy struck. She found that her son, not being able to cope with his studies, had quietly dropped out of college without even telling her; that he was using the money she was giving him for fees and expenses, on feeding his bike with petrol and hanging out with friends.

With the help of relatives, friends, and well-wishers all around, the son has been coaxed, cajoled, threatened and re-admitted into college. Several fingers are crossed. Who knows what he will do?

I have worked with the mother for four years now. It seems impossible to believe, but she has never taken a day off. She is there half an hour before us, and stays half an hour after the last of us leaves, to clean and close up. I have never known her not to smile. I have never known her to take any shortcuts. I have never known her to ask for money. I have never known her to not sympathize and offer a cup of tea if I complain of headache. I have never known her being backward in helping any of us. I have never known her to be less than dignified or gracious.

I have known this Mother India. Look around. I would wager that a woman you meet today will be a Mother India. The sheet anchor of her family and community. Acting with integrity and dignity in every situation. Holding up her bit of the sky with a smile, in the face of every hurdle life throws her way.

I salute the makers of ‘Mother India’. They say art is about capturing universal truths and presenting them in the idiom of the times. And now, when I have seen something of the world, I believe this is so, and that there is nothing over-blown about Mother India.

I salute the Mother India in every woman around me.


PS: I lost my mother last week. And I salute her cheerfulness, her courage, her love, her compassion, and the joy she spread around her through her long life.


Making India Safe for Women

Big names tumbling out of the closet and into disgrace and shame. Every morning and every evening, additions to MeToo.

But workplace sexual harassment is only one part of what women in India have to face. The fundamental issue is ‘Is India safe for women?’

And the answer sadly is ‘No’. It is highly unsafe and becoming increasingly so. What we euphemistically used to call ‘eve teasing’ has been with us for ages. My friends from Kerala recall with horror their college days and how afraid they were to walk alone, to even raise their eyes from the ground or stay late in college. In Delhi of course, it gets more physical with groping hands and lewd gestures.

But now, there are horror stories which one has never heard before. For instance, how many incidents of acid throwing are reported every month? And in most cases, it is because the girl has rejected the boy’s advances.

Mind-shattering reports of abuse of children. Why just children, even infants! Of incest and abuse by fathers and uncles and brothers. Were these always there or is something sick in us growing out of control?

Cell phone camera photos and video clips of girls taken with or without their knowledge or consent are another potent tool in the hands of miscreants. In an example of how technology can be misused, these are passed on through MMS or put up on the website. There are instances of young innocent schoolgirls who have been driven to the edge of insanity and suicide, thanks to some boys in their class taking photos and threatening to circulate them, and blackmailing them into all kinds of activities.

And of course, the classic Pre-natal Determination of Sex—scanning to ascertain the sex of a child, and killing the unwanted girl child. Do we need a better example of how India at once lives in several centuries—the atavistic boy child preference aided by high-tech? So what if such scanning is illegal?

The solution then is not to make an example of one rapist, to go after one high profile editor/film-maker/what have you who has tried to take advantage of girls working for him, or to bring in the moral police. Each incident looks like one deviant exception, but taken together, they form a frightening picture of a society where something is seriously wrong. Why is this happening? Where do we begin to set it right? Whose responsibility is it—the education system, the media, parents, the law makers, the law enforcers….? It is time to introspect and face unpleasant truths.

And then go on to act on the truths we discover.

Otherwise India will be unsafe for one half of its people.


It’s All in the Name!

In Gujarat it was, till quite recently, very common to ask for “Amul ni Cadbury”, where Cadbury was used as the generic name for chocolate! In the days of yore, (before Amul became utterly butterly ubiquitous) was a time when one used to “lagaao Polson” or in other words “Butter someone up” as it were!

Similarly all photocopy related matters were clubbed under “Xerox”. So one would get papers Xeroxed from a Xeroxer and enclose Xeroxes with applications! Then of course, even older, was something called “Bata price” for anything that was priced at 9.99 or the same in higher figures.

Brand names often become synonymous with a generic product or process, and trip easily over millions of tongues. Brand names are critical—they are what gives a product a single universally recognised identity that leads to the best consumer recall. It is said that more time is spent in deciding the name of a new product than on any other aspect of its development. Inventing a new name that does not clash with the already registered trade marks is a highly complex and time-consuming process. Several hundred names need to be proposed and each has to be checked from a linguistic, marketing and legal aspect.

An old story about the well-known Dunlop tyres is a case in point. The company spent over two years researching a name for a new tyre, to no avail. They then launched an international campaign among their employers, receiving over 10,000 entries. 300 names were shortlisted from these, but not one was found to be legally available in all the countries where it was to be marketed. After further work, a viable name was found–Denovo–for the world’s first ‘fail-safe’ tyre.

A word pronounceable in one language may be impossible to say in another, or unanticipated connotations may creep in. Here is the latest one on this.

Starbucks has recently sued the Indian coffee chain SardarBuksh for sounding too close to them for comfort! Newspapers report that Delhi’s home-grown coffeewalalogo.jpgs have agreed to change their brand to Sardarji-Bakhsh on a condition that it, too, would be allowed to sue any businesses who tried to use the name ‘Baksh’ in their branding!  Star Wars continue!


Haiku…Then and Now

The Haiku is a 17 syllable poetic form that has been written in Japan for three hundred years. Haiku poets have, over generations, celebrated the changing seasons, and also the mystical relationship between non-related subjects. Most of the poets reflected the Zen Buddhists doctrine that all things and creatures in this world are part of the universal and interconnected brotherhood of creation.

Today the cycle of seasons is not what it used to be.  The world is apprehending, rather than celebrating Climate Change. Reports predict the dire consequences of the 1.5 degree rise in temperature, for all living things, interconnected as they are in the intricate web of life.

Among the scientists too there are poets! Some of them have tried to interpret the consequences of Climate Change in Haiku!

Interesting indeed to compare the Haikus from then and now.


Then Now
Snow is melting…

Far in the misted


A caw cawing crow


Big, fast carbon surge

Ice melts

Oceans heat and rise

Air warms by decades


Icicles and water

Old differences


Drip down together


Seas rise as they warm

Rates quicken

Last century

Melting ice joins in


Even the ocean

Rising and falling

All day

Sighing green like trees.



More warming,

Higher seas.

Maybe much higher.

Could wake sleeping giants.




Ultra-pink peony…

Silver Siamese

Soft cat…

Gold-dust butterfly…


Warming is bad news

For many species.

Once gone…

We can’t bring them back


The Then Haikus are from compilations of haiku by some of the best loved Japanese poets—Basho, Buson, Issa and Shiki.

The Now haikus are from the compilation by oceanographer Gregory Johnson (  Andy Reisinger one of the contributing authors to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on 1.5 °C (







Nom de Plume

My library has recently acquired the complete set of Agatha Christie novels in attractive new editions. They take up two long shelves and I was immediately drawn to them. As with most of my generation, Agatha Christie was a must read. We were intrigued and impressed by the eccentricities and grey cells of Hercule Poirot and the genteel but no-nonsense sharp mind of Miss Jane Marple.

Agatha Christie, the Queen of murder mysteries, outsold, it is said, only by the Bible and Shakespeare! The best-selling novelist of all time with her 66 detective novels and the world’s longest-running play The Mousetrap.

While I was browsing the shelves, I also saw books by the name Mary Westmacott alongside. And it is these that I decided to explore. These are the books that Agatha Christie wrote under the pen name or pseudonym Mary Westmacott. Why a pen name? Explaining this in a piece written for her centenary celebrations in 1990, Christie’s daughter wrote “As early as 1930, my mother wrote her first novel using the name Mary Westmacott. These novels, six in all, were a complete departure from the usual sphere of Agatha Christie Queen of Crime.” The novels explored human psychology and emotions and relationships that intrigued her, in a genre that was totally different from her murder mysteries, and writing under a different name freed her from the expectations of her mystery fans.

How did she choose the name? It seems that Mary was Agatha’s second name and Westmacott the name of some distant relatives. She succeeded in keeping her identity as Mary Westmacott unknown for nearly twenty years and the books, much to her pleasure, were modestly successful.

I have so far read two of her six Westmacott novels and am enjoying the language, style and substance greatly. They so sensitively capture what seem to be very contemporary intricacies of human psyches and complexities of relationships, even though they were written in the period of 1930s and 1940s. One of these, Absent in the Spring, was published in 1944. About this book Agatha/Mary wrote: “I wrote that book in three days flat…I went straight through…I don’t think I have ever been so tired…I didn’t want to change a word and although I don’t know myself of course what it is really like, it was written as I meant to write it, and that is the proudest joy and author can have.”

Using a nom de plume has been common throughout the history of literature. Authors have adopted pseudonyms for different reasons. Some to make their voice heard under authoritarian regimes; some to break the mould of what their readers expect from them, and, in some cases, women have used masculine noms de plume during times when men had an easier time getting published. While the phrase nom de plume means “pen name” in French, it doesn’t come from French speakers, but was coined in English, using French words.

An antithesis of Agatha Christie is JK Rowling, who after her huge success as the creator of Harry Potter, moved from Muggles and Magic, to murder and detective Cormoran, under the name Robert Galbraith. Her intention in taking on the nom de plume was for her crime fiction books to be judged on their own merit.

As for me, Christie or Rowling, by any other name, are favourite reads all the same!



And The Butterfly Flapped its Wings…

Edward Lorenz articulated this metaphor to imply that a small, inconsequential-seeming event can have huge unforeseen effects. He in fact drew the metaphor from weather phenomena, specifically, the details of a tornado (the exact time of formation, the exact path taken) being influenced by minor perturbations such as the flapping of the wings of a distant butterfly several weeks earlier.

Ironically, the cyclone that just struck Orissa and part of Andhra Pradesh coast, and caused heavy damage, is called TITLI—butterfly. Was the agency which names cyclones aware of this?

Anyway, the name is not the point. The damage is. As in the after-math of every disaster, lives and livelihoods have to be restored. And we have to learn from each disaster how to proof ourselves better against future disasters, and how we can handle the relief and rehab phases better.

These lessons are important for us. 87 per cent of India’s land is prone to one or the other kind of disaster—floods, droughts, cyclones, earthquakes etc. India is second among all countries affected by disasters every year. Over 50 million people are affected by disasters every year, and on an average, over 1 million houses damaged.

Cyclone is a natural disaster of meteorological or climatic origin. It is classified as an ‘immediate onset disaster’ (it manifests its complete effects in 1-7 days). The Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea experience about 6-7 per cent of the world’s annual cyclones. The majority occur from October to December, and a smaller number in April-May. Though the percentage of cyclones hitting the Indian Ocean region is low, the wind speeds are moderate and the cyclones are relatively short lived and smaller in size, they cause heavy damage when they strike the coastal areas of Bay of Bengal. This is because the conditions of the region favour huge storm surges. The combination of high astronomical tide, shallow water and the special coastal configuration of north Bay of Bengal result in the generation of devastating storm tides.

These are the natural reasons. But humans have contributed hugely too. The destruction of coastal forests is a major issue. Mangrove tidal forests are natural cyclone barriers and invaluable protectors. But alas, these are disappearing. Rice paddies and prawn farming are cited as some of the reasons for this.

So Titli came and caused destruction. The preparedness and timely actions of the State and Disaster relief agencies have ensured that the destruction was less devastating that it could have been. But still, nine lives were lost.

Today is International Day for Disaster Reduction. A day to pledge that we will commit ourselves to at least halt the human exacerbation of destruction due to disasters, and to stand by those impacted by them.


Acknowledgement: ‘Dealing with Disasters: Awareness, Preparedness, Response.’ Meena Raghunathan, Avanish Kumar. Centre for Environment Education. Ahmedabad. 2004.

What is Wild?

The first of week of October is marked as wildlife week in India. Wildlife safaris are advertised, with promises of sightings of lions and tigers and elephants.

How about a rethink on “What is Wild”?


Does it roar, does it growl? Is it beast, fish or fowl?

Inhabit rainforests or snowy peaks? Live in deserts, or the ocean deeps?

Does it have stripes, wear armour? Exotic feathers or thick fur?

Is it whiskered, huge and ferocious? Have claws on its paws, good gracious!

Does it grow wild in forests deep? Tangled in branches where monkeys leap?

That’s just where we all go wrong. Thinking wild is a lion or gorilla strong.

What’s wild can be large: a blue whale or an elephant.

But also teeny weeny: an amoeba, a mite or an ant.

Wildlife can be insect, reptile or bird. Living alone in a cave, or all in a herd.

It can be the trees in a jungle dark. It can be weeds in a garden or moss in a park.

It is the living things that we have not tamed; As pets in our house, or on farms retained.

That live on their own, as creatures free; In cracks in our homes, or up on a tree.

Lizards, spiders, weeds, rats and snails… Are wildlife as much as tigers or whales.

You don’t have to climb mountains or dive very deep. Plunge into dark jungles, or ride miles in a jeep.

There’s a wildlife safari you can take any day. Through home or garden or just along the way.

Just keep your eyes open and all your senses alert. Look out for these creatures, even in the dirt.

You’ll find the world around teeming with life. From tiny to enormous, you can call it all wildlife!IMG_20181001_091041103.jpg



A Tribute to Wildlife Researchers

Ravi Chellam, as a student and then faculty of Wildlife Research Institute of India, did his research on Gir lions. His work on understanding the lions, their threats, and the work he did for recommending an alternative habitat, were a huge contribution. This piece is a tribute at a time when his recommendations should be taken very seriously. Equally it is a tribute to so many other wildlife researchers from WII and other institutions, whose courage and commitment have helped preserve our biodiversity.

The following pieces are excerpts from Ravi’s piece ‘A Roaring Career’ in a publication titled ‘Walking The Wild Path’.

On the excitement of wildlife research:

‘A radio-collar is a piece of wildlife research equipment, which consists of a radio transmitter that is mounted on a collar made of some tough material.  The transmitter constantly emits signals, which enables the researcher to track and locate the animal that is carrying it.  The collar is for fixing the transmitter on the animal.  A very wide variety of organisms have been studies by this method of radio-telemetry, ranging from whales, elephants, lions, tigers, snakes, to even very small birds like the hummingbird.

Shortly, we heard the regular rustling of the leaf litter, a clear indication that a large animal was approaching us.  A large male lion emerged out of the shadows of the forest and it immediately saw the tethered buffalo.  It looked around, as if to check that there were no human being around and then rushed to kill the buffalo bait.  As the lion locked its jaws around the neck of the buffalo, it presented a clear and close enough target for Dr. Johnsingh.  The dart went into the rump of the lion.  Startled by the loud report of rifle, the lion left the bait and walked away into the forest.

We waited for about ten minutes, to allow time for the drug to take effect.  Then I cautiously led the search team to locate the darted lion.  It had not gone very far.  It was lying on the ground, barely one hundred meters from the bait.  I threw a level of immobilisation.  The lion responded by slowly lifting its head, and it was evident that the drug had taken its effect; but to safely work with the animal, we needed to give it an additional top up dose.  I crept up to the lion with two of my assistants and we soon physically restrained the drugged animal by sitting on its head and rump.  This enabled the delivery of the additional dose of drug by means of an injection.

Once the lion was completely immobilised, we fixed the radio-collar around its neck, took the required measurements of the lion’s body, treated the minor external injuries, weighed it and then left it in a cool place to recover.  I sat at the safe distance to monitor its recovery.’

And, on the vulnerability of the Gir lions:

‘Based on the results of my doctoral research I surveyed potential lion habitats to locate a suitable site for the translocation.  In January 1995, I submitted my report to the Government of India and since then efforts are underway to manage the forests of Kuno-Palpur in Madhya Pradesh for making them suitable for lions.

If this translocation effort is undertaken and succeeds, it will be a majof step in ensuring the log-term conservation of the lions and a major personal achievement for me.  Translocating large carnivores and ensuring their successful establishment in a new habitat is not an easy task.  People resident in the forest and the adjoining areas will always be worried about their personal safety and that of their livestock when a population of large carnivores is established.

Additionally, great care needs to be taken to ensure that the animals are captured and transported without causing any physical injury to them.  There are also many political angles to be considered.  This is in a way part of the challenge of doing wildlife conservation.’

From ‘Walking the Wild Path’. Mamata Pandya, Meena Raghunathan (eds). Center for Environment Education. Ahmedabad. 1999.