While I soak in the sunshine on a pleasantly cool Ahmedabad winter day I read that the big Arctic chill has hit North America and Europe. It’s cold, cold, cold! News reports show how the blanket of snow has brought life to a standstill, and people are being interviewed to share how they are coping.
I remember a poem that wonders how the Snow itself must feel.
Snow on top
must feel chilly
the cold moonlight piercing it.
Snow on the bottom
must feel burdened
by the hundreds who tread on it.
Snow in the middle
must feel lonely
with neither earth nor sky to look at.
The poem was written in the 1920s by a young Japanese poet Misuzu Kaneko. “Teru” as she was called, was born in 1903 in a family of booksellers in a small fishing village in western Japan. The book-loving child was encouraged to study by her mother and grandmother, and she stayed in school until she was 18, a rare achievement for Japanese girls at the time. She began writing poetry at age 20, and signed her work “Misuzu”, in an allusion to classical Japanese literature meaning “where the bamboo is reaped.”
In her poetry, Misuzu would share her sense of curiosity and wonder–What does snow feel in a drift? Where does day end and night begin? Why don’t adults ask the questions children do? “To Misuzu, everything was alive and had its own feelings—plants, rocks, even telephone poles! She felt the loneliness of whale calves orphaned after a hunt. She felt the night-time chill of cicadas who had shed their old shells. And she felt the tearful sadness of a flower wet with dew.”
Sadly her personal life was tragic and she committed suicide when she was only 27 years old. Kaneko and her work were forgotten for the next 50 years. The only known copy of her poems had been destroyed during the bombing of Tokyo in WWII. The bookstore where she once worked was long gone. No one seemed to know if she had any surviving family. It is only in the 1980s that another Japanese poet Setsuo Yazaki, recovered her poetry manuscripts and these were published.
Today, almost a 100 years later, Kaneko’s poems remain as fresh and moving with their innocent sense of wonder.
I wonder why
the rain that falls from black clouds
shines like silver.
I wonder why
the silkworm that eats green mulberry leaves
is so white.
I wonder why
the moonflower that no one tends
blooms on its own.
I wonder why
everyone I ask
about these things
laughs and says, “That’s just how it is.”
If only we could all retain that magical sense of wonder rather than simply accepting “That’s just how it is.”
2019 has been declared as The International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL2019) by UNESCO. The official launch of IYIL was held on 28 January 2019. The aim of IYIL is to “draw attention to the critical loss of indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize and promote indigenous languages around the world”.
Of the 6000-7000 languages in the world today, about 97% of the world’s population speaks only 4 % of these languages, while only 3% of the world speak 96% of all remaining languages. A great majority of those languages are spoken mainly by indigenous peoples.
India is one of four countries, along with Nigeria, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, with the largest number of living languages. A mammoth project to conduct a comprehensive survey of Indian languages was launched in 2010. Initiated by Prof. G.N. Devy, founder of the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre in Vadodara, and undertaken by a large team of scholars, the project called the People’s Linguistic Survey Of India (PLSI) set out to document and preserve 780 languages which are being spoken in India today. These are being published in the multi-volume People’s Linguistic Survey of India, towards providing an overview of the extant and dying languages of India, as evolved till 2011, and as perceived by their speakers. The volumes chronicle the evolution of these languages in all their socio-political and linguistic dimensions, and encapsulate the worldview of their speakers. PLSI proposes to complete its task of publishing 92 volumes by 2020.
In the last couple of years, I have had the enriching opportunity to learn about some of the indigenous people of the north east of India and a glimpse of not just the incredibly rich traditions of textiles in the region, but equally the close ties between language of the people and the language of their textiles. Not only does every tribe have their own dialect, but each dialect has wonderfully nuanced words to describe every textile that they weave, and even every motif that is woven on these.
Names of textiles of the tribes have references to the history and geography of the tribe, as well as names that literally relate to colour, size, on which part of the body they are worn, as well as referring to age and status of the wearer. There are specific shawls for elder men or women, for those who have special social status (as in the Naga the Feast of Merit shawl), for a new bride to wear to her marital home, and for covering the deceased.
As Ganesh Devy puts it “in every manner without any exception, the language we learn or use is the absolute condition of our narrative of the world and the way we see the world.”
Of the numerous examples of this, is that of a textile of the Bodo Kachari tr
ibe of Assam.The multi-use decorative textile called Aronai is characterised by a zig-zag motif called Hawjagor (hill pattern) in the Bodo dialect. This pattern is inspired by the hills which form an important part of the history as well as the geography of the Bodo people who settled by the foothills, on the north bank of the Brahmaputra in Assam.
It is in the names of motifs that women weave onto the textiles that the symbiosis between life, nature and culture is most evident. The names not just reflect how nature inspires form, but also reveal a keen eye for subtle detail and the richness of language to reflect this.
A common triangular motif on wrap skirts of the women of a small Naga tribe is called impeak bam. The word Impeak translates to ‘stretching out/extending/ spreading out’ and bam means ‘wings’; and the motif symbolises a flying Hornbill. While a similar but smaller triangular motif is named to mean the wings of the bird called a Swift.
Some of the motifs of the Liangmai Naga tribe in Manipur are named literally to represent elements such as fish bone (kakhara thua), cow’s teeth (kabuihu), and ripples in a lake (kazai kapai). There is even a woven line stitch line called matiang kang meaning ‘group of ants.’ These are only the tip of the iceberg of detail, as it were.
One of the traditional shawls of a small Naga tribe of the Manipur Naga Hills has a motif called inchitatpi that translates to ‘head of a long worm’ found in the woods. Another has a pattern representing cucumber seed called angi thei ru. Getting into even more minute detail, another tribe has a popular motif called aphinamik which literally means the ‘eye of a dove’.
There are patterns representing frog’s feet called sangkang nou ban and grasshoppers’ egg called changkow gum, and even a stitch called kabi n’dui where kabi translates to ‘good’ and ndui translates to ‘egg’, relating to the arrangement of eggs on a paddy plant!
What evocative words and how beautifully they capture richness of life lived in synergy with one’s environment. These are only a tiny sprinkling of the vocabulary of a tiny segment of indigenous people and languages.
Sadly with ‘modernisation’ comes homogenisation. A lot of the local weaving traditions are being replaced with mass-produced machine-made garments, and with it are lost not just the textiles and motifs but also the language that represented these.
According to UNESCO, approximately 600 languages have disappeared in the last century, and they continue to disappear at a rate of one language every two weeks. Up to 90 perccent of the world’s languages are likely to disappear before the end of this century if current trends are allowed to continue.
And Ganesh Devy expresses the Domino Effect that this has—“When a language dies, its speakers decide to migrate. First, they migrate to another language and then they physically start migrating to another region. The second thing that happens is that their traditional livelihood patterns go down. They may have some special skills and that disappears. Thirdly, a unique way of looking at the world disappears.”
Spoiler alert: We are discussing only pain balms, not wimpy stuff like lip balms!
I am an unrepentant balm sniffer. I cannot fall asleep unless I sniff some balm and apply some to my temples. The hint of a headache, and I reach for a balm. A niggling in the throat calls for a generous rub and copious sniffing.
My friends know a balm is the way to my heart. So I actually have friends gift me bottles and tins, from Kerala, from the Himalayas, from travels to Southeast Asia. It is a balm story which defines ‘hostess with the mostest’ for me. A friend in Delhi with whom I sometimes stay over provides toothbrushes for frequent guests—they stay in colour-coded caps in the guest bathroom. But she really set the standard when she stocked a jar of my favourite balm in the guestroom, so that I could feel that much more at home!
I think the word unguent was made for balms. I have never heard it used in any other context: ‘a soft greasy or viscous substance used as ointment or for lubrication’.
But what intrigues me a little is that the definition of balm is: ‘A fragrant cream or liquid used to heal or soothe the skin; Something that has a soothing or restorative effect.’
None of my balms soothe! They sting. In fact, the test of a balm is that your eyes should water when you put a spot of it on your temples.
As far as I can make out, balms come in two types—the brown unguents, and the off-white ones. There are good ones in both categories. But as far as Tiger Balm (THE balm) is concerned, the brown one beats the white one hollow.
We balm buffs are sensitive to packaging too. You have the glass bottles (the best). Then the plastic jars (OK). The metal flat disc-like boxes (good too). And now the roll-on type (I know that a liquid too can be a balm, but I am not so convinced).
Why a random rant on balms? No idea, except that the weather is not very balmy (Meaning: ‘characterized by pleasantly warm weather’– obviously not from the same root), thanks to which people all around are sneezing and coughing, which makes me want to stock on my balms!
I was introduced to Ruskin Bond over 30 years ago by Uncle Ken and Rusty. These were the characters in the first books that I translated. I so enjoyed the madcap adventures of the eccentric Uncle Ken and the restless school boy Rusty, not just for the stories but for the simple style of writing and the lovely use of language. As a translator it was a challenge to try to retain the spirit and the form in another language.
Following this introduction I continued to follow Ruskin Bond on his wanderings and meanderings through his essays and columns. Here was someone who was not only sensitive to, and entranced by every minute detail of nature, but one who could share this evocatively through words.
When Ruskin Bond’s autobiography was published just over a year ago, I was curious and eager to fill in the blanks and to know more about Ruskin the person. I recently read the book called Lone Fox Dancing: My Autobiography. In it saw how many parts of his own life have been woven in his writings. Ruskin’s story is simply told and flows gently through eight decades, capturing flavours of the life of the angrez and the Anglo-Indians from the colonial times, through the Second World War, India’s partition and the birth and development of the new republic.
Ruskin writes about family and friends, travels and travails, painting word pictures that make one feel as if one is leafing through a real photo album. As he wrote “That’s what life is really like—episodic, full of highs and lows and some fairly dull troughs in between. Life is not a novel, it does not have the organisation of a novel. People are not characters in a play; they refuse to conform to the exigencies of a plot or a set of scenes. Some people become an integral part of our lives; others are ships that pass in the night. Short stories, in fact.”
For me there were “Eureka” moments when one recognized the people who became memorable characters in many of his stories. I marveled at the memory that could conjure up images from sixty-seventy years ago, but I also learnt the value of keeping a journal, something that Ruskin has done since his school days.
Above all, what the book reiterated was the celebration of solitude. Ruskin Bond is not a recluse nor one who shuns human contact. As a boy he writes that he was lonely, “loneliness that was not of my seeking. The solitude I sought. And found.” This solitude he found in nature, nature is the companion that has sustained and energized him over eighty years, and with it, the magic of the words to share the joy with others.
So the fashion gurus have decreed that the colour of the year 2019 is Living Coral which is described as “an animated and life-affirming shade of orange with a golden undertone”. This is the to-go-for colour for clothes and bags and shoes and accessories!
I was amused when I read this, and it also set me musing about my own year of Living Coral as it were.
This was the coral tree that stood just outside my office window and gifted me with hours of delight. For many years it was always there, and we took its comforting presence almost for granted. But one year my window-sharing colleague and I decided that we would look longer and closer at this old friend. We realised that the coral tree itself changed form and colour with the seasons. In the winter the skeleton of bare branches was silhouetted against the blue sky; come February this would transform almost overnight, into a burst of colour with the brilliant orange crimson buds and flowers. And yes, it was indeed life-affirming. The tree became animated with the many visitors that came to feast and fest on the blooms. Drongos and tailor birds, koels and babblers, doves and parakeets—calling, cooing, shrieking, sipping–what a cacophony of exploration and satiation! Occasionally the feathered visitors would hop onto our window sill and gaze curiously at us, the creatures without wings trapped in glass cages. Other winged creatures—butterflies and dragonflies, bees and wasps would flutter and flit within the blooms. But as with all life, it cannot always be Spring. The flowers would dry and shed, and the crimson would be replaced by green pods that soon turned brown. And in that brown nestled the seeds of new life, preparing to reaffirm itself with the cycle of time.
A single tree, a single window and a glorious reaffirmation of life!
Over the year, Pankaj the artist and I tried to capture some of this magic in words and pictures. And a small book The Coral Tree was the outcome. Today as I sit at another window, I turn the pages and celebrate that coral tree as a truly living entity.
The company that promotes the annual Colour of the Year describes Living Coral as a colour that “welcomes and encourages light-hearted activity, and the innate need for optimism and joyful pursuits.” I feel somewhat sad that the joyful pursuits may be limited to looking through store windows, and shopping for clothes and accessories to keep up with the fashionistas.
I am a great believer in Standard Operating Procedures.
SOPs had their origin in manufacturing, specifically pharma. An SOP is simply a documented process that an organization has to ensure services/products are delivered consistently every time.
But I find SOPs even more important in my personal life! I am pretty forgetful and not very organized. SOPs are what come to my rescue! Whenever something goes wrong more than once, I know it is time to find a systems solution.
It happens pretty often specially during longer travels, that I reach where I need to go and find I have forgotten something important. So this has a two-fold SOP. First, I have drawn up a standard list of things needed during travel. And second, I bring down the suitcase the weekend before, and start putting in things as I remember. Not just clothes and things, but gifts to be taken, medicines, books for the journey, walking shoes, etc.
I know I need to take my cheque book to office the next day. Or, I have to take the strip of antibiotics that I am on. But I also know that I am sure to forget. So I have a designated place in the cupboard. Whatever I have to take with me to office the next day is put there, the moment I think of it. It could be a document I have been working on, work-related brochures I picked up on my tours and were in my suitcase, whatever…. Yes, it does mean going up and down with each item. But I have found it is quite a fool-proof method. The alternative is a good 75% chance I will leave it behind.
I often forget my specs and am at the other end of where I need them. So the SOP is to duplicate my reading glasses. I keep a pair in each handbag, in offices where I travel to often, as well as one in my bedroom and one in the living room of my house. Sounds extravagant? Not really! I buy them at Rs. 250 a pair!
I have organized my sari-blouses and my salwars and chudidars by colour. And have one organizer kitbag for each. So there is the a white salwars bag, cream salwars bag, greens and blues bag, reds and maroons bag, etc. I think it has helped. Rather than messing up a whole cupboard shelf, I only mess up one kit bag. Not quite Marie Kondo but…
And so on and so forth….
I am sure many people are organized enough without these aids. And even those that do have them, don’t necessarily think of them as SOPs. But I just feel very organized and professional calling them that!
But a bit of the magic went away with the advent of TV and the proliferation of channels showing movies through the week. And then came videotapes and CDs and DVDs. And then came movies on demand. And then came movies on internet. And then came Netflix and Amazon Prime… Each reducing the magic a bit more.
But in-between came multiplexes! So fancy, so luxurious. Such sinkable seats, such expensive eats. Amazing sound, luminous pictures. With this development, a lot of people thought that whatever the convenience of watching movies at home, people would flock back to theaters for the community-watching experience. The hush of the hall punctuated by collective laughs and sighs. The magic of a shared emotional experience.
But while technology is getting better, human behaviour is getting worse! So today, when I pay between Rs. 300 and 500 for a ticket, I have to contend with (a) mobile calls in loud voices which typically start ‘Ahhh Hello. I am in the theatre. Watching xxx…’ and go on for 3 minutes! (b) light flashing in my eyes in the middle of movies as people look at their SMS, Instagram, FB; (c) children running along the aisles, screaming and shouting, with no check; (d) babes in arms bawling; (e) my seat being shaken by the person behind who has their feet up on it; (f) loud conversations and discussions.
I remember my mother telling me that till I was about 3 years old, my parents never went for movies. They were no exceptions. In the days of yore, people with children did not go for movies because they didn’t want to disturb the other people in the hall. They did it because that was the socially responsible thing to do. And that at a time when there was no TV, no alternative source of entertainment.
Contrast this to something that happened to me a few months ago. Raghu and I were at a movie when the guy next to me got a call. His phone rang loudly and he started a conversation during the movie. After a minute, I really got mad and gestured to him not to talk. To no avail. After another minute, I told him firmly to ‘Please don’t disturb all of us. We are trying to watch the movie.’ He made a face at me and said into the phone ‘OK yaar, I’ll call you later. There are some people near me and they are making a big fuss. These oldies are such a pain.’ Or words to that effect! (I solemnly attest that this happened!).
So I don’t want to go theatres anymore. It is not for positive reasons like the convenience of watching a movie when I want, or the comfort of the armchair in my room. It is for negative reasons…wanting to avoid the anger and sadness of seeing people not caring for others, not observing basic courtesies, not taking responsibility for their behaviour or that of their children. And the knowledge hat these problems are not confined to movie halls, but pervade so many aspects of life.
Is it only me, or do other oldies have this problem too?
This morning’s Google Doodle triggered the trip back in time. I was intrigued by the doodle of what looked like Indian spices, and an unknown face and name– Sake Dean Mahomed. Clicking on, I discovered not just the interesting life and times of this man, but also a link to mine own days of yore!
Sake Dean Mahomed was a man of many talents and accomplishments—author, entrepreneur, restaurateur, and pioneer masseur and spa owner! He was the first Indian author to publish a book in English; to establish, the first Indian restaurant in Britain named the Hindostanee Coffee House, and the first to introduce Indian style champi or massage in Brighton!
Brighton! The name took me back to my own Brighton (or fringe thereof) year, many moons ago. It was to the University of Sussex that I headed for my second Master’s degree—a small progressive campus nestled amidst the rolling Sussex Downs. That was a special year—opening of new windows, explorations and discoveries, and above all the starting of the bonds of friendship that have not only lasted, but strengthened over the decades. Cocooned as we were in the routine of the campus, the highlight of the week was a trip into Brighton, the nearest town, which was about 6 km away.
In the initial months we did the necessary “must see” sights—the Pavilion, the pier, the crescents, and the Baths. But then, our weekly trip into town consisted of what we then considered Splurge Saturday! In our early twenties, and with a very shoestring student budget, this meant taking the bus into town, a window-shopping walk around, finding something interesting and cheap to eat, and finally a movie! And, then the last bus back to campus with a sense of a day well spent! Simple joys, multiplied many times over by the excitement of the Friday evening pre-planning (where to eat, what to see that week), and the exuberant spirit of pure friendship and sharing.
Today I learnt, that more than a century and half before I explored and discovered Brighton, Sake Dean Mahomed (a Person of Indian Origin!) set up in Brighton, Mahomed’s Baths, which became known for its champi or massage followed by a steaming bath of Indian herbs and oils. Mahomed’s Baths gave a new twist to the early 19th century trend for seaside spa treatments, and it was hugely successful. Mahomed became known as “Dr Brighton”. Hospitals referred patients to him and he was appointed as ‘shampooing surgeon’ to both King George IV and William IV.
Incidentally, I also found out that the word “shampoo” did not take on its modern meaning of washing the hair until the 1860s, but as early as 1838, Mahomed wrote about Shampooing or benefits resulting from the use of the Indian Medicated Bath. I suspect this was simply an anglicised version of good old champi!
I must admit that I had no clue about Mahomed nor his famous baths while I was in Brighton. But thank you Google doodle and Dr Brighton for taking me back to Brighton today!