Institutional Campuses: Biodiversity Havens

Those who sanctioned academic, scientific and other national institutions in the days of yore, were generous in their land allocation. So you have such organizations sitting of tens, and sometimes even hundreds of acres of land.

Some institutions have built up on much of the land. But in others, the land is either landscaped, or left wild. Or a witting or unwitting mix of the two. Any which way, a boon in today’s rush for land development. Often, because these institutions are under-funded, they are not able to maintain lawns etc. and let the land go wild, which is also a good thing. These campuses are like havens, where both green cover and biodiversity thrive.

To take just one example, I go back to the campus of IIM Ahmedabad (see also my blog of last week, ‘Living in a Louis Kahn’).

I had commented in that piece that there was no landscaping to speak about on the campus. I was mistaken, as comes out from this personal communication from Prof. Marti Subramaniam, eminent academic, in a comment on the piece:

‘The high point of my contact with Kahn’s work was when I spied him with Kasturbhai Lalbhai, early one morning, walking right outside the house where we lived as students.  I quickly followed them to overhear their conversation which went roughly along the following lines:

Kasturbhai: What trees should we plant here, Louis?

Kahn: Of course, in one line they should all be of the same species.  Otherwise, how would they talk to each other?’

So in fact it seems, a lot of thought had gone into the landscape! My ignorance indeed!

IIM A campus is a mix—from the manicured lawn of the Louis Kahn Plaza, to the utter wilderness on the edges. And this mix, it seems, has given rise to a good deal of biodiversity. And the great thing is, that as part of the Golden Jubilee celebrations of the Institute, these have been captured and documented in coffee table book called Natural World at IIMA.

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A work of love and passion indeed! Close to 200 pages of colour plates, documenting the flora—trees, shrubs, climbers, sedges, grasses and herbs; as well as the fauna—birds, mammals, reptiles, insects, spiders, butterflies and moths.

One hears of pressures on several institutions to ‘not let the land go to waste, put it to use.’ Or worse, institutional lands being taken away for other uses, including commercial uses. We need to resist any such diversions. These are among the few remaining islands.

And documenting and disseminating these in the form of books, databases etc., helps to communicate the value of this diversity, and is the first step in making the campus itself an educational resource. And a matter of pride and joy for alumni.

Here is to large, unmaintained campuses, and books on them!

–Meena

Ant Man

The other day my grand-nephew, not quite nine months old and just starting to discover the world around him, was crawling towards a line of ants on the veranda. Immediately there was a chorus of calls from the vigilant adults around him. “Be careful, the ants will bite him”. “Be alert that he doesn’t put a few in his mouth!” “Mind the ants don’t get into his clothes.” The little boy was picked up and taken away many times, and just as many times he determinedly crawled right back to the tiny creatures that were neatly marching away on their own business.

The ants took me back to my early days as an environmental educator. One of the first publications of CEE was a simple 8-pager called Ant. I was fascinated at how much one could write about creatures that were either not noticed, or when noticed, decried as pests! Further down the line I ended up putting together an entire teaching-learning manual on Insects. Besides opening up a whole new world this also led me to EO Wilson whose writings became a great inspiration, not just for what he studied, but equally for how wonderfully he shared his thoughts.

Edward Osborne Wilson is not just the world’s foremost authority on the study of ants (a myrmecologist!) but one of the founding fathers of, and leading expert in, biodiversity. His autobiography titled Naturalist traces his evolution as a scientist. Young Wilson knew early that he wanted to be scientist. A childhood accident left him with weak eyesight and hearing, so instead of focussing on animals and birds he concentrated on studying the miniature creatures. Thus the dreamy child turned into the focused scientist. Naturalist also reveals how these steps from daydream to determined endeavour involved a mix of random encounter, enthusiasm and opportunism.

My little nephew’s first explorations reminded me of EO Wilson’s words. “Why do I tell you this little boy’s story of medusa rays, and sea monsters nearly sixty years after the fact? Because it illustrates, I think, how a naturalist is created. A child comes to the edge of deep water with a mind prepared for wonder. He is like a primitive adult of long ago, an acquisitive Homo arriving at the shore of Lake Malawi, say, or the Mozambique Channel….The child is ready to grasp this archetype, to explore and learn, but he has few words to describe his guiding emotions. Instead he is given a compelling image that will serve in later life as a talisman, transmitting a powerful energy that directs the growth of experience and knowledge. But the core image stays intact. When an adult he will find it curious, if he is at all reflective, that he has the urge to travel all day to fish or to watch sunsets on the ocean horizon.”

In the current age of over-protective parenting, and educational systems that feel that rote learning is the key to science, EO Wilson’s words hold truer than ever: “Hands-on experience at the critical time, not systematic knowledge is what counts in the making of a naturalist. Better to be an untutored savage for a while, not to know the names or anatomical detail. Better to spend long stretches of time just searching and dreaming.” 

–Mamata

 

Cook-up in India

There are few inventions and innovations which are ‘Made in India, For India’.  We either reverse engineer, adapt, copy or adjust!

BBE8D84D-41D4-4E22-9002-0996A7ACFA45So from that perspective, I think the Coimbatore Wet Grinder is a marvel. The need for batters on an everyday basis is Indian. How can households run without a steady supply of idli batter, dosa batter, vada batter, adai batter, pesarattu batter, appam batter, paniyaram batter etc., etc.? While these dishes are all South Indian, they are extremely popular across India too.

In the days of yore, women used to grind these batters in a stone device. Frail-looking mamis turned into Karnam Malleswaris and Kunjarani Devis, wielding huge stone pestles with nonchalance! It took an hour or more of this heavy duty work to grind the breakfast batter for a large family and clean out the device.

Then came electric mixer-grinders. But always the refrain: ‘Oh, so small a jar. I have to do so many rounds for the quantity I need.’ Or ‘The motor heats up the batter as it grinds. Dosas never taste the same.’ Or ‘Uff, so much time it takes, I have to stand holding the lid.’ Because the mixer-grinders were not really conceived for our needs.

And then came WET GRINDERS! Magic! Small enough to fit in a corner of the kitchen but fairly good capacity; using the familiar stone-on-stone approach, thereby making mamis fully comfortable; no heating while grinding; and pretty easy to clean too!

An amazing individual called P. Sabapathy developed the wet grinder in Coimbatore in 1955, after much trial and error. Sabapathy introduced the grinders to other cities such as Chennai and Madurai. From the basic model, others innovated the tilting wet grinder, the table top grinder etc.

Coimbatore developed as the center for the manufacture of wet grinders. This was helped along by the fact that granite was available nearby. Also, as Coimbatore is anyway an industrial hub, manufacturing equipment, electrical motors etc. were all available within the same area. The city contributes to about 75% of the 1 lakh total monthly output of wet grinders in India. And apparently, there are 40 types of wet grinders today, from domestic to commercial.  In 2007, Tamilnadu Government opened a center for manufacturing raw materials for wet grinders and a research center here.

Historian CR Elangovan has written the history of Coimbatore wet grinders ‘Automatic Aataangal: Kovaiyin Seetanam. Alas, I cannot read Tamil. But I shall search to check if there is an English translation.

It is said that Mr. Sabapathy invented the wet grinder to save his wife labour. In the process, he has saved lakhs of women-hours. But who even knows his name? Shouldn’t he be in textbooks, as a supporter of women’s emancipation and a designer-inventor-entrepreneur of the highest order? We may even classify him as a social entrepreneur in today’s jargon! Shouldn’t he have got the Padmashri?

And coming back to one of my recent-favourite topics, the Coimbatore Wet-Grinder is GI (certified for Geographical Indicator).

–Meena

PS: This one is for my Mother in Law

Tiger! Tiger!

Gujarat is aIMG_20190221_103219.jpgll agog with the news that a Tiger has been spotted within its political boundaries. Papers are full of speculation about where it came from and where it went. In the meanwhile the state has quickly laid claim to be the only one in the country with three big cats—lion, leopard, and now tiger!

The news led me to relook at a book the Matriarchs had done for teachers over a decade ago. Called Tales of the Tiger it was an attempt to create awareness and excitement about the tiger through providing interesting information and activity ideas for students.

Compiling information for the book was in itself an exciting and educative safari. It was not just looking at this awe-inspiring cat from the zoological point of view, but seeing it as an integral part of the ecosystem, as well as the social and cultural environment.

Beyond the roar to the lore, as it were!  Sharing a few fascinating facts.

Tigers do not simply roar, growl and snarl. They have a wide variety of vocalisations such as chuffing, hissing, grunting, and mewling. A ‘chuff’ or ‘prusten’ is a friendly and non-threatening sound made when two tigers meet. The ‘pook’ sound is a sound similar to the alarm call of the sambar, a favourite prey animal of the tiger. It has been variously interpreted as a way of locating prey, a mating call, or to announce its presence to other tigers. A tigress uses moans to communicate with her cubs. Tigers also use body (especially tail) language to show aggression, affection and curiosity.

Beyond the jungles, tigers have long been a part of folklore and literature in every culture. The tiger is variously feared, respected, admired, and distrusted, depending on the context. According to stories from Indian mythology the tiger is believed to have powers to do everything from fighting demons to creating rain; keeping children safe from nightmares, and healing. Tribal beliefs, arts and crafts often place the tiger as a central symbol of worship. For example the people of the Warli tribe offer a part of their harvest every season to the worship of the tiger. The people of the Bhil tribe believe that they have descended from tigers. Songs, proverbs and sayings in most Indian languages feature the tiger.

In India the earliest visual representations of the tiger are found on the seals and terracotta figurines on the Indus Valley Civilisation. A seal found at Mohenjo Daro, believed to date back about 5000 years shows a man sitting in a tree angrily addressing a tiger waiting below for him.

Even as scientists have studied and tracked tigers in an effort to understand them better, tigers all over the world are threatened and endangered. In India Project Tiger, launched in 1973, has been an important milestone in the history of tiger conservation in India. 

While the new sighting of the tiger may possibly turn into a contest of “Mine, Mine!” it may be wise to remember and respect that this magnificent cat knows no political boundaries. May it always walk in majesty, wherever it may roam.

–Mamata

 

 

Living in a Louis Kahn

A tribute to the architect on his birthday (Louis Kahn: Born 20 Feb, 1901)

When did it really strike me that I was living somewhere very special? Well, when one of my architect colleagues introduced me to his sister—another architect—as follows:

‘Meet Meena. She lives in a Louis Kahn.’

Wow! That’s the nearest I ever got to being a brand person! No one is going to ever accuse me of ‘wearing a Satya Paul’ or ‘carrying a Prada’. But this felt good!

I lived on the campus of IIM Ahmedabad, as a faculty-spouse for over 15 years. On an everyday basis, living in the IIM houses was/is about: ‘Oh God! The wall is seeping again’. Or ‘Why are these rooms so cold?’ or ‘This red brick is completely impractical for Ahmadabad. Look how they pit’.  I suppose it needs an outsider’s perspective and a bit of distance to help us appreciate things we take for granted or actively crib about!

Living on the IIM-A campus is something special—it’s being part of history and a special vision. A vision forged by the founders of the institution, and given physical shape primarily by the architect (because, frankly, there is no landscaping to talk about!!).

Some things about the campus never cease to surprise, for instance: How is that there are so many students around, but it’s still such a quiet and serene place? How is it that the lives of the families living on campus and the lives of students almost never intersect? The only time you see students is if you go to the bank or decide to walk the path going between the dorms to reach the main gate. The only time you hear students is when they do a particularly loud ‘Tempo’ shout. Considering it’s not a very large campus, how does this work?

The arrangement of houses is again something special. There is such a respect for personal space. At an everyday level, that translates to ‘You simply don’t have to ever see your neighbours unless you want to!’ But at the same time, there is the comforting feeling that the community is there when you need them!

IIM houses, are to say the least, quirky! Anyone who has lived in different ‘regular’ houses (and believe me, we have!) would know that it is not possible to take it for granted that door and window curtains are transferrable from one house to another. Why do measurements differ from house to house? No one I know has an answer! And the door from the drawing room to the rest of the house! Some houses have wooden doors, some glass; the position is a bit different in each house. That ‘below the staircase’ storage space bang opposite that door and how to screen it visually has perplexed one and all!

And the completely non-uniform lawns! We’ve lived in a house with the most luxurious 3-sided lawn; one which had decent-sized lawns on both the back and front; and one which had a shamefully tiny odd-sized strip in the front, and a lovely one at the back!

Nature is very much a part of life on campus! Butterflies, dragonflies, birds nesting in the bushes, bats mucking up the verandahs! On and off, monkeys were an active presence in our lives—they would jump on the cars, topple over the scooters and kick over the dustbins. It was as if all these had been set up as a gym for them to use! And the famous campus crow, which has been much studied by Prof. Venkat Rao, and which took a malevolent pleasure in messing up his scooter. We always had lots of vultures. But what with the general decline of the species, they almost disappeared from the campus. Hopefully now, with the banning of the drug implicated in the decline, the campus too is seeing a revival.

I’ve written only about the physical aspects of the campus. But I believe that this actually governs to a large extent the other aspects, and is what makes the IIM campus what it is, and defines the community. Detached but supportive. Making one feel a part of something larger, a grand vision. Quirky and individualistic. And just a bit impractical!

–Meena

This is about the old campus only. I don’t relate to the new campus, having left the campus by the mid-naughts.

The BBC Connect

I recently attended a thought-provoking talk by anthropologist and storyteller Gauri Raje on autobiographical storytelling and personal stories. Gauri, an old friend, now lives and works in the UK with refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. For several years  Gauri has worked, through biographical storytelling, with ‘displaced people’ from many parts of the world–refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, seeking to start a new life in England. Through workshops involving story telling and story making, these people, uprooted from all that was familiar, in a precarious situation regarding their future in a strange and alien culture, were encouraged to tell  personal stories that they have never told in public. Gauri shared some of her many heart-rending, heart touching exchanges with these fragile people. The stories they shared were tales of incredible grit and resilience.

One of the stories was of a young Sudanese man who entered England as a stowaway clinging to the undercarriage of the Chunnel train. When the young man reported to the local police station where he had stepped onto English soil, he found that he could not understand the English that the police spoke. In an interesting aside to his story, he was emphatic that this was not at all like the English that he had heard spoken over the BBC radio that he listened to when he was in his home country!

While this revelation had its own impact (and that is another story!), it reminded me of a book I read a few months ago which, curiously, was based on another BBC connection. This was the true story of an unlikely friendship between a journalist with the BBC World Service in London and a Professor of English in war-battered Baghdad.

It began in 2005 when Bee Rowlatt, the journalist emailed May Witwit an Iraqi woman to confirm and prepare for a telephone interview about day-to-day life in Baghdad, and about her thoughts on the forthcoming elections there. May’s detailed and frank responses prompted more curiosity and questions from Bee, and a friendship developed between the two women. The “official BBC e-mail” planted the seeds of a correspondence that spanned from 2005-2008, with the two women sharing their news and thoughts about their work, family and life—at some levels-the social and political-poles apart, and yet so close in terms of shared emotions—despondency, depression, laughter and love.

The correspondence developed into a project to get May out of the dangerous and unhappy life in Iraq to seek asylum in Britain. The e-mails traces the challenges and travails in this venture—to gain asylum status and enough money to start a new life in a new land. Interestingly, here also the e-mail correspondence turned out to be key to this – its publication in book form helped to raise funds so May could prove that she had the financial support to come with her husband, to study in Britain.

The book is titled Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad: the True Story of an Unlikely Friendship

 I am sure Gauri has facilitated many such stories to be told and shared from people in similar circumstances and I hope, some day, to hear some of these stories from her.

For now, it is for me just to share a coincidence of two stories that had a BBC Connect in their own special way.

–Mamata

 

Pomelo in My Yard

I marvel when I see the pomelo tree in my yard. It is no higher than 6 feet, and doesn’t have very strong branches. More a bush than a tree, almost. But the number of fruits it bears at a time, and the size of those fruits! I spanned one of the fruits on my tree and the circumference was upwards of 18 inches! And a tree may have up to 20 fruits at any given time. I really wonder how the tree takes the weight!
fruit

Pomelo or Citrus maxima or Citrus grandis is the largest citrus fruit, and all other citrus fruits have apparently been hybridized from this. The pomelo tree shares ancestry with the grapefruit.

The origin of the name ‘pomelo’ is uncertain. My mother used to call it Bablimass, insisting that this was the Tamil name. Probably a corruption of pampa limāsu, which means “big citrus”

Coincidentally, there is a GI link to the pomelo. The Devanahalli pomelo is a variety of pomelo (Citrus maxima) grown in the region around Devanahalli taluk, Bangalore Rural District, India and locally known as chakkota.

The Devanahalli pomelo is protected under the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration & Protection) Act (GI Act) 1999 of the Government of India, under the title “Devanahalli Pomello”.

The Devanahalli pomelo has a unique, sweet taste, unlike other local varieties which have a bitter taste. Five decades ago, this plant was crossbred with local varieties, and it was nearing extinction. A few old Devanahalli pomelo plants were identified in the area and then propagated widely, thanks to which the variety has been preserved.

A story goes that Mahatma Gandhi tasted this fruit when he visited Nandi Hills near Devanahalli. He liked its taste and suggested that the authorities conserve this variety.

I wish the pomelo in my yard was a Devanahalli pomelo. But due to the special soil conditions at Devanahalli and its GI status, mine is not and cannot be!

So though I am not more than 20 kms away, sadly mine is a Rajanakunte pomelo, not a Devanahalli one!

I only ever tasted a fruit from my tree once, and did not particularly like the taste. Oh, if only I had a Devnahalli Pomelo tree!

So near, yet so far!

–Meena

Promoting GI, Protecting Diversity

Last week, I happened to go to Goa (regretfully, not a holiday!). The airport, as many airports across the country, is full of shops.

Apart from the usual brand shops and the special Goa memorabilia shops, I came across a fascinating outlet here. It was a ‘GIs of India’ shop!

Oh, I have jumped the gun! GI could stand for any number of things. I am referring to Geographical Indication, which is “an indication which identifies goods such as agricultural goods, natural goods or manufactured goods as originating, or manufactured in the territory of a country, or a region or locality in that territory, where a given quality, reputation or other characteristic of such goods is essentially attributable to its geographical origin and in case where such goods are manufactured goods one of the activities of either the production or of processing or preparation of the goods concerned takes place in such territory, region or locality, as the case may be.”. GI is a type of intellectual property right, which certifies a product as having originated in a specific geographic location—for instance, that the Mysore silk you just bought is indeed produced in Mysore; or the Jaipur Blue Pottery is indeed from Jaipur.

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Madurai Sungudi is GI registered

India enacted the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act in 1999. The first GI product to be registered was Darjeeling Tea. Now there are 330 GI registered products—a fascinating range, from the usual suspects to the completely unexpected—from Kanpur Saddlery, to Beed Custard Apple; from Coimbatore Wet Grinder, to Varanasi Glass Beads!

The shop at the Goa Airport was very new, just being set up. But the staff were extremely enthusiastic and eager not just to sell their products, but also share information on the concept of GI shops. They said that a large chain of these was coming up across the country.

Indeed an exciting way to create a market for these amazing products, and preserve the diversity, both natural and cultural.

I’ll be on the lookout for these GI shops, for sure!

–Meena

The Coucals are Calling

 

The Coucals are calling at the break of day,P1020594.JPG

Wooing and courting, a-hooping away.

 

The starlings have arrived from far far away,

They chirp and they chatter in a chorus all day.

 

Sometimes balmy, often chilly, that capricious breeze,

Raising billows of dust, and rustling through the leaves.

 

The sun plays hide and seek with wispy clouds,

The koels stridently shriek out loud.

 

Fresh blossoms bloom on some trees

While leaves are shed from other trees.

 

It’s Spring!

Celebrating Basant Panchami

 

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–Mamata

 

 

Streetwise

One of the most important parts of my day at work was the walk home at the end of the day. It was not a very long walk (under 15 minutes) and certainly not a route that offered great beauty of nature or landscape. For me, the walk was more than the act of getting from the physical space of work to that of home. It was an important ritual that helped in the transition from the mental space of ‘work’ to ‘home’. Through my three decades of work there were different transitions that took place. As a young mother, it was the bridge between leaving behind of the role of busy professional and bracing for an evening with the mental and physical energy required in parenting young children. As the children grew older, and one’s parents older still, it was the period of putting behind the challenges of the job to tackle the challenges of coping with geriatric health and care-taking issues. When both children and parents no longer needed the sort of support I could give, it was simply the luxury of going over the day—hours which had passed, and the few hours ahead. Walking thus was form of therapy for me.

I like walking. And I enjoy walking on busy streets. I like observing people and activities, and my walk home offered much. There were the familiar regulars—walkers like myself, and others that I would cross or pass on the way. Strangers at one level, but a familiar and comforting daily cast of characters—I used to imagine who they were, what they did, and what awaited them that evening. As someone aptly put it, “Simply by being outside on the street, people are inadvertently revealing their life histories in their bodies, in their steps, in the hunch of their shoulders, or set of their jaw.”

Walking thus, even as one is observing people there is an odd sense that you are invisible yourself! I was occasionally reminded of the fact that others may be “doing unto you what you do unto them” when someone I did not recognise would tell me “we don’t see you walking these days” or “I know where I have seen you—you walk everyday on that road.”

There were the little ‘milestones’ on the route–the small Hanuman temple at the corner, and the Momo mobile stall, and the busy tailor with his sewing machine right on the footpath; the pavement dwellers lounging on the battered tattered sofa that they had salvaged; the ‘party plot’, where in the wedding season one could see last night’s decorations being taken down in the morning while going to work, and new ones being put up in the evening for that night’s wedding.

There were the trees along the route, especially the huge mango tree—and always the eagerness to spot the first blossoms on it. The big open ground which hosted a variety of water birds when it filled with the monsoon water, and which hosted a variety of handloom and handicraft melas in the winter. There were the cows that crossed the road along with you, and the dangerously straying puppies in puppy season.

Of course there were no real footpaths or pavements! It was an exercise in agility and alertness—sidestepping the cowpats and litter; circumventing the potholes and muddy patches; dodging the scooters and cars that veered dangerously close, and finding the perfect moment to cross the road amid the chaos of the traffic. Whatever the challenges, the walk was always an adventure!

As one of my favourite authors Ruskin Bond puts it so well—“The adventure is not in arriving, it’s the on-the-way experience. It is not the expected; it’s the surprise. You are not choosing what you shall see in the world, but are giving the world an even chance to see you.”

–Mamata