A recent relatively short train journey was an unexpected eye opener. When we were young, travel meant long train journeys. This was a much-planned programme, and one of the highlights of a vacation whether it was the annual summer holiday at the family home, or a Diwali get-together at the home of a close relative.
It was a while since I had travelled by train. I was looking forward to re-experiencing the small things that had characterised those train journeys. One of these was the sampling of ‘speciality snacks’ of different stations. Almost every station traditionally had something sizzling—being deep fried in large cauldrons on the platform, and wrapped steaming hot in old newspaper or banana leaves, depending on the region. Between stations there was a constant stream of hawkers calling out their special wares—from masala peanuts to the fruit of the season to the ubiquitous “chai garam.” Another ritual while starting a journey was the buying of ‘filmy’ magazines and comics from the cluttered AH Wheeler stall—a treat that marked the mood of a textbook-free month.
Buoyed by these memories I embarked on my journey. The first disappointment was to not find a single newspaper vendor around. There was no AH Wheeler stall on our platform, and the one on the platform across was shut even though it was not so early in the morning. So no “time pass” magazines or newspapers. Disappointment two was the food scene. No sizzling pans and oily bhajiyas and puri bhaji. Every station had the same looking stalls with their array of packets of chips, chips, and chips and similar packaged snacks in the standard multiple ‘international’ flavours—ranging from schezwan to barbeque to French onion! Oh yes, they all had a small pile of cold stale bread pakodas and vada pao that no one seemed to want. What a homogenization of the rich, savoury and distinctive flavour of railway platform culture, and a sterile tribute to an age of rip, crunch, munch and throw-away culture.
In the train itself the story repeated itself. I think I learned a great deal of geography simply by looking the passing landscape, with my father pointing out to the different crops that were growing in the fields, the changing appearances of the people and the houses, flashes of birds, animals or trees as the train rushed by. This was supplemented by a railway timetable that listed the names of the stations en route, and comparing the arrival and departure time of our train with what was scheduled as per the time table. Even the names of different stations had their own stories and histories. Till today, I can travel for days by road or rail happily gazing out of the window.
This time it was a bizarre sight to see every person in the compartment—old and young—glued to the small screens of mobile phones as the wonderful 70mm mega screen scenery flew by unnoticed. Children whined and complained of being “bored” when they tired of whatever it was they were watching on their phone, and were presented with yet another packet of chips or frooti drink; not one parent looked up to point to the window and say, “why don’t you look out?” I watched helpless and sad…What a sad waste of opportunities.
Perhaps the ultimate blow came when some of the passengers ordered food online, which was delivered at the notified station. One young woman stopped watching her third movie on her phone only long enough to alight at the next station to pick up her order of Domino’s pizza!
I can never forget mum meticulously grinding whole spices using a mortar and pestle and cooking Meen Kuzhambu (fish curry) in rustic looking manchattis (earthenware). Mum loved cooking fish in clay since it retained nutrition and made the dish flavoursome.
As a tribute to the good old days, one of the first things I did as a married woman and novice cook-in-charge of an entire kitchen for the first time, was to purchase a manchatti. I resolved to carry and pass on mum’s traditional ways. This was my favourite piece of cookware until I was introduced to Longpi.
I first read about Longpi in a blog post. What drew my eyes to the article were beautiful pictures of black earthenware with cane trimming. I was intrigued! I quickly dialled the numbers mentioned in the post and got in touch with Ms. Priscilla Presley. As luck would have it, she was in Bangalore at the time and had an exhibition-stall at the famed Chitrakala Parishath. The very next day, I met Priscilla, who enthusiastically introduced me to the history of Longpi stone pottery.
Traditionally called, “Loree Hamlei”, this pottery was historically used exclusively by the royal and noble families of Manipur. The original name is derived from the village of Longpi in Manipur where the Tangkhul Naga tribe specialise in creating this pottery.
The materials used are called weather rock and serpentinite found in abundance along the river banks of Longpi. The two rocks are crushed together and mixed in the ratio of 5:3, using very little water, and are then kneaded and shaped by artisans with bare hands and placed in moulds. This makes it one of the rarest forms of pottery as it does not use the potter’s wheel. Once it is dried and hardened, the mould is placed in a kiln and fired for about 5 to 7 hours till the temperature reaches 9000 C. It is then removed whilst still hot and rubbed with a local leaf known as Machee(Pasania Pachiphylla).
These vessels get better with age and can easily go from cookware to serveware due to their elegant and simple designs. They can also be popped into the oven and microwave provided they do not have the cane accents. Additionally, they can be easily cleaned using a mild soap solution.
Today as my cooking improves (slowly), I beam joyfully whenever guests ask me about the origin of the black beauties laid out before them.
To learn more about Longpi pottery you can contact Priscilla at 9902370318.
PS: Intrigued when I saw her collection of this pottery, I requested my friend Sudha to do a piece. Meena.
On the occasion Malaria Day (April 25), marked across the world to focus on efforts to rid humanity of this scourge, here is a short sketch of the life of Sir Ronald Ross, who made a life- mission of cracking the puzzle of the spread of malaria.
From: ‘Beyond the Call of Duty’. V. Raghunathan, Veena Prasad. Harper Collins.
Ronald Ross was born in 1857 – the year of Indian Mutiny — in Almora, to Campbell Ross an army officer. When ten, he was sent home to England for his schooling. Ronald was an average student, interested more in composing music and writing poems and plays than in academics. But his father would have none of it and forced Ronald into taking up medical studies, threatening to stop his money if he did not!
Young Ronald respected and trusted his father enough to give up his own ambitions and in 1875 ended up at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, in Smithfield, London to study medicine. This was the oldest hospital in all Europe, established in 1123, and then re-founded by King Henry VII in 1546. The hospital occupies its original grounds even today.
Completing his medical studies, Ronald Ross landed up at Bombay on 23rd October, 1880 to join the Indian Medical Service in the army the following year.
Ronald, thanks to his mediocre performance in the LSA examination, was at first relegated to the Madras Services, considered the least attractive of the three presidencies – Bengal, Bombay and Madras. Then he was posted as acting Medical In-Charge to the 17th Madras Infantry for six months at Vizianagaram. Later Ronald would reminisce about his life in Vizianagaram as being “better than the home life of a professional man in England”.
He soon was sent to the Presidency General Hospital in Calcutta where his early work on mosquitoes took shape. Visitors to Kolkata can still find the beautiful red brick Hospital within a stone’s throw of the Victoria Memorial. Today, it houses the Post Graduate Medical Education and Research Centre. The hospital, built in 1707, was probably the first hospital ever built in Kolkata, and was initially meant only for the British army. It was probably only after 1770 that the hospital was thrown open to the non-Europeans.
Malaria: The Mother of All Killers
In ancient times, it was assumed that malaria spread through bad air; hence the name mal-aria – Italian for bad air. Perhaps malaria and humanity evolved around the same time, somewhere in Africa (fossils of mosquitoes as old as 30 million years old have been found). It probably came to be recognized as a disease as early as 4000 B.C.
Malaria has killed millions over the centuries. Fortuitously, at the turn of the sixteenth century, Peruvian Indians found a cure f in the bitter bark of the Cinchona tree. By mid-seventeenth century the bark reached England, where quinine – the toxic alkaloid extracted from the bark – was used for the benefit of victims suffering from “agues”.
Quinine notwithstanding, as late as the turn of nineteenth century, the British Army in India which at the time had a strength of about 180,000 men, some 75,000 were found to be suffering from malaria. In 1897 alone, an estimated 5 million Indians would succumb to malaria. In 1935, about 1 million Indians died of malaria.
Ronald’s Medical Career in India Unfolds
Following his transfer to the Presidency Hospital, Ronald spent the next seven years in Calcutta, though from here was constantly being shunted to various other places including Calcutta, Bangalore, Burma and the Andaman Islands. His experience in Madras and Calcutta presidencies undoubtedly brought him close to the strange battlefields in which thousands of soldiers suffered at the hands of an enemy called malaria. Ronald an inquisitive and dogged mind which he would bring to bear on solving the mysteries of malaria.
Some kind of association of mosquitoes with certain diseases was not entirely unknown. For instance, only five years before, around 1878, one Patrick Manson had discovered that mosquitoes could be hosting the parasites responsible for filaria. Around 1880, another scientist, Charles Lavarean, had shown that the malaria parasite must in all probability lie outside the human body.
Since both mosquitoes and malaria are abundant where bad air prevailed, mosquito was beginning to emerge as a seriously shortlisted suspect in relation to malaria, and if, as Lavarean had shown, malaria probably had an external carrier, the mosquito was the the prime suspect– and the mosquito-malaria hypothesis was born.
In 1883 Ronald Ross built a small residence at Mahanad village on the Bandel-Burdwan line, and housed a little laboratory there. He would frequent this house every now and then journeying from Calcutta on mosquito-collecting forays to Mahanad and nearby villages, rich in mosquitoes, and peer into the innards of the pests for hours in his makeshift lab, trying to make the link with malaria in some way.
His work was interrupted when he was transferred to Bangalore as Acting Garrison Surgeon. Here he was attached to the well-known St. John’s Hospital. For most, the transfer would have been excuse enough to let the study he had commenced in Calcutta to be disrupted. But not for Ronald Ross, who seems to have found a mission in life – to solve the puzzle that mal air, mosquito and malaria together seemed to present.
In Bangalore, Ronald, still only in his twenties, found his living quarters quite acceptable, though he could hardly relax here, what with the buzz of mosquitoes forever assaulting the eardrums. He noticed too that his own quarters seemed to be a more attractive destination of for these mosquitoes than the adjoining ones. The specific beacon to which the mosquitoes were drawn seemed to be an old drum with some stagnant water, near one of the windows. A closer inspection into the contents of the barrel revealed a mass of tiny grubs writhing in the water.
A very basic demonstration of cause-effect relationship between stagnant water and mosquitoes seems to have revealed itself to Ronald.
Ronald would take the lead from here and work on and on to study the malaria parasite – the grubs – all the way through their life cycle. Such was his diligence and sincerity of purpose that he spent his own money and earned leave to go collecting mosquitoes for his studies, because research into Malaria was not part of his official responsibility!
His laborious exertions through 1880s and 90s, would ultimately prove the precise mosquito-malaria hypothesis, resulting in his winning the Nobel prize in 1911. Ross became Kolkata’s first Nobel Laureate (also the United Kingdom’s first, and the first laureate to be born outside of Europe).
With his growing fame and influence, it was only a matter of time before his admirers set up a prestigious Institution in his honour. Ross Institute and Hospital of Tropical Diseases and Hygiene was set up in London and Ronald Ross appointed its President for life. He also remained the President of the Society of Tropical Medicine.
In fact his fame had spread far and wide. There were few countries with scientific culture where Ronald had not been honoured for his many contributions. His was an extraordinary story of the triumph of perspiration over inspiration.
A recent news item about a telephone helpline for children caught my attention. This was not the usual helpline for children in trouble or distress. Called First Question, this is an open line that children can call with questions related to science and nature, and their questions would be answered by real scientists. A novelty indeed in an age where increasingly Google is the ultimate guru that provides all answers.
This reminded me of the TELL ME WHY series. For myself and my children, these were among our favourite go-to books. These comfortingly solid volumes were not glossy nor profusely illustrated, but they were jammed with questions What, Why, How, Where, and answers to these. From the bizarre ones like ‘Are armadillos edible?’ to the logical query ‘Where does water go when it dries up?’ to the dreamy ‘How did fairy tales originate,’ to the puzzled ‘Why don’t women have beards?’ every volume had over 300 questions, and short answers that were well researched and reliable. While flipping through the pages in looking for an answer one would come across a dozen other questions that made one stop and read and wonder! A learning experience that was not compartmentalized into subjects and periods, and test papers; just an adventure in exploring and discovering.
Alas in the digital age, while the whole world’s information is at our fingertips, our children, and even we, seem to have lost the charm of wandering in search of answers, and chance discoveries. The TELL ME WHY series also seems to have gotten lost with the advent of media that are rapidly replacing physical books. However the innate curiosity of a child can never be quashed.
First Question, an initiative of the Kerala Forest Research Institute, seeks to bring back the humans in an age of AI. Launched as a response to the concern that our educational system that does not encourage children to ask questions, the Helpline, considered to be the first of its kind for children in India, is being managed by 20 research scholars from the Institute with help from around 50 subject matter experts and scientists across the state.
Students can call the helpline number 0487-2690222 from Monday to Friday between 9.30 am and 5.30 pm and ask their science-related questions in either English or Malayalam. Students from outside the state can also ask their questions in Hindi.
What a wonderful initiative, and what joy for a child to be able to talk to an adult who takes them, and their questions, seriously.
And now, the latest magical health food—the humble Sweet Potato.
All these years, I knew of only two ways to eat it. Boil, peel, cut, eat. Or roast, peel, cut, eat.
Now the net has tens of recipes. Outnumbered only by articles which list the benefits of eating sweet potatoes.
So were we excited when someone told us a super-simple way to grow them! Just cut the bottom half off (cook the rest!). And put this bottom half into a container of water, partly submerged in it. Put the container in a place with good light (outside for a few hours is good). Don’t forget to change the water every 3 days. And you will see magic in a week! Small leaves in shades of green, red and purple, then more leaves. Growing lush and tall
Once you see enough leaves, plant this in the ground or in a pot.
And voila, you will have your own sweet potato farm!
Be green, have fun, eat healthy!
PS: Apparently, bandicoots and rats love sweet potatoes. So I think the first part involving the container is the easy part. Who knows what will happen when we put them in the ground!?! But we will be optimistic.
PPS: A joint project of Anuradha, Sudha and Meena.
Why should a lock be shaped like a lady? Perfect to every last detail—the braid at the back, the holes in the ears and nose for ornaments, the necklace, the drape of the dress. Every feature sharp and defined.
Did someone commission the craftsman, saying ‘I want a very unusual lock. Shaped like a lady.’ Or did the craftsman himself decide to create something original, a break from his routine, a need to speak to his buyers and to the future about his skills, his imagination? And if he did, did he show it off to lots of people? Did the owner show it off, or since it was a lock, was it hidden away somewhere, fastened on a secret cabinet or door? What drove the artist to take so much trouble and pour in so much of his energy and love into this?
Even more mundane, a chuna-spreader (used by paanwallahs to spread lime on betel leaves). Was it a particularly quirky shopkeeper who commissioned this? Or a nawab or zamindaar addicted to paan, who wanted to add a touch of beauty to the ritual of making his beedas? Or was it just the artist indulging himself?
The two preceding objects were probably custom-made or made in small numbers. The first is about 200 years old, and the second may be from the turn of the last century.
But this whistle, available at Rs. 20 in many melas today, is contemporary. A potter’s piece, this is shaped like a bird. But even more fascinating, it sings like a bird! Fill it to the halfway mark with water and blow into it, an unsuspecting guest will think that a melodious bird co-habits the house with you. Who dreamt this up?
I just picked three random objects from my house. The beauty and aesthetic of Indian crafts! But sadly, much of what is produced today in the name of craft displays neither the aesthetic nor the pride of craftsmanship. How is lost pride brought back?
It’s Women’s Day, and as the media reminds us, a time to celebrate the ME! A time to indulge oneself, pamper oneself and assert oneself, with all the accompanying gloss and glamour.
But is “all about me” really the formula for happiness? Consider this:
“Someone once asked me what I regarded as the three most important requirements for happiness.
My answer was: A feeling that you have been honest with yourself and those around you; a feeling that you have done the best you could have in your personal life and in your work; the ability to love others. Happiness is not a goal, it is a by-product. Paradoxically, the one sure way not to be happy is deliberately to map out a way of life in which one would please oneself completely and exclusively. After a short time, a very short time, there would be little that one really enjoyed. For what keeps our interest in life and makes us look forward to tomorrow is giving pleasure to other people.
It is easy to slip into self-absorption and it is equally fatal. When one becomes absorbed in himself, in his health, in his personal problems, or in the small details of daily living, he is, at the same time losing interest in other people; worse, he is losing his ties to life”.
Words of wisdom from Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt who was the President of the United States during the Great Depression and World War II. Eleanor was more than First Lady, she went on to play a leading role as a diplomat in the United Nations, and was one of the most loved and influential women of the 20th century. At the age of 76, she compiled her thoughts and experiences into a simple guide to living a fuller life based on her own philosophy on living, and informed by her personal experiences as a daughter, wife, parent, and diplomat. Titled You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life, this is a simple but powerful reminder of enduring common sense ideas and heartfelt values that resonate even 60 years after the book was first published.
A good day to share her words, and remind ourselves how enriching and invigorating it is to be able go beyond the ME! Let us celebrate the power of caring and sharing!
The excitement began in the first week of March. What shall we do this year? Shall we have a theme? What about the lunch? Shall we order it or have a pot luck? Shall it be a particular cuisine or a celebration of diversity? And of course, it will be our Sari Day, but shall we have a colour code this year? Intercoms buzzed and Prepcoms were held.
It was the run up to Women’s Day at CEE! This was not the day to make a great political statement, nor a significant feminist event. It was simply a time to meet, eat, laugh and play together—a celebration of sisterhood.
For me this sisterhood was one of the many things that made CEE so special. What may have been the first link in the chain was a true “sense of belonging” to an organisation. But that was lengthened and strengthened by numerous bonds that brought the new and the old; the different tiers of formal designations, and the several generations that made up the ‘woman power’ of the institution. It was the shared cups of tea and the lunch dabbas; it was the shared agonising over children, parents and in laws; it was the exchange of news and views, and the show-and-tell of things bought or made. This was a constant underground stream that flowed round the year, giving energy to our daily tasks at work. This seamless blending of many generations, and the mutual caring and sharing that made our lives so rich.
For us the Matriarchs, this sisterhood was the mainspring of our daily life. And we revelled in it as we scolded and moulded the fledglings; laughed and cried with our contemporaries; celebrated births and mourned the passings; bedecked ourselves for weddings, and planned office parties with much gusto. It was in many ways a time of innocence, a time when comfort and joy was derived from the feeling of going through life together. It was so much more than a coming together on a single day of the year.
“You are the sum total of everything you’ve ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot – it’s all there. Everything influences each of us, and because of that I try to make sure that my experiences are positive.” Maya Angelou
In this week, we look back and remember with gratitude and love all the wonderful women that we had the fortune to have met and worked with, and who have enriched us in so many ways.