28 February marks National Science Day in India–it is the day in 1928 when Sir C. V. Raman discovered the Raman Effect. For his discovery, Sir C.V. Raman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1930.
The discovery of the Raman Effect itself happened at Calcutta, but Bangalore was also Sir Raman’s ‘karma bhoomi’, in that he worked at the Indian Institute of Science from 1933 till his retirement in 1948, after which he founded the Raman Research Institute in the city, and continued working there till his death in 1970.
So on this Science Day, here is a little information on one of the exciting science education venues coming up in Bangalore. Science Gallery Bengaluru, under construction in Hebbal (not too far from IISc and the Raman Research Institute), ‘will be a dynamic new space for engaging young adults at the interface between science and the arts’. The under-construction centre anticipates a footfall of about 40,000 people a year, with a focus on 15-25 year olds. It is a multi-stakeholder collaboration, including Govt. of Karnataka, Trinity College UK, Indian Institute of Science, etc.
Scheduled to open in 2021, the Science Gallery is already active, having put up several events including ‘Submerge’ a major exhibition on Water.
And keeping with the theme of Science Day 2020 which is “Women in Science”, the Executive Director of the Science Gallery is Dr. Jahnavi Phalkey, a historian of science and technology. The Board is chaired by Dr. Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, and includes Dr. Geetha Narayanan.
Bodes well for Science and Women Scientists!
Let us hope that the Science Gallery will help to infuse young people with the spirit of what Sir CV Raman said: ‘Ask the right questions and nature will open the doors to her secrets.’
In the past week or so, food and menus have been much in the news. The most recent being the menu which has been planned for the banquet that the President of India is hosting tonight for American President Donald Trump and his delegation who are visiting India. And then, there was the news about the Historical Gastronomica event that the National Museum in New Delhi is hosting. This event offered an Indus Valley dining experience through a “specially crafted menu that strictly includes ingredients identified by archaeologists and researchers from sites of the Indus-Saraswati civilization.” The latter event has been in the news because of the controversy over whether the people of that place and time ate ‘non vegetarian’ food or not. The controversy has generated many articles referring to the works of scholars in this area.
One of the food historians referred is K.T. Achaya and his authoritative volume on the history of Indian food titled Indian Food: A Historical Companion. This led me to my bookshelf to pull out another book by this renowned authority on Indian food. This one, titled A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food followed his earlier ones. In this he attempts to bring together, in alphabetical order, material from his vast work on the subject. The book draws upon historical writing, archaeology, botany, genetics and ancient literature in Sanskrit, Pali, Tamil and Kannada to trace the gastronomic history and food ethos of India. The entries cover a wide range including recipes; narratives of visitors to India, starting with the Greeks in the fourth century; the etymological evolution of certain words, and the close links of food with ancient health systems such as Ayurveda. While this is a valuable scholarly work with meticulous and voluminous referencing, it is simply written, with a delightful menu–from A to Z–that one can dip into, and savour according to one’s own taste and appetite.
For me every entry is fascinating. For today I will share an excerpt about two elements that are the starting point of a menu and a meal—Guest and Host!
‘Guests had an honoured place in Vedic society, ranking only below the father, mother and guru. On arrival, a guest was ceremoniously received, given water to wash his hands and feet, and offered the ambrosial beverage madhuparka. In early Vedic times, if the guest was an honoured Brahmin or a member of royalty, a large bull or goat would be sacrificed in his honour, even if the guest was a vegetarian. Later this ritual became symbolic, and the guest was given a knife in token of the sacrifice, which he returned after a prayer. During the meal, the host had to be solicitous, either eating later, or finishing his own meal quickly, so as to rise early and look after his guests.
In the Manava Dharmashastra (Manusmriti) a host is exhorted in these terms: Let him, being pure and attentive, place on the ground the seasoning for the rice, such as broth and pot herbs, sweet and sour honey, as well as various kinds of hard foods that require mastication, and soft food, roots, fruits, and savoury and fragrant drinks. All these he shall present, and being pure and attentive, successively invite them to partake of each, proclaiming its qualities: cause them to partake gradually and slowly of each, and repeatedly urge them to eat by offering the food and extolling its qualities.
All the food shall be very hot and the guests shall eat in silence. Having addressed them with the question: Have you dined well? Let him give them water to sip, and bid farewell to them with the words: Now rest.’
(A Historical Dictionary of India Food K.T.Achaya (pp 96)
And so in India–Atithi Devo Bhava–The guest is God!
When I was growing up in Delhi, house sparrows were very much a part of our lives. They were everywhere, and by the dozens. In fact, most children of those times got their first nature lessons by watching sparrows—the sex differentiation, how they built their nests, the eggs hatching and the parents feeding the young, their mud-bathing etc.
Everyone loved them, but that is not to say they did not give us some headaches. In the summers, they would fly into the house, and it was a mad scramble to switch off the fans and shoo the birds out before they were hit by it and died. And mothers would keep long sticks handy to chase them when they showed signs of making nests in the fan-cups.
For many years now, sparrows are not to be seen so easily. Now, the recently published ‘State of India’s Birds’ assures me that I need not worry because the population of sparrows has been stable in India for the last 25 years. I believe it, because the report is the result of a collaboration among ten of the most respected research and conservation organisations in the country. But I do know that the population has significantly declined from say 35 years ago. And I do wish I would see more of chirpy little birds.
The report also says that the population of peafowl has increased manifold. This may be attributed, it is being said, to the spread of aridity in the country. This is not all good news, as peacocks come into cultivation and eat up growing shoots, causing harm to crops.
The report identifies 101 bird species as needing special efforts for conservation, including specially raptors and water-birds.
The report is a landmark in Indian conservation efforts, because it provides good quality baseline data, which can help shape conservation efforts and their monitoring. It is also unique in that it is based on data collected by citizens across the country–10 million observations collected by over 15,500 birdwatchers across the country. Truly participatory and truly large scale. And the fact that hard-core research organizations are guiding the effort, gives authenticity to the data and findings.
Knowing is the first step to acting. Now we know to some extent what we should worry about. Time to act now!
Last week we wrote about Uncle Moosa and his single-handed mission to take books and reading to the remotest parts of North East India.
Here is the story of another man with a similar mission, one that he has been pursuing with undiminished passion and fervour for over 70 years! He is Mahendra Meghani. And this is the story of Lokmilap, the bookshop that he started, and which became a symbol of all that he has devoted his life to. And one to which I too have old links.
In the summer holidays when we used to go to Bhavnagar, our ancestral hometown, one of visits most looked forward to, was the one to Lokmilap. For us this was treasure house from which we were allowed to select a few books. More precious, because it was perhaps the only one that stocked English language books, in addition to some of the best literature in Gujarati. We often met Mahendrabhai there, who was also a family friend, and he would show us the new arrivals including the beautifully illustrated children’s books from the Russian People’s Publishing House.
In those days this was as much as we knew about Lokmilap. Over the years as we grew, we learnt more about Mahendra Meghani and his tireless mission to take literature to “the people” in every way possible.
Mahendrabhai’s own lineage in literature goes back to his father, the famed Gujarati litterateur Zaverchand Meghani, who was given the title Lok Shayar or People’s Poet by Mahatma Gandhi. It is said that while Zaverchand took literature from people’s tongues to people’s hearts, Mahendrabhai took literature to every person, home and society.
Born in 1923, Mahendrabhai, graduated from high school in Mumbai, and joined L. D. Arts College in Ahmedabad for further education. It is said that when he was getting ready to move from Mumbai to Ahmedabad, his father advised, “It gets very hot in Ahmedabad, so make sure you cover your head with a topi”. Complying with his father’s suggestion, Mahendrabhai started wearing the khadi cap which became an integral part of his attire, and remained so through the years. After two years in Ahmedabad he returned to Mumbai to join the Elphinstone College, but left that to join Gandhi’s Quit India movement. He did not return to college, but instead helped his father with his journalistic work. After the death of his father in 1948, Mahendrabhai went to the US to study journalism at Columbia. Living in the International Student’s House in New York, he would, every day, buy two newspapers and peruse the many pages. It is here that he also discovered Reader’s Digest. And he found his calling! He decided to return to India and start a similar magazine in Gujarati. And so, on 26 January 1950, India’s first Republic Day, was born Milap, a monthly journal in Gujarati which set high standards of language and literature, and yet garnered a wide and faithful readership.
Tired of the hectic life in Mumbai, Mahendrabhai moved to Bhavnagar in Gujarat where the journal Milap engendered the publishing house as well as the book shop Lokmilap (meeting of people). It is through these that Mahendrabhai lived his passion to take good literature, at affordable prices, to as wide a reading public as possible. The bookshop, as he said, “included books from all publishers, but not all books from all publishers.” Lokmilap’s vision was not simply to sell books; they wanted to open windows to the best in world literature, to give people a perspective about life, and how to live life. They published hundreds of original Gujarati books, but also translated and abridged versions of classics of world literature (many of them translated by Mahendrabhai himself). More critically, the books were very nominally priced, to suit even the shallowest pocket. They introduced “pocket books”, initially to take poetry to the people, but later diversified to include a vast range of literature. Priced then, as low as 50 paise, the books sold in lakhs.
In 1969, the Gandhi Centenary year, he compiled a special collection of 400 books that celebrated Gandhi’s life and message, and a booklet titled Discovering India Book Exhibition. The books were exhibited in many countries across the world with the condition that the sponsoring organisation would buy the set, and donate it to a local library or community centre.
Mahendrabhai himself has travelled far and wide, always clad in his simple khadi attire, sharing his love for language and literature with wide and diverse audiences. In Bhavnagar he was a familiar sight, riding his bicycle no matter what the weather. His tireless quest to share the best with everyone had many facets—at one point hand grinding wheat and baking bread which he distributed, to starting a film club which screened some of the classics of world cinema, and to which he would bring people who had never before been exposed to such experiences.
The man and his mission have inspired and touched millions across generations and nations. Last month, on India’s 70th Republic Day, Lokmilap also marked its 70th anniversary by announcing its closure. Expressing the sentiment that everything that has a start will have an end; what better than the end that is brought about by the ones that made the start? For all of us whohad taken Lokmilap as one of those comforting points of stability and continuity in lives and cities that have changed so much, it is a sense of losing moorings. But secure that the seeds of the institution have been planted deep and strong.
A man whose mission has brought the love of letters to millions, Mahendrabhai, at age 97, carries on with his writing and reading, somewhat frailer in body but indomitable in spirit.
Yesterday, the results of the Delhi election were declared. Aam Aadmi Party romped home with a thumping majority.
And this is a piece about monkey business, not politics. (This is a statement of fact. Nothing tongue in cheek).
If so, then why start the piece by talking about politics?
Because monkeys taking over parts of Delhi including Parliament and high government offices is often in the news. And there was a statement made by an AAP MLA that “Monkey problem never became a poll issue”! In spite of that, the issue was serious enough that before the Assembly elections, the Delhi government planned for a census of monkeys in the city, for area-wise identification and tackling of the issue. They have roped in Wildlife Institute of India (WII), the country’s premier research institution on the subject.
So it is not like monkeys and elections don’t have a link. How could I resist the temptation?
Anyway, to get to the matter on hand. For the last month or so, a group of Rhesus Macaques has been visiting our small office in Bangalore every once in a few days. The first reactions were of course ‘so cute’, and ‘shall we give them biscuits’. But as days went by, and the visits became a regular feature, they became bolder. They sat outside the door and snarled when we went to shoo them away. Several times they entered the office. And a few days ago, one of them snatched a tiffin box, went out, enjoyed the contents, and threw away the box.
The erosion of natural habitats is pushing wildlife including monkeys out of their homes. Where do they go except to cities? And our cities are very conducive for certain species. For instance, in the case of monkeys, our unorganized disposal of food and organic waste, and lack of garbage system lead to plenty of food being available, and they thrive.
Many means have been tried to keep monkeys away. In Delhi, Langurs were actually employed by the government to visit offices turn by turn and scare the Rhesus monkeys away, till this was stopped as it raised concerns about cruelty to animals (i.e., the Langurs being put to work). Following this, the government is hiring people who can mimic Langur sounds, and they go around doing this, with some success in keeping Rhesus away. A few days ago, there was a news item that Ahmedabad Airport was deploying a man dressed in a bear costume to keep away monkeys. In Bangalore, vegetable and fruit vendors often have large stuffed tigers on their carts for this purpose. (This is what we are going to try in our office too!).
Delhi has also tried translocating monkeys to forests and protected areas. But that obviously has its limits in how many can be accommodated. Himachal Pradesh has spent large sums on sterilization programs, but experts question the efficacy. Now, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has launched a programme with the help of National Institute of Immunology and Wildlife WII to develop a new immuno-contraception technique which will inject a vaccine to prevent female monkeys from getting pregnant. Some experts feel this is the way forward. But when this will be ready, how it will be deployed at large scale across the country, and whether it will ultimately work at scale are questions that remain.
In the meantime, the fundamental solutions remain the age-old ones: (1) vigorously prevent the destruction of natural areas, forests and habitats, and (2) manage waste better.
When I saw the name Sathyanaryanan Mundayoor on this year’s Padma Shri list, a recognition for playing a ‘seminal role’ in spreading
education in Arunachal Pradesh, I was delighted. He epitomises for me a true passion for books and reading, and an inspiring story of a lifetime devoted to this mission. I first heard of him and his library mission, over a decade ago, from my old colleague and friend Ambika Aiyadurai. I sent him some of the books that we had developed in CEE, and over the years we corresponded sporadically. I have not yet been able to meet him in person, but truly hope to do so sometime. In the meanwhile I feel that his work needed to be shared. What could be better than a first-hand account from Ambika who has known him and seen his work over the years.
Thank you Ambika for sharing this!
I first heard about Sathyanaryanan Mundayoor, way back in 2006 when I started my research work in Arunachal Pradesh. School teachers, students, engineers, administrators, doctors and local villagers in Lohit district of Arunachal Pradesh suggested I meet him. In Lohit and later Anjaw district, where I started my field research, every one fondly spoke of ‘Uncle Moosa’, a name that people of Arunachal had given him. It was only after two years, in 2008, that I had a chance to meet him at Wakro (Lohit district). My accommodation was in the Circuit House, and he had come there to meet someone. With a pleasant smile, a gentle, fragile-looking man greeted me with a ‘namashkaram’. What struck me was his dress. That evening, in the chill of October, all Uncle Moosa had over him was a sweater and shawl, and a cotton veshti. In fact, I have only seen him in a veshti all these years.
Uncle Moosa invited me to visit Bamboosa library the next day. The days were short, so I decided to visit the library at 3 p.m. A group of children was in the library, sitting on a carpet on the floor, reading books. Few sat on chairs placed along the wall. Soon, another set of students arrived. With an assortment of books neatly arranged on the shelves, this single room is a wealth for local children. Students were free to choose any book, read on their own, or in groups. This library in Wakro is a result of Uncle Moose’s mission to inculcate reading skills and promote a reading culture among children in Arunachal Pradesh. And he has spent the last 30-odd years on this mission to connect rural children of Arunachal Pradesh with books. Starting with the Bamboosa library in Tezu, followed by Apne library in Wakro, and Hutong library in Yatong in Anjaw district, by now 13 libraries have been set up in the state, as part of the youth library network.
Uncle Moosa’s first visit to Arunachal Pradesh was in the year 1979 as part of a Vivekananda Kendra Vidyalaya mission. He took this up after quitting his government job in the income tax department in Mumbai. Till 1996, he worked with VKV, dedicating his entire time to the library movement, and never went back to Mumbai nor to his home state of Kerala. In addition to running libraries, Uncle Moosa would invite scholars and other visitors to give a talk in the library and interact with the students. Uncle mentored senior students to become reader activists and there are several events organized during Gandhi Jayanti, World Environment Day and Independence Day where students affiliated with the library movement would perform plays, skits, reading sessions and poem recitals. Those who have known him for several years tell me that Uncle Moosa would carry books in small trunks and suitcases to remote villages to set up reading camps. Hopping onto state transportation buses, and in places with little road connectivity, he would walk for several kilometers to reach a village.
Not many know about Uncle Moosa’s frugal living. A small single room with a bed and a shelf was his accommodation in Wakro. His day begins at four in the morning by doing yoga and meditation. His favourite breakfast is upma, and he prepares his own food himself every day. Full of energy, and with a kind, ever-smiling face, talking with him is a joy. His dedication to the library movement and helping students with their education has earned him love and respect, both from adults and children. He continues to live in Arunachal Pradesh, and is now based in Roing. Many years have passed, and I have completed my PhD, but every time I go back to Arunachal Pradesh, I look forward to meeting Uncle Moosa!
Uncle Moosa has dedicated his life to promoting education and fostering a culture of reading in the remote areas of the North-Eastern state. May his tribe increase!
At 11.11 by the clock, on the 11th of November every year (pretty palindromic, isn’t it?), at Mainz Germany, the Fools’ Constitution is proclaimed from the balcony of the Osteiner Hotel. This marks the start of the City’s Carnival, which is characterized by people wearing oversized papier-mache heads roaming around the crowds. It seems that this practice started about 80 years ago, but I could not find references as to why “schwellköpp” or ‘swollen-heads’ are an integral part of the festivities.
Equally mysterious to me is why shops these days have “schwellköpp” mannequins. I really can’t see why anyone would want to buy garments modelled by such weird looking dolls. I know it is all about attracting attention, but surely, there could be better ways to do this than having swollen-headed guys with multi-coloured hair? Fortunately, all the schwellkopp mannequins I have seen have been male. I fear female versions would be really too much.
The practice of using mannequins to model clothes goes back to 15th century France, but those were miniatures. The use of full size dummies started in the 18th century, and these were made of wicker. Later, mannequins were made of wire-work. In the mid-19th century, papier-maiche dummies took over. Today most of these figures are made of fibreglass or plastic.
Mannequins are also used by artists (lifeless figures hold a pose much longer than live models!). They have sundry other uses, for example in crash-testing and in testing defense equipment.
The use of these dolls in medical education dates back to the 17th century where ivory manikins were used by doctors as a teaching aids. Even today, medical simulation mannequins are used extensively in education and for teaching first aid.
I can only hope these mannequins are normal-headed. I would hate my doctor to have been trained on a schwellkopp!
Basant Panchami went by last week. The mustard fields of Punjab must have been a riot of yellow, but my own little shrub was beautiful too!
Basant Panchami falling 40 days before Holi, marks the transition towards spring. As always, the festival is celebrated differently in different parts of the country. In some parts of India like Bengal, and even as far afield as Indonesia, it is marked as Saraswati Puja. Apart from the fact that it is the time of flowering of many plants like the mustard which has yellow flowers, the colour yellow marks this festival because of its association with Saraswathi, Goddess of Learning.
I could not really find what the exact association of Basant Panchami with Saraswati is (being a Tamilian, I celebrate Saraswati Puja during Dusshera). But I did come across one very interesting story linking the two.
The story of Kalidasa is well known. He lived in a country with a princess renowned for her intelligence and wit. The princess set the condition that she would marry only the man who answered a series of questions she put to him. Many a man—king, prince, warrior, commoner—tried and failed. The people of the country were fed up (and a lot of male egos probably smarted). A bunch of them decided to teach her a lesson. They set up the village idiot for this. They knew the questions, and tutored him as to how to respond to them—basically not to open his mouth and exhibit his ignorance, but simply show hand signs.
The ruse worked and Kalidasa married the princess. (Actually, he was not called Kalidasa then, but acquired the name later). It did not take the princess long to figure out that her husband was a dolt. She threw him out.
Depressed, he wandered about. In most versions of the story, he went and prayed to Kali in a temple, and she blessed him with brilliance and wit and eloquence (Maybe on behalf of Saraswati? Or asked Saraswati to bless him with these attributes?). There is however a lesser known version of the story that he was kicked out of home and hearth around Basant Panchami, and on the day of Panchami, he tried to drown himself in the Ganga. Saraswati saved him and endowed him with her blessings. Thanks to which he went on to become Sanksrit’s greatest playwright, giving the world such gems as Abhijnanashakuntala , Vikramorvashi , Malavikagnimitra, Raghuvamsha, Kumarasambhava and Meghaduta.
So happy journey towards spring! May Basant Panchami bring wit and wisdom to all of us, as it is said to have brought Kalidasa.