Tuk Tuk

Tonk tonk tonk…it starts before dawn has broken. Even before the crows start their warm-up caw-caws, and the magpie robin tunes up to launch into its melodious repertoire. 

Spot Tuk Tuk! 

A steady metronomic metallic sound—like the hammer of a coppersmith softly hitting the metal.  The Coppersmith of the avian world is awake and ready for another call-marathon.

Last week when it first began calling, I rushed out to look for the source of the sound. It seemed to be all around—almost like sound-surround! But I know where look for it–the remains of the big rain tree that once overlooked my kitchen wash area. The tree died naturally last year, but its skeletal remains continue to invite so much other life–to perch, to play, and to pause awhile. This is the Coppersmith’s favourite post. And sure enough there it was—on the highest point of the tallest bare branch—a speck against the blue sky. Almost invisible, but certainly not inaudible. It puffed up its chest, and raising and bobbing its head from side to side (perhaps the secret of the sound surround!) called out like a muezzin from the minaret.

The Crimsonbreasted Barbet, as it is ornithologically called,

Cover bird of my favourite bird book!

is a small bird with a loud call. It  is just a little bigger, but chunkier, than a sparrow, but certainly not as drab. It dons a striking combination of brilliant colours—grass-green top feathers and green-streaked yellowish underparts; a crimson forehead and patch on its breast; vibrant yellow throat, and concentric eye rings of red and yellow. It has distinctive whisker-like feathers around its stout black beak, and a short truncated tail.

My bird book tells me that this bird is mainly a fruit eater, and is commonly found wherever there are fruiting trees, especially fig or banyan. The closest trees around my house are Gulmohar and Copper pod, which are also in full bloom, but not with the fruits and berries that this bird likes so much. Perhaps it finds these in the park next door. Although it baffles me, given the very short breaks between the continuous metronomes, how it manages to partake of sufficient nourishment to sustain its energy to call non-stop.

As the sun climbs higher, other birds fall silent as they seek refuge from the heat in the foliage of trees and hedges. But not our relentless caller. Under the blazing sun, on a high bare treetop, it goes on and on. Funnily, nowhere could I find out why it calls—is it to attract a mate? Difficult to know as both male and female look alike! Is it to warn of predators and danger? But then, why call continuously? Or is it for the sheer joy of being alive and and sharing its song each day? I rather like to think of it this way!

Last evening during a lull, I scanned the tree and spotted it perched woodpecker-like, using its strong beak to excavate a hole in the dry branch. I discovered that it nests and roosts in these small holes.  I am glad though that it has chosen to make its look-out point, and perhaps its home, on our tree. It is nice to have a Tuk Tuk for a neighbour!

Tuk Tuk is one of the common Gujarati names for the Coppersmith.



Women and the Vaccine


Lady Mary Montagu

In 2020, it is not surprising that there are many women playing a prominent part in developing vaccines to protect us against the current scourge—Covid 19. I know nothing about this field, but a casual search threw up many names—Prof Sarah Gilbert, Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, Dr. Nita Patel. And Dr. Patel had a good explanation—she says that lab work in science is mostly done by women, so it is not surprising that women are prominent in the race to find the vaccine.

But it was not always so. Even though women have played a critical role in the development of many vaccines, they have not always got their due.

A8B3BB67-7240-4270-8ABC-F7F482BB6F30Polio was a dreaded disease in the early 20th century. It left death in its wake, but even more, it paralysed. Till date, there is no cure for polio, and the only defence is vaccination. Jonas Salk rightly deserves the credit for the polio vaccine, but there were two women, without whose work things would not have happened as they happened, when they happened. One was Dr. Isabel Morgan of Johns Hopkins University, whose work was a turning point in understanding host immunity to polio and on use of killed-virus (vs. live-virus) as the basis of vaccines for this disease. The other was Dr. Dorothy Horstmann of Yale and her team, whose work is said to have paved the way for oral polio vaccines.

Other women to whom we owe a safer world are: Dr. Anna Wessels Williams, who developed a diphtheria vaccine; Drs. Pearl Kendric and Grace Eldering who developed a vaccine for whooping cough; Dr. Margeret Pittman, whose work led to the vaccine against meningitis and pneumonia; Dr. Anne Szarewski, whose breakthroughs helped to develop vaccines against cervical cancers; and Dr. Ruth Bishop who led the team which developed a vaccine against rotavirus which is a major cause for diarrhoea in children.

But the best for the last! The most amazing story is of the woman who introduced the concept of immunization to the Western world, Lady Mary Montagu. Born in 1689, she was a path-breaker in many ways. But her contribution to vaccination is the one we are going to focus on here. She was a brilliant and beautiful woman, whose beauty was marred by an attack of smallpox in 1715. Earlier she had lost her brother to it. So it was no wonder that the deadly disease was something she worried about where her children were concerned. Lady Mary’s husband Lord Edward Montagu was posted to Constantinople as Ambassador in 1716. There she interacted closely with Turkish women and got to know their customs. One of these was the practice of variolation, wherein women would take the pus from the smallpox blister of someone who had a mild case of the disease, and introduce it into the scratched skin of uninfected children. Lady Mary observed that children thus infected never did contract the disease seriously.

She developed such a strong belief in this that she got the Embassy surgeon to inoculate her five year old son.

When she got back to England, she promoted this procedure with all her passion, but the medical establishment blocked and resisted it. The reasons are probably two-fold—it was seen as an Oriental folk treatment, not a Western, scientific one. And it was being promoted by a woman!

In 1721, a smallpox epidemic struck England, and Lady March had her daughter also inoculated. She persuaded the Princes of Wales on the efficacy of this, and the Princess had her two daughters inoculated. And though it took a long, long time for Jenner to come along and develop a safer technique of vaccination, using cowpox rather than smallpox virus, the concept started taking root, and the foundation for vaccination had been laid!

With thanks to all the back room girls (and boys) helping find vaccines and cures, as well as all front line workers.



Earth Spring

22 April 1970 saw what, at the time, was perhaps the planet’s largest civic event. Millions of American citizens took to the streets, college campuses and hundreds of cities to protest environmental ignorance and demand a new way forward for our planet.
“Earth Day” as this event was dubbed, was a unified response to the numerous environmental crises that engulfed the world in the 1960s—oil spills, smog, polluted rivers, and newly exposed dangers of pesticides.

2020 marks 50 years since what was considered to be the trigger that launched the modern environmental movement. In the five decades since, much has transpired and much has changed for, and on, planet earth. Despite all the noble intentions, movements and efforts (which I have also been a part of for three decades), the planet seems to have been damaged beyond limits, plummeting in recent times into an uncontrollable downward spiral. Poisoned waters, toxic air, melting ice, disappearing forests and vanishing wildlife have become so much a part of the daily news that we have become inured. Worst still, we continue to pretend that all will be well—after all man is the master of technology, and we will find the answers.

It has taken 50 years for Earth to have gotten a respite from human interference. Ironically, this has been given by an invisible, seemingly indestructible microbe.

Almost a hundred years ago, pioneering environmental philosopher John Muir wrote “The universe would be incomplete without man; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge…”

In the three months since this ‘creature’ has sent us scurrying for shelter, and changed the world as we know it, the earth is changing too. It is coming back to life.

The theme for this year’s Earth Day was Climate Action and events were planned to draw attention to the critical need to take action to combat climate change. Ironically, what a hundred conferences did not do for climate change, is happening today simply without human activity.

When I read about the revised suggested activities for a house-bound Earth Day it made me wonder though! All the activities were digital– webinars, online learning, nature videos, teach-ins and make-ins, and more. Everything that called for virtual interaction through digital media. What a paradox! What a missed opportunity to open windows and minds to the world outside. Some thoughts on this.

A lot is being written and shared about windows and balconies. WIMG_20200306_071238550 (1).jpghile these are great to reach out to other humans, they are also a wonderful opportunity to be inside looking out, at nature. One does not have to be in the countryside to see Nature. Even in the midst of the urban jungle, look from the same balcony or window, and you will discover—a bird, a butterfly a bumblebee, a spider. A patch of sky and a puff of cloud. The branches of a tree with fresh green leaves, a bird call, a shaft of sunlight on a wall, or the stars on a clear night.

One doesn’t have to be outdoors to do one’s bit for Earth day. Just making time to stop and stare is as much a contribution as a ‘run for earth marathon’.

And why make Earth Day just a one-day celebration? Even in 1970, the entire month was marked by events and it came to be called Earth Spring.

In these unusual times, let us be grateful for Nature which is never in ‘shutdown’! Come let us celebrate every moment, every day of our Earth Spring.



Have You Ever Seen, A Penguin Come to Tea?

Why would a Penguin ever come to tea? But so goes the nursery rhyme my foster-grandchild and I are currently hooked on.

If I were to write the poem, I would say

‘Have you ever seen, a penguin out at sea’.

Would make a bit more sense.

Of course, the other argument is, why should nursery rhymes make sense?

6A7544E4-A7BF-48E0-9512-51C1F4F1AFDCBut that is not the subject of the blog today. April 25th is marked as World Penguin Day, and that is the occasion of the blog. This day coincides with the annual northern migration of Adelie penguins.

Any ‘Day’ is a way to focus attention and raise awareness about an issue. Penguins evoke immediate love and interest. And hence are a great species to highlight when it comes to conservation education in general, and education about the species in particular. Alarmingly, of the 17 recognized living species, 11 have been listed as Vulnerable or Endangered, and hence awareness about penguins is important. And talking about penguins also ensures we talk about the health of the waters where they spend 75 percent of their lives.

It was only very recently that I saw my first-ever penguins in the wild. It was an unforgettable experience—a visit to the Omaru Penguin Colony in New Zealand, where visitors can spend a few hours freezing on stands, waiting for Little Blue Penguins to come home to their colony for the night. And believe me, it was worth every chilly bone to see this phenomenon. Groups of ten or more penguins coming in over a period of about an hour, after spending the whole day in the waters feeding—for themselves and to regurgitate for their children. What a hard life! The Little Blue Penguins are really tiny, just about a foot high. And we were lucky enough to see pair of chicks—cuddly balls of down.

And to end, some trivia:

  • The origin of the word ‘penguin’ is not clear. It may either be derived from a synonym for ‘great auk’, a bird familiar to Europeans who thought penguins looked like auks when they first saw them. (Great auks are flightless birds not related to penguins. They became extinct in the 19th century).  Or it could be from the Latin pinguis, which means fat or oil.
  • Some prehistoric species of penguins stood almost as tall and heavy as an adult human. Today, the largest species, the Emperor Penguin, stands at about 3 1/2 feet.
  • Although except one, all species are found only in the Southern Hemisphere, most do not live in extreme cold areas like the Antarctic. Many are found in temperate areas too.
  • There are two names for penguin collectives—when there is a group of them in water, they are called a ‘raft’. When there is a group on land, it is called a ‘waddle’.

Here is to World Penguin Day, may their tribes increase!


The Kardashian of Trees

Heroing and highlighting individual trees is a great way of drawing attention to trees in general, and to reinforce the value of nature, wildlife and biodiversity.

An example of a successful initiative in this direction is the  European Tree of the Year contest started in 2011, inspired by an older competition which originated in the Czech Republic in the late nineties. According to the Czech Environmental Partnership Foundation which started it all: ‘Tree of the Year is a contest looking for a tree with a story. The aim of the contest is to empower people and get local communities involved in the environmental and local heritage protection. We believe that by gathering around a tree, people are more likely to take action again in the future for other environmental causes and for the wellbeing of the community.’

The process of selecting the European Tree of the Year starts with a well set-out voting process at the national level of the participating countries (16 this year), and ends with a finale consisting of online voting to select from among the national winners.

Now the competition is moving to other parts of the world: In 2016, Sri Lanka started the Asian Tree of the Year, with India, Nepal, Malaysia and Singapore joining in soon after. Canada, Australia and Russia have also held national competitions, though not on an annual basis.

Beautiful old trees, with history and cultural connections to the community have found their spot under the sun through this process, and also generated a lot of public interest, involvement and learning.

Sounds good! But what has all this to do with the title?

CF37A480-1747-49E9-9F79-48FCA5BAC580The connection is a tree that is reputed to be the most instagrammed tree in New Zealand, almost a symbol of NZ tourism. On a recent trip there, we were urged to set aside time to see the tree, specifically around sunset. So we worked around our program to ensure we got to the spot—a stretch of a beach—well ahead. We drove past a few times, keenly looking at the beach. We could see some people, but nothing special in the way of trees. We asked natives and tourists alike, and they all pointed us to the same area which our GPS had shown us, and which we had passed, looking in vain for a landmark. We decided to make our way down to the beach anyway. Lo and behold, there were many, many people there, jostling for some spot (we could not figure out what the spot was for), all setting up professional looking camera equipment. It came to a pass when we had to ask a friendly-looking lady what everyone was waiting to photograph, where the famous tree was, and what it was about. She kindly pointed to this spindly willow tree, standing a few feet into the waters of the beautiful Wanaka Lake, against a beautiful background of majestic mountains. But the tree itself? In my mind, this will forever define and exemplify ‘under-whelming’. ‘Why is the tree famous’, we asked many around us in bewilderment. While there was some story of how it was part of a fence and had survived in the water for several years, the general consensus was that it was famous because it was famous! So famous , it even has its own insta handle #ThatWanakaTree.

Does the title begin to make sense?

But yes, surely is a lesson to countries like ours, where we have such unimaginable treasures of cultural and natural heritage, but simply are not able to create anywhere near a proportionate buzz!




What an Irony!

…Or contradictions in the time of Corona.

Confession. I belong to the age of dinosaurs! Not so old as to reminisce about the freedom struggle, and World War 2 (which my parents did), but old enough to remember one short war, night curfews and blackouts, and shortages. Old enough to remember a time when gymming, pubbing, clubbing, beauty and retail therapy were not considered to be critical to one’s physical and mental health. When staying indoors as a family was not unheard of, and what to do with one’s time was never a stress-inducing problem.

It is in the last month, as they say, “the world as we know it had changed.” Coronatimes newspapers, and especially the Lifestyle and Leisure supplements reveal that yes, the world has changed, but in different ways for different people. I cannot help but think back, and chuckle a bit at the contradictions!

Then and Now…

‘Staycations’ were the trendy way to spend your holidays; but now staying at home for free becomes ‘confinement’.

People went to expensive health spas for detox stints; now have DTs at home without their sustaining substances.

School vacations were a time of simple self-devised ‘time-pass’ activities (or lack of activities); not a time of huge stress for parents as to how to keep the children “engaged”.

Summer holidays were marked by hours spent playing cards, ludo and carom with relatives of all ages; now newspapers feature pictures of this as a wonderful sign of how indoor games lead to ‘family bonding’.

‘Social distancing’ was a cause for concern and counselling, as people addicted to virtual reality could not relate to real people; now when it becomes mandated, people want to break it.

Page 3 celebrities fill pages with pictures of “doing the dishes” or “playing with baby”; while numerous stories of unseen unsung heroes who are risk their own life to save others are inconspicuous among the headliners.

People have to be taught how to cover their faces when outdoors, something the two-wheeler female riders of Ahmedabad have been adept at for years.

Now Kitchen Hacks on innovative ways to make provisions last longer, and replacements for quinoa and parsley; when generations of homemakers have learnt and practised ‘living within their means’ with some saved for a rainy day.

While some eagerly await the resumption of Swiggy and home delivery from restaurants, many middle-class housewives wake up early every day to join the voluntary cooking efforts to feed the homeless and hungry.

Glossy pictures of designers displaying their designer masks; news items of hundreds of ordinary women sewing for hours to make and distribute masks made from old clothes.

Once people had to wear masks when the sky was grey and smoggy; now everyone has to wear masks when the sky is clear and blue.

Then, health and well-being pundits urged and cajoled people to get off the couches and walk; now people are risking fines and arrests to go out for a walk.

Now we need Life Coaches to tell us how to spend our day from the time we open our eyes to shut-eye time; then people did not have time nor leisure to need such coaching, but a lot of basic common sense to guide in how to live, and thrive.

Then we scoffed at mothers and grandmothers who judiciously planned, saved and put away things that “you never know when these may help”; now we remember with nostalgia and regret (or gratitude) that ‘old ladies’, old fashioned’ advice.

SARS CoV-2 did to CO2 levels what 25 Climate Change COPs could not do!

The virus of fake news spreads much faster than the Covid-19.


With gratitude and humility for those of us who are lucky to have the wherewithal to lead the life we do.






Walk Your Way to Health


This week we marked World Health Day.

And walking is my trusted route to good health. It is the only exercise regimen that I have been able to stick to. And I have tried several:

  1. Swimming: Tried about 15 times, but could not manage to learn.
  2. Gymming: If it was not the traffic, it was complete mismatch with the age of the people around. Never feels good to up the average age of a room single-handedly.
  3. Cycling: Oh, the ups and the downs! My muscles ache and my breath doesn’t hold
  4. Exercising at home: I can find an excuse a day after the first three days, to not follow the regimen.

So walking it has been for the last 25 years and more—starting from long before the obsession with counting steps. About 50 minutes of brisk (hopefully) walking every day.

The Mayo Clinic assures me—and I believe them–that regular brisk walking can help me:

  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Prevent or manage various conditions, including heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes
  • Strengthen bones and muscles
  • Improve mood
  • Improve balance and coordination

And in these days of lockdown, it is still a possible form of exercise. It not only helps the body, but just the act of getting out of the house into the fresh air and seeing people even if only from afar, definitely contributes to well-being.

Maybe the lockdown will help walking become a lifelong habit for some. But for me, it was the peer pressure of ‘walking with a friend’ that worked. My friend Kiran and I decided at some stage to walk every morning at 6.15 a.m. on the IIM-A campus. The very thought that the other would be standing impatiently at the gate if one was late, was enough to get us out of bed and out the door most days. And if we did not, we had to be pretty inventive in coming up with excuses.

But for many years now, I have been walking by myself. And my trusty companion is my XONE music player. This is something I picked up at the Vizag airport over five years ago. This is a nifty little device—headphones with built in storage, with huge capacity and no wires. It seems to be developed in India. I think I have about 1500 songs stored. The battery lasts me a week on one charge. People who see me walking regularly jokingly ask if I have ears, as this is always glued to my ears.

So find a way to get yourself into the habit of walking, and find a way to stay hooked! While I may not go so far as to say ‘My God is the God of Walkers. If you walk hard enough, you probably don’t need any other god’ (Bruce Chatwin), I will swear by walking for a sense of all-around well-being.




Hail, Nightingales!

Two news items last week took me to my cache of ‘saved for a rainy (read lockdown) day’ books.

The first was that the tagline for this year’s World Health Day is ‘Support Nurses and Midwives’. April 7 is celebrated as World Health Day as it marks the anniversary of the World Health Organization which was founded in 1948.

The second news was that on April 3 Britain’s first emergency field hospital exclusively for coronavirus patients was inaugurated in the East End or docklands of London. More remarkable, that a large exhibition space, usually used for large events such concerts and conferences, was transformed into this 4000 bed hospital in just nine days. The hospital is fittingly called NHS Nightingale Hospital. Similar Nightingale hospitals are planned to be set up in different cities of UK, as emergency sites to treat coronavirus patients.

Calling these facilities Nightingale hospitals, is an apt and timely reminder of Florence Nightingale, who almost 200 years ago changed the face of nursing from a mostly untrained profession to a highly skilled and well-respected medical profession with very important responsibilities.

These stories took me to the book titled Called the Midwife by Jennifer Worth. The book is the memoir of the years that Jenny, this young nurse anIMG_20200407_111221.jpgd midwife spent in the poor slums of the East End of London. 23 years old and newly qualified she lived and trained as a midwife with a dedicated group of nuns St Raymond Nonnatus.

Though set in the 1950s, the conditions of the area, and the people who lived in these docklands were appalling in terms of health, hygiene and sanitation. The book recounts anecdotes that paint vignettes of the people, and the experiences as a midwife, delivering babies at home amidst challenging and often overwhelming circumstances. But where the narration could have been dark and depressing, Jenny’s description of her patients and their families brings out the touching humanity, and tough spirit that rises above the squalor. Whether it is the pen portraits of the nuns, each with a unique personality; the fellow trainees; and the soon-to-be or new mothers (from the first baby of a 14 year-old girl, to the 25th baby of a 45 year-old woman!), the book captures the power and spirit of the vocation. Rushing on their bicycles through the freezing smoggy streets with their simple delivery bags to attend a calling the middle of the night (almost 100 deliveries a month), to the daily routine of morning and evening home visits for pre and post-delivery check-ups, one cannot help but applaud the total dedication and role of the midwives.

Interestingly in India generations of children had been born at home under the hand of the local midwife or dai. Around the time when Jennifer Worth was a midwife in England, hospital deliveries started becoming more common in India. In the last fifty years, with advances in the world of medicine, and advancing technology, the traditional art and craft of midwifery was replaced with the science of sonography and Csections. Interestingly, in the last ten years or so, there seems to be a return to the traditional ways of childbirth. While at the one end of the spectrum, there are boutique clinics offering 5-star deliveries, other young women are opting to ’call the midwife’. And there is a new generation of Jennys who are undergoing the rigorous training of midwifery to qualify and practice as midwives.

It is fitting indeed that WHO has designated 2020 as the Year of the Nurse and Midwife, in honour of the 200th birth anniversary of Florence Nightingale who fought, against all odds, in the frontlines of the Crimean war. And once again, more than ever before, it is time to salute these brave and tireless soldiers who are at the frontline of the Corona war. Hail, to all these Nightingales! year of the nurse.jpg


Friends in Need

“They are friends waiting for us any time we want them, and they will always speak honestly to us about what really matters. They are the perfect cure for loneliness. They can be our very closest friends.” They are books, wrote Swiss-born British philosopher and essayist Alain de Botton, in a letter to children.

Today is the day to celebrate this timeless friendship. April 2 is International Children’s Book Day, a worldwide celebration to highlight children’s literature and encourage the love of reading among children. This date marks the birthdICBD.jpgay of Hans Christian Anderson one of the best known children’s writer who was born on 2 April 1805 in Denmark.

The celebration of this day began in 1967, initiated by the International Board on Books for Young People, or IBBY. Each year a different National Section of IBBY has the opportunity to be the international sponsor of ICBD. The hosting country picks the theme for the year and invites a prominent author from that country to write a message to the children of the world and a well-known illustrator to design a poster.

This year, IBBY Slovenia is hosting this day, and the theme is “A Hunger for Words.” Slovenian writer Peter Svetina has written the message for this theme. Sharing a few lines: “Words in poetry and in stories are food. Not food for the body, not food that can fill up your stomach. But food for the spirit and food for the soul.”

In the days of lockdowns when parents around the world are despairing, and desperate to “keep children occupied” why not open up a menu of books, to explore and discover, to taste and savour, and to assuage the hunger of a restless mind. This will plant the seeds of the magic of stories that will grow with them as friends, and sustain their spirit through the many unknowns that lie ahead.

Equally relevant, and perhaps one that presaged the year to come, was the theme for 2019 which was Books Help Slow Us Down. Lithuania was the host, and Kęstutis Kasparavičius the Lithuanian writer wrote this inspiring message.

“It seems that books have this wonderful quality – they help us slow down. As soon as you open a book and delve into its tranquil depths, you no longer fear that things will whizz by at a maddening speed while you see nothing. All of a sudden, you come to believe you don’t have to dash off like a bat out of hell to do some urgent work of little importance. In books, things happen quietly and in a precisely arranged order. Maybe because their pages are numbered, maybe because the pages rustle gently and soothingly as you leaf through them. In books, events of the past calmly meet events that are yet to come. …Someone who enjoys reading – be it a child or adult – is much more interesting than someone who doesn’t care for books, who is always racing against the clock, who never has time to sit down, who fails to notice much of what surrounds them. …Books help us not to rush, books teach us to notice things, and books invite us or even make us sit down for a while.”

Around the world, for perhaps the first time, we have been forced to slow down, to sit down for a while (and wonder what to do with ourselves). What better time to use this opportunity to revisit our old friends—books– that were part of our young and innocent days. And what could be more joyful than rediscovering these in the company of children? A beautiful way to celebrate this special day!