Anarkali At My Window

BFCA646E-31A4-47A9-AB75-B961DD704B3ELockdown has certainly make us more observant and has given us new ways of looking at things. There is a pomegranate tree whose top I can see from my window—and considering I spend eight or nine hours working in that room, it is very central to my vision! It is currently flowering, abuzz with bees, and fruits have started forming.

I have always wondered why Anarkali*, the beauty who stole the to-be Emperor Jahangir’s heart and brought him to loggerheads with his father Emperor Akbar, was called so. Was the flower so beautiful that our most famous beauty was named for it? I never did think so.

Well, my recent close encounters with the tree and flowers have given me a greater appreciation of the beauty of the flower. Bright waxy orange blossoms which stand out against the green of the leaves, and a nice shape. And bees drawn to them by the dozens, as maybe men, young and old, were drawn to Anarkali (one version is that she was part of Akbar’s harem, and that rivalry between father and son for her favours was at the heart of the dispute).

But maybe more than just the beauty of the flowers, it is the associations that the ancient fruit has, that makes the pomegranate so much part of the imagination. It is one of the few fruits which is mentioned in the texts of many religions.

Starting from ancient Greek mythology–in the story of Persephone’s abduction by Hades, lord of the underworld, the pomegranate represents life, regeneration, and the permanence of marriage.The story is that one day while out gathering flowers, Persephone was kidnapped by Hades and taken down to his kingdom. By eating a few pomegranate seeds, Persephone tied herself to Hades.

Pomegranate is mentioned in the Vedas and is an important part of Ayurveda. It is a symbol of fertility and abundance, and one of the nine fruits offered to Goddess Durga.

In Buddhism too, it is significant. The Buddha received many valuable gifts from wealthy disciples. But it is said that a poor old woman’s gift of a small pomegranate was the one that delighted him most. It is also said that he once offered a pomegranate to the demon Hariti, which cured her of her alarming habit of eating children.

It finds a place in Zoroastrianism too. In Persian mythology, Isfandiyar eats a pomegranate and becomes invincible.

In Islam, the fruit is considered a symbol of harvests, wealth, and wellness. Legend has it that each pomegranate contains one seed that has come down from paradise. Along with olive, dates and figs, it is one of the four sacred fruits in Islam.

In Judaism, it is believed that each pomegranate has 613 seeds—one for each of the Bible’s Commandments. The Song of Solomon compares the veiled cheeks of a bride to the two halves of a pomegranate.

1A6133BD-4C41-49AA-BA38-4EED5DB8E6ADThe pomegranate is a symbol of resurrection and life everlasting in Christian art, and the pomegranate is often found in devotional statues and paintings of the Virgin and Child, as in Bottecelli’s ‘Madonna of the Pomegranate’ shown here.

I shall delight in the beauty of the pomegranate flowers for now. I shall try to get a few fruits before the parakeets get them all. And I shall let thoughts of all the health and prosperity they will bring me help me through the Lockdown!


*Anar= Pomegranate. Kali= Flower


Virtually Missing

Six years ago, what now seems to be another time and another place, I transitioned from full-time paid employment to ‘independent freelance worker from home’. Today WFH is the new buzzword! For someone who had gotten up and out to go to work for over three decades this was a big change. The most obvious was the change in the mental and physical routine. Rushing back and forth between work and home, often hugely stressful, one developed the skills of keeping the domestic and professional arenas distinct, while still maintaining a suitable balance between the two. My new phase of WFH demanded equal skills to keep the two domains separate within the same physical setting. Over time, with some practical planning, some experimentation, some creativity, and a sense of mission I got myself into a suitable groove. Today when I see a barrage of ‘tips and hacks’ on WFH, I cannot help but be amused, with a sense of ‘been there, done that.’

What is new for me however, is the technological take-over. And here I feel “Haven’t been there, don’t want to do that.” Neither my long professional Work From Office life nor my WFH years have been entirely ‘remote working’ experiences in any way. They were not marked by day after day of zoom rooms and virtual meetings. My teaching-learning experiences have not been ‘online’ through artificial screens. My conferences have not been video-linked. My DIY instructions have not been over YouTube. My news has not come from the mobile phone, and my entertainment has not been watching plays, films and concerts on my laptop. I have (barring the last two months) regularly browsed for books in a physical library or bookstore.

For this I am so very grateful; and about this I am now greatly concerned. What is life going to be like in the days to come?IMG_20200526_112241 How much will be lost in terms of simple human contact? When I see members of zoom rooms, each with their own coffee mugs in their own physical rooms; when I see news anchors casually sipping from teacups as they analyse another day of gloom and doom, I can almost taste the consistently  undrinkable tea that I sipped with my colleagues, rubbing shoulders across a small office table. This is what I most acutely missed, and continue to do, in my WFH life.

Two years ago in this space, I described this simple but invaluable ritual thus:

‘Twice a day, as the footsteps heralded the bearer of the teas, it was literally and (later) figuratively ‘pens down’. Time to cluster around, a time for sharing—news and views, happenings and unhappenings (propah English not mandatory, and language khichdi quite delicious!), cribbings and crabbings–and above all, energising. There were snacks too—“hey taste what I baked yesterday,” “oh great, banana chips all the way from home state”, “guess what, I discovered this new naasta shop with 50 flavours of khakhra….”

Tea table became the venue for easing in the newcomers; teasing and ribbing the old-timers; there were no hierarchies and no bosses. The agenda was whatever the mood of the table—sharing, admonishing, admiring, agonising and venting, and yes, laughing a lot.

It was an important support system in so many ways. After just 15 minutes, one returned to one’s desk feeling much better. You weren’t the only one who struggled to keep going as you juggled work and home; your child’s behaviour was not as worrisome as you imagined it was; and yes, in-laws happened to the best of us!’

The world going the way it is, such memories will remain just that—ancient history of another era. This is only one of the many simple joys of physical interaction with fellow humans that we took for granted. Others included the delicious anticipation of meeting friends for coffee; choosing the restaurant for the next birthday lunch; dressing up for an evening of theatre or music; wandering and jostling in a crowded market, and walking amidst fellow human beings on a busy street.

For many like me, the new normal is sadly so abnormal. To live in a virtual world is bereft of meaning, of everything that makes us what we are and what keeps us going. They say that people will get used to this. They say that we must adapt or perish. I am not sure how much I can adapt, so perish I must!



Turtle Man

This is a week of Days—international days to mark events, or create awareness about different themes and issues. 22 May is the International Day for Biological Diversity, and 23 May celebrates Turtles–one of the millions of species

Illustration CEE’s NatureScope India Turtles in Trouble 

that are part of the incredible tapestry of biodiversity.

This took me to revisit some of the teaching-learning material on these themes that we developed in CEE, among them, an Educator’s Manual on Turtles. Going through it I rediscovered the inspiring story of Archie Carr–the Turtle Man.

Archie Fairly Carr Jr., was an American zoologist whose studies unraveled many mysteries about giant sea turtles, and whose writings and conservation efforts have helped to save sea turtles from near extinction.

Archie Carr was born on June 16, 1909, in Alabama, where his father was a Presbyterian minister and his mother a piano teacher. It was his father who instilled in him his love for nature. The backyard of their home was filled with cages of snakes, frogs, lizards, and turtles that the young Archie collected. As a child he also developed a keen ear for language and music. In later years he further developed these language skills which led him to master several languages, and his work in collecting dialects from the Caribbean area and east Africa where he travelled and worked.

Archie Carr originally went to the University of Florida to study English but was diverted to biology by a professor who recognised the young student’s love for nature. In 1937 he became the first to be granted a PhD in zoology by the University.  And it was his alma mater that became his lifelong academic home; he was associated with the University for more than fifty years.

Carr was a true, and early, ecologist of his times. While his early training was in taxonomy and evolutionary biology, he combined this with his wide knowledge of zoology, botany, soils, geology, history, and cultural anthropology, and he showed his students the need to weave together all of these disciplines to begin to understand the subject matter of ecology. This breadth of understanding and perspective also permeated his writings which beautifully combined the different strands.

Above all, Archie Carr was a great biologist. His early descriptive studies of turtles set the standard of quality in the field of natural history. He published his first paper on sea turtles in 1942, but it was not until he wrote his classic Handbook of Turtles (1952) that he began to focus his research on sea turtles.  He described his early discoveries about the plight of sea turtles in his book The Windward Road particularly in his chapter The Passing of the Fleet, which was a call to arms and resulted in global efforts to conserve sea turtles from extinction

As he focused on sea turtles, Carr moved toward ecology and behaviour, although his work always retained a taxonomic and evolutionary perspective. His decades-long research at the research station at Tortuguero in Costa Rica, enabled him to initiate one of the longest lasting and most intensive studies of an animal population that has ever been done. Almost all of these studies have significance for conservation; Archie Carr was a conservation biologist long before the field was recognized.

Carr’s book The Windward Road published in 1959 deeply touched a newspaperman Joshua Powers. He sent copies of the book to twenty friends with an invitation to join a new organisation called The Brotherhood of the Green Turtle; this grew into The Caribbean Conservation Corporation, and later the Sea Turtle Conservancy, which became an international force for the preservation of sea turtles.

Like many of his generation Carr was at one time an avid hunter, but he gave this up after his travels in Africa. This change he described in his book Ulendo: Travels of a Naturalist in and out of Africa, in 1964. And also, like many hunters turned conservationists, such as Jim Corbett in India, Carr wrote extensively and evocatively about wildlife and nature. ”It was the lion song, and I sat quiet to learn it, as you learn the trill of a tree toad, or how an alligator goes. And though there may have been little real song in the sound, it came in strong and lonely through the whisper of the mist; and to me, at the time, it seemed to tell of an age being lost forever.

He was far from the stereotype of a ‘scientist’ whose highly technical and academic language could be understood only be a select band of fellow scientists. He combined his original academic interest in English, and his love for the language, with his passion for biology by writing 11 books, several of which won top awards were a model of authoritative yet lively scientific writing.

His colleagues remember him for his sense of humour that often included practical jokes, and which peeped through his writing. I like the look of frogs, and their outlook, and especially the way they get together in wet places on warm nights and sing about sex”.

His wife once jokingly told him “You’ve done a lot for turtles.” To which he replied “They’ve done a lot for me too.”

Professor Carr, died at his home on May 21, 1987. At the time of his death, he was the world’s leading authority on sea turtles.

The world that Archie Carr explored and wrote about has changed a lot today. Yet the sea turtles remain, thanks to the painstaking pioneering work,  passion and life-long mission of this brilliant scientist and inspiring human being.

Today is a good day to remember his words, “For most of the wild things on earth, the future must depend on the conscience of mankind.




Will Our Children Ever Visit a Museum?

60741174-E9F0-4271-8CC5-20144451BD0CWhy the sudden question? Well, because May 18th  is International Museum Day—observed as such since since 1977. The idea is that on this day, museums engage with their stakeholders and highlight the importance of the role of museums as institutions and the role they play in society.

And as with everything else, Corona is forcing us to re-examine many things that we took for granted.

Statue of Artemis, Ephesus Museum, Turkey


And museums are one of them. A museum is ‘a building or place where works of art, scientific specimens, or other objects of permanent value are kept and displayed’. There are over 55,000 museums in the world.

How many will survive COVID?

Museums by their very nature are places which need to be visited by the public—in other words, queues, groups, crowds. What shape will that take in the post-COVID world? Surely there will be a fall in numbers visiting.

Moreover, of recent years, many exhibits in museums are interactive—requiring you to press buttons, handle things, etc. All of that will have to be re-conceived. That will cost money. Financially, some may be able to survive, while others may be forced to shut down.

And there is another threat—the threat to the security of artefacts and exhibits during this time. Already, on 6th April, thieves  forced open the glass doors of the Singer Laren museum in the Netherlands and made off with its most valuable exhibit, a Van Gogh oil painting called “Spring Garden, the Parsonage Garden in Nuenen in Spring”. The theft highlights concerns of having high-value items in unattended locations as entire regions lock down.

On the other hand, many museums are re-inventing themselves, and taking the occasion of lockdown to go online. Several already had virtual tours, but many others are putting their exhibits online and developing virtual ways for audiences to see and experience them. Many including the Smithsonian have already made a number of tours available online.

Even more interesting is the effort of some museums to study and preserve the experiences of COVID even as it is happening. The Victoria and Albert Museum for instance is preparing to launch Pandemic Objects, an online series examining how a range of unremarkable items have become charged with new meaning and purpose. The exhibition will capture things like the variety of homemade signs cropping up in shop windows around the world, explaining new delivery services and warning people to keep 2m apart. Another focus of this exhibition will be to examine if the pandemic is revealing something new about things that are normally taken for granted. For instance, the upsurge in baking and related activities. The series is likely to examine why this should be so—it is not as if bread is not available. Why then has baking become so popular—maybe the ‘tactile and meditative quality of the process, along with a desire to feel self-sufficient’ asBrendan Cormier, senior design curator says?

There will be a new normal in museums as in everything else. Museums as buildings to be visited may go down in popularity, but the re-interpretation of “museums as an important means of cultural exchange, enrichment of cultures and development of mutual understanding, cooperation and peace among peoples” will become even more relevant than before.










The Lady with the Graph

As we celebrate the 200th birth anniversary of Florence Nightingale this week, it is time to let go of our romantic notions of a do-gooder with a lamp in one hand, soothing the fevered brows of soldiers with the other—a visual firmly ingrained in most of our heads, thanks to illustrations from our textbooks.

Of course she did that! She was very hands-on and did make rounds of the soldiers’ wards night and day, to care for them.

But she was much more.

She was a statistician par excellence, and in 1860, was elected the first woman Fellow of the Statistical Society.

Her meticulous approach to collecting data and analysing it, at a time when even deaths were not properly tallied in the war hospital where she worked, led to a better understanding of the situation and to reducing deaths. For instance, analysis by her and statisticians appointed by the British Government led to the conclusion that 16,000 of the 18,000 deaths in her hospital were not due to battle wounds but to preventable diseases, spread by poor sanitation. By using applied statistical methods, she effectively made the case for bringing in better hygiene practices, and thus saving lives. (Early example of evidence based policies, which won the Noble Prize this year!)

AB931E80-8551-4152-98DC-257E5EE9C79FFlorence was also one who shook up systems and brought in systemic changes. She battled with entrenched bureaucracies most of her working life, in order to bring about these changes. She was aware that it would be difficult to convince decision makers of the need for change, and maybe out of this requirement was born what is today counted as her major contribution to statistics—the first infographics ever made. The best-known of the infographics she invented are what are called the “coxcomb” diagrams, understandable by even the public. ‘The coxcomb is similar to a pie chart, but more intricate. In a pie chart the size of the ‘slices’ represent a proportion of data, while in a coxcomb the length which the slice extends radially from the center-point, represents the first layer of data. The specific organization of Nightingale’s chart allowed her to represent more complex information layered in a single space. In her coxcomb during the Crimean War, the chart was divided evenly into 12 slices representing months of the year, with the shaded area of each month’s slice proportional to the death rate that month. Her color-coding shading indicated the cause of death in each area of the diagram.’*

There are many who believe that if she were around today, she would have brought very strong statistical analysis of The COVID situation to bear on policy making, and advocated for solutions based on pure, hard evidence (the implication obviously being that today’s solutions are not fully there!). But it is the duty of the present generation to ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’ and do the needful! No point in wishful thinking.

We in this country also have to thank her for her campaign for clean drinking water, famine relief and sanitary conditions in India—based on statistics and data she collected.




How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear*

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, ‘It is just as I feared!

Two Owls and a Hen
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard.

old man.jpg
Original illustration by Edward Lear Source: Google

No this is not 2020 Corona humour, although it pithily describes one of the fallouts of the lockdown! The verse was written by Edward Lear nearly 200 years ago. Lear is popularly associated with the Limerick, and best known for his
A Book of Nonsense, which he also illustrated, that was published 1846.

Limerick is a form of nonsense verse in which the first, second and final lines end with rhyming words, while the third and fourth shorter lines have their own rhyme. In Lear’s limericks the first and last lines usually end with the same word rather than rhyming. For the most part they are truly nonsensical and devoid of any punch line or point.

Interestingly, while he is best remembered for his absurd wit, Edward Lear was a popular and respected painter of his time. Born in London on 12 May 1812, one of 21 children, Lear was forced to start earning a living when he was just 15. This he did by selling his art and by teaching drawing. In 1832 he was employed by the London Zoological Society to illustrate birds, and later went on to work for the Earl of Derby who had a private menagerie on his estate. Lear stayed there until 1836.

Around this time Lear decided to devote himself exclusively to landscape painting (although he continued to write his nonsense verse.)  Between 1837 and 1847 he travelled extensively throughout Europe and Asia. After his return to England, Lear’s travel journals were published in several volumes as The Illustrated Travels of a Landscape Painter. Lear eventually settled, with his cat Foss, in Sanremo on the Mediterranean coast at a villa he named Villa Tennyson after Lord Tennyson whom he admired. He continued to paint seriously till the end of his life in 1888.

Edward Lear had a sickly childhood, and also suffered from epilepsy and depression. But in his verses he poked fun at everything, including himself. His irreverent humour, love for the ridiculous, and cooked-up nonsense words were like cocking a snook at the prissiness and orderliness of the Victorian society that he lived in.  Also different from the expected upright behaviour which was the norm of the period, the characters in his verses often indulge in absurd and outrageous antics.

His love for silly word play “a perpendicular, spicular, orbicular, quadrangular, circular depth of soft mud”;  his weird and wonderful creatures like Moppsikon Floppsikon bear and  “diaphanous doorscraper” (stuffed rhino); the characters with names like Quangle-Wangles, Pobbles, and Jumblies remind me of another favourite—Roald Dahl.

I have always loved the nonsense verse of Edward Lear. I remember memorising and reciting The Owl and the Pussycat, perhaps his most famous poem, when I was in school. The words seemed to frisk and gambol just like the characters.

They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

We all need a bit of silliness in our lives, especially in these strange days of uncertainty. Today as we celebrate Lear’s birthday as Limerick Day, also marked as Owl and Pussycat Day, here is my humble offering to the memory of Mr Lear!

There was a wicked virus from Wuhan

Who said its time to cause some mayhem

I’ll travel the world for a lark

And make sure they close every park

That villainous virus from Wuhan.

*How pleasant to know Mr. Lear is the title of Lear’s self-portrait in verse.



Orange is the New…

5218618B-E3FF-4DD6-8514-CF97668775D6In the case of demarcation of COVID zones in India, Orange is the New Freedom! Lucky enough to fall into this zone, I can now do some things I could not last week. But since my neighbouring zone 5 kms away is Red, there is nothing very exciting I can do. But I suppose it is all in the mind.

But as promised, this blog is not going to be Corona-obsessed. So moving on, it is about traffic lights—where the COVID classification zones in India seem to have had their origin.

Traffic lights were actually invented much before automobiles., to control the movement of horse carriages. (Tongas, camel carts etc. in India sometimes follow traffic lights and sometimes do not. I have never quite figured out if the same rules and fines apply to them as to cars and scooters. But maybe not, for after all, such things come under the Motor Vehicles Act!)

On Dec 10, 1868, the first traffic lights were installed outside the Houses of Parliament in London—red for ‘Stop’, and green for ‘Go’. The idea itself was borrowed from the railways, which had been using lights for its traffic control for quite some time.

The very first traffic lights were gas-fuelled, and were manually controlled by a policeman. But being gas-fuelled, though they prevented road accidents, there were incidences when the traffic lights themselves exploding. It is not known if this led to fatalities, but considering that horse-traffic accidents themselves may not have led to too many fatalities, it may have been a close-run competition.

The early 1900s saw the invention of automobiles and a significant uptick in road traffic, and the need for better systems of traffic management was becoming clear. It was in 1912 that an American policeman Lester Wire, came up with the idea of electric traffic lights, and the first one, based on his design, was installed in Cleveland, Ohio in 1914.

The very first electric traffic lights, like their gas-fuelled predecessors, had only the red and green. Some of them had a buzzer sound in place of the amber light to indicate that the signal was going to change soon.

It was in 1920 that another American policeman William Potts invented the first three-coloured traffic lights and Detroit became the first city to implement them.

But why Red, Green and Orange (or Amber)?

RED: This colour is probably used to symbolize STOP because in many cultures, red symbolizes danger. It makes a lot of sense scientifically also, because Red has the longest wavelength of any colour in the visible spectrum and hence can be seen from a greater distance than any other colour.

GREEN: Originally, in the railways, White was used for the all-clear signal, but train   mistook the light of the moon or stars for the “all clear”. This led to derailments and train collisions. And hence, a change was required from White. It seems that it was decided that now  Green (which till then used for ‘Caution’) would be used for GO. Also, the green wavelength is next to yellow on the visible spectrum, meaning it’s still easier to see than any colour other than red and yellow.

YELLOW/AMBER/ORANGE: When the Green switched over to mean GO, then it was decided that yellow would be used for caution. Also, yellow is very distinct from the other two colours and hence suitable.

Here is wishing all a rapid move to GREEN and SAFETY!