Time on Pause

This week, as we think about, and even celebrate, microbes, it is all of 2020 that will be go down in history as the Year of the Microbe. Or the year when a microbe put the world on ‘pause’.

While scientists created microbe art in petri dishes, the pause created by the microbe led to the burgeoning of creativity in homes across the world. From home baking (yes using one of the friendly microbes!) to painting, embroidery, composing music, to innovative ways of virtual communication—this year was indeed one of activity amidst inactivity.

This is the time of year when much is being written about how people’s lives changed in this ‘year in pause’. The underlying point that comes through is that we all became much more aware about Time than we had probably done before.

We also learned to use time in ways that we had not done so earlier. While most of us were accustomed to thinking of time in the Fast Forward mode, the Pause mode made us also look back to reflect and reminisce, to unwrap long forgotten memories, and most importantly slowly sip, and savour the Present. In doing so we could explore our immediate surroundings and discover things which were ‘hidden in plain sight’ as it were. While not being obliged to be in a continual ‘planning ahead’ mode, we could stop and stare, and look around with new eyes.  

Picture courtesy Daksha Raval

As Rabindranath Tagore once put it:

I was tired and sleeping on my idle bed
and imagined all work had ceased.
In the morning I woke up
and found my garden full with wonders of flowers.

On the other hand it was a year when time seemed to slow down. When each day was counted in slowly ticking minutes and hours, as weeks telescoped into months… and here we are, at the end of a never-before year.

As Arik Fletcher, a poet, has succinctly summed up, it has been…

a time to cheer, a time to cry,
a time to live, a time to die,
a time to sleep, a time to wake,
a time for real, a time for fake,


a time for truth, a time to lie,
a time to laugh, a time to sigh,
a time to stand, a time to fall,
a time for one, a time for all,


a time for love, a time for hate,
a time to run, a time to wait,
a time to stay, a time to flee,
a time for you, a time for me.

And so here we go…
Bidding adieu

A year that crawled at the pace of a snail

Leaving behind indelible marks.

–Mamata

The Artful Microbes

2020 has been a year dominated by a microbe. In our imaginations and our nightmares, microbes are demonic creatures which have brought the world to its knees, and are out to destroy us. The year has served to reinforce a general belief that bacteria and viruses are villainous creatures behind disease and death.

However, as all of us who have gone through middle-school biology know, on the balance, microbes as a class do more good than harm.  To recall, microbes are microscopic living organisms, too small to see with the naked eye, There are five main groups of microbes: bacteria, viruses, fungi, algae and protozoa. While some of them do cause disease, many microbes are beneficial, and many, many others do neither active harm nor good but are an intrinsic part of the ecosystem. Bacteria and fungi in the soil are essential for decomposing organic matter and recycling old plant material. Some soil microbes form relationships with plant roots and help provide the plant with important nutrients like nitrogen or phosphorus. In fact, we could not digest food without gut bacteria. They protect against infection and even maintain reproductive health. We would not have bread or yogurt without microbes. Scientists say that nearly fifty percent of the oxygen that is present in the atmosphere is produced by bacteria.

But listings are boring and a picture is worth a 1000 words! And that is what the work of the American Society for Microbiology does for microbes through its annual ASM Agar ArtContest. The results of the 2020 edition were just announced. And they help us appreciate microbes–not through a recital of benefits, but by creating art with them!

First Prize: “Strands of Antisense” by Riley Cutler, Mississippi State University Starkville.

This annual contest is for ‘art created in a petri dish using living, growing microorganisms. Creators use either naturally colorful microbes, like the red bacteria Serratia marcescens, or genetically modified microbes, like the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae transformed with violacein genes, as ‘paint’ and various types, shapes and sizes of agar as a ‘canvas.’

The contest has been gaining popularity and this year’s edition had close to 200 countries entries from 29 countries across the world. It vindicates Fleming (yes indeed, the discoverer of penicillin) who was probably the first agar artist but whose art form was not appreciated in his time. He would fill Petri dishes with agar (a medium used to grow microbes), and then use a lab instrument called a loop to introduce different types of bacteria on different parts of the agar. He created many ‘paintings’ by culturing microbes of different natural colours—brown, violet, pink, yellow, orange etc., in Petri dishes, planned in way to create colourful patterns. It is not that simple either. Because he had to find the right colour of bacteria and dexterously introduce it on the exact spot on the dish. Further, different bacteria grow as different speeds, and hence have to be introduced at different times, with the end result in mind. And the art is ephemeral, because soon one bacteria will grow into another’s space and blur things out.

Second Prize: “Microbial Peacock: Balaram Khamari. Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning, Puttaparthi, India

Agar art thus is not just about creating beautiful things where they are least expected. But today, is also being recognized as a part of the art curriculum in some countries, and incorporated into biology curricula in some, since it has the potential to help students learn so much about microbes in such a hands-on way.

Thank you ASM, for showing us beauty where we least expect it, for helping us to put things in perspective, and for providing a platform for art to take wings! In 2021, may we too be able to do this in our everyday lives! May the year bring victory over the ‘bad’ microbes!

–Meena

Though these words did not make it to any listings, here are two words without which it is impossible to study microbes:

agar

agar (noun) · agar-agar (noun)a gelatinous substance obtained from certain red seaweeds and used in biological culture media and as a thickener in foods.

Petri dish

A Petri dish is a shallow transparent lidded dish that biologists use to hold growth medium in which cells can be cultured, originally, cells of bacteria, fungi and small mosses. The container is named after its inventor, German bacteriologist Julius Richard Petri. It is the most common type of culture plate. The Petri dish is one of the most common items in biology laboratories.

Pics from: https://asm.org/Events/ASM-Agar-Art-Contest/2020-Winners

The Mathematician Priest

This week as we celebrated Dr AR Rao, a great teacher of mathematics, it is the right time to make it a double celebration. Coincidentally this teacher of mathematics was not only a contemporary of Dr AR Rao, but also made Ahmedabad his karmabhoomi, and the teaching of math his life’s mission.

He was Father Carlos Valles, a Spanish Jesuit priest whose contribution to mathematics education, as well as to the Gujarati language and literature left a significant mark in both fields. The life and work of Father Valles are inspiring, as well as humbling.

Carlos Valles was born in Spain on 4 September 1925. His father, a respected engineer died when Carlos was only 10. But he left a very strong impression on his young son, who through his life reiterated “My father trusted me. I would never let him down.” Soon after his father died, Carlos’ family lost everything in the civil war that broke out in Spain. His mother took refuge with a sister of hers in a city where the Jesuits had just opened a school, and Carlos and his brother got scholarships to study and board in the school. When he was 15 Carlos joined the Jesuit religious order as a novitiate. This was also when he wrote his first book The Art of Choosing, where he reflected on this turning point in his life—detaching from the family for Christ and a lifetime of service. His next ‘detachment’ was leaving the country of his birth. On his own request that he be “sent East”, he was asked to go to India. As it happened, his Jesuit order was planning to start a new St Xavier’s college in Ahmedabad, and the young priest was given the task of helping to set this up. And so, in 1949, Carlos Valles left his mother country for India, which became his home for the next many decades. As he later wrote “There I went in the fullness of my youth. My father had taught me never to do things by halves”.

He also wrote that right from the moment he arrived, he felt so at home in India, that his Indian friends were convinced that he had been an Indian in his previous reincarnation. It was here that he completed his education with a Mathematics honours degree from Madras University in 1953. For someone who knew only Spanish, the course led him to become proficient not only in math but also in English, the medium in which the course was taught.

Around the same time he was also became convinced that if he were to work and teach in Gujarat, then his teaching would need to be in the local language. As he wrote “English was enough to teach mathematics, but not to reach the heart. The heart is reached through the mother tongue”. He had already studied basic Gujarati but he realised that this was not enough. So he went on to hone his language skills at Vallabh Vidyanagar University in Gujarat, living in the hostel for one year with fellow Gujarati students, immersing himself in the language and culture, until he gained mastery over Gujarati.  This was followed by four years of theological studies in Pune, where he continued to practice writing in Gujarati for two hours every day. Carlos Valles was ordained to priesthood in 1958, in the presence of his mother who came to India for the first time.  

Finally it was in 1960, the year that Gujarat separated from Bombay and became a new state, that Father Valles started his mathematics teaching at St Xavier’s College in Ahmedabad. The story goes that on the train from Bombay, he could not get a seat, and so stood all the way, and when in the melee one of his slippers fell off the train, he also threw the other one out, saying that now there is a complete pair that someone can use.

And there started the transformation from being a student to a teacher who was eager to give his body and soul to his teaching. And Father Valles was not one to take the easy path with tried and tested teaching techniques. He not only devised innovative ways of communicating math concepts, but also took upon himself to coin appropriate Gujarati terms for the concepts. He was also convinced that it was his duty not only to reach the minds, but also the hearts of his students; through dialoguing with them on all aspects that affected their life beyond the classroom. He started by writing a small book in Gujarati. Many publishers rejected the manuscript as they felt that no one would read such a book. Eventually Father Valles published it himself with some money that his mother sent him. The book titled Sadachar went onto see twenty editions in three languages.

Thus began the double life of Father Valles—as a Mathematics teacher and as a writer—both in Gujarati. Father Valles soon became a regular columnist for Gujarati periodicals and newspapers. In his original Sunday column in Gujarat Samachar titled To the New Generation he wrote about a wide range of topics– youth, family, society, religion, psychology, morals and contemporary issues. He secretly hoped, as he wrote, that the old generation would read it first. His writings became hugely popular over the years and were compiled and published as books. He did not ignore his first subject either, and with his colleagues, he wrote a whole series of mathematical textbooks in Gujarati which were used and remembered by generations of students in Gujarat.

But it is not only through newspaper pages that Father Valles entered the hearts of Gujaratis. He was a familiar sight riding on his bicycle across the city with his cloth sling bag. To learn from close quarters about the lives, mentalities, attitudes to life, beliefs and traditions of the people of the city, he lived with families in the narrow pols of the old city. As he wrote, “…so I lived the whole day with them, sharing their two daily vegetarian meals, their floor space on a mat at night, and their family life in all its richness, blessings and problems for a few days till I knocked at the door of another family in a continuous pilgrimage. I cycled daily to and from the college for my classes, but for the rest I lived fully as a member of the family I lodged with for the time. I spent ten years in that happy way. Perhaps that is possible only in India”.

For 22 years, Father Valles carried out his mission with heart and soul, in a city that he thought would be his home for life. However as he wrote, “circumstances shaped new and unexpected paths for me.” His mother turned 90 and expressed a wish for her son’s company. Without a second thought, Father Valles moved to Madrid to be with her until she died at the age of 101. He continued to write, now in three languages—English, Gujarati and Spanish, and travel. In 1999, at the age of 74, with his undiminished passion for reaching out, he bought a computer and started a website in Spanish.

Father Valles continued to live in Madrid, but he could make a trip back to his beloved Ahmedabad in 2015. Ahmedabad had changed much since he had left, but his gentle presence reminded its citizens once again about his life’s mission of bringing harmony. As he once said “I would like the word Harmony to be the summary of my life.”

Father Valles passed away in Madrid on 9 November this year, 5 days after his 95th birthday.

Sadly I was not living in Ahmedabad in the years when he was here, but the heartfelt reception he got on this last visit, made me wish that I could have had the privilege of having met this innovative teacher, prolific multi-lingual writer, and above all, an incredible human being.

–Mamata

Go Figure: National Mathematics Day

December 22, the birthday of the mathematical genius Shri Srinivasa Ramanujam, has been observed as National Mathematics Day in India since 2012, the start of the celebration of his 125th birth anniversary. The Day has, since then, been marked in schools and colleges by special events like maths quizzes, competitions etc. Hopefully, the enthusiasm will be carried over to the digital medium this year.

Those of us who fear math will also recall they feared their math teachers. In fact, the fear of math stems in most of us because we just did not understand what was happening in the class. And math teachers seldom felt the need to do anything differently to help students understand the abstract concepts better.

It is in this light that Mathematics Educators like Shri AR Rao stand out. He dedicated his life to math education and inspired generations.

Born in the small village of Jakka Samudram of Salem district, Tamilnadu, he had his initial schooling at Tanjore—not far from Kumbakonam, where Ramanujam and studied lived when he was young.  He studied chemistry, not mathematics at graduate level, and then took a post graduate degree from Chennai. But his karmabhumi was Gujarat. He joined Bahauddin College, Junagadh in 1933, as a Professor of Mathematics and spent 27 years there. After that he taught in various other colleges in the state.

After ‘retirement’ in 1974, he started his second innings. He became a mathematician at VASCSC (Vikram Sarabhai Community Science Centre), a pioneering science education facility in the county. The teacher of formal mathematics became the flag-bearer of non-formal mathematics as a means to popularize mathematics. His mission was to make mathematics enjoyable for students and everyone else.

His innovative mind came up with dozens of puzzles, games, models and teaching aids towards this.

He set up India’s first Mathematics Laboratory at VASCSC. He traveled, attended workshops and seminars, and spoke all over the country to popularize these ideas.

I had the great good fortune of having interacted with Shri AR Rao to some extent. When I was helping at VASCSC, his 90th birthday came up. It was decided to throw a surprise party at the Centre. Just to ensure that he did come in that day, a message was sent to him that the Trustees wanted to meet him.

I still remember the joy and the excitement of the many students and bhakts who came for the party. And at last the guest of honour, Shri AR Rao, walked in. He was truly surprised and thrilled. He almost broke down when it was his turn to speak. He said that he had come in very nervously, thinking that the Trustees had wanted to meet him to ask him to retire now that he was 90! Such was his love and passion for spreading the word on mathematics education that he wanted to come in to work at this age. And indeed he did, till the age of 100. He passed away on 4th April, 2011.

If today the teaching of mathematics in India has become more comprehensible to the average student, if students appreciate and enjoy the beauty of mathematics, and if teachers have begun to employ innovative methods to teach the subject, Prof. AR Rao had a lot to do with it.

It would be appropriate to end with a quote from him:

“Although everyone concedes that without mathematics, modern science and technology can hardly make any progress, it is common knowledge that the students everywhere consider mathematics as a very difficult subject. Of the many reasons that can be found for this, perhaps, the most important are, some defective methods of teaching, over emphasis on exams and indiscriminate cramming of materials from the text books and the so-called guides. So what is really needed is inculcation of a power of understanding and a capacity of creative thinking.” AR Rao.

Blessed indeed to have met such people!

–Meena

Much of the material has been drawn from http://www.vascsc.org/images/pdfs/Glorious-Innings-of-Prof.A-R-Rao.pdf.

Across and Down

1 Across: Word that describes the author of this piece (14 letters).

Answer: Cruciverbalist

Yes, that’s what I am. A crossword lover! My day does not end until I have tackled my three daily crossword puzzles. Over the years while this has become a habit, in recent years I have been not just trying to crack the clues and fill in the blank squares with the right answers, but equally looking more closely at how the clues are framed. And every day, I applaud not so much myself for having got the answers, but even more the creator for the clever wording of the clues.

And as with most things that interest me, I am curious to know what goes on behind the scenes. That led me to the history of the crossword puzzle.

The earliest form may have been simple word games that were published in children’s books in the 19th century in England.  These were called Word Squares where children had to fill in the words to fit the squares so that the words read the same across and down.

Arthur Wynne a young English boy in Liverpool was one of the children who had been taught by his grandfather to solve these puzzles. When he was 19, Arthur, emigrated to America. He went on to work with the newspaper New York World where he managed the jokes and puzzles supplement called Fun. One December day, as Arthur was working on the Christmas Edition of Fun he felt that the readers needed something new and challenging. He remembered the word games he used to play as a child. Drawing upon that memory Wynne designed a numbered, diamond-shape grid with an empty centre. As the first top Across entry, he inserted the word FUN. He fitted in words in the rest of the squares, for which he devised clues. He called this puzzle Word-Cross. An illustrator later accidentally changed Word-Cross to Cross-Word, and Arthur was fine with it, so the name stuck. Later Wynne played around with a variety of shapes and finally settled on the rectangle.

Arthur Wynne’s first Fun word Cross was published in his paper New York World on Sunday 21 December, 1913. The Word-Cross was well received and became a regular feature of the Fun page. Soon after that, World War 1 started. As the war progressed and the newspapers were full of depressing headlines and dire news reports, the crossword became a much needed refuge where readers could temporarily apply their minds to something challenging as well as satisfying. Crosswords became a comforting anchor through the uncertainty of wartime. By the time the war ended crosswords had become immensely popular.

During the early 1920’s other newspapers picked up the newly discovered pastime, and within a decade crossword puzzles were featured in almost all American newspapers. It was in this period crosswords began to assume their familiar form.

Crosswords were now being published in almost all newspapers—except in the New York Times. A 1924 editorial in the Times called crosswords “a primitive sort of mental exercise.” Interestingly, it took another World War for the New York Times to introduce the crossword—two decades after the rest of the newspapers in the USA did. Through the 20s and 30s the New York Times brushed it off as a passing fad, and deemed carrying a crossword on its pages as too low brow. They felt that the paper should hold the reader’s interest without needing to rely on a puzzle. But with the war, they realised the therapeutic value of the crossword. The first New York Times crossword ran on Sunday, February 15, 1942. Today the New York Times crosswords are among the trickiest and cleverest, and ones that solvers most aspire to crack.

After a decade of popularity in America, the crossword crossed the Atlantic. The first crossword to be published in Britain appeared in Pearson’s Magazine in February 1922, and it became very popular. The Times of London, as had the New York Times, initially scoffed at what it called “a menace because it (crossword) is making devastating inroads on the working hours of every rank of society. Everywhere, at every hour of the day, people can be seen quite shamelessly poring over the checker-board diagrams, cudgelling their brains for a four-letter word meaning ‘molten rock’ …”  The Times resisted the popular wave until February 1 1930 when it published its first crossword.

The British crosswords quickly developed their own style. While the American crosswords usually had clues for which the answers were direct, based on general knowledge or word definitions, the British ones were more complex and the clues cleverly worded so as to have double or hidden meanings. And so emerged what became known as Cryptic crosswords. One of the creators of this kind of puzzle was a school master Derrick Somerset Macnutt. He compiled his puzzles under the pseudonym Ximenes, to avoid the wrath of frustrated cruciverbalists who could not crack his cryptic clues!

Simple or cryptic, the crossword was here to stay and developed its own band of followers, who went on to become addicts.

When the world was once again in the throes of World War II, the crossword played a similar role as it did in the first War–providing a respite from the gloom and doom stories on the news pages, and something to do in the blackout hours.  

The crossword had its own intriguing WW II moments. In England, Intelligence Officers found that some of the answers in the The Daily Telegraph’s puzzles were code names for secret undercover war missions. They were worried that crosswords were being used to communicate secret messages. They traced the puzzles back to a mild-mannered headmaster Leonard Dawe. But they could not find anything to incriminate him. The mystery remained unsolved until 1984, when one of Dawe’s former students came forward and said that along with some other students he had helped Dawe fill in his puzzles. The boys had used words that they had heard being used by soldiers in a military camp next to their school. Neither they nor their headmaster had the faintest idea that they had been accidental traitors!

By the time the war ended in 1945, for crossword solvers in Britain and America, it had transitioned from providing solace to becoming a ritual. And the faithful following of cruciverbalists has grown across the world. Today, the internet has brought changes in the form of the crossword, and many today get their daily fix on their computers and smart phones. But its function remains the same—to engage the mind in bringing order out of seeming chaos, and the very personal sense of achievement when the blanks begin to be populated with letters.

1 Down: Crossword lover American President (7 letters)        Answer: Clinton

Cheers to the Cruciverbalists! We have nothing to use but our brains!

–Mamata

Stamp on Numbers

Actually, that should read ‘Stamps on Numbers’. But ‘Stamp on Numbers’ is something I would have liked to say to my Math teachers, so let me work it out my system!

Browsing through the books in the home bookshelf is an obsessive COVID activity with me, as with many others. In this exercise, I came across a book entitled ‘Wonder of Numbers’ by Clifford Pickover. While I am sure the book has lots to teach on mathematics, what I found most interesting was a snippet that the country of Nicaragua had, in 1971, issued a series of stamps called the “The 10 mathematical formulas which have changed the face of the world”. The ten selected formulae:

  • 1 + 1 = 2
  • Pythagorean law for right-angled triangles
  • Archimedes’ law of moments
  • Napier’s law of logarithms
  • Newton’s law of gravitation
  • Maxwell’s law of electromagnetism
  • de Broglie’s law of light waves
  • Tsiolkovskii’s law of rocket motion
  • Boltzmann’s law of entropy, and
  • Einstein’s law of relativity.  

The back of each stamp apparently has a small explanation of the formula. No one is quite sure how these particular formulae were selected, but what I found most fascinating was that a country would think of putting out such a series!

Delving a little more taught me that there were several hundreds of stamps across the world, devoted to mathematics and mathematicians.

Several countries have brought out stamps on Mathematics Education. https://mathematicalstamps.eu/news/100

Nicaragua, Iran and Mexico have brought out stamps on the theme of ‘Counting on Fingers’. There are several stamps which highlight calculating instruments like Pascal’s Mechanical Calculator, William Schickard’ calculating device, the Slide Rule, etc.

A number of stamps have featured statistical themes, such as a graph showing the Norwegian gross national product growth from 1876 to 1976, and one depicting the decline in malaria.

There have been many stamps devoted to games and pastimes based on mathematical reasoning. Chess and Go—a Chinese game—have quite a few each. But so do other lesser known ones–Senet an early form of backgammon; an Egyptian game from 1350 BC played by two players on a 3 x 10 board; the African game of eklan which consists of a board with 24 holes, arranged in concentric squares into which sticks are inserted etc.  Of course, the Rubik cube, invented by the Hungarian engineer Erno Rubik, a coloured cube whose six faces can be independently rotated so as to yield 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 different patterns, has a stamp or two.

The metric system was introduced in 1960 and gradually, most countries have adopted this system of weights and measures. There are quite a few ‘metrication stamps’ including:

  • a Brazilian metric ruler
  • a Romanian stamp demonstrating that a metre is one ten-millionth of the distance from the north pole to the equator
  • a stamp from Pakistan demonstrating the metric units of weight, capacity and length
  • two Australian cartoon stamps featuring the metric conversion of length and temperature
  • a Ghanaian stamp indicating that a metre of cloth is a little more than 3 feet 3 inches.

Since 1897, International Congresses of Mathematicians have been held at which thousands of mathematicians from around the world gather to learn about the latest developments in their subject. These meetings usually take place every four years. Several of these congresses have been commemorated by stamps.

India has a few mathematical stamps too. Aryabhatta, Ramanujam and DD Kosambi are celebrated on Indian stamps. Jantar Mantar, the remarkable observatory designed by mathematicians and astronomers figures on a stamp too. The decimal system which originated in India and is a fundamental contribution, is actually celebrated in a stamp brought out by Nepal through a depiction of an Ashoka Pillar from Lumbini, which portrays this.

My search engine wanderings led me to a world which I did not know existed, and from where I have gleaned most of this information. The world of people who love mathematics, stamps and mathematical stamps .

Some of these, which are also the sources of much of the above information:

https://mathematicalstamps.eu/news/100

http://users.wfu.edu/kuz/Stamps/stamppage.htm

Stamping through Mathematics. Robin J. Wilson. Springer.

Mathematics and science : an adventure in postage stamps. William L.Schaaf. Reston.

Have fun!

–Meena

Totalitea

Many moons ago, my husband and I were on a short trek on the Annapurna Trail. Late one afternoon we reached a small village where we would spend the night. As we sat, enjoying the unmatched feeling of contentment after a beautiful day’s walk, we were joined by a young man. He bowed low, as only the Japanese do, and joined us in quiet contemplation. After a while, in broken English, he asked if we may be so kind as to join him in a small ceremony. We were happy to do so.

The young man led us to a large spreading tree around which was a built platform, and gestured to us to sit. From his backpack he took out a beautiful bowl and a brush, and with fluid movement cleaned the bowl. He then put in it some tea powder and hot water from his flask, and carefully stirred. With a low bow, he respectfully held the bowl in both hands and passed it to my husband, so that he may take a sip. He indicated that the bowl be passed on to me to do the same, and then he did the same when I passed it to him. All this was done in peaceful silence. When we had finished the bowl of tea, he explained, half in words and half by gestures that this was a traditional Japanese tea ceremony and that his guru in Japan had asked him to share it in a beautiful place with the right people. We were humbled that we had the privilege of this sharing amidst the breath-taking majesty of the mountains, the song of birds, and the crisp air. 

It was one of the most meaningful and beautiful moments of sharing that we have ever experienced. The memory is vivid even after so many years.

We later discovered that our host had meticulously followed both the form and spirit of the chado or Japanese tea ceremony, an experience that is centred on respect, beauty, and simplicity. As is the tradition, before the ceremony begins, the host and the guests prepare their mind and spirit for the experience by leaving worries behind, and focusing on harmony and tranquility. The rest of the ceremony gently unfolds just as our young friend had done.

The history of the tea ceremony is equally engaging. The tea plant was brought to Japan in the 9th century by a Buddhist monk named Eichū on his return from China, where tea had been in widespread use for centuries. Eichū served the drink to an emperor, and not long after, an imperial decree was issued to start cultivating tea plantations in Japan. Initially tea drinking was limited to the social elite and only later it spread to other levels of Japanese society. It would take another three centuries before tea ceremonies would become a spiritual practice.

In the 15th century, Murata Jukō a Buddhist introduced the four core values of the ceremony–kin, or reverence; kei, respect for food and drink; sei, purity in body and spirit; and ji, calmness and freedom from desire.

In the 16th century, another Buddhist, Sen no Rikyū incorporated the philosophy of Ichi-go ichi-e (‘one time, one meeting’), the idea that each individual encounter should be treasured as such a meeting may never happen again.

Our chance encounter with the Japanese tea ceremony and our host was literally and spiritually “one time, one meeting”.

Tea and rituals related to tea have an important role in Oriental cultures. In China, where tea is said to have originated, one of the first written accounts about the tea ceremonies dates as far back as 1200 years ago, during the Tang Dynasty. The serving of tea was also named cha dao which meant ‘the way of tea’.  Attention to tea preparation and serving became the preoccupations of the Chinese tea connoisseurs, which transformed the way tea was regarded by the Chinese.

The Chinese tea ceremony is a blend of the philosophies of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism and is based on the respect for nature and need for peace. The traditional tea ceremonies were described as he which translates as ‘peace’, jing which translates as ‘quiet’, yi which means ‘enjoyment’ and zhen meaning ‘truth’.

The tea ceremony remains one of the most significant traditions, even today, in Chinese weddings. The ceremony is conducted on the day of the wedding and sees the bride and groom respectfully serve tea to their parents, in-laws, and other family members. This symbolises the union of two families, the respect for the elders on both sides, and the elders’ acceptance of the marriage. In Chinese, the expression “drinking a daughter-in-law’s tea” is used to represent a wedding. What a simple but eloquent symbol tea can be.

While Japanese and Chinese poets have written lyrical odes to tea, the British approach to their cuppa is much more “stiff upper lip” and mundane! As William Gladstone said:

If you are cold, tea will warm you;
If you are too heated, it will cool you;
If you are depressed, it will cheer you;
If you are exhausted, it will calm you.

As for India, as with all other things there are myriad versions and preparations of the ubiquitous chai! Every home and every family has its own special brew, and chatting over chai is a national pastime.

In my home, the long morning tea session is an unbroken tradition, complete with a big teapot and numerous cups of ‘English tea.’ It is a time to sip, and savour our little garden while we each peruse the morning papers. It is a comforting and happy way to start a new day. And to remember the words of the Vietnamese spiritual leader, poet, and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh:

Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves—slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment. Only this moment is life.

What brought on these ramblings about tea? Every year, since 2005, tea-producing countries have been celebrating International Tea Day on December 15th. The day seeks to draw the attention of governments and citizens around the world to the impact that tea trade has on workers and growers. Last year it was proposed to expand this celebration to all countries around the world and to move the day to May 21st.

December or May, for tea drinkers every day is Tea Day.

–Mamata

Peanuts for Bulls

One of Bangalore’s landmarks is the Dodda Basavana Gudi (Big Bull Temple), which is situated–surprise, surprise, on Bull Temple Road, Basanvangudi, South Bengaluru. It was built by Kempe Gowda, the founder of Bangalore, around 1537. It is dedicated to Nandi, the vahana or mount of Lord Shiva, and the monolithic statue has a height of 4.6 metres and a length of 6.1 metres. This Nandi is probably the biggest in the world.

But where do the peanuts come in? Well, apparently, this was a prolific peanut-growing area many centuries ago. But year after year, a wild bull would rampage through the fields just when they were ready for harvest, and would destroy the crops. Over time, the problem grew so worrisome that the farmers were desperate. They vowed to build a temple dedicated to Nandi if only the bull would stop. They did so, and miraculously, the bull stopped its depredations.

A board at the temple has a slightly different version. According to this, one of the angry farmers whose peanut fields the bull was destroying, hit it with a club. The stunned bull sat down motionless and turned into stone. But then it started to grow and grow! The worried farmers prayed to Lord Shiva. A trident found near the feet of the bull was placed on its head, and at last it stopped growing. The grateful farmers then built a small temple, which was later enlarged by Kempe Gowda.

And in gratitude, farmers also decided to hold an annual peanut fair (Kadalekai Parase) in the area around the temple. It is held on the last Monday of the month of Karthik (that is next Monday, 14 December). Originally, farmers would make an annual visit to Bengaluru to sell their peanuts, but today most sellers here are traders who buy from the farmers and sell. Not only can groundnuts be bought and stored for the year, but peanut connoisseurs will  find a large variety of snacks to choose from–spiced, fried, boiled, roasted and sugar-coated groundnuts.

Not just a tasty snack, groundnuts are good as a source of protein. It is of course a major oil crop—in fact India’s most significant one. The green or dried leaves are used as cattle-feed. Being a leguminous crop, it does the soil good too, by fixing nitrogen. Approximately 85 lakh hectares of agricultural land in India are under groundnut cultivation and the annual production is about 7200 thousand tonnes.  

Well, COVID is bound to interfere with beautiful traditions like the peanut fair, but its importance in our lives will not wane. And hopefully Kadalekai Parase 2021 will give us all our nut-fix!

–Meena

See also: ‘The Worshipful Bull’, https://wordpress.com/post/millennialmatriarchs.com/823

Save Our Soil

Unless we are a farmer or a gardener, few of us consciously think about soil. And yet, it is soil that sustains life on earth. Scientists study biodiversity on land and in the water, but not as many look that closely at soil and what it harbours. Soil is home to more than 1/4 of our planet’s biodiversity, but we only know 1 per cent of this universe. 

December 5 is World Soil Day–an international day to celebrate Soil. This day was first recommended by the International Union of Soil Sciences (IUSS) in 2002; it was supported by the FAO and endorsed by the UN General Assembly in June 2013. The day means to raise global awareness about the importance of healthy soil and advocate for the sustainable management of soil resources. It is marked on December 5 was chosen because it corresponds with the official birthday of the late H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, King of Thailand, who was one of the main proponents of this initiative.

There are more living creatures in a single teaspoon of healthy soil than there are people on Earth.

This year’s World Soil Day theme is Keep Soil Alive, Protect Soil Biodiversity. Now, more than ever before, soil biodiversity is under pressure due to unsustainable soil management that affects life belowground. This theme focuses attention on the workers belowground–from tiny bacteria to agile millipedes and slimy earthworms–all of which contribute to processes that are indispensable to life on Earth.

It is a reminder that unless people around the world proactively engage in improving soil health, soon, the fertility of soil will continue to be adversely affected at an alarming rate, threatening global food supplies and food safety.

Here is my small contribution to this day.  Giving soil a voice!

The Soil’s Lament

I am soil. Ever thought about me?

Always underfoot, you think I’m here for free.

In your fields and gardens, roads and lawns

On mountains in deserts, in cities and towns.

I can be living, feeling, strong and healthy like you

But I can also get sick, and sometimes tired too.

Then I get weaker, unable to nurture life to grow.

How can that happen, would you like to know?

Year after year, season after season

You plant me with the same crops with the reason

That the more you put in, the more you will get.

But that’s just where you will lose the bet.

In such a hurry you are, to sow and reap

Have you ever thought that I’d like time to breathe?

Ever considered that I too need to recuperate

From trying to deliver at such an unnatural rate?

Give me a break, give me a rest. Be kind to me, I’ll give you my best.

The unending cycle will sap all my strength

Suck the minerals and nutrients out from my depth

One fine day I’ll just run out of steam

Then those bountiful harvests will be just a dream.

And then you will pump me with every artificial aid

Chemicals, fertilizers, all the tricks of the trade.

Hoping the fruit I then bear will be so fast and good.

But could you thrive on pills alone, and no natural food?

Give me a break, give me a rest. Be kind to me, I’ll give you my best.

Or will you drug me with pesticides and insecticides

To destroy the “enemies”– the aphids, thrips and mites.

You don’t realize that with every deadly dose

My allies too are dying, not just my foes.  

You strip me of my protective cover

Tear away trees, shrubs, grasses, every small flower

That keep me secure with a protective cloak

From the fury of rains and the winds that blow.

You leave me exposed, vulnerable, and bare

To be blown, swept and washed away, here and there.

Or you clad me in an armour of concrete and stone

So I can no longer breathe, nor give my friends a home.

Give me a break, give me a rest. Be kind to me, I’ll give you my best.

Cover me again with a mantle of green

Let my own special magic do the job you’re so keen

To assign to the factories, the labs and the vans

And potions from bottles and boxes, sprays and cans.

Let the humus, leaf litter and the biomass,

The lichen, the algae, the roots and grass,

The bugs, the beetles, the worms and snails

Do the job they’ve always done, and that never fails.

It’s these millions of dwellers that give me life

That in turn I bestow on all plant life.

Let my friends and foes do all they might

If I’m strong and healthy, it’ll be all right.

Give me a break, give me a rest. Be kind to me, I’ll give you my best.

–Mamata

When Social Responsibility was Risky Business!

Philanthropy has been garnering headlines in the world media for some years now, with the most successful entrepreneurs speaking more about their giving initiatives that their businesses. And it has indeed set off a virtuous cycle.  

But lest we think giving by industrialists is a new phenomenon …

In continuation of last week’s blog which marked 13 November (designated as World Kindness Day), and November 16 (International Day for Tolerance and Peace), here is a look at a few examples of Indian industrialists whose philanthropy exhibited a sense of enlightenment and responsibility that was path-breaking . The critical thing to remember is that most of the industrialists of the late 18th and the early 19th centuries saw building up India’s industry and infrastructure and supporting the freedom movement as their most critical social responsibilities. They were flying in the face of the Raj in doing this, and the Raj had the power to destroy them! But that did not stop them.

The Vision of Jamsetji Tata

Shri Jamsetji Tata was a pioneer in setting India on the path to industrial self-reliance. But it was not just about technology. His vision for the well-being of his workers was truly enlightened. Way back in the 1880s, he offered facilities like crèches for workers in his mills, as well as short working hours, properly ventilated workspaces, fire safety, etc. In 1886 he instituted a Pension Fund, and in 1895, began to pay accident compensation.

The story of Jamshedpur is another testimony to his vision. The work on this township for housing the workers of the Steel Mills was commenced in 1908. Shri Jamsetji dreamt of more than basic housing for his workers. He wanted to build a proper modern planned city. His instructions regarding the city were:  “Be sure to lay wide streets planted with shady trees, every other of a quick-growing variety. Be sure that there is plenty of space for lawns and gardens; reserve large areas for football, hockey and parks; earmark areas for Hindu temples, Muslim mosques and Christian churches.”

It was private philanthropy that led to the creation of institutions like the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore and Tata Institute for Fundamental Research, Mumbai. It is said that Jamsetji mooted the idea of contributing to an institute like IISC as early as 1898, long before Carnegie’s endowment to set up a Technical School (today Carnegie Mellon University).

From Temples to Gods, to Temples of Education

Shri G.D. Birla was a strong supporter of Gandhiji and gave considerable resources to the freedom struggle. Many of us would have at some time or other visited a Birla Mandir–many a large town in India boasts one. Apart from this charitable activity of temple-building, a landmark contribution of Shri Birla is the creation of one of India’s best higher educational institutions—the Birla Institute of Technology. This was started as a school for G.D. Birla and R.D. Birla by their grandfather in 1901. It grew into a high school  in the 1920s. In the forties, the Birla Education Trust was founded and the institution went from strength to strength, adding degree and post-graduate courses in a variety of disciplines.  In 1964, taking advantage of a Ford Foundation grant, the institute formed a partnership with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA, and was well on the path to leading India’s achievements in technical education.

Gandhi Ashram is Saved!

When Gandhiji  first came to Ahmedabad, he set up his Ashram at Kochrab. He invited a Dalit family– Dudabhai and Danibehn–to come and live at the Ashram. This led to considerable agitation among the Ashram’s neighbours as well as many funders, leading to a financial crisis, which forced Gandhiji to think of shifting the Ashram.

Kochrab Ashram

And then one day, in Gandhiji’s words: “A car drew up near our quarters and the horn was blown. The children came with the news. The sheth did not come in. I went out to see him. He placed in my hands currency notes to the value of Rs 13,000 and drove away. I had never expected this help, and what a novel way of rendering it!”

This gift saved the Ashram. It is well-known that the ‘Sheth’ was Shri Ambalal Sarabhai, one of the foremost industrialists of the time. However, neither he nor Gandhiji ever admitted this!

Jamnalal Bajaj: Exemplary Patriotism

Jamnalal Bajaj was considered Gandhiji’s fifth son, and adopted all his values—from Ahimsa to his dedication to the poor to his commitment to locally made goods and his patriotic spirit. He fought for admission of Harijans into temples, and in the face of strong objections, opened up his own family temple in Wardha—the first temple in the country to do this.

Shri Bajaj was an active member of the Congress Party, and gave up the Rai Bahadur title conferred on him by the British Government and joined the non-cooperation movement.


Importantly, Jamnalalji, in line with the trusteeship concept propounded by Gandhiji, felt that inherited wealth was a sacred trust to be used for the benefit of the people, and dedicated most of his wealth for the poor and under-privileged.

On the shoulders of giants….

–Meena

 www.tata.com

https://jamnalalbajajfoundation.org/jamnalal-bajaj/about