High-tech Barriers to Heritage

In between the first COVID wave and the second ongoing one, we were tempted to get a little adventurous. We scouted around for sites which we could visit on day-trips.

It is in this process that we got to know about a beautiful Hoysala-style temple situated in Somanathapura, which lies about 130 kms from Bangalore. This is the Chennakeshava Temple built by the Hoysala commander, Somanatha, in 1268 A.D.

And we made our way there with some friends.

It is an astounding structure, made completely of sandstone, with the most intricate carvings, built at the peak of Hoysala architectural excellence.

Chennakeśava means ‘handsome Keshava’, and the temple is dedicated to three forms of Vishu—Keshava, Janardhana and Venugopala. The main temple is on a star-shaped platform with three garbagrahas, each dedicated to one on the three forms. Besides this, there are 64 corridor shrines, set in magnificent pillared corridors. The main temple is surrounded by a pradakshina patha, all along which are carvings from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagavata Purana etc., which unfold as one undertakes the pradakshina.  The ceilings are decorated with intricate sculptures depicting different stages of the unfolding of a lotus. The massive stone pillars supporting the inner shrine were turned in ancient animal-drawn lathes.

The temple took several decades to build, but was in worship for only 60-70 years before it was sacked by invaders. Since the statues and the structure were defaced and broken, worship could no longer take place there, as per tradition.

It is a wonder that such an old and disused structure still stands in such good shape today—it is nearly 700+ years after it stopped being an active temple. It is in the hands of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), and one must appreciate their efforts to have the site in such good shape, standing in such well-maintained grounds. Even the toilets are fairly functional and clean.

But….

And it is a big BUT.

It is plagued by some problems which many of our heritage sites suffer from. For instance, we did not see a single signage anywhere on the roads telling the passers-by of the existence of such an amazing monument close by. Or to direct those who were looking for it.

Within 25 kms of the structure—leave alone on or near the premises—there is not a decent restaurant or even a picnic ground for those who had their own food.

But for the first time we came across a tech-challenge in such a place!

When we reached the gates of the monument and looked around for a ticket window, there was none. Instead there were a few flex posters, informing us of the rates (Rs 20 for online tickets), and a barcode to scan and pay. There were about six groups of tourists, all desperately trying to scan but no one was successful. After about five minutes, the helpful security guard came up to us and told us that it was not working. He suggested we should try to log into the ASI site, pay online and get our tickets. We all tried dutifully. But the signal was at best patchy and the site slow. My friend could get in. The names of each one of the group had to be entered. And the Aadhar or PAN of the person doing the booking. When she tried to pay, it got into a loop which there was no coming out of. We looked around, and many other people were in the same soup. We asked the Guard if he could not just take the money and give us tickets, but he told us that was not allowed. By this time, one person from another group was successful in getting his ticket from the ASI site. So using typical Indian jugaad, we begged him not to exit, but to do our ticketing online, and that we would pay him the Rs. 20/head in cash. He obligingly did this for some of us.

The whole process took us about 20 minutes and was pretty stressful.

And then we went in to visit the monument. Which fortunately was amazing enough to make it all worth while.

But it left us wondering what the point was. Does anyone who wants to visit a heritage site HAVE to have a smartphone? In a country where literacy, let alone digital literacy, is not to be taken for granted, should lack of these prevent a person from such basic access (never mind that it is a barrier even to COVID vaccination!). Is there an inherent age-discrimination–many older people are uncomfortable with all these scan-and-pay modes.  If the wifi does not work at a site, are people to go back the 150 kms they came to visit the monument? And why is the name of every visitor needed for buying entry tickets? Why is Aadhar or PAN information needed? Where does this information go, and what becomes of it?

If the purpose of technology is to make life easier for citizens, then this is surely not the way! The system is good in that it provides a nudge for digital payment (if you scan and pay it is Rs. 20, and if you could buy a physical ticket it is Rs. 25 per ticket). Nudges are good for bringing about behavior change. But taking away options is discriminatory and against basic rights. As is seeking information which is not relevant to anything!

Why does something like a visit to our own heritage sites have to become a battleground about rights?

–Meena

Word Builder

As summer holidays approach so do memories of vacation pastimes with family and friends. One favourite pastime for us was games of Scrabble—the word building game that made us focus, squabble and compete for points as we triumphantly built words with triple scoring letters, or bemoaned the fact that we were left with all vowels, or no vowels, to build our words.

Scrabble is one of the games that is universally known and popular across continents and languages.

The story of Scrabble is an interesting one. In 1924, a young man Alfred Mosher Butts graduated from University of Pennsylvania’s school of architecture. It was a time when New York’s skyline was rising upwards, and the young architect joined a prestigious New York firm where he was assigned to design elegant country homes for the rich. In just five years the bubble burst, and as the economy crashed, the United States was plunged into the Great Depression. Butts was among the millions who lost their jobs. He was just 32 years old, and his career path looked hazy.

Butts had always loved word games and games of strategy like crosswords and chess. Crossword puzzles were already a popular pastime in the United States in the 1920s. Alfred Butts noticed that a new game called Monopoly was becoming very popular, and was also commercially successful. He found that there was no word game in the market. Butt began toying with the idea of developing a word game that combined both skill and chance. He began by studying the front page of The New York Times to calculate how frequently each letter of the alphabet was used. He found that just 12 letters (E, T, A, O, I, N, S, H, R, D, L and U) accounted for 80% of the letters that are normally used.  Butt used his analysis and his free ‘unemployed’ time to develop a word game that involved knowledge, strategy and chance. He cut 100 wooden tiles by hand, each with a letter of the alphabet, and drew a grid of squares on a playing board. Each letter had points assigned. The players had to draw nine letter tiles, which were placed face down, at random, and arrange these to form words on the squares. The first players were Alfred Butts, his wife Nina and their friends. Nina, as it turned out, knew more words and had better spelling than her inventor husband, and always scored more than him. As Alfred admitted “she beat me at my own game,” literally.

Alfred could invent an interesting game, but just could not find the right name for it. He first called it Lexico, then changed the name to IT, then to Criss Cross and then Criss Cross Words, but none of them really clicked. He was equally unsuccessful in trying to register the trademark of his new game. In 1933 he approached all the major games manufacturers, but they rejected the game. Butts in the meanwhile, continued to innovate—he made a15x15 square board for the game, and added values to some of the squares to double and triple the score of the letter placed on them; he reduced the number of tiles to be picked at a time to 7. He even manufactured 200 sets himself, and offered them at $2 a set plus 25 cents for shipping. But the big games manufacturers were still not interested. By then Butts had been reemployed as an architect and could no longer spend as much time on further promoting his game. But the game continued to played by his friends.

One of these friends who had bought one of Butt’s handmade sets had a friend called James Brunot who was impressed by the game. Brunot offered to make and sell the game. In 1948 Butts sold the management of the game’s production to Bruno, but he retained the patent, and it was agreed that he would receive royalties on the sales. Bruno made modifications to the game, changing the colours on the board, and the scoring system. He also came up with the name SCRABBLE a word meaning ‘to scrape or grope around frantically with your hands’ from the Dutch ‘schrabben’ to scrape or scratch. Brunot trademarked Scrabble in December 1948.

Even under Brunot the game had a shaky start. Just as Butts had done more than a decade earlier, the first sets were hand produced, initially in Brunot’s own house and then in an abandoned schoolhouse by his wife and friends, laboriously stamping out one letter at a time on wooden tiles. Thus the production was slow; in 1949 they produced 2400 sets; and lost money, but the game was gaining in popularity. 

The breakthrough came in the early 1952 when, as the story goes, the chairman of Macy’s, one of New York’s biggest department stores saw the game being played when he was on vacation. On his return he was surprised to discover that Macy’s did not stock this game, and he immediately placed a large order. The game was an instant hit; within a year everyone ‘had to have one’, and Scrabble sets had to be were rationed in stores around the United States.

Meanwhile, the Brunots had to cope with the escalating demand by expanding their production facilities. The popularity and demand snowballed so rapidly that the production and marketing had to be taken to a different level of commerce, with different companies getting into the venture. In 1955 the game crossed the Atlantic and began to sell in the UK.

The rest as they say is history. It took over two decades for Butt’s Criss-Cross Words to make it big. Scrabble is now available in 31 languages and sold in 121 countries worldwide. Over one hundred and fifty million sets of Scrabble have been sold. The Scrabble craze spawned a number of other commercial enterprises—dictionaries, books on strategy, tournaments, and more.

Unlike the inventor of the safety pin, Butts did earn royalties on his invention, which it is believed were about three cents a set. Butt said ‘One-third went to taxes, I gave one-third away, and the other third enabled me to have an enjoyable life’ until he died at the age of 93 on 4 April 1993. Butt spent a creative life; he designed buildings, he was a painter, and a stamp collector. He also continued to invent board games, including one called Alfred’s Other Game, when he was in his eighties. But he is best remembered as the inventor of Scrabble. And his birthday on 13 April is celebrated in the USA as National Scrabble Day.

A good time to pull out that old Scrabble board and build some words!

–Mamata

Silver-tongued Orator of the British Empire

As a student, he corrected passages in JC Nesfield’s “English Grammar” (the standard grammar textbooks used in India in those days). He was often consulted over spellings and pronunciations by the English. His mastery over the English language was recognized by King George V, Churchill, Lady Lytton and Lord Balfour. Many rated him among the five best English-language orators of the century. He is the man of whom the Master of Balliol declared, ‘I never knew that the English Language was so beautiful till I heard Sastri speak it.’ He is the man who found 27 mistakes when Gandhiji sent him the first copy of his newspaper “Harijan” for review. He is the man to listen to whom the British Prime Minister Lloyd George postponed a cabinet meeting.  He is the man conferred with the title of ‘Silver-tongued Orator of the British Empire’.

This was Srinivasa Sastri, born to a poor priest in 1869 in the small village of Valangaiman in Tamilnadu. He was a brilliant student who did his education in Kumbakonam. He graduated in Sanskrit and English, and went on to become a teacher, and later the Principal of the Hindu High School, Triplicane, Madras.  Though he went on to be many things—freedom fighter, politician, diplomat, administrator—he probably remained at heart an educator.

His foray into public life began from academic roots—he founded the Madras Teachers’ Guild when he was Headmaster of the Triplicane School. He was also a pioneer of the co-operative movement in the country, and started India’s first co-operative society, the Triplicane Urban Co-operative Society (TUCS) in 1904.

He is said to have been so influenced by a pamphlet written by Gopala Krishna Gokhale that he gave up his job and joined the Servants of India Society, going on to become its President. He joined the Indian National Congress in 1908, and was nominated to the Madras Legislative Council in 1913. He was later also a member of the Privy Council.

He was a part of delegation which visited England in 1919, a delegate to the Imperial Conference and the Second session of the League of Nations in 1921. He played a key role in getting the Government of South Africa to drop legislation which would have led to the segregation of Indians there. In 1927 he was appointed India’s first Agent to South Africa.

Gandhiji and Sastri were lifelong friends, and respected each other deeply. The Mahatma always referred to him as ‘Anna’ , never letting him forget that he was 10 days older! However, Sastri’s views and stands were often controversial. He was seen as too accommodative of British actions. He opposed the Non-cooperation Movement on the grounds that it was subversive of the law and would set a wrong precedent. This and other similar stances brought him in conflict with Nehru and others in the Congress, and he resigned from the Party in 1922, and subsequently founded the Indian Liberal Party.

Late in life, he returned to his first love, academia, serving as Vice Chancellor of the Annamalai University, Chidambaram. He was a legendary teacher. Far ahead of his time, he believed that students were ‘comrades engaged in a common task and whom one should meet with a smiling face not only in the school room but on playfields ..’. He persuaded Mahadeva Iyengar, then Head of the Tamil Research Department of Annamalai, to translate Kalidasan’s epic poem Abhignana Sakuntalam in Tamil. His lectures at the Annamalai University packed the halls, with faculty competing with students for seats.

He headed a Committee set up in 1940 to frame a set of general principles for coining words for scientific and technical terms in vernacular languages. The report of this Committee was controversial, since it recommended the continuation of Sanskrit loan-words in Tamil technical language and this was violently opposed by Tamil adherents.

It was his tenure in Annamalai University that has special meaning for me. At this time, my grandfather Shri Anantavaidhyanathan was Head of the Dept. of Chemistry there, and the Right Honorable Srinivasa Sastri became a family friend, and mentor to my father A. Nagaratnam who was a student there.

Our family dictionary was a Cambridge Dictionary gifted by him to my father with the inscription ‘To Nagaratnam, with a grandfather’s blessings’, and signed. Alas, when my mother closed up her house, the dictionary (still in decent shape, if in two pieces, disappeared).

What a loss of a family heirloom! But still, I like to think that the pages my grubby childhood hands touched, had been touched by the legendary Silver-tongued Orator!

–Meena

He passed away on 17 April 1946. This week marks his death anniversary.

The Nifty Little Fix-It

Lost a button, snapped a strap; need something to hold it, or fix it? It’s the thing to reach for in an emergency. From the diaper to the toddler’s hanky, the sari pallu to the Scottish kilt, from the school badge to the split seam, this is what holds it together. It is the simple but multipurpose safety pin! Of all the many inventions that have made our day-to-day life simpler, it is these small but unsung ones that hardly ever make it to the headlines, but without which we would be quite lost.

The story of the safety pin is one of those. Its inventor Walter Hunt came from humble beginnings. He was born on a small farm in Lewis County, New York in 1796, the eldest of 13 children. He started his education in a one-room school, and dropped out of formal education in his early teens to take to farming. While Hunt was not keen on the 3Rs, his mind was sharp and curious, and he was fascinated with mechanical objects. This led him to help out at a nearby textile mill where several of his family members worked. With his love for tinkering, he worked out some improvements to the flax spinning machine used there. The owner took out a patent on this, but Hunt was not included in that. Hunt however went on to develop an even better flax spinning machine which he patented. But he could not find any investors who would support the production of these machines. Eventually, in frustration, he sold the patent, just to support his family, and relocated to New York.

This was in the days before the motor car. One day he saw a little girl being knocked down by a horse carriage which was the mode of transport. These carriages had air horns to warn the pedestrians who shared the roads, but the driver could not use the horn as he had to hold the reins with both hands. Hunt observed this issue, and developed a foot-operated metal gong to sound the horn. In 1827, he filed a patent for this device. Once again, he could not find an investor to manufacture this device, and so once again he sold the patent. And never made any money from the profits from the sales of his invention.

This was to be the pattern of Hunt’s life. He was always in the need for quick money to support his family, and so he sold his patents outright rather than holding on to them, or opting for the longer-term profits from royalties. Luckily for him, he could also come up with invention after invention.

It was one of those patents that he sold in 1849 that gave us the nifty device we call the safety pin. Here too was a case of a quick invention for quick money. In this instance, he was being pressured to settle a 15-dollar debt, which had to be repaid the following day. As was his default setting, he sat at night tinkering with a piece of wire, while wondering what new product he could invent and sell the next day. The wire reminded him of a pin, which in those days was straight length of metal with a sharp edge. Hunt wondered how he could make the pin less prone to poke the user, and thereby more safe.  In 3 hours, he worked out a sketch, and made a tiny model of a new type of pin. He used a brass wire, coiled it at the centre which provided a springing mechanism, and formed a clasp or catch on one end which shielded the wearer from being the sharp point when worn. He called this a ‘dress pin’.

As he described in his patent application: “The distinguishing features of this invention consist in the construction of a pin made of one piece of wire or metal combining a spring, and clasp or catch, in which the point of said pin is forced, and by its own spring securely retained.”

He then sold the patent outright for $400, and never got a single penny more for a product that has sold in trillions across the world, over more than a hundred and seventy five years.

The dress pin was only one of Hunt’s many inventions.  Earlier, in 1834, he had designed one of the world’s first eye-pointed-needle sewing machines. But his daughter talked him out of commercializing the device by warning him that it would lead to massive unemployment among seamstresses. He created a prototype in wood of the sewing machine, and sold the idea to a company that made it in metal. And in history, the credit for the invention went to Isaac Singer, and the Singer sewing machines became a household name.

Hunt continued his prolific spree of improving upon, inventing, and patenting numerous other daily-use objects. These included for a saw for easily cutting down trees, a flexible spring attachment for belts and suspenders, and an attachment for boats to cut through ice. He developed a machine for making nails, hob nails for boots and shoes, a knife sharpener, an inkstand, a fountain pen, bottle stoppers, paper shirt collars, and a non-explosive lamp. He developed a repeating gun and cartridge that was eventually adapted by Smith and Wesson. He even invented an suction apparatus that could be attached to shoes so a person could walk upside down on a ceiling. The contraption was used by circus performers as late as 1937.

Walter Hunt died on June 8, 1859 at the age of 62, with perhaps as many inventions under his hat as his years on earth. All his life he continued to outright sell his patents, and did not reap a single penny in royalties. His only claim to fame, if not fortune, is that 10 April has been designated as International Safety Pin Day, to mark the day on which he received his patent for the safety pin!

Let’s hear it for the safety pin–a handy little friend in need!

–Mamata

Get that Goat!

Last week, newspapers reported that when the Army Medical Corp Centre at Lucknow marked its Foundation Day, the marching band was led by Munna Havaldar. Mr. Munna is not a man but a goat, serving as a non-commissioned officer in the Regiment. And he is not the first! There has been a Munna Havildar in the regiment since 1951, the title handed down without break from one handsome Marwari goat to the next!

This is in keeping with the tradition of animal mascots that many army regiments, not only in India, but across the world have. Probably a tradition popularized by the British. Today, the British Army has nine animal mascots, from goats to ponies.

The Spanish Legion has its own goat mascot, ‘Odin’. The Bengal Tigress ‘Quintas Durga’, is the mascot for the 5th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment. ‘Chesty XV’ an English Bulldog is a mascot to the US Marine Corps.  The Sri Lankan Light Infantry mascot is an elephant. This is a tradition since 1961, and they are all named after the most famous elephant in Sri Lanken history, ‘Kandula’. ‘Brigadier Sir Nils Olav’ is a King Penguin who is the mascot of the Kings Guard of Norway. Toronto Zoo is home to the Canadian Army’s mascot, ‘Juno’, a female polar bear. ‘Bill the Goat’ is the mascot  of the United States Naval Academy.

Armies have both official and unofficial mascots or pets. Official mascots have a rank, and are maintained at the expense of the State. As with human soldiers, they too can even be promoted and demoted!

For some reason, goats are very popular mascots. In fact, they may be among the first-ever army animal mascots. The Royal Welsh Fusiliers have adopted goats as mascots since the 1770s, starting from the American War of Independence, during the famous Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775, when a wild goat entered the battlefield and led the Royal Fusiliers from the field.

Of course, goats are not very well-behaved or tractable. Lance Corporal William ‘Billy’ Windsor, mascot of 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh, earned a demotion in 2006 when he deviated from the parade he was leading in front of the Queen and tried to head-butt the drummers marching ahead of him.

Which reminds me of another goat which was a mascot not of a Unit in the Army, but of a road in Vastrapur, Ahmedabad. This strip of road (extremely narrow, bumpy and non-straight), lined with shops, parked vehicles, thelas and carts, temples and milling humanity, was a vital one connecting IIM, PRL, ISRO Colony etc. to the ‘other side’.

And it was ruled by a huge goat. He lay down in the middle of the road when he felt like, and all traffic had to flow around him. If he decided to take a walk and charge any pedestrian, they just had to may their way to safer ground. He was fed and pampered by all the shop keepers and denizens of the street. He had his pick of the choicest vegetables and fruits from the carts. If he felt like some sweets, he just had to make his way to one or the other sweet shop in the market. On festival days, he was festooned with garlands and daubed with paint. He was given to smoking, and the paan gallawallahs used to light beedies and put them in his mouth for him to puff at.

Sadly, the goat which gave the road so much character passed away of old age some years ago. Not being an Army Regimental Mascot, he was not replaced.

But thankfully, the road has been widened and smoothed!

–Meena

Feeling Fool-ish?

When we were in school this was the day when we were on high alert—looking over our shoulder, and wary about opening packages and envelopes; while at the same time planning silly pranks to play on family and friends. Whether the attempts on both sides were a hit or a flop, perhaps the highlight was the gleeful shouts of “April Fool”!

Interestingly, this is one day that does not have any specific geographical, cultural or religious significance but it is universally marked by fool-hearted fun and frolic. And yet, it is a day with a long, and somewhat hazy history. While it has been celebrated for many centuries by different cultures, there are several theories about its exact origins. 

Some historians speculate that it may have originated in 16th century Europe when France switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. Traditionally, the spring equinox which fell around the first of April was thought of as the beginning of the year in the Julian calendar, but in 1582, with the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, January 1 was designated as the start of the new year. As the stories go, it was a while before everyone found out about this change, and adopted it. Those who were ignorant about the change, or who refused to accept it, and continued to celebrate it in March-April were the butt of derision and pranks, and were called ‘April Fools.” One of the popular pranks was to paste a paper fish on their backs, and calling them “poisson d’avril” (April fish), which referred to a young, easily caught fish, symbolising a gullible person.

Other historians feel that its precedents lie even further back to a Greco-Roman festival called Hilaria, honoring Cybele, an ancient Greek Mother of Gods, which was celebrated with parades, masquerades and jokes. In fact most cultures have some kind of festival to mark the end of winter and the return of spring which is marked by the vernal equinox. These “renewal festivals” were an occasion to invert the traditional social order for a day—children could challenge the authority of parents, and servants of masters—and tensions were diffused with boisterous hilarity and playful pranks. Anthropologists see 1 April as a modern form of a renewal festival where forms of behaviour that are normally not allowed (lying, deception, playing pranks) become acceptable, for this one day.

It is only in the 18th century that April Fools’ Day spread through Britain. With time, different parts evolved their own traditions and events to mark the day. In Scotland and Ireland, a popular prank was to send people on phony errands; someone was asked to deliver a sealed message that supposedly requested help. In fact, the message read “Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile” which translated means “don’t laugh, don’t smile, send the messenger another mile“. Each recipient upon reading it would send the person on to the next person with an identical message. This version of a wild goose chase was called “hunting the gowk” as gowk means a cuckoo bird, which symbolises a fool.

With time, even as its history became more blurred, the spirit of April Fools’ Day spread across the world, triggering challenges to devise and play the most elaborate and outrageous  hoaxes. These were no longer confined to slapstick pranks and juvenile jokes. Newspapers, radio and TV stations and websites also joined the tradition by publishing or broadcasting reporting outrageous reports and news that would convincingly fool their audiences.

One of the best remembered hoax was pulled off by none other than the BBC, which had an old and solid reputation for its reliable reporting. On 1 April 1957, the BBC show Panorama gave the news about a bumper spaghetti harvest in Switzerland and aired a three-minute segment showing people harvesting spaghetti from trees. Viewers were totally taken in; many wrote in asking how they could grow their own spaghetti trees! The BBC even replied: “Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best!”

In 1962, before the days of colour TV, a ‘technical expert’ on the Swedish national network told the public that viewing its black-and-white broadcasts through nylon stockings would enable them to view these in colour. Many Swedes seriously tried this, ruining many stockings in the effort!

The neighbouring Germans have contributed their bit of April foolery too. In 1994, a Cologne-based radio station ran a story saying that local joggers should keep their speed below ten kilometres an hour so as not to disturb squirrels during mating season; while in 2004, Berlin paper Tageszeitung reported that the American embassy would be relocating to get away from the French embassy across the street.

As the world leap-frogged from print and broadcast to virtual communication, the pranks continued, in more high tech and sophisticated forms. Google became known for its clever annual pranks on its different platforms, cooked up by its best tech minds. It goofed however when it announced the real trial launch of Gmail on 1 April 2004, and everyone thought it was a joke! Last year, April 2020, for the first time since it began its April Fools tradition in 2000, Google did not put up any pranks and jokes, as a mark of respect for the unprecedented Covid situation that the entire world had been plunged into. And Stop Press! It has decided not to do so this year also.

Once upon a time, hoaxes were a once-a-year bit of fun and games, with the guileless gowks running around to carry so-called news. Today with social media flooded 24/7 with news, views, gossip and rumours, it is becoming increasingly difficult to sieve the fake news from the real. We no longer need to wait for April 1, to fool and be fooled. The joke is on gullible us, the always-in-a-rush consumers, who unquestioningly lap it all up, and spread it far and wide. That is not funny; that is foolish. More fool me and more fool you!

–Mamata