Looking Ahead With Hope

2021. What a year it has been. A year of bewilderment and bereavement. A year of being confined, and yet feeling adrift. A year of feeling connected by a common enemy, and yet feeling utterly alone, and helpless.

A year when we looked for even the faintest glimmer of hope at the end of what seemed like an endless dark tunnel. And then, as that glimmer grew brighter, the world strained at the leash, eager to be out and about. A demonstration of human resilience and, above all, of hope.

Much has been written how this period led us to look within, to discover in our deep recesses the strength that we did not know we possessed, or the value of bonds that we were often too busy to nurture. It led humanity to introspect, and we turned to the thoughts of wise men who saw the larger picture much before we did.

Two of these wise men, passed away this week, both on 26 December–Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the age of 90, and EO Wilson who passed away at the age of 92. Two persons that have inspired me, and about whom I have written earlier in this space.

Both very different, one a spiritual leader who was also an activist for human rights, and the other a world renowned scientist who devoted his life to studying the natural world, but who was also an activist, inspiring others to care for the natural world, as he did.

Both sharing a very similar world view and vision for the future of humanity.

This is a good time to recall some words of wisdom from these visionaries.

Edward Osborne Wilson or EO as he was called was not just the world’s foremost authority on the study of ants (a myrmecologist) but one of the founding fathers of, and leading expert in socio-biology and biodiversity

Tributes to EO Wilson describe him as “a true visionary with a unique ability to inspire and galvanize. He articulated, perhaps better than anyone, what it means to be human”.

“His gift was a deep belief in people and our shared human resolve to save the natural world”.

“A relentless synthesizer of ideas, his courageous scientific focus and poetic voice transformed our way of understanding ourselves and our planet”.

Alongside a distinguished academic career EO Wilson was a passionate naturalist who continuously drew attention to the fragility of the biosphere and advocated for its protection and nurture. He saw hope in the youth as the stewards of our planet.

His mission and vision was beautifully articulated in a Commencement Address that he gave in 2011 at the University of North Carolina.

“This is the time that in order to do that so we will have to evolve a better world order than the one we have now, which I like to call our Star Wars Civilization. I mean we have stone-age emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology. In the case of emotions they evolved in pre-history over millions of years. In the case of our institutions, especially within religions and ideology, we are in constant conflict. And in the case of our technology, we are seeing things going almost beyond the control of our imagination. These three stanchions of current civilization explain why we are constantly in trouble. They are dangerous. They are very serious problems for the rest of life and, ultimately, with that ourselves. And today we are still (far) from even at the margin of solutions.

Ours is above beyond all an exponential world, changing faster than at any period of history before. We are now in the early period of an overwhelmingly techno-scientific civilization, connected literally person to person. The accumulated knowledge of the world is already at the zettabyte level — that’s a one followed by 21 zeroes of bytes. It is growing faster and faster by the digital revolution in communication, which is changing everything—all that we know, all that we need to quickly learn, all that we need to understand in order to survive as a species. The trajectory of history can only be dimly foreseen. It will consist of shocks and surprises. This country and the rest of the world needs university-trained young people prepared not only by knowledge itself but by the capacity to find new knowledge in order to respond quickly to unexpected needs and crises, challenging all the various professions, and in public affairs, and in simple, everyday life. And, with it all, to think upon and understand the meaning of humanity and yourselves and your lives. So, go forth. Think. Save the world.”

Today, EO Wilson’s words from a decade ago are resounding more true than ever before. And his call for humanity to see itself as part of a larger interconnected universe is even more urgent than it ever was. It echoes Archbishop Tutu’s constant reminder that “It does help quite a lot to see yourself as part of a greater whole.”

Desmond Tutu was an early member of The Elders an international non-governmental organisation of public figures including statesmen, peace activists and human rights advocates who were brought together by Nelson Mandela in 2007. The Elders offered to use their collective experience to work on solutions for seemingly insurmountable global issues and conflicts.

For Desmond Tutu the magic mantra that could guide these solutions was “Ubuntu”– a Zulu proverb that says: “I am a person through other people. My humanity is tied to yours.” Archbishop Tutu felt that Ubuntu was the essence of being human. “Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness … We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”

“You can think about others who are in a similar situation or perhaps even in a worse situation, but who have survived, even thrived. It does help quite a lot to see yourself as part of a greater whole.”

Desmond Tutu’s life was fraught with numerous challenges and hardships, but his resilience stemmed from his ability to find joy even in the grimmest of situations. But he also warned that Joy was never unadulterated. “Discovering more joy does not, I’m sorry to say, save us from the inevitability of hardships and heartbreaks. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.”

“Much depends on your attitude. If you are filled with negative judgment and anger, then you will feel separate from other people. You will feel lonely. But if you have an open heart and are filled with trust and friendship, even if you are physically alone, even living a hermit’s life, you will never feel lonely.”

When we see others as separate, they become a threat. When we see others as part of us, as connected, as interdependent, then there is no challenge we cannot face—together.”

We have lost two wise men who, both from their own perspective, saw the interconnectedness of everything, and had an unerring faith in the power of connections.

Let their words continue to light our way as we look ahead with hope, to the new year.


Indian Coffee House: An Institution with a Hoary Past

Most of us, at least the more senior among us, would definitely have visited an Indian Coffee House at some stage in our lives. Quaint places, which serve coffee and snacks at reasonable prices. Usually centrally located, these places are manned by liveried bearers in old-style uniforms. But the best part—one can linger there fairly indefinitely over coffees and conversations.

The Indian Coffee House chain goes back to 1958, proving that coffee-places in India are not something invented or haunted by the young and with-it crowd. Our parents and grandparents ‘been there, done that’!

Coffee-drinking in India is only about a century old, though coffee has been grown here since the 16th century. But Indians didn’t take to it for a long time. The oldest reports are of Tam-Brahm Mamas drinking coffee in the 1920s in Chennai. It was pretty class and caste stratified, as were most things in those times.

The coffee-house culture which started in the 18th century here, was also subject to social restrictions—in this case racial discrimination. Only whites were allowed into these.

As time went on, the need to increase domestic coffee consumption was seen as important—purely economic reasons of course. With a view to to popularize the drinking of coffee and increase the sale of coffee seeds, the Coffee Cess Committee started a chain of coffee-houses, called India Coffee House. The first came up in 1936, in Mumbai. As a part of this objective, the British Government also set up the Coffee Board in the early 1940s. The chain of Coffee-Houses (then called India Coffee House) quickly gained popularity, and in fact became addas for freedom fighters, political leaders, students, intellectuals, artists and thinkers. These continued to flourish even after Independence, and were at the hub of political and intellectual discussions.

But in 1957, the losses were mounting and the Government wanted to close down the Coffee Houses. Not only would this have been a huge loss to the availability of spaces for debate and discussion, it would have resulted in retrenchment of several employees working in these places.  The All India Coffee Board Labour Union decided to take a hand in the matter.  Their Leader Shri. A.K. Gopalan a prominent Communist, along with some workers met the then Prime Minister Shri. Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru. The Prime Minister suggested that the coffee-houses could be taken over and run by worker-cooperatives formed by the retrenched workers.  As a result of this meeting, it was decided to form separate co-operative Societies in areas where these coffee houses were located, and to run the Coffee Houses as Cooperatives. In 1957, the first coffee house, now called Indian Coffee House, under this cooperative plan was opened, in the Theatre Communication Building in Connaught Place in Delhi.  Totally, 14 Societies were formed in different parts of India, and ever since then, have been running these units. Today, these have over 400 outlets spread across 20 States of India. Each worker in each of these units is a co-owner of the business and has a stake in its success. A unique model indeed.

Even after Independence, Indian Coffee Houses continued as intellectual hubs. In fact, so powerful a force were they that they were feared by the powers-that-be in the pre-Emergency era.

Indian Coffee House designed by Laurie Baker

Kerala has the largest number of Indian Coffee Houses—51 in fact. West Bengal has several too, with the most famous on being on Kolkata’s College Street—an outlet which in its time hosted intellectuals and artists including the likes of Satyajit Ray, Amartya Sen, Mrinal Sen and Aparna Sen.

The Coffee House at Trivandrum is very special in that it is an architectural landmark. Designed by the famous architect Laurie Baker, it is a continuous spiral ramp, with a circular central service core, and eating spaces provided on the outer side; jaalis let in light and ventilation. It stands on a very small plot in the middle of a busy urban area, and it is only by adopting the innovative circular design and interior design that it is able to cater to its many customers.

As we enter 2022, a time when capitalism is becoming more and more dominant, here’s a shout-out for the cooperative movement!

Long live coffee, long live coffee houses, long live addas which allow space for discussion and debate, long live the co-operative movement. Long live Indian Coffee House, which is all of the above!


Magnolia Lady Janaki Ammal

Whenever I write a piece about plants, one of the things that interests me is how the plant got its botanical name. In many cases the nomenclature includes the name of the scientist which was associated with the discovery or study of the plant. Most of the names are western. It was a pleasant surprise to learn about a plant that is named after an Indian botanist, and that too a lady! This plant is a variety of the magnolia and is named Magnolia kobus Janaki Ammal.

The story of Janaki Ammal herself is fascinating and inspiring. And her contribution to plant sciences covers a wide and impressive range of achievements.

Edavaleth Kakkat Janaki Ammal was born on 4 November 1897, in Tellicherry (now Thalassery) in Kerala. Her father, Dewan Bahadur EK Krishnan, was a sub-judge at Tellicherry in what was then the Madras Presidency. He had a large family consisting of 19 children from two wives, and Janaki grew up amidst numerous siblings, in a home environment which had a well-stocked library, that included scientific and literary journals, and a well-tended garden. Her father had a keen interest in natural sciences and kept abreast with developments in the sciences. He also wrote two books on the birds of the North Malabar region. From an early age Janaki herself had an avid interest in the natural environment, and a scientific temperament.

It is this that decided her further academic studies after she finished school in Tellicherry. At a time when women (including her sisters) were married off at a young age, Janaki chose to move away from home in pursuit of higher education. She obtained a Bachelor’s degree from Queen Mary’s College, Madras, and an honours degree in botany from the Presidency College. After graduating, she taught for three years at the Women’s Christian College in Madras. It was then that she was awarded the prestigious Barbour Scholarship for Asian women to study in the United States. She travelled to America to join the University of Michigan as a Barbour Scholar in 1924 and earned her Masters of Science degree in 1925. She continued her work which focussed on plant cytology and breeding of hybrid plants to earn her doctorate in 1931. She was the first Indian woman to receive this degree in botany in the US.

Returning with a doctorate from the US, Janaki returned to teaching as a professor of Botany at the Maharaja’s College of Science in Trivandrum, from 1932-1934. She then joined as a geneticist at the Sugarcane Breeding Institute in Coimbatore. At the time, India was importing sugarcane. Although India also produced a lot of sugarcane, it was not as sweet as the imported one. The Sugarcane Breeding Station at Coimbatore had been set up to carry out research to improve the quality of sugarcane grown in India. The work of two scientists there, CA Barber and TS Venkataraman, especially in cross-breeding different varieties was so successful that in just five years the production of sugarcane doubled in India.

Ammal joined these scientists at the research institute in 1934, and started her research in sugarcane. Her cytogenetic research of sugarcane, and her experiments with cross-breeding and hybrids led to a better understanding of sugarcane breeds, in turn leading to better cross-breeds of sweeter variety. It also helped analyse the geographical distribution of sugarcane across India. Janaki faced many professional and personal challenges as a highly educated unmarried female scientist in a male-dominated institute where, despite the “science”, a patriarchal and traditional mind set prevailed with respect to gender and caste. 

In 1935, she was selected as one of the first Research Fellows of the Indian Academy of Sciences set up by the Nobel laureate CV Raman.

In 1940 Janaki went to England and joined the John Innes Horticultural Institution in London as an assistant cytologist. England had just declared war on Germany; Janaki worked through the bombings and blackouts, often, it is reported, diving under her bed at night as London was bombed, and going to her lab in the morning to clear the broken glass and debris from the previous night’s bombing, while she continued to focus on her research.

Janaki worked closely with the geneticist Cyril Dean Darlington for five years. The two collaborated to write the Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants, which is a key text for plant scientists even today. Unlike other botanical atlases that focused on botanical classification, this atlas recorded the chromosome number of about 100,000 plants, providing knowledge about breeding and evolutionary patterns of botanical groups.

In 1946, she joined the Royal Horticultural Society in Wisley in a paid position as a cytologist. Janaki became the Society’s first salaried woman staff member. There, she studied the botanical uses of colchicine, a medication that can double a plant’s chromosome number and result in larger and quicker-growing plants. One of the results of her investigations was a magnolia shrub with flowers of bright white petals and purple stamens. This was named Magnolia kobus Janaki Ammal in her honour, and continues to bloom in Wisely even today.

Janaki returned to India in the early 1950s at the request of the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Her brief was to “improve the botanical base of Indian agriculture”.

She was appointed supervisor in charge of directing the Central Botanical Laboratory in Lucknow. In this capacity, she would reorganize the Botanical Survey of India (BSI), originally established in 1890 to collect and survey India’s flora, under the supervision of Britain’s Kew Gardens.

It was during this period that Janaki found herself looking beyond pure research and realising that in the race for increasing food grain production, the country was losing vast tracts of forests and valuable indigenous plant species. She was also distressed that despite Independence the system of plant collections and research remained colonial in mind set and practice. She was also keen to revitalize and indigenize botanical surveys.  After spending decades applying her research skills to improving the commercial use of plants, she began using her influence to preserve indigenous plants under threat. She began to speak of the value of indigenous cultures and the important role of women in preserving and cultivating local plants, which were being threatened by mass production of cereals. 

Janaki was among the pioneers that foresaw and warned of the threats to the fragile ecosystems in the race for ‘development’. She continued to speak out about this till the end of her life. At the age of 80 she vociferously opposed the proposed hydroelectric plant in Silent Valley in Kerala that would have threatened the unique biodiversity of a pristine evergreen tropical forest. Her voice as an eminent national scientist was respected, and was contributory to the scrapping of the proposal.

Janaki Ammal continued her distinguished public career in many important government postions: She headed the Central Botanical Laboratory at Allahabad. She worked as an officer on special duty at the regional research laboratory in Jammu and Kashmir and had a brief spell at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre at Trombay. In November 1970 Janaki decided to settle down in Madras where she worked as an Emeritus Scientist at the Centre for Advanced Study in Botany, University of Madras. Her research work continued unabated, with special attention on medicinal plants and ethnobotany. She continued her research at the Centre’s Field Laboratory at Maduravoyal near Madras and kept on publishing her work until her demise in February 1984.

A lifetime of pioneering work by a woman well ahead of her times. But whenever she was asked about her life, all she had to say was “my work is what will survive”. An unassuming woman who lived a simple Gandhian life, married to her work, and her first and life-long love for plants. A brilliant mind who made her own choices and forged her own path in her pursuit of knowledge. A trial blazer who “sweetened the nation and saved a valley”—Janaki Ammal.


An Unusual Biography Brings a Colossus to Life: ‘Growing up Karanth’

Shivarama Karanth. A name that many of us have heard. One of those names many of us know we should hold in awe, maybe without quite knowing why.

He was a great writer, no?

He was involved with theatre, right?  

Wasn’t he an environmentalist?

He was into politics?

For many, it was his dramatic mane of hair that comes to mind on hearing the name.

Shivarama Karanth was all of the above, and much more. A Renaissance man, if ever there was one. A Jnanpith awardee, awardee of Sangeet Natak and Sahitya Adademy fellowships. A Padma Bhushan, who was bold enough to return the award as a protest against the Emergency. A man who came under the spell of Mahatma Gandhi and joined the Freedom Movement, but branched out from Gandhiji’s fold as he did not agree with his economic ideology. A doyen of Kannada literature. The reviver of Yakshagana in a modern format. A writer whom Ramachandra Guha has called ‘Rabindranath Tagore of Modern India’ and ‘one of the finest novelists-activists since independence’.

It is not in my place to even try to talk about his work and achievements. So I will confine myself to talking about a new biography of his that has come out. ‘Growing up Karnath’ (Westland), is a biography written by his three children: Ullas Karanth (an internationally-renowned environmentalist); Malavika Kapur (an academic who headed the Clinical Psychology Dept at NIMHANS) ; and Kshama Rau (a well-known Odissi dancer who runs her own dance school).

Shivarama Karanth
Biography of the legendary Shivarama Karanth

It is the format of the biography which makes it special. It has a few chapters by each of the authors, recalling their memories of their mother and father, and their relationship with their parents. And then a few chapters written jointly by the three of them, giving a perspective of their father after they had left the family-fold.

This gives space for a very intense, intimate and emotional story—from seeing the famous achiever as a father who spun magical and impromptu night-time tales on any topic that the child chose to give him; to one who made paper dolls and costumes; to one who was quite capable of losing his temper and scaring the wits out of a young boy—one gets an insider’s view.

At one level, it is a very sad story. The wonderful mother, Leela Karanth, independent beyond imagination for her times, who actually proposes to Shivarama Karanth, a man many years her senior, and marries him in spite of many obstacles, who sacrifices her many talents to support her husband’s achievements, who takes many bold steps to ensure her family’s well-being, succumbing to depression and mental illness which eat up the last two-and-a-half decades of her life. The amazing father, Shivarama Karanth, a man of a million talents who in his later years, cut himself off from his children and those close to him, under the influence of an outsider.

At another level, it is a story of joy. The joy of the wonderful relationship and the unusually-equal marriage of Leela and Shivarama Karanth; the father who let each of his children flower in whichever field they chose; the warm grandfather. The joy of the Renaissance Man to whom everything was a subject of enquiry, exploration and study; one who was as comfortable thinking about problems scientifically, as writing about them in verse; one to whom there was no boundary between one art form and another. The joy of creation, activism, and art. Of passionately-held ideologies and beliefs.

At yet another level, it is an expression of gratitude of the three authors. To their awesome parents of course, but also to the people who were part of their parents’ lives; who supported them at various stages, in various ways; who contributed in some measure to Shivarama Karanth becoming the giant he was. And that is a very touching aspect of the book.

The candour and the openness with which each of them writes is something that is amazing. It must have been an emotionally demanding experience, while at the same time a catharsis of sorts. We readers can only thank them for digging deep and throwing up their father and family to the public gaze, to help us understand the legendary Karanth as a man, with his amazing achievements and his very human failings.

However, I miss one thing in the book. While it gives a glimpse of Shivarama Karanth’s achievements, it still does not give me proper understanding of the depth and width of his work. There are of course references to some of his works and also a bibliography of his writing. But the magnitude of the work did not hit me hard enough to awe me to the extent it should: over 40 novels, half a dozen books on science, a dozen children’s books, biographies, travelogues, books on architecture, plays….. And his writing is only part of his work. His environmentalism, his revival of Yakshagana, his activism. Though one catches glimpses, one cannot get one’s teeth into any of it. But maybe this is an unfair comment. There are other biographies, and his own autobiographies to do that. The authors themselves make it clear in their foreword that ‘In large part, this book is our tribute to Tata (as they called their father) and Amma, celebrating the gifts they gave us while we were ‘growing up Karanath’. And this the book does in full measure.

And the other comment would be that there are naturally some overlaps because we have three authors, talking about the same people and the same incidents. But that is a minor issue.

Overall, a book worth the time you will spend on it, to get introduced to one of the Makers of Modern India.


PS: Thanks Krithi Karanth for the book and the world it has opened to me!

Neem Chameli-Indian Cork Tree

The last two months were suffused with the heavy scent of the Saptaparni flowers that hung in the early morning air. With the monsoon finally receding, this month there is a change in the atmosphere, and the scents in the air. The crisp dawns are now fragrant with a delicate scent. Following ones nose and looking up one sees some trees laden with clusters of white flowers. In the pre-dawn light, one may think that the Saptaparni is blooming again. But no, it is the turn of another night bloomer with white flowers—the Indian Cork Tree or Tree Jasmine.

This ornamental tree which grows in most parts of India is locally known as Akash Neem, Neem Chameli, Betati Neem, Mini Chameli, Karkku, Malli, Kavud, Machmach, and Buch in different Indian languages.

Native to South Asia and South East Asia, the Indian Cork tree is the sole species in the genus Millingtonia. Its botanical name is Millingtonia hortensisMillingtonia is named after Sir Thomas Millington, an English botanist who was an inspiration to Carl Linnaeus who first described this genus. The word hortensis comes from the Latin word hortensis which means ‘related to gardens’. The tree is commonly planted in gardens and along roadsides.

The Indian Cork tree is a versatile evergreen tree that can grow in various soil types and climate conditions. It grows, generally tall and straight, to a height of between 18 and 25 metres; it has relatively few branches spreading out 7 to 11 metres. It reaches maturity between 6 and 8 years of age and lives for up to 40 years.

This is a hardy tree in terms of climatic adaptation, but the wood is soft and brittle and can snap in strong winds. It has a yellowish grey bark which is cracked and furrowed. Beneath the bark is a kind of cork, which is inferior to true cork, but which nevertheless gives it the name of Indian Cork Tree. The wood can be used for furniture and ornamental work, and the cork is used as a substitute for real cork. This use is reflected in its Gujarati name Buch, which literally means ‘cork stopper’. The leaves are divided into small oval leaflets arranged in pairs along the main rib. They resemble neem leaves, giving it another local name Akash Neem, in some Indian languages.

It is the flowers that attract attention when they blossom in snowy white masses at the end of branchlets. Each flower with four waxy white petals is like a slender tube sitting in a bell-shaped calyx. The flowers open at night and are short lived, showering down to carpet the ground beneath the tree. The fruit is a long slender pod, flattened and pointed at both ends and containing flat seeds. Birds feed on the seeds and help in their dispersal.

As with almost all plants, the different parts of the tree are used for medicinal purposes. Extract of its leaves is said to have good anti-microbial properties, and dried flowers are believed to be effective as bronchodilators.

And as with many trees in India, there are myths and folk tales associated with this tree also. I found a really appealing folk tale about the Neem Chameli.

I call it a Cinderella Story.

Once upon a time there lived six brothers who had one sister; her name was Chameli. Chameli was as beautiful and delicate as the flower that she was named for. Her brothers doted on her and showered her with love and care. The wives of the brothers were always jealous of this, but they could only watch in silence. Until one day, the brothers had to go away for work. Before they left they told their wives “We are leaving our beloved sister in your care. Treat her with as much care and love as we do.”

No sooner were the brothers out of sight, than the wives showed their true colours. They took away all of Chameli’s pretty clothes and belongings, and told her, “From now you will do all the housework, and obey all our orders”. The sisters-in-law were cruel and heartless, and the young girl toiled from morning till night, clad in rags and on a hungry stomach, day after day. The delicate Chameli grew frail and ill, until one day, she died.

The wives were frightened; what would their husbands do when they found out? Under the cover of darkness, they quietly buried her in the corner of the garden. When the brothers returned they were shocked to hear from their wives about how their sister who could not bear being separated from her brothers, had fallen very ill, and passed away. The brothers wept and mourned.

In the corner of the garden where Chameli was buried, grew a beautiful tree, which had fragrant blooms. Every morning the ground beneath the tree was strewn with a carpet of delicate white flowers. The brothers loved this tree, and nurtured it with care; the flowers reminded them of their beloved sister. Their wives however were always afraid that someday the truth would come out. They nagged and nagged their husbands to cut down the tree, until finally they agreed. As the axe was about to strike, they heard a soft gentle voice “Oh brothers, do not strike me; I am your sister Chameli”.

The brothers were taken aback. Eventually the truth about their sister came out. The brothers embraced the tree and promised to care for it as long as they lived. And that how, it is believed, this tree was named Neem Chameli.

As I collect the fallen flowers and breathe in the gentle fragrance of the Neem Chameli tree, I celebrate the many seasonal gifts that Nature bestows upon us.


Veerappan: Re-visiting the Story of the Forest Brigand

In the ‘80s, ’90s and early into this century, Verappan was a name we often saw in newspaper headlines. As in:

India’s Most Wanted.

Outlaw of Jungle.

In the Lair of India’s Asthmatic Bandit King.

Veerappan Strikes Again.

Veerappan Kidnaps Rajkumar, Three Others.

A Ruthless and Daring Bandit.

And then, in October 2004, the headlines:

Veerppan walked into well-laid trap.

Veerappan shot dead.

Death of a Demon.

A ruthless killer, a sandalwood smuggler, a poacher who was responsible for the killing of elephants  in the four-figures; a kidnapper; a murderer; a hero to his gang and some poor communities; a man wanted and actively hunted by the security forces of two states and the BSF sent by the Centre, Veerappan was an elusive figure. A figure who fed news headlines, who kept security forces on their toes, and who with his dramatic moustache and daredevilry, excited the imaginations of many.

Why, 17 years after his death, have I suddenly been reminded about Veerappan? Well, I happened to stumble upon this book called BIRDS, BEASTS AND BANDITS: 14 DAYS WITH VEERAPPAN.

It is the true story of two wildlife-film maker-conservationists who were kidnapped by Veerappan and his gang under the mistaken impression that they were government officials who could be useful as bargaining chips for some of their demands. The gang captures a Bengali scientist visiting the forests as a tourist, as well as three forest guards as well, to add heft to their bargaining power. The seven hostages are marched across the forest for 14 days before they are released. The book is the account of these 14 days by the two main hostages, Krupakar and Senani.

They wrote their account for a Kannada weekly magazine ‘Sudha’ in 1998, a year after they were captured and released, and subsequently, as a book in Kannada. About 10 years after that, the book was translated and brought out in English by Penguin.

It is a light-hearted book, though it talks of an ordeal which must have taken a lot of guts to endure. And though light-hearted, it is not trivial. It touches upon many serious issues, from the injustice that Veerappan and others in his gang have faced, which may have driven them to become what they did. But it does not justify their actions. It mentions the unfair portrayal of his misdeeds in the press and by officialdom, in terms of chalking up a lot of crimes,  elephant-poachings and murders to his account, than he could have possibly committed.

Most importantly, it brings us glimpses of Veerappan as a person. His incredible abilities as well as his incredible instability; his naiveté and ignorance of the world, as well as his understanding of the jungles and the tribulations of the poor; his humour as well as his tantrums; his readiness to use the gun, as well as his gentleness in some situations.

As much as bringing Veerappan to us, the book brings us Krupakar and Senani. How they take the whole ordeal as pretty much routine—all in a day’s work, so to speak. Their equanimity, their fearlessness, their presence of mind, their strategic and thoughtful approach to communicating with their captors to move them towards the decision to release them—all these shine through. They don’t mention any of this explicitly, but as one reads, one is completely awed by this. The equanimity and stoicism of Dr. Maithi, an agricultural scientist from West Bengal who is another captive is unbelievable too! He spends his time meditating, indifferent to his situation, and in fact trying to teach the others meditation! And the incredible integrity of all the three, whether in their intentions that a peaceful resolution be brokered between Veerappan and the official machinery, or in their sympathy and empathy with the gang members, is touching.

There can be no sympathy with ruthless killers like these, but the book does portray their human side—their motivations, hopes and dreams.

The prize goes however to the following incident that Veerappan narrates to his prisoners, with whom the gang builds up a warm and emotional relationship. Veerappan tells them of how he had once kidnapped a government official and asked for a ransom of Rs. 3 crore for his release. A government emissary appears on bike, carrying a bag. Veerappan asks him to throw the money on the road to ensure that the bag does not have a bomb or something. He sees that the money is much less than promised (Rs. 3 lakh in fact). When angrily questioned, the emissary, a second-division clerk, is pretty fearless and says that this is what he was given. Disgusted, Veerappan tells him to go. But the man keeps standing there.  The story continues in Veerappan’s words as follows:

‘I was taken aback. People run the moment they see Verappan. But here I was telling this man to get lost, and he was still standing around.

‘What else?’ I asked loudly.

‘He bent forward, scratching his head with his left hand, and said ‘Nothing for me, sir?’

‘I gave him ten thousand, to rid myself of his wretched presence’.

Definitely a book for a weekend read!


Ada Lovelace: STEM Pioneer

Every Wednesday my newspaper carries a special page about Tech news which has stories about young techies, and especially about women who have made a mark in the field of computer technology. In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion about encouraging girls to engage with STEM, and inspiring stories about women in the 20th and 21st century who have excelled in these fields.

Not many can imagine that one of the pioneers of computing science was born over two hundred years earlier, and that she was a woman! This was Ada Lovelace, a computing visionary who recognised the immense potential of computers. Augusta Ada Byron was born in London on 10 December1815. She was the only child of George Gordon or Lord Byron, the brilliant but eccentric English poet, and Annabella Milbanke, a highly intelligent and educated woman with a flair for mathematics. 

The marriage between the poet Bryon and the “princess of parallelograms” as he called his wife, was tempestuous and short. A month after Ada’s birth, Annabella Byron moved their daughter out of their London house, and away from Lord Byron’s influence. Annabella was afraid that Ada would inherit her father’s ‘poetic’ temperament and erratic traits, and kept her daughter away from the “imaginative” arts, bringing her up in a strict regimen of science, logic and mathematics, as well as music.

Ada’s father Lord Byron himself left Britain forever when Ada was a baby, and he died in Greece when Ada was eight years old. Ada never knew him. Ada herself was largely brought up by her maternal grandmother and servants, and educated by private tutors. She suffered long spells of bad health right from childhood, and through her life.

Ada was fascinated with machines from an early age and devoured the scientific magazines of that time. But she was equally imbued with her father’s imagination. When she was twelve years old, Ada wanted to fly. But she did not stop at dreaming; she methodically studied birds and feathers and experimented with different materials that could serve as wings, and even wrote an illustrated guide recording her research, called ‘Flyology’. She was reprimanded by her mother who saw this as a fanciful project.

In 1833 Ada, as a debutante to London’s high society, attended a party where she was introduced to Charles Babbage who was a renowned mathematician. Babbage spoke to her about his new invention–a tower of numbered wheels that could make reliable calculations with the turn of a handle. He called this the “Difference Machine”. A few days later, Lady Byron took Ada to his home to see him demonstrate the device in his drawing room. Ada was very intrigued by the incomplete prototype. She initiated a correspondence with Babbage about its potential, and her own mathematical studies. This was the beginning of a close and lifelong friendship. Babbage was then a 40-year-old widower and Ada a young debutante, both with very divergent personalities, but the two corresponded and exchanged ideas for many years. Babbage recognised, and encouraged, her potential; in 1839 he wrote to her “I think your taste for mathematics is so decided that it ought not to be checked”.

Babbage spoke highly of Ada’s mathematical powers, and of her peculiar capability, which he described as being higher than that of any one he knew. On one occasion he called her “The Enchantress of Numbers”.

At the age of 19 Ada was married to an aristocrat, William King; and they had three children. In 1838 William King was made Earl of Lovelace, and his wife Ada became Lady Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. But she became generally known as Ada Lovelace.

Along with being a wife and mother Ada continued her independent pursuit of mathematical knowledge. She became friends with one of the finest female mathematicians of her time, Mary Somerville, who discussed modern mathematics with her, set her higher-level mathematics problems, and talked in detail about Charles Babbage’s difference engine. In 1841 she was given advanced work by Professor Augustus De Morgan of University College London. She also continued to learn advanced mathematics through correspondence with Mary Somerville. All the time, she kept Babbage’s difference engine in mind.

Babbage began a new project that he called the “Analytical Engine’. He envisaged this as large heavy machine with thousands of cogwheels that could perform more functions with greater accuracy. Ada Lovelace served as the key interpreter of the project. On a trip to Turin to promote his work, which required considerable financial support, Babbage met a mathematician named Luigi Federico Menabrea, who agreed to write a paper on the machine. It was published in a Swiss academic journal in October, 1842. Ada translated the paper from the French, but also added her own copious and detailed notes, addressing difficult and abstract questions that the paper threw up. While the original paper was about 8000 words, Ada’s annotated English version came to twenty thousand words.

In her paper she clearly described how Babbage’s device would work, with references and illustrations from the silk-weaving Jacquard loom which wove patterns using a set of punched cards which issued instructions to the machine. As she wrote “We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves”.

She explained how Babbage’s machine could perform a similar function using as sequence of punched cards, or what could be called “machine code”. In her paper, she included the world’s first published computer program, or algorithm – this was the Bernoulli number algorithm, and thereby became what may be considered as the first computer programmer.

Ada Lovelace broke new ground in computing, identifying an entirely new concept. She realized that an analytical engine could go beyond numbers. This was the first ever perception of a modern computer – not just a calculator – but a machine that could go beyond the field of mathematics and contribute to other areas of human endeavour, for example composing music.

Ada’s translation, along with her notes, was published in 1843 with the title “Sketch of the Analytical Engine, with Notes from the Translator”.

Ada Lovelace died of cancer at 36, in 1852. It was more than a hundred years before her notes were discovered, The “Analytical Engine” remained a vision, until Lovelace’s notes became one of the critical documents to inspire Alan Turing’s work on the first modern computers in the 1940s. In 1979, the U.S. Department of Defense named a new computer language “Ada” in her honour.

Today as many more young women enter the field of computer science and technology, it is time to remember Ada Lovelace, a pioneer and path breaker of her time. And to celebrate the power of Imagination. In 1841 she wrote: Imagination is two things: The Combining Faculty which seizes points in common, between subjects having no apparent connection and The Discovering Faculty which penetrates into unseen worlds around us, the worlds of Science.


Changi Quilt

What on earth is that? A fancy quilt bought at some duty-free store at Changi Airport?

No! Changi is an old area of Singapore, and its name is derived from either a tree or creeper which was common there. Changi has two major landmarks– the Airport, which is among the world’s best; and the Changi Prison. The Quilts are associated with the latter.

On Feb 15 1942, Singapore fell to the Japanese and the Allied troops surrendered. Civilians including over 400 women and children were marched to the Changi Prison and interned there. These were women and children who had either not been able to get berths on ships to leave the island before the surrender, or who had consciously chosen not to leave. While the majority of the women were English, there were also women from Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Canada, and the United States. The group included doctors, nurses, secretaries, teachers, as well as home-makers.

The Changi Prison building was designed to hold about 600 inmates, but with this influx, was accommodating about 2,400. The women and children occupied one wing of the building, while the men were put in the other. There was no communication between the two wings, and separated families had no way of knowing if members had survived, how they were, etc.

While some schooling did happen, some of the women were concerned that the children lacked a structure to their lives, and normal activities that would have been a part of their daily schedules outside prison. Elizabeth Ennis, an Army Nurse, along with a young Dutch girl, Trude van Roode, decided to do something about it. They made a group of about 30 girls between the ages of 8 and 13, and started a Girl Guides unit. The activity gave a focus and provided the girls with a purpose and discipline. The girls obviously thought the world of Elizabeth Ennis. On learning of her birthday, they decided to undertake a group-project of making a quilt for her. Each girl contributed to the making of a beautiful quilt, scrounging out fabric, thread and needles—precious commodities—to make hexagonal patches. Each child also embroidered her own name on to it. They put all the patches together and presented the quilt to Elizabeth.

This inspired a Canadian internee, Mrs Ethel Mulvany, a Red Cross representative in Singapore and chosen to be the camp Red Cross representative for the Changi women, with the idea of getting the women to make quilts for the Red Cross. The idea behind this move was ostensibly to alleviate boredom and to boost morale, and to give blankets to the wounded in hospitals. But it was also a means of passing information to men in other camps that the women and children were alive. 

Three quilts were made—one each for the British Red Cross, Australian Red Cross and the Japanese Red Cross. Each quilt had 66 squares.

Changi Quilt
Changi Quilt

Every woman who volunteered to make a square for the quilt was given a piece of plain white cotton– from various sources including flour bags and bed sheets–and was asked to put “something of herself” into the square, and also embroider her name on it. The squares varied in many ways—from the skill levels of the embroiderers, to the designs. While flowers were of course a common theme, there were animals, national symbols, and cartoon characters like Snow White and Pinocchio. Some were very poignant–Trudie von Roode’s square, for instance, shows a waiter and a table laid with lots of food and elegant cutlery, alongside the words ‘It was only a dream’. There were also messages, some which were very personal and understood only by the families concerned. For instance, one woman portrayed a baby rabbit wearing a blue ribbon—probably to inform the husband that a baby boy had been born. There was a level of censorship here too—for instance, the word ‘prison’ had to be unpicked before the quilts could go out.


The quilts survived the War. The Australian quilt was given to the Australian Red Cross and is on permanent loan to Australia’s War Memorial. The Japanese quilt too is with this War Memorial. The British Quilt is at the British Red Cross UK office.

And thus did some personal histories get recorded and preserved.


Pen Friends Through the Years

It has been some years now since I used what we called a Fountain pen. All through my schooldays, from the time that we reached the class where we graduated from pencils to pens, the fountain pen was an essential part of our compass box. The pens had a number of accoutrements—ink bottles (think Quink!), plastic ink fillers, rags of cloth to mop up spills, and sometimes even extra nibs. The ritual of filling (and spilling) the ink was as much a part of the evening routine as packing the schoolbags. The fountain pen was an integral part of life, and being gifted a Parker pen or a Waterman pen by someone who came from abroad was a highlight of that life!

I was surprised to learn recently that until the late 1950s India did not manufacture pens; all pens were imported, as also was ink. It was only after Independence, due to the thrust by the government to encourage domestic production that Indian pen manufacturing companies were set up. By the mid-1960s there were 12 Indian manufacturers of which Ratnam and Sons, based in Rajamundry were the most famous. It is believed that the Ratnam pen was the first truly ‘swadeshi’ pen. The story goes that when Gandhi had just launched the Swadeshi movement, he met KV Ratnam in 1921, and advised him to make a product using solely Indian components. When Ratnam asked him what he should make Gandhi said that he could make anything, from a pin to a pen. And Ratnam chose the pen! After studying the intricacies of a fountain pen, Ratnam set about meeting Gandhi’s mandate to make a truly ‘Indian’ pen. After several years of experimenting with local materials and technology, he finally developed one in 1933 and sent it to Gandhiji. Gandhiji was not fully convinced. He sent one of his secretaries to the Ratnam factory to confirm that no imported element was used in the product. It was in 1935 that Gandhiji was satisfied, and he started using the Ratnam pen, which he continued to do till his death in 1948.

For years ink-stained fingertips were the sign of a prolific writer, or a leaky pen! It was to address the issue of leaking ink that in other parts of the world, the path to the invention of what came to be called the ballpoint pen were already underway. The international history of the transition from the fountain pen to the ball pen is interesting.

The first patent for this kind of pen was obtained by an American lawyer John J Loud in 1888. Loud wanted an ink pen which would be able to write on rougher materials such as wood and leather, as well as paper. He experimented with, and developed a pen with a revolving steel ball, which was held in place by a socket—literally a pen with a ball point. Loud’s pen was indeed able to write on leather and wood, but it was too rough for paper. The device was deemed to have no commercial value and the patent eventually lapsed. But inventors continued to experiment with variations on the ball point.

One of these was a Hungarian-Argentinian journalist named László Biro who was frustrated with the leaky pens that he had to use in large numbers. László had realised that the ink used in fountain pens was too slow to dry; what was needed was something more like the quick-drying ink used on newspapers. In his quest for a more suitable ink he turned to his brother, Győrgy, a dentist who was also a talented chemist. Győrgy came up with a viscous ink which spread easily but dried quickly. After a number of trials, the brothers filed a patent, in 1943, for the ballpoint pen. Their pen was originally called a ‘Birome’ but became popularly known as a biro (an example of an eponym!) The pen became an instant hit. The Biro brothers sold their patent to Bic. And Bic pens are known all over the world even today. The ballpoint pen revolutionized the act of writing. Where the fountain pen needed a fixed place for writing where the accompaniments like the inkpot could be kept, the ballpoint pen led to great mobility and flexibility; it could be carried and used anywhere and anytime..

By the time I graduated from school to college, the trend in India had also moved from fountain pens to what we then called ballpoint pens, that later became the ubiquitous ball pens. At the time relatives coming from abroad used to bring Bic pens as gifts, although Milton Reynolds an American entrepreneur had introduced ballpoint pens in India in 1947. While Rajamundari was the cradle of the indigenous fountain pen, it was in Rajkot in Gujarat that the first Indian ballpoint inks and pens were manufactured. It was only in 1962 that Dhirajlal Joshi, after a lot of struggle, got approval to make ballpoint pen ink in India. There were hiccups in terms of quality of ink, nibs etc. but by the 1970s these had been smoothened and many pen manufacturing partnerships were set up, including with countries like Japan and Germany.

From Ratnam pen to Space pen–I value them all!

In the last two decades the market has been flooded with a great variety of pens, transitioning from pens with refills, to use-and-throw gel pens. There is even a Space Pen that is able to write in zero gravity and works upside down, under water, over grease and in extreme temperatures. Today fountain pens have become collector’s items or status symbols. Ink fillers, ink bottles and ink stained rags may soon be seen only in museums. Even refills for ball point pens are not easily available at my local stationary shop, as I painfully steel myself to throw away gel pens when they run out. These are perhaps manifestations of a time, which is almost upon us, when pens themselves, in any form, become redundant in an age of digital technology.

I have, all my life, loved writing by hand, and pens have been an integral part of that process of writing; each transition in the type of pen that I have used, marking also a different phase in my life. Pens gifted with love, pens picked up as souvenirs, pens handed out at meetings and conferences, and pens chosen and bought from stationary shops, and more…I have kept them all. These are my valued pen friends even today.