Paper Tigers

29 July is International Tiger Day. The day was first launched at the Saint Petersburg Tiger Summit in Russia in 2010 and is observed annually to remind the world about the decline of the global tiger population, and to encourage efforts for tiger conservation. On this day we will see many reports and statistics about tigers and their falling/growing population, and many conferences and seminars will be held on research and studies on tigers.

This is perhaps a good time to look at the tigers that roam not the forests, but that have also populated the pages of language and literature. The tiger has been a dominant character in folklore and mythology in many cultures.  

Perhaps China is the richest country in myths, representations, traditions, and legends related to tigers. Tigers have been a Chinese cultural symbol which has inspired story tellers, singers, poets, artists, and craftspeople for over 7000 years. In Chinese folklore, tigers are believed to be such powerful creatures that they are endowed with the ability to ward off the three main household disasters: fire, thieves and evil spirits. A painting of a tiger is often hung on a wall inside a building, facing the entrance, to ensure that demons would be too afraid to enter. Even in modern- day China, children wear tiger-headed caps, and shoes embroidered with tiger heads to ward off evil spirits; they are given tiger-shaped pillows to sleep on to make them robust. During the year of the Tiger, children have the character Wang painted on their foreheads in wine and mercury to promote vigour and health.

The tiger has equally captivated the people of the Indian subcontinent since time immemorial – feared and revered at the same time. These majestic beats and the lives of the people, especially those that live in close proximity to the tiger and its habitat, have long been intertwined, giving rise to several myths and legends surrounding them. Tiger lore has been interwoven with gods and legends, giving it a mythical status.

According to stories from Indian mythology, the tiger is believed to have powers to do everything from fighting demons, to creating rain, keeping children safe from nightmares, and healing. Humans are often attributed as having tiger characteristics. The consecration ceremony of a king in ancient times required the king to tread upon a tiger skin, signifying the King’s strength.

Songs, proverbs, and sayings in most Indian languages feature tigers as part of their treasury of folk lore and literature. Tigers appear in many stories in the Panchatantra.

A popular belief among many tribes in the Northeast of India is that the cosmic spirit, humans, and tigers are brothers. There are many folk tales based on this theme, with local variations. The belief that the tiger is a human’s brother has meant that the people of these tribes would rarely kill a tiger. There are traditional rituals performed even today to honour and worship the tiger.  

In more recent times, tigers were introduced to non-Asian audiences through the writings of Englishmen who had lived in colonial India by authors such as the famous hunter-turned-conservationist Jim Corbett. His books like The Man Eaters of Kumaon were perhaps some of the early depictions of human-tiger conflict.

In the culture of the West, where they are not found in the wild, tigers have nevertheless sparked the imaginations of writers, and have become popular fictional characters in stories, films, cartoons, songs, and even advertisements. Perhaps the best recreation of the fearsome tiger is Shere Khan of the Jungle Book fame.

Anthropomorphized tiger characters in children’s books have won their place in millions of hearts. There is boisterous and exuberant, Tigger, who is a one-of-a-kind friend in the world of Winnie the Pooh. He eagerly shares his enthusiasm with others—whether they want him to or not, and steals our heart.

Calvin and Hobbes

And we have the imaginary stuffed tiger Hobbes in the cartoon strip Calvin and Hobbes, who is very real to the irrepressible six-year-old Calvin—a faithful companion in all the capers, sometimes a comforting friend, sometimes a savage beast. The two friends have deep philosophical conversations, ruminating on how best to find meaning in their lives, the essence of which is what all of us are seeking.

Other than literature, tigers have permeated our language through numerous aphorisms, proverbs and sayings. Here are a few ‘tigerisms’.

Paper tiger: Someone who at first glance seems to be in charge but who, on closer examination, is completely powerless.

Tiger economy: A dynamic economy usually referring to of one of the smaller East Asian countries, especially that of Singapore, Taiwan, or South Korea.

Tiger mom: A particularly strict mother who makes her children work very hard in school to achieve success.

Catch a tiger by the tail: Try to control something that is very powerful; have a difficult problem to solve.

A tiger cannot change its stripes: You can’t change your true nature, even if you pretend or claim otherwise.

Eye of the tiger: Determined and focused

A new-born calf has no fear of tigers: A Chinese saying that means that the young are brave, but often due to inexperience.

As tigers in the wild continue to be threatened and pushed towards extinction, International Tiger Day is also an occasion to celebrate the power of words that keep the tiger alive and vibrant in the pages that they also inhabit.

Some beautiful words by Ruskin Bond capture this spirit.

Tigers Forever

May there always be tigers

In the jungles and tall grass

May the tiger’s roar be heard.

May his thunder

Be known in the land.

At the forest pool by moonlight

May he drink and raise his head

Scenting the night wind.

May he crouch low in the grass

When herdsmen pass.

And slumber in dark caverns

When the sun is high.

May there always be tigers

But not so many that one of them

Might be tempted to come into my room

In search of a meal!

Ruskin Bond


The Proud Tricolour

75 years ago, on 22 July 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru moved the motion for the adoption of the national flag. This is what he said on the occasion: ‘the national flag of India shall be horizontal tricolor of deep saffron (kesariya), white and dark green in equal proportions. In the centre of the white band, there shall be a wheel in navy blue to represent the chakra.’

Indian flag

Today, there are many who interpret the symbolism of the flag in different ways. But it would make sense to go back and understand the thinking of the founding fathers of the nation, who discussed and debated these issues long and hard. And what better way to understand this than through the words of one of the most eminent thinkers of the 20th century, academic, statesman and philosopher, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan?  Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan later President of India, speaking on the motion moved by Nehru, explained the meaning of the flag design. Here are some quotes from this speech:

‘The world is full of misunderstandings, suspicions and distrusts. In these difficult days, it depends on us under what banner we fight. Here we are putting in the very centre the white, the white of the sun’s rays. The white means the path of light. There is darkness even at noon .. but it is necessary for us to dissipate these clouds and control our conduct—by the ideal light, the light of truth, of transparent simplicity which is illustrated by the colour of white.

We cannot attain purity, we cannot gain our goal of truth unless we walk the path of virtue. The Ashoka wheel represents the wheel of the law, the wheel of Dharma. Truth can be gained only by the pursuit of the path of Dharma, the practice of virtue. Truth, dharma, virtue, these ought to be the controlling principles of those who work under this Flag.’

‘The red, the orange, the Bhagwa colour, represents the spirit of renunciation. …Our leaders must be disinterested. They must be dedicated spirits.’ ..’That stands for the fact that the world belongs not to the wealthy, not to the prosperous but to the meek and humble, the dedicated and the detached.’

‘The green is our relation to the soil, our relation to plant life here on which all other life depends. We must build our Paradise here on this green earth. If we are to succeed in this enterprise, we must be guided by truth (white), practice virtue (wheel), adopt the method of self-control and renunciation (saffron).’

 In the same speech, he refers to the need for our society to change what is wrong with it. ‘Dharma is something that is perpetually moving. ..There are so many institutions which are worked into our social fabric like caste and untouchability. Unless these things are scrapped, we cannot say that we either seek truth or practice virtue. ..Our Dharma is Sanatana, eternal, not in the sense that it is a fixed deposit, but in the sense that it is perpetually changing…So even with regard to our social conditions, it is essential for us to move forward.’

Dr. Radhakrishnan occupied the George V Chair in Philosophy at Calcutta University; served as Vice Chancellor of Andhra University and Benaras Hindu University. Oxford University appointed him to the H.N. Spalding Chair of Eastern Religions and Ethics. He served on India’s Constituent Assembly and also as chairman of the University Education Commission. He was a chairman of the Board of UNESCO and leader of the Indian delegation to the same. He was Indian Ambassador to Moscow, then Vice President of the country, and its second president from 1962 to 1967.

He was a nationalist who believed in an India built and guided by those who were truly educated, by those who had a personal vision of and commitment to raising Indian self-consciousness.

His scholarly works include: Indian Philosophy, 2 vol; The Philosophy of the Upanishads;  An Idealist View of Life Eastern Religions and Western Thought;  East and West: Some Reflections; A Sourcebook of Indian Philosophy; and The Pursuit of Truth.

And of course, many of us have grown up reading his Ramayana and Mahabharata!

So as we mark the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the Tricolour, and are almost upon our 75th Independence Day, it is time to re-dedicate ourselves to the real meaning of the flag, which Dr. Radhakrishnan’ sums up as: ‘The Flag tells us ‘Go ever alert, be ever on the move, go forward, work for a free, flexible, compassionate, decent, democratic society in which Christians, Sikhs, Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists, will all find a safe shelter.’


View From the Window

In a recent piece, my favourite nature columnist reminded us that while the Red Lists continue to add to the growing number of species that are endangered, threatened and even close to extinction, there are many small ‘disappearances’ that are happening all around us, ones that we do not obviously notice on a day-today basis. The author, a reputed bird watcher and note-keeper realised this when he looked back over his old records of birds around his house, and found that many of these were no longer to be seen. 

This led back to my own observations, jotted down over the years.

Circa 2000

Before the first rays of the sun painted the sky pink, the echoing call of the majestic Sarus crane would wake me from deep sleep. I knew that the pair would be flying off to an unknown destination for the day, to return after sunset.

The summer heat was compensated by the brilliant scarlet of the gulmohar at our front gate and the molten golden blooms of the laburnum at the back. The melodious tunes of the magpie robin filled the dawn, while the metronomic tuk tuk tuk of the coppersmith echoed from the top of the raintree. The morning haze was often streaked with the dazzling blue of a kingfisher in flight, while the green bee-eaters lined neatly on the wires, made swift graceful swoops in search of a breakfast-insect or two. Our little patch of grass and the surrounding hedge was lively with the orchestra of calls from tailorbirds, sunbirds, bulbuls, doves, mynas, and babblers that co-existed harmoniously, each finding their own pockets for food and shelter. The same space also saw the raucous coucal proclaiming its territory from the champa tree, and the occasional visits by the Shikra that immediately silenced the rest of the avian crowd

When the first rains came, so did the jacanas, with their mewling cries, almost like that of babies. They would make their floating nests on leaves in the vacant ground across from our house which turned into a wetland in the monsoon. Once the water dried they would disappear, as quickly as they had appeared. 

The stream of other seasonal guests to that water-filled depression in the ground across the road included buffaloes that spent the day wallowing in the mud, naktas or comb ducks that glided smoothly on the water, and an occasional water hen awkwardly crossing the road on its long yellow feet. As evening fell the air filled with the symphony of the frogs.  

The first nip of winter brought back the single Yellow wagtail to our small lawn. It came from far away to spend the winter soaking up the golden sunshine that seemed to glow on the patch on its breast. Another familiar visitor was the Hoopoe. We would see it walking back and forth on the dusty roadside, with its pickaxe head bobbing constantly.

And then there was the monitor lizard which seemed to put in an appearance only on weekends. And the shy mongooses that streaked across the gravel, disappearing soundlessly into the undergrowth. The little turtle that we found one day in our garden may have been washed in with the rain. It adopted us before we adopted it. We named it Tortolla and no matter how early we awoke, it was up before us, taking its morning walk from one end of the courtyard to the other. Not to forget the adventures of discovering snakes in the house—once coiled in a corner of the kitchen, and once neatly tucked under the dining table.

These were some notes that I made of the life around me—not from a cottage in a beautiful forest, but from my windows in the dusty city of Ahmedabad that I made my home. The house that we made was at the time, in a slowly developing area of the city, close to a natural talavdi or small lake. There were still open spaces around; and the trees and shrubs that we planted when we moved in provided homes and shelter to many other fellow living beings—winged and tailed, with two, four, a hundred, or even, no feet. As a newly-minted environmental educator this was my private lab for observing, noting, researching, and discovering the excitement of seeing the little things from my windows. Little then did I imagine that things could change so much.

Circa 2022 (Same window different view)

The wetland that once was a soothing symphony of sound and sight has metamorphosed. My days (and often nights) are filled with the sound of concrete mixers, trucks offloading mountains of gravel and bricks, the incessant hum of machinery, and the clatter-bang of steel and iron. The Sarus cranes, long flown, have been replaced by the huge construction cranes. These swing their gigantic metal arms as they lift and drop the raw material from which begin to sprout the concrete blocks that will grow into the new jungle of high rise apartments. Where the jacanas and water hens stepped daintily, now the humungous metal claws of the JCBs dig ruthlessly, scooping out mountains of soil, and creating abysses to be filled with cement. Now the rains only bring waterlogging, floating litter, and swarms of mosquitoes.

I haven’t heard the nightly frog chorus in so many years. I am beginning to forget the cries of the jacanas. My morning wake-up call is no longer that of the magpie robin. The permanent dust haze has suffocated the gulmohar and the raintree to an untimely demise, and deprived so many feathered friends of perches and abodes. The wagtail no longer visits, and I miss the comforting sight of the neatly-groomed hoopoe on its regular march. A rare flash of kingfisher blue, remains just that, as also the aerial antics of the bee eaters in pursuit of prey. The incessant din of the traffic has drowned out even the strident call of the koel, the twitter of the little birds, the soothing murmurs of the doves, and the soft babble of the bulbuls.

Day after day, the concrete jungle closes in relentlessly, we are engulfed by dread and despair. And now a single flower that blossomed, or a simple bird call can uplift our spirits.


Purposefully Unparliamentary

Over the last week, media has been full of news, editorials, funny pieces and trying-to-be-funny pieces about the list of banned words issued by the Parliament Secretariat in India—apparently a standard practice before the start of a session.

banned words

The use of language and words is a zone of contention in most parliaments across the world. Nor is this a phenomenon of recent times. The earliest recorded instances are from 991 AD, when incidents of ritual cursing and boasting (called flyting) were reported between Germanic chieftains.

The discretion to rule what is acceptable and what is not, is generally left to the Speaker of the house, but there are often lists and books and rules to guide them. While some Speakers revel in the power to cut down the words of their House colleagues, others feel constrained to do so by the duty imposed on them. For instance, ‘Un-parliamentary language is one of the things for which a Speaker must be on guard. Since the beginning of Confederation, a list has been drawn up of words, expressions and sentences that are not to be used by Members in the House. To employ them is to incur the wrath of the presiding officer of the day, and the penalties can be swift and harsh.. Now, as a humane, civilized man, it is not a task I relish, but there must be discipline in the Chamber, and I will take whatever measures, no matter how repressive they may seem, to quell unrest.’ said the Speaker of the Canadian House in 2001.

But obviously the members test the limits. For instance, the Scottish Parliament objected to the First Minister being called a liar. So the member who used that word substituted it with ‘dishonest’ and ‘perpetuating a con trick’, which had the precedent of having been used in the same debate but not objected to.

Or they use the word and then apologize: Irish MP Paul Gogarty of the Green Party used the F-word after being heckled by the opposition. He immediately apologized for the rant, which he admitted was “the most unparliamentary language”. Justin Trudeau, before he became PM of Canada, called an MP a ‘piece of shit’ and then quickly apologized.

On the other hand, some don’t apologize or withdraw their words, and are ready to face the consequences. Plaid Cymru AM calling the Queen “Mrs. Windsor” and became the first MP to be ordered out of the Welsh assembly chamber  because she refused to withdraw her words. In the UK, Dennis Skinner called the then-PM David Cameroon “Dodgy Dave”, and was kicked out from the Commons.

There is actually a lot academic research and theorizing on why parliamentarians are so unparliamentary in their speech! Here are some insights from ‘Language and Ideology’ a book edited by Rene Dirven, Roslyn Frank and Cornelia Ilie, which has a whole chapter devoted to this: ‘In a hierarchically-based and rule-regulating setting like parliament, insults are powerful because they challenge the ‘status quo’.’

Our parliamentarians will surely agree with the following finding: ‘Language users have noticed that abusive and derogatory words tend to have a detrimental effect on the target of the insult, while at the same time, they may strengthen the position of the insult initiator.’ The researches aver that ‘By offering the insults publicly, insult initiators intend to reach a wider audience.’

The book explains the three major objectives of parliamentary insults:

  1. To score points by silencing, embarrassing, and/or humiliating political adversaries
  2. To challenge the authority and institutional role of political adversaries
  3. To redress the political imbalance and to strengthen group cohesion.

So next time we hear some unparliamentary language, more than worrying about the words, maybe we should try to fathom the motive!


More Than Just a Paper Bag

12 July is marked as World Paper Bag Day to celebrate environment-friendly paper bags as an alternative to harmful bags made of plastic.

This month marks an important step for the environment. The Government of India has mandated a ban on manufacturing, import, stocking, distribution, sale, and use of single-use plastic items. Over the years while there have been both legal as well as voluntary efforts to reduce the menace of plastic pollution, the figures and ground realities across the world indicate an alarming trend of increase in throw-away plastics.

It is at a time like this when there is a deluge of information, and debates, about more eco-friendly alternatives. It is a time when paper bags are remembered and revived.

While the paper bag is an easy shop-and-tote item, it does not often merit much thought beyond its immediate function. However the humble paper bag has a fascinating history, not just as an object, but as a symbol.

Historically packaging material and containers were made of metal, wood, canvas, and jute. While these were durable and sturdy, their production was time-consuming and expensive. In the 1800s paper was introduced as packaging material. It was in 1852 that Francis Wolle an American priest and inventor invented a machine that could cut and paste paper into an envelope-shaped bag. This enabled mass production which lowered the manufacture time and cost; and these bags became popular with grocery stores in the United States.

The next important development in the design of the bag came from Margaret Knight, who then worked for the Columbia Paper Bag Company. Margaret’s job was to fold paper bags by hand, a slow and inefficient process. Margaret had an inventor’s mind; she started thinking of ways to improve the design as well as the process. She noted that the shape of the bag prevented it from being used for a number of items that would not comfortably fit at the bottom. She began to work on designs for a machine that would modify the shape of the bag so that it was flat at the bottom, and automate the manufacture. Within six months she had created a wooden prototype which was more efficient, but not sturdy enough. So she looked for a machinist who could make the machine in iron. After making refinements Margaret felt that she had created a design, and a machine unique for its time. When she filed for a patent for the machine and design, she found that a Charles Anon had already been awarded a patent for the same machine; her invention had been stolen. Margaret was a feisty woman. Not only was it unusual for a woman to file for a patent in the 1800s, she also hired an attorney (beyond her modest income) to fight her case, where her opponent claimed that because she was a woman, and not highly educated, she could not possibly have invented a complex piece of machinery. Margaret won the case, and the legitimate right to her own invention. On July 11, 1871, she became one of the first women to receive a patent. The inventor also became an entrepreneur when she later started her own company the Eastern Paper Bag Company.

The paper bag continued to be symbol of early feminism in the United States. In the 1920s schools in poorer rural areas where children were often underfed, established lunch programmes in schools. But among the more affluent class, the dominant idea was that mothers should be at home to provide children with hot lunches when they came home from school for a midday break. To send a child to school with a packed lunch was considered to be a dereliction of a mother’s duty. In the mid-1970s twenty mothers in New Jersey sent their children to school with their lunch packed in a brown paper bag. This caused some children to be suspended, and became a debated issue. But it also heralded the message that women need not to be confined to the kitchen, and could go out to work, even while ensuring a suitable meal for their children to carry. Paper bags thus became a rallying cry for women who wanted the freedom to be able to work, whether they needed the income or simply wanted a life that involved more than being home to provide hot lunches.

Today in the United States, the term ‘a brown bag meeting’ denotes an informal meeting or training that generally occurs in the workplace around lunchtime, and where participants typically bring their own lunches, which are associated with being packed in brown paper bags.

While the brown paper bag was a symbol of liberation for women in the United States, it was a symbol of discrimination based on colour, in the same country.

Slavery was abolished in the United States only a few years before the paper bag became popular in shops. Slavery itself had its own nuances of ‘colourism’. The slaves were not all of a uniform colour—their complexion ranged from very dark-skinned ones to varying shades of light-skinned. Over time, the lighter-skinned slaves acquired more privileges and education. When slavery was abolished it gave way to a strong hierarchy among the black people, based on the shade of their skin. In the early 1900s upper class Black American families, church and civic groups, and educational institutions devised their own systems of colour-based discrimination. They required members of the Black community to pass a ‘brown paper bag test’ for inclusion.  If an applicant’s skin was lighter than a brown paper bag, they were accepted. Those with skin too dark to pass the test were kept out. Even in prestigious Black universities like Howard University, there were “paper bag parties” where a brown paper bag was pasted on the front door; only those whose complexion matched, or were lighter in colour, could gain admission. It was a brown paper bag that held the key to access to certain public spaces or social events.

Thus the brown paper bag that was a liberating symbol for women in America, also became a symbol of discrimination, reinforcing colourism among the Black communities.

Meanwhile the square-bottomed brown paper bag continued to be popular for its more practical use as a convenient carrier of goods. Innovations were added to further enhance its capabilities. Pleated sides were introduced which expanded its holding capacity, and made it easier to fold. At some point, handles were added which made it easier to carry.

It was in the 1980s that plastic bags began to creep into the market. By the 2000s the plastic tsunami had swept across the world. Plastic bags were touted as the answer to all packaging requirements, as being reusable, and also cheaper to produce and market. Paper bags almost became a luxury, or a symbol of the emerging generation of ‘green consumers’. Today the havoc wracked by that plastic tsunami is evident in the alarming pictures of un-degradable throw-away plastics that are clogging our waterways and oceans, and piling up on our land. There is a clarion call for looking for alternatives, among which the paper bag heads the list.

Perhaps it is time to relook at the history of the paper bag that we hardly give a second thought to. And give it a new use and mission.


Tippy-tippy Tap…

The last few weeks have been a time of looking closely at flowers, and marvelling at their variety. I observed about 12 types of pink flowers, about 8-10 types of orange flowers, about 5-6 red, a few yellow ones, a few white ones and two types each of purple flowers and blue flowers–all in my colony. 

So of course the question came to my mind: Was this the typical distribution of flower colours? Was pink the predominant colour, followed by orange and red? And so started my search to find out a little more about this.

First and foremost, what gives flowers their colours? Colours mainly come from the presence of pigments in the chromoplasts or cell vacuoles of floral tissues.  The most common pigments in flowers come in the form of anthocyanins which range in colour from white to red to blue to yellow to purple and to even black and brown. The other major group are the carotenoids, which provide the yellow colours, along with some oranges and reds. While many flowers get their colours from either anthocyanins or carotenoids, there are some that can get their colours from a combination of the two. Other classes of pigments, but of less importance in relation to flower pigmentation, are chlorophylls (greens), quinones (occasional reds and yellows), and betalain alkaloids (giving yellow, red and purple). 

Coming back to which is the most common flower colour, all my web- searching only told me that there was no definitive answer! To begin with, we don’t even know how many flowering plants there are. And of the flowers we know and have catalogued, colour data are seldom maintained. There is no repository of flower colour information. There is no database which documents flower colours, let alone rank them.

There are many good reasons that make it difficult to document these colours. There is no absolute measure. Colours look different in different lights, at different times of the day. Each person perceives colour differently—what looks orange to me look yellow to you. And we all describe them differently—I may say violet for a colour and you may say mauve.

Moreover, colours vary from genus to genus, and even within a species. A plant growing in one area (say, the plains) can have flowers  that are very different from the same plant growing elsewhere (say in higher altitudes). The colours of flowers depend very much on the growing conditions—soil, sunlight etc. So they may change somewhat with season too.

Recent research suggests that factors like ozone depletion and global warming have caused flowers to change their colours over time. For instance, of the 42 species studied in that research, UV-pigmentation in flowers increased at a rate of 2% per year from 1941 to 2017.

Lantana is one of the flowers which changes colour on pollination

Flowers also use colours as signalling mechanisms. Some flowers change their colour once they are pollinated, so that bees do not come back to them, but rather go to unpollinated flowers. (Eminent teacher, Prof. Mohan Ram, who developed a generation of botanists, ecologists and environmentalists, taught us this during a memorable nature walk.) Some flowers change their colour with age.

But here are some speculations about flower colours:

Counter-intuitively, some people believe green may actually be the most common flower colour–many plants, including most trees, bear flowers in various shades of green. This may be followed by white, yellow, blue and the reds in that order.  Brown is not uncommon either. But all scientists and naturalists emphasize that these are only guesses.

So don’t worry too much about how many. Just enjoy the flowers and their colours!


The Pieces Make the Picture: Jigsaw Puzzles

Three clues in a recent crossword puzzle put me on the trail that led me to another kind of puzzle—the jigsaw puzzle. There was a phase in my life when I was quite a jigsaw puzzle-ist. As a student in England, the floor of my room on campus was almost one-quarter covered with a large ‘work in progress’ jigsaw puzzle. This was a community effort where friends who used to come by would fit a piece, or more, to the evolving picture. The next time jigsaws featured in my life was when I used to get simple puzzles for my young children. They were fun, and they kept them engaged with the task of finding a piece that ‘matched’ and ‘fitted’.

It is precisely the exercise of matching and fitting that was the aim of the original puzzle that later came to be called a jigsaw puzzle. The history goes back over two-and-a-half centuries to an English cartographer and engraver named John Spilsbury, who was thinking of a way to help school children learn geography. In 1766 he mounted one of his master maps onto a thin piece of mahogany wood and used a marquetry saw to cut the picture into pieces.

Thus was created what he described as a ‘dissected map’. Children were to reassemble the collection of pieces to recreate a complete map. It is believed that Spilsbury’s first ‘dissected map’ was called ‘Europe Divided Into Its Kingdoms’ and the pieces were cut mainly along the geopolitical boundaries of those days. Incredibly, the original puzzle still survives in good condition, and it occupies the pride of place in the Toy Halls of Fame in The Strong Museum in Rochester in the United States. This history museum houses the world’s largest collection of historical materials related to play.

These early maps, each handcrafted and made of good quality paper and wood, were expensive, and not affordable for wide use. It is believed that Spilsbury’s early puzzles were used to teach geography to the children of King George III, and were bought by a few elite boarding schools. 

Spilsbury himself died at the young age of 29 in 1769. But by the end of the century the dissected map puzzles had become popular, and London itself had around twenty such puzzle makers. They introduced themes other than maps for the pictures—alphabet and multiplication tables, themes from the Bible, and pictures of historical events and people. The material and labour costs continued to be high.

The term ‘jigsaw’ to describe these puzzles only came to be used in the 1880s when a special type of saw called a treadle jigsaw was invented. The saw operated by a treadle had a blade that could cut irregular curves; that made the cutting of the pieces easier and cheaper. This was ideal for the hereto called ‘dissected maps’ which could now have pieces with more intricate shapes that could interlock. Thus the ‘maps’ evolved into more complex puzzles that came to be popularly known as ‘jigsaw puzzles’.

The jigsaw which had arrived in the United States in the 1800s became a popular marketable item. In the meantime colour lithography techniques enabled better quality pictures to be developed more efficiently and the quality and variety of jigsaw puzzles also improved.  Enterprising companies developed new production techniques and materials that helped increase production and lowered cost, as well as marketing gimmicks that promoted sales. The cleverest move by the puzzle industry was to introduce puzzle designs for adults. Thus in the first decade of the twentieth century, what had started as an educational support for children, and then had become a source of entertainment as a children’s toy, the jigsaw puzzle, emerged as a popular hobby for adults. 

This kind of pastime was just what people needed in the Great Depression in America in the 1930s. There was large-scale unemployment, people could not afford to go out for entertainment, and jigsaw puzzles provided a no-cost pastime that could engage the whole family. Sales soared; puzzles were offered as freebies with the purchase of other items, and there were even stores and libraries that offered puzzles on rent.

Jigsaw puzzles continued to be made from wood or plywood, and were generally hand cut right until the outbreak of World War II. By the time the war ended, these were too expensive to produce. That is when cardboard began to be used and mechanized cutting equipment enabled large-scale production. Most jigsaw puzzles are today made of good quality cardboard, but there are still collectors of high quality wooden puzzles and some niche manufacturers of the same.

For the rest of the twentieth century, jigsaw puzzles continued to occupy a low-key but steady presence as gifts for children and hobbyist adults. With the twenty-first came the digital tsumani that deluged the market with an entirely new medium for education and entertainment. Old and young were swept away in the flood of never ending apps, data and virtual games that came and went breakneck speed. Until the Pandemic struck. The world changed overnight. Confined inside, over-satiated with a virtual existence, and flickering screens, overwhelmed with situations never before imagined, families dug into forgotten caches to pull out physical books and board games, and rediscovered the jigsaw puzzle!

Once again, the many ‘therapeutic’ benefits of the jigsaw are being hailed. Putting a jigsaw together is considered as a complete brain exercise as it involves both the right (creative and intuitive) and left (logical and objective) sides of the brain. It trains the eyes to pay minute attention to colours, shapes and other details, in order to match the pieces. This exercise improves visual-spatial reasoning, and helps develop perception, focus and concentration. It also calls for patience and persistence. Puzzles are great as a group activity, and also perfect for a quiet solo undertaking. There is more to the pieces of a jigsaw than the eye can see—a perfect picture lies within.   

It’s always the small pieces that make the big picture.


Look, See, Wonder…

As environmental educators, our most important task with children as well as adults was to awaken them to the wonders of the world around them. From this wonder of the variety of life and the intricate connections therein would come an intellectual curiosity to understand the world better, followed by a passion to do something about it. So the responsibility was to take people through the steps of Awareness, Appreciation, Skills, Knowledge and Action.

So the first step seeing and sensing the world. I remember some of the exercises we used to do in our workshops to help people do this:

  1. Observe the greens : Closely observe the shades of the leaves of different plants/trees. Try to describe the differences.
  2. Observe the shapes of leaves: Sketch different leaves to scale.
  3. Bark rubbings: Find a tree, place a piece of paper on the bark and colour over with a pencil to get the impression of the bark design. Repeat with another tree.
  4. Listen to sounds: Sit in absolute silence for 5 minutes in a natural area and note down the sounds your hear.
  5. Smells: Go around a garden and sniff the flowers, the leaves, the plants, the soil.

Even the most cynical adult would get completely involved and excited, and the result would be a ‘Wow, who would have thought that there were so many shades of green;  that soil smelt like this; that there were so many different types of sounds in nature!’

Roles got reversed when the world decided to environmentally educate me two days ago, as I was on my walk. The very same path that I follow every day, but I was out a little earlier than usual. So the light was different and everything stood out with a brightness and clarity that I did not get to see later in the evenings.

I saw one beautiful pink flower and decided to take a pic. I continued for 2 meters, and saw another one. And within the space of 10 minutes, I had 11 flowers in different shades of pink captured in my phone. I was wonder-struck!

I had obviously only been ‘looking’. I had forgotten to ‘see’. The difference, as Grant Scott, a famous photographer puts it: there is ‘.. a seriousness of intention that one of these words suggests, whilst the other gives the impression of a casual approach to perhaps what is the same thing. The word ‘see’ suggests a depth of visual engagement that allows the person ‘seeing’ to control the action and retain control of any further action that may take place after the initial seeing. To look suggests an observation of surface, it does not suggest any further depth than that. To look suggests both the beginning and end of the action, whereas to see suggests the beginning of a process of investigation.’

So while the popular adage is that we should take the time to smell the flowers, I would also urge that we take the time to see the flowers. And even more important, take the time to let a sense of wonder overtake us!

From this sense of wonder will come the sense of urgency to take care of our world!