Splendid Bloomer: Silk floss Tree

In most parts of India, March is usually the month when the big trees are in bloom. In cities like Delhi which have avenues of old trees, it is a delight to see the changing colours of the blooms on different trees. October however, is the month that is marked by the spectacular blooming of the Silk floss tree.

Sometimes mistaken for the Silk Cotton tree with its flamboyant red flowers, the Silk floss tree (Ceiba speciosa), is unique in many ways. The species was originally named Chorisia speciosa in 1828. The generic name Chorisia was in honour of Louis Choris, a Russo-German painter and explorer who was one of the earliest expeditionary artists (artists who accompanied military, exploring, and trade expeditions to document the expedition through sketches and paintings). He accompanied Otto von Kotzebue, a Baltic German navigator in Russian service on several expeditions across South America and Europe, and is said to have painted nature as he saw it.  However, in 1998 the genus Chorisia was merged with the genus Ceiba (which is the Brazilian name for the tree). Speciosa means ‘beautiful’, or ‘splendid’ (Latin), alluding to its spectacular flowers. Thus, the currently accepted name for the species is Ceiba speciosa.

This grand ornamental deciduous tree is in fact native to Argentina and Brazil. With its bulging prickly trunk, exotic flowers, great height, and pods with pea-sized seeds and silky floss, this unique tree literally stands out from other trees.

The Silk floss tree begins as a young sapling with a small bulge near the base of the trunk that slowly enlarges as it grows. But the tree tapers again upwards of the bulge, reaching a height of anywhere between 50 to 70 feet, with wide-spreading branches. The immature trees have an attractive green bark, which turns grey as the tree ages, and its girth increases. The trunk and branches are characterized by the coarse sharp conical spines that cover it, but these fall off as the tree gets older. The spines not only protect the tree from climbing animals, they are also good dew collectors; they collect the moisture from the air that the drips down to the soil below, making the tree capable of surviving even in arid conditions. In dry regions, in ancient times, the presence of the ceiba trees indicated the presence of nearby water sources, which led to the establishment of human settlements where these trees grew.

It may take many years before the trees start to flower. But when they do, it is the flowers that make this tree a show-stopper. Each one as large as an open hand, the hibiscus-like flowers are usually in different shades of mauve-pink. The five petals envelope a delicate creamy-white centre. The flowers appear after the tree has shed its leaves, and they cover the branches with a profusion of blossoms that make for a spectacular sight. The nectar attracts pollinating insects such as butterflies and bees, as well as hummingbirds in their native South America.

It takes a Ceiba tree at least seven years to mature to produce its first seed pods. These woody avocado-shaped pods were called pochote by the Mayan people. The pods grow gradually, and then crack open, exposing pea-sized black seeds surrounded by flossy white fibres.  It is this component that gives the tree its common English name Silk floss tree. In Hindi it is popularly known as resham rui (literally silk cotton). In pre-Hispanic times this fibre was important for making cloth. The floss was traditionally used for stuffing pillows and mattresses as this did not cause any allergies. In the 1940s it was also used to fill life jackets because of its buoyant properties and water resistant abilities. In the 1950’s it was used to fill automobile seats and upholstery. Over time it has been replaced by synthetic fibres.

Other parts of the tree also have multiple uses; the wood from the trunk has been used to make wood pulp; the light and flexible wood is suitable for making boxes, packing material and even canoes; while thin strips of the bark can be woven to make ropes, and the seeds pressed into edible and industrial oil. 

As in all indigenous cultures, where people lived in close connect with their surroundings, this tree is associated with its share of myths and legends in its native lands. In Argentina the tree is commonly referred to as Palo Boracho, literally ‘drunken stick’ referring to its swollen trunk that tends to lean on one side.

In Bolivia this tree is called Toborochi which means ‘tree of refuge’ or ‘sheltering tree’. A beautiful legend explains why this is so.

When the world was still very new, the Aña, or spirits of the darkness, liked to abuse and kill humans. When they found out that Araverá, the beautiful daughter of a native chief, cacique Ururuti, who had married the god Colibri (Hummingbird), was pregnant and would give birth to a son, the spirits were alerted. The spirits believed the son would punish them when he grew up, so they decided to kill Araverá. With the help of a flying seat her husband Colibrí had given to her, Araverá fled from the village, but the evil spirits followed her and harassed her wherever they found her hiding.

Finally she was so exhausted that she decided to hide in the trunk of a Toborochi tree. Sheltered within, feeling secure and at peace, she gave birth to her son. The boy grew up and fulfilled the prophecy, killing the spirits and avenging his mother. But as the gods had decreed, Araverá, could never come out of hiding, and had to stay inside the tree until she died.

But as the legend goes, while forever buried in the bulging trunk of a Toborochi, Araverá does come out, in the shape of a beautiful flower that attracts hummingbirds. And thus, she keeps contact with her husband.

While the tree is indigenous in South America it is also native to Central America, where the ceiba or yaxché, is considered as the sacred tree of the Mayas, a place to withdraw for meditation. The Mayans believed that the ceiba tree connected the different levels of the universe, from the underworld to the sky. The story is told of a mythical ceiba tree that functioned as the axis or centre of the world, encompassing the three planes of the universe: the roots are Xibalba, the underworld, the trunk and branches are Cab or the terrestrial level, and the bird Quetzal, perched on top of its canopy, the sky. Once again, reinforcing the link between the flowers and the birds. The Ceiba is thus a tree of life that plays an important part in ceremonies, art and mythology.

Though far from their native lands, the Silk floss trees which have taken roots in other parts of the world, are a majestic symbol of the ancient spirit of trees of life. And nothing is a better reminder of this than the magnificent flowering of these towering trees.  


Red is the Notice

In the last few weeks, we have seen Interpol in the news in Inida, what with the 90th General Assembly of the organization having concluded just last week in New Delhi. The GA is the supreme governing body of the Interpol, and is made up of delegates appointed by the governments of the member countries. It is the top decision-making body of the organziation.

But to take a step back, what is Interpol itself?

Well, Interpol is the International Criminal Police Organization. It is an inter-governmental organization with 195 member countries. The idea is to help police in all the countries work together. They do this by connecting all the member countries via a secure communications system called I-24/7. Members can use this network to contact each other, and the Interpol Secretariat. They can also access Interpol databases and services. The agency also coordinates networks of police and experts in different crime areas, and facilitates their coming together through working groups and at conferences to share experiences and ideas.

Most of us usually hear the term INTERPOL in connection with Red Notices. These are international requests for cooperation or alerts allowing police in member countries to share critical crime-related information. Though we most often hear about Red Notices, notices come in a rainbow of colours.

The best known Red Notice is about wanted people and is a request to seek the location and arrest of persons wanted for prosecution or to serve a sentence. These are by far the commonest and there are currently about 70,000 valid ones out. Within Red Notices, there is a specific type of criminal notice for fugitives wanted for environmental crimes put out on the occasion of World Environment Day. There are seven people in this list including people wanted for smuggling protected species and their derived products; illicitly dealing in wildlife trophies and organized criminal activity; and illegal logging in a protected forest.

Next in numbers but far behind are Blue Notices which seek to collect additional information about a person’s identity, location or activities in relation to a criminal investigation. There are about 15,000 such notices out currently.              

Yellow and Green Notices follow with about 12.500 currently valid ones in each category. Yellow Notices are about missing people and seek help to locate such persons, often minors, or to help identify persons who are unable to identify themselves. Green Notices are warnings and intelligence about a person’s criminal activities, where the person is considered to be a possible threat to public safety.

Black Notices seek information on unidentified bodies, while Purple Notices seek or provide information on modus operandi, objects, devices and concealment methods used by criminals. There are between 1000-2000 of each.

Orange Notices are the fewest in numbers, just a few hundreds. They are about imminent threat, and seek to warn of an event, a person, an object or a process representing a serious and imminent threat to public safety.

Apart from this, there is the INTERPOL–United Nations Security Council Special Notice which is issued for entities and individuals who are the targets of UN Security Council Sanctions Committees.

When I glanced through the list of most wanted Red Notices, what I found most disturbing was that many of the persons listed are under 30 years of age, with some as young as 19. The list also had a 74 year old woman. And in the quick browse, it seemed to me that most of the listed people were from South America. So do these countries resort to asking for Red Notices more often? Or do their requests get accepted faster?

Who knows? But for sure, when I see something in media about Interpol Notices, I will take more notice now!


Based on: https://www.interpol.int/

Saralabehn: Gandhian, Educator, Enviromentalist, Feminist

Of the many women who dedicated themselves to Gandhiji’s thoughts and practices, the name of his English disciple Mirabehn (nee Madeleine Slade) is well known. Perhaps not as much written about, but no less inspiring, is the story of his other English follower who took the name Saralabehn.

Catherine Mary Heilman was born in Shepherd’s Bush, London on April 5 1901. Her mother was English and her father was of German origin, who had come to England via France. As a child living in a bi-national and bi-lingual liberal family, When she was in her teens, Catherine was rudely shocked when her German surname led her to be stigmatized during the World War and its aftermath. Her father was wrongly jailed as an enemy, and the young Catherine was not allowed to take part in school activities, and deprived of a scholarship. At sixteen she had to leave her studies and work in an office where the hostility continued.

It was while she was in a London boarding house in 1920 that she met a group of Indians who became her friends. This is when she began to learn and understand something about the nationalist struggle that was going on in India against the imperialist colonial rule. She realised that the way her history books had presented the colonies as the “white man’s burden” was quite different from the accounts she heard from her new friends. She also learnt about the non-violent nationalist struggle that was being led by Mahatma Gandhi. She started following news of the movement as it was evolving in India, and began to empathize with his thinking and practice. As she later wrote: “For the first time in my life, I was exposed to ideas that resonated with me. Every statement uttered and every word written by this individual, Gandhi, clad in just a small dhoti, held true meaning”.  Even as her European friends warned and discouraged her from getting carried away by events that were happening in a country far away, Catherine was planning to go to India herself.

Catherine wrote to Gandhi to request permission to join his work but he was not very encouraging. She continued to explore ways of getting to India. She had no particular skills nor training, so she enrolled for a midwifery course which brought her in contact with English pacifist groups. Before she finished the course she received a letter inviting her to work at a school in Udaipur, so she transferred to a short programme in child education. In January 1932 Catherine finally reached India, and did not go back again.

She started work in Vidya Bhavan in Udaipur; work which along with teaching included manual work in fields, cleaning toilets, washing one’s own clothes and utensils. This gave her a sense of the typical chores that women did, as well as the dignity of labour. But she still did not feel that she had achieved what she had set out for—to participate in Gandhi’s Constructive Programme, which she considered to be “the true foundation of the freedom struggle”. She continued to write to Gandhiji, the man whose pull had brought her to India, but did not hear from him. In the meanwhile Catherine steeped herself in the life and culture of her new home, and at some point also took on the name Saralabehn.

In 1935 Saralabehn visited Mahila Ashram in Wardha. Gandhi was there at the time, and one morning the two finally met. Gandhiji asked her who she was and how long she was staying, and on being told ten days, he assigned her some work. Saralaben relocated to Wardha in 1936 and worked on the education of the girls in the Ashram based on the principles of Nai Talim. In 1941, when her health declined and Gandhi suggested that she move to cooler climes and concentrate on Nature Cure. There was a Gandhian Ashram in a village called Chanauda in the foothills of the Uttarakhand Himalaya and this is where she reached in August 1941.

As her physical health improved, Saralabehn began to get restless. She had her own routine which included learning how to spin Tibetan wool; she started travelling through the villages of the area and learning the local language. She also interacted with the villagers, especially the women, and began to discuss Gandhi’s ideas on Gram Swaraj or village self-reliance. She continued to be active in Gandhi’s nationwide civil disobedience movement.

The British placed her under house arrest for her involvement in the 1942 Quit India Movement. As soon as she was released, she again devoted herself to helping freedom fighters and to further preparations for the freedom movement. Hence in 1944 she was arrested and imprisoned again. After her release Saralabehn returned to her karma bhoomi. Having lived and work in the Kumaon villages she felt that the best way to carry forward Gandhiji’s constructive programme was to establish an educational institution for the local girls.  

A local Indian Civil Service officer offered a cottage which he had named Lakshmi after his wife, for the new venture. Thus was founded the Lakshmi Ashram in 1946. Beginning with three students, Lakshmi Ashram began imparting education based on the principles of Nai Talim—education for economic self-reliance where Hands, Heart, and Head should all develop in Harmony.

As there was no local tradition of sending girls to residential schools, Saralabehn had first to gain the trust of the parents. Saralabehn designed her own syllabi and taught the first girls herself. Her curriculum included science, mathematics, Hindi, history and geography. In keeping with the applied-learning focus of Gandhian education, field work which involved close interaction with the local community and manual labour was an important component. This provided the opportunity of learning directly from villagers, especially women, as well as interactive settings for ashram students and teachers to share information about hygiene and health, as well as social, ecological, and political issues. Students also learned to spin, weave, and sew khadi.

An important step was to make the Ashram self-supporting. Saralabehn and her first students worked together to do all the chores of the Ashram. Milk and yogurt came from their own cows, and they collected fuel wood and fodder from the forest. They dined on vegetables, spices, and fruit that flourished in terraced gardens that they established on the ashram grounds, and prepared simple meals over a wood-burning hearth. They did their own housekeeping and ran a khadi shop and a homeopathic dispensary in a roadside bazaar. The aim of the all-round education and exposure was to teach girls to become self-reliant, self-confident community activists who could meaningfully contribute to the Gandhian ideal of Gram Swaraj.

Lakshmi Ashram grew to accommodate more students. Saralabehn continued to engage herself not only with its programme but also with other movements for similar causes. She journeyed to Bihar to join the Bhoodan movement, which Vinoba Bhave had initiated in 1951. In the early 1970s, she went to the Chambal Valley to work with families of surrendered bandits.

By then many of her early students had themselves taken on unconventional leadership roles, pioneering social and environmental movements especially in the Uttarakhand region. These include the famous Chipko Movement, protests against large dams and strip mining, campaigns against alcoholism, and protecting the forests and natural resources. The important role many of her students played demonstrates how a different type of education can have a powerful impact.

Saralabehn continued to live and work in her adopted country until she passed away on 8 July 1982. She was cremated at Lakshmi Ashram where she lived and worked not just as an educator but as a visionary who helped change lives of Himalayan women, and equally fought for the cause of the environment.


Scarecrows Forever

For as long as humans have cultivated crops, they have had to worry about keeping birds away from the fields. Not that birds don’t play a huge positive role in agriculture. They do—by pollinating some species, and by eating pests and rodents which destroy crops.

But the damage they do to crops is considerable too. A government of India report has identified 63 species of birds that are responsible for the bulk of this damage in India. Cereals seem particularly attractive to birds, with 52 bird species feasting on these crops. 14 bird species enjoy pulses, while 15 species like oilseeds. Fruit crops attract 23 species.

Traditionally in India, children or others who could not put in hard labour in the fields were deployed to guard crops with the help of slings. They took up a vantage highpoint among the crops and aimed at the birds—hopefully only scaring them and not injuring them. Scarecrows were also put up.

Across the world, maybe because there were not so many children or people to deploy, the use of scarecrows was more widespread. Scarecrows are decoys, usually made of straw or farm waste and fabric, made to look somewhat human and dressed in human clothes. They often have loose sleeves and pants, which move in the wind and scare the birds.

But the scarecrow is not really effective for too long. Once the birds get used to the scarecrow, they barely spare it a glance. In fact, they often use it as a perch!

So agriculturists have gotten innovative too, and come out with many ingenious ways to scare birds, including:

  1. Using shiny, reflective objects: Birds are bothered by the reflection of light from these and keep away. Farmers hang old CDs, aluminium cans, small mirrors or just plain metallic wrapping paper.
  2. Hanging balls: Round colourful garden balls are hung from trees, fences, etc.  Large eyes are often painted on them to mimic predatory birds. Birds get confused and try to avoid them.
  3. Balloons: Large floating balloons too, especially with eyes painted on them, work effectively.
  4. Predator images: Placing objects in the shape of birds’ natural predators– cats, owls, and larger birds of prey—does deter birds. But like with scarecrows, they will get used to these too. So these ‘predators’ need to be moved around frequently. Or they need to be hung from somewhere so that they move. One particular variation of this marketed in some countries is an owl than can be hung, which not only swings around in the wind, but also emits owl-like sounds every now and then.
  5. Sound-based repellents: Birds can hear in the 1-4 kHz range, a range human ears can’t hear too well. Electronic pest control devices take advantage of this by creating sound deterrent-devices that emit distress calls and predator growls in this range, which confuse birds and scare them away. 

Experts agree that no matter which the method deployed, the key is change. Birds quickly recognize that these objects don’t actually harm them, and are emboldened to flock to the fields. So the trick is to keep changing the position of the bird-scarers and add new ones frequently.

There are of course less kind ways to scare away birds.  The use of dogs and predatory birds which attack birds, drones which chase them, letting off cannons or fire crackers, firing plastic projectiles, and use of lasers are among these methods.

But of all these methods, the one that has been around the longest and plays a big part in our imaginations, stories, myths and films is the scarecrow. The most famous one of course is the Scarecrow in search of brains, who plays an important part in ‘Wizard of Oz’.  The Scarecrow is also one of the villains in the contemporary Batman trilogy.

Scenes from Scarecrow Festivals

Scarecrows also figure in myths and legends of old—for instance, there is a story about a scarecrow in ‘Kojiki’, the oldest surviving book in Japan, dating back to about 712 A.D. A scarecrow called Kuebiko figures in this. He is a god who cannot walk, but knows everything that is happening.  

Several villages and towns in England have Scarecrow festivals.US and Canada also have their share. Many of these are of fairly recent origin. Phillipines is the latest entrant, with the Province of Isabela starting a festival a few years ago.

So even as newer methods of scaring birds emerge—from electronic, to laser, to drone–the fascination with scarecrows continues!


The Post Lady Always Knocks Twice

9 October is marked as World Post Day. As an extension to this, the Indian Department of Post is celebrating 9 to 13 October as National Postal Week.

The last month has been unusual in that we have had more knocks on the door by our post lady than by couriers. In the last few years one had become so used to sending and receiving letters and parcels through courier services that we had almost forgotten what an important part post offices and postal services had played in our lives. In the days of ‘life in the slow lane’ the process of hand-writing letters, finding appropriate envelopes, going to the neighbourhood post office to get stamps, and slipping the letter in the post box afforded a great sense of satisfaction. Equally wonderful was the anticipation of receiving letters of response, and other exciting missives announcing results, admission notices, job interviews, and news from near and far. We didn’t consciously realize it then, but the postal service was an integral part of our life.

The history of the postal communication in India dates back to ancient times of kings who used to convey important messages, especially wartime news, through a relay of runners on foot. During the reign of Emperor Chandragupta Maurya, trained pigeons with small cachets of letters tied to their feet were used to send communications across the vast kingdom. This system of ‘pigeon post’ continued even during the time of Emperor Ashoka. The Mughals used a system of runner services which expanded to include horses. Horses were stationed at relay posts every few miles, and the messages were passed on from horseman to horseman. During the reign of Sher Shah Suri it is believed that there were 3400 horses with riders all along the Grand Trunk Road, for conveyance of news.

Post offices, as we know them, were first established in India by the East India Company. The Company opened its first post office in 1727 and the postal service was administered with the main aim to serve their own commercial interests. The post service was opened to the public in March 1774 with the establishment of the Calcutta GPO. This was followed by the opening of the Madras GPO in 1786, and then the Bombay GPO in 1794, and the Bangalore GPO in 1800.  The Post Offices were manned by the respective District Collectors or military officers acting as ex-officio Postmasters.

In addition to managing the postal services of British India, the Post Office was involved in the transmission of correspondence between England and India. This was done by the sea route, and one way travel time was up to three months. In the 1820s Thomas Waghorn, then a naval officer with the East India Company, investigated a possible overland route between Alexandria and Suez, which could cut down the time to just over a month. It took ten years for the British Government and East India Company to be convinced of the viability of this route, which it subsequently took over.

Lord Dalhousie appointed a Post Office Commission in 1850 and the approved recommendations of Commission were framed as Post office Act XVII, 1854. Under this Lord Dalhousie recognized the Indian Post Offices as separate organization of national importance. 700 Post offices which included what were called 55 Receiving Houses were placed, for the first time, under the unitary control of a Director General, Henry Phillip Archibald Buchanan Riddell, on 1st October 1854. The Head Quarters was at Bengal, and was responsible to Home Department of the Government of India.

Roadways were at the time the main form of transporting post. The first line of postal communication by railway was opened from 18th September 1854. Mail service by steamer was introduced between Calcutta and Port Blair on 28 May 1859. And it was in India that the world’s first official “airmail” was operated on 21 February 1911 when Henri Pequet, a French pilot flew a biplane carrying 6500 pieces of mail from Allahabad to Nainital—a distance of six miles.

The Indian Postal Service has come a long way since then, to become the world’s largest postal network managing more than one-and-a-half lakh post offices. The postal department has met the challenges of India’s diverse geography, catering innovatively to remote areas. There is a floating post office in a houseboat on the Dal Lake in Kashmir; and the world’s highest post office in a small cottage in Hikkim district in Himachal Pradesh. The Nagpur Post Office is located in a large Victorian-style heritage building which accommodates the post master’s residence, a parcel hub, a postal depot, a recreation club, and a canteen. And there is a small metal post box among the tea plantations of Munnar in Kerala which has been used for a hundred years now. Known simply as Postal Number 9, the oldest postal number in the country, the post office continues to deliver mail to thousands of plantation workers. 

The Indian Postal Service does much more than delivering mail. It offers a range of other services that help reach out to people and places which do not have access to variety of institutions like banks and other agencies. The post office remits money in the form of money orders (which is the only way of sending money for many Indians). The Postal Department also offers a variety of small savings schemes. It provides life insurance coverage under Postal Life Insurance and Rural Postal Life Insurance. It also plays an important role in discharging government services such as payment of pensions to senior and retired citizens. Wages under government welfare MGNREGA are also distributed through post offices. During the COVID lockdown the red postal vans were even used to deliver medical equipment like N95 masks, medicines, test kits and ventilators across states as part of their “essential services”.

My family has had pleasant experiences with India Post in the past few years. From efficient despatch and delivery of parcels both within the country, and even overseas (all the way to New Zealand!), to the Speed Post with its online Track and Trace (that is sometimes overzealous in informing about the journey of the post), it is indeed a service that calls for respect. This year we could also avail of the home visit by Postal Staff for taking biometrics of my 97 year-old father-in-law for his Jeevan Praman (Life Certificate for continuing pension).    

No wonder then that the post office (dak khana) and the postman (dakiya) on his trusted bicycle were always a component of “village life” in stories and movies in the past. Even today, when we get message on our phone that Tinuben our post lady is on her way to deliver a speed post, we await her scooter and her knock on the door. From pigeon post to speed post, India Post has come a long way indeed!


Manchineel: Evil Queens Would Have Loved Them!

We all know from our childhood how Snow White’s wicked step-mother poisoned her with an apple. The step-mother apparently brewed a malodorous and poisonous potion, and dipped the apple in it so that it would absorb the toxins. And she had to take a lot of care because knowing that Snow White would be suspicious after many attacks on her, she had to leave half the apple free of poison so that she could eat it to allay the girl’s doubts and tempt her into eating the other half. The Queen must have gone through hoops to gather various obscure ingredients, brew the powerful potion, and soak one half of an uncut apple in it! And for all that, the poison was only strong enough to put Snow White to sleep, waiting for true love’s kiss!

If only the Queen had known about the Manchineel, a tree which bears apple-like fruits. The tree is one of the most toxic ones known, and is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s most dangerous tree. The sap of the tree is extremely poisonous, and every part of the tree, from the bark to the leaves to the fruit, is pervaded with the sap, and hence poisonous.  

The poisonous nature of the tree has been recognized for long. Its botanical names is Hippomane mancinella. Hippomane is derived from two Greek words: Hippo for horse, and mane a derivative of the word mania. The story goes that a Greek philosopher gave the tree its name after seeing horses go crazy after eating the apple-like fruits. One of the Spanish names of the tree, given by Christopher Columbus, is manzanilla de la muerte, meaning ‘little apple of death.’

Evil queens would not even had to go to the trouble of feeding the fruit to their victims. It is said that simply standing under the tree during rains will lead to dire consequences—serious blistering and blinding. In fact indigenous people of the Caribs where the tree is native, are known to have poisoned enemy water supplies with the leaves. They also dipped arrows in the sap to make effective poison-tipped weapons. Ship-wrecked sailors of yore who ate the fruits died horrific deaths with their mouths, throats and stomachs blistered. Even the smoke from a burning tree can cause blindness.

Fiction and films have used the toxicity of the tree to create dramatic situations—from enemies being given machineel leaves rolled into cigarettes to kill them, to villains tying their victims to the trees!

Manchineel trees are native to the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. They grow well in sandy soils and flourish among the mangroves. The trees grow up to a height of about 12 metres with a 60-cm thick trunk. The leaves are yellowish green in colour, and long-stalked, shiny, leathery, and elliptical. The fruits look like apples and are sweet smelling, and range in colour from yellow to red.


The tree is quite common in Florida. Many of the manchineels growing there are labelled with a warning sign, telling people not to eat the fruits or stand under the tree during the rains.

If only the evil queens of old had known of this tree! Of course, they would have had to figure out a way to grow these tropical trees in Europe where most of the stories are set. But they were ingenious enough to have found ways to do that. And how much more interesting fairy tales would have been!


Gandhiji’s Amanuensis: V. Kalyanam

When one thinks of Gandhiji’s personal secretary, the name that immediately comes to mind is that of Mahadev Desai, also one of Gandhi’s close associates. Not as well-known is V. Kalyanam who worked as Gandhiji’s personal secretary after Mahadev Desai passed away, and remained with him until the end of Gandhi’s life. Kalyanam’s story is worth sharing.  

Like many people from South India in the early 1900s, Venkatram had moved to Delhi in 1914. This was where jobs could be found, working for the British government where the South Indian work ethic and knowledge of English were appreciated. Venkatram married Meenabal, and the young Tamil couple settled in Delhi. On 15 August 1922 a son was born to them; they named him Kalyanam.

In those days the entire apparatus of government used to work in Delhi for part of the year and move to the cooler climes of Shimla during the hot summer months. So also Venkatram’s family, with their son Kalyanam, who spent his school days shuttling between Delhi and Shimla. After school he studied at the Shri Ram College of Commerce in Delhi. Upon graduation the young man also found a job with the British government.

Kalyanam grew up as a thoroughly anglicized and faithful servant of the British, till then more or less oblivious of the growing nationalist movement in the country. Having started work, he took to reading the newspapers and found that they were full of news about a man called Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. He wondered why this man was so adamant to free India from British rule. The Quit India movement had just started, but Kalyanam had no interest nor inclination for what was happening around the country. However on request of some South Indian friends, he agreed to help them to secretly slip some anti-British pamphlets under doors at night. Young Kalyanam had not read the pamphlets himself, but one night he was arrested by the British police and accused of treason. He ended up spending nine months in Lahore jail. After his release he returned home to find that he had lost his government job, but he found work in an insurance company. Little did he know that his life was very soon going to take him on quite another path.

During this time he was introduced to Gandhji’s son Devdas Gandhi who was also C. Rajagopalachari’s son-in-law. Young Kalyanam expressed his frustration at his secretarial job, and his love for all kinds of manual work, Devdas suggested that he go to Sevagram Ashram. Kalyanam knew nothing about the Ashram, nor did he then know about Devdas’ link to Gandhiji. But he was willing to visit what he thought was a spiritual Ashram, and luckily his boss gave him 2 months leave to do this.  Around the same time he accompanied his British Boss’s wife to a Khadi shop in Chandni Chowk. Here bought a handkerchief and towel for three rupees and a kurta pyjama for nineteen rupees. From that day onwards he never wore any western clothes.

In October 1943, Kalyanam arrived in Wardha after a two-day train journey, and presented himself to the manager of Sevagram ashram, still not knowing anything about the place. Gandhiji himself was at the time interned at the Aga Khan Palace in Pune. Kalyanam’s introduction to the very frugal and basic living conditions was an eye-opener for the city-bred boy. In addition to the common chores, everyone in the Ashram had the specific duties. As he knew good English, Kalyanam was assigned the work of segregating by language the many letters that arrived for Gandhi every day, from every part of the country and the world. The first lesson he was taught was how to open the envelopes in such a way that the unused side could be used by Gandhi for writing!

Kalyanam finally met Gandhi in Bombay when he was released from jail for medical treatment. He was introduced as “the Madrasi boy sent by Devdas.” Gandhiji was weak and ill, but he asked Kalyanam many questions. The last one was whether he could type. Kalyanam was surprised because he assumed that he was at the Ashram to do menial work that he enjoyed, and to avoid the secretarial work that he hated. But he admitted that yes, he could type, and that he was fluent in English and Hindi, as well as versed in Tamil.

Once more, Kalyanam’s life was about to take an unplanned turn. Gandhiji’s long-time and faithful personal secretary Mahadev Desai had passed away in prison in 1942; and Gandhiji saw in this young man a possible replacement. Kalyanam returned to Sevagram, and awaited Gandhi’s return on 1 October 1944. From that day on Kalyanam’s life changed. Till then he had been working in the garden and fields most of the time, but now he was assigned a new job as the Mahatma’s stenographer.  

With that he also became a part of Gandhiji’s daily routine which started at four o’clock every morning. Kalyanam’s job was to segregate the hundreds of letters by language, give each letter to Gandhi and take dictation for the replies that Gandhi personally gave for each letter. He then had to type the English letters, and give them back to Gandhi to correct. This was done from 5 to 6 every morning, except on Monday when Gandhiji observed the vow of silence. On this day he would write notes for Kalyanam, who found it hard to decipher his handwriting. Kalyanam recalled that he never saw Gandhi read a book. He did not read the daily newspapers either. It was Kalyananm’s duty to read the papers and type the important items on a piece of paper and place it before Gandhiji. His other duties included accompanying Gandhiji wherever he went and noting every word he said, replying to correspondence, scheduling interviews, preparing his English speeches and coordinating with the press. Kalyanam was on-the-job, as it were, from the time Gandhiji woke up till he went to bed at 9 pm. But as he recalled, he never felt tired as everything he did was interesting. Although it certainly did have many moments that challenged the young assistant.

One incident as recalled by him was when he was on the train with Gandhi; being his day of silence, Gandhiji drafted a note and gave it to Kalyanam to type. Kalyanam thought that this could be done when the train reached is destination. But in the evening Gandhi asked him for the letter and Kalyanam confessed that he was not carrying his typewriter. Gandhiji was not pleased. He muttered “When I send for a barber, I expect him to bring his tools.” Kalyanam somehow managed to get it typed on a typewriter belonging to some journalists who were travelling on the train.

Kalyanam remained as Gandhii’s personal secretary from 1944 till the minute  Gandhji breathed his last on 30 January 1948. Every moment of those four years were a unique learning experience for Kalyanam; and the frugal habits, discipline and commitment to a cause that were planted in those days became a way of life for him for the rest of his long life, until he passed away at the age of 99 years on 4 May 2021.

At the age of 93 years, V.Kalyanam had shared many reminiscences of his years with Gandhi with author Shobha Warrier, and these were published as a book titled His Days With Bapu: Mahatma Gandhi’s Personal Secretary Recalls. A fascinating and inspiring read. 


Inspired by Gandhi: Lal Bahadur and Lalita Shastri

October 2 is the birth anniversary of two greats who contributed to the building of modern India—Mahatma Gandhi and Lal Bahadur Shastri. The celebration of the first has always overshadowed the second (though with each passing year, both are fading from memory).

To make up, here are some gleanings building on a biography of Shastri that I recently had the opportunity to read (Lal Bahadur Shastri: Politics and Beyond. Sandeep Shastri–not a relative by the way, only an ardent admirer).

Shastri’s father was a school teacher and later clerk in government service. Sadly, he died when Lal Bahadur was barely 18 months old. His mother, the daughter of a teacher, moved back to her maternal house where the children grew up.

Shastri’ family was not particularly active in the Freedom Movement, but he was highly influenced by a teacher, Nishkameshwar Prasad Mishra, who was passionately involved in the Movement. Inspired by his teacher, young Lal Bahadur started reading the works of national leaders, and after attending a meeting addressed by Gandhiji and Madan Mohan Malaviya, he dropped out of school just 3 months before his Std. 10 exams,  to join the independence struggle. He later graduated in Philosophy and Ethics from Kashi Vidyapith, where ‘Shastri’ was the degree given, which then became attached to his name!

As a member of the Servants of the People Society, he worked under the guidance of Gandhiji for the betterment of Harijans. Under the Mahatma’s influence, he also became a member of the Indian National Congress 1928, and went on to play a leadership role in the organization and during various phases of the struggle, including the Quit India movement.

After Independence, he went on to the Central Government after a short stint in UP. He went on to hold several portfolios, before becoming the Prime Minister in 1964.

A few snippets and facts which are not widely known:

Shastri is known for the slogan ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’. But his respect for business people was no less. Exhibiting a very modern understanding of the linkages between business and society, as far back as 1965 he said businessmen had ‘an even greater role than that of an economist and the politician. Too often the community views the businessman’s aims as selfish gain.. (That) impression can be removed only when business becomes fully alive to its social responsibilities.’

He was the one behind India’s White Revolution–the national campaign to increase the production and supply of milk. It was his political leadership that saw the Amul milk co-operative take shape, and the creation of the National Dairy Development Board.  

Lal Bahadur married Lalita Devi in 1927. She too was an ardent Gandhi follower and lived a very simple life. Her unstinting support to her husband enabled him to live a life of service to the nation.

This story is a beautiful illustration of Lalitaji’s high ideals and principles.

Once when Shastri was in jail, he learnt that Lalita was unwell. He wrote to her, asking her to take a glass of milk every day. The reality was that the household was very short of money, and she just could not afford a glass of milk for herself. But she did not want to trouble her husband by telling him this. So she found an ingenious way to do what her husband wished. She found a tiny glass, such as used to feed infants, and took milk in this every day. She wrote to her husband that she was doing as he wished. It was only much after his release that he learnt about this. He was amazed by how she stuck to the truth and still helped him stay him untroubled by the everyday problems so that he could focus on his work.

To such people of integrity and principles do we owe our freedom. Every day the thought should trouble us as to whether we are living up to their vision.