War and Peace

6 August 2020 marks 75 years since one of the most devastating events in the history of warfare took place. On this day, in 1945, an American bomber plane called Enola Gay dropped a 4000+ kilo uranium bomb named ‘Little Boy’ on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

It was as if the city was struck by a blinding flash; the bomb exploded, and a giant mushroom-shaped cloud rose to the sky. The blast flattened the city and killed nearly 100,000 people; tens of thousands were injured. Three days later, on 9 August, the Americans dropped another nuclear bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. On 15 August 1945 World War II ended.

But for the survivors of the nuclear blasts the battles had just begun. Within a month of Little Boy hitting Hiroshima, radiation exposure is thought to have caused the deaths of at least 6,000 people who survived the blast. And the long-term effects of radiation exposure, physical and psychological, continued to reveal themselves for the next decades. There was a documented rise in cancer, especially, in leukaemia cases. In the years following the attacks, the survivors became known as the hibakusha (the explosion-affected people) and were subjected to widespread discrimination as it was believed that they were carriers of a contagious disease. And for years the ugly spectre of the after-effects kept raising itself.

Amidst all this, there were still some stories of hope and resilience. One of the classic stories that beautifully captures this is that of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr. This is based on the life of a real little girl named Sadako who lived in Hiroshima from 1943 to 1955. Sadako Sasaki was a baby when the bomb devastated Hiroshima. Her grandmother died in the explosion. The story opens ten years later when Sadako is a lively girl who dreams of becoming a runner. One of the annual outings of Sadako and her family is on 6 August to what was called the Peace Park to commemorate those who lost their lives on that fateful day in 1945, and to pray for peace and good luck.

Sadako loves her family, her friends and her school. One day as she is practicing for a big race, she feels dizzy. Quickly, and without any obvious causes, the dizziness and weakness continue to worsen. After some tests at the Red Cross Hospital, the doctors’ worst fears are confirmed: Sadako has leukemia, the dreaded “atom bomb disease”. The cheerful little girl’s world is turned upside down.

Sadako needs to stay on in hospital. One day, Sadako’s best friend Chizuko comes to visit her in hospital. Chizuko has brought with her some golden paper, and she folds this to make a crane. She tells Sadako: Don’t you remember that old story about the crane? It’s supposed to live for a thousand years. If a sick person folds one thousand paper cranes, the gods will grant her wish and make her healthy again. She handed the crane to Sadako. “Here’s your first one”.

This gives Sadako hope and cheer. She spends the next few weeks folding as many orizuru or paper cranes as she can, even as she is getting weaker and sicker. Soon everyone becomes a part of the project. 

Everyone saved paper for Sadako’s good luck cranes. Chizuko brought colored paper from the bamboo class. Father saved every scrap from the barbershop. Even Nurse Yasunaga gave Sadako the wrappings from packages of medicine. And Masahiro hung every one of the birds, as he had promised. Sometimes he strung many on one thread. The biggest cranes flew alone. 

Sadako channels all her fast depleting energy into painstakingly folding paper crane after paper crane, making a wish with the completion of each one, and determined to reach the magic number of 1000 paper cranes.   

She never complained about the shots and almost constant pain. A bigger pain was growing deep inside of her. It was the fear of dying. She had to fight it as well as the disease. The golden crane helped. It reminded Sadako that there was always hope.

 Against all odds, Sadako manages to complete 644 cranes before she slowly sinks into a peaceful death.

She looked at her flock hanging from the ceiling. As she watched, a light autumn breeze made the birds rustle and sway. They seemed to be alive and flying out through the open window. How beautiful and free they were! Sadako sighed and closed her eyes. She never woke up.  

Sadako died on October 25, 1955. Her classmates folded the remaining 356 cranes, and all 1000 paper cranes were buried with her. Her classmates also collected her letters and journal and published them in a book. The book reached young people across Japan, and they all came to know the story of the courageous Sadako and her cranes.

Sadako’s classmates resolved to honour the memory of their friend in as many ways as possible. Their efforts sparked a children’s peace movement that swept through Japan, and then the world. This transformed the origami paper crane into an international symbol of peace. Their fundraising campaign led to the establishment of the Children’s Peace Monument in the centre of Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park. Here stands a statue of Sadako holding aloft a golden crane.

Today millions of paper cranes, reach here from all corners of the globe, symbolizing the universal value of peace and the preciousness of life. In Japan a popular tradition is to fold 1000 cranes and string these together, usually 25 strings of 40 cranes each, which are given as gifts called senbazuru which literally means, ‘one-thousand cranes’.

On 6 August every year, people still place folded paper cranes at Sadako’s statue, and reiterate the same wish that is engraved at the base of the statue:origami crane.jpg

This is our cry,

this is our prayer;

peace in the world. 

Today the long and complex history of the World War II is just that—history. But more than ever before, the unleashed peril of a nuclear explosion continues to keep the entire world on tenterhooks. Hiroshima is a reminder of the horrific legacy of nuclear warfare, but the Peace Memorial is a reminder that there can be another legacy—one of peace.

–Mamata

 

Craftily-challenged in COVID times

Lockdowns have seen people taking up a plethora of hobbies and
pastimes. Non-cooks have become chefs; non-housekeeping types are Mary
Kondoing; those who have never noticed a bird are becoming meticulous
bird watchers.

Here is my Lockdown craft saga:

Since school, I have, to put it politely, been craftily-challenged. My
needlework teacher systematically made me rip out my homework every
week and re-do it; when we had an assignment to crotchet a sweater in
Std. 8, I started by trying to make one for myself, but ultimately, it
was large enough to fit my pleasantly-plump mother; when we had to
make a tea-cosy (yes, such things were used and we had to make them,
in the days of yore!), it vaguely resembled a small cushion whose
shape did not have a geometrical name.

But my burning ambition has always to been to do fine-embroidery! Such
is the way of the heart, that it yearns for things unattainable!

So when everyone was doing creative things in Lockdown, I thought I
should do something vaguely connected with fabric and needles. I have
by now reached the age to know what I simply cannot do. So laying
aside my ambition, I decided to work on a concept level (a slightly
stronger suit than my craft skills).

The idea was to re-purpose things which I was not using. Clearing out
cupboards and drawers was definitely something all of us have been
doing in these times, and I had done my share. I found well over a
dozen dupattas which I hadn’t used in years. They were all very pretty
and in good condition. The dresses they went with had died long ago,
but when do we ever discards dupattas? We keep tucked away in some drawer,
sure we will be able to match them with another dress in the future.

33F6AB30-20A2-4A65-8402-62E7BFB31CBBSo I thought I would turn these into baby quilts. My interpretation of
quilting is to tack folds of materials together into something
resembling a rectangle. Tacking is the most low-down of stitches one
can do—simply put the needle in through the folds and draw it out at
an interval of 0.5 cm or whatever. Repeat.

And so I have turned a dozen dupattas into 6 baby quilts, because I
fold one into another, to make the quilts soft and warm. My tacking
wanders a little drunkenly across the quilts, and stiches are not of
uniform length (overall defining the word ‘tacky’). But they are going to serve the purpose (partly because the poor infants will have no say in what they are going to be draped in). Babies are not going to judge me for the quality of my
handiwork! I they will like soft coverlets made of pre-loved cloth.

I have run out of babies I know even remotely. My next step is going
to be to look for avenues for donating these—maybe through some NGO or
institution.

The exercise has definitely given me a good-feel on many counts.
Unused things are being turned into something useful. And some babies
will feel a bit warmer, thanks to my efforts. And there is nothing
like a physical, tangible product at the end of a few hours of effort.

If enough people take it up, it could become a movement for children who will need these in the coming colder months.

Any takers for the idea? If I can do it, anyone can!

–Meena

Friendship Matters

In thepooh friends.png next few days the hype will build up. There will be a marketing blitz reminding us that Friendship Day nears, and that the best way to be friends is by buying and gifting for each other, and that the proof of friendship is the number of cards and presents that one gets.

Indeed the idea of this day has commercial origins. As far back as 1919 Hallmark cards in the United States came up with the idea of celebrating the first Sunday of August every year as Friendship Day. It was intended to be a day for people to celebrate their friendship by sending each other cards and thereby boost the sales. Even today many countries celebrated this day in August.

However 30 July marks what is called International Friendship Day. Interestingly both the origin and the intent of this Day have a non-commercial history.

It began over sixty years ago in Paraguay. Dr Ramon Artemio Bracho was a surgeon who had worked as a doctor in rural areas for many years before he became a military doctor for his national government. Dr Ramon strongly believed that friendship is central in overcoming people’s cultural, political and religious differences. As he recalled, the seed was sown one evening when he was invited by a worker’s union to a meeting to celebrate trees. The doctor was inspired. In his words, “I began to remember what had happened the night before and I told myself how interesting it is, the gesture of the man of having created the day of the tree.  In that same instant it came to my mind that friendship is something so important and does not have its day, so it seemed to me an extraordinary idea.” The very next evening, on 20 July 1958, over dinner with close friends in Puerto Pinasco, a town on the Paraguay river, he proposed the idea of a campaign designed to promote the value of friendship in order to foster a more peaceful society. Thus was born the Cruzada Mundial de la Amistad (World Friendship Crusade).Today the World Friendship Crusade is a Foundation that promotes friendship and fellowship among all human beings, regardless of race, colour or religion.

For many years the World Friendship Crusade lobbied the United Nations to recognize and declare an international day to mark the sentiments of the Foundation.

On 5 August 1997, Mrs. Nane Annan, wife of then United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, designated the much loved children’s book character Winnie the Pooh as “Ambassador of Friendship”. This was to encourage young people to learn what they could do to forge ties of friendship and understanding among different cultures to bring about peace and harmony around the world. The books by A A Milne featuring Pooh the little bear and his band of close friends are a beautiful celebration of the simple joys of companionship, loyalty and friendship.

It was on 27 July 2011 that the 65th Session of the United Nations General Assembly declared 30 July as the International Day of Friendship. The United Nations invites all Member States to observe this day in accordance with the culture and customs of their local, national and regional communities, including through education and public awareness-raising activities.

It is a reminder that we are often so caught up in seeing the “otherness” in people that we cannot look beneath, to recognise the “sameness”. A great deal of how we interpret another person’s behaviour and intentions is merely a manifestation of the picture our minds have constructed about them. We assume that we can be only friends with those who are like us, and those that are not, are the “other”. But otherness can also be the most beautiful ground for connection, for it is through the blending of the sameness and the otherness that the rich tapestry of friendship is woven. Openness in thought and deed is the glue of true friendship, not just between individuals but equally cultures, communities and countries.

Today more than ever before, in a topsy-turvy world, we need to remind ourselves of the original intent of Friendship Day as Dr Ramon described it: “I think it is a special day and that it helped or helps people to remember friends in a special way, to be able to cultivate and value more this beautiful feeling that one has towards others.”

While we may not be able to physically meet our friends, while we cannot celebrate with parties and shopping sprees, what enables us to carry on in our respective mental and physical spaces is the comfort of friends and friendship. What better time to be grateful for the gift of friendship that sustains us, and to celebrate the bonds that make our life so much richer?

A friend is one of the nicest things that you can have and one of the best things you can be. Winnie the Pooh

–Mamata

 

Tiger Tales

July 29 is celebrated as International Tiger Day as a way to

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Photo credit: Seema Bhatt 

raise awareness about the magnificent but endangered tiger. The day was founded in 2010 at the Saint Petersburg Tiger Summit, when the 13 tiger range countries came together to create Tx2—the goal to double the number of tigers in the wild by the year 2022. While this deadline is only two years away, it is reported that the current number still far from the goal. It is estimated that the total number of tigers in the wild in the world is 3900.

India is one country which has been showing a significant rise in its tiger population. Last year on International Tiger Day, the results of the Tiger Census 2018 were announced to reveal that the total population of the Royal Bengal Tiger in India is 2967, which is more than double that of 2006. India is also now officially one of the biggest and safest habitats of the Tiger.

As someone who is more comfortable with stories rather than statistics, all the tiger talk took me to the story of Jim Corbett—a teller of many a tiger tale.

James Edward Corbett was born on 25 July 1875 into a family of English ancestry in Nainital, in what is now Uttarakhand; he was one of twelve children. His father who was the postmaster of Nainital died when James was only four years old, leaving his widow to raise the large family on a meagre pension. The young James, or Jim as he was called, had to start earning at an early age to help out the family.

Jim was a wanderer from the time he could walk, and he spent his childhood exploring every nook and corner of the nearby forest, observing the plants, animals and birds. In those days, hunting was a part of everybody’s life. When he was just 5 years old Jim was taken by his brother on a hunting expedition. He was handed a gun and asked to report if he sighted a bear. Much later Jim wrote in one of his books, Jungle Lore, that that was the most frightening experience of his life. But this experience also laid the foundation of Jim’s life-long link with forests.

The fear of the jungle combined with the desire to know more about it led Jim to be observant but also careful. He learned to be silent, which places to avoid, and which to explore further. By the age of 7 he began to be totally absorbed in the natural world around him, appreciating it, trying to understand it, and even attempting to classify animals he saw by the functions they performed. For example, different kinds of birds. He wrote in his diary:

Bird’s that beautify nature’s garden: In this group I put minivets, orioles and sunbirds.

Birds that warn of danger: drongos, red jungle fowl and babblers.

Birds that perform the duty of scavengers: vultures, kites and crows.

Having sorted the jungle birds and animals according to his own classification, Corbett began to study them in detail, tracking them, understanding their calls and pugmarks, and learning to mimic their many sounds. In one of his books he shares this mystery and magic thus: “There is no universal language in the jungles; each species has its own language, and though the vocabulary of some is limited, as in the case of porcupines and vultures, the language of each species is understood by all the jungle-folk.”

Honing all his senses to recognise the signs and movements of wildlife, the observant and fleet-footed young Jim soon became a shikari in the true sense–a person who is one with the environment in which he hunts, and with the hunted. Shooting his first leopard at age eight, Corbett went on to become an excellent hunter, and gained fame for killing several dreaded man-eating tigers. But history has it that he has never killed any big cat without confirming that it had harmed a human.

Over the years, Jim’s love for animals translated into wildlife photography. Inspired by his friend, Frederick Walter Champion, he started to record tigers on film. In the mid 1920’s, when he was in his fifties, Corbett completely gave up shooting with a gun and turned to shooting with a camera. He felt that “far more pleasure was got from pressing the button of a camera than is ever got from pressing the trigger of a gun.”

Jim Corbett spent his remaining years in writing about his hunting adventures and jungle experiences, and promoting the cause of conservation. In November 1947, Corbett and his sister left for Kenya, where he lived till his death in 1955. Jim Corbett’s entire life was a testimony to his close connection to nature, and the joy it gave him. As he wrote: “The book of nature has no beginning, as it has no end. Open this book where you will, and at any period of your life, and if you have the desire to acquire knowledge you will find it of intense interest, and no matter how long or how intently you study the pages, your interest will not flag, for in nature there is no finality.”
But what makes Corbett so special is that he became one of the first champions of the conservation movement in India. Using his influence over then Provincial Government, Corbett played a key role in the establishment, in 1939, of Hailey National Park, India’s first national reserve for the endangered Bengal tiger. In 1957, the park was renamed Jim Corbett National Park in his honour. In 1968, one of the five remaining sub-species of tigers was named after him as Panthera Tigris Corbetti, or Corbett’s Tiger.

For us in India, tiger tales and Jim Corbett are closely linked. And today, his words are as true as they were when he wrote them in 1944:

“The tiger is a large-hearted gentleman with boundless courage and that when he is exterminated–as exterminated he will be unless public opinion rallies to his support–India will be the poorer, having lost the finest of her fauna.”

–Mamata

 

 

 

Akashvani: Voice From the Sky

There are many significant dates associated with radio in India. July 23 is one of them. Broadcasting in India started in June 1923, when the Bombay Presidency Radio Club of India transmitted the first-ever broadcast.  But July 23 1927 is significant because it is the day on which the private Indian Broadcasting Company was authorized to operate two radio stations and started its Mumbai transmission. However, the company went into liquidation in three years and the government took over the facilities and the Indian State Broadcasting Service started operations on an experimental basis  in April 1930 (strangely under the Department of Industries and Labour). In June 1936, this became All India Radio. In the meantime, in September 1935, Akashvani Mysore, a private broadcasting station had been set up. (This is significant as the term ‘Akashvani’—literally meaning ‘Voice from the Sky’–was first used by Mr. MV Gopalaswamy who set up this station. All India Radio, India’s public radio broadcaster, adopted Akashvani as its on-air name in 1956.).

AIRToday, All India Radio is the largest radio network in the world, and one of the largest broadcasters i in terms of the number of languages broadcast (23 languages and 179 dialects!), and the range of audiences it serves. This is done through 420 stations located across the country, reaching nearly 92% of the country’s area and 99.19% of the population. AIR also operates close to 25 FM stations.

Though there is some amount of educational programming in India, the real power of radio to support formal education has probably never been fully tapped. In a country like Australia, for instance, radio has been used for direct teaching, whereby radio schools were used to connect children in secluded farmsteads in the outback together with a teacher sited many hundred miles away.

In the last few days, we have seen some data related to media access that is worrying. Reports based on latest National Sample Survey (NSS) data show that children in only 4% rural and 23% of urban households have access to computers. A survey in Karnataka has revealed that over 5.5 lakh school children in North Karnataka did not have access to TV.

In these COVID times—that is the foreseeable future—education has to depend heavily on such media. Yes, we must use the latest technology and leapfrog (as discussed in the previous blog). But it would be foolish indeed to ignore the good old medium of radio, which reaches 99+% of the population! It is time that AIR and educational authorities went into mission mode to ensure relevant, interesting educational radio programming, to support school children who will otherwise miss out on any educatoinal inputs. Education is not about exams, but about engaging the growing mind of the child, giving it food for thought, helping the imagination. We cannot leave lakhs of children without any educational inputs for months, maybe a whole year.

Radio surely has a part to play in this, especially in these times. May it truly be Bahujana Sukhaya Bahujana Hitaya( “For the happiness of many, for the welfare of many”),as the AIR motto goes!.

–Meena

And Long Before E-Education, there was SITE…

In the education space, stakeholders in India ( at least private
schools and ’learning solution providers’) have moved to E-learning. An estimate is that overall, technology adoption has been accelerated by upto two decades,
thanks to COVID.

Two things stand out. We would not have done it, if we did not have to
do it! While online tutoring had caught on in a big way, educational
institutions were definitely not leveraging technology to the extent
it should have happened—till COVID. The other, more heartbreaking, is
that this is adding to the already stark inequity in educational
access. The point is not to deny access to some because it cannot be
universal. The point is rather to go on a mission to make it
universal!

In contrast—SITE (Satellite Instructional Television Experiment)
undertaken by India in 1975, was a proactive effort to use technology
for education and development communication for the most-unreached.
Imagine 1975, when TVs were hardly seen even in urban households. Here
was an unimaginably bold initiative to take TV to 2400 of India’s most
backward villages in 6 states.

There were questions even apart from our technical ability to do this—was such an experiment necessary for a country at our level of poverty and problems? Surely, there were more pressing problems and more immediate use for the scarce resources? But the conviction of a team led by Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, that technology-leapfrogging was critical to solve India’s development challenges,
ensured that the topmost decision makers saw the advantages and they
could make  it happen. (‘Technology-leapfrogging occurs when
decision-makers choose to adopt leading-edge technology, skipping one
or more technology generations’).

This was a NASA-ISRO partnership with the objective of using technology for the education of communities in the most deprived and unreached parts of the country . A NASA broadcasting satellite was used. In the first-ever Indo-US space collaboration, it was positioned over India for the
duration of the experiment (August 1, 1975 to July 1976). The
deeply-researched content on critical issues faced by the community,
from agriculture and health, to culture to short films promoting
scientific temper, the production was done mainly by All India Radio,
with social research and evaluation done by a special team from ISRO,
and with the involvement of experts from a range of the most
significant institutions of India-Tata Institute of Social Sciences, to NCERT. Apart from community programs, there was a rich variety of special educational programs for schools as also massive teacher training.

AA930C61-3377-476F-B4AC-6E6DE5EAB179The programs were broadcast for a few hours a day, and hundreds of
people would gather in the village community hall or wherever the
village had installed the TV. In villages which did not have
electricity, truck or car batteries were used to power the viewing.
People in remote Bihar were watching television while many in Delhi
had never seen one!

SITE was a resounding success in proving that technology had a huge
role to play in solving the real development challenges of the
country. It helped ISRO develop its capabilities in operational
satellite systems and contributed to a sound platform for the Indian
National Satellite System (INSAT). It helped us develop an
understanding of educational software programming, from social
research to production to evaluation. And it helped develop managerial
capacities. It was probably also the first time in India that a very
young group (mainly in their 20s) formed the core of the team taking
responsibility for such a complex task of national importance.

Well-known science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke called SITE ‘the
greatest communication experiment in history’.

So even as education (for some) moves online, here is a Hurrah for the vision of the
giants on whose shoulders we stand! Can that infuse us once again?

And a Hurrah from the Millennial Matriarchs for some of the amazing
people who were part of SITE, whom we have had a chance to interact
with—Prof. Yashpal, Kiran Karnik, BS Bhatia, Binod Agarwal,
Vishwanath, Mira Aghi—to name just a few. We are thankful to life for
giving us these opportunities.

–Meena

Much in Little

It is almost six months since the world as we knew it, changed. For many, this period of lockdown has also been one of unlocking some simple joys of life and living.

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A reprieve from the frenetic activities of modern life has given Nature a new lease of life. And humans, from behind their glass windows, are discovering the wonders of the world that we share with millions of other living beings. People are noticing plants, birds and insects in their immediate surroundings; they are hearing bird song and rain symphonies which had been drowned out by incessant urban cacophony and pollution. Locked inside, humans are rediscovering nature.

Humans are also rediscovering that it is possible, even satisfying, to live with what one has; that life can go on without 24/7 doings and happenings, extravagant shopping sprees, dining out, and other self-indulgences. That the quality of life is not dependent entirely on the quantum of material resources.

But this is not the first time in history. Almost 200 years ago Henry David Thoreau took a break from the often numbing routine of daily life which was driven by the need to earn a living. As he put it “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” He wondered, “Was it possible to lead a different kind of life?”

Thoreau spent two years, two months and two days living by himself in a basic wooden cabin that he built himself, on the shore of Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts in America. He wanted to answer for himself the question “how simple can a life be and still be a good one?”, and to illustrate his belief of “much in little.”

As he wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.”

Even while at Walden Pond, Thoreau did not live a life of seclusion. He had visitors, and walked to the nearby village often. His experiment was more to prove that one does not have to go far in any physical sense to “get away from it all.”

During this period in 1845-46, he observed, enjoyed and recorded his observations of the natural world around him. These were to be published as Walden, one of his best known works. It also earned him the moniker Father of Environmentalism.

Thoreau was however much more than a nature writer. He wore many hats–social reformer, naturalist, philosopher, transcendentalist, scientist, and conscientious objector.

Born on July 12, 1817 in New England, USA in a middle class family, he graduated from Harvard following which he spent some years teaching in school, and also working in his father’s pencil factory. The young Thoreau was greatly influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson who became his close friend and mentor. He began to publish essays that reflected his deeply-felt political views which were considered radical in those times. He was an outspoken abolitionist and was arrested (and jailed for one day) for resisting to pay poll tax to a government that supported slavery. This experience led him to write one of his best-known and most influential essays titled Civil Disobedience. He made a strong case for acting on one’s individual conscience and not blindly following laws and government policy. “The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right,” he wrote.

Thoreau’s non-violent approach to social and political resistance greatly influenced Mahatma Gandhi who adopted many of his thoughts while developing his concept of Satyagraha.

Following his Walden experiment Thoreau wrote extensively, although a lot of his writing was published and became well-known only after he died. He continued his daily afternoon walks in the Concord woods and kept a journal of his nature observations and ideas. He travelled and lectured, living on a modest income, till he died of tuberculosis in 1862, at the age of 45.

Thoreau, a man of simple tastes and high thinking, was indeed an original thinker of his times. The lesson he taught himself and that he tried to teach others, was summed up in the word “simplify”. That meant simplify the outer circumstances of your life, simplify your needs and your ambitions; learn to delight in simple pleasures which the world of nature affords. It meant also scorn public opinion, refuse to accept the common definition of success, refuse to be moved by the judgement of others. And unlike most who advocate such attitudes, he put them into practice.

A few years ago on a trip to the United States I had the opportunity to retrace Thoreau’s footsteps on a walk around Walden Pond, and see the modest shack where he penned his notes on nature. At that time I knew him mainly as an evocative nature writer. Today I find that his philosophy of life and living is more relevant than perhaps ever before. And Walden is so much more than a nature lover’s diary—it is an inspiring guide to changing the way we view ourselves and the life we want to live, especially in these times when we are feeling lost, and the times that will follow.

Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify. Henry David Thoreau

–Mamata

Historical fiction? Fictional history?

I am game for anything historical—books, novels, movies, TV shows. I
have no education in history and so with all the books I read, the
past is a confused place for me, where I cannot begin to separate fact
from fantasy and fiction.

On the whole, I don’t have a problem with that. But last week, I
started reading a novel in the historical fiction genre, and maybe
because if was set in India, it jarred me terribly. And I now know
that I must be even more careful in what I think I know about the
past!

I did some little research into the genre itself, so that I could
understand what the parameters were:

Historical fiction is a literary genre in which the plot takes place
in a setting located in the past. It can be used in the context of
various types of narrative– including theatre, opera, cinema, and
television, as well as video games and graphic novels.

The definition of the ‘past’ is that it is set 50 or more years before
the author wrote the piece. Basically, the author should not have
first-hand experience of the period, and should rely on research for
an understanding of the time and events. Such works may tell stories
about actual historical people and events—or not.

They are however supposed to ‘capture the details of the time period
as accurately as possible for authenticity, including social norms,
manners, customs, and traditions.’

It is generally agreed that there are over 10 subgenres of Historical
Fiction. But there is not quite the same level of agreement on what
these are! One categorization goes:

·         Traditional Historical Fiction, characterized by a historically accurate plot

·         Multi-Period Epics, Series, and Sagas

·         Historical Romantic Fiction

·         Historical Western Fiction

·         Mysteries, Thrillers, and Adventure Novels set in the past

·         Time-Travel

·         Alternate Histories

·         Fantasy

·         Literary and Christian Novels
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Ok, so what is all this a lead-up to? Well, my latest library read— ‘The Last Queen of India’, by well-known author Michelle Moran. I have read a few other works by her—‘Madam Tussaud’ and ‘Cleopatra’s
Daughter’.

This is NOT a review. It may even be a very unfair piece. Because I
stopped at page 50. It was really irritating. I know that Ms. Moran is
a conscientious writer, and moreover one who is married to a person of
Indian origin, and through that, does know India. And that the
publisher is a very reputed one. So it intrigues me more than ever why
the flavor just didn’t come out right.

Just a few things about the book about Rani Laxmibai, and hence
essentially set before 1857:

1.       A reference to yellow and orange carnations decking a local
temple: Very unlikely in MP of the mid-1800s. Maybe they meant
marigolds?

2.       A reference to a priest wearing a crown of neem leaves. I
have not met any priest ever wearing a crown of any leaves, and
definitely not neem leaves.

3.       A Kshatriya father runs a carpentry shop and does the
wood-working himself. Again, not sure how common that would be.

4.       The grandmother from a poor but seemingly once-upon-a-time
middle class family decides that they are very poor and
cannot afford to get the grand-daughter married. Her immediate
solution is to try to sell the girl to a temple to become a devadasi.
I don’t think that would have at all been the reaction!

5.       It would seem as if every little temple in every little town
had devadasis. The grandmother is bargaining with a temple priest of
an Annapoorna temple and says that if he does not agree to her terms,
she will take the girl down the street to another one which will offer
a better price.

6.       The price they agree on for the girl is Rs. 13,000. In today’s terms,
compounding at the rate of 4%, that would be Rs 1 crore. Does not
sound right (and yes, one of the things to be taken care of in
historical fiction is the time-value of money).

7.       The grandmother and the grand-daughters go to the mother’s
funeral pyre. I am pretty sure that it could not have been so. Up
until recently, women did not go to the ghats.

8.       The daughters, in mourning wore white for 13 days. I am not
aware of any such custom.

Quibbling? Nit-picking? Hair-splitting? When I should have focused on
the spirit of the book, the heroism of the principals, the writing,
the overall sense?

Maybe. But I find I cannot read if the little details intrude and
don’t ring true. And they didn’t!

–Meena

The Book of Joy

This week, 6 July, marked the 85th birthday of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Five years ago, in 2015, to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday, a unique meeting took place. The Dalai Lama’s close friend the Archbishop Desmond Tutu came to Dharamshala to visit his “kindred spirit”. Both great spiritual masters and moral leaders of our time, and Nobel Prize winners, the two spent a week together—sharing their thoughts and vision, exchanging memories, and reveling in the simple joys of being together, laughing, and teasing each other.

Interestingly, four years before this meeting, when Desmond Tutu turned 80, a similar meeting between the two had been planned in Cape Town, South Africa. But the Dalai Lama was denied a visa by the South African government, bowing to pressure from the Chinese government.IMG_20200709_102817_BURST1.jpg

The Dharamshala meeting was, thus, more than special, and its purpose even more so. They took this rare occasion as a chance to sit down together, and evaluate one of life’s most important questions: how do we find joy in the face of life’s inevitable suffering? The outcome was The Book of Joy.

As the facilitator of the dialogues, and editor of the book, Douglas Abrams explains, ‘From the beginning the book was envisioned as a three-layer birthday cake: their own stories and teachings about joy, the most recent findings in the science of deep happiness, and the daily practices that anchor their own emotional and spiritual lives.’

The book documents the interactions between the two great minds through daily dialogues  over seven days, starting with identifying the obstacles to joy: fear, stress, anxiety, anger, sadness, grief, loneliness, envy, suffering and adversity, illness and fear of death.

From there the dialogues move on to explore the paths to experiencing Joy. Both the great minds emphasise that joy and happiness are by-products that spring from one’s attitudes and actions, and the cultivation of certain qualities.

What are these positive qualities that allow us to experience more joy? Four are qualities of the mind: perspective, humility, humour and acceptance. Four are qualities of the heart: forgiveness, gratitude, compassion mind: and generosity. These are the eight pillars of Joy. Each of these is discussed at length in the book.

Five years ago, the two gurus talked about the untold horrors, tragedies and suffering that the world was facing, and how to find joy whilst accepting, and yet transcending these. Today, in addition to these, the world is facing an all-encompassing and overwhelming new challenge. More than ever before, their words of wisdom may be the one’s to guide humanity through the pandemic that has been the greatest equaliser of all.

Perhaps the key to coping with the immense stress, anxiety, frustration and anger that all of us are facing during this period is Perspective. I cannot help but share some excerpts which are so relevant today.

“Yes there are many things that can depress us. But there are also are very many things that are fantastic about our world. Unfortunately the media do not report on this because they are not seen as news. …When bad things happen they become news, and it is easy to feel that our basic human nature is to kill or rape, or to be corrupt. Then we can feel that there is no hope for the future. …No doubt there are very negative things, but at the same time there are many more positive things happening in our world. We must have a sense of proportion and a wider perspective. Then we will not feel despair when we see sad things.”

“For every event in life there are many different angles. When you look at the same event from a wider perspective, your sense of worry and anxiety reduces, and you have greater joy. …If you look from one angle, you feel, Oh how bad, how sad. But if you look from another angle at the same tragedy, that same event, you see it gives me new opportunities.”

“The wider perspective leads to serenity and equanimity. It does not mean that we do not have the strength to confront a problem, but we can confront it with creativity and compassion rather than reactivity and rigidity. We are able to recognise that we do not control all aspects of any situation. This leads to a greater sense of humility, humour and acceptance.”

“The way we see the world is the way we experience the world. Changing the way we see the world in turn changes the way we feel and the way we act, which changes the world itself. A healthy perspective is really the foundation of joy and happiness.”

The book records the thoughts of the two thinkers not just through their words but also by their body language—the mischievous tugging and patting of arms, the heartfelt clasping of fingers, the respectful folding of hands and bowing, and above all the twinkling of eyes and the easy laughter of two dear friends sharing jokes, and enjoying their pudding! No wonder they are they are also known for being among the most infectiously happy people on the planet!

I myself have felt engulfed in this childlike exuberance and humour both times that I have had the privilege of attending a talk by the Dalai Lama, even as one of an audience of hundreds.

The Book of Joy has been on my bookshelf the last couple of years, but I was not in the right frame of mind to start reading it.  It is only last week that I felt the urge to read it.  I intensely related to it, and it put a lot of things in perspective.  Every word in the book is thought-provoking and profound. I know that I will go back to these again and again. Perhaps there is a time and place for everything indeed.

But, there is always time and space for Joy.

–Mamata

 

 

 

Day of Star-Crossed Lovers

The 7th day of the 7th month is marked in Japan as Tanabata, the only day of the year when star-crossed lovers, Orihime and Hikoboshi,  who are separated by the Milky Way, can meet. Legend has it that Orihime was a weaver of wondrous cloth. Her father Tentei was very proud of this skill of his daughter’s.  Orihime met and married Hikoboshi, a cowherd. Once married, the much-in-love couple were so lost in each other that she would no longer weave cloth and he allowed his cows to stray all over Heaven. In anger, Tentei separated the two lovers and only after a lot of pleading did he allow them to meet on this one day—the 7th of July. (The lovers are represented by the stars Vega and Altair).

So Tanabata is in a way the Day of Star-crossed lovers.

Speaking of such lovers, my favourite pair has to be Ambikapati-Amaravathi. Lesser known that Laila-Manju or Sohni-Mahiwal (no surprise there, the story is from South India!), I think it is beautiful and tragic and poetical in equal measure.

The story goes back to the early 12th century and to the court of King Kulothunga Chola I. The king had a beautiful, intelligent, talented daughter by the name of Amaravathi.  Kambar, the revered Tamil poet graced the court of this Chola king. The King asked Kambar to teach his daughter poetry, which he used to do.

Once, when Kambar had to travel, he deputed his young, handsome and very talented poet-son to teach the Princess in his stead.

And of course the inevitable happened, and they fell in love.

Which of course was not approved by the King.

And which of course became fodder for a number of court conspiracies and intrigues to discredit Kambar by discrediting his son. One way used to discredit Ambikapathy was to cast a slur on his abilities as a poet, saying he could only write odes to the beauty of women (aka Amaravathi), and not to the glory of God.

To cut a long and complex story short, the King wanted to punish the young poet. But the daughter refused to let him punish Ambikapathy alone for a misdeed in which she insisted she had an equal part to play.

So the King set Ambikapathy a challenge. He declared that if Ambikapathy could compose 100 verses to God and sing them in court, he would allow the couple to marry.

Ambikapathy and Amaravathi were very confident that this was an easy task. However, Ambikapathy told Amaravathi not to appear before him before he had completed singing the 100 verses, as her beauty would distract him, and he would start singing about her instead. Amaravathi agreed.

95779731-CD38-4586-A91A-2CBB675F7A0BOn the day of the challenge, Amaravathi positioned herself behind a curtain, out of sight of her lover. She had at her side two baskets. One was empty and the other had a hundred beautiful blossoms (I visualize them to be jasmine). The idea was that as Ambikapathy finished a verse, she would transfer one flower from the filled basket to the empty one. When the basket was empty, she would know that he had finished his 100 verses and she could appear before him.

And so it happened. Amaravathi opened the curtain when all the 100 flowers from one basket were transferred to the other. And he sang to her beauty.

Alas, Amaravathi had made a mistake. She had counted the traditional invocation to Goddess Sarawathi, the Goddess of Learning and Knowledge and Poetry, sung at the start any such event, as the first of Ambikapathy’s verses. So when she appeared before him, he had completed only 99, not 100 verses.

The unrelenting King had Ambikapathi killed. And Amaravathi died soon after of grief.

Alas, there is no 7th of July for Ambikapathy and Amaravathi!

Totally my favourite star-crossed lovers story!

–Meena