It’s a Dog’s Life!

At the outset let me start with a disclaimer. I have nothing against dogs. In fact I love dogs and my family has had pet dogs right through my childhood and adolescence. And thus any dog-related story catches my eye. The most recent one was a story in my local newspaper that perhaps really takes the cake.

The story that covered several column inches mourned the passing away of a Saint Bernard dog who had been purchased at a premium price, and translocated from the alpine heights to a home in arid Gujarat. The tiled floors of the home had been replaced with wooden floors for the ease of walking of the big dog. The much pampered ‘son’ of the family was fed on milk, curd and paneer from the best Gir cows, as well as seasonal fruits like papaya and melon. The dog was also celibate, which the owners claimed added 4 extra years to his life [sic]. The dog’s recent passing away was marked with full Vedic rites.   

As an avid (physical) newspaper reader it is the news that does not make the headlines that attracts my attention, and provides me not only with wonder and amusement, but also in some ways, provides a window into ‘trends’, as it were.

Prominent among these has been the increasing amount of space being taken up by pet stories, with particular reference to dogs. In the past one usually found a small news item about the annual dog show, with a few pictures of prize winning dogs with their proud owners. Then came dog trainers, followed by dog sitters and dog walkers; these were usually found through word of mouth, or were duties of the domestic help or the children who had a roster of turns to take the dog for its little ‘routine’.  

In the last couple of years one has been seeing from a quarter to a half page of glossy newsprint with dog-related information. This is in the form of advice and tips for “pet parents”. This includes not just diet and grooming, but also a gamut of psychiatric support (which grew exponentially during the pandemic). These can make up a best-selling Dr Spock for canines!  How to handle ‘sibling’ jealousy when your (human) baby is born; How to handle separation anxiety when you return to office after a long stretch of WFH; How to keep your dog from joining the zoom call (without making it feel left out!). There is a whole new profession of pet therapists, psychiatrists, and even ‘pet psychics’ who claim to have telepathic powers to communicate with pets to understand what they are going through and offer support on mental health issues.  

Then of course there are grooming tips galore. Starting with exclusive brands to pamper your pet; these are offered through “pawsome” spa treatments which include luxurious shampoo and bath, hair trimming and styling, and nail clipping, but also offer services like aromatherapy and acupressure massages. One such service even claims: “We offer a unique microbubble spa therapy, with high-density ozone bubbles for cleaning the pets’ coats. Apart from being an absolute fun session for them, it helps deal with rashes and irritation. We also have an automatic pet cabin dryer for noiseless and quick drying,” Bow Wow Wow!

I remember well the weekly struggle I had to put up with to just quickly pour one bucket of water over my very recalcitrant dog. And I still have a scar from when he bit me on a particularly difficult bath day! It will take a wild jump of fantasy to imagine my Bosky wallowing in microbubbles!  I marvel at the ‘new age’ canines who presumably sink gracefully into a bubble bath as they politely extend their paws for a perfect ‘pawdicure’.

But why stop at an afternoon at a Spa? In the highly stressed world that they inhabit, don’t dogs need some ‘time out’ too? Well the travel and leisure industry is all set to make this happen. There are dog resorts, and even luxury hotels for staycations and weekend getaways. Making news is Critterati a luxury pet hotel in Gurugram India which offers ‘air conditioned room; premium beds with luxury bedding, soft padded floors that are easy on paws, three meals for small buddies, and two meals for medium, large and X-large buddies; four times potty break; a nightcap treat before bedtime; TV lounge access; pampering sessions; socializing, vet visit, daily hair brushing to improve blood circulation.’ I kid you not! Check out their website.

Between vacations, for the occasional ‘doggy dine out’ there are dog cafes in many cities that offer a wide menu for the discerning pooch palates—from specially brewed beer to designer dishes. For the more politically correct canines there are sustainable vegan and gluten free options. For a change from the urban jungle there are pet event planners that offer ‘bespoke’ picnic experiences amidst nature.  

I think back to my dogs who lived a middle-class life as did we, doing very well thank you, on roti and milk. The highlight of my Bosky’s gourmet experience was being indulged by my old aunts with the traditional Gujarati snack of ganthia!

From food to accessories the race is on to offer something new, different, unique, and basically ‘pawsome’! A recent half page article in my newspaper described how to help pets beat the heat an array of cool accessories. These included a dog umbrella, a self-filling water bowl and a water bowl that keeps water cool, cooling collars and cooling mats.

With millennials as pet parents it sure is not a dog’s life anymore!

No wonder then that the pet care market is booming as never before. While it has been on the upswing in other countries, India is fast catching up. It is the world’s fastest-growing market, expanding at around 17% annually and is expected to be valued at around $500 million by the end of 2022. Among the growing affluent  generation of aspirational millennials who have the means to indulge their pets as they do themselves, there are also enterprising millennials who are smartly cashing in on the rapidly growing demand by creating and offering a tantalising menu of pet services and products.

If every dog has his day, this indeed is the day and age for every dog!

–Mamata

The Whispered Wisdom of Podcasts

I am slow to adopt most things new. And so it was with podcasts. I was pretty skeptical of the audio medium as a means of learning. Being fully old school, for me, the ‘read word’ was the major source of both learning and recreation.

My conversion to podcasts is fairly recent. The audio system that I was using during my walks to listen to music on broke down, and that was when I decided to explore podcasts. And what a world it has opened up to me! Not just walks, but also car-rides and flights have become much more enriching. But I have to admit, while my default state is to sit around the house with a book in my hands, I am not as yet able to sit around with a podcast plugged into my ears. I feel kind of guilty and unemployed. But I am sure the day will come…

While the raw beginnings of podcasting are traced back to the ‘90s, the medium really came into its own in the mid-2000s. The first steps were laid in 2004, by Adam Curry  a former MTV video jockey, along with a software developer Dave Winer, when they coded a program known as iPodder. This made it possible to download internet radio broadcasts to iPods. Within a year, commercial companies realized the potential and with Apple as the first mover with iTunes 4.9, started to offer support for podcasts. Politicians were not far behind—George Bush became the first President to have a weekly podcast as early as 2005. The speed with which the innovation caught on can be gauged by the fact that   “Podcast” was declared “Word of the Year” by the New Oxford American Dictionary.

Today tech-savvy India has the third-largest podcast listenership in the world. At  57.6 million listeners, it is behind only China and the US, and growing at a rapid 30+%.

I listen of course to the usual suspects, from Stuff You Should Know, to Ted Talks Daily, to BIC Talks, to The History of India Podcasts, to No Stupid Questions, and 99% Invisible.

Aryabhatta, India’s first Satellite

But the podcast that moved me most, which inspired and fired me was MISSION ISRO. This series traces the history of India’s space programme, essentially through the work of Dr.Homi Bhabha and Dr.Vikram Sarabhai. These two men had not only the vision, but the scientific stature, the international standing and the conviction to overcome all barriers to make this dream a reality. How they convinced the decision-makers in the country that a newly-independent country like India, which was struggling to even feed its people, needed to invest in space, and how they convinced the world that India had the capacity to make this work, is a fascinating tale.  And the vision of the then-PM, Shri Jawaharlal Nehru, who believed in the use of science and technology for national development is what made this possible. The clarity of the philosophy of the Indian space programme set by the founding fathers—that it was not for warfare and aggression, but rather, to bring development to the remotest corners of India and to the poorest—is what sets our space programme apart even today.

The refusal of Dr. Sarabhai and Dr. Bhabha and their teams to be deterred by any obstacles– whether lack of equipment, permissions, know-how—is awe-inspiring. The innovative ways they found to get around challenges, to make do with the resources they had, to find supporters and partners, in order to accomplish Mission Impossible brings home the lesson that a clarity of purpose and the belief that it can be achieved will move mountains.

Researched and scripted by Archana Nathan, produced by Gaurav Vaz, Harsha Bogle’s voice brings the podcast to life. The enormous effort in getting interviews with key people who were involved in the space programme and hearing them relate the stories of those times is amazing. And hearing Dr. Vikram Sarabhai’s voice sent goose bumps down my spine!

Don’t miss it. It gives us an understanding of our history and achievements from times which today are dismissed so easily. It gives us an understanding of what visionary nation-building is and the mettle that visionary nation-builders are made of.

–Meena

A Dolls House

At a recent get together with my sisters we were reminiscing about how we used to spend our childhood summer holidays in Delhi. In addition the many simple DIY activities that we devised, one of the highlights was the visit to the BC Roy Memorial Children’s Reading Room and Library. In an age when reading and books were the main pastime, this exclusive library for children, with its wide selection of books, and a welcoming ambience was a perfect place to be.

The library was housed in the building of the Children’s Book Trust. One summer, when we used the library we also discovered another fascinating display in the same building. This was the Dolls Museum which became not only our favourite destination, but also an essential visit for friends and relatives who visited Delhi.

All the three unique institutions were the brainchild of Keshav Shankar Pillai, popularly known as Shankar, who was India’s most celebrated political cartoonist before and after India’s Independence. The Children’s Book Trust which he founded in 1957, was among the pioneer publishers of children’s books in independent India. CBT continues even today with its mission to promote the production of well-written, well-illustrated and well-designed books for children at prices within the reach of the average Indian child. The BC Roy Library which was set up in 1967 was to become the largest library exclusively for children.

From books to dolls—how did that happen? The story has earlier roots. Shankar used to publish a political satire magazine called Shankar’s Weekly. In 1949, under the auspices of the magazine Shankar announced a competition inviting paintings and writings from children across India. It got an overwhelming response. The following year the competition was thrown open to children from all over the world. It was called Shankar’s International Children’s Competition. Today, the competition receives about 160,000 entries from over 160 countries. The entries are judged by an international jury.

In the early 1950s Shankar received a doll from the Hungarian Ambassador to be given away as a prize for this competition. Shankar with his childlike fascination for unusual things fell in love with the doll which was dressed in a traditional Hungarian costume. He asked the Ambassador if he could keep the doll for himself. The little doll triggered in Shankar the itch to collect more costume dolls. As a journalist who often accompanied the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on his trips abroad, Shankar had the opportunity to visit many countries where he began to pick up dolls in the traditional national and regional costumes, made by local craftsmen.

Shankar’s collection grew rapidly and soon he had a collection of nearly 500 dolls. He decided to exhibit these dolls in different parts of India along with the children’s paintings from the competitions. The frequent packing and unpacking began to damage the dolls; this worried and upset Shankar. An exhibition put up in Delhi was visited by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi. As they appreciated the collection, Shankar also shared his concern about the frequent moving of the displayed dolls. Indira Gandhi suggested that the exhibition should have a space of its own. The most natural place for it was in the building then being put up for the Children’s Book Trust in Delhi. And there the dolls found their permanent home. The International Dolls Museum as it became known was inaugurated on 30 November 1965 by the then President of India Dr S Radhakrishnan.

The Museum opened with a collection of a thousand dolls. Between 1965 and 1987 another 5000 were added, a vast majority coming as gifts. Today the Museum has a display of 7000 exhibits from almost eighty-five countries, giving it a truly international character. One section has exhibits from European countries, the U.K., the U.S.A, Australia, New Zealand, and the Commonwealth of Independent States, and the other from Asian countries, the Middle East, Africa and India. The dolls cover a wide range, both geographical and historical. The oldest exhibit is of a Swiss woman lying in bed dating back to 1781. There are dolls from the Queen of England’s Collection, Samurai and Kabuki dolls from Japan, Spanish flamenco dancers, ballet characters from South Korea, and nomadic singer dolls from Turkmenistan, among many others spanning the globe.  In addition to Shankar’s original collection, the collection has grown mainly from dolls gifted by dignitaries from different countries visiting India, as well as ambassadors of different countries to India. The dolls stay on as continuing little ambassadors of their countries, each telling its own story.

The section on Indian costume dolls showcases the incredible diversity of culture, heritage and traditions of our country. The dolls are meticulously handcrafted based on research that focuses on an accurate representation of physical attributes, dress, ornaments, and accessories like farming equipment, musical instruments, baskets and bags. There is a collection of bride and groom dolls depicting wedding traditions of different parts of India, and one of dolls in different dance costumes. Some of the dolls are arranged as group installations depicting markets, farming activities, household and festival scenes which demonstrate a sense of community.

The Indian dolls are made at a workshop attached to the museum. In addition to display the dolls are given in exchange for gifts to the museum from other countries, or sold to collectors. Apart from this workshop, there is also a ‘clinic’ where damaged dolls are repaired and restored.

Unlike other museums that one usually associates with ancient relics and artefacts, the Dolls Museum is a vibrant and living experience. It provides a rich panorama of the incredible diversity of the human race and cultures; it sparks imagination and curiosity; it transports the child into a ‘doll-filled’ world of its dreams, and the adult back to the innocent joys of childhood.   

Although my association with the Children’s Book Trust has continued over the years—from reader to contributing writer, it is many years since I visited the Dolls Museum. But as we mark International Museum Day on 18 May, it is a good time to remember and celebrate this special museum. As an educator now, I see the tremendous potential of this museum to help children explore, discover, and celebrate the diversity of cultures. As the International Council of Museums puts it “Museums are important means of cultural exchange, enrichment of cultures and development of mutual understanding, cooperation and peace among peoples.”

–Mamata

Statues for Cities

Lock from collection of V. Raghunathan

The Manneken Pis or little pissing man, is arguably the most-visited public statue in the world. The symbol of Belgium and Brussels, this 2-foot bronze statue has, for some reason, caught the imagination of the world and is the center of attraction for the thousands of tourists who visit the ciy. The statue, which pisses into a fountain, has been stolen about seven times, often having to be restored at the end of such misadventures. What stands at the site which we visit– the junction of the Rue du Chêne/Eikstraat and Rue de l’Étuve/Stoofstraa– is not the original   by the sculptor Jérôme Duquesnoy the Elder and put in place in 1618 or 1619. The original (with all the restorations) is kept in the Brussels City Museum and the  statue we see is a replica which dates from 1965. The statue has around 1000 costumes, and his dress is changed very few days, according to a published schedule. There is no doubt the little boy adds a lot to the revenue of his host city!

There are several, several public sculptures across the world, which characterize the city they stand in, or give it character, including:

Fearless Girl probably the best known of contemporary public statues, this 4’2” little girl stands defiantly, arms akimbo, across from New York’s Stock Exchange Building. A fitting symbol of women empowerment, the chutzpah of the girl does not even need the slogan below which says ‘Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference.’ Her stance and expression say it all!

Singing Ringing Tree, a 10-foot-tall sculpture made of galvanized steel  pipes which resembles a tree and is placed in such a way that when the wind moves through it, a song is produced. Located in the Pennine hill range, England, the sculpture was designed by Mike Tonkin and Anna Liu.

Bridge Over Tree located in New York’s Brooklyn Bridge Park, is made up of a 91-foot-long bridge and a set of stairs at the sculpture’s midpoint. The stairs go over a small evergreen tree, and visitors are forced to interact and cooperate as they pass over it. It was designed by the artist Siah Armajani.

Ayrton Senna  in Barcelona, Spain commemorates  Formula-1 driver Ayrton Senna who was killed during a 1994 race in Italy. Created by Paul Oz, the statue was unveiled on May 8, 2019, the 25th anniversary of Senna’s death.

My city, Bangalore, has its share of public installations too. They run the gamut from whimsical to arty to cute to ghastly.

Lock 1
Lock from collection of V. Raghunathan

Here are a few:

On the perimeter of the Kotak Mahindra Bank’s main office overlooking MG Road stand seven bronze re-creations of ancient Indian locks, complete with their intricate carved details. An unusual subject for street art, it makes sense as locks and banks both stand for safety and security. With the metro line passing overhead and the heavy traffic, the visibility of these is also not as good as it could be. Maybe raising the height of the pedestals would give the commuters a pleasant sight.

Commissioned by Café Coffee Day and set up outside their outlet on Lavelle Road, this is an arrangement of five men and a small boy. One man holds and umbrella, a second carries and briefcase, a third holds a cup of coffee. There is a fountain too, which drenches the sculptures when it is on.  Very squat, it is not always visible to commuters on this busy road, but surely gives a lot of character to the square.

The recently commissioned installation of cars (appropriately dubbed ‘car-kebab’ by a friend) at Yelahanka is a stack of several colourful old cars. An small amphitheatre has been built opposite. Though one is not quite sure why this installation here, or whether there is a risk of rusting and bending if there are strong rains and winds , there is no doubt it adds a pop of colour.

But sadly, the statue put up by BBMP (Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike) at the prominent Windsor Manor Circle, which is part of a major beautification drive and supposed to symbolize ‘Make in India’, is not something that is going to put Bangalore on the map of cities with statues to boast about. It is a poorly executed lion which 22 feet in length, 10 feet in height and weighs 1,000 kg. It appears to be made of cogs and gears, and stands on a rotating elliptical platform (which some say is the Titanic!). Lights and water fountains play around it. If ever there was a piece of ugly municipal art, But unfortunately it is this.

But let us not lose hope! Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

–Meena

LABURNUM: MOLTEN SUNSHINE

As the late April heat intensifies and the scorching sun begins to wilt and melt all that it beats down upon, it is time for the golden showers. The Indian laburnum or Golden Shower tree is in bloom. Its masses of yellow blossoms cascade from the tree like waterfalls of molten gold. Indian summer is really here!

laburnum

Indian laburnum or Cassia fistula gets its genus name from the word Kasia which was given by an ancient Greek botanist Pedanius Dioscurides, and its species name fistula meaning pipe, which refers to its tube-like pods.  

C. fistula is widely grown as an ornamental plant in tropical and subtropical areas. It is native to Southeast Asia and is found in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, South and SW China, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan and other tropical Asian countries, some parts of Australia and tropical Africa.

The Amaltas as it is commonly called in Hindi, is one of the most widespread of Indian trees and occurs throughout the country including the Andamans, and thus it has a vernacular name in all Indian languages. Many of the names refer to the long stick-like pods which appear almost alongside the blooms.

The Indian Laburnum is the common English name of this moderate-sized, deciduous tree. Its bark is greenish-grey and smooth on young trees, but with age it becomes brown and rough. This is not a tree that attracts attention for the large part of the year. It has a nondescript branching pattern and scant foliage. Between February and May the leaves get dull and ragged and many of them fall. New leaves are a beautiful fresh green sometimes tinged with pink, or a rich copper colour, and covered with a soft down; they remain folded and hang loosely downwards until they are fully grown.  It is with the onset of the summer that the laburnum bursts into full glory with sprays of golden flowers. It is the profuse mass of colour that attracts immediate attention. But a closer look reveals the delicate distinct beauty of the individual flowers that make up the mass. Each flower has five spoon-shaped petals of unequal size and ten yellow stamens of which three are long and curve gracefully upwards, the next four are shorter and curve the opposite way, while the remaining three are even shorter and straight. All are crowned with large, brown anthers where pollen is produced.

Around the same time, the long hanging cylindrical pods that give the tree some of its common names like Pudding Pipe tree appear in large numbers, making a striking picture of brown with yellow. At first the pods are green and soft, then they turn brown, and eventually become black and very hard. The pods contain large numbers of shiny brown seeds arranged in small compartments surrounded by a sticky brown pulp. 

In the scorching sun, the blooming flowers are a magnet for a wide range of insects and birds, which in turn creates dynamic ecological interactions. Bees and butterflies are important pollinating agents. The laburnum is specially connected to the Carpenter bees; the vibrations generated by the bees as they hover near the flowers cause the pollen grains to break out of the stamens, and attach to the bee’s body, and therefrom travel far and wide. Weaver Ants lurk around the flowers to pounce and prey on pollinators that visit the flowers. While flowers are the star attraction, the leaves too play important supporting roles. Greater Short-nosed Fruit Bats consume the leaves of the Golden Shower Tree, which are rich in protein and calcium. Butterflies like Mottled Emigrant, Common Emigrant and Common Grass Yellow, lay eggs on the leaves, which also provide the first food for the caterpillars as they emerge from the eggs. The ripe pods also attract mammals like monkeys, jackals, bears and pigs who break these open to eat the pulp, thereby helping to scatter the seeds that lie within, either directly or through their ingestion and excretion.

For humans, the Indian Laburnum also provides much more than sheer aesthetic pleasure. Its leaves, fruits and flowers are known to have medicinal relevance in Ayurveda and other traditional systems of medicine. In fact, in Sanskrit, the tree is revered as Aragvadha or ‘disease killer’. The fruit pulp is known to have laxative properties, while its flowers are used in certain folk remedies. The leaves have also been used as fodder to supplement the diets of domestic cattle, sheep, and goats, and as green manure. The flowers are also eaten by some tribal communities, and more recently, new age chefs are creating innovative ‘Amaltas’ recipes of teas, chutneys, jams, and salads using the flowers.

As with most indigenous trees, the Amaltas finds a place in culture and tradition. The tree finds mention in literature from the epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata, to folk literature, and is depicted in paintings and pictures. The Indian Postal Department issued a stamp in its honour, and some cities in India have beautiful avenues of Laburnum trees, original planted by the British.

In Kerala, the Kondrai or Kannikona flower as it is locally known has great cultural and religious significance. According to traditional belief it is very auspicious to have a first sighting of the flowering tree at dawn on Vishu, the New Year’s Day. The Vishukanni (literally the first sight on the day of Vishu) ritual includes an offering of all the ‘golden items of seasonal harvest’ like jackfruit, golden cucumber, mangoes and cashews, on this day. In fact the Kannikona flower is the state flower of Kerala.

Several countries of South East Asia also honour this beautiful tree. The golden hues of the Laburnum flowers signify royalty in Thailand where this has been designated as the national flower, and there is an annual flower festival is named after this tree.  In Sri Lanka where it is called Ehela, this tree is planted around Buddhist temples. In Laos the blooming flowers known as Dok Khuan are also associated with their new year when the flowers are offered at temples and also hung in homes in the belief that they will bring happiness and good luck to the house and family.

As I look out from my window at the glorious golden cascade of the Amaltas, I too wish that the auspicious sighting will bring the same to my home.

–Mamata

Of Collars and Colours

A collar is innocently defined as ‘.. a piece of clothing, usually sewn on and sometimes made of different material, that goes around the neck’. So when and why did the word become so loaded with connotations of class, occupation, gender, etc. etc.?

Collar

It seems to have started more than a hundred years back, in the early days of the 20th century. In a practice that started in about 1924, people involved in manual labour started to be referred to as blue-collar workers, as they wore sturdy, inexpensive clothing in colours like blue that didn’t show dirt easily. They were usually daily-wagers. The famous American writer Upton Sinclair is supposed to have coined the term ‘white-collar workers’ in the 1930s, for the white shirts that were popular with office workers at that time.  These are usually clerical, administrative and managerial workers who work on a regular salary.

And in the last few decades, as the nature of work changes, the number of collar colours has exploded.

Here is a look at some of these terms—some fairly common, and some pretty esoteric and niche. Nor is the meaning uniform across the world—a single colour can have many different connotations.

  • Gray collar jobs fall in confusing area, where it is not quite clear if the jobs are white collar or blue collar.  It sometimes denotes under-employed white collar workers.  Some use it as a term for people in the information technology sector. Yet others use it to denote older workers.
  • Red collar workers are those who work in government, supposedly because they draw their salaries from budget lines denoted in red ink. In some parts of the world, those in occupations in primary sectors like agriculture are called red collar workers.
  • Green collars work in environment related jobs and renewable energy jobs. This will hopefully see an explosion as we move towards carbon targets.
  • Black collar workers are those who are involved in manual work in sectors like mining or oil drilling. But sometimes it is used to denote those involved in illegal occupations.
  • Pink collar jobs used to denote job in domains traditionally staffed by women, but has now  fortunately expanded to stand for workers of all genders in the service sector.
  • Orange colour workers refers to prison labour.
  • Gold collar jobs refer to those occupations which need highly-skilled people, and people with specialized knowledge, such as doctors, lawyers, scientists.
  • New collar jobs are those which emphasize skills and capabilities rather than formal educational qualifications, such as the IT industry is moving towards.
  • No collar jobs are for the free spirits such as artists who pursue their passions, rather than money.
  • Popped colour jobs is a new emerging term for young people from rich families who take on 9-5 jobs for character building.
  • Virtual collar or Chrome collar jobs are used to denote robots performing automated, repetitive tasks.

So collar colours are alive and well! Never mind if many of the business icons of today as well as many workers wear collar-less shirts! Sadly, collar colours continue to stereotype people by their occupations, and make assumptions about their level of education, job responsibilities, working conditions, financial situation and even social class.

Well, the only lesson is ‘Don’t judge people by their collar colour’!

–Meena

A Beauty With Brains: Hedy Lamarr

From Hollywood to Bollywood, a beautiful face is what defines the world of cinema and glamour. And along with that, the clichéd belief that beauty and brains inhabit two different worlds, “and never the twain shall meet!”

I recently read about a movie superstar who combined a career in films with a lifelong passion for invention. This was Hedy Lamarr who was once known as the most beautiful woman in the world.

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born on 9 November 1914 in Vienna, in what was then Austria-Hungary. The First World War had just begun. Hedy was the only child of her Jewish parents. Her father was a Bank director, who adored his daughter and encouraged her curiosity. They often took long walks and he would discuss with her the working of different mechanical objects—from printing press to street cars. Hedy’s young mind was fascinated with the mysteries of machines. When she was five years old she took apart and reassembled her music box to find out how it worked. Her mother was a concert pianist who introduced her daughter to the arts; and she started ballet and piano lessons from a young age. Hedwig thus grew up in an environment that nurtured both her scientific as well as artistic temperament. She was also endowed with stunning looks.

Before the young girl could further explore her scientific interests, it was her beauty that attracted the attention of a film director Max Reinhardt who invited her to Berlin to study acting. She got her first small role in a German film when she was just 16 years old. In 1932, her role in a controversial film Ecstasy, drew wider attention to Hedy as an actress.

In 1933 she married Austrian munitions dealer Fritz Mandl. It was an unhappy alliance; Hedy felt trapped under her husband’s total control, and in her role as hostess to his circle of friends who included unscrupulous businessmen and members of the Nazi party. But even as she played the beautiful wife and hostess, Hedy’s sharp mind was following the dinner conversations and absorbing knowledge of arms and ammunitions.

Desperate to escape the stifling life, she managed to reach Paris, disguised as a maid, and then made her way to London in 1937. An introduction to Louis B Mayer of the famed MGM Studios was the stepping stone to Hollywood. Hedwig transformed into the European beauty Hedy Lamarr, who charmed American audiences with her accent, and mystical grace.

Hedy soon found herself in the famous Hollywood social circuit. Among the many illustrious people she met was Howard Hughes. Hughes was a high-flying American business magnate, investor, record-setting pilot, engineer, film director, and philanthropist. The two became good friends. Hedy’s attraction to Hughes was not so much for his wealth and name, but for his interest in innovation that appealed to her bottled-up inventive streak. Hughes took Hedy to see his airplane factories, showed her how the planes were built, and introduced her to the scientists behind process. He also recognised Hedy’s passion for the mechanical and encouraged her in this. He gifted her a set of equipment that she kept in her trailer on the film sets and tinkered with between takes. She continued to have her own ‘inventing table’ at home.  Hughes shared with Hedy his dream to make faster planes that he could sell to the US military. Hedy got deeply engaged in the project, researching fish fins and bird wings to understand how they were designed for maximum speed and efficiency, and she made engineering sketches for a new wing design for Hughes’ planes. Howard Hughes was very impressed with the designs, and called Hedy a “genius”.

Hedy Lamarr continued to live two parallel lives as it were. She was a celebrated Hollywood star in public, but was also a tinkerer and inventor who often spent evenings at home studying research texts and working at her drafting table to create inventions to improve current designs. She claimed that “improving things comes naturally to me”. Rather than star-studded parties she enjoyed being among a small group of friends discussing ideas.

It was at the start of the 1940s when the United States was on the brink of being pulled into World War II that Hedy felt the strong urge to put her innovative mind to work overtime. One story goes that her Jewish mother who had managed to escape from Austria to London was waiting to cross the Atlantic to the US, and at the time the American ships were in danger of being torpedoed by the enemy forces. Another version is that Hedy was deeply disturbed by the fact that children had perished in torpedo attacks while on board ships intended to take them to safety.

She knew that the Nazis were hacking the radio systems of the Allies ships so that they could track and attack them. Hedy drew upon her knowledge of war weapons to work on inventing a remote controlled torpedo, and develop a method to improve the United States’ weak torpedo guidance systems. She knew that radio frequencies were the key to the solution—but the single radio frequencies that were being employed for torpedo guidance at the time were ineffective in escaping Nazi surveillance. She worked to create ‘a secret communication system that could not be hacked’. The system utilized changing radio frequencies to prevent enemies from decoding messages. Multiple radio frequencies were used to broadcast a radio signal, which changed frequencies at split-second intervals in an apparently random manner. To anyone listening, it would just sound like noise. But the signal would be clear if both the sender and receiver hopped frequencies at the same time.

Hedy worked on this system with an unlikely partner. This was music composer George Antheil who was known for his experimental compositions. Antheil, like Hedy, was an inventor at heart. As the war loomed the two began sharing concerns, and once when playing the piano together, the idea of the extraordinary new communication system emerged. The torpedo and the guiding vessel would change radio frequencies very rapidly in an identical pattern, controlled by a device similar to a paper roll in a player piano. In this way, the vessels could communicate with each other in a secure manner that could not be intercepted by the enemy thereby allowing the torpedo to find its intended target. And thus Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum Technology was born.

After its creation, Lamarr and Antheil sought a patent and military support for the invention. They were awarded a Patent in August 1942, but the US Navy decided against the implementation of the new system. The Patent remained  classified until 1981, and during that time was only used in military technology such as sonar or satellite communications. Lamarr was disappointed, but she continued to support the war efforts of her adopted country by using her celebrity status to sell war bonds. She became an American citizen in April 1953.

Hedy Lamarr continued with her passion for invention, and even till she passed away at the age of 85, she was inventing things: a fluorescent dog collar, modifications for the supersonic Concorde, and a new kind of traffic light, among many others.

It is believed that Lamarr’s Frequency Hopping innovation was the forerunner of today’s wi-fi technology and other wireless communications like GPS and Bluetooth. Difficult as it is to relate a famous movie star and acclaimed musician with the same technology that now brings movies and music to our very fingertips.

Hedy Lamarr’s name will always be primarily associated with her beauty on the silver screen. But so much more interesting and inspiring is her other side that illustrates that beauty and brains can coexist productively. As her son said after her death, “She would love to be remembered as someone who contributed to the well-being of humankind.”

–Mamata

The Meandering Beetle

Sometime late last night, a beetle seems to have flown into my bedroom. I found it this morning, clinging stubbornly to my pillow. When I tried to push it away, it landed on the floor and walked around coolly, till I caught it up in a piece of paper and released it outside.

beetle
The Beetle Visitor (My phone did not get the colour right!)

Not a very unusual happening, except this beetle was one I had never seen before– about 2 cms in length, and a very pale colour, almost a dirty yellow.  I have seen large beetles but not one this large inside a home or building. The beetles that usually visit are black or brown or green or purplish, unlike the pale colour of this one. And my beetle was not iridescent, as beetles often are. But it did have the hooked strong legs that make it pretty unpleasant when a beetle lands on you!

But then beetles form the largest order among insects, with over 4 lakh species of them around. So coming across a new one is not unexpected. Nor is coming across one that is 2 cms long—after all, beetles can range in size from the barely visible, to large tropical species that are the size of a human hand. 

But what are beetles? Obviously a type of insect, but what distinguishes them is that their front pair of wings is hardened into wing-cases or elytra, which cover and protect the hind wings and abdomen. They belong to the order Coleoptera, in the superorder Endopterygota.

Coming to the iridescence of beetles and other insects, some are and some are not. But why are they iridescent?  Apparently, it helps in camouflage. It seems counter-intuitive, but field experiments found that birds found and ate 85% of non-iridescent baits, but only 60% of iridescent ones!

The most interesting of the beetles are the dung beetles, of which there are about 30,000 species. Basically, dung beetles fly around looking for the dung of herbivores, which has a lot of undigested and semi-digested stuff, which the beetles suck up as a great source of nutrition. There are three types of dung beetles: rollers, tunnelers, and dwellers. Rollers makes balls of bits of dung, roll it away, and bury it. The balls they make are either used by the female to lay her eggs in or as food for the adults to eat. Tunnelers dig into a pat of dung, and lay their eggs in these holes. Dwellers stay on top of the dung pat and lay their eggs, live there and raise the young. Thought most depend on herbivore dung, there are a few species which feed on carnivore dung.

Dung beetles, Scarabaeus sacer  fascinated the ancient Egyptians to the extent that they worshipped them. They believed the  dung beetle kept the Earth revolving like a giant ball of dung.

Another type of beetles which are general favourites are the Ladybirds. Farmers have special reasons to love them, as they eat aphids and other plant pests. One ladybug can eat up to 5000 aphids in a lifetime!

But sadly, a half-hour of googling through various identification sites hasn’t helped me identify my particular beetle-visitor. Google Lens helpfully tells me it a Christmas Beetle, but that seems unlikely because those are native to Australia, and my sighting was in Bangalore.

Well, the search will continue.

–Meena

A Wordy Adventure

 “I’m bored!” How many little boys and girls, across the world, echo the same words. More than ever before, the last two years when the pandemic confined families within four walls, this was the refrain. But this is nothing new.

There once was a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself not just sometimes but always.

That is the opening line of The Phantom Tollbooth, first published in 1961, which went on to become a classic of children’s literature.

The Phantom Tollbooth is the story of Milo, a 10 year-old boy who is utterly bored with everything around him. One day he comes home to finds a mysterious package with a bright blue envelope which reads “For Milo. Who has plenty of time.”

When unpacked it reveals a magical toy tollbooth which he sets up in his room. Having nothing better to do, he drives his toy car through it and there begins his whacky journey through the different realms of language. He is accompanied on his travels by a “watchdog” named Tock—a large dog with an alarm clock for a body. 

Crossing Expectations and going through the Doldrums, Milo heads for Dictionopolis, ruled by King Azaz the Unabridged–Monarch of Letters, Emperor of Phrases, Sentences and Miscellaneous Figures of Speech. He is welcomed by five tall thin gentlemen who introduce themselves as The Duke of Definition, The Minister of Meaning, the Earl of Essence, the Count of Connotation, and The Undersecretary of Understanding.

We offer you the hospitality of our country, nation, state, commonwealth, realm, empire, palatinate, principality.

Do all those words mean the same thing? asked Milo.

Of course, certainly, precisely, exactly, yes, they replied in order. They also explain: Dictionopolis is the place where all the words in the world come from. They’re grown right here in our orchards.

Milo wanders around the marketplace of words where there are thousands of words on sale, with the vendors trying their best to sell theirs. It is here that he meets the giant Spelling Bee, that can spell any word, and who joins him on his travels.

Finally he meets the king who asks him what he can do. Milo has no answer. The King thinks:”What an ordinary little boy. Why my cabinet members can do all sorts of things. The duke here can make mountains out of molehills. The minister splits hairs. The count makes hay while sun shines. The earl leaves no stone unturned. And the undersecretary hangs by a thread.”

And thus Milo embarks on a wordy adventure where the characters indulge in a riot of word play that initially throws Milo into deep confusion, but gradually his curiosity leads him not only to learn new things, but eventually to join in the pun-fun as it were. 

From Dictionopolis to Digitapolis, from the Foothills of Confusion, and over Mountains of Ignorance; through the Valley of Sound and the Forest of Sight; the Sea of Knowledge and Island of Conclusions (he had to jump to get there!), and the Kingdom of Wisdom, Milo encounters an army of new words as he is roped in to rescue the captured princesses of Rhyme and Reason imprisoned in the Castle in the Air, while fighting the fearsome Hate and Malice.

The Phantom Tollbooth is an absolute delight for word lovers such as me. The word play is clever and stimulating, reminding one of the adventures of Alice in Wonderland. When the book was published, several reviewers wondered whether children would even understand so many new and unfamiliar words, and whether they had the ability to really enjoy the play on words. These apprehensions were vindicated when the book sold millions of copies; and continues to remain a favourite even 60 years after it was first published in 1961.

Years later the author Norton Juster explained his approach: My feeling was that there is no such thing as a difficult word. There are only words you don’t know yet, the kind of liberating words that Milo encounters on his adventure. Today’s world of texting and tweeting is quite a different place, but children are still the same as they’ve always been.

The story of how the book came about is equally interesting. Norton Juster was a young architect working in New York. He had received a Ford Foundation grant for a book on cities for children, and spent months researching it. One day, in a restaurant, he overheard a boy asking the question   “What’s the biggest number there is?” That put him on a totally different path.

I started to compose what I thought would be about a child’s confrontation with numbers and words and meanings and other strange concepts that are imposed on children,” he wrote. “I loved the opportunity to turns things upside down and inside out and indulge in all the bad jokes and puns and wordplay that my father had introduced me to when I was growing up.

The grant never fructified into the intended book, but there began the story of The Phantom Tollbooth. Norton recalled: When I wrote the book I really didn’t write it with any sense of mission. I wrote it for my own enjoyment. The book in no way was written to any sense of what it was that children needed or liked.

However, under all the word play is just what children need–a feeling that navigating the world can be an exciting adventure in itself. As Norton puts it: And I think what kids do — it’s a fairly universal kind of thing – I think the general sense of the book – the feeling of it is something most kids experience one way or another. They’re at times disconnected, or they don’t know what to do with themselves. They don’t know why anything is happening. All the things that they’re learning don’t connect to other things. One of the things that happens in your life is you start out learning a million facts and none of them connect to any other facts. As you get older you gradually realize that something you learned over here connects to something you experienced over there. And you start drawing sort of mental lines, and after a while, like when you get to my age, there’s almost nothing that you learned that doesn’t connect with 80,000 other things. So it all has some kind of a meaning and context to it, and I think kids slowly begin to feel that too.

In an age when children have so many distractions, and yet are always “bored” this book encourages them to look anew at the world around them. You have to constantly look at things as if you’ve never seen them before. Or look at them in a way that nobody has ever seen them before. Or turn them over and look at the other side of everything. That is the magic formula.

Serendipitously, at the time Norton was writing the book, his illustrator friend Jules Feiffer, who was also his upstairs neighbour, read some of it and spontaneously produced a bunch of perfectly-suited drawings that brought the characters to life. And The Phantom Tollbooth continues to be loved by children even six decades later.  

I seem to have missed reading this book in my childhood, but I am delighted to have discovered it in the sixth decade of my life. Thank you Evan for sharing this, a favourite childhood read of yours, with me!

–Mamata

Seeds to Secure the Future

Every day at CEE (Centre for Environment Education) was an education one way or the other. One fascinating tour that I recall was to visit NGOs working in projects related to biodiversity and climate change as part of a national scheme that CEE was coordinating.

I was supposed to cover Chhattisgarh as part of this. My most memorable visit was to an NGO that was collecting local varieties of rice and cataloguing them.  It was a small project, maybe only a few lakhs. The NGO had collected rice samples, stuck them to sheets of chart paper and meticulously written down details that they had gathered from the farmers about the cultivation, characteristics, uses etc.  Like a school project, but preserving invaluable genetic resources and information. What a variety of rice—different shapes, different sizes; some fronds long and wavy, others densely packed. And for the first time I saw purple and black rice! And the enthusiastic NGO staff explained the traditional use of each type of rice.

 It was an eye-opener.

I knew that Chhattisgarh was known as the Rice Bowl of India and had over 20,000 rice varieties. But seeing those modest tin trunks with the samples of rice carefully stored brought this home to me in a way that no amount of reading could have. And with it, the realization that we were fast losing so many varieties–and not only of rice but every crop. And not only in India, but worldwide.

Seeds for Food Security

There are many factors responsible for this—unsustainable agricultural practices; industrialization; the focus on a few varieties of crops which are commercially attractive to the exclusion of others; urbanization, etc. According  to UN FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), while over  6,000 plant species have been cultivated for food worldwide, only nine account for the majority of total crop production.With climate change, the need to preserve these varieties is even more urgent than ever before. The varieties that we cultivate today may no longer be viable tomorrow. And we may have to fall back on this preserved crop diversity to feed the world.

The small NGO that I saw in Chhattisgarh was a key in the whole chain. Several NGOs  in India have been working towards preserving crop diversity for decades—from Beej Bachao Andolan which started in the Tehri Garhwal, to Vrihi seed bank in East India, to the Navadanya movement.

The international community has set up such seed banks at large scale to preserve and conserve seed varieties. There are over 1700 such banks, the biggest of which is the Seed Vault at Svalbard, Norway. This has the largest collection of the world’s crop diversity. It stores duplicates of seed samples from the world’s crop collections and hence is a back-up in case anything were to happen to any collection anywhere. The geographical location of the Vault ensures the best possible chance for the survival of the seeds— low temperatures, permafrost and thick rock protect the seed samples and ensure they will remain frozen even without power. Deep inside the Arctic Circle, the location is very remote, but still accessible. It is well above sea level, and safe from flooding even in the worst climate change scenario. The vault is 100 metres into the mountain. It can store 4.5 million varieties of crops, with about 500 seeds per variety.  As of now, there are more than 10,00,000 samples in the Vault, originating from almost every part of the world.

India too has commissioned an impressive seed preservation facility. In fact, it is the second largest in the world. The stone and wood paneled vault is located in Chang La Pass, Ladakh, and is a joint initiative of the Defence Institute of High Altitude Research and the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources. In this facility, seeds are sealed in specially made three-ply foil packages, placed inside black boxes and stored on shelves. It currently holds olver 10,000 seed samples, and has plans to grow by inviting the international community it use it.

The loss of agricultural biodiversity is less focussed on than the challenges to wild biodiversity. But it can be as
devastating. Feeding the world will be impossible if we don’t act to conserve this now! As per FAO, since the 1900s, some 75 per cent of agricultural plant genetic diversity has already been lost. Seed banks, from local to international,
is one of the ways to do this. Kudos to the farmers, communities, NGOs and institutions which are doing this!

–Meena