Gandhi’s Women Warriors: Perin Captain

This month as we remember the Father of the Nation Gandhi, it is also a good time to remember some of the many women warriors who played significant parts in the march for Indian independence. Among these was Perin Naoroji Captain.

Perin was the granddaughter of the ‘Grand Old Man of India’ Dadabhai Naoroji. She was born on 12 October 1888 in Mandvi in the Kutch district of Gujarat. Her father Ardeshir, Dadabhai Naoroji’s elder son was a medical doctor and her mother Virbai Dadina a home maker. Perin’s father died when she was only 5 years old. She did her schooling in Bombay and moved to Paris for higher studies where she did a degree in French language.

It was while she was a student at the Sorbonne in Paris that Perin met Madam Bhikaji Cama who was living there in self-exile. Bhikaji had gone to Europe, and then to London in1902, to rest and recover from the bubonic plague of 1896 which she had caught while volunteering to work with the victims in Bombay. Though she recovered, the disease left her in poor health. While she was in London Bhikaji met Dadabhai Naoroji who was a strong critic of the British economic policy and she began working for the Indian National Congress. She also was a close associate of Veer Savarkar. It was while she was in London that Bhikaji was informed that she would not be allowed to return to India unless she signed a statement that she would not take part in nationalist activities. Bhikaji Cama refused to do so, and remained in exile in Europe from where she continued to support the revolutionaries in every possible way.

At the time when Perin met Madam Cama, the latter was deeply involved in trying for the release of Savarkar who was imprisoned in London for defying the British. During her Paris student days Perin was actively involved in a number of ‘revolutionary’ causes including the conspiracy to get Savarkar out of jail, and working with Polish émigré organisations who were opposing the Tsarist rule in Russia. During these interactions, Perin and her sister Gosi also learned how to use firearms and assemble bombs.  

Perin returned to India in 1911. An opportunity to meet Gandhi transformed her ‘revolutionary’ zeal into a lifelong belief in the power of non-violent protest as an effective weapon. By 1919 she was fully committed to the Swadeshi movement and started wearing khadi. In 1920 she helped to establish the Rashtriya Stree Sabha, a women’s’ movement based on Gandhian ideals. She married the eminent lawyer DS Captain in 1925. The couple did not have children. 

The countrywide civil disobedience movement that Gandhi launched with the Salt March in 1930 marked the first time that women, en masse, became active  participants in the country’s struggle for freedom. Thousands of women, in cities and villages, demonstrated their support by joining the protest marches, picketing of foreign goods, and manufacturing and selling salt. In the first ten months of 1930 as many as 17,000 women were convicted for these activities.

 Perin Captain, along with other women leaders like Kamaldevi Chattopadhyay was on the forefront of the protests in Bombay. Every day they led groups of satyagrahis, singing national songs, to the seaside to bring sea water which was dried in cement pans. The salt was packed in small packets and the ladies went to different places to sell the packets. Sometimes the salt packets were auctioned and sold to the highest bidder (at one place the highest bid was two rupees). Perin and Kamaladevi addressed a number of public meetings encouraging people to show their solidarity and join the peaceful protests. This was all under the watchful eyes of the British police. The name of Perin Captain features frequently in the Daily Reports of the Police Commissioner of Bombay submitted to the Secretary to Government of Bombay Presidency. The police intelligence was keeping a close watch on the unfurling movement of civil disobedience, as well as its leaders.

As an active member of the Congress party Perin was also trusted by Gandhi to ensure that the protests remained scrupulously non-violent and passive. On 4 July 1930 Perin was arrested as she was setting out for the Congress office. As a newspaper reported “she cheerfully submitted to the officers who came to her home”. Once the news of her arrest spread, the Municipal Corporation of Bombay adjourned, the Sugar Merchants’ Association passed a unanimous resolution to boycott British refined sugar.

Perin Captain’s leadership qualities saw her playing an active role in many other areas, but the Civil Disobedience Movement was a defining episode in her public life.

Perin was a trusted and active member of the Congress party in the state. In 1932 she became the first woman president of the Bombay Provincial Congress Committee. In 1937 the Congress Party came to power in eleven provinces in the provincial elections. In order to prepare for the future responsibilities that such developments would lead to, the Indian National Congress formed a National Planning Committee with Jawaharlal Nehru as Chairman. The Committee was clear that in such a future, women would be on an equal footing with men, and any planning should be based on this premise. Perin was a member of the sub-committee on Women’s Role in a Planned Economy. This committee debated and planned policy for issues such as women’s social, economic and political status, education, marriage, maternity and succession.

Over time smaller Gandhian bodies were merged into what became the Gandhi Seva Sena. Perin became its Honorary General Secretary, a post she held until her death. The Gandhi Seva Sena promoted khadi by selling rural and khadi products from their stores.

Even after independence Perin continued to work actively in the field of social work and welfare.  Perin was appointed Chief Commissioner of Bharat Guides. She was honoured with the Padma Sri in 1954, the first batch of civil awards presented in independent India. She died in Jahangir Nursing Home, Pune in 1958.

Perin Naoroji Captain was not only the granddaughter of the Grand Old Man of India, she was a true daughter of India’s swadeshi movement who boldly carried the message of the Mahatma to thousands of her fellow sisters.

–Mamata

All Dolled Up: Golu Festival

When we were young, Navaratri was one of the most exciting festivals. Several reasons: first, it was the only festival which stretched for so many days; then, for the girls, it involved getting dressed up every evening and visiting neighbours, friends and relatives; it meant different interesting prasads every day; and importantly, there was an ‘official’ ban on studying on the day of Saraswathi Puja, when all books, musical instruments etc., had to be kept at the altar.

The highlight of Navaratri for South Indians is Golu, the display of dolls.  The first step involves the putting up of the ‘golu padi’ or steps on which the dolls would be arranged. Some houses had modest 3-step set-ups, while others had up to nine steps (always in odd numbers). Households brought their their engineering skills to full play—sometimes steps were made of trunks ingeniously stacked to form a stair case, and covered with a cloth. Some constructed temporary arrangements from year to year. Others had permanent dismantalable steps which were stored away in some attic and assembled every year.

Popular leaders in Golu. Dusshera Dolls Exhibition

Then the dolls would be unpacked. Wooden ones, clay ones, porcelain ones, you name it. Those whose dresses were worn-out would need new clothes. Others needed a lick of paint or minor repairs. There was a particular order to arranging these dolls, with gods on the top steps, saints and famous people below them, and regular ordinary everyday people and scenes below these. There used to be sets—e.g., village scenes, scenes from the Ramayana, occupations, musicians, etc. Every year, each family also bought a few new dolls.

Golu dolls
Kumbhakaran being woken up. Dusshera Dolls Exhibition.

Below the steps on the floor, would be garden scenes, or most coveted, a ‘thopakulam’ (pond). Again, family ingenuity would come into play here. What container would hold the water (usually a large shallow tub); how it would be concealed (that involved importing a lot of sand or mud into the house!); what would float in it—ducks and other birds, flowers (real or plastic), etc; and the scene around the pond, including benches, trees, people strolling around, and when there was a particularly enthusiastic family, twinkling street lights.

Hi-tech was very much part of the display. Not just the lighting, but setting up elaborate working train sets or car racing-tracks instead of a traditional pond, and running the trains was a favourite.

And then, every day, elaborate rangolies had to be made, as well as prasad including the mandatory sundal (legumes like chana, lobia etc. cooked with coconut etc.).

For the little girls, it was about pulling out all the pattu-pavadais (silk longskirts), reviewing which would be worn on which day, which had grown short and needed to be let out, begging mothers and aunts to buy them blingy ornaments, and deciding whose house to visit when. We also had to prepare songs—every Aunty would ask every visitor to sing, and after the mandatory coy no’s, we would all sing the songs we had prepared. It must have been torturous to the listeners because most of us couldn’t hold a tune to save our lives. But everyone would applaud most politely, and then we would be given our vatala-paaku, fruit and packets of sundal wrapped in newspaper, and depart to the next house. The highlight of course was to savour the sundals—all of them used to taste delicious, partly because there was a limited quantity in the packages we were given.  We would discuss the relative merits of the doll display for days, and neighbourhood reputations were made or unmade based on the displays and sundals.

Such were the excitements of our simple lives. And so are memories made and traditions continued.

–Meena

Both pictures were taken at the Exhibition of Dusshera Dolls, Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath, Bangalore.

Gandhi’s Women Warriors: Usha Mehta

Here is a mantra, a short one that I give to you. You may imprint it on your hearts and let every breath of yours give expression to it. The mantra is ‘Do or Die.’ We shall either free India or die in the attempt; we shall not live to see the perpetuation of our slavery. Every true Congressman or woman will join the struggle with inflexible determination not to remain alive to see the country in bondage and slavery.

These words spoken by Gandhi on 8 August 1942 launched the Quit India movement. Although Gandhi and many other leaders were arrested within hours of his speech, with the expectation that without their leadership the resistance movement would be rudderless, the effect was the opposite. Thousands of Indians, young and old, heeded this call and plunged into the movement, each contributing in their own way.

Source: en.wikipedia.org

Among the crowd that directly heard the words from Gandhi on that day was a 22 year-old woman who took on the onus of spreading his message far and wide through unconventional means—secret radio broadcasts. This was Usha Mehta.

Usha Mehta was truly a daughter of the freedom movement, growing up as Gandhi led India each step forward on the road to independence. She was born on 25 March 1920 in a village called Saras near Surat in Gujarat. She first saw Gandhiji when she visited his ashram as a five-year old. She was just eight years old when she took part in her first protest. This was against the Simon Commission, when the young girl joined in the shouts of “Simon Go Back”. She mobilised her young friends and organised prabhat feris (dawn marches with songs and slogans). As a teenager she responded to Gandhi’s call to defy the salt tax, and joined in the various acts of civil disobedience from picketing of British goods to spinning cotton. She also took the vow of wearing khadi, and continued to do so all through her life. 

Usha’s father was a judge in the British Raj and did not support his daughter’s nationalistic leanings and activities. In 1933 her father retired as a judge and moved to Bombay, where Usha continued her schooling. It was in 1942 when Usha was studying in Wilson College in Bombay that she heard Gandhiji speak at the historic meeting of the Congress party. Moved by Gandhi’s words, Mehta – with the help of a few other young independence activists – planned to set up an underground radio station which would share news about the real situation on the ground, and spread Gandhi’s message far and wide. In the face of many challenges, the group raised some resources, and for technical help they contacted a friend who was running classes in radio mechanics. The transmitter was ready by 13 August, and the first broadcast was on 14 August 1942 opening with the words: “This is the Congress Radio calling on 42.34 from somewhere in India.”

In a time when the press was supressed, and news censored, these radio broadcasts spread the message of Quit India to the remotest corners of the country, urging people to join the mass civil disobedience movement. The broadcasts carried all sorts of news, especially news that was censored or banned to be spread by the regular media, such as merchants refusing to export rice to arrests of leaders and civilians. The broadcasts reported on police atrocities, mass protests and strikes. Prominent leaders also gave radical speeches on the broadcasts. The team got news from messengers across India, as well as from the office of the All India Congress Committee.

In the beginning, the broadcasts were once a day, in Hindi and English; then they were increased to twice a day. Usha and her fellow broadcast conspirators (along with their transmitter) had to constantly evade the police who were on their trail. As Usha recalled in an interview many years later (Police) vans used to chase us regularly and very often it was merely a question of touch and go. It is believed that the team moved locations six to seven times in the three months that they broadcast.

The broadcasts on 42.34 became extremely popular with the people across the country. There were also specific programmes for different groups like students, women, workers and lawyers.  

On 12th November 1942, based on information leaked by one of the technicians, the police raided the hideout from where the radio station was operating in Bombay. Usha Mehta was in the building when the police came. She quickly took the broadcast material and rushed to the recording studio which was elsewhere, and with the help of some colleagues set up a new transmitter for a final broadcast. As Usha Mehta recalled that day: We played Hindustan Hamara, then we relayed some news bulletins and a speech. Just when we were at the end of the programme, playing ‘Vande Mataram’, we heard hard knocks on the door. The authorities broke down the door and entered. They ordered us to stop playing ‘Vande Mataram’. We did not oblige them.

The authorities seized all the equipment and photos and film footage of Congress party sessions. Usha along with four of her colleagues, was arrested, kept in solitary confinement, and intensely interrogated for almost six months, but she refused to betray her colleagues. Usha and three of her colleagues were sentenced to four years in jail. She was released in March 1946. As she said: I came back from jail a happy, and to an extent, a proud person because I had the satisfaction of carrying out Bapu’s message, ‘Do or die’, and of having contributed my humble might to the cause of freedom.

After India became independent the following year, Usha Mehta went back to her old Wilson College to pursue a doctorate in Gandhian thought; and spent the remaining years as an academic, teaching in her own college for the next 30 years, and continuing to spread the Gandhian ideals through her writing and talks. Like a true Gandhian, she led a spartan life, waking at 4 am every morning and working late into the evening. Her diet, dress and habits were simple and frugal.

Usha Mehta was honoured with Padma Vibhushan in 1998. She continued to spread the philosophy of Gandhi until she passed away in August 2000 at the age of 80.

Today, more than ever, we need to be reminded of such feisty women whose lives were driven by a passion for a cause, and who demonstrated their commitment with courage and conviction.

–Mamata

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A Thousand Flowers Bloom on my Table: Millefiori


When I was young, visits to my father’s office were looked-forward to treats. And one of the things that fascinated me were the beautiful, colourful glass paperweights that lay on the table, doing what they were supposed to do, i.e., keeping papers from flying in the wind created by the fan.

With bright colours and intricate designs, each one was different from the other. And of course, I always wondered how the fantastic shapes got into the glass dome.

It was only recently that poking around in a drawer, I re-discovered one of these. And I decided to read up on them.

Appropriately, the technique is called ‘millefiori’, Italian for ‘thousand flowers’ and is a kind of glass mosaic. The technique was probably invented in ancient Egypt and can be traced back to Ancient Roman Times. Samples have been found dating back to the 5th century. But the process got lost somewhere and was revived only in the 19th century by Murano glass artists. Vincenzo Moretti is credited with this, and is said to have put in years of painstaking trial and error to perfect the art. The term ‘millefiori’ itself first found its place in the Oxford dictionary in 1849. It was around this time that it became a rage in Europe, and factories came up in Italy, France and England, making paperweights, beads and marbles. France was at the center of the blossoming creativity. The Great Exhibition of London in 1851 and the Paris Expo of 1878 gave a fillip to the popularity of this craft. However, the trend petered out in a few decades but some artists still carry forward the tradition, creating works to suit modern sensibilities.

Millefiori paperweight
Millefiori paperweight

The first step in the technique is to create Millefiori canes by layering molten glass of different colours into a pattern in a cylindrical shape. Then the cylinder is pulled by two glassmakers walking away from each other, pulling it to create a long rod. When the rod is sliced, the pattern is seen. Each such slice is called a murine. Many murines are arranged in a pattern and cased in glass, resulting in the beautiful products, ranging from paperweights, vases, rings, pendants, decorative plates, ashtrays and even playing marbles. It is a craft requiring not just an aesthetic sense but also great skills of working with glass, and precision. While flowers are the most common patterns, there are paperweights with geometrical shapes, insects, etc. too.

Today, these weights are collectors’ items, auctioned by the likes of Christie’s.

Alas, the one I have dug out is chipped at the bottom, so unlikely to make me my fortune. But it sure gives me joy every day when I look at it on my table. As precious!

—Meena

The Naming of the Mahatma

Mohandas and Kasturba Gandhi on return to India in 1915
Source: mkgandhi.org

On January 9 1915, SS Arabia, a mail boat from England docked at Bombay port. Among those who disembarked were Mohandas Gandhi and Kasturba Gandhi, returning to settle in India after 21 years in South Africa. Gandhi was already well known in India for his 20 years of work for justice and satyagraha in South Africa. But the South African human rights activist had not yet become the leader of the Indian freedom struggle. However it was in the first few weeks back on his native soil that Mohandas would be bestowed with the title that became an integral part of his name for the rest of his life, and much beyond—Mahatma.

There are different stories about how this came to be, including that it was Rabindranath Tagore who gave him this honorific title in March 1915. In fact, it was three months earlier that the word Mahatma was first used to address him.

Upon return to India, following a week of a series receptions and meetings in Bombay, Mohandas left for Ahmedabad, and then travelled to Kathiawar. On 21 January 1915, Gandhi came to Jetpur where he visited the home of the town’s leading citizen nagarsheth Nautamlal Bhagvanji Kamdar.

The links between Gandhi and Nautamlal’s family had an older, slightly indirect history. Nautamlal’s daughter Manjula (Maya) was married to the son of Dr PJ Mehta, one of Gandhi’s oldest and closest friends.  Pranjivan Mehta, a medical doctor, was one of the first Indians that Gandhi contacted when he landed in England in October 1888, as a young and naïve law student. Dr Mehta eased the shy Mohandas into the life and customs of the new country. The two became close friends, and the bonds lasted through their life. It was Dr Mehta who encouraged Gandhi to return to India in 1915 and supported him in every way as he found his feet on the road that would lead to India’s freedom. By then Dr Mehta had moved to Rangoon where he had a profitable jewellery business. The two friends continued to correspond, sharing ideas, issues and problems, and even visited each other. It was Dr Mehta’s financial support that enabled Gandhi to devote all his time and attention to the freedom movement. Dr Mehta even procured a plot of land in Ahmedabad for Gandhi to recreate the Phoenix Ashram experiment. This became known as Sabarmati Ashram. He also contributed funds for the setting up of Gujarat Vidyapith. Dr Mehta remained Gandhi’s pillar of strength until he passed away in 1932.

Thus the family of Nautamlal Kamdar also became close to Gandhi, and were also generous donors to the Sabarmati Ashram and the Gujarat Vidyapith. But even before these were established, the Kamdar family were among the first to welcome and support Gandhi as he embarked on the long march to freedom, right from the first week of his return to Indian soil.

On January 21, 1915 the family organised a felicitation meeting for Gandhi and Kasturba to be held at Kamri Bai School in Jetpur.  Here both Gandhi and Kasturba were honoured with the presentation of manpatras (citations). It is in the citation to Gandhi that the title of honour of Mahatma was first recorded.

The original manpatra was in Gujarati, but here is an English translation of the same as sourced from https://nautamlalmehta.com.  

To Shriman Mahatma Mohandas Karmchand Gandhi. Barrister-at-law.

Gentleman, You have returned to your native land after leading a fight for many years for the right of Indians. We the residents of Jetpur, are honored and pleased to have you here. We have gathered here to commemorate this auspicious occasion and we heartily present this document of honor to you and to your wife.

You were born in an honorable family of Karmchand Gandhi in Kathiawad and acquired higher education and higher knowledge. You have set a direct example of duty to all the people by way of performing duties rightfully, and we are very proud of it. Your father had brought fame by enjoying an executive post in the states of Porbander, Wankaner, Rajkot, etc. In a similar manner as your father, you have enhanced your father’s fame by taking a leading part in the interest of the country and people as a top priority of your life.

For the people of Indian origin in South Africa, you fought, sacrificed and showed them a new light in their life, in order to fight for their rights, justice, and their dignity. The Indians all over the world know your dedication and your unbounded love for them in their hearts. You also stood against the mighty British Empire with the new weapon of Satyagraha. You have come out a winner in that. We feel very proud and happy about it. The way you handled the British government with skill, determination, will power, undergoing physical and family pains, and imprisonment are all the hardships that you underwent in order to fight for human rights, bring success and were able to change the laws. We Indians are very proud of you. No amount of words can express the deep gratitude we feel for the work you have done in South Africa and in India.

It would be a very long document if we enumerated all the achievements you accomplished in South Africa and in India. Even though you come from a noble family and earned a degree in law and have had biographies written about your achievements, we will not take up much of your time in enumerating them.

You discharged your duties without self-interest and sacrificed money matters. Your behavior is characterized by what is being told in Hindu religious scriptures about saints as to how they should behave and what religious practices they should follow. It is not an exaggeration to honor you with the title of “Mahan Yogi” (Mahatma), it is based upon your self-knowledge of the Mahan soul (atma).

We pray to the creator of world that you may continue the way in which you are trying for the well-being of Hind and that way obliging Hind, and you and your wife remain hail and healthy physically; and the almighty god may bestow upon you a long life; and that you may enjoy all happiness and peace, along with other members of your family.

Jetpur, 21-1-1915 (January 21.1915)                           

This week as we mark the birth anniversary of Gandhiji, it is interesting to discover how Mohandas became Mahatma Gandhi.

–Mamata

Motto: A Call to Action

A motto is a sentence, phrase, or word inscribed on something as appropriate to or indicative of its character or use’. It is a ‘short expression of a guiding principle’. A motto is official, like a logo or a statement, and an entity can have only one motto at a time (though they can and do change this over time).

Any entity can have a motto: a person, a country, a corporate, an educational institution, a non-profit.

Satyameva jayate
Satyameva jayate

India’s motto is Satayameva Jayata: Truth alone shall triumph. Some organs of the government have their own mottos too: The motto of our Supreme Court is: Yato Dharmastato Jayah. (Where there is righteousness (dharma), there is victory). The Indian Army: The safety,  honour and welfare of your country; Indian Air Force: Nabha sparsham Deeptam (Touch the sky with glory ); Indian Navy: Shaṁ No Varunah(May the Lord of Water be auspicious unto us).

Some interesting mottos of other countries are:

Truth prevails: Somewhat similar to India’s, this is the motto of the Czech Republic.

Janani Janmabhumishcha Swargadapi Gariyasi: Like India, Nepal’s motto is in Sanskrit, and means ‘Mother and motherland are greater than heaven’.

Rain: This is the motto of Botswana, and only one-word motto for a country. It pithily communicates the importance of rain for an agricultural county.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité: The motto of the French Revolution became the motto of two countries—France and Haiti.

In God we trust: This was taken as the motto of USA in 1956. Till then, the motto was ‘E pluribus unum’, meaning ‘Out of many, one’.

Some countries like the UK, China, Denmark, Bangladesh etc. have no official motto.

Business houses of course have mottoes too. Some are philosophical and conceptual, other very practical.

Tatas: Leadership with Trust.

Wipro: Applying thought

TCS: Experience certainty.

Reliance Industries: Growth is Life.

Non-profits convey their mission through the mottos:

Pratham: Every child in school and learning well.

Indian Red Cross Society: I Serve

Blind People’s Association: Touching People, Changing Lives

Adyar Cancer Institute: With Humanity and In Wisdom

Our educational institutions have profound mottoes too:

UGC: Gyan Vigyan Vimuktaye, meaning ‘knowledge liberates.’

IIM-A: Vidya Vinaygodhvikasah, meaning ‘development through the distribution or application of knowledge’.

IIT-B: Gyanam Marmam dhyatam, meaning ‘knowledge is the supreme goal.’

Delhi University: Nishta Drithiha Satyam: Dedication, steadfastness and truth.

Anna University: Progress through knowledge.

BITS Pilani: Gyanam Paramam Balam: Knowledge is the supreme power.

TISS: Re-imaging Futures.

There is not a motto of a country, an organization or institution which is not uplifting, elevating, noble. But sadly, I doubt if members of the entity even know or recall what their motto is. Maybe each organization needs to consciously set aside time on a regular basis to reflect, discuss and internalize how their motto should and can guide their day-to-day operations.  A motto can be an inspiration, a guide to action, something that conveys a mission, something that unites. It is a powerful way of bringing people together and inspiring them. But if they are left on paper, they are simply unreal statements of aspirational intent, rather than guiding principles.

–Meena

Giving Thanks

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift
.

Mary Oliver Contemporary American poet

As we look back into the tunnel of darkness that we are cautiously tiptoeing out of, one step at a time, the overwhelming emotion that many of us are experiencing, is that of thankfulness. We are grateful to be fortunate enough to have come out of a very dark and difficult period to face a new day.

The last year-and-a-half has led most of us to re-evaluate our life and our priorities. It has humbled us to be grateful for what we have, rather than always aspiring for what  we do not have. It has opened our senses and sensibilities to the smaller joys of living, and simply, just to count our blessings.

Well before the unprecedented pandemic taught us how to look for, and appreciate, the small rays of light in dark skies, wise people had recognised the power of gratitude. In 1965, during a Thanksgiving gathering at the International East-West Center in Hawaii, Sri Chinmoy, a spiritual leader and meditation teacher, had suggested that a day be designatedwhen the entire world came together for the message of thanks. After the meeting in Hawaii, many attendees began marking Gratitude Day in their own countries on the autumnal equinox in September. In the following years, Gratitude Day became bigger and bigger, and in 1977 the United Nations Meditation Group requested a formal resolution to give recognition for World Gratitude Day to be celebrated every year on 21 September.

The ideal of World Gratitude Day is to give people the opportunity to offer personal gratitude, but also to remember that gratitude is an essential emotion that should be universally shared.

While we usually think of giving thanks to people for all the happy things, we also need to think of situations and experiences that may have seemed difficult or painful, but that have taught us something, and made us wiser and stronger. This is a gift that makes us realise that no one person is an island, and that we are all interconnected in one way or another. Gratefulness shapes how we relate to each other, and to our circumstances. It stems out of generosity, compassion, and respect…towards those things that nurture peace.

Feeling and expressing gratitude imbues both the giver and the receiver with a sense of peace. When the emotion transcends the personal to embrace the universal, it could be the first step towards a peaceful global order. Perhaps this is what prompted the United Nations to also designate 21 September as the International Day of Peace–a day devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace. In a time when so many parts of the world continue to be ravaged by so much violence, in all its explicit and implicit forms, the theme for the United Nations International Day of Peace this year is “Recovering better for an equitable and sustainable world”. This reminds us to be grateful for what we may be fortunate to have, as individuals and as communities and nations, and to join hands for a world that is more equitable, inclusive, sustainable and healthy.

Human memory is short. Even as we rapidly try to regain the “old normal” and the climb back onto our treadmills and into the rat races, this is a good week to remind ourselves to give thanks for the new day, and all that it may bring. 

As the Sufi poet Rumi beautifully puts it:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

–Mamata

Poet with the Piercing Gaze: Subramania Bharathi

The image of Che Guevera, his hair flowing to the shoulders, eyes looking off-camera and a beret on his head, is the international image of revolution, of the oppressed fighting against the powerful, of idealism, of nobility.

No less iconic for Tamilians is the image of Subramania Bharathi, turban on the head with the end wound around his throat, a mustache, and eyes that seem to pierce into the soul. It stands for all of the above, and in addition, for sublime poetry and an idealistic vision for India.

Poet Subramania Bharathi
Mahakavi Bharathi

We mark a century of Mahakavi Subramania Bharathi’s passing this month. He died at the age of 39, tragically trampled to death by the elephant at the Parthasarathy Temple, Triplicane, Chennai. He used to feed the elephant regularly, and they were friends. But on that particular day, something went drastically wrong. His death, as his life, was completely out of the ordinary.

But he is very much alive today, a living tradition. The versatility of Bharathi’s composition is one reason—his songs of national pride, his songs of revolution and social change, of romance, of bhakti—there is something for every occasion.

There is no schoolchild in Tamilnadu who does not know his poems and writings. Not a musician—classical or light-classical or filmi or pop–who does not have a repertoire of Bharathi songs. Not a film-maker who has not used a song or at least a verse from one of his compositions at one time or the other. Not a Tamilian who has not been touched, moved, affected by his poems.

He was something of a child prodigy, being conferred the title of ‘Bharathi’—one who was blessed by the Goddess Saraswathi—at the age of 12, by the Raja of Ettayapuram, for his poetic genius.

He knew 14 languages, but chose to write in Tamil. He was a teacher, a journalist, a poet, a writer, a freedom fighter. He was deeply spiritual, delving deep into Hinduism. It is said that he adopted his trademark turban in admiration of the Sikhs.

The British Empire feared his pen so much that there was an arrest warrant out for him. He spent almost 10 years in exile in Pondicherry (a French territory), so escape imprisonment.

He was an ardent proponent of the emancipation of women, and advocated that they take their place shoulder to shoulder in the freedom struggle and in the development of the nation. In fact, traditional Madras of over a century ago was shocked and agog when he insisted on walking in public, holding hands with his wife!

Poetry in translation seldom works anywhere as well as the original. But even with that, a poet’s words speak louder than anyone else can, of his thoughts, ideas and ideals. So here is an excerpt from one of his most stirring songs:

‘With the name of Bharat Desh on our lips

Let us shake off our fears and poverty

And overcome our sorrows and enemies.

We shall stroll on the snow-clad silver heights of the Himalayas

Our ships shall sail across the high seas

We shall set up schools—scared temples for us.

We shall span the sea to reach Sri Lanka

And raise the level of the Sethu and pave a road on it

We shall water Central India with the bounteous rivers of Bengal.

We shall have such devices that sitting at Kanchi

We will listen to the discourses of scholars in Varanasi.

We shall make tools and weapons

We shall produce paper

We shall open factories and schools

We shall never be lazy or weary

We shall ever be generous

We shall always speak the truth.

Both scriptures and sciences we shall learn

The heavens and oceans we will explore

The mysteries of the moon we shall unravel

The art of street-sweeping too, we shall learn.’

Be inspired, be elevated. Listen to renditions of Bharathi even if you don’t understand the words. And do look out for translations of his work. This translation is from a 1984 publication brought out by NCERT, which also has a well put-together summary of his life. Proving once again that NCERT has done some wonderful work!

https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.231768/2015.231768.Poems-Subramania_djvu.txt)

–Meena

Fire Cat

Source: en.wikipedia.org

I first got acquainted with the Red Panda not in the lush forests of North East India but in the hot and arid environs of Gujarat. In fact, I shared office space with it in Sundarvan, the small-animal park in Ahmedabad, as I embarked on a new journey as an environmental educator. How it reached all the way across the country to live a solitary life surrounded by humans is a story that I cannot clearly recollect. But the memory of starting the day by seeing the quiet furry creature with its bright curious eyes is as clear as if it was just yesterday.

For most of us, the word Panda immediately conjures up the image of the teddy bear-like black and white animal that bears little resemblance to this cat-like animal with reddish brown fur and a bushy tail. That is because the Red Panda is not a panda at all!

Scientists have determined that although they share a habitat (and a love for bamboo) with the Giant Panda, Red Pandas are genetically closer to skunks and raccoons. Their taxonomic position has long been a subject of scientific debate. For many years, Red Pandas were classified as part of the Procyonidae family, which includes raccoons and their relatives. But DNA studies show that Red Pandas represent a unique family that diverged from the rest of the Carnivore Order, and taxonomists place them in their own unique family: Ailuridae. Red Pandas are the only living member of the Ailuridae family. Ailurus fulgens fulgens, the scientific name of this rare and beautiful species literally means ‘fire-coloured cat’.

While the word Panda is a misnomer, the adjective Red is an apt description of this animal which has thick reddish brown fur. While its body is the size of a large cat, its bushy tail, marked with alternating red and buff rings, is almost as long as its body. Red Pandas have large, round heads and short snouts with big, pointed ears. Their faces are white with reddish-brown ‘tear’ marks that extend from the eyes to the corner of the mouth. Dense fur completely covers their feet which have five, widely separated toes and semi-retractable claws.

Their form is beautifully adapted for life in the mountain forests which are home to these animals. They spend most of their time on trees—sheltering, feeding, and sunbathing in winter. The structure of the feet and extremely flexible ankles which can rotate 180 degrees, help them in adeptly climbing headfirst down tree trunks. A  special thumb-like wrist bone helps them get an extra grip when climbing.

The russet coat provides perfect camouflage among the clumps of reddish-brown moss and white lichens that cover the branches of the fir trees in which they dwell. The top cover of long coarse hairs, and the soft dense woolly undercoat provide a double layer of warmth. The long bushy tails which they curl around their body provide protection from the harsh winter winds. The tails also provide support and traction to these nimble arboreal acrobats. If a red panda starts to lean in one direction, it can swing its tail the opposite way to steady itself.

While different from their namesake in form and family, the one characteristic that the Giant Panda and the Red Panda share is that they are both bamboo eaters. But while Giant Pandas feed on all parts of the bamboo plant, Red Pandas feed selectively on the most nutritious leaf tips, and when available, tender shoots. Both pandas have a pseudo thumb, a modified wrist bone which helps to grasp the bamboo while feeding. In fact the name Panda is said to come from the Nepali word ponya, which means bamboo or plant eating animal. Bamboo is not a great food source for energy, and is hard to digest. In fact, Red Pandas digest only about 24 per cent of the bamboo they eat; so they need to eat 20 to 30 per cent of their body weight each day—about 1 to 2 kilograms of bamboo shoots and leaves. In one study, female Red Pandas were found to eat approximately 20,000 bamboo leaves in a single day. While bamboo constitutes about 95 per cent of the Red Panda’s diet, they may also forage for roots, succulent grasses, fruits, insects and grubs, and are known to occasionally kill and eat birds and small mammals.

Red Pandas are usually active at dawn and dusk, sleeping during the hottest part of the day. They begin their “day” by licking the front paws and then cleaning the fur all over the body in a cat-like, sitting posture in the tree; and then “washing” their face with fore and hind paws

Red pandas are solitary except during the breeding season. They scent-mark their territories using anal glands and urine, as well as scent glands located between their footpads. The scent is odourless to humans, but the Red Panda tests odours using the underside of its tongue, which has a cone-like structure for collecting liquid and bringing it close to a gland inside its mouth.

Red Pandas are generally quiet, but subtle vocalizations—such as squeals, twitters and ‘wha’ sounds—can be heard at close proximity. They may also hiss or grunt, and young cubs use a whistle, or high-pitched bleat, to signal distress.

It is the “wha” cry of the Red Panda which was the key identifying feature of this creature when it was first introduced in the Western world.  In 1821, the English naturalist Major General Thomas Hardwicke made a presentation on the creature at the Linnean Society in London. In his presentation titled Description of a new Genus of the Class Mammalia, from the Himalaya Chain of Hills Between Nepaul and the Snowy Mountains, he described this hitherto unknown creature and suggestedthat the animal be called a “wha,” because as he explained It is frequently discovered by its loud cry or call, resembling the word ‘Wha’, often repeating the same: hence is derived one of the local names by which it is known. But Hardwicke’s paper was not published till 1827 by which time the French zoologist Frederic Cuvier published a description of the species along with a drawing. He claimed it was the most beautiful animal he had ever seen and named it Ailurus (from the Greek word ailouros, which means cat, and fulgens, meaning fire-colored or shining. Thus the species was named Ailurus fulgens fulgens. 

In its Himalayan habitat, the animal is still known by its local names.  In Nepal, it is called bhalu biralo while the Sherpas call it ye niglva ponva or wah donka.

Red pandas live in high-altitude, temperate forests with bamboo understories in the Himalayas, and other high mountains in Asia. They range from northern Myanmar (Burma) to the west Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces of China. They are also found in suitable habitat in Nepal, India and Tibet. Scientists have now identified two sub species: Ailurus fulgens fulgens which lives predominantly in Nepal and can also be found in India and Bhutan, and Ailurus fulgens styani (or Ailurus fulgens refulgens) which is primarily found in China’s Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.  

Today this unique animal is endangered. As with most species in the wild, its habitat is under threat, with destruction of its nesting trees and food plants. The animals are often killed as they get caught in traps meant for other animals such as wild pigs and deer. They are also poached for their distinctive pelts. Conservation organisations are working with local communities to create awareness, and take steps to reduce the human threats to the fragile habitat of the beautiful fire cat which has its own special part in the web of life. The Red Panda Network, an international organisation focusing on this, encourages local people to become forest guardians to keep an eye on these creatures, track poachers, and replant bamboo in the forest.

18 September is marked as International Red Panda Day. A good time to learn about this Panda that isn’t a Panda!

–Mamata

Queue-jumping

Last week, newspapers in Bangalore were full of reports of a man who jumped a queue at a super-market. Happens every day, everywhere, right? So why did this hit the news? Well, a determined lady ahead of him in the queue stopped him and asked him not to break the queue. In response, he abused and manhandled her. Other customers stopped him. A police complaint was lodged and he was arrested.

Cover illustration: Nilofer Suleman

A sad commentary on the casual rule-breaking and the casual violence that pervades our lives. It sent me back to ‘The Good Indian’s Guide to Queue-jumping’ by V. Raghunathan (Harper Collins), to refresh my understanding of the phenomenon of queue-jumping. A whole book that deals with the sociology, psychology, and several other ‘ologies of the phenomenon! Fortunately, it also helped me smile a bit, even though the issue itself is disturbing.

To share a few insights from the book gleaned from research:

  • Research shows that more than half the time, queue-jumpers get away scot-free.  In only about 54% of the cases does anyone protest, and it is only 10% of the times that queue-jumpers are thrown out of the queue.
  • In most cases, the person protesting is the person immediately behind where the queue is broken. People further back in the queue don’t react much.
  • If the first and the second person behind the point of the queue breach don’t protest, there is 95% chance that the queue-jumper will get away with the it.
  • When someone gives a reason, however absurd, people are ready to let him or her get ahead of them in the queue.
  • When a single person breaks a queue, there was not much opposition. But when groups break queues, there is more likely to be resistance.
  • Different nations have different propensities for queuing and queue-jumping. The devotion of the English to queues is legendary. In fact, a popular saying is that if there is one Englishman, he will form a queue. Sadly, India is among the nations with a great propensity for queue-breaking.

Physically muscling in is not the only way to break queues. Here are some other ingenious ways to do it:

  • Use professional queuers: Yes, that is a profession! It is essentially a person who takes a payment to stand in a queue in your place. Remember the old days when we used to queue up for railway tickets? We used to often pay someone to do it. In some countries, there are agencies which will send people for this. In a variation of this, when some US states brought in a regulation that car-poolers would get access to fast-lanes, there were professional companions who would ride the car with you so you could join the fast-lane—essentially a form of queue-jumping.
  • Become a VIP: In India of course, it is not at all difficult to break a queue. Every official and politician with a light on their car to speed through traffic is essentially a queue-breaker. The practice, curbed by law is less prevalent today, but has not disappeared. But it’s not just on the road. You go to a government office, and someone who is ‘someone’ will cut in front of you. When you go to the hospital, a person wearing the hospital-employee tag will escort someone to the head of the queue, even as those have booked appointments wait. You go to get a vaccine, you will face the same. But we experienced the most ironical situation of all once when we were waiting to cast our votes on election day. A politician tried to cut-in in front of us. He was a candidate in that very same constituency. Democratic elections based on universal adult franchise are founded on the premise that we are all equal. But the politician-VIP obviously did not believe in this!
  • Pay to get fast-tracked: There are several instances where one can pay to jump to the head of the queue. Temples for instance have free queues, Rs. 100 queues, Rs. 500 queues etc.
  • Fake it till you make it: From across the world there are reports that more and more people citing illness or old-age use wheelchairs at airports, thereby cutting queues and getting express entry. Only to walk away briskly once they clear all the obstructions!

While many of us would hesitate to physically jump a queue, hand-on-heart we cannot say we have not used any of these other ingenious ways. Often we even convince ourselves that these are not instances of queue-jumping at all. But in our heart of hearts, we know they are!

To end on a lighter note, here is a story about the English: ‘During the London riots in August 2011, I witnessed looters forming an orderly queue to squeeze, one at a time, through the smashed window of a shop they were looting. They even did the ‘paranoid pantomime’, deterring potential queue-jumpers with disapproving frowns, pointed coughs and raised eyebrows. And it worked. Nobody jumped the queue. Even amid rioting and mayhem – and while committing a blatant crime – the unwritten laws of queuing can be ‘enforced’ by a raised eyebrow.’ Kate Fox (Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour).

–Meena