The Ship has Sailed

Last week I was reminiscing on my parents’ sojourn in London, and the similarities it held with the sojourn of an ex-PM (Dr. Manmohan Singh) and his family in the UK, around the same time.

Surprisingly, the similarities did not end there. Both families made their way back by sea, on the SS Chusan, a ship of the P&O Company (but at different times).

These days, one thinks of sea-travel in terms of expensive luxurious cruises. But I suspect that in the early ‘60s, it may have been comparative in price to the cost of air-tickets, with the added advantage that it was a great 2-week holiday, with the novelty of the shipboard experience and the possibility of seeing a few new countries on the way.

And indeed the shipboard experience was something that was special. As the book ‘Strictly Personal’ by Damam Singh, a memoir of the lives of Dr. Manmohan Singh and Mrs. Gurcharan Singh says, ‘The SS Chusan offered virtually all the comforts of the cruise. The ship had 464 first-class and 541 tourist class cabins that had only recently been fitted with air-conditioning.’

Of course the first days were horrific with sea sickness for some of the passengers, but the organized fun and frolic was something my parents had probably never experienced before. (I too was there, as evidenced by photographs, but can remember nothing!).  My brother however remembered a penny being pulled out his ear by a magician who was part of the shows put up for kids. There were a variety of shows, music, dancing and games for all age groups. For all of us, as for Mrs. Gurcharan Singh ‘it was like a fifteen-day carnival.’

Many aspects of shipboard life were very formal. For instance, children were not allowed into the dining rooms.  Dr. Manmohan Singh recalls: ’At mealtimes, we could not take Kiki into the dining room. We had to leave her in the nursery, and she used to cry and cry.’ I was quite a happy child, so my parents did not have this problem.

SS Chusan
Being coached by my brother on the deck to run a race!

The SS Chusan was rather a special ship. It was the last and largest ship built for the P&O Company’s Far Eastern Service. It was eqipped with the latest (for the time!) marine technology, and was the first ocean-going passenger ship to be fitted with anti-roll stabilizers (imagine how many more people would have been sea-sick without that!). She was launched in 1949, and was decommissioned in 1973.

Incidentally, P&O stands for ‘The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company’, which originally started in 1840. It is, even today, Britain’s biggest cruise line. But today, it declares that ‘We are a holiday company’—as different as can be from the services of yore used by middle-class professionals to commute from UK to India!

And if you have wondered why the names of ships are prefixed with some cryptic letters, well, these indicate the purpose or distinguishing characteristic of the boat. ‘SS’ stands for Steam Ship, or in more recent times, for ‘Single-screw ship’ which refers to the method of propulsion of the ship. Other prefixes include: FB for Fishing Boat; TS for Training Ship; RMS for Royal Mail Ship; MV for Merchant Ship; RV for Research Vehicle, etc.

I still wonder at the shared experiences of Indian families who went to the UK in the early ‘60s. Alas, there was no social media which could have helped them connect and share their experiences, learn from each other and make life a bit easier.

If that had been, who knows, we might have been old family friends of the ex-PM!


Carl Linnaeus: Giver of Names

May 22 marked the celebration of the International Day for Biological Diversity. What exactly does this term, or word Biodiversity mean? At the broadest level it refers to the variety among life forms. It describes not only the number but also the types and variety of living things. While there is a huge variety of sizes, structures and functions among living things, there are also sufficient similarities to permit their grouping together into orderly patterns.

This grouping is called classification. The science of classifying organisms is called taxonomy. When talking about taxonomy, the name that immediately comes to mind is that of Carl Linnaeus, who is most famous for creating a system of naming plants and animals—a system we still use today. But Carl Linnaeus was much more than just the ‘father of modern taxonomy’. He was a renowned botanist, physician and zoologist; a pioneer in the study of ecology, and one of the most influential scientists in history.

Carl Linnaeus was born on May 23, 1707, the eldest of five children, in a town called Råshult, in Sweden. His father Nils, was a minister and keen gardener. From the time Carl was very young, his father used to take him to the garden and teach him about plants. Carl observed his father in the garden, and was soon as excited and interested in plants. He began growing plants and by the age of five had his own little patch in the family’s large garden.

His father believed that the best thing he could offer his children was a solid education and, in addition to botany, he taught Carl Latin, as well as about religion at an early age. Nils also realized that his son was exceptionally bright, and engaged a private tutor for him; but the boy found the tutor very dull as compared to his own explorations in the garden and countryside. This aversion to formal education continued when he joined school at the age of ten, and Carl was an indifferent student. The teachers ignored his immense knowledge and interest in Botany because it was not considered a ‘proper’ subject, and as he was not interested in subjects like Hebrew, mathematics and theology, they advised that he was not bright enough to go to University. Only one of his teachers saw his potential and advised his father that the boy should apply for admission to medical school. He also coached him in anatomy and physiology.    

At the age of 21 Carl enrolled in Lund University under the Latin form of his name Carolus Linnaeus. This was a common practice for students in Europe at that time. After a year he switched to Uppsala University as he was told that the medical and botany courses there were better. While he was there Carl wrote up some of his observations on reproduction in plants which were of such a high standard that he was offered a post of Botany lecturer at the University. In 1731 Carl began teaching botany, at the age of 23. He was a good teacher and his lectures were popular with students. As he continued his own botanical studies, Carl found that the way in which plants were classified was not satisfactory. He started jotting down ideas about how this could be improved. Linnaeus realized that he needed a cataloguing system that was easily expandable and easy to reorganize; for this he started using cards, thereby inventing index cards!

In 1732 Carl got funding for a botanical expedition to Lapland, in the far north of Sweden. For 6 months he travelled 2000 km across Lapland making notes on the native plants and birds. At this time it occurred to him that there could be another way of naming plants. He replaced some very lengthy plant names with logical, much shorter, two-part names which consisted of a genus and a species name. The genus describes a larger grouping of organisms with certain common characteristics, while the species name describes only one, unique particular organism grouped within that genus, or larger classification. The names were in Latin because at that time, Latin was the language of science. Highly educated people of the period could all read and write in Latin which enabled them to share scientific information, regardless of their native tongue.  

Carl Linnaeus described his observations of plants along with the newly-coined names in a book called Flora Lapponica, including his new discoveries. He also realized that he could use his new system to name animals as well as plants.

In 1735, at the age of 28 Linnaeus was awarded a doctoral degree in medicine for his thesis on malaria and its causes from a University in the Netherlands. While he was there he showed his continuing work on the classification and renaming of plants to a Dutch botanist who was very excited by its potential to transform botany. He supported the publication of Carl’s work which was published in 1737 under the title Systema Naturae (System of Nature). The first edition had 12 outsize pages.

Over the years, Linnaeus continued to develop his ideas and add new species. In the tenth edition of Systema Naturae published in 1758, Linnaeus classified all the animal kingdom into genera and gave all the species two-part names. The twelfth edition had 2400 pages. During his career, Linnaeus named about 13,000 life forms and classified them into suitable categories such as mammals, birds, fish, primates, canines, etc.

Linnaeus returned to Sweden in 1738, becoming a physician in the nation’s capital city, Stockholm. He helped found the Royal Swedish Academy of Science and became its first president. In 1741, aged 34, Linnaeus returned to Uppsala University and became a full professor of medicine, taking control of botany, natural history and the university’s botanical garden. He also revived his childhood passion by taking his students on walking trips in the countryside searching for plants. In 1750, at the age of 43, Linnaeus was appointed as Uppsala University’s rector. Carolus Linnaeus was knighted by the King of Sweden in 1761 and took the nobleman’s name of Carl von Linné. He died at the age of 70, on 10 January 1778, after suffering a stroke.

Linnaeus was the first person to place humans in the primate family and to describe bats as mammals rather than birds. He did this with the same reasoning he used to categorize all life, which was based on similarities he identified between species. Human beings are also among the thousands of species that were given a name by Carl Linnaeus—Homo sapiens meaning ‘thinking man or wise man’!

Today as the world sees a steady decline in the numbers of species and a severe threat to global Biodiversity due to anthropogenic factors, one wonders if Carl Linnaeus would regret giving humans the title of ‘wise’!


A ‘Strictly Personal’ Common Experience

Recently I was reading ‘Strictly Personal’ an account of the lives of Dr. Manmohan Singh and Mrs. Gurcharan Singh, by their daughter Daman Singh.

The-then Mr. Manmohan Singh went to Oxford in the early ‘60s. He was joined in a few months by his wife and daughter. He was there for about 2 years. He was there to do his Ph.D

My father went to London in the early ‘60s, He was joined in a few months by his wife and children. He was there for about 2 years. He was deputed there by the Defence Research and Development Organization to train at the Royal Marsden Hospital, towards helping in the operationalization of the Institute of Nuclear Medicine and Allied Sciences (INMAS), which was to be involved in nuclear medicine research, and response to nuclear accidents and explosions.

What amazed me was the commonality between the experience that the book talks about, and the stories which are a part of my family history.

First and foremost, the travails of living on a very limited budget. It was literally hand-to-mouth! My mother recalls that at times, there were not enough pennies to put into the home-heater, and we all spent the day huddled in our woollies. The free milk that my brother and I were eligible for as children was a major saviour. It was not that the pay and allowances were so bad (they were not generous, but adequate). It was that they simply did not come for the first 3 months, till the bureaucratic wheels started moving. And even after, the money came in by fits and starts. One incident which was etched deep into my parents’ memories was a visit to Veerasway, UK’s oldest Indian restaurant. Yearning for other-than-home Indian food, they, with the two of us in tow, ventured in one day. Only to beat a hasty retreat on learning that the cover charge was £ 1 per head!

The book quotes Mrs, Singh as saying ‘We were quite hard up. I don’t know how many pounds a week we got. We had to survive within that. It was not a great, handsome scholarship.’

To the question ‘did you wear Western clothes?’ Mrs. Singh responds ‘No, no, no, never.’ But at least she may have worn salwar kameez. My poor mother stuck to saries through the freezing windy days, walking through hail and snow to the shops or to drop or pick up my brother from the school bus. I fully attribute her getting arthritis by the age of 35 to this exposure to the terrible cold and wet.

Food may have been a bigger problem for my strictly vegetarian family. My mother, on one of her initial trips to the super market, brought home margarine, which an English friend had suggested as a cheaper substitute for butter. It was only after her return home that she read the packaging and realized it was made from pork fat. The trauma stayed with her for life!

The Singhs lived in Oxford. Apart from one trip to London and one to Stratford-upon-Avon, they saw nothing of England. Maybe to that extent we were luckier. Living in London, we at least got to see the sights there—the few family pics taken with my father’s precious camera bought there show us at Trafalgar Square, outside the Buckingham Palace, the Tower, Westminster Abbey etc. The penguin show and the Chimpanzees’ Tea Party (discontinued in the ‘70s) were the highlights of the zoo visit.

The SInghs did not have a TV, and went to a neighbour’s to watch. We did have a television and the show that my parents talked about, which still sticks in my memory is ‘Saturday Night at the London Palladium’, a long-running variety show.

Peter Rabbit Milk Mug
My Peter Rabbit Milk Mug: A Precious Relic

Equally, the things they chose to buy and bring back. Both Mrs. Singh and my mother brought back Baby Belling ovens—a part of British history. The Belling company was established in 1912 and manufactured electric heaters. The first complete domestic electric cooker was made in 1919 and the first Baby Belling oven was manufactured in 1929. The company still exists but is not the gold standard for ovens that it obviously was in mid twentieth century. The other significant item to accompany the Singhs back were three saucepans. In my parents’ case, it was a mixie—a Braun Liquidizer, if I recall. This was my mother’s most precious possession. In fact, when a mischievous visiting child was on the verge of pushing it over, she caught the machine, and her hand was badly slashed, requiring stiches! Mrs. Singh’s oven served her for 3 decades, as did my mother’s mixie!

I think this would be the story of all professionals who went to the UK in those days. But interesting to see that a PM’s family and mine were in the same straits! (We were in other similar ‘straits’, more about which next week.)

In today’s world, all this sounds so strange! Life is so international today, our exposure is great, that nothing really comes as a surprise even when we go to the farthest part of the world. Purchasing power is not a problem, except maybe when there are threats of taxing international credit card payments. Not only are we more international in our eating, Indian food of every variety is available everywhere.

But how did they handle it back then—landing in a country familiar only through books, with few support systems or networks, with little money, inadequate warm clothes, unfamiliar food. They were certainly adventurous, maybe much more than we are today!


Rooh Afza: Soul Refresher

Last week Meena wrote about the thirst quenchers–sherbets and squashes that make the long Indian summers bearable. The famous Rooh Afza headed the list. Quite by coincidence, I recently read more about the interesting history of this sticky red drink that is a favourite of the Indian subcontinent.

Sharing the cool story for the long hot days.

The tale dates back to the early twentieth century and a Hakim named Hafiz Abdul Majeed. When he was very young Hafiz memorized the holy Quran and learnt the Persian language. He then went on to earn a degree in Unani medicine.

The Unani system follows the humoural theory which postulates the presence of four humours in the body: dam (blood), balgham (phlegm), safra (yellow bile) and sauda (black bile), a parallel to kapha, vata and pitta, the three doshas in Ayurveda. In the Unani system of medicine there are six basic factors which are considered essential for the maintenance of good health and prevention of diseases. These are: air, drinks and food, sleep and wakefulness, excretion and retention, physical activity and mental activity, and rest.

In 1906, Hakim Hafiz opened a clinic in the by-lanes of the old city of Delhi,  that was then undivided India’s capital. The clinic was to treat poor people based on the Unani system of medicine. He called his clinic Hamdard Dawakhana. Hamdard is a combination of two Persian words hum (used in the sense of ‘companion’) and dard (meaning ‘pain’). Hamdard thus stood for ‘a companion in pain’.

Hakim Hafiz also experimented with different herbs to create medicines. He was looking for something that could help in the treatment of heat stroke, dehydration and diarrhoea that were very common in the summer when the hot dry ‘loo’ wind blew cross the northern plains. He combined a number of ‘cooling’ ingredients (mainly herbs and fruits) to produce a thick red syrup which he believed would combat the effects of severe heat.

It is believed that the original formulation included the following:

Herbs: Purslane (luni-bhaji or kulfa seeds), chicory, wine-grape raisins (Vitis vinifera), white water lily (Nymphaea alba), blue star water lily (Nymphaea nouchali), lotus (Nelumbo nucifera), borage (starflower) and coriander.
Fruits: Orange, citron, pineapple, apple, berries, strawberry, raspberry, loganberry, blackberry, cherry, concord grapes, blackcurrant and watermelon
Vegetables: Spinach, carrot, mint and luffa gourd.
Flowers: Rose, kewra (Pandanus fascicularis), lemon and orange.
Roots: Vetiver (Chrysopogon zizanioides).

The story goes that when Hafiz made the concoction for the first time in 1907, the fragrance was so enticing that curious crowds collected. The entire first batch was sold within one hour. Soon it was not just the fragrance, but also the taste that became so popular that demand for this ‘herbal medicine’ soared. The Hakim gave his creation the name Rooh Afza which in Urdu literally means ‘something that refreshes the soul’. It also reflects the Hakim’s early exposure to Persian literature. Rooh Afza is the name of the daughter of King Firdaus (Heaven) in a book Masnavi Gulzar -e- Naseem.

As the popularity of the syrup grew beyond its medicinal uses to become a refreshing summer drink, the Hakim turned his attention to its marketing. In 1910 he took help of an artist Mirza Noor Ahmad to create a logo that integrated flowers, fruits and herbs in its design. The overlays of colour in the design could not be accurately printed in the printing presses in Delhi. So the printing of the labels was done by the Bolton Press run by Parsis in Bombay.

At that time, there was also no standard container for the syrup. Hakim’s Hamdard Dawakhana used old wine bottles of any size, colour and shape that were available for the other syrups. For Rooh Afza Hamdard started using white bottles of uniform size (750 ml) and shape which were called ‘Pole’ bottles. It became the first sherbet to be bottled in these bottles. It was also the first sherbet to be presented in a beautifully printed wrapper of butter paper.

In the early days the news of the product was spread through pamphlets that were literally thrown in the air for wide outreach.  With growing attention, Hamdard increased its marketing activity by advertising in national newspapers. By 1915 the drink became very popular well beyond Delhi as a thirst quencher and refresher.

Hakim Hafiz Abdul Majeed died in 1922 at the age of just 34 years. His sons were only 13 and 2 years old at the time. His widow Rabia Begum took charge of her husband’s Hamdard Dawakhana. But instead of running it as a private clinic she declared Hamdard as a Waqf or Islamic Charitable Trust, where the entire profits would be used for public welfare.

While Rooh Afza was initially prepared and bottled in a small kitchen, the growing demand required larger premises. A factory was set up in Daryaganj in Delhi in 1940, and his two sons managed the business. The Partition of the country in 1947 led to the parting of ways of the brothers. Abdul Majid’s eldest son Abdul Hamid remained in India and continued to manage Hamdard India. The younger son Hakeem Muhammad Saeed went to Pakistan in 1948, where he founded a clinic named Tibb-e-Unani in Karachi. This subsequently became Hamdard Pakistan. Both brothers continued to carry on the legacy left behind by their father. Rooh Afza has transcended political and geographical boundaries and continues to be a favourite in both countries.

Apart from the India and Pakistan, Hamdard also has a presence in Bangladesh. Hakim Saeed had opened a branch of Hamdard in what was then East Pakistan. After the creation of Bangladesh, instead of winding up the operations in the country, he gifted the plant to the people of Bangladesh to be run and managed by its workers.

In all the three countries, Hamdard is registered as Waqf (a Muslim endowment entity). It means it is a non-profit organisation under Islamic Law. In India, Rooh Afza sells close to 40 million bottles a year. Hamdard reinvests only 15 per cent of their profits in business and the rest is transferred to Hamdard National Foundation (HNF) which distributes it to different charitable organisations.

Rooh Afza—truly the refresher of the collective soul of the subcontinent! And a drink that triggers a kaleidoscope of personal memories for so many, across generations.


Sri Lanka by Tuktuk, with a Baby

My friend Sudha, her husband Gladson, and 2+ year old Evan, recently had a wonderful and off-beat holiday in Sri Lanka. In Sudha’s words….

Beauteous in grace and love,

Laden with grain and luscious fruit,

And fragrant flowers of radiant hue,

Giver of life and all good things.’

The words from the Sri Lankan national anthem resonated with me, as the train chugged along from Colombo to Hikkaduwa. We had chosen to travel in the A/C coach that was mostly filled with tourists, eagerly looking out the windows as the train chugged along the railway line that runs along the south coast. We passed charming railway stations, such as the one in Bentota, designed by the erstwhile Geoffrey Bawa- heralded as the father of the tropical modernist movement. From time to time, Evan, my two year old son Evan would shriek in excitement at passing trains: ‘Mama looook, Thomas the train’. 

Amidst the beauty of the coastal line, my mind meandered to what was to come. Was renting out a tuktuk – known commonly as three-wheeler in Sri Lanka – a good idea? My husband and I for years have been in the practice of renting out a motorcycle, no matter where in the world we were. But with a toddler in tow, a motorcycle was out of question. The more sensible and economical option was to rent a tuktuk and drive it oneself, which tourists in Sri Lanka are permitted to do.

Having enquired with many rental agencies online, we found a reasonably rated one in Hikkaduwa. The rental was going to cost us USD 10 per day which was a few dollars less than most agencies. We had to pay a deposit and an insurance amount before we took the vehicle for the stipulated period of 10 days.

We arrived in Hikkaduwa, which is one of the more expensive destinations along the south coast. The person-in-charge promised to hand over the tuktuk by 9 a.m. the next morning. 9 a.m. came and went, and he assured to meet us by afternoon. Hours later, we took custody of a blue tuktuk, that had in-built speakers. The exterior was customized with fun stickers and graffiti of the fictional pirate, Jack Sparrow. Having taken a short spin in it, my husband G and I started our journey to Tangalle as planned. Evan approved of the bright blue ‘toooktooook’, and couldn’t contain his excitement at the sight of his father riding it. 

We stopped for a late lunch ‘Dilshan Beachhouse & Cafe’ in Unnawatuna, a quaint beach town 40 minutes away. The scrumptious lunch was cooked by a young couple who have turned their little ancestral property into a beach side café. The husband, Dil, was a hardworking man who had dreamt of starting a cafe of his own ever since he worked in a restaurant washing dishes as a 20 year old. He mastered the art of cooking by simply observing the chef cooking elaborate seafood meals for hungry tourists.

Having eaten a satisfyingly good meal, we boarded the tuktuk and mentally prepared ourselves for the second half of the journey. G however found it impossible to start the tuktuk. Dil came over and lent a helping hand, but to no avail. Noticing the overcast skies, Dil called a few of his friends to help us. They pored over the engine and found nothing noticeably wrong. They then called over a mechanic friend, who found that the gear selector – which allows the vehicle to be put into different gears on a manual transmission – was broken. By this time, it had started to rain heavily. Gauging this was no ordinary situation, Dil’s wife proceeded to give Evan a tall glass of milk. She at first refused to charge us for it, but knowing how expensive milk is in Sri Lanka, we insisted on paying. When we offered to buy tea for the friends who continued examining the engine in the rain, they just refused and carried on with their work. 

Upon the mechanic’s suggestion that it would take an entire day to fix and cost around 10,000SLR (2360 INR), G called the vehicle’s owner. The latter insisted that it was our fault, despite the mechanic taking over the conversation and assuring him that it was a matter of gradual deterioration over weeks and days. The owner finally relented and agreed to bear the entire cost of repairs. But Dil and his friends were sceptical, saying he might go back on his word. G and I contemplated the pros and cons and decided to go ahead and fix the gear selector. My toddler and I proceeded to walk to a nearby guesthouse, run by an elderly woman, fondly called ‘Mama’, where we decided to book a room given the situation. Mama welcomed us and cooked Evan hot rice. In the meantime, G, Dil and the mechanic continued working on liaising with mechanics from nearby towns to get the replacement part. Having finalized the details, Dil dropped G off at the guesthouse way past bedtime. Dil would not agree to take any money for the all the time and effort he had put in to help us, and none of our protestations worked. 

The following morning, we visited Dallawella beach, renowned for the numerous sea turtles found on the shoreline. Our little one had the time of his life, watching the turtles swim and eat algae. ‘Mamaaa, Dadaaa OhMyGod, Looook’ he cried out excitedly, every few minutes.

By evening the tuktuk was in running condition, and true to Dil’s warning, the owner insisted we cover the cost. For years, we have been fully aware of the downside of renting a vehicle in any country as tourists, having heard tales of woe from fellow travellers. We considered ourselves lucky since we never experienced it – until NOW. But it was close to impossible for short term travellers to insist on being repaid since (a) You do not know who the owner of the vehicle rental maybe locally; (b) They have your passport in custody until you handover the vehicle; (c) With a toddler in tow, it probably isn’t prudent to get into fights. We decided to pay for it ourselves and carried on to Tangalle, 76 kms away.

20 minutes before reaching our hotel, the tuktuk abruptly stopped on the side of the highway. Thankfully a group of youngsters came forward to help G push the tuktuk to the side of the highway. Turns out that the mechanic who had assured G that there was enough fuel to reach Tangalle was wrong – rookie mistake. The youngsters immediately called a friend of theirs to take G to the nearby petrol bunk to fetch fuel in a bottle. I initiated a conversation with some of the young boys, and found that they too ran a café nearby. Intrigued, I jotted down the details and told G about it when he returned. We promised we would return to their beachside café the next day and left for the hotel.

The Tuktuk Gods however had one last surprise for us that day. Two cops on a motorcycle flagged us down and came over to tell G that our brake light wasn’t working and we needed to get it fixed. We thanked them for letting us know and promised to fix it. Turned out it was a matter of electrical earthing and didn’t cost us anything.

The following day, as promised we headed to the café run by the youngsters. The Top Surf was a charming café, with great food on an isolated stretch of beach accessible only to guests of an elite hotel. PERFECT! We spent the day snorkelling and unwinding.

The rest of our tuktuk journey was thankfully seamless. We spent idyllic days in beach towns such as Mirissa and Welligama, ate good seafood, snorkelled and spotted turtles. Our little one was smiling throughout the journey and woke up each morning saying, “Let’s GOOO, Mama,  Dada’. The beach road along the south coast of Sri Lanka is magnificent! Winding toll-free roads along the coastline, wild peacocks flying by, and people who are always willing to lend a helping hand. Overall, the journey was peaceful and accomplished what we were looking for – blissful days by the beach. 

Dil’s Cafe: 


Maryam the Mathematician

I often write about women in different time periods, who have struggled, against all odds, to break glass ceilings in numerous fields. Their stories continue to inspire and move us even today. This is a contemporary story of a young woman who scaled new heights in mathematics, in a short life.

Maryam Mirzakhani was born in Tehran, Iran, on 12 May 1977. Her father was an electrical engineer, and she grew up with three siblings. Her parents were always supportive of their children, and encouraged them to work towards something that would be meaningful and satisfying to them, rather than for what society would consider success and achievement. The nineteen-eighties were difficult years for growing up in Iran which was in the middle of the Iran-Iraq war. But Maryam was secure in the love of her family. She loved to read and wanted to become a writer. She would make up stories about a girl who achieved great things, like travelling the world. Science was not her first love; it was her older brother who gradually wakened the spark when he used to tell her what he had learned in school.

The war ended when Maryam finished elementary school, and she joined Farzanegan Middle School in Tehran where she met Roya Beheshti who became a close friend. The two shared an interest in reading and used to spend a lot of time going to bookstores and buying books. Their school which was administered by Iran’s National Organization for Development of Exceptional Talents, aimed to educate the brightest pupils, and the Principal and teachers of the school were keen that their students should get the same opportunities as would students in a boys’ school. 

Maryam did not do well in Mathematics in her first year at Farzanegan middle school. Her teacher told her that she was not particularly talented in that subject and Maryam lost interest and confidence in maths. However, in her second year she had a different mathematics teacher who encouraged her. This led Maryam, and Roya, to become excited and engaged with Mathematics.

When the two friends progressed to high school, they found a copy of six Mathematical Olympiad problems and Maryam managed to solve three of them. Encouraged by this, the girls asked their school principal if she could arrange for them to have mathematical problem-solving classes, as boy’s schools had for talented students. The principal was supportive, and classes were arranged for the girls. Later Maryam recalled that this positive mind set was a great influence in her life.

Both Maryam Mirzakhani and her friend Roya Beheshti made the Iranian Mathematical Olympiad team in 1994—the first girls to do so. The international competition was held that year in Hong Kong and Mirzakhani was awarded a gold medal, while Roya bagged the silver. The next year, Mirzakhani, still in high school, was a member of the Iranian Mathematical Olympiad team, and was once again awarded a gold medal in 1995.

In 1995 Maryam joined the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran to study mathematics. She enjoyed the problem-solving sessions and informal reading groups, and also the support and friendship of many professors and students who inspired her, and shared her growing excitement with mathematics. She published several papers while still an undergraduate. After obtaining her degree from Sharif University in 1999, Mirzakhani left for the United States to join graduate school at Harvard University. She earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 2004 for her 130-page thesis Simple Geodesics on Hyperbolic Surfaces and Volume of the Moduli Space of Curves. 

In 2004 she was offered a junior fellowship at Harvard, but turned down the offer. In the same year she was awarded a Clay Research Fellowship and was appointed as an Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Princeton University. This was a great opportunity for her. As she recalled: The Clay Fellowship gave me the freedom to think about harder problems, travel freely, and talk to other mathematicians. I am a slow thinker, and have to spend a lot of time before I can clean up my ideas and make progress. So I really appreciate that I didn’t have to write up my work in a rush.

The fellowship gave her the time to produce some brilliant papers. After completion of her Research Fellowship in 2008, Maryam moved to Stanford University where she was appointed as Professor of Mathematics in 2009. She was 31 years old. Maryam married a computer scientist Jan Vondrak whom she met while at Princeton, who also joined the faculty at Stanford in 2016. Their daughter Anahita was born in 2011. Maryam would spend hours at home with large sheets of paper sketching out ideas, diagrams and formulae; her young daughter would say “Mummy is painting again!”

When once asked what was the most rewarding part of her work Maryam said: Of course, the most rewarding part is the “Aha” moment, the excitement of discovery and enjoyment of understanding something new, the feeling of being on top of a hill, and having a clear view. But most of the time, doing mathematics for me is like being on a long hike with no trail and no end in sight! I find discussing mathematics with colleagues of different backgrounds one of the most productive ways of making progress.

Maryam’s work soon led to her receiving recognition and awards. The most significant was the Fields Medal that Maryam was awarded in 2014.

The Fields Medal, established in 1936, is often described as the Nobel Prize of mathematics. But unlike the Nobel Prizes, the Fields Medals for Mathematics are given only to people aged 40 or younger, not just to honour their accomplishments but also to predict future mathematical triumphs.

Maryam was the first woman, and the first Iranian to win this prize. It was presented to her at the International Congress of Mathematics, held in Seoul, South Korea on 13 August 2014. The award recognized Mirzakhani’s “outstanding contributions to the fields of geometry and dynamical systems, particularly in understanding the symmetry of curved surfaces, such as spheres, the surfaces of doughnuts and of hyperbolic objects”. 

Even before she got this award, Mirzakhani had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She continued her work, producing not only results of great significance but developing tools that would be used by other researchers in the field. The cancer spread to her liver and bones and she passed away in July 2017. Her death robbed mathematics of one of its brightest stars who, at the age of 40, was at the peak of her creativity.

The little girl who loved to read and to imagine, reached unimagined peaks in a subject that did not initially excite her. As she once said about the pursuit of mathematics: I don’t think that everyone should become a mathematician, but I do believe that many students don’t give mathematics a real chance. I did poorly in math for a couple of years in middle school; I was just not interested in thinking about it. I can see that without being excited mathematics can look pointless and cold. The beauty of mathematics only shows itself to more patient followers.

Described as one of the greatest mathematicians of her generation, several mathematics prizes have been named after her, including the Maryam Mirzakhani New Frontiers Prize to be awarded to outstanding young female researchers in the field of mathematics each year.

In 2020 Maryam Mirzakhani was named by UN Women as one of seven female scientists (dead or alive) who have shaped the world. 12 May, her birth anniversary, is now celebrated as International Women in Mathematics Day.


The Long Cold Drink

While the summer has been relatively mild, there is still that hot day when after a foray outdoors, one would give anything for a long, cold drink.

But which one?

Rooh Afza

A sharbat? Often called the world’s first soft drink (there are references from as far back as the 12th century), the sharbat probably has its origins in Persia. At least the word itself does, and means a sugar and water drink. It is made by combining fruit juices or extracts from flowers or herbs with sugar and water. India’s favourite sharbat is of course Rooh Afza which means ‘refresher of the soul’. It was formulated in 1906 by Hakim Hafiz Abdul Majeed based on a Unani formula, and contains cooling ingredients like rose. Manufactured by Hamdard (in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh!), this is had with either water or milk, and also poured on falooda and other summer-special sweets.

If you are in Tamilnadu, you can also sample a sharbat unique to those parts—the nanaari sharbat. This is made from the nannari root (Indian Sarsaparilla) which is an Ayurvedic herb. This too is supposed to have cooling properties and helps to prevent dehydration. It is not a taste everyone likes, but for those who do, it is summer’s nectar.

Or how about a squash? Kissan orange squash used to be the staple of our childhoods, a treat that usually was served when guests came around. Also available was lemon squash, and I think pineapple. Basically, a squash is a non-alcoholic drink, made from fruit juice (usually citrus fruits), water and sugar. Sometimes, food colouring and flavouring are added. Squashes are mixed with water or soda before drinking, or even with alcoholic beverages to make cocktails.

Kissan also used to have a lime cordial drink, which for some reason was more rarely bought by my mother. So of course it was something we all hankered after! But now I learn that there is no difference at all between the two! The term squash is used more in the UK, and cordial in the US. However, cordial can sometimes be used to denote an alcoholic beverage like a liqueur, while a squash is always non-alcoholic.

But as age catches up, sharbats and squashers which are super-high on sugar are something that one has to keep away from.

Well, juices I suppose can take their place. Juice can be freshly squeezed or out of bottles or cans. The latter variety may just be the juice canned in liquid form, or made from concentrate. Juice from concentrates is made from fresh fruits, only the water is removed from the fruit pulp. It is easier to transport, and when it reaches its destination, it is reconstituted with the same amount of water that was removed, and canned.

‘To juice or not to juice’ is an eternal controversy. Medical opinion holds that juicing is no healthier than eating whole fruits or veggies, as it is not easier to absorb nutrients from juices than the whole fruits. It is also not significantly less healthy, as most of the vitamins, minerals and plant chemicals come into the juice as well. The only loss may be of fiber, which is lost in the process. So you can guiltlessly drink juice and count it against your fruit/veggie quota, and feel cooler (pun intended) in the process.

And of course the ever-favourite desi options, of which lassi and buttermilk or chaas lead the pack. Lassi, popular in the North, is thick and hearty, and made by blending yogurt with sugar, flavourings, nuts etc. There is also of course the salted version. The ‘malai marke’ version can be a meal in itself!

The ‘chaash’ or ‘mooru’ popular in the West and South is the liquid left after churning butter. It is light and invariably salted, and seasoned with cumin, curry leaves, hing etc. It can be consumed by the gallons!

Nimbu shikanji is Indianized lemonade. It is like a lemonade but with the mandatory addition of shikanji masala which has roasted cumin powder, chaat masala, etc.

Then there is the Aam Panna made from raw green mangoes, sugar, and spices. Again a bit dicey for the amount of sugar needed (and no, substitutes don’t taste as good!).

Another delecious drink is panagam, popular in Tamilnadu. Made of jaggery and lemon juice, and seasoned with cardomom, it is traditionally made for Rama Navami. Sadly, it is forgotten for the rest of summer.

And how can I end without a reference to jigarthanda, the drink of the city of my birth, Madurai? It means something like ‘cool heart’ and obviously is an import from the North. It is made of milk, almond gum, sarsaparilla root,  sugar and ice cream.  Madurai has much to offer visitors, from temples to bazaars. But a visit, especially in summer, would not be complete without a jigarthanda from one of several stalls, all of which of course claim to be the ‘original’!

Whatever your choice, stay cool!


Henry Dunant: The Man Behind the Red Cross

The words Red Cross literally, and immediately, bring to the mind’s eye the image of the red cross on a white background. This has become a universal symbol of humanitarian help and healing wherever there is a situation of war, natural or man-made calamity. The history of what has, for over a century been an international movement can be traced back to a much earlier war, and to the humanitarian vision of a businessman named Henry Dunant.

Photo source:

Henry Dunant was born on May 8, 1828 in Geneva in a Swiss family that was religious and civic-minded. Henry himself, in this youth, was closely involved with the Young Men’s Christian Association. After he completed school he was initially apprenticed to a Swiss bank. When he was twenty-six he joined as a representative of a company that had commercial interests in Swiss colonies in North Africa.

As part of his work Dunant travelled to Algeria to take charge of the Swiss colony of Setif. While he was there he attempted to become an independent entrepreneur and set up a wheat mill. For this he needed a large tract of land and water rights for the same from Napoleon III. Napoleon was at the time headquartered near the northern Italian town of Solferino, directing the French and Italian armies in the battles to drive the Austrians out of Italy. Dunant arrived in Solferino in time to witness one of the bloodiest battles of the nineteenth century. On that memorable twenty-fourth of June 1859, more than 300,000 men stood facing each other; the battle line was five leagues long, and the fighting continued for more than fifteen hours.

Dunant was also witness to the horrific aftermath of the battle which left behind hundreds badly wounded and dying without any kind of help. Dunant was deeply moved by his experience. He wrote about it and published a small book titled Un Souvenir de Solferino (A Memory of Solferino). He began the book with these words: I was a mere tourist, with no part whatever, in this great conflict; but it was my rare privilege, through an unusual train of circumstances, to witness the moving scenes that I have resolved to describe.

The book, published in 1862 had three parts. The first described the battle itself. The second described the battlefield after the fighting: chaotic disorder, despair unspeakable, and misery of every kind. It also described all the efforts to care for the wounded in the small town of Castiglione. The third section proposed a plan. It suggested that the nations of the world should form relief societies to provide care for the wartime wounded; each society should be sponsored by a governing board composed of the nation’s leading figures, should appeal to everyone to volunteer, and should train these volunteers to aid the wounded on the battlefield, and to care for them later until they recovered.

As he wrote: But why have I told of all these scenes of pain and distress, and perhaps aroused painful emotions in my readers? Why have I lingered with seeming complacency over lamentable pictures, tracing their details with what may appear desperate fidelity? It is a natural question. Perhaps I might answer it by another: Would it not be possible, in time of peace and quiet, to form relief societies for the purpose of having care given to the wounded in wartime by zealous, devoted and thoroughly qualified volunteers?

This report shook the whole of Europe. What was unusual about it was that rather than being just a reporting of the battle, Dunant also provided ideas and proposals aimed at preventing a repetition of the horrifying happenings in Solferino.

His two main proposals were: i.That countries adopt an international agreement, which would recognise the status of medical services and of the wounded on the battlefield. ii. The creation of national relief societies, made up of volunteers, trained in peacetime to provide neutral and impartial help to relieve suffering in times of war.

In response to this, on 7 February 1863, the Geneva Society for Public Welfare appointed the International Committee for the Relief of the Wounded, a committee of five people, to find ways to put the plan into action. The committee consisted of the banker Gustave Moynier, the general Guillaume-Henri Dufour, as well as the doctors Louis Appia and Théodore Maunoir, along with Henry Dunant. Dunant, poured his own money and time into the cause, travelled over most of Europe to meet governments and convince them to send representatives to a conference which would develop the plan of action. The founding charter of what was to become the International Red Cross Movement was drawn up in 1863.

An international conference was held from 26 to 29 October 1863; it included delegates from sixteen nations. The result of the conference was an international treaty with ten articles that were signed by twelve nations on 22 August 1864. This became known as The Geneva Convention. The Treaty guaranteed neutrality to sanitary personnel and protection of sanitary establishments, guaranteed free access for such personnel to grant material assistance.

The Convention also adopted a special identifying emblem. A red cross on white base was selected as a recognition and protection sign. It was the reverse of the Swiss Federal colours and was selected in honour of the Swiss origin of the initiative to provide humanitarian assistance in times of armed conflict.

While Dunant was putting all is time and resources in making his humanitarian dream a reality, his personal and professional life went into a steep decline. His business ventures failed and he became bankrupt; he was also cast out by the Geneva society of which he was once a part; he was penniless and unmoored. In September 1867 he resigned from his post as secretary, as well as member of the International Committee.

For the next 20 years from 1875-1895 Dunant became a wandering recluse, living on charity. In 1887 he ended up in a small Swiss village where he fell ill and found refuge in the local hospice where he spent the remaining years of his life. In the meanwhile he was almost forgotten, and even presumed dead, until a journalist discovered him in 1895 and wrote an article about him. The article was printed all over Europe. Henri Dunant was rediscovered by the world.

In 1901, Dunant was awarded the first-ever Nobel Peace Prize for his role in founding the International Red Cross Movement and initiating the Geneva Convention. The prize was divided equally between Jean Henry Dunant “for his humanitarian efforts to help wounded soldiers and create international understanding” and Frédéric Passy “for his lifelong work for international peace conferences, diplomacy and arbitration”.

Despite the prizes and honours Dunant continued to live in his one room in the hospice until he died in 1910, and as per his wishes, there was no funeral ceremony.

Henry Dunant’s vision and creation of the worldwide movement continue to be play a critical part, in a world that is conflict-torn even today, helping people in need during armed conflict, natural disasters and other emergencies. The movement’s ethics are based on seven Fundamental Principles: Humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality.

May 8 is marked as Red Cross Day in memory of the contribution of Henry Dunant to building this international Movement, and to celebrate these principles.


No Regrets

What is regret? ‘A feeling of sadness, repentance, or disappointment over an occurrence or something that one has done or failed to do’, the dictionary tells us.

All of us have felt/feel/will feel regret. But few of us pause to think about it. Daniel Pink is one person who did. And came out with the book ‘The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward’ a New York Times bestseller, like four of his previous books.

Pink did a survey covering over 16,000 people from across more than 100 countries, and created a database of their top-most regrets.

And found a pattern. All regrets fell into one of four categories:

‘1. Foundation Regrets. These regrets stem from failures to be responsible, hard working, or prudent.  They are typically articulated as ‘If only I had done the work’ or ‘If only I had been a little more careful.’ Finance and health related regrets mainly fall in this category.

2. Boldness Regrets. The survey found that most people regret inaction–about double the number of people regret not taking action, rather than taking one. This is about the chances or opportunities that one missed taking. For instance, not taking that admission in a foreign university, not starting a business, not buying that dream house, or marrying a true love. These regrets sound like ‘If only I had taken that chance.’

3. Connection Regrets. These regrets happen when we don’t keep in touch or are on bad terms with people who matter to us, and make up the largest category. If the thought ‘If only I had reached out’ is on your mind, you are suffering this type of regret.

4. Moral Regrets. This category of regrets had the smallest number of responses but were probably the most painful to the person concerned. These regrets are about making the less ethical choice when faced with a decision. This is the type of regret when you agonize: ‘If only I had done the right thing.’’

I did try to think through my regrets, and can’t say I have been able to find one that is out of these four categories!

Pink also suggests some ways we can overcome these regrets, and as importantly, learn and build on them. Some of these suggestions include:

·      Apologize, try to make amends and repair the damage.

·      It is sometimes not too late, so take action now. For instance, if you regret that you did not pursue your passion for music in your youth, maybe it is not too late even now.

·      Find the silver lining, ie., try to think of how the situation may have turned out worse than the current situation.

·      Distance yourself—one has to let go of what is done and over and cannot be undone. No point in agonizing over it forever. We have to find ways to cut off.

·      Self-compassion, ie., not flogging oneself forever for something.

The most important thing however, is to consciously revisit one’s regrets and analyse them and use them as a basis when making significant decisions in the present and future. This can probably improve the quality of our decisions.

The survey of regrets is open, and one can both take the survey and visit the database. If anyone needs convincing on the commonality of the human experience, a browse through the database will do it!

And to end, a poem on regret by Robert Burns, which is profound lesson on how to live so we don’t regret the world we are passing on to the next generation:

To a Mouse, On Turning Her up in Her Nest with the Plough

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion,
Has broken nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An’ fellow-mortal …

November 1785.


April Blooms

In the month of April, as our Indian spring advances into the long and blazing hot summer, we have been witness to a variety of showers. These are the copious shedding of flowers from the profusely blooming trees that, in a beautiful sequence of blossoming, are heralding the change in seasons.

The first colours to touch the magnificent canvas were the exquisite pink-mauve hues of the Tabebuia rosea tree. This is the Rosy trumpet or Tecoma pink tree which is appropriately called Basant Rani (Queen of Spring) in Hindi. Almost overnight, the nearly leafless tree exploded into a profusion of pinkish- white trumpet-like flowers that literally wrapped the tree in a frothy cloud. Cities like Bangalore reveled in the sight of the avenues of these rosy ranis, while in my city we had to make do with a chance sighting of one of the few and scattered specimens of Tabebuia. I had the privilege of enjoying this beautiful sight of the single tree on my morning walk route. The glory was short-lived. Almost as quickly as it burst into blossom, the tree shed its flowers, overnight carpeting the area under the canopy with the delicate and faded flowers. One morning we were feasting on the full canopy, and the next morning there was nothing left on the tree but bare branches. The first delicate hues had been transferred to the canvas of summer.

It was time to add more shades to the palette. It was the turn of the tiny eggshell-white neem flowers, and the slighter larger ivory karanj flowers to make their appearance. These emerged coyly amid the fresh foliage on their parent plants. The incredible shades of green, that defied definition or description, merged flawlessly with the blossoms. But while the leaves clung on firmly, the flowers, having played their brief but vital part in interaction with the birds and bees who thronged to feast on the nectar, began their graceful descent from the canopies, and carpeted the ground below. The neem flowers merged with the soil silently and unobtrusively. The karanj flowers made their presence felt with a crunch crunch sound when trod upon. The white faded from the canvas, even as the leaves took on deeper and darker shades of green.

As the summer sun gets stronger and the heat builds up, it is time for the palette to become more vibrant and vivid.  

The first splash of colour is golden yellow. The Indian laburnum or Golden Shower tree is in bloom. Its masses of yellow blossoms cascade from the tree like waterfalls of molten gold. This usually nondescript tree starts with sprouting green-copper coloured leaves which are soon all but hidden in the mass of sprays of golden flowers.  In the scorching sun, the blooming flowers are a magnet for a wide range of insects and birds which are important pollinating agents. The splash of gold shines and shimmers for a few weeks, but as the heat intensifies, the gold seems to gradually lose its gloss, and the hanging blossoms gently float to the ground to further fade as they prepare to merge with the earth.

As one yellow begins to fade, the palette is already being prepared with a more vibrant shade of yellow. It is time for the Copper Pod tree to enter the stage. With its wide spreading crown of many branches already covered in rich dark green feathery leaves, the contrast made by its turmeric yellow flowers is stunning against the pre-dawn grey sky. Unlike the flowers of the laburnum that cascade downwards in long clusters, the flowers of this tree bloom as dense bunches on long upright stalks at the ends of the branches. Individual flowers are small and delicate and have brown lines at the base of the petals.

It is these flowers that give the tree its other names like Yellow Flamboyant or Yellow Flame tree. It is also often called Peltophorum which is part of its botanical name Peltophorum pterocarpum. The name Copper Pod is derived from its fruit pods which are coppery brown at first and later become dark brown. The pods are 5-10 cm long and 2.5 cm broad with one or two seeds within. The shield-shaped pods give it yet another name of Rusty Shield bearer.

By whatever name we may choose to call it, this flamboyant tree is a great favourite for a wide variety of birds who use its abundant canopy for nesting, and who fill the air with an orchestra of calls with the break of dawn. They are joined by the silent activity of bats, squirrels and garden lizards who go about their business in the company of their feathered friends.  

Even as the old flowers turn into pods, new flowers continue to bloom, as well as shed. The fallen flowers form a molten pool at its base. Unlike the laburnum, the flowers do not fade as they dry, and continue to attract attention even after they have left their lush green abode and travelled down to the earth.

With the swirling, sweeping brush strokes continuing to fill the canvas, it is time for the palette to ready the rich oranges and reds that will put the crowning strokes. The Gulmohar is ready to take the stage.

An elegant wide-spreading tree with delicate, fern-like leaves explodes in a riot of flame-red flowers. It really looks as if the tree is afire. Up close, each flower is made up of four spoon-shaped spreading petals which are a combination of scarlet and orange-red, and one upright petal which is marked with yellow and white. The flowers blend gracefully with the foliage making a breath-taking sight that stands out not only against the lightening early morning and darkening late evening sky, but equally in the yellow-white haze of the midday sun. The flowers drift to the ground, not as the downpours of the other trees, but sprinkle the earth with a delicate pattern in shades of crimson and scarlet.

Nature’s palette has artfully mixed and matched hues and shades, light and shadow, form and function. The Indian summer masterpiece is complete!