The Madness in the Method

A recent piece by one of my favourite columnists bemoaned the fact that there is increasingly reduced use of physical dictionaries because of instant and easy access to online dictionaries.

It made me feel a bit guilty as I have begun to succumb to the same short cut, but I still keep my trusty Concise Oxford Dictionary and my bilingual dictionary within hand’s reach on my table, and yes, I do look up words from these tomes. As my erstwhile colleagues may recall, the COD was a permanent fixture on my desk at work. This old friend continues to give me a sense of familiar comfort, as well as continuity in my work and play with words.

While COD is the friendly go-to dictionary, it is the Oxford English Dictionary or OED, which is widely regarded as the accepted authority on the English language. The OED today, is an unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of 600,000 words, past and present, from across the English-speaking world. It contains not only not only present-day meanings, but also the history of individual words from over 1000 years of the English language, traced through 3 million quotations from a wide range of sources, from classic literature to cookery books.

What is equally fascinating is the history of the early development of the OED.

Until the 19th century, the English language did not have a complete dictionary. In 1857 the members of the Philological Society of London decided that it was time for a complete re-examination of the language, and embarked on an ambitious project to compile a comprehensive compendium of the English language.

The new dictionary was planned as a four-volume, 6,400-page work that would include all English language vocabulary from the Early Middle English period (1150 AD) onward, plus some earlier words if they had continued to be used into Middle English. It was estimated that the project would be finished in approximately ten years. However, no one realized the full extent of the work, or how long it would take to achieve the final result. After the first grand announcement, the project took a while to take off. And five years after it was launched the editors had only reached as far as the word ‘ant’.

Then in 1879 James Murray a little known school teacher and philologist was given the editorship of this challenging project. His first task was to advertise in all the leading newspapers of the day that the project was looking for ‘volunteers’ in the English-speaking world to send him quotations which would show how the meanings of words had changed over time.

This early experiment in crowdsourcing attracted many volunteers. The most prolific and systematic contributor was a man called Dr William Chester Minor. He regularly sent in meticulously detailed slips tracing the etymology of words, accompanied by relevant examples and quotations. The return address on his letters read simply: Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire.

For almost a decade, Murray assumed that his favourite volunteer was a reclusive doctor of literary tastes with a good deal of leisure. Then, by chance, Murray discovered that Minor was a murderer who had been committed to the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, which was less than 40 miles from Oxford where Murray was based. In 1891, ten years after they had started corresponding, Murray visited Broadmoor and met Minor. This was the start of a close friendship between the two men that continued for the next twenty years. And one that enriched the OED immeasurably.

Minor’s own story was tragic, as well as inspiring. Born in America, he qualified as a surgeon and joined the Union Army just before the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. After being released from the Army, Minor left for London in 1871 with his books and paints in the hopes of starting a new and more peaceful life. However the war experiences left deep scars on the sensitive and clever young man. He became delusional and paranoid. In one such moment he unintentionally shot a man and killed him.

Minor’s ‘insanity’ plea helped him to avoid going to prison. But he was incarcerated in the Broadmoor mental asylum in 1872. He was a well-behaved, quiet, scholarly inmate. With the approval of the asylum authorities, and using his US army pension he managed to accumulate and build a library of rare and antique books in his cell. It was this collection that provided the useful information about nearly 10,000 words, and examples of their usage, which he shared with Murray. The subsequent close friendship between the two which was marked by a common love for words and their history, scholarship, mutual respect and drive, was crucial in the compilation of the OED–the last word on words for over a century.

Murray acknowledged Minor’s invaluable contribution when in 1899 he said “we could easily illustrate the last four centuries from his quotations alone.” Murray also petitioned tirelessly for the release of his friend arguing that a mental asylum was no place for a man of his intellectual calibre. Sadly, Minor’s mental condition deteriorated. Finally he was released, and died in obscurity at his home in 1920.

The two men who gave half their lives to a project of unprecedented historical and cultural importance, did not live to see the publication of their magnum opus. It took roughly forty years for the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary to be completed.

So it was, the story that made the words, rather than the words that made the story!

–Mamata

A-Rated History

I am living in 40 BC. Or the 13th, or 15th, or the 18th century. Really depends on which series I am watching at the moment. And my favourite ones are all set way, way back.

And boy, am I learning! Whether it is the Roman Empire, or the Mongols, or the Medicis, or South America, here is the most interesting way to get a feel of the time, the place, the world-changing events. Fully of course realizing that as per reviews (and my own shaky knowledge of history), these series range in accuracy from about 80% (Boilvar), to about 30% (Marco Polo). But I suppose it is up to me to read more authentic scholarly accounts and get my facts straight. I have started on Marco Polo: The Travels. But that, I suppose is not really very factual either. Marco Polo and his co-author have reports on the most fantastical things, whose authenticity is very much in doubt. But nevertheless the television series got me eager to read it.

The point I am coming around to is that this may be the best way to get young people interested in history. Just as David Attenborough and Jacques Cousteau used television and film to bring nature into the house, and thus awaken a whole generation to interest in the environment, here is an opportunity to do the same with history.

And there are several, several such popular serials which can lend themselves to this. My question is: why are they made such that the 13 and 14-year olds who I really feel would be inspired by them, cannot watch them? I understand the Romans had their orgies, the Mongols their harems, and all of them their bloody wars and brutality. But is there no way to bring them into the family room to be family watching? Surely, there can be a way to avoid so much frontal nudity, explicit sex and the level of gore that is shown. Creative film-making is about that!

This is not a plea for censorship. It is to only reiterate that more than soap-value, these topics have educational value. And as an educator, it saddens me when the opportunity is missed. Billions of dollars and so much creative talent spent. But no teacher dealing with these topics in classroom can prescribe these as required watching. Because of the nudity, sex, strong language, drug use and violence, they are not rated for this age group.

If producers feel that their core audience is not this age group, and only putting in a lot of this will bring in the audience and generate revenues, maybe expurgated student-friendly versions available in the daytime?

There MUST be a way around. Surely technology can find a fix!

–Meena

UN at 75: 24 October–UN Day

Way back when we were at school, there used to be a competition on UN Awareness for middle and high school students. I can’t recall much about it, but I do know a few basic things about the UN, which I am sure come from preparing for these tests. If I search hard enough, I may even find a certificate or two in my old papers.

No doubt the UN and the international order are in a shambles. To take just the example of the Corona crisis, the world should have been looking to the UN system and WHO in particular for balanced medical opinions, sage policy guidance, clear action guidelines, and strong leadership for international cooperation. We haven’t seen much of that.

But that is not to say that the UN does not have a major role to play. In fact, in an increasingly complex and interconnected world, it HAS to pull up its socks and take charge. And just to remind ourselves of the UN, its role and functions, here is a quick primer— I might have put together something like this to prepare for my competition tests all those decades ago.

Warning: Beyond the first 500 words, it is probably of interest only to those preparing for such exams!

The United Nations is an international organization founded in 1945, when representatives of 50 countries met in San Francisco at the United Nations Conference on International Organization, to draw up the United Nations Charter. This was signed on 26 June, 1945 by representatives of the 50 countries. Poland which was not present at the Conference, signed it later and became one of the original member states. The UN officially came into existence on 24 October 1945, when the Charter was ratified.

Interestingly, while in principle, only sovereign states can become UN members, four of the original members—India, Belarus, the Philippines and Ukraine– were not independent at the time of their admission. Giriaj Shankar Bajpai, the Indian Agent-General, signed the original Declaration by United Nations in 1942, while Sir A. Ramaswamy Mudaliar, who headed the Indian delegation to the Conference, signed the Charter itself on behalf of India.

Sir Ramaswamy Mudaliar addressing the UN

So technically, India was a founding member of the UN despite it being a British colony. Along with India, other British colonies Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia were given independent seats in the United Nations General Assembly at that stage itself. The UN is currently made up of 193 Member States. 

The basic mandate of the UN is to:

  • Maintain International Peace and Security
  • Protect Human Rights
  • Deliver Humanitarian Aid
  • Promote Sustainable Development
  • Uphold International Law.

The main organs of the UN are the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council, the International Court of Justice, and the UN Secretariat.  All of these were established when the UN was founded. In addition, it has many programmes, funds, and specialized agencies.

Here is a quick look at some UN agencies we often hear about. And some, frankly, that I never knew existed!

Programmes and Funds

UNDP: United Nations Development Programme works to eradicate poverty, reduce inequalities and build resilience so countries can sustain progress. UNDP plays a critical role in helping countries achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

UNEP: United Nations Environment Programme acts as a catalyst, advocate, educator and facilitator to promote the wise use and sustainable development of the global environment.

UNFPA: United Nations Population Fund is the lead UN agency for delivering a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every birth is safe, and every young person’s potential is fulfilled.

UN-Habitat: United Nations Human Settlements Programme has the mission to promote socially and environmentally sustainable human settlements development and the achievement of adequate shelter for all.

UNICEF: Works to save children’s lives, to defend their rights, and to help them fulfil their potential, from early childhood through adolescence.

WFP: World Food Programme aims to eradicate hunger and malnutrition.  It is the world’s largest humanitarian agency. Every year, the programme feeds almost 80 million people in around 75 countries.

UN Specialized Agencies

FAO: Food and Agriculture Organization leads international efforts to fight hunger.

ICAO: International Civil Aviation Organization develops standards for global air transport and assists its 192 Member States in sharing the world’s skies to their socio-economic benefit.

IFAD: International Fund for Agricultural Development focusses exclusively on rural poverty reduction, working with poor rural populations in developing countries to eliminate poverty, hunger and malnutrition; raise their productivity and incomes; and improve the quality of their lives.

ILO: International Labor Organization promotes international labor rights by formulating international standards on the freedom to associate, collective bargaining, the abolition of forced labor, and equality of opportunity and treatment.

IMF: International Monetary Fund fosters economic growth and employment by providing temporary financial assistance to countries to help ease balance of payments adjustment and technical assistance.

IMO: International Maritime Organization has created a comprehensive shipping regulatory framework, addressing safety and environmental concerns, legal matters, technical cooperation, security, and efficiency.

ITU: International Telecommunication Union is a specialized agency for information and communication technologies. It is committed to connecting all the world’s people.

UNESCO: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization focuses on helping improve education worldwide to protecting important historical and cultural sites around the world.

UNIDO: United Nations Industrial Development Organization promotes industrial development for poverty reduction, inclusive globalization and environmental sustainability.

UNWTO: World Tourism Organization is responsible for the promotion of responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism.

UPU: Universal Postal Union is the primary forum for cooperation between postal sector players.

WHO: World Health Organization is the directing and coordinating authority on international health with the objective of attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health.

WIPO: World Intellectual Property Organization protects intellectual property throughout the world.

WMO: World Meteorological Organization facilitates the free international exchange of meteorological data and information and the furtherance of its use in aviation, shipping, security, and agriculture, etc.

World Bank: It focuses on poverty reduction and the improvement of living standards worldwide by providing low-interest loans, interest-free credit, and grants to developing countries for education, health, infrastructure, and communications, among other things. There are several specialized agencies as part of the World Bank Group.

Other Entities and Bodies

UNAIDS: Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) leads and inspires the world to achieve its shared vision of zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths.

UNHCR: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees protects refugees worldwide and facilitates their return home or resettlement.

UNIDIR: United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research generates ideas and promotes action on disarmament and security.

UNITAR: United Nations Institute for Training and Research is a training arm of the United Nations System, and has the mandate to enhance the effectiveness of the UN through diplomatic training, and to increase the impact of national actions through public awareness-raising, education and training of public policy officials. 

UNOPS: United Nations Office for Project Services helps people build better lives and help countries achieve peace and sustainable development.

UNRWA: United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees contributes to the welfare and human development of Palestine refugees.

UNSSC: United Nations System Staff College is the learning organization of the United Nations system. It designs and delivers learning programmes for staff of the UN system and its partners.

UNU: United Nations University has the mandate to conduct “research into the pressing global problems of human survival, development and welfare.”

UN Women: It merges and builds on the important work of four previously distinct parts of the UN system, which focus exclusively on gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Related Organizations

CTBTO: Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization promotes the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty and the build-up of the verification regime so that it is operational when the Treaty enters into force.

IAEA: International Atomic Energy Agency, is the world’s centre for cooperation in the nuclear field. The Agency works with its Member States and multiple partners worldwide to promote the safe, secure and peaceful use of nuclear technologies.

IOM: International Organization for Migration works to help ensure the orderly and humane management of migration, to promote international cooperation on migration issues, to assist in the search for practical solutions to migration problems and to provide humanitarian assistance to migrants in need, including refugees and internally displaced people.

OPCW: Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is the implementing body of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which entered into force in 1997. OPCW Member States work together to achieve a world free of chemical weapons.

UNFCCC: UNFCCC Secretariat (UN Climate Change) was established in 1992 when countries adopted the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and is tasked with supporting the global response to the threat of climate change.

WTO:  World Trade Organization is a forum for governments to negotiate trade agreements, and a place where member governments try to sort out the trade problems they face with each other.

ITC: International Trade Centre is the only development agency that is fully dedicated to supporting the internationalization of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). 

–Meena

Main source: https://www.un.org

Sankofa

A few days ago my niece asked if, in India, we had a concept or symbol similar to that of Sankofa. This was a new word for me, and as I love to do, I immediately wanted to find out more. What I discovered was beautiful and meaningful.

The concept of Sankofa is derived from King Adinkera of the Akan people of Ghana in West Africa. The word Sankofa is derived from three words in the Akan language: San (return), Ko (go), Fa (look, seek and take). Translated literally it would mean ‘go back or return, and look’. In the Akan dialect this concept is expressed as “se wo were fi na wosan kofa a yenki which means “it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot.”

This reflects the strong belief of the Akan that the past serves as a guide for planning the future. While the Akan believe that there must be forward movement and new learning as time passes, they caution that as the march ahead proceeds, it is the wisdom in learning from the past which ensures a strong future.

Sankofa bird

Visually and symbolically, Sankofa is depicted as a mythical bird with its feet firmly planted forward, or sometimes flying forward (to represent looking or moving ahead), with its head turned backwards (looking to the past). The Sankofa bird is always shown with an egg in its mouth, or as turning back to take an egg off its back. The egg represents the ‘gems’ or knowledge of the past upon which wisdom is based; it also signifies the generation to come that would benefit from that wisdom. Thus, the bird graphically demonstrates the Akan belief that the past serves as a guide for planning the future.

The depiction of the bird as bending its neck with effort, to reach back for the abandoned but precious egg signifies the diligence and effort required to pay due reverence to the past, and give it its proper place in the current scheme of events.

Sankofa teaches us that in order to move forward we must go back to our roots. That does not mean that we remain in the past, but rather we use the lessons and wisdom from that knowledge, and use it to make the best of the present, and a better future. It is a way of looking to the past with the understanding that both the good and the bad have formed the present situation. The concept emphasises the value of learning not only from the good things, but also from the bad things and mistakes of the past so as not to repeat these in the future.

 Sankofa embodies the spirit and attitude of reverence for the past, reverence for one’s ancestors, reverence for one’s history, and reverence for one’s elders. All indigenous cultures across the world have traditionally acknowledged and revered their elders who are regarded as the fount of knowledge, based on experience and wisdom, who can help guide the way. Sadly, in this century there has been an increasing trend to shrug off their wisdom as ‘old wives tales’. Why go to the grandparents when Google Guru has all the answers you need? An interesting contemporary initiative reminds us of the value of this wisdom. 

In July 2007 Nelson Mandela marked his 89th birthday by forming a Council of Elders dedicated to finding new ways to resolve some of the world’s long-running crises, reduce conflict and despair, and foster peace. In his words “They will support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair.”

The Elders were visualised as individuals who had “earned international trust” and “a reputation for inclusive, progressive leadership”, but no longer held public office, and were independent of any national government or other vested interest.

The original Elders included India’s Ela Bhatt; Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general; Jimmy Carter, the former US president, and Desmond Tutu, the retired South African archbishop. Other members were former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland; Mandela’s wife Graca Machel, a children’s rights campaigner; former Irish president Mary Robinson, and Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen bank, the pioneering micro-credit institution.

A inspiring initiative and much-needed recognition of the need for collective wisdom of the past experience to guide the future of a world besieged with conflict, chaos, and confusion.

Sadly today, across the world, there is a dangerous trend of going back to the past, not so much to learn from it but to choose selectively from it in order to perpetuate what seems convenient to suit the political agenda or religious climate. Alternately there is also the inclination to erase all traces of the past, and build the future on a brand-new slate.

Sankofa is a gentle reminder that if even in our arrogance we overlook the gems from the past, when we come to our senses we should be humble enough to retrace our steps and make amends. As the popular saying goes, those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.

There is no shame in going back to our roots. That is Sankofa, simple yet profound.

Thank you Suparna, for introducing me to Sankofa.

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. Steve Jobs

–Mamata

Wash ‘Em Clean

One of our favourite childhood books was a delightfully illustrated Russian book called Wash ‘Em Clean. It was a funny poem about a little boy who would not wash and bathe, and how he was converted to cleanliness.

Instilling the habit of proper hand hygiene has been one of the great challenges through the ages.

On 15 October, in 2008, over 120 million children in more than 70 countries around the world washed their hands with soap. This marked the first Global Handwashing Day, founded by the Global Handwashing Partnership as a way to raise awareness about the importance of washing hands. Since then, this day is celebrated annually to reiterate the simplicity and value of clean hands. The theme for this year is Hand Hygiene For All.

Ironically, in just over a decade since then, a single Handwashing Day is not enough. Handwashing is making daily headlines across the world as, possibly, the most effective protection from Covid 19.

Interestingly this was the very message that was sought to be promoted as far back as 1847 by Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, a German-Hungarian physician and scientist. Armed with a doctorate from the University of Vienna and a Master’s degree in midwifery, Semmelweis joined as Director of the maternity clinic at the Vienna General Hospital in Austria.  At that time a mysterious infection known as ‘childbed fever’ was leading to high mortality rates in new mothers in maternity wards across Europe. Semmelweis was determined to understand what caused this rampant infection, and he began to closely observe the practices of the doctors on duty.

Until the late 1800s surgeons did not scrub up before and after surgery, or even wash their hands between patients; causing infections to be transferred from one patient to another. In fact, even after dissecting corpses, doctors and medical students went straight to the maternity wards to examine women who had recently delivered, without first washing their hands. Semmelwies deduced that it was the doctors who were transmitting infections to the patients. In maternity wards these infections led to the new mothers dying from puerperal fever or ‘childbed’ fever as it was called.

This was in the era before antibiotics (and before the recognition that germs are the agents of infectious disease).

Dr Semmelweis immediately instituted a strict regimen wherein all medical staff had to wash their hands between patient examinations. This seemingly simple step was the most difficult to implement. His peers were very sceptical, some were openly hostile; how could he dare to claim that the doctors were killing their patients? His own staff rose against him. He was labelled a madman because of his fanatic insistence on hand washing.

But the results of his ‘lunacy’ spoke for themselves–before hand washing was instituted in May 1847, his clinic’s mortality rate was 18.3%. By July, the rate had dropped to 1.2%, and it was zero the next year. But despite the clear link between cause and effect, most doctors did not change their practices.

Instead, in the face of opposition from a large part of the medical fraternity, the doctor  was dismissed from his post, and he moved to Budapest. At the age of 47 he was committed to a mental asylum, and died there only 14 days later.

Semmelweis never published an explanation of the logic behind his theory.  His experiments with hygienic practices were only validated some years later when Louis Pasteur expanded on the germ theory of disease. This was taken further by Joseph Lister a British surgeon. Based on his observations as a surgeon, Lister also deduced that a high number of post-operative deaths, which were attributed to ‘ward fever,’ were caused not by the surgery but by infections spread by germs from unwashed bed linen and surgical instruments, as well as lack of hand hygiene among doctors. Lister saw this as the cause, as well as the solution, to the problem. He started using carbolic acid to wash hands and to sterilize instruments, as well as to dress wounds. He experimented successfully with these techniques, and, unlike Semmelweis, went on to publish everything he discovered in a medical journal The Lancet in 1867. He became known as the father of antiseptic surgery.

That was a hundred and fifty years ago; but how much have things changed even now?

Here are some shocking facts.

Most patients and their families believe that a hospital is the safest place in terms of hygiene. But the Centers for Disease Control (CDCs) in America estimate that 1 in 25 patients pick up an infection while hospitalized. In 2011 there were more than 700,000 health care-related infections at intensive-care hospitals, and about 10 per cent of the infected patients died during their hospitalization. One of the major contributors to the spread was low hand-washing compliance among the attending doctors and nurses.

The well-known author and surgeon Dr Atul Gawande wrote an eye-opening essay in 2004. Titled On Washing Hands the essay endorsed that hand washing non-compliance was a major factor in spread of infection. But it also explained why this seemingly simple measure is, in practice, very complicated due to the sheer volume of interactions between a medical caregiver and a patient. For example, in a regular 12 hour shift a nurse would have up to 100 occasions on which hand washing is required. Given the tremendous pressure of time and patients, he accepts that the kind of hand washing that would be effective would mean that one-third of the medical staff’s time would be spent on washing.  While this is not realistic, he urges that even a small increase in compliance would mean saving at least a few more lives that are lost to infection.  

From Semmelweis to Gawande, the crusaders for hand washing have been spreading the message for almost 200 years. In this year of the Corona, never before has hand washing been more critical and more imperative. Handwashing is not just for doctors. Every one of us can save lives—especially our own, by becoming fanatical about hand washing.

Let’s put our hands together to applaud the super power of soap and water.

–Mamata

Beach Lore

The good news that newspapers brought us yesterday was that eight Indian beaches had qualified for the Blue Flag tag—an achievement indeed! This Certification is awarded by Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE), an NGO, and is a respected one, with stringent requirements. There are 33 criteria spanning environmental, educational, access and safety related parameters. Beaches tagged as Blue Flag provide clean and hygienic bathing water, along with basic infrastructure for tourists.

It is not impossible to spruce up for an inspection and get a certification or award. The challenge is make the improvement sustainable, and an inclusive shared vision with all stakeholders. Let us hope these eight beaches are able to do this and stay on the list, even as more join them in the years to come.

At any rate, it provides an opportunity to revise some beachy information:

A beach is a narrow, gently sloping strip of land that lies along the edge of an ocean, lake, or river (yes, technically, even the land around a lake or along a river is a beach!).

Beaches are made of materials such as sand, pebbles, rocks, and seashell fragments. Over the decades and centuries, forces of nature—water, wind, erosion, weathering—act on the cliffs, rocks and landforms at the edge of the waters, and break them down.  As tides come in, they deposit sediment which may have sand, shells, seaweed, and even marine organisms like crabs or sea anemones. When they go out, they take some sediment back with them.

Beaches are constantly changing. Tides and weather can alter beaches every day, bringing new materials and taking away others. There are seasonal variations too. In the winter, storm winds throw sand into the air. This can sometimes erode beaches and create sandbars. In the summer, waves retrieve sand from sandbars and build the beach back up again. These seasonal changes cause beaches to be wider and have a gentle slope in the summer, and be narrower and steeper in the winter.

At 7500 kms, India has the world’s seventh-longest coastline, with nine states and two union territories having coasts.

Apart from aesthetics, beaches are habitats for many, many species. The Olive Ridley coming to nest in the Gahirmatha beach of Orissa is a phenomenon that naturalists come from around the world to witness. In all, about 2,50,000 to 3,00,000 turtles nest here every year, in the space of about two weeks. Thousands of female turtles arrive each night to lay eggs. They make nest holes, lay 100-300 eggs, smooth the nests over, sometimes covering them with vegetation, and go back. Fifty days later, the eggs hatch, and millions of little turtles, each the size of a brooch, make their way into the ocean to start their lives.  

Our coasts and beaches are also witness to a hoary past: The rockcut temples of Elephanta date back to the 6th century AD. The temples of Mahabalipuram are almost as old—going back to the 7th century. The Konarak temple dates back to the 13th century, at which point it stood directly on the sea, though today the sea has moved about 3 km away. Dwarka is believed to have been the Krishna’s capital, and is said to stand on the site of five earlier cities. Fort Aguada, Goa, built in the 17th century has a unique lighthouse. Rameshwaram has the largest temple in India.

And of course, on April 5, 1930, Gandhiji and 78 satyagrahis reached the beach at Dandi on the coast of Gujarat to make salt and history.

So let’s protect our beaches! Let’s Blue Flag them all!

–Meena

Looking and Seeing

A couple of months after the lockdown started there was a spurt of pieces and pictures about different aspects of the natural world that people had started noticing around them—the variety of birds and insects; the hues of the sunsets and sunrises; the vegetation with its changing cycles; the diverse sounds of nature, and much more. True that these became more evident as the relentless activity and cacophony of urban life became more muted. But perhaps, more likely, it was the fact that we humans have had more time to ‘stop and stare’ as it were.  

If we were to stop a moment and think about it, we are always ‘looking’ at things but how often are we really ‘seeing’ something? We use our eyes, but our gaze is glancing, merely considering the objects, people and scenes that pass before our eyes. Things appear as they are at first glance, and we move on, not stopping to take in the image in all its dimensions and depths.

The dictionary says that to look means to direct your eyes in a particular direction, while in order to see, you must notice or become aware of someone or something. Seeing is not only noticing that something is, but understanding it, attending to it, and looking past the obvious to enjoy its more subtle nuances. It means noticing not only the details but also how those details are part of a whole.

Thus seeing is not just a function of the eyes but rather a combined effort of the eyes and the brain, which work together to sort out visual input and arrange it into meaningful images, within a context, and with significance to detail.

How do an artist and a scientist ‘look at’ and ‘see’ the same thing? Two beautiful passages bring these together on the same canvas.

Georgia O’Keeffe a 20th-century American painter and pioneer of American modernism best known for her canvases depicting enlarged flowers explained why she did this: A flower is relatively small. Everyone has many associations with a flower–the idea of flowers. You put out your hand to touch the flower–lean forward to smell it–maybe touch it with your lips almost without thinking–or give it to someone to please them. Still–in a way–nobody sees a flower—really–it is so small–we haven’t time– and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time. If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small. So I said to myself–I’ll paint what I see–what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it–I will make even busy New-Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.

Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman sees more than the aesthetic. As he said: I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe…

I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.

As the great French novelist, playwright, essayist, and filmmaker Marguerite Duras said “The art of seeing has to be learned”. This takes time, patience, and attention. And having learnt it, a skill that continually needs to be honed.

Today we are inundated with fast moving visual images that grab our eyeballs as they flash across our screens. But our attention spans are continually decreasing, as is our attention to detail. We do spend most of our times with our eyes wide open, but how much of that time do we spend in seeing? What better time than now, to start practicing the art of seeing?

Look! Can you see what I did?

As I look at my little garden blooming after the rains, aflutter with multi coloured butterflies, and vibrant with the hum of the bees, I rejoice in ‘seeing’ it with new eyes each day.

–Mamata

Monumental Tragedy

Thanks to COVID and the search for not-too-popular sights, we ended up visiting the Chikkajala Fort last weekend. On the way to Bangalore Airport and not too far from my home, we have been meaning to go for a long time.

‘Fort’ is a misnomer today—what stands is a temple with what once must have been a beautiful, deep temple-tank in front of it, and a few long corridor-like stone structures. The site of Chikkajala is a prehistoric one apparently. It is likely there was a ‘vassal fort’ but it no longer stands. The estimates of the age of the temple and extant structures range from 300 to 950 years!

Apart from the general ravages of time and the overall neglect, apparently some parts of the structures were demolished for road widening after the new airport came up.

Whatever the reasons, it was sad!  To see a construction which must have a thing of beauty, lying in rack and ruin. The structure just falling down as it stands. Carvings defaced. Trees growing on and through the buildings. Cows grazing and leaving behind generous piles of cow dung. The temple tank completely overgrown with vegetation.  Plastic water bottles and discarded chips packets.

It was particularly poignant because only last week, Karnataka announced its Tourism Policy for 2020-25. The State aims to be among the top two tourist destinations in the country. I confess I have not read the 104-page document completely, but what I have read leaves me completely confused! While it talks at length of developing tourism infrastructure, ‘products and services’, I am amazed that it says nothing about the core of tourism—the sights that tourists go to see. What is to be done to preserve and enhance the condition of the cultural artefacts and natural heritage. Agreed, this is in the purview of other departments, but does a tourism policy not have to be in sync with these other departments, and should the synergies not be laid out as a part of the Policy?

The strategic intervention as mentioned by the Policy, and which seem to me to sadly lack so many, many critical elements, are:

  • Position Karnataka as a preferred tourism destination at state ,national and international levels
  • Facilitate improvement of Infrastructure, Tourism Products and Services
  • Streamline processes for obtaining approvals and clearances
  • Prioritise Human Resources Development & Capacity Enhancement
  • Promote ICT based initiatives for providing timely and reliable information services to tourists
  • Create institutional structures for effective implementation of the Policy
  • Provide attractive concessions and investment subsidies for various tourism

Admittedly I know nothing about Tourism or Tourism policy. But I do know when an ancient monument next to my house is falling to bits. I do see that a monument right on the main road to the airport can attract a lot of footfalls. I can gauge that it is about some money, but  much more about caring.

A small piece of heritage in a country which has so much that we can’t be bothered about any of it? A tiny blip in a list of monumental tragedies?

–Meena

PS: A lovely spider sighted in the ruins. About 5 inches across, it had spun a web which was about 4 ft across. Maybe Nephila pylipis, but I am not quite sure.

Photo credits: V. Raghunathan

Gandhi the Vegetarian

In September 1888 a young Gujarati man named Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi set sail for England where he would pursue studies in law. Before he left he made a vow to his mother that while he was abroad he would not touch wine, women and meat. Easier said than done!

The challenge began as soon as he boarded the ship–managing to find something to eat, which both his religious belief and palate could support. A fellow passenger, an Englishman, assured him that it was so cold in England that one could not possibly survive without eating meat. The young man managed to subsist on what he could, until he reached England. It did not get any easier when he tried a couple of different lodgings. The English landladies were kind, but at a loss about what to feed their boarder. He ate oatmeal for breakfast, but barely subsisted on bland spinach, a few slices of bread and jam for lunch and dinner. The young man was almost always hungry, but was adamant to keep his vow.

As time passed, he began to find his feet in his new environs. He began to walk around the neighbourhood. He also began to look for vegetarian restaurants; walking sometimes ten or twelve miles in his search. Then one day, as he described in his autobiography: During these wanderings I once hit on a vegetarian restaurant in Farringdon Street. The sight of it filled me with the same joy that a child feels on getting a thing after his own heart. Before I entered I noticed books for sale exhibited under a glass window near the door. I saw among them Salt’s ‘A Plea for Vegetarianism’. This I purchased for a shilling and went straight to the dining room. This was my first hearty meal since my arrival in England. God had come to my aid.

Henry Salt’s book opened up a new perspective for Gandhi, and it whetted his appetite for dietetic studies. As he recalled over 40 years later when he shared the dais with Henry Salt at a meeting organised by the London Vegetarian Society on 20 November 1931: I received the invitation to be present at this meeting, I need not tell you how pleased I was because it revived old memories and recollections of pleasant friendships formed with vegetarians. I feel especially honoured to find on my right, Mr. Henry Salt. It was Mr. Salt’s book ‘ A Plea for Vegetarianism’, which showed me why apart from a hereditary habit, and apart from my adherence to a vow administered to me by my mother, it was right to be a vegetarian.

Till then Gandhi was a vegetarian by religion and tradition, but from the moment he read Salt he became ‘a vegetarian by choice’ and the spread of vegetarianism became his mission. He read whatever he could find on the subject. He found that there was a Vegetarian Society in London; he subscribed to its weekly journal, and then began to attend its meetings. In his new zeal, he even formed a branch of the Society in the locality where he then lived. Through the meetings he made friends with like-minded people. One of these friends was a man named Josiah Oldfield who was an active member of the London Vegetarian Society and editor of its journal. Sometime later, the two friends also shared accommodation, and dietetic experiments. In September 1890 Gandhi was elected to the Executive Committee of the Vegetarian Society as Secretary.

Badge of the Vegetarian Society as designed by Gandhi

Interestingly the start of Gandhi’s life-long prolific writing was a series of six essays that he wrote for the Society’s journal The Vegetarian. These were published from February to June 1891 under the heading Indian Vegetarians. In one of the essays Gandhi explained how Asian vegetarianism differed from its European counterpart. Unlike the English, the Indians do not take each dish separately, but they mix many things together. …Each dish is elaborately prepared. In fact, they don’t believe in plain boiled vegetables, but must have them flavoured with plenty of condiments, e.g., pepper, salt, cloves, turmeric, mustard seed, and various other things for which it would be difficult to find English names unless they be those used in medicine.’ He explained how the Indian diet was richer and more varied, except in one respect—the fruit, yes, the all-important fruit, is sadly conspicuous by its absence in the above-mentioned specimen dishes.

Gandhi’s essays took apart some common myths and misconceptions. They also  helped him to articulate his early thoughts on what was to remain a life-long passion and preoccupation. His experiments in dietetics continued during his time in South Africa, and throughout out his life in India. As he experimented, Gandhi also continued to write about diet and health. In 1906 while in South Africa, he wrote some articles under the heading Guide to Health. He further consolidated and expanded his ideas while he was confined to the Aga Khan Palace in Poona in 1942. These were published under the title Key to Health. This booklet concisely but comprehensively covers a wide spectrum of topics related to all aspects of health.

Today, across the world there is a proliferation of gyan on healthy foods and lifestyle. Movements like veganism are trending; as are the paeans to fruit, nuts and seeds; eliminating refined sugar and salt, and adopting non-dairy milks such as almond and soya milk. Whole grains and raw food, and even fasting are being promoted as the newly-discovered pillars of healthy life.  

1 October is celebrated as World Vegetarian Day, and 2 October marks the birth anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. An appropriate time to remind ourselves that well over a hundred years ago, MKG had already “been there, done that.”

–Mamata

Waiting for the Mahatma

This slim 1955 novel by R.K. Narayan is the best Gandhi Jayanti gift I could have given myself. It transported me to the days of the Independence struggle. The story itself is not really the crux of it, though it is a novel and there is a love story interwoven with the freedom movement.

So much time has passed since the time of the Mahatma that we cannot really fathom what it must have been to live in his time, to be inspired by him and be, even in the remotest way, a part of the freedom movement. And that is just what the book brought to me. That the most uneducated person in the remotest village in any corner of the country was somehow moved and fired by this figure called Gandhi. Whether the person fully understood what Gandhi stood for or what he wanted of them, still they were ready to believe in him, to dedicate themselves to his mission. In the tens of thousands they stood for hours in the sun for a glimpse of the Great Soul. In the thousands, they were ready to give up everything in life and go to jail for him. The book gives us a glimpse of the person behind the myth.

The incidents in the book obviously draw from many, many real happenings of those times. When I found the photograph of the Mahatma, children and fruits, it told me how authentic was the experience from which the book came. The book describes an incident when Gandhiji is taken to the house of the richest man in a town he is visiting, and all the elite are there, waiting for him to speak and to catch his attention. There are trays and trays piled with fruit. Not one of which he touches. Instead, he calls the children in the audience and distributes the fruit to them. While the adults are not thrilled, they still tolerate it. But they definitely are not happy when the Mahatma spots a little urchin in completely tattered clothes in the crowd, calls him up to the dais, seats him beside himself, plies him with fruit and has a full-fledged conversation.  And then decides to go and stay in the home of the urchin, who lives in the Cleaners’ Colony– the poorest, filthiest and unhealthiest part of town. In spite of the exhortations of all the bigwigs to stay in the house of the town’s wealthiest man where arrangements have been made, gently but uncompromisingly, Gandhi insists on going to the boy’s house, throwing the local elite and officials into a complete tizzy.

His uncompromising insistence on truth and ahimsa. His never sacrificing the means for the end. His belief in people, and at the same time, his being able to understand why they slip from the path. His interest in the minutest details of the lives of those around him. His prodigious correspondence—responding to each one of the letters he got. His sense of humour and unshakeable resolve. His sticking to his point without aggression. With this, he inspired a sub-continent and fought the mightiest empire of the time. With this he got us our freedom.

But we still make the Mahatma wait for us. Wait for us to live up to his ideals. Wait for us to be the nation he dreamt we would be.

How long will he have to wait?

–Meena