Who Moved my Center?

It all started with an idle question. Where is the center of India? Most of us said Nagpur. Others thought not. So we decided to delve into the matter.

Nagpur pillar
Pillar marking the old center of India at Nagpur

We learnt that Nagpur used to be the center of India. The British, as a result of the Great Trigonometric survey, a project undertaken by the Survey of India in the 19th century, had fixed on Nagpur as the heart of the country. They erected a sandstone pillar here in 1907, marking the spot and giving distances to many major cities from here. The pillar still stands, though the centre has moved.

Sadly for the Orange City, the center has now shifted to a small farm in Karondi near Seoni in Madhya Pradesh.

Why did the center move? Good question. After partition in 1947, the boundaries of the country changed, and hence the center moved. And even though Karondi is designated as the center, it is not quite so. The geographic center actually falls at the coordinates 240 7’11’’ North and 770 41’ 49’’ East, which is in the middle of a jungle. Hence it was decided that Karondi, a small village close by, with a population of about 500, would be designated the center. Sadly, there is no particular monument or structure to mark this important place.


But what is the geographic center of a country? Well, apparently, there is no universally accepted definition. To simplify the matter, the physical centre of gravity is seen as the geographical centre. A geographical definition says ‘the centroid of the two-dimensional shape of a region of the Earth’s surface (projected radially to sea level or onto a geoid surface) is known as its geographic centre or geographical centre’ (Wikipedia).

There are also several ways to find the centre. For instance, at the simplest, you transfer the shape of a country on to a cardboard, cut it out and find the centre of gravity of this slice by pivoting it on a pinpoint. You can also simulate this process on a computer. It can also be found by averaging all of the longitude points and latitude points. Other more sophisticated methods involve the use of vector algebra and topological maps. The latest method which is most accurate involves: ‘(1) projecting regional boundary points using an azimuthal equidistant projection, (2) finding the geographic center of the projected two-dimensional region, and (3) then transforming this location back to a latitude and longitude.’ (A New Method for Finding Geographic Centers, with Application to U.S. States. Peter A. Rogerson). I am not sure I understand that, but maybe others will!

We have seen that India’s center moved because of changes in political boundaries. USA is another country where this has happened, but due to the addition of states. But in ancient times, ideologies influenced these decisions. For instance, in ancient times, because of religious and cultural mindset-overhangs, Jerusalem was considered the center of the world’s landmass. But as science strengthened its hold, this thinking had to change.

But that was not the only reason why the world’s center shifted. The increasing sophistication of calculation methods was another underlying reason. For instance, based on some calculations in the 1860s by Charles Smyth, Astronomer Royal of Scotland, the geographical center was thought to be in Egypt.  In recent decades, calculations located the center in Turkey. But even within Turkey, first it was located near the district of Kırşehir, Kırşehir Province. But in 2003, elaborate calculations by Holger Isenberg set it at 40°52′N 34°34′E, also in Turkey, near the district of İskilip, Çorum Province, approx. 200 km northeast of Ankara. This is today the accepted center.

There are also methodological issues on which experts cannot agree. For instance, whether to include offshore islands, the fact that erosion will cause borders to change over time, or rise in sea levels which will changes shoreline—all of these could confound the calculations.

Does the center have any significance or importance? Not really, except maybe for a quizzer or as a boost for tourism. Sadly in India, poor Karondi with no monument or structure to mark its centrality to the country, hasn’t even got this advantage!

–Meena

 

 

Doctor Without Borders: Jonathan Kaplan

Last week I wrote about a young doctor who chose to use his medical training to serve people in war situations. This was Dr Kotnis who worked with passion and dedication on the war front in China, almost a century ago. Every generation and every period of history has examples of such professionals who voluntarily choose to serve in some of the most difficult and dangerous situations.

Doctors without Borders

I recently read a fascinating account by such a doctor in our own times. This is Dr Jonathan Kaplan who began his medical career, as do all doctors, after long and intensive years of study. Dr Kaplan graduated from medical school in South Africa and spent the next ten years acquiring specialist qualifications and training as a general surgeon, and super-specialization in vascular surgery in hospitals in the UK and USA. This equipped him to move on to become a “consultant” with a comfortable and prosperous practice. In his own words:

Master of Surgery. The title had a ring of Zen about it, as though I was now a sage of some martial art, a mystic bladesman. I had trodden the path of professional dedication, served the necessary years at the required levels of experience and responsibility, paid all my dues to date. A consultant post—the reward for all this industry—lay ahead, with attendant success and security. But I found myself beset by an odd emptiness…

This sense of emptiness led Jonathan to choose otherwise. He became a “medical vagabond” as he describes himself. He spent many years as a volunteer surgeon in some of the world’s most dangerous war zones in the 1990s. He attended to the casualties of apartheid in Cape Town; worked on the front line treating Kurdish fighters during the uprising at the end of the Gulf War, and in a part of Burma’s Shan state under attack by the Burmese army; in Mozambique during the civil war, and in Eritrea at the time of the Ethiopian offensive in 2000.

Besides the blood, sweat and tears of the battlefield, the adventurous Jonathan Kaplan was always looking for new challenges. In his own words Working as a doctor in war zones was voluntary and unpaid. My hospital career looked increasingly uncertain—my curriculum vitae was a curious patchwork of jobs that shocked the sensibilities of staid consultants—and I was considering a full-time post in accident and emergency medicine where I hoped a varied resume might be less provocative to the interview committees.

But that was not to be. A variety of chance offers led to interesting stints where Dr Kaplan saw different sides to the realities of illness and emergency care. Among these was being an air ambulance doctor, and a resident doctor on a cruise liner. He also became deeply engaged in an investigation on the impacts of mercury poisoning in a part of Brazil.  

For most of his life Jonathan Kaplan worked tirelessly, and with minimal resources, amidst the most challenging conditions and heart-rending human tragedy, using every skill at his disposal to treat the wounded, and save lives. At the same time he also meticulously documented the politics, struggles, and universal human dilemmas. These have been published in a book titled The Dressing Station.

The book is a fascinating read, that vividly describes some of the most tragic and devastating impacts of war on human beings, alongside some highly technical details of surgery, and the contradictions of war-zone realities. But Jonathan is much more than a reporter. He also shares his angst and his internal struggles to maintain his humanity even under the most inhuman circumstances. He wonders about human life, and the role that doctors have to play in the human drama between birth and death. That is what makes his writing both eye-opening, as well as thought-provoking, not just for medical practitioners, but for every one of us who are on the other side of the ‘consulting table’.

As he shares: I have practised medicine in diverse fields: as a hospital surgeon, a flying doctor, a ship’s medical officer. I have operated on wounded straight off the battlefield, treated people with rich stains of tropical disease raging in their bloodstreams, and tried to help those affected by occupational illness from industrial toxins or work place stress. I have run research programmes funded by corporate finance—that met the needs of the shareholders before they benefitted any patients—and I’ve cared for children wasted by diseases of famine and war. Like most doctors I have seen my craft used and abused; been part of its successes and witnessed its failings. It is by the means of this unforgiving arena that we struggle to define ourselves.

He further ponders on his work and on life: No clinician can give an objective account of that work: the intersection between doctor and patient is mutual and intimate, and in the end comes down to something between us that is a fragile thing, as fragile as life. All we can do is the best we can in the war against death and against despair, including our own. For at its extreme the practice of medicine is a succession of front line, and each victory is only a temporary respite.

Dr Kaplan continues to take periodic assignments as a volunteer surgeon in conflict zones amidst UK hospital surgery, film-making, academic teaching, and working as a photographer, and as an advisor on medical TV dramas. He has also proposed, investigated, researched, produced and directed documentaries on health, development and environmental issues for several TV channels.

I picked up The Dressing Station by chance, not having earlier heard of Jonathan Kaplan. It was a gripping read. I look forward to reading his second book Contact Wounds.

–Mamata

A Doctor Abroad: Dr Kotnis

Much has been written in the past month about Indian medical students going to distant and relatively unfamiliar countries to pursue medical studies. Many of these young students have ambitions of making a successful and prosperous career after they obtain their degrees. Here is an unusual story about an Indian doctor who went abroad, over a century ago, not in the pursuit of name and money, but to use his education and skills in the service of those who needed them the most.  

Dwarakanath Shantaram Kotnis was born on 1 October 1910 in a middle-class family in Sholapur, Maharashtra. He grew up as one of seven children in the family, and his father had to take loans to support his children’s education. Dwarakanath moved to Bombay to pursue medical studies at the Seth GS Medical College. Possibly unlike his fellow students at that time, the young Dwarakanath’s ambition was to practise medicine in a different part of the world. And as destiny would have it, his dream took on an unexpected form.

Dwarakanath acquired his medical degree in 1938. The world was already in the throes of conflicts that would escalate into World War II. China had been invaded by in the early 1930s by the Japanese who were seeking raw materials for their growing industries. By 1937 Japan controlled large sections of China, and war crimes against the Chinese became commonplace. There were large scale massacres of civilians, and the Chinese resistance army suffered heavy casualties. At the same time there was an acute shortage of doctors who could attend to the injured and the dying.

It was at this time that General Zhu De, a Chinese revolutionary had written to Jawaharlal Nehru with a plea to send doctors to save the lives of the soldiers. India was in the midst of its own movement of freedom from British rule. The Indian National Congress under the leadership of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose decided to send a team of five doctors to China to show the solidarity of the people of India with the Chinese in their fight against the Japanese aggression.

There was a call for doctors to volunteer for this mission. Dwarakanath was one of those who volunteered. He was 28 years old; neither he nor his family knew much about China, but he felt an inner urge to venture beyond familiar territory to practice the subjects that he had studied, in challenging circumstances. This decision would prove to be a life-changing one.

Thus young Dr Kotnis joined the team of five Indian doctors headed for China. The other four members of the team were M Cholkar from Nagpur, BK Basu and Debesh Mukherjee from Calcutta, and M Atal from Allahabad.

Dr Kotnis in China Source: https://www.chinadaily.com

The young doctors, the first medical team from another Asian country who had volunteered help, were personally received by Mao Zedong and General Zhu De. They were plunged straight into the war zone in Northern China where mobile medical units were treating wounded soldiers. The situation was very stressful, physically and mentally. About 800 injured soldiers had to be attended to every day which meant that the doctors often worked round the clock without rest or sleep. The young doctors stood up to the challenge, saving hundreds of lives and treating thousands of wounded.

As the battle in the North subsided, the Indian team was free to return home, and four members did so. But Dr Kotnis was reluctant to return. He wanted to spend more time in a country that he was beginning to know and love, and continue to contribute to the war effort. He joined Mao-led Eighth Route Army in 1939. He continued to work tirelessly, performing operations for up to 72 hours without a break, and treating hundreds of patients, day and night. He did not return home even when he heard about his father’s death.

Years later he was remembered by the ordinary people as a kind doctor who not only helped ease their pain and suffering, but was also concerned about their basic needs. He learned to read and write Mandarin Chinese and was able to communicate with the people in their language. He became one of them. They in turn adopted him and called him Kedihua dai fu (Kedihua was Kotnis’ Chinese name and dai fu meaning doctor).  He was also nicknamed “Dr Thoughtful” and “Old Ke”.

Around this time he also met Guo Qinglan who had volunteered as a nurse in the Eighth Route Army. The couple got married in December 1941.They had a son who they aptly named Yinhua; the Chinese character for Yin meant India and Hua meant China.

In 1941 Dr Kotnis was appointed as director of the Bethune International Peace Hospital in Shijiazhuang named after the famous Canadian surgeon Norman Bethune. Bethune was a Canadian physician and social activist who had also moved to China in 1938-39 during the Second Sino-Japanese and volunteered as a medical advisor to the 8th Route Army. He was a brilliant surgeon who not only worked on battlefields, but also helped in training medical personnel, and setting up medical programmes and hospitals to reform the health care system in China. He was deeply committed to the welfare of the poor. Dr Bethune died on the frontline, of blood poisoning in 1939, and became a national hero.

Dr Kotnis was a fit choice to carry forward the legacy of the revered Dr Bethune, who had had a similar professional path. Dr Kotnis continued to work with the same intensity and passion as he had done on the battlefield. He was also teaching medical students. As there were no textbooks he started compiling them himself. But the unrelenting stress had taken a toll on the young doctor’s health. Only three months after the birth of his son, Dr Kotnis was struck by a series of epileptic seizures that cut short his life. Even as he was writing his second surgery textbook, he collapsed, and following a seizure, died on 9 December 1942. He was just 32 years old.  He was buried in the Heroes Courtyard in Nanquan village in China among the people he made his own.

While the work of Dr Kotnis is not as well documented or known in India, the name and legacy of Ke Dihua as he was fondly called, are still remembered and revered in China. The Shijiazhuang Ke Dihua Medical Science Secondary Specialized School been named after him; from which over 45000 medical professionals have graduated. There are memorials and statues of him in several towns in China.

7 April is marked as World Health Day. A good time to remember a doctor who lived his short life with complete commitment and passion for the health of all people.

–Mamata

Sacred Games. With No Apologies to any Eponymous Show

A recent visit to the phenomenal 12th century Amrutheshvara temple near Shimoga in Karnataka introduced me to sacred games— ancient innocent, fun, time-pass activities, not violence-filled convoluted storylines.

As we sat down on the stone benches after our round of the temple, we discovered strange-looking designs carved next to us. Considering we were a party of eight, we occupied quite a few benches, and each of us could see some carvings on our seats.

At first we thought they were random markings, but on closer examination, all of them turned out to be board games! Some of these we were vaguely familiar with, others not. Well, board games were popular in ancient India, with many of them, from chess to snakes and ladder having originated here. In fact, temple friezes often depict people absorbed in playing such games.

Temple games
Amruthesvara Temple, Karnataka

But this was the first time we had seen games put out for general edification in a public place. We got to wondering if these were really as ancient as the temple, or later-day graffiti. And considering that the temple was 800 years old, that was a lot of time for graffiti-workers to do their job.

But it would not have been easy to carve these elaborate games on the stone benches on the sly. So it seemed to us that it must have been an officially-sanctioned exercise, and one probably carried out before the stones were set in their places.

So did the temple-builders plan these games for the visitors? Seems likely. After all, visits to temples were a major outing for many; in fact, maybe the only outing for some.

Naturally, one got goggling on the subject after the visit. I discovered quite a few references to such games. Historian Chithra Madhavan and Vinita Sidhartha, founder of Kreeda say that such games are quite common in temples in South India, even being found in the Srirangam temple which is believed to be 2000 years old. They opine that it was not just for the devotees visiting the temples, but also to provide for the entertainment of those who worked in and around the temple—from maybe the pujaris, to the dancers, musicians and others involved in various aspects of running the temple.

Temple games

Such carvings have also been found in forts. There are a few groups, including Kreeda which are involved in research on this subject. Researchers R.G. Singh, Dharmendra and  Dr Dileep KCR Gowda, have documented 500 spaces with games across Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.Recently, a pair of researchers, Sojwal Sali and Rishi Rane, found 41 ancient carvings of board games of different sizes on rocks near Hinjawadi in Pune district of Maharasthra. These are on some hills, close to a temple, and the speculation is that they were used by pilgrims, travelers and traders who plied the route. This discovery is a treasure trove on games played in ancient times, and also the fact that one of these is huge–six feet long and six feet wide—sets it apart.

 It is not difficult to imagine an idyllic scene of a beautiful temple a thousand years ago, where in the midst of a buzz of activities, one can see groups of people playing their favourite game, with a few spectators standing around each group.

Were those more innocent times, when there was no betting on the outcomes? No loaded dice or fixed games? Well probably human nature was not very different, but one can hope they kept the temple games more sacred!

–Meena

 

One-Bird Orchestra: Magpie Robin

The mellifluous notes fill the pre-dawn darkness. You wonder who these “earlier birds” are that have already got their orchestra going in full throttle, even before the other ‘early birds’ clear their throats and tune up for the day ahead. As you walk along you see a little bird on the ground under a tall tree. Dapper in its neat dress of black and white, its tail is held upright as it moves, just as the baton of the orchestra conductor. This is the Magpie Robin—the conductor and orchestra all rolled into one.  This one does not need a warm up. It bursts straight into a symphony.

The Oriental Magpie Robin is a member of the order Passeriformes which includes more than half of all the bird species. Passerines are perching birds which are distinguished by their toe pattern—three toes facing forward and one toe facing backward—which allows the bird to easily grasp, and cling to both horizontal and nearly vertical perches, including branches and tree trunks

Its scientific name is Copsychus saularis. In the early days there was confusion about this name as early scientists were misled by its Indian name dhaiyal which they believed referred to sundial and hence ‘solaris’. An Englishman Edward Blyth thought that this was inappropriate, and rather felt that the Hindi term saulary (meaning hundred songs) was more fitting. A specimen of the bird along with its Hindi name, was even sent from Madras to James Petiver, a London apothecary famous for his collections of specimens.  

Saularis or hundred songs aptly describes this handsome song bird. A black-and-white bird with a cocked tail and upright stance, it is about the size of a bulbul. The male has glossy blue-black upper parts, head and throat, with a white belly, and a broad white band on the wing and white edges on the tail. The female has similar markings, but with slate-grey upperparts and buff flanks.

Magpie Robins are commonly found hear human habitation, in gardens, parks and wooded areas. They can be seen singly or in pairs near shrubs and bushes. But for the most part of the year they are not conspicuous, as they are shy and quiet, only uttering a plaintive swee-ee and harsh chr-r, chr-r notes from time to time.  

It is during their breeding season from March till June that they attract our attention, not so much by their sighting but by their sound. This is when the male Magpie Robin pours his heart out in song to attract a mate, as well as to declare and guard his territory. He can be seen perched on a post, or unseen, high up on a leafless tree top, filling the air with his musical notes, punctuated with upward jerks of his tail.

The little fellow has an amazing repertoire of tunes, switching effortlessly from one to another. Besides his own calls, he is also adept at perfectly mimicking the calls of other birds. This ability he uses, not so much to charm his future mate, but to guard his territory. Sometimes, by pretending to be three different birds calling from different locations, the magpie robin male can fool potential intruders into believing that the large territory is already occupied, and unavailable for new lodgers. In case a bold outsider ventures within, the songster transforms into a pugnacious defender, raising his bill, fanning the tail, puffing up his feathers, and strutting aggressively.   Additionally, the bird also emits different types of calls, such as threat calls and distress calls, depending on the occasion.

Having finally won over his mate with song and macho displays, the Magpie Robin is ready to set up home. It is the female who takes on the task of the nest builder, making a pad of grass, rootlets and hair in a hollow cavity in a tree trunk, old bough or wall. She lays three to five pale blue green eggs with brownish specks; the eggs are oval in shape. She alone incubates the eggs for 8-14 days, and then feeds her fledglings. Her musical mate however shares some other domestic duties such as protecting the nest from intruders or damage.

Magpie Robins are largely insectivorous. Though chiefly arboreal, they pick crickets, grasshoppers, ants, caterpillars and other insects off the ground, as well as eating worms, snails, centipedes and small lizards. They also visit Silk Cotton and Coral tree blossoms to feed on the nectar.  

The Magpie Robin is known by many names in different parts of India. Dhaiyal or Dhaiyar in Hindi and Bengali; Daiyyad in Gujarati; Dominga in Marathi; Kali sooi chiria in Madhya Pradesh.

The bird is equally familiar and known in our neighbouring countries where it is viewed in different ways. In Sri Lanka this bird is called Polkichcha (coconut bird) as well as Pahan-Kichcha (Dawn bird); and it was traditionally believed to be a bird of ill-omen. Its singing is believed to announce bad news, and villagers usually chase it away from the neighbourhood of their dwellings.

On the other hand, in Bangladesh the Magpie Robin known as Doyel or Doel is so well known, and liked, that it has been recognized as the national bird of the country, It is a widely used symbol, even appearing on currency notes in Bangladesh; and a landmark in the capital Dhaka is called Doel Chattar (Doel Square).

Unfortunately it is the song of this bird that puts its own survival in danger. Magpie Robins are popular as caged song birds and there is a widespread illegal trade in these birds, which are sold as pet songbirds. They are smuggled out in large numbers especially from Malaysia, leading to an alarming decline in their populations. As with all species, these birds are also threatened by habitat destruction and climate change. Although the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List has listed the Oriental Magpie Robin as a species of Least Concern, the declining numbers are beginning to cause concern. In Singapore and Hong Kong, this species of birds is protected by law.

In these times when the senses are besieged 24/7 by sights and sounds of war and destruction, I feel blessed that I can start my day with the lilting music of the Magpie Robin. And I cannot but help wistfully thinking what the world would be like if we humans too could defend our territories with songs instead of guns and bombs.

–Mamata

Telltale Pencil

Every year, 30 March is marked as International Pencil Day. It is the anniversary of the day when the American Hymen L. Lipman received the patent for a pencil with an eraser attached to the end. This was in 1858.

But there is another patent which is even more fundamental to pencils as we know them today—the one obtained by Nicholas-Jacques Conte’ in 1795. This was for the clay-graphite lead in the pencil.

In the 1790s, France was at war with most countries in Europe. Countries and people, all faced the multiple woes that wars bring (and as we are experiencing today). But the specific problem that is relevant to our story today is the shortage of graphite that France faced. In those days, pure graphite was at the core of pencils, and pencils were critical in war times. For instance, if anyone needed to send a note on the go, pencils were needed, as it was difficult to deal with quill pens and ink. Sometimes, fortifications or battle formations had to be quickly sketched, and that was easily possible only with pencils. But in those days, graphite for pencils used to come from England or Prussia, both of which France was at war with. The French War Minister thought of calling upon Conte’, a brilliant inventor, to solve this problem, viz, how to minimize the use of graphite and make pencils which still wrote clearly and for long? Conte’ had to come up with an answer in a hurry. He applied himself to the problem day and night, and after many trails and errors, came up with the answer: mix graphite powder with clay, press the mixture into moulds, and fire it in a kiln. With this process, a relatively small amount of graphite yielded a large number of pencils. By varying the amount of clay, pencils of various ‘hardness’ could be made—i.e., the more the clay, the harder the pencil. It is such an efficient process that it is still used today to make pencils.  

The mention of Pencil Day also brought to my mind a poignant story my grandmother used to tell me. I don’t think it is the story of any particular girl, but definitely reflective of the fate of many young girls a century ago.

The story goes thus…

Gomati was the much-loved only daughter of a middle class family in rural Tamilnadu. Her’s was a joint family and the warm-hearted Gomati was everyone’s darling. She had been married at 9 to a boy from an important family who lived quite far away—7 or 8 hours by bullock cart. She was now 14 years old, and it was time for her to go to her husband’s house.

There was joy in her house, but also a lot of fear and apprehension. Those were the days when in-laws had a lot of power over daughters-in-law, and could be quite mean and cruel. How would the in-laws treat their gentle child? How would she cope? They were so far away, they would not be able to meet her too often. And anyway, the mother-in-law had made it clear that there was no need to visit quite often. They were particularly worried because after the wedding, they had heard that the groom’s family was quite arrogant.

Gomati’s mother and aunts and grandmother; her father and uncles and grandfather; her brothers and sisters-in-law, were all worried. How would they even get to know how they were treating her? How relieved they would be if they knew they were kind to her. And if she were not, maybe they could go and talk to the in-laws and try to improve the situation.

They knew that her mother-in-law would read any letter before it was sent. There was no way that Gomati would ever be able to write the truth if she were being mistreated. How then would they ever get to know?

And then one of Gomati’s uncles had an idea. ‘Gomati, you will have to write only good things about your in-laws, your husband and your life. But if these good things are true, then write with a pen. If they are untrue, write the letter with a pencil. We will then know what is happening.’

So it was decided. And Gomati went to her husband’s house.

Everyone at her parents’ house was anxious for the first letter to arrive. They watched for the postman ever day. Till at last the letter arrived. Everyone gathered around for the reading. And what a wave of joy went through the house, for they could see the letter was written with a pen!

The letter described how happy and busy Gomati was, how kind each and every in-law was, how attentive her husband was, how every meal was a gourmet meal, and how no one let her do any difficult or demanding chores.

The relief and the happiness increased with every line that was read out.

Till the last line, which said: ‘I have everything that the heart could wish for. If I lack anything in this household, it is that I cannot find a pencil.’

–Meena

Weather Woman Anna Mani

When she turned eight, Anna Modayil Mani was to be gifted a pair of diamond earrings, as per her family tradition. Young Anna requested instead a gift of Encyclopaedia Britannica! This was a bit of a shock for the Mani family in Travancore in Kerala. Anna, the seventh of eight siblings, grew up in a well-to-do but traditional family where sons were groomed for high level careers and daughters were trained to be mothers and housemakers in preparation for an early marriage. Anna however showed signs of breaking the mould from an early age when she spent her time devouring all the books in the house. Her lifelong love for nature was planted and nurtured by long walks in the forests around her father’s cardamom estates, and swimming in the backwaters and rivers. And her scientific mind was imprinted with her father’s teaching not to accept any statement unless it could be tested and verified.

Born in 1918, Anna was only seven years old when Mahatma Gandhi visited Travancore which was the epicentre of the Vaikom Satyagraha. Gandhi’s visit made such a deep impression on the young girl that she decided to wear only khadi. The spirit of nationalism that pervaded the period also instilled in young Anna the fierce spirit of freedom, including the freedom to make her own decisions. Thus, she chose to pursue higher education rather than marriage which her sisters had easily opted for.

Anna joined Presidency College in Madras from where she graduated with an honours degree in Physics in 1939. A year later she got a scholarship to undertake research at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore where she was accepted as a research scholar in CV Raman’s laboratory to work on the spectroscopy of diamonds and rubies. Thus Anna began to research the very stone that she had turned down in her childhood.

The experiments were challenging and laborious; Anna worked for long hours, often through the night. Between 1942 and 1945, she published five single-authored papers on luminescence of diamonds and ruby. In August 1945 she submitted her PhD dissertation to Madras University. The University, with a blend of bureaucracy and gender bias, denied granting her the degree on the basis that she did not have an MSc degree. This, despite the fact that she had won a scholarship for research at the Indian Institute of Science, and had worked with CV Raman.

Anna was not daunted by this. Around the same time, the Indian government had announced scholarships for internships abroad in various fields, and Anna applied. In 1945, just as WWII was ending, she boarded a troopship to England with the government scholarship to take up an internship in in meteorological instrumentation at the Imperial College in London. Although she had wanted to pursue further research in physics, this was the only internship available. And it is meteorology that was to become her life’s metier.

Anna Mani returned to an independent India in 1948, and joined the Indian Meteorological Department at Pune where a programme to design weather instruments was taking shape. Anna was put in charge of construction of radiation instrumentation. Despite a paucity of resources, she would not compromise on research or quality; she inspired the scientists under her to “Find a better way to do it!”

Anna Mani standardised the drawings for nearly 100 different weather instruments and started their production. She worked with members of the World Meteorological Organisation to rigorously compare measurements to verify the accuracy of Indian instruments, as she fiercely believed that “Wrong measurements are worse than no measurements at all.” She continued her link with academic research and published a number of papers on subjects ranging from atmospheric ozone, to the need for international instrument comparisons and national standardisation

During the International Geophysical Year (1957-58), she set up a network of stations in India to measure solar radiation. Her focus was on the instrumentation meant to measure solar radiation, taking into account its seasonal and regional variation across India.

By 1964, Anna Mani became involved in the ozone-monitoring efforts in India; this was well before the Ozone Hole became an international issue. India had stations to measure ozone since the 1940s, but it was Mani’s team that in 1967, developed the Indian ozonesonde, a balloon-borne instrument to measure ozone levels. They also updated ground-based equipment so that Indian scientists had a lot of data to work with. The scientist also published a number of papers on subjects ranging from atmospheric ozone to the need for international instrument comparisons and national standardisation. Anna Mani received a citation from the International Ozone Commission for her work on ozone-level measurements from 1960 to 1990.

In 1963, at the request of Vikram Sarabhai of she successfully set up a meteorological observatory and an instrumentation tower at the Thumba rocket launching facility.

Anna Mani’s work of three decades made a valuable contribution to Indian meteorological sciences, indigenously manufactured instruments, reliable data, scientific rigour and up-to-date methodology. It was Mani who spearheaded India’s efforts to manufacture its own weather observation equipment, such as barometers and wind gauges, dramatically bringing down their cost – at the same time, she ensured their reliability and precision.

Anna Mani retired as deputy director general of the Indian Meteorological Department in 1976. She returned to the Raman Research Institute as a visiting professor for three years. Later she set up a millimetre-wave telescope at Nandi Hills, Bangalore. She published two books, The Handbook for Solar Radiation Data for India (1980) and Solar Radiation over India (1981), which have become standard reference guides for solar tech engineers.

Mani did not marry, she spent her life in the pursuit of science, In 1994 she suffered a stroke which affected her mobility; and died in 2001.

Anna Mani was steeped in, and driven by her passion for work. As she once said “I should be most unhappy to wake up without the prospect of some work to do.” But she went on to say that when the work was done, she enjoyed listening to music, reading and enjoying nature, her childhood passions.

Her advice to young meteorologists was, “We have only one life. First equip yourself for the job, make full use of your talents and then love and enjoy the work, making the most of being out of doors and in contact with nature.”

23 March is marked as World Meteorological Day. This is a good time to celebrate Anna Mani and her significant contributions that made independent India self-reliant in measuring aspects of the weather, and helped lay the ground for harnessing solar and wind power as alternative sources of energy.

–Mamata

Ode to the Sparrow

The last few days have seen many ‘DAYS’.

March 21 was World Poetry Day. It was adopted as such by UNESCO 21 March as World Poetry Day in 1999, at its 30th General Conference. The aim of Poetry Day is towards ‘supporting linguistic diversity through poetic expression and increasing the opportunity for endangered languages to be heard. World Poetry Day is the occasion to honour poets, revive oral traditions of poetry recitals, promote the reading, writing and teaching of poetry, foster the convergence between poetry and other arts such as theatre, dance, music and painting, and raise the visibility of poetry in the media.’ (UNESCO).

Sparrow

March 20 is celebrated as World Sparrow Day (WSD). The Day, celebrated for the first time in 2010, is meant to raise awareness about the house sparrow and the dangers it confronts. World Sparrow Day was established by Mohammed Dilawar who grew up in Nashik, Maharashtra. Birds were a big part of his childhood. As an academic, he came across a student-project about the decline of sparrows in UK, and that got him thinking about the same thing happening in India, and he decided to do something about it. He started Nature Forever Society (NFS) in 2005, and has been recognized as an Environmental Hero. WSD is one of his many initiatives to protect biodiversity.

Let’s bring the two ‘Days’ together with poems about….sparrows.

And interesting, I found two poems which also resonate with what we are going through today.

The first, a poem by the Tamil poet Mahakavi Bharatiyar, is about his yearning for India’s freedom.

Liberation – Little Sparrow: Subramania Bharathi

O May you escape all shackles

And revel in Liberty

Like this

Sprightly Sparrow!

Roam about in endless space,

Swim across the whirling air,

Drink the measureless wine of the light

That flows for ever from the azure sky!

Happily twittering and making love

Building a nest beyond danger’s reach

Guarding the fledgling, hatched from the egg

And giving it feed and a wholesome care.

From: https://tamilandvedas.com/tag/poem-on-sparrow/

The other, a poem is by Paul Laurence Dunbar who was born in 1872 to two formerly enslaved people from Kentucky and became one of the first influential Black poets in American literature. He sees the sparrow as a bird of peace and hope and love, whose calls our hearts are too deadened to listen to.

The Sparrow: Paul Laurence Dunbar

A little bird, with plumage brown,
Beside my window flutters down,
A moment chirps its little strain,
Ten taps upon my window–pane,
And chirps again, and hops along,
To call my notice to its song;
But I work on, nor heed its lay,
Till, in neglect, it flies away.

So birds of peace and hope and love
Come fluttering earthward from above,
To settle on life’s window–sills,
And ease our load of earthly ills;
But we, in traffic’s rush and din
Too deep engaged to let them in,
With deadened heart and sense plod on,
Nor know our loss till they are gone.

From: https://poets.org/poem/sparrow-0

Here is to a world where we make poetry, see sparrows, and importantly, listen to their call!

–Meena 

Colours

It is the season of colours. In Nature this is when blossoms and blooms announce the arrival of spring. The birds flaunt their plumage to attract their mates. It is colours that make this statement with an astounding variety of shades, from the flamboyant to the nuanced.

Colours are also significant in the world of humans. They express our moods, and our preferences. They indicate our race, nationality, or our sexuality. They inspire, as well as give form to our art, our textiles, and our cuisines. Each colour is unique in itself, but it is when colours come together that the real magic happens.

Sadly it is when colours begin to define race and politics that the magic turns murky. It is when national colours become the label of “friend” or “enemy”, and when the colour of the skin assumes pejorative tones that colours begin to create dangerous schisms and chasms. This when humans become so blinkered that colours begin to assume divisive identities; that colours increasingly create silos within which monochromatic sentiments fester until they explode in violence and war.

These ruminations were triggered by a poem that I came across. The words are simple, but the thoughts profound.

CRAYONS

While walking into a toy store

The day before today

I came upon a crayon box

With many things to say.

“I don’t like Red!” said Orange.

And Green said “Nor do I”.

“And no one here likes Yellow.

But no one knows just why.”

“We are a box of crayons

That does not get along.”

Said Blue to all the others,

“Something here is wrong.”

Well I bought that box of crayons

And I took it home with me.

And I laid out all the crayons

So the crayons could all see.

They watched me as I coloured

With Red and Blue and Green.

And Black and White and Orange

And every colour in between.

They watched as Green became the grass

And Blue became the sky.

The yellow sun was shining bright

On white clouds drifting by.

Colours changing as they touched,

Becoming something new.

They watched me as I coloured

They watched till I was through.

And when I finally finished,

I began to walk away.

And as I did the crayon box.

Had something more to say.

“I do like Red” said Orange

And Green said “So do I!”

“And Blue, you were terrific.

So high up in the sky!”

“We are a box of crayons

Each of us unique.

But when we are together

The picture is complete.”

Today as we celebrate Holi, the festival of colours, let the colours unite us in our revelries, in their true spirit. Let colours become all-inclusive rather than exclusive. Let the many different shades and tints come together to weave a magnificent and rich multi-hued tapestry. Let us remember that within every colour lies a story, and stories are the binding agent of cultures.

Happy Holi!

–Mamata

Celebrating Slimy

You would have been exhorted to vote for Parliamentary and your State legislature. You would have been urged to vote at your college elections for your Union rep, or in your housing society for office bearers. . You are routinely encouraged to vote for your favourite participant in some reality show or other.

But have you ever voted for a mollusc?

Well, that is what researchers in Germany are asking you to do! Experts from Senckenberg Museum, Loewe-TBG and the worldwide society for mollusc research (Unitas Malacologica) have put together a shortlist of five molluscs, and the one that gets the most votes is crowned Mollusc of the Year!

And the prize? Well, a bit sad for one representative of the winning species, which will be euthanized, and its cells burst to extract its DNA, which will then be sequenced. But happy news for the rest of that species and molluscs in general, as hopefully it will lead to a better understanding of their evolution.

Why the song and dance? Why can’t the experts just decide which mollusc they want to study and go ahead? Well, essentially, the competition is a way to raise awareness about molluscs. And boy, do we need our awareness raised! The very title of this piece which is propositioned on the world ‘slimy’, is an indicator of the lack of awareness. Our perception of moullscs as slimy creatures comes from our encounters with snails and slugs. But these are just a few species of the over 1,00,000 known mollusc species. Slime is NOT one of the characteristics of that the phylum, unlike the common perception.

Molluscs are the largest family of invertebrates after arthropods, with fossil records going back over 550 million years. They span in size from the microscopic to 45 feet; can weigh up to 750 kgs; can live from hours to centuries—the longest-lived one is known to have survived over 500 years. There are species which live on land and water, both fresh and salt. They inhabit every continent and ocean.

Snails, octopuses, squid, clams, scallops, oysters, cuttlefish and chitons are all molluscs. All of them have soft bodies which typically have a “head” and a “foot” region, and often their bodies are covered by a hard exoskeleton.

These creatures have played a significant role in the lives of humans. At one level, they have been a source of protein down the ages; pearls are of course a coveted gem; mollusc shells have been used as money at many times and in many parts of the world. At the same time, some species are serious pests of crops, have destroyed ships at sea, and have led to economic devastation. 

Though there are so many species of molluscs and they are so wide-spread, very little is known about them, either to the general public, or even to scientists. And that is why the competition is important—to create a widespread awareness of this set of creatures which are such a large part of our living world; and to enthuse scientists in their work to study them.

Coming to the specifics of the competition, the five contenders this year are:

Painted Snail
Painted Snail

Tustiaria rubescens, the Barge-footer, also known as the tusk or tooth shell. They live in both the Mediterranean Sea and Eastern Atlantic Ocean, inhabiting muddy bottoms, normally offshore.

Telescopium telescopium, the Telescope Snail lives in mangrove forests along the Indian Ocean including parts of the coasts of Pakistan, Goa (India), Thailand, Philippines, Australia, Singapore, Madagascar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Vietnam, and  Papua New Guinea.

Cymbulia peronii, the Sea Butterfly, is a species that has been reported from all oceans around the world. These 6 cm wide animals have a gelatinous shell which looks like a transparent slipper. They also have what looks like two wings which enable them to “fly” through water columns.

Polymita picta, the Painted Snail is an endangered snail. known for its colourful shell and the ‘love dart’, a device to stab partners during mating to transfer ‘sexual hormones’. It is found only in Eastern Cuba.

Teredo navalis , the Naval Shipworm is a clam which looks like a worm. They are also called shipworms, as they used to eat through the hulls of wooden ships. They are said to have eaten through Columbus’ ships and stranded him in Jamaica! They are found throughout the tropics and subtropics. 

The competition (this is the second edition) closes today, 15 March. So hurry to https://tbg.senckenberg.de/molluscoftheyear-2022/ and cast your vote to support research which will help us understand our living planet better.

–Meena