“Politically Correct” Childhood

So yet another well-loved children’s author is under the microscope for historical sins of omission and commission. This time it is Enid Blyton whose books at least two generations of children have grown up with. The charges against her are that her books are racist and xenophobic. While this has been raised in England in the context of the Blue Plaque outside the house that she lived in, it is curious how many articles this news has generated in India—perhaps many more than in England itself. And it is interesting to note that most of these pieces are by possibly members of the generation read her books in the 1960s and 1970s. I am one of those, and the flurry that the news has created led me to also think about how different our childhood was as compared with that of children today.

It was a time when we as children were pretty much left to our devices when it came to free-time activities. This was in the ancient pre-digital era; the only audio visual diversion was a couple of hours of family television watching. Our main pastime was reading and reading and reading. And at a time when there was relatively little exclusive publishing for children, our choices were the colourful and well-illustrated Russian books, and the limited “western” authors and titles. Access to these books was through libraries, and the once or twice a year parental gifts, and gifts from friends on birthdays, plus a lot of borrowing and exchanging between friends.

While our parents did not scrutinize nor control our choice of books, they provided a supportive environment for learning about the world, not just through books, but by nurturing values of openness, tolerance of differences, and celebration of diversity. 

I do not remember what brought Enid Blyton into our home, but it was certainly not our parents. It must have been through our friends and classmates that at some point we were introduced to the seemingly endless selection of characters and adventures that changed, and grew, as did we. Growing up in middle class Indian families, even as we lived our (not very adventurous) day-to-day lives–going to school, playing simple but happy indoor and outdoor games, we devoured the stories of children named Georgina, Darrel, Alicia, Gwendoline and Belinda. These children had picnics with hampers full of goodies; they had midnight feasts of scones with clotted cream, eclairs, scotch eggs, and ginger beer; and they roamed the English countryside, visiting castles, having adventures, and solving mysteries through deciphering clues. Somehow we did not find all this “alien” in any way, nor did we yearn for macaroons and meringues. These were stories that we spent all our free time reading, but they were simply that–stories. And they did what all good stories do–they led us to imagine what life was like in places other than ours—different landscapes and climate, different food and clothes, different lifestyles and occupations. In many ways they opened up the world for us; led us to understand that the world was made up of different cultures and customs. At the same time the stories also struck a chord of familiarity and empathy. The names were not like ours, but the characters were like people that we knew—the good friend, the bully, the snitch, the attention-hogger, the teacher’s pet; the teacher we all loved, and the one that we certainly did not! The emotions that they experienced were like ours—uncertainty, nervousness, excitement, jealousy, fights between friends, a sense of adventure and achievement, and pure naughty fun.

And those responses are not time bound. A sixth class child who read a few Enid Blyton books as recently as five years ago, commented about the characters: “They do things. They don’t sit at home watching television and playing on the i-pad like we do.” She added that because the children met freely in the holidays, they didn’t have to rely on parents to co-ordinate classes or times and places to meet (play-dates)”. Indeed every child can relate to the simple joys of doing having unsupervised fun with friends,

Did we consciously notice that there was a black character in one of the books, or that a girl who was a “tomboy” was named George, or that the French teacher in another set of books was subtly pictured as being “not quite British?” Did this leave such a lasting impression on our young minds that we grew up to become racist, sexist, or xenophobic? Did all the strange, but delicious, sounding foreign foods lead us to turn up our noses at the familiar fare that was on our plates? I think that these elements were just part of what we knew was a story. We did sometimes wish that we could go to a boarding school, or spend our summer holidays travelling in a caravan and exploring coves and caves. But those fantasies livened up our imagination and, indeed, increased our vocabulary.

Much has changed in the decades since my generation were nourished (or malnourished, as is now assumed) on such books. My own children, growing up in the early 1990s had a wider menu of choices than I had. And as a parent who was keenly interested in children’s literature, while I facilitated their introduction to more authors that were starting to be available, I did not restrain them from exploring and tasting new flavours on their own. By the time they reached Harry Potter, I did not have the energy nor inclination to be carried away on its blockbuster popularity. But I did strive to give them an upbringing that encouraged opportunities to learn from both fact and fiction, theory as well as practise.

Times have changed so much now. There is the access, literally at one’s fingertips, to literature from around the world, along with a great jump in publishing books with an Indian context, real issues and credible characters. And there is the quantum leap from the print medium to the entire new digital universe with e-books and audio-visual experiences. Children are living so deeply in a virtual world, they have serious problems relating to the real world. At one level parents have become overly conscious about the books their children read (they must be class, caste, gender, profession etc. etc. sensitive). On the other hand they cannot entirely control the insidious reach and power of the virtual world with just as many stereotypes, glorification of violence, latent marketing of products, and blatant push for consumerism.

Children are not so sheltered nowadays that they are not aware of issues, inequalities and unfairness of life, and their attitude to all these is not simply the reflection of something that they have read in a storybook. It is here that parents, and not books, need to be responsible. Responsible not for playing censor, nor for pushing their children into every possible opportunity and exposure to all that they deem “good”, but for giving their children the time and space to learn about the world that they live in, and set examples of how to negotiate it.

It is not “politically correct” books that will automatically create more sensitive readers, but sensible and sensitive parents and teachers who can support and nurture children to be good human beings.

–Mamata

Indicator Tea

Those who have gone through high school science will remember lab-experiments involving indicators. Adding a drop of phenolphthalein and noting that critical point at which the colourless liquid in the flask turned a bright pink. Or when the litmus paper turned red or blue. Remember how critical it was for our grades to observe these colour changes correctly? As a B.Sc Chemistry student, indicators played a pretty large part in my life!

Those colour changes are what my experiences with butterfly-pea tea took me back to. This tea has been much in vogue for some time now. But keeping in character, I am of course about two years behind the trend.

This in spite of having the creeper literally at my doorstep. Planted there to supply flowers for my mother’s puja– the shankpushpi flower is specially a favorite of Lord Shiva–it has proven itself a hardy survivor of my spurts of inept gardening. It grows and flowers and flourishes. The indigo-blue flowers are equally beautiful on the plant and in the puja.

Clitoria ternatea commonly known as Asian pigeonwings, bluebellvine, blue pea, butterfly pea or  Darwin pea, is known for its blue flowers, though there is a less common white variant. In India, it is called shankpusham, girikarnika or aprajita.

Here it is used mainly for worship and to some extent in Ayurveda, mainly for de-stressing, and to boost memory and brain function.

The use in Southeast Asia is more varied. It is an integral part of many Thai, Malaysian and Burmese recipes as an ingredient and as a colouring agent, and is very widely used in Chinese medicines.

Which brings me to the visually-stunning butterfly-pea tea, which is a wildly popular drink in those countries (and now the world). Made by steeping a handful of flowers (fresh or dry) in hot water, the resulting tea is a lovely blue. Squeeze a lemon into it, and it turns pink or even violet—taking you right back to your school lab! It is basically the same phenomenon—a change in pH resulting in a change in colour.

Research on the use of Butterfly Pea in managing Alzheimer’s has been ongoing for some time now. The latest is a research study from National Centre for Biological Sciences, India, published in Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, which takes forward the hypothesis that extracts from this plant ‘can help in neuroprotection and prevent progressions that cause the ailment’.

So go ahead and plant a shankpushi in your garden or a pot—only making sure that it gets enough sun. It is not at all difficult to grow—my creeper sheds seeds all around, and each week, I find tens of little plants wanting to curl around the nearest support and climb. It will do well in most soils, even enriching them, as it is leguminous and will fix nitrogen. Apart from watering it once in a while, you don’t need to do much.

And in return, it will add beauty to your garden, adorn your puja room, help you make conversation-piece teas, salad additions and coloured rice. And hopefully also boost your brain-power. A winning proposition all around!

–Meena

Bless You!

A few weeks ago I had shared a humourous poem about how sneezing was infectious in these days when the nasty Corona virus lurks in the air. Achoo is one of those little outbursts that in normal times do not elicit more than the auto response “Bless You”! But if one stopped to give it a second thought one would wonder why, of all things, would a person who sneezed need to be blessed?

Coincidentally, the history of how this practice began dates back to the time of another pandemic—the Plague. In fact the plague was not a one-time-in-history event. The deadly infectious disease swept across Europe several times, each wave wiping out huge numbers of people. Among the first symptoms of the plague were sneezing and coughing, which were soon followed by boils, fever, breathing trouble, vomiting blood, and necrosis of the skin tissue, causing the skin to turn black; and killing the patient within 7–10 days. Without any understanding of what caused this devastating condition, and with no proven cure, people relied on prayers, herbs and folk remedies.

It was during one of the plague pandemics in Europe, when the then Pope himself succumbed to the plague, that Pope Gregory I became the Pope. On February 16, 600 this Pope issued a papal edict ordering everyone within earshot of a sneeze to immediately recite a short, three-word prayer asking God for his blessing upon the unfortunate person. Pope Gregory hoped that if a sneezing person was bombarded with blessings, the collective prayers and good vibes would save the person from the full onset of the deadly disease. “God bless you” became a standard response to hearing a sneeze, and has remained so in many English speaking countries ever since.

Even before God Bless You was dictated as the response to a sneeze by a Papal Edict, the custom of invoking divine blessings after a sneeze predates this by several centuries. Most ancient cultures believed that sneezes were an omen or warning from God. Many believed that a sneeze sent a person’s soul hurling out of their body, and feared that in the brief period of being soulless, the sneezer’s mortal body was vulnerable to being invaded by the devil or evil spirits. Saying God Bless You was meant to keep away the evil spirits, and appealing to God to give the person their soul back. In later times it was believed that a person’s heart stops beating briefly when one sneezes and saying God Bless You helps it to get ticking again!

The Ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Romans believed that sneezing was a sign of the Gods revealing the future. A sneeze could be either a good omen or bad omen, bringing good luck or misfortune.

These were some of the predominant European beliefs about what was perceived as an unexplained physical outburst. But in all cultures around the world, there were, and continue to be, a variety of superstitions related to sneezing.  

In England and Scotland it was believed that a new born baby was under the spell of fairies until it sneezed. The Polynesian people also treated a child’s sneeze with similarly mystical significance; in Tonga a child’s sneeze meant bad fortune for the family; but the Maori believed that a young child’s sneeze signified the prospects of a visit or a piece of interesting news.

Sailors also believed that a sneeze could foretell what the voyage would be like. If a sailor sneezed on the starboard side of the ship as the vessel departed, it would be a lucky voyage, but a port side sneeze meant that the ship would encounter bad weather.

In Polish culture, sneezing is believed to be an inauspicious sign. The belief is that when a person sneezes, their mother-in-law is talking ill of them. If the person who sneezes is unmarried, they may have a bad relationship with their mother-in-law once married. This superstition continues to be become a popular belief even today. But in Italian culture, it is considered lucky if a cat sneezes. If a bride hears a cat sneeze on her wedding day, it means she will have a happy marriage. But if a cat sneezes three times, the whole family will come down with a cold!

In some East Asian countries it is believed that if a person is being talked about behind their back, it causes them to sneeze loudly; the number of sneezes indicating what is being said about them (one sneeze good things, two sneezes bad things); three sneezes in a row is a sign that someone is in love with you or you may fall in love soon. Four or more sneezes mean a calamity will come upon the person or their family.

In China, folklore regarding sneezing has been passed on through generations. A book describing the rites and customs of the royal family during the Tang Dynasty records that the officials would shout “wan sui” (long live) whenever the Emperor’s mother sneezed. Today people in some parts of China still use that form of blessing.

Also, there is another, less common version that’s based on what time of the day you sneeze: from 1 to 3 am, indicates that you are missed; from 3-5 am, means you will receive an invitation for dinner from a member of the opposite sex; 5-7 am, you will soon make a fortune; 11am-1pm, you will have a friend visiting from afar. Quite a sneeze schedule to keep track of!

Some other cultures too have superstitions about timing: In some, it is considered good luck when a person sneezes between noon and midnight, while in certain cultures the same is considered a bad omen. Some believe that when two individuals sneeze at the same time, it is believed the Gods are happy and will bless people with good health. While some believe that when two or more people are having a conversation and one of them sneezes, it reveals truth in what was being said.

In most parts of India it is considered inauspicious to sneeze just before stepping out of the house for any work. It is customary to pause when you sneeze and drink a little water to break the jinx and avoid misfortune.

While the most common response to Achoo in the English language is “Bless You” most languages have their own responses which broadly have the similar sense of invoking blessings or good health. The ancient Romans had a word, salve, which meant “good health to you,” while the ancient Greeks used “long life” as their sneeze response. The Hebrew laBri’ut, the German gesundheit, the Spanish salud, the Irish slainte, the Russian bud’ zdorov, and the Arabic saha all translate to “health.” In many Indian languages also the response is equivalent to “live long”. In Islamic culture it is customary for the person that sneezes to say Al-hamdu- Lillah (“Praise be to God”), and his/her companions should utter the words Yarhamuk-Allaha (“May God have mercy on you”) to which the sneezer should respond with Yahdeekum Allah Wa Yuslihu Baalakum”(“May Allah guide you”).

That’s about responses to Achoo. But equally interesting is the word Achoo itself. In the English language it is an example of onomatopoeia which is a word that is formed from the sound associated with it. The first syllable mimics the quick intake of breath, while the second is the sound made the convulsive expulsion of air through the nose and mouth. This is the case in many languages: a sneeze sound in Russian can be Apchkhi; in Korean, Achee; in France, Achoum; in Japan, Hakashun; in Germany, Hatschi; in Turkey, Hapsu; in Portugal, Atchim, and in different Indian languages, varying from Hachhee to Aachee.

Today we know that physiologically a sneeze is described as a spasmodic, involuntary response due to the presence of foreign particles, an allergy, or cold. But at another level, an Achoo still involuntarily elicits the same response as it has done over the centuries–“Bless You!”

–Mamata

Did I See What I Saw?

8.15 pm, June the 9th, 2021. Bangalore.

I was looking out at the madhu-malti (Combretum indicum; English names: Chinese Honeysuckle or Rangoon Creeper) in my garden.

And I saw an amazing sight. An aerial creature hovering and sucking nectar from the flowers. It darted away and was back for another 10-15 second go at the flowers. And again and again and again. And the movements were accompanied by a whirring sound.

Smaller than any bird I have seen, and with gauzy wings, it was much larger than any bee or wasp. To me, at first sight it looked like a giant wasp. But a wasp that was behaving like a sunbird or a humming bird. So then I wondered whether it was some sort of sunbird. But I didn’t feel comfortable with either explanation.

I rushed to get my phone. The creature was a fast-darting type; my phone does not have a great camera; the light was bad; last but not the least, I am a terrible photographer. I clicked away, knowing full-well that there would be nothing out of the exercise other than some dark blurs. And I was right.

I called Raghu. He came a few minutes later. Just caught a few glimpses of the creature. Not enough for him to make any conjectures apart from that it was a larger-than-ordinary flying creature. It did not hover when he came. The saga ended when it vanished into the dark. Raghu said it was just a moth and it was my hyperactive imagination which had seen it hovering and sucking.

I could not let this insult pass. I went to good old Google. And have concluded that what I saw was a Hummingbird Moth, probably a Hummingbird Hawkmoth (genus Macroglossum). But which one, I cannot tell.

Kitching, Kendrick and Smetacek in their enumeration ‘ A List Of Hawkmoth Species (Lepidoptera: Sphingidae) Of India, Nepal, Bhutan And Sri Lanka, Including Their Common Names’ list about 20 Hummingbird Hawkmoths which may be sighted across this area. The common names run an interesting gamut, from Black-Based Hummingbird Hawkmoth to Burnt-Spot Hummingbird Hawkmoth to Obscure Hummingbird Hawkmoth.

Obviously not the pic I took!

What is this creature which looks like a bird and acts like a bird, but is an insect? An evolutionary phenomenon called convergent evolution or homoplasy explains this resemblance. In homoplasy, two creatures from different families and orders develop similar forms which serve the same functions. Basically, Hummingbird Moths mimic hummingbirds because it gives them some advantages. What could these advantages be? Scientists opine that looking like a bird may help them for two major reasons: first, these moths are diurnal, and this makes them more vulnerable to predators. They are also pretty colourful, which adds to the vulnerability. So looking like a bird may fool predators, and give them an edge.

These moths, like hummingbirds, have extremely strong wings to enable them to hover and sip. Hummingbirds beat their wing over 80 times a second. While the moths are not quite as fast, the speed is enough to keep them suspended over the flower for several seconds at a time. They have very long proboscis, which enable to suck the nectar.

Good to know. But can I be sure that what I saw was a Hummingbird Hawkmoth?

No. While Hummingbird Hawkmoths have been sighted in Bangalore, they are supposed to be seen in South India in the winter. But this sighting was in June.

And emphatically, all HHs unlike most other moths, are diurnal creatures. They are supposed to be active in the daytime, especially when it is sunny and bright. But this sighting was at 8.15 p.m.

These moths are supposed to come back at the same time to the same place, day after day. But alas, not in my case. I have been watching the madhu-malti for the last few days not only between 8 and 8.30 p.m., but on and off through the day, with nary a sight.

So did I see what I saw?

–Meena

To School or Not to School?

Last week Meena wrote about the conundrum of schooling in the age of Corona lockdowns. While school-going children and teachers of all ages have been thrown overnight into an entirely alien pattern of e-teaching and learning, parents have been facing some of the biggest challenges in terms of new role and responsibilities. This period has also triggered numerous dilemmas and debates about how to provide the best possible education for children while schooling at home. Several parents have seriously started considering the merits of ‘home-schooling’.

Since the early days of formal educational systems as defined by the institution of the School, there have always been a cohort of parents who have chosen to experiment with alternative methods of teaching and learning for their children. The jury is still out on the strengths and weaknesses of this practise, but there are certainly interesting examples and experiences to peruse and ponder over. Here is a particularly inspiring one.

The story goes back to 1847; when 7-year-old Al, who had been in school for just three months, came home with a note from his teacher which stated that the young boy was “addled”, was not capable of keeping up with studies, and that he was advised to leave the school. Al’s mother Nancy refused to accept this harsh judgement about her child; she took this as a challenge and decided to teach him at home. She knew that though he was shy and retiring, but this was probably because he had a hearing difficulty that constrained his active participation in the classroom. Having once been a teacher herself Nancy diagnosed that the imaginative and inquisitive child was a ‘misfit’ because he was bored by conventional rote learning. Nancy encouraged her child’s curiosity, and love for books, and gave him the time and space to use his head and hands by exploring, experimenting and discovering for himself.

The young boy was fascinated by mechanical things and experiments. An elementary science book that she gave him when he was nine, explained how to do chemistry experiments at home. Al was hooked! He spent his pocket money on buying chemicals from the local pharmacy and collected basic equipment for experiments; when he was 10, he set up a simple lab in the basement of his house where he spent hours. Encouraged by his parents, he read voraciously, including literature and history. Thus began a lifelong passion for learning for a boy who never had more than three months of formal schooling.

Al grew up to be known as Thomas Alva Edison, one of the most prolific inventors of all times whose inventions changed the world in many ways–from the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, and the motion picture camera, as well as improving the telegraph and telephone. In his 84 years, he acquired an astounding 1,093 patents. He invented both product but also systems to support the process of invention, a forerunner of the concept of R&D labs. Edison went beyond being an inventor to also become a successful manufacturer and businessman, marketing his inventions to the public and setting up what was one of the early forms of a successful corporation.

Thomas Alva Edison’s mother Nancy died when he was 24 years old but she remained his source of inspiration through his life and career. In later years, a grown and very successful Thomas always acknowledged that his mother’s discipline for a focused life was responsible for his great success. As he said, “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me, and I felt I had someone to live for, someone I must not disappoint.”

Not all of us can be a Nancy Edison, and certainly not every home-schooled child may grow up to be a Thomas Alva Edison. What interested me more about the story was not so much the great inventor Edison about whom much has been written, but Edison’s deep thinking on education that was well ahead of his times, and clearly reflected the deep impact of his personal experiences.  

Edison was critical of the education system of his day. He felt that “The present system does not give elasticity to the mind. It casts the brain into a mould. It insists that the child must accept. It does not encourage original thought or reasoning and lays more stress on memory than observation. The result of accepting unrelated facts is the fostering of conservatism [in thinking]. It breeds fear, and from fear comes ignorance.”

Edison’s entire life was an intense and passionate quest for knowledge and understanding which came not by blindly following books but by learning-by-doing. All his life he adhered to a meticulous recording of innumerable experiments, thoughts, and observations in thousands of detailed laboratory notebooks. Even when he became a successful businessman, his intense love for information, communications, and learning led him to set up his corporate office in his beautiful and well-stocked library. He even considered his childhood deafness, which increased as he got older, as an asset rather than a liability. For someone who was an inventor, he was asked why he did not invent a hearing aid. He said that not being assailed by outside noise made it easier for him to concentrate on his experiments and research.

Even when he had his own labs and research staff, Edison continued to endorse his style of hands-on learning-by-doing. One of his early experiments, in the early 1890s, was to produce bricks that were porous, but which would not absorb moisture when exposed to rain or snow as they were transported in open train cars. Edison and his colleagues spent almost a year experimenting with different materials and solutions to come up with a suitable binding solution or “muck” as they called it. Edison started referring to his researchers as “muckers”, and then on, the name stuck for all researchers who worked in his labs, who later formed an organisation called Muckers of the Edison Laboratory” or “Edison’s Muckers”.

This is the core of Edison’s strong views on education Edison believed that most schools taught children to memorize facts, when they ought to have students observe nature and to make things with their hands; in other words ”be muckers”.

Later, as a parent himself, he set up small problem solving searches for his children. One of these was “team-based research”; he would tell them what he was interested in reading about, and they would have to go through the books in his vast library and search out not only the books, but also mark the relevant pages or sections with slips of paper. The family also played indoor games where the traditional rules were often changed.

It was natural that Edison’s own upbringing and his discomfort with the education system would lead him, in later years, to appreciate and support Montessori’s positive alternative   philosophy of education. As he wrote, I like the Montessori method. It teaches through play. It makes learning a pleasure. It follows the natural instincts of the human being.”

In 1913 when Maria Montessori made her first visit to the United States for a lecture tour she stayed at Edison’s home.  Edison helped found one of the very first Montessori schools in the United States thus helping to spread the message and mission of an alternative educational system.

Edison’s inventions transformed the world in many ways, and many of these were the pioneers of the tech revolution that has changed the way we think and operate today. But Edison also concerned himself equally with the true meaning of education and the processes of learning. His work and life was guided by four simple principles, taught to him by his mother:

Never get discouraged if you fail. Learn from it. Keep trying.

Learn with both your head and hands.

Not everything of value in life comes from books-experience the world.

Never stop learning. Read the entire panorama of literature.

If only every parent could internalize, and instil, with conviction, these principles that lay down the foundation of life-long learning.

A century later, the world is grappling anew with the same question: What should be the future of education? While re-imagining the transformation of education in the age of technology it would still be worthwhile to leave space for our children to be “muckers”, and for the unfettered joy of learning.

–Mamata

On the Wing, By the Thousands

It has been raining on and off for a week and more here. But yesterday, as I took a walk after the rain, I saw swarms and swarms of winged termites circling the lampposts. Even as hundreds swarmed, as many fell on the ground, lost their wings and started crawling around, hopeful of mating.

But in reality, most became a high-protein meal for the frogs that were out by the dozens, hopping and mating all over the paths. And should some land on a wall, there were the lizards, ready to give chase and swallow them up.

It was a full-on display of with predator-prey drama. An amazing sight.

It often rains, but it is not every day that these creatures swarm. What triggers this? When do they swarm? Why do they swarm?

Swarming termites, also called alates, swarm when their original colony has reached a certain capacity level and is ready to expand. This usually happens once a year. All colonies in an area swarm at around the same time, which explains why one sees the phenomenon of thousands of them out in a small window of a few days.

The swarms have both males and females. They live close to the soil and when conditions are right, they take to the wing.  Their sole job is to reproduce and set up new colonies, so once they are airborne, they find a potential mate, shed their wings, fall to the ground and mate. They then find a new place to start a nest.

The swarming usually happens on a day following a rain shower, when the skies are overcast, and the wind speed is about 9.5 kmph. Alates wait for the rains to have moistened the soil well, as damp soil makes it easy for the couples to build their nests, and survival rates are higher when there is more humidity. But even in the best conditions, survival rates are only about 0.5 per cent, which explains why there must be so many swarmers!

Humans being conditioned to think of other creatures from their point of view, and term termites as pests. But termites have a huge role to play in nature. They are nature’s best recyclers. Termites feed on cellulose and hence break down dead plants and put nutrients back into the soil. They burrow and aerate the soil, allowing rainwater to trickle in and enable the mixing of nutrients. Their sticky excretions hold the soil together, preventing soil erosion. Without all this, the cycle of life would not go on.

We marked Environment Day last week. A good time to remind ourselves of the role of every living creature in the complex web of life, and that they were not put there to be of use to us. Each has a purpose and meaning, beyond their roles in our puny lives!

Having said that, we can still smile as we read Ogden Nash’s verse:

Some primal termite knocked on wood
And tasted it, and found it good!
And that is why your Cousin May
Fell through the parlor floor today.

–Meena

Carle’s Creatures

A very hungry caterpillar, loads of food, lots of colour, very few words (224 to be precise) and little holes to poke tiny fingers through—that’s the formula that made one of the most popular children’s books of all times. The book simply called The Very Hungry Caterpillar has sold more than 55 million copies around the world since it was first published in 1969, and has been translated into more than 70 languages.

This was one of the many books that author and artist Eric Carle created to delight generations of children (and parents like me) across the world.

Eric Carle died last week at the age of 91 leaving behind a legacy of colour and care for the generations to come.

Eric Carle Jr. was born on June 25, 1929, in Syracuse, New York, to German immigrants. When Eric was six years old, his parents moved back to Germany. With the start of World War II his father was drafted into the German army and soon became a prisoner of war in Russia. Eric, who was then 15, managed to avoid the draft but was conscripted by the Nazi government to dig trenches on the Siegfried line, a 400-mile defensive line in western Germany. The war left its ravages all around; his father returned home a broken man.

At the end of the war, Eric joined the State Academy of Fine Arts in his hometown Stuttgart to study typography and graphic art, from where he graduated in 1950. Eric always dreamed of returning to America, the land of his happiest childhood memories. In 1952, with only 40 dollars to his name, he decided to move to New York City, where he got a job in advertising, working as a graphic designer for The New York Times where he worked for nearly a decade. By then, he had had enough of the advertising profession, and was thinking of changing direction.

Inspired by what his art teacher had once told him—“start anew, move on, keep surprising”, Eric Carle embarked on a career as a freelance designer when he was almost 40 years old. He knew he wanted to make pictures but the thought of doing children’s books never crossed his mind. But as serendipity would have it, one of the pictures that he had created for an advertisement caught the attention of Bill Martin Jr, a respected educator and author, who asked Eric to illustrate a book for him. That opened up the new direction that he had been seeking. Soon he began writing and illustrating his own picture books.

Many of Eric Carle’s picture books are about small creatures like caterpillars, ladybugs, spiders, crickets and fireflies. These are a tribute to some of his happiest childhood memories of walks with his father. As he recounted “When I was a small boy, my father would take me on walks across meadows and through woods. He would lift a stone or peel back the bark of a tree and show me the living things that scurried about. He’d tell me about the life cycles of this or that small creature, and then he would carefully put the little creature back into its home. I think in my books I honour my father by writing about small living things,” he continued. “And in a way I recapture those happy times.”

Eric celebrates these little creatures and the world they inhabit with vibrant art work in his signature style of creating images by layering tissue paper painted with acrylic colours, and rubbing with his fingers, brushes or other objects to create different textures. His love for bright and intense colours was perhaps a subconscious rebellion against the colourless and grim palette of the Nazi Germany that he grew up in. Under the Nazis modern, expressionistic art was banned and all exterior facades were painted a dull grey or brown. As an illustrator Eric Carle not only used brilliant colours but often portrayed his creatures in unconventional colours to show his young readers that in art, there is no wrong colour.  

What makes the Caterpillar book so unique is its interactive element which is created with using a hole in the pages. Suddenly the book becomes a toy which little fingers can explore, and enjoy, just as they want to. The idea for that ‘something extra’ came to Eric as he was idly playing with a paper punch and saw the holes that he had punched in some papers.

These were the design elements that defined Eric’s work. But the content was equally rich and meaningful. Eric had an instinctive sense of what made children and childhood so special. He drew upon the child in himself to reveal the cherished thoughts and emotions of children, and treated then with understanding and respect. The confusions and insecurities of the little creatures in his books reflect those of the little children who face their first transitions like leaving the familiar security of home to enter the strange new world of school. As Eric Carle explained, The unknown often brings fear with it. In my books I try to counteract this fear, to replace it with a positive message. I believe that children are naturally creative and eager to learn. I want to show them that learning is really both fascinating and fun.”

Above all he believed that children needed hope and excitement for what the future holds; and nothing expresses that better than the hungry caterpillar that transforms itself into a beautiful butterfly!

The magic of Eric Carle’s books lies not just in their visual appeal but in the opportunity that they offer children to freely express their curiosity and creativity as they learn about the exciting world around them.

Every little child is like a hungry caterpillar, hungry for taking in the colours, sounds, and tastes of the world around. And just as the ravenous caterpillar ate its way through apples and pears, plums and strawberries, oranges, and piles of other goodies, through every day of the week, children have a voracious appetite for learning and imbibing new knowledge and new experiences. And unlike the caterpillar, they don’t get a stomach ache from being overstuffed with these! Let us strive to satiate these hungers by opening up the world for our children, by joining them in the adventure of exploring and discovering the world around them.

A good day to start is World Environment Day that is celebrated on 5 June.

–Mamata

The Future of Education

A year ago, when we were just beginning to understand the impact of Corona and lockdowns on our lives, my colleagues and I had a brainstorming, and jotted down what we saw as the impacts of these on school-age children. These included:

  • Loss in educational achievements due to long break
  • Increasing inequity in educational inputs– limited access of Govt School children to e-learning
  • Challenges in parental support to facilitate learning at home
  • Inadequate interaction with other children /adult
  • Difficulties in adjusting to new teaching methods/ technologies/ new curriculu
  • Inadequate educational inputs, resources
  • No exposure to outdoors, play, co-curricular activities
  • No outlet for energy
  • Less structure, discipline
  • Lower nutrition due to disruptions to mid-day meals
  • Challenges to govt. school infra of social distancing norms, sanitation, water
  • Pressure on Govt. Schools due to reverse migration, and shifting from private to govt. schools due to fall in income.
  • Timely availability of textbooks, coping with new timelines
  • Pressure of change in Academic year, exam patterns
  • Increased dropouts for various reasons, increase in child labour, child marriages etc.
  • Fear, anxiety
  • Parents stressed with loss of incomes, confinement etc.
  • Lowered access to healthcare.

In the year that we have gone through, not many satisfactory responses to these challenges have been found.

The pandemic is forcing us to focus on the short term, on questions like:

To open schools, or not to open schools?

To start classes, or not to start classes?

To conduct exams, or not to conduct exams?

But the responsibility of policy-makers is to go beyond, and think about the future shape of education, and to re-imagine it for the new world. This is where the UNESCO titled ‘Education in a post-COVID world: Nine ideas for public action’ will be useful. While it not a kunji  to give short answers to profoundly important questions about the future of education, it does give some useful frameworks to think about these questions. The nine ideas it propounds are:

‘1. Commit to strengthen education as a common good. Education is a bulwark against inequalities.

2. Expand the definition of the right to education so that it addresses the importance of connectivity and access to knowledge and information.

3. Value the teaching profession and teacher collaboration. Encourage conditions that give frontline educators autonomy and flexibility to act collaboratively.

4. Promote student, youth and children’s participation and rights. Prioritize the participation of students and young people broadly in the co-construction of desirable change.

5. Protect the social spaces provided by schools as we transform education. The school as a physical space is indispensable. Traditional classroom organization must give way to a variety of ways of ‘doing school’ but the school as a separate space-time of collective living, specific and different from other spaces of learning must be preserved.

6. Make free and open source technologies available to teachers and students. Education cannot thrive with ready-made content built outside of the pedagogical space and outside of human relationships between teachers and students. Nor can education be dependent on digital platforms controlled by private companies.

7. Ensure scientific literacy within the curriculum.

8. Protect domestic and international financing of public education. The pandemic has the power to undermine several decades of advances.

9. Advance global solidarity to end current levels of inequality.’

Excerpted from: https://en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/education_in_a_post-covid-world 

The world has changed. Crisis has to be turned to opportunity. We have to start to re-imagine the Future of Education–now.

–Meena

The Men of the Trees

Last week the cyclone that battered the western coast of India left thousands of trees, old and young, uprooted. It also saw the demise of the venerable tree man of India Sundarlal Bahuguna to whom we paid tribute earlier this week.

Many of us (then) young environmental educators cut our teeth on the legend of Chipko and its inspiring leaders. But behind these movements and leaders were earlier pioneers who paved their thinking and the way. One of these was a man who Sundarlal Bahuguna called his Guru, and who in turn considered Bahuguna as his kindred soul

This was Richard St. Barbe Baker, an English biologist and botanist, environmental activist and author who is known as the pioneer of a worldwide movement to plant trees, and remembered simply as the Man of the Trees. 

Richard was born in 1889 in Hampshire in England in a family descended from lines of farmers, parsons and evangelists. Growing up in a home that was surrounded by woods young Richard spent hours wandering among the trees and getting to know and love them. He also spent a lot of time gardening, and developed a lifelong belief in the value of manual work. After school Richard travelled to Canada in search of adventure while he did some missionary work. There he saw how the prairie was being destroyed and the soil being degraded by unsound agricultural practices. Young Richard was shocked and shaken; he felt that he was seeing Mother Earth being stripped alive. Richard had the head of a scientist but the heart of a humanitarian which could not bear to see the forest cover being torn from the earth. He returned to England to study forestry at Cambridge. After suspending his studies to serve in World War I, he graduated, and went to Kenya as a colonial forester in the early 1920s.

In Kenya Richard witnessed the environmental devastation that resulted from a combination of the traditional slash-and-burn farming methods of the region, overgrazing by goats, and from the colonial farmers’ introduction of crops and methods requiring enormous acreage. He developed a plan to restore the land by planting food crops between rows of young trees. But he faced tremendous resistance from the indigenous Kikuyu people who believed that planting new trees was “God’s business”.

Quite different from the ‘White Man’s’ attitude to native populations, Richard felt that he needed to gain their trust. As he later wrote: To be in a better position to help them I studied their language, their folklore and tribal customs, and was initiated into their secret society, an ancient institution which safeguarded the history of the past which was handed down by word of mouth through its members.

Soon I came to understand and love these people and wanted to be of service to them. They called me 
“Bwana M‘Kubwa,” meaning “Big Master,” but I said, “I am your M‘tumwe” (slave).

Richard looked to one of their long-held traditional practices—holding dances to commemorate significant moments as an opportunity to also promote an awareness of the significance of tree planting and conservation.  From this integration of cultural values and environmental stewardship was born the Dance of the Trees. His work of healing the land in partnership with the Kikuyus led to his becoming the first white person inducted into the secret society of Kikuyu Elders. He was given the name Watu wa Miti, The Man of the Trees, an appellation that became the name of an international organization that began as his first reforestation project in 1922.

In 1924 Richard embraced the Baha’i Faith and his deep belief was expressed in a love for all forms of life and in his lifelong dedication to the natural environment. His personal mission of spreading the message of the importance of trees and forests in sustaining life was carried through his organisation originally called Men of the Trees which grew into The International Tree Foundation, the first international non-governmental organization working with the environment. This is just one of many organizations he established in his lifetime.

St. Barbe’s formal work as a forester and his personal mission took him to many countries in Africa as well as other parts of the world including New Zealand. He looked upon the world as his garden

Perhaps among the places and people that touched him the most was India.  In 1959 Baker came to India, where he assisted Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in instituting a tree-planting program to address the Indian desert problem and to raise the water table. He made similar efforts in Pakistan, Australia, and other countries affected by encroaching deserts.

In 1977 Richard came to India to participate in the International Vegetarian Congress. This is where he met Sundarlal Bahuguna who had come down from the hills especially to meet him. In an article written in 1979 Sundarlal recalled how “Two months earlier I had written a letter to him at his Sussex address through the Ecologist, offering my services for his mission, while giving a brief account of the ‘Chipko movement’ which we had launched to save trees in the Himalaya. I had made a request to him to devote some time for the Himalaya on his arrival in India. He never received my letter, but as what I had read about him inspired in me a profound veneration for him, I had come all the way from the hills to Delhi as if on a pilgrimage to have his ‘darshan’. When I touched his feet, he kept his hand on my head and gave me an affectionate pat. He does not shake hands but acknowledges greetings with folded hands. I felt as if I was in the presence of a heavenly soul.

In July 1989 on the occasion of St. Barbe Baker’s birth centenary, Sundarlal spoke at the International Conference of ‘The Men of The Trees, Trees are Life’ at Reading University, England. He shared how St Barbe Baker got engaged with the Chipko movement.

As soon as he heard about the Chipko Movement in the Himalaya he left the conference hall (of the Vegetarian Conference) and decided to go there. In those, days I was regarded as an undesirable person, because we were fighting against the so-called scientific felling of trees. The important people in Delhi did not want him to go to the Himalaya. To persuade him they said. “You are an old man (he was then 88) and in view of your failing health you should not take the risk of travelling through the rugged mountains”. He replied, “At the most it will mean my death. I am already living on bonus. I live only for a day and if I die for the cause of the Himalaya, that will be the most glorious event of my life. I will go straight to heaven.” When they saw his determination, they asked, “Since when do you know this man with whom you are going?” He instantly replied “What do you mean, since when have we been knowing each other–for many lives!” We were together for eleven days. I took him to Vinoba Bhave, the walking saint of India, the disciple of Mahatma Gandhi. When the moment of our departure came, I was very sad. I asked, “When shall we meet again?” He cheered me up by saying, “We shall be meeting each other during our prayers and while working to save trees.”

St Barbe Baker died at the age of 91 on 9 June 1982 during a visit to Saskatoon, Canada, only a few days after planting his last tree. Sundarlal Bahuguna died on 21 May 2021 at age 94. Both inspirational figures whose lives were a unique blend of environmental awareness, spiritual activism, and total dedication to their cause. Their life was indeed their message.

–Mamata

RIP Sundarlal Bahugunaji, Sentinel of the Slopes

The story of the Chipko Movement was one of the examples that was held up to the youth of the ‘70s and ‘80s, to inspire them towards caring for the environment, and to urge them towards peaceful activism.

Deeply rooted in the Gandhian philosophy and the Sarvodaya movement, Sundarlal Bahugunaji and Chandiprasad Bhatji were at the forefront of this, one of the first people’s movements in the country which saw the connection between the degradation of the environment and the well-being and livelihoods of people.

For decades, Bahugunaji had been working in the Tehri Garwhal area of what would become the state of Uttarakhand, organzing people along Sarovdaya lines, addressing issues of livelihoods, women empowerment and ecological protection.

These years of work prepared the ground for what would become the Chipko Movement.

The story begins in the monsoon of 1970. The Alaknanda, along with other Himalayan rivers was in flood and swept down the valley, leaving behind a wake of destruction. The people in the area could clearly see that the extent of the havoc was linked to the destruction of the thick forests that had once covered the mountain-sides. For many years now, trees were being cut by contractors, and the wood taken away to the cities. This left the slopes exposed, unstable and vulnerable to floods like this. Not only that, while the contractors were allowed to cut wood, the communities who had lived in and around the forest for generations and depended on them for food, fuel, medicine, timber  and other forest produce, were denied these. The forests were originally of oak, and the people knew these trees and used them in a number of ways. But now, contactors were not only destroying the oak forests, but they were also replacing them with chir pine which was not suited to the area, nor useful to the people, but whose wood was prized commercially. All this led to an increasing sense of frustration in the people.

The spark was lit on a March morning in 1973. A group of people from a sports-goods factory in Allahabad reached Gopeshwar village in Chamoli District. They had come to cut ash trees for the manufacture of cricket bats.

The villagers were in no mood to let these people cut their trees. They requested the axemen to go back, but they were under orders to cut the trees, and so refused. The villagers spontaneously decided that they were not going to let a single tree be touched even at the cost of their own lives, and rushed forward shouting ‘Chipko, chipko’ (roughly, ‘hug the trees’). They clung to the trees. The axemen, not knowing what to do, returned without cutting a single tree.

It was a battle won, but the war continued. Two months later, the contractors got permission from the local forest officer to cut the trees in a forest near the village of Rampur Phata, about 60 km away.

News of this reached Gopeshwar. The people were incensed. The entire village—men, women, old and young—set off in a procession to Phata. They carried drums and trumpets and banners with messages like ‘Chop me, not the tree’. The marched to Phata, singing and shouting slogans. People from other villages along the way joined them, and ‘Chipko’ was on everyone’s lips.

The huge procession reached Phata. The axemen were once again forced to flee by a peaceful crowd ready to give up their lives for the tree.

Confidence grew in the communities that they could protect their forests and environment.

But the contractors were worried. They were plotting and planning. Once, when they knew that the menfolk of Reni village would be away, they sent their men to the forests there. But the news of this reached the village, and a procession of women and children led by the fearless Gaura Devi walked towards the forests. At first the contractor’s men were not worried, as they thought here was not much the women could do. But they were wrong! Gaura Devi made it very clear that they would hug the trees and not let them touch a single one. ‘Shoot us first. Shoot us, only then can you cut this forest which is like a mother to us.’

Once again the axemen had to return empty-handed.

Not only did the women make the tree-cutters exit this once. They saw that the men had to cross a path to reach the forests. But this path on the steep mountain route had caved in during a landslide. A cement slab had been placed across it to allow people to cross from one side to the other. This was the only access to the forest. The women had a brainwave. With a strong stick and their combined strength, they managed to push the slab into the deep gorge below. The path could no longer be crossed!

And so the Chipko movement took root, impacting not only that area, but the environmental consciousness of the country and the world.

And this is the legacy left to us by Sundarlal Bahugunaji. The troubling question is whether we are living up to it.

–Meena