Buzz Words

It is Bee season in America and the media is abuzz with news, not about the winged insects but about words and their spellings. The Spelling Bee is quite an American institution that has grown, over the years, into a noteworthy national event with high stakes. This is a competition in which contestants are asked to orally spell a broad selection of words, with varying levels of difficulty, and the one who can spell the most words correctly wins. What is unique is that the contestants are school children below the age of 14 years.

While it is in the United States that a game or competition involving words became popular, an early mention of this idea can be found in the early nineteenth century book about education of young boys in England titled The Madras School. One passage says of the pupils, “Some of the boys who are brothers, after they have left school in an evening, have spelling matches at home.”  Following this, different terms were used to describe this type of spelling competition, including Trials in Spelling; Spelling School; Spelling-Fight, Spelling Combat and Spelldown. All these terms clearly indicate the competitive nature of the activity.

The practice of spelling matches spread throughout the United States in the 19th century. One reason for this was attributed to the publication of Noah Webster’s Blue-backed Speller which was first published in 1783. Noah Webster, a young school teacher had embarked on an ambitious project to compile and coin words to make a uniquely American-English vocabulary and spelling. The result of two years of work was a book of spellings for school children, which because of its blue cover, became known as the Blue-backed Speller. For the, then, relatively new United States of America, it was felt that the best way to teach children the spellings in this book was through spelling games. 

By the early 20th century, spelling competitions were becoming popular across the country, being seen mainly as an educational tool. With this educational purpose in mind, the first national Spelling Bee as it began to be called, was held by the National Education Association in 1908. It was unusual for those days in that it had some racially integrated teams that competed, drawing the ire and protest from the conservative all-white teams. The competition was also won by a black eighth grader.

The next major national Spelling Bee was not held until 1925. This time it was sponsored by a local newspaper Louisville Courier-Journal which collaborated with eight other newspapers. After a series of state level competitions nine finalists travelled to Washington DC for the finals. The winner was an 11-year-old boy from Kentucky with the winning word gladiolus. Frank Neuhauser received a prize of $500 in gold pieces and was honoured with a parade on his return home.

Since then it was News Services that sponsored the event.  After 16 years of being one of the sponsors, in 1941, the Scripps Howard News Service acquired complete sponsorship and changed the name to Scripps Howard Nation Spelling Bee.

In America the National Spelling Bee has occurred every year since 1925, with the exception of three years due to World War ll. Over the years it has become more and more competitive, as well as commercial, with higher prize money, and other rewards becoming more substantial. The winner’s prize today is $50,000, many zeroes added from the original prize of $500! The scale has also changed, from the nine students who participated in 1925, to over 500 entrants in the last few years.

Starting at the local town and city level, in elementary or middle school, and progressing to the district, state, and then national level, with numerous rounds and eliminations, it is an event that garners a lot of interest, including media attention, even internationally.

Over the years, the words have increased in difficulty, and the competition has added new rules to further the complexity, and test a deeper understanding of spelling, vocabulary, learning concepts, and correct English usage. One thing has remained constant since its inception with Noah’s Blue-backed Speller— Webster’s New English Dictionary is the official dictionary of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and considered the final authority for the spellings of words. It contains about 473,000 words, any of which, potentially, the participants could be asked to spell.

While the Spelling Bee is popularly considered to be originally and characteristically “as American as apple pie” it is ironic that for the last many years it is children of Indian origin that have won. While Indian-Americans make up about one percent of the total population of the United States, the majority of winners in the past 20 years belong to this group. The first champion was 11-year-old Balu Natarajan who won in 1985. Since 1999, 26 Spelling Bee champions have been Indian-American.

The finals of the 2021 Spelling Bee overturned this trend with 14 year-old Zaila Avant-Garde becoming the first African American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

For an event that is all about words, the most enduring mystery about this is why it is called a Spelling BEE! Most people have for years thought that this must have some association with the industrious and social insect. But scholars feel that the word bee is in fact a derivative from the old English word bene or been, which means “a prayer” or a “favour” referring to “voluntary help given by neighbours towards the accomplishment of a particular task.”

This meaning of Bee describes its traditional reference to a community social gathering at which friends and neighbours joined together in a single activity (sewing, quilting, spinning, logging etc.) usually to help one person or family.

But over the years the event has spawned the kind of cut throat competition that marks all sporting events. Children who are deemed to have potential are “groomed” from the time they start school. They spend years in rigorous “training” under professional coaches. They are under great pressure to “perform” and win at any cost.

The spirit of community, voluntary participation and selfless cooperation that was the root of the Bee in the Spelling Bee seems today to be a far cry from the extremely competitive, and even combative, event that the Spelling Bee has become.

–Mamata

            

                                                                          

What Shall I Be?

In our experience of working with rural youth and those from smaller towns, we often found that when we asked them about their career aspirations, they would mention ‘engineer’, ‘teacher’, or ‘police’. With good reason, because these were among the few professionals they came across in their day to day lives. This gave us a good insight into the need for expanding horizons by introducing them to a variety of careers.  And it did make a difference. From forensic science to data science, from yoga teaching to wood-working, from optician to wildlife biologist—once the children knew about them, they were inspired to dream differently.

From Minva Aur Dumpua ke Karnaame, by V. Raghunathan, illustrated by Shilo Shiv Suleiman. Diamond Press

But never in my wildest dreams would I have thought to introduce some of the following careers to the young people. But maybe it’s time we get youth excited about some of them.

Given these COVID times, it would be good to inspire people to become aerobiologists–scientists who understand Aerobiology, the branch of biology which focusses on organic particles which are passively transported by the air, including bacterial viruses, fungal spores, pollen grains etc.! Or for that matter, to study Loimology, that is, gain knowledge of plagues and other pestilential diseases. Hygiology, the study of cleanliness could become big too

I would urge those interested in nature, wildlife or conservation to specialize in Caliology, or the study of bird’s nests– ‘calio’ comes from the Greek καλιά [kalia], a wooden dwelling, hut, or nest. Nidology means the same too, but the origin is from the Latin ‘nidus’ meaning nest. Or take up Myrmecology, the study of ants. Some could opt for Ophiology, the study of snakes.

Garbologists are going to become very important too—they study garbage, and hopefully will help to solve the world’s solid waste crisis. Given that our weather predictions are not too accurate with the monsoons more often missing than hitting on the given date, maybe more people should get into Anemology–the study of winds, and Brontology, the study of thunder. And we will always need people to take up Bromatology, the study of food. Bromotologists create new food products and also work to ensure food safety.

While I would urge young people to study Demology, that is, the study of human activities and social conditions, I would have to ensure they don’t confuse it with Demonology, the study of demons or beliefs about demons.

While not so disastrous a difference, I would still urge making the point that Mycology is the study of fungus, and Myology the study of muscles; Nephology the science of clouds, and Nephrology the study of kidneys; Pedology the study of soils, and Pedagogy the method and practice of teaching; Tribology the study of friction and wear between surfaces, and Trichology, the study of hair and its disorders.

And I would ask students to double check that they know what they are aspiring for when they decide to study Nosology—it is the study of diseases; or Trophology—it is the study of nutrition; Potamology the study of rivers; or Carpology the study fruits.

At any rate, no one can complain of lack of choices!

–Meena

Whatever you choose to be, whether a surgeon or a welder, make sure your skills are the best!

On the occasion of World Youth Skills Day, July 15.

It’s All in the Stars

This is high summer season in most parts of the Northern hemisphere. And the last few weeks have seen unprecedented high temperatures in otherwise temperate regions. A time when it is difficult to imagine that one half of the world is in the throes of winter! And that some parts are heralding in a New Year in July!

Indeed the Maori people of New Zealand heralded in their new year last week, by waking up, amidst freeing polar winds, to gaze at the stars of Matariki before the crack of dawn. Behind this age-old ritual lies a rich legacy of lore and legend.

Matariki is the Maori name for a cluster of stars that is visible in their night sky at a particular time of year, usually in June-July. Better known as The Pleiades (as the ancient Greeks called them), these are part of what astronomers call an open star cluster, a group of stars all born around the same time. Telescopes have identified more than 800 stars in the region, though most humans can spot only about six or seven on a clear, dark night. Many cultures around the world refer to this cluster as the Seven Sisters and every culture has myths and ancient stories related to these stars.

The Maori call this cluster Matariki.  Matariki is an abbreviation of Ngā Mata o te Ariki Tāwhirimātea (The eyes of the god Tāwhirimātea). According to legend, Tāwhirimātea, the god of wind, was so angry when his siblings separated their parents Ranginui the sky father, and Papatuanuku the earth mother, that he tore out his eyes and threw them into the heavens. This was the creation of Matariki.

Like several indigenous cultures, the Maori follow the lunar calender. According to this, the appearance of Matariki brings the old lunar year to a close and marks the beginning of the New Year.

Traditionally, the rising of the Matariki star cluster was a marker of transition, and a time for families to be together to mourn and honour those who had passed away in the previous year. They believed that loved ones who leave the earth, transform into stars and shine down on them from the heavens. 

One of the popular legends has it that the star Matariki is the mother (whaea) who is surrounded by her six daughters: Tupu-ā-nuku, Tupu-ā-rangi, Waipuna-ā-Rangi, Waitī and Waitā, and Ururangi. Matariki and her daughters journey across the sky each year to visit their Earth mother.

During this visit each of the stars helps Earth mother to prepare for the year to come, using their unique qualities or gifts for her different environments.

Tupu-ā-nuku the eldest daughter spends her time tending to plants on earth making sure that they have everything to make them grow big and strong so that they can produce food, medicine and clothing.

The Maori believe that when we see her shining we are reminded that we all have our own special time and place, and to spend time growing our food, as well as that of our friends

Tupu-ā-rangi loves to sing. Earth mother takes her to the forests to sing for all the creatures that live there. Her beautiful voice fill the world with joy; it revives the forests and its inhabitants who, in turn, share their songs which she learns.

She reminds us of the importance of sharing our gifts with others, and appreciating those shared with us.

Waipuna-ā-Rangi accompanies her grandmother to the waters—the oceans, lakes and rivers. She prepares the children of the Sea God to feed the people. Earth mother teaches her how the water that spills down from the sky collects together to provide water for the people, animals and plants. She also watches how water is evaporated by the heat of the sun into clouds that cloak the sky, so that it may rain once again.

Waitī and Waitā are Matariki’s twins. They work as a team and care for the smallest of creatures—the ants and bees and all the insects that work tirelessly to keep the wheels of nature turning.

Ururangi is swift, and loves to race all her sisters to reach her grandmother Earth first, and settle in her lap to hear her favourite stories. The love and hugs that they share bring warmth and cheer in the cold dark winter.

And what about Matariki? She does what all good mothers do—she watches over and helps all her children on earth to do their best.

Other legends believe that nine stars are visible and each has a deep significance as seen from the Maori point of view.

Matariki is the star that signifies reflection, hope, our connection to the environment and the gathering of people. Matariki is also connected to the health and wellbeing of people.

Waitī is connected with all fresh water bodies and the food sources that are sustained by those waters.

Waitā is associated with the ocean, and food sources within it.

Waipuna-ā-Rangi is connected with the rain.

Tupuānuku is the star connected with everything that grows within the soil to be harvested or gathered for food.

Tupuārangi is connected with everything that grows up in the trees: fruits, berries and birds.

Ururangi is the star connected with the winds.

Pōhutukawa is the star connected to those that have passed on.

Hiwa-i-te-Rangi is the star connected with granting our wishes, and realising our aspirations for the coming year.

What beautiful connections between the firmament and all the elements of earth!

Traditionally, the sighting of the Matariki had great significance. The elders of the community would try to read what the stars foretold. They believed that when Matariki disappeared in April/May, it was time to preserve the crops for the coming winter season. When it reappeared in June/July they looked for signs. If the stars were hazy, it foretold a bleak winter and poor crops, but if they appeared to be crisp and bright it promised a warm and abundant winter.

This was the time of the year when the summer crops had been harvested and people had some leisure time. Matariki was celebrated with festivities that included the lighting of fires, the making of offerings and rituals to say farewell to those who had passed away, honouring the ancestors, and celebrate life with food, song and games. It was like saying hello and goodbye at the same time. It was, above all, a time for family (whanau) and friends to get together and cherish the bonds that sustain us all.

Matariki–A time of renewal, and a celebration of all that makes life possible, and meaningful.

–Mamata

Defence Science: Remembering Dr. DS Kothari on his Birth Anniversary, 6 July

‘Dr Daulat Singh Kothari, a theoretical physicist and Dean of the Faculty of Science of Delhi University, was appointed the first Scientific Adviser in July 1948, at the age of 42. He formed Defence Science Organisation by hand-picking scientists from the various universities in India who were proficient in aeronautics, electronics, chemistry, mathematics, nutrition, physics, psychology to start research work in ballistics, electronics, chemistry related to explosives, paints and corrosion, food preservation and nutrition, psychological fitness profile for selection of Service personnel, battlefield stress and physical fatigue. He made the Services conscious of the role a scientist could play in the solution of defence problems. Dr Kothari aimed to build a boundaryless learning organisation stripped of hierarchical trappings and with two-way communication between him and his scientists. The basic science laboratory raised by Dr Kothari provided the nucleus for the formation of the Defence Research and Development Organisation.’

–DRDO Website

The first Boss is the most formative influence on one’s career, work ethics and leadership style. And if he/she is a good boss, then they are almost Gods to impressionable young minds.

Dr. DS Kothari was my father’s first Boss. And was God to him.

Each line in the DRDO (Defense Research and Development Organization) write-up resonates with what I have heard about Dr. Kothari from my father.

DRDO was officialy established in 1958, but many constituent labs came into being before that. My father applied and was interviewed for the junior-most position in the Defence Science hierarchy around 1953. And who should be the head of the panel but Dr. DS! He sat through days and days of interviews in the midst of all his responsibilities as Scientific Advisor to Raksha Mantri. He saw this as his most important responsibility—hand-picking young scientists of promise from across the country to build a unique institution and an ambitious one for a newly independent India.   

The first problem he set my father and a few of that cohort was to work out the ideal thickness of rotis for high-altitude troops. The parameters to be optimized for a given weight of atta were time for the cook to roll out the roti, cooking time, and fuel consumption. And of course the rotis had to be edible! I think the realization that science could be brought to bear on such everyday problems was a lesson that scientists of that generation imbibed and made a way of life.

In 1955, PM Pandit Nehru set the scientists the task of studying the consequences of nuclear, thermonuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. Dr. DS had the major responsibility of bringing out the report, along with Dr. Homi Bhabha and Dr. Khanolkar. A small group of young Defence scientists—my father among them–was tasked to assist these stalwarts. Due to various reasons, it was Dr. Kothari who took up most of the burden of the work.

The 10-12 months were among the most hectic and most memorable ones of my father’s career. There was very little information on this subject in the public domain at that time, and India did not belong to any elite clubs which could get access to any classified information. Yet, in less than a year, the group brought out a data-rich 212-page report ‘Nuclear Explosions and Their Effects’ (subsequently published by the Publications Division). The book had a foreword by Pandit Nehru and was a seminal report at the time, not only in India but internationally.

The powers that be were also gracious in acknowledging the contribution not only of the leaders but also the young scientists.

But what is part of family history is something that captures Dr. Kothari’s essence. Apparently, at 4 pm on a Sunday afternoon, there was a knock on the door of my parents’ house. When they opened the door, there was Dr. DS himself! He had wanted to urgently discuss a point related to the book. In the days before home-telephones, he got his office to dig out my parents’ address, and rather than send someone to fetch my father, decided to come himself and save time.

My mother, till her last days, recalled this incident with not only awe, but also a feeling of being overwhelmed. A young girl newly arrived from Tamilnadu, with a very cranky baby on her hip. and no Hindi and only a smattering of English, she was confronted with having to entertain God himself! I think the sum total of furniture in the tiny house consisted of a few Godrej chairs, a study table and a cot. I don’t know if Dr. DS partook of anything, but I surely hope he asked for coffee rather than tea, because there would have been no tea leaves in a good South Indian household of that time. Nor would my mother have known how to brew a cup of tea. And steel tumblers and dawaras were the only serving utensils.

But Dr. DS, by family accounts was completely oblivious of all this. He came, made himself completely at home on the Godrej chair, stayed for almost an hour discussing what he had come to discuss, and then with blessings to my brother and a warm smile to my mother, was off.

All in a day’s work for him. But for us, family history for generations!

Dr DS Kothari: Scientist of international renown who worked with Dr. P Blackett in Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge University, under the guidance of Lord Ernst Rutherford, the Father of Nuclear physics, and contributed immensely to the fields of statistical thermodynamics and Theory of White Dwarf Stars. Steering-hand of DRDO and the founder of many of the labs in the system. Played a key role in setting up UGC and NCERT, and was Chair of India’s first Education Commission.

–Meena

In memory of my father, Shri A. Nagaratnam, a physicist, who worked with DRDO for almost half a century. And my brother, Dr. N. Prabhakar, an aeronautical engineer, who also spent his entire career with the same organization, and was awarded a Padma Shri. They knew no other life, and were immensely proud to be a part of DRDO.

ANGRY WORDS

“I was so mad, I thought I would explode!”

“I really blew my top when I heard about that!”

“If this goes on any longer I will blow a fuse!”

“He was so aggravating, I could have bitten his head off!”

Isn’t it interesting how pent up anger is vented through explosive vocabulary. 

Anger is one of the spectrum of universal human emotions. Different cultures have different names and different symbolism attached to the emotions. 

Although conventions regarding the display of emotion differ from culture to culture, our ability to recognize and produce associated facial expressions appears to be universal. In the 1970s, Paul Ekman conducted one of the first scientific studies of facial expression of emotions. He and his colleague Wallace Friesen devised a system to measure people’s facial muscle activity, called the Facial Action Coding System. Based on this system they analysed people’s facial expressions, across a range of cultures, and identified specific facial muscle configurations associated with specific emotions. They concluded that the most common, and commonly recognised, seven emotions are happiness, surprise, sadness, fright, disgust, contempt, and anger. They also concluded that these emotions are “universal” meaning that they operate independently of culture and language

In Indian culture the nava rasas or the nine emotions are said to depict the emotional state of mind. These are Shringara (love/beauty), Hasya (laughter), Karuna(sorrow), Raudra (anger), Veera (heroism/courage), Bhayanaka (terror/fear), Bibhatsa (disgust), Adbutha (surprise/wonder), Shantha (peace or tranquility).Classical dance forms, especially Bharata Natyam, have a wide repertoire of facial expressions that depict not just these emotions, but also the various things that cause that emotion. Raudram or anger is probably the most violent of the nava rasas

From the Nava Rasas series by Suresh Muthukulam

Our faces and bodies undoubtedly have a role not only in communicating but also in creating and maintaining our feelings. The facial expression is an arrangement of the face, which like a word in a language takes its meaning when seen in the larger context, that is, when attached to a particular body, that of the person who is saying and doing particular things in a particular context. Hence we sometimes feel that even though a person was smiling, their body language (closed fists, tense stance etc.) revealed not quite the same emotion.  

Other scientists who have studied how emotions are expressed in language have found that there is much greater variance in the linguistic use of words that express different emotions, and that there is a great deal of nuance in use of these words in different cultures. Some languages have a wide range of words that express not just the basic emotion but the finer sensitivities of that emotion. 

Take Anger. The English language itself has more than one word for anger-related emotions. In addition to ‘anger’, there are ‘ire’, ‘wrath’, ‘fury’, ‘vengeance’, ‘hatred’, ‘frustration’, ‘resentment’, ‘rage’, ‘bile’, ‘irritation’ and many more. Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary provided an interconnected web of definitions. ‘Fury’ was, first, ‘madness’, and secondly ‘Rage; passion of anger; tumult of mind approaching to madness’. In its turn ‘rage’ meant ‘violent anger, vehement fury’, while ‘anger’ was defined with a quotation from John Locke, as ‘uneasiness or discomposure of the mind, upon the receipt of any injury, with a present purpose of revenge’. Some authors in the eighteenth century, including the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid, used ‘resentment’ rather than ‘anger’ as their favoured term for a strong and vengeful frame of mind.

Anger seems to have become the predominant emotion of our times. The media leads us to believe that we live in ‘an age of anger’. The anger, in all the definitions, manifests at all levels, from national and international states of war, to civil and social unrest that flares up in violence, to anger at the way systems work (or don’t work), and anger within our closest circles of family and friends. We spend more of ourselves in this emotional state than any other. 

Interestingly, the English language also has a wide repertoire of idioms to help express the degree of anger that we feel. So much more fun that simply saying “I am so angry!”

Here is a sample to choose from:

Hot under the collar.

Up in arms.

Foaming at the mouth.

Steamed up.

Fit to be tied.

Bent out of shape.

Doing a slow burn.

Seeing red.

Ticked off.

Hit the roof.

Go up the wall.

Go off the deep end.

Fly off the handle.

He was angrier than a one armed paper hanger.

Blow one’s top.

Drive me up the wall.

That made my blood boil!

Blow a gasket.

Screaming bloody murder.

Go ballistic.

Would it not be even more interesting to compile anger words and idioms in all our Indian languages? 

“Anybody can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” Aristotle 

–Mamata

Small Is Not Yet Beautiful

June 27 was declared as World Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) Day by the UN in 2017, to focus on the contribution of this sector to inclusive and sustainable development, both locally and globally. The importance of MSMEs is huge, but not fully registered in the mindsets of most people. Globally, they account for two-thirds of all jobs. In developing countries, 4 out of 5 new jobs in the formal sector were created by MSMEs. Many MSMEs in developing countries, especially the smallest, are often run by women.

There is no standard international definition of MSME. In India, as per changes brought in last year, the classification of units in the sectors is based on a composite of Investment in plant/machinery/ equipment as well as Annual Turnover.

ClassificationMicroSmallMedium
Manufacturing and Service rendering EnterprisesInvestment in Plant and Machinery or Equipment:
Not over Rs.1 crore; and Annual Turnover not over Rs. 5 crore
Investment in Plant and Machinery or Equipment:
Not over Rs.10 crore; and Annual Turnover not over Rs.50 crore
Investment in Plant and Machinery or Equipment:
Not over Rs.50 crore; and Annual Turnover not over Rs.  250 crore

For us, as for many other developing countries, this sector is critical in terms of contribution to employment and GDP. There are about 6 crore MSME units in India today, of which 99.4 per cent of are micro-enterprises, while 0.52 percent are medium, and 0.007 per cent, are medium enterprises. In other words, micro-enterprises dominate. MSMEs account for about 30% of GDP and about 48% of exports. They employ about 11 crore people. About 41% MSMEs are engaged in Manufacturing while 59% of them are in Service activities

The number of MSME units and the people employed have been growing for the last 4-5 years.

But the contribution to the GDP has been almost stagnant. This clearly speaks for the extremely low, and falling productivity of the sector. Studies estimate that Indian MSMEs have a productivity of at best 65% and at worst, 25% of such units in other countries.

This is compounded with the difficulties these units face in scaling up and accessing markets. And not to speak of the challenges of the external environment and regulatory environment challenges. The pandemic has devastated the sector. Not only have orders dried up, but even where there are orders, units have been hit with a reduction of workforce and huge challenges in procurement of raw materials.

In a scenario where jobs are getting scarcer and entrepreneurship is being seen as the answer, we obviously need to do many things at many levels. Speaking as someone engaged in the education and skilling sector, for me a major part of the solution has to do with Education and Training.

First and foremost, we need to get basic education right.  

And then, respect for and practice of vocational skills, as well as concepts like quality consciousness and systematic approach to doing any task have to be inculcated right from primary levels. These are not mindsets which can be added on at a later stage. They are very fundamental to a person’s make up, and influence how he/she performs any task in later life.

Skill training has to be much more rigorous than it is today. A student in Germany for instance, would spend about 2 to 3.5 years learning a skill, spending half the time in vocational school and half the time in a real factory, being systematically trained. We are ready to certify youth who go through a 3-month programme as skilled! And even pass-outs from ITI institutions or Polytechnics who spend a longer time, still have zero exposure to any real life workplace situation, and at best spend some time on old and outmoded machines. Not a recipe for productivity!

Third, MSME entrepreneurs need management education. Whether it is managing finances or people, production or marketing, each small entrepreneur seems to be making mistakes, discovering first principles, and reinventing the wheel. Surely not conducive to productivity. There are such initiatives, but they seldom reach the grassroots and the audience who really need these inputs.*

MSMEs have a huge role to play in inclusive development. They have the potential to impact the lives of the poorest, the most vulnerable through creation of local businesses. We need to act now!

–Meena

PS:  Those interested in MSMEs and Skilling should watch a webinar by National Skills Network on the subject.

  • * I am currently involved in a very interesting initiative of developing an ‘MBA’ programme for rural women entrepreneurs who are Std 8 pass and above. An initiative of Access Livelihoods supported by GIZ.

“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