Walk, Don’t Run!

What is this life if, full of care
We have no time to stand and stare?

These words were penned by the Welsh poet W.H. Davies over a hundred years ago. Even as the world continues to progress rapidly in every way, and along it, also the pace of life, in every age there have been some voices that remind us about what we are losing as we rush headlong through our daily lives, in our quest to make a living. But as they remind us, are we, along the way not missing out on the simple joys of living?

One of the simplest joys is that of walking. Walking not as in getting from point A to point B, but walking for the sheer pleasure of it, with the senses attuned to the very act of moving while also imbibing the sights, smells and sounds around. And this sort of moving even has a word that defines it. The word is ‘saunter’.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the verb ‘saunter’ to mean ‘to walk along in a slow and relaxed manner without hurry or effort’; and the noun ‘saunter’ to mean a ‘leisurely stroll’. According to the Cambridge dictionary, ‘to saunter’ is to ‘walk in a slow and relaxed way, often in no particular direction’. Saunter probably derives from the Middle English word santren, which meant ‘to muse’. The first modern use of the word ‘saunter’ in its current form was in the 17th century.

Definitions aside, the concept of a walk such as this was best described and promoted by Henry David Thoreau an American author, poet, and natural philosopher, in the mid-nineteenth century. While he wrote about the joys of a simple life in nature, Thoreau’s essay Walking focuses on the spiritual importance of walking in nature. The essay was first published in 1862, after his death. For Thoreau, the goal or destination of walking is less important than the meditative state of mind which walking induces. He argues that walking cultivates curiosity and wonder, qualities which are often discouraged or undervalued in society.

The walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine at stated hours–as the swinging of dumb-bells or chairs; but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day. If you would get exercise, go in search of the springs of life. Think of a man’s swinging dumbbells for his health, when those springs are bubbling up in far-off pastures unsought by him!

As Thoreau describes it, the genius of walking lies not in mechanically putting one foot in front of the other en route to a destination but in mastering the art of sauntering.

Many years after Thoreau, and at a time when the pace of life had become much faster, and preoccupations with “getting there” propelling every kind of journey, some people felt that it was necessary to remind ourselves that “stopping to smell the roses” along the way was not a waste of time.

Among these was an American WT Rabe who was concerned about the growing popularity of jogging as a fitness trend in the mid-1970s. Rabe was a Public Relations professional who combined his skills and concerns to encourage people to slow down and appreciate the world around them. Rabe was then working as a PR person for the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan, which was famous for having the longest porch in the world. Rabe organised an event inviting people to spend a day taking a leisurely walk, free of stress and strain, focusing on the pure joy of the act. In other words–to saunter. Sauntering, as Rabe described it ‘is going from point X to point Z which means you don’t care where you’re going, how you’re going or when you might get there’. In response to this, thousands of people descended on the Grand’s famous front porch, simply to saunter (upon paying a fee of two dollars each). As Rabe’s idea caught on, and his followers increased, he went on to propose that there should be an annual day to celebrate the concept and the act. And so 19 June was designated as World Sauntering Day! 

While this may be a successful PR gimmick, sauntering has its advocates among some of my favourite writers. Thoreau’s conviction was that walking should involve a ‘connection’ with our natural world and approached with the mind set of becoming ‘fully present’. He believed that ‘busy’ was a conscious decision. He spoke of returning to his ‘senses’ after a saunter in the wild.

These sentiments are beautifully echoed in a recent essay by Pico Iyer, a contemporary essayist and novelist known for his travel writing. The essay describes the same walk that he has taken for over twenty-five years in Nara a small town near Kyoto in Japan.  

For years I used to take this walk as a break after five hours at my desk, a small reward, perhaps, for forcing myself to stay sitting through sunshine and mist. But then I began to notice something: walking shook things loose in me. The very act of ambulation sent my thoughts down different tracks. Movement in some ways—because I had no destination and didn’t have to notice where I was going—allowed my mind to run off the leash like a dog on a beach. If I was stuck at my desk, walking could unstick me.

As he further says, A wise friend from New York sent me his paraphrase from the American naturalist John Burroughs last year: To learn something new, take the same path you took yesterday.

Although this is not a day that is very well known, for most of us who spend a large part of our life with no time ‘to stand and stare’, World Sauntering Day is indeed a good reminder that it is important sometimes to be “pointless on purpose”. This Sunday, let’s celebrate the day with a saunter.  

–Mamata

It’s a Dog’s Life!

At the outset let me start with a disclaimer. I have nothing against dogs. In fact I love dogs and my family has had pet dogs right through my childhood and adolescence. And thus any dog-related story catches my eye. The most recent one was a story in my local newspaper that perhaps really takes the cake.

The story that covered several column inches mourned the passing away of a Saint Bernard dog who had been purchased at a premium price, and translocated from the alpine heights to a home in arid Gujarat. The tiled floors of the home had been replaced with wooden floors for the ease of walking of the big dog. The much pampered ‘son’ of the family was fed on milk, curd and paneer from the best Gir cows, as well as seasonal fruits like papaya and melon. The dog was also celibate, which the owners claimed added 4 extra years to his life [sic]. The dog’s recent passing away was marked with full Vedic rites.   

As an avid (physical) newspaper reader it is the news that does not make the headlines that attracts my attention, and provides me not only with wonder and amusement, but also in some ways, provides a window into ‘trends’, as it were.

Prominent among these has been the increasing amount of space being taken up by pet stories, with particular reference to dogs. In the past one usually found a small news item about the annual dog show, with a few pictures of prize winning dogs with their proud owners. Then came dog trainers, followed by dog sitters and dog walkers; these were usually found through word of mouth, or were duties of the domestic help or the children who had a roster of turns to take the dog for its little ‘routine’.  

In the last couple of years one has been seeing from a quarter to a half page of glossy newsprint with dog-related information. This is in the form of advice and tips for “pet parents”. This includes not just diet and grooming, but also a gamut of psychiatric support (which grew exponentially during the pandemic). These can make up a best-selling Dr Spock for canines!  How to handle ‘sibling’ jealousy when your (human) baby is born; How to handle separation anxiety when you return to office after a long stretch of WFH; How to keep your dog from joining the zoom call (without making it feel left out!). There is a whole new profession of pet therapists, psychiatrists, and even ‘pet psychics’ who claim to have telepathic powers to communicate with pets to understand what they are going through and offer support on mental health issues.  

Then of course there are grooming tips galore. Starting with exclusive brands to pamper your pet; these are offered through “pawsome” spa treatments which include luxurious shampoo and bath, hair trimming and styling, and nail clipping, but also offer services like aromatherapy and acupressure massages. One such service even claims: “We offer a unique microbubble spa therapy, with high-density ozone bubbles for cleaning the pets’ coats. Apart from being an absolute fun session for them, it helps deal with rashes and irritation. We also have an automatic pet cabin dryer for noiseless and quick drying,” Bow Wow Wow!

I remember well the weekly struggle I had to put up with to just quickly pour one bucket of water over my very recalcitrant dog. And I still have a scar from when he bit me on a particularly difficult bath day! It will take a wild jump of fantasy to imagine my Bosky wallowing in microbubbles!  I marvel at the ‘new age’ canines who presumably sink gracefully into a bubble bath as they politely extend their paws for a perfect ‘pawdicure’.

But why stop at an afternoon at a Spa? In the highly stressed world that they inhabit, don’t dogs need some ‘time out’ too? Well the travel and leisure industry is all set to make this happen. There are dog resorts, and even luxury hotels for staycations and weekend getaways. Making news is Critterati a luxury pet hotel in Gurugram India which offers ‘air conditioned room; premium beds with luxury bedding, soft padded floors that are easy on paws, three meals for small buddies, and two meals for medium, large and X-large buddies; four times potty break; a nightcap treat before bedtime; TV lounge access; pampering sessions; socializing, vet visit, daily hair brushing to improve blood circulation.’ I kid you not! Check out their website.

Between vacations, for the occasional ‘doggy dine out’ there are dog cafes in many cities that offer a wide menu for the discerning pooch palates—from specially brewed beer to designer dishes. For the more politically correct canines there are sustainable vegan and gluten free options. For a change from the urban jungle there are pet event planners that offer ‘bespoke’ picnic experiences amidst nature.  

I think back to my dogs who lived a middle-class life as did we, doing very well thank you, on roti and milk. The highlight of my Bosky’s gourmet experience was being indulged by my old aunts with the traditional Gujarati snack of ganthia!

From food to accessories the race is on to offer something new, different, unique, and basically ‘pawsome’! A recent half page article in my newspaper described how to help pets beat the heat an array of cool accessories. These included a dog umbrella, a self-filling water bowl and a water bowl that keeps water cool, cooling collars and cooling mats.

With millennials as pet parents it sure is not a dog’s life anymore!

No wonder then that the pet care market is booming as never before. While it has been on the upswing in other countries, India is fast catching up. It is the world’s fastest-growing market, expanding at around 17% annually and is expected to be valued at around $500 million by the end of 2022. Among the growing affluent  generation of aspirational millennials who have the means to indulge their pets as they do themselves, there are also enterprising millennials who are smartly cashing in on the rapidly growing demand by creating and offering a tantalising menu of pet services and products.

If every dog has his day, this indeed is the day and age for every dog!

–Mamata

A Dolls House

At a recent get together with my sisters we were reminiscing about how we used to spend our childhood summer holidays in Delhi. In addition the many simple DIY activities that we devised, one of the highlights was the visit to the BC Roy Memorial Children’s Reading Room and Library. In an age when reading and books were the main pastime, this exclusive library for children, with its wide selection of books, and a welcoming ambience was a perfect place to be.

The library was housed in the building of the Children’s Book Trust. One summer, when we used the library we also discovered another fascinating display in the same building. This was the Dolls Museum which became not only our favourite destination, but also an essential visit for friends and relatives who visited Delhi.

All the three unique institutions were the brainchild of Keshav Shankar Pillai, popularly known as Shankar, who was India’s most celebrated political cartoonist before and after India’s Independence. The Children’s Book Trust which he founded in 1957, was among the pioneer publishers of children’s books in independent India. CBT continues even today with its mission to promote the production of well-written, well-illustrated and well-designed books for children at prices within the reach of the average Indian child. The BC Roy Library which was set up in 1967 was to become the largest library exclusively for children.

From books to dolls—how did that happen? The story has earlier roots. Shankar used to publish a political satire magazine called Shankar’s Weekly. In 1949, under the auspices of the magazine Shankar announced a competition inviting paintings and writings from children across India. It got an overwhelming response. The following year the competition was thrown open to children from all over the world. It was called Shankar’s International Children’s Competition. Today, the competition receives about 160,000 entries from over 160 countries. The entries are judged by an international jury.

In the early 1950s Shankar received a doll from the Hungarian Ambassador to be given away as a prize for this competition. Shankar with his childlike fascination for unusual things fell in love with the doll which was dressed in a traditional Hungarian costume. He asked the Ambassador if he could keep the doll for himself. The little doll triggered in Shankar the itch to collect more costume dolls. As a journalist who often accompanied the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on his trips abroad, Shankar had the opportunity to visit many countries where he began to pick up dolls in the traditional national and regional costumes, made by local craftsmen.

Shankar’s collection grew rapidly and soon he had a collection of nearly 500 dolls. He decided to exhibit these dolls in different parts of India along with the children’s paintings from the competitions. The frequent packing and unpacking began to damage the dolls; this worried and upset Shankar. An exhibition put up in Delhi was visited by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi. As they appreciated the collection, Shankar also shared his concern about the frequent moving of the displayed dolls. Indira Gandhi suggested that the exhibition should have a space of its own. The most natural place for it was in the building then being put up for the Children’s Book Trust in Delhi. And there the dolls found their permanent home. The International Dolls Museum as it became known was inaugurated on 30 November 1965 by the then President of India Dr S Radhakrishnan.

The Museum opened with a collection of a thousand dolls. Between 1965 and 1987 another 5000 were added, a vast majority coming as gifts. Today the Museum has a display of 7000 exhibits from almost eighty-five countries, giving it a truly international character. One section has exhibits from European countries, the U.K., the U.S.A, Australia, New Zealand, and the Commonwealth of Independent States, and the other from Asian countries, the Middle East, Africa and India. The dolls cover a wide range, both geographical and historical. The oldest exhibit is of a Swiss woman lying in bed dating back to 1781. There are dolls from the Queen of England’s Collection, Samurai and Kabuki dolls from Japan, Spanish flamenco dancers, ballet characters from South Korea, and nomadic singer dolls from Turkmenistan, among many others spanning the globe.  In addition to Shankar’s original collection, the collection has grown mainly from dolls gifted by dignitaries from different countries visiting India, as well as ambassadors of different countries to India. The dolls stay on as continuing little ambassadors of their countries, each telling its own story.

The section on Indian costume dolls showcases the incredible diversity of culture, heritage and traditions of our country. The dolls are meticulously handcrafted based on research that focuses on an accurate representation of physical attributes, dress, ornaments, and accessories like farming equipment, musical instruments, baskets and bags. There is a collection of bride and groom dolls depicting wedding traditions of different parts of India, and one of dolls in different dance costumes. Some of the dolls are arranged as group installations depicting markets, farming activities, household and festival scenes which demonstrate a sense of community.

The Indian dolls are made at a workshop attached to the museum. In addition to display the dolls are given in exchange for gifts to the museum from other countries, or sold to collectors. Apart from this workshop, there is also a ‘clinic’ where damaged dolls are repaired and restored.

Unlike other museums that one usually associates with ancient relics and artefacts, the Dolls Museum is a vibrant and living experience. It provides a rich panorama of the incredible diversity of the human race and cultures; it sparks imagination and curiosity; it transports the child into a ‘doll-filled’ world of its dreams, and the adult back to the innocent joys of childhood.   

Although my association with the Children’s Book Trust has continued over the years—from reader to contributing writer, it is many years since I visited the Dolls Museum. But as we mark International Museum Day on 18 May, it is a good time to remember and celebrate this special museum. As an educator now, I see the tremendous potential of this museum to help children explore, discover, and celebrate the diversity of cultures. As the International Council of Museums puts it “Museums are important means of cultural exchange, enrichment of cultures and development of mutual understanding, cooperation and peace among peoples.”

–Mamata

Telltale Pencil

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

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

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

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

The story goes thus…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Meena

Colours

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

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

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

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

CRAYONS

While walking into a toy store

The day before today

I came upon a crayon box

With many things to say.

“I don’t like Red!” said Orange.

And Green said “Nor do I”.

“And no one here likes Yellow.

But no one knows just why.”

“We are a box of crayons

That does not get along.”

Said Blue to all the others,

“Something here is wrong.”

Well I bought that box of crayons

And I took it home with me.

And I laid out all the crayons

So the crayons could all see.

They watched me as I coloured

With Red and Blue and Green.

And Black and White and Orange

And every colour in between.

They watched as Green became the grass

And Blue became the sky.

The yellow sun was shining bright

On white clouds drifting by.

Colours changing as they touched,

Becoming something new.

They watched me as I coloured

They watched till I was through.

And when I finally finished,

I began to walk away.

And as I did the crayon box.

Had something more to say.

“I do like Red” said Orange

And Green said “So do I!”

“And Blue, you were terrific.

So high up in the sky!”

“We are a box of crayons

Each of us unique.

But when we are together

The picture is complete.”

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

Happy Holi!

–Mamata

A Fish on the Road

 Novelty or mimetic architecture is a type of architecture in which buildings are given unusual shapes for purposes such as to convey a message about what they represent, or to copy other famous buildings. They ‘mimic the purpose or function of the building or the product they are associated with.’ They are structures built with the intention that they be used. (They are different from architectural follies which are unusable, ornamental structures often in strange forms.)

While the style started in the US somewhere in the 1930s, India is quite a leading light. Any respectable  ’10 most..’ or ’15 most..’ in the world of mimetic architecture lists would include three buildings from India: the Chowdiah Memorial Hall, Bangalore; the Fish Building Hyderabad; and the Lotus Temple, New Delhi. So maybe we should quickly recap what these are.

The Chowdiah Memorial Hall is a major cultural Centre in Bangalore. It is shaped like a violin to commemorate Thirumakudalu Chowdiah, the violin maestro. The building, designed by Mr. SN Murthy, was completed in 1980. It is shaped like a huge seven-stringed violin, and has all a violin’s essential elements, like the strings, keys, the bridge and the bow.

The Fish Building, Hyderabad, inaugurated in 2021, houses the offices of the National Fisheries Development Board. It is a 4-storey building which incorporates elements of the fish-form, like two circular windows as eyes. The building stands on pale blue pillars and is lighted by blueish lights in the night, to give the impression of a fish swimming in water.   Designed by Narasimham Associates (as far as I can make out!), it is said to be inspired by Frank Gehry’s ‘Fish’ sculpture located in Barcelona.

The Lotus Temple, a temple of the Bahai faith, was designed by the Iranian Faribroz Sahba, and was dedicated in 1986. It is a major tourist attraction of New Delhi. Made of 27 free-standing marble-clad petals, it is a pretty green building too, with 120 kW of its 500 kW electricity requirement coming from solar power generated by solar panels on the building. It also houses a greenhouse to study indigenous plants and flowers that can be grown in the area.

All this build-up to announce that my own nick of the world (truly a backwater by the name of Rajanakunte, in ‘who-lives-there North Bangalore’) now boasts a fish-shop in the shape of a fish! The proprietor proudly told us that it is the first such in Bangalore city itself, though Mysuru has one! While not commenting on the aesthetics of fish-buildings, either this one or the larger sibling in Hyderabad, my yellow, green and blue fish does add quite a pop to the Yelahanka area which is anyway quite rich in street art.

Other examples of mimetic architecture in India are of course the variously-shaped water tanks in many pockets across the country. It is not uncommon to catch glimpses of water-pots, aeroplanes, cars, tablas etc. atop houses. It seems to be like an endemic—there are concentrations of such water tanks in a given stretch, and taper off in the length of 5 km or so. The other prevalent example of mimetic architecture is police stations, with several of them being shaped like helmets!

There is a whole world of mimetic buildings waiting to be explored, including:  The Big Basket, Ohio, the headquarters of the Longaberger Company, an American manufacturer of handcrafted maple wood baskets; Haines Shoe House, Pennsylvania, the house of successful shoe salesman Mahlon Haines designed like one of his work boots; and the Dancing House Hotel, Prague designed as a tribute to the famous dancers, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. 

As you browse the web to locate these, do also look around. Who knows what is waiting to be discovered next door!

–Meena

High Flyers: Women in Aviation

Last week was Sankranti and all eyes were turned to the skies as the colourful kites soared and dipped, drifted and sailed with the breeze. Also in the sky were the avian kites, riding the thermals. From time immemorial, humans have gazed up and dreamed of soaring the skies too. The same week there was a news item about a young Belgian-British teenager who flew her single-seater Shark ultralight plane around the world in 150 days. 19 year old Zara Rutherford thus became the youngest woman to circumnavigate the world solo. One of the objectives of her mission, she says was to infuse young women and girls worldwide with the spirit of aviation. 

In the day and age when women are soaring high in all spheres, it is interesting that she feels that more women need to take to the skies. And even more interesting that India has a fair share of women, who have made their dreams of flying come true, not only today, but almost hundred years ago.

Google Doodle honouring Sarla Thukral on her 107th birthday on 8 August 2021

Sarla Thukral was the first Indian woman to fly an aircraft. Born in 1914 in Delhi, she later moved to Lahore, in what was then British India. At the age of 16 she married an airmail pilot PD Sharma who came from a family of fliers. The young bride was also smitten by the aviation bug, and encouraged by her husband, she started flying lessons. Having completed 1000 hours of flying time she earned her flying license, and did her first solo flight in a Gypsy Moth, a small, double winged plane at the age of 21, dressed in a sari. She was preparing to become a commercial pilot but the Second World War broke out, and civil aviation training was suspended. Tragically, around the same time she also lost her husband in an air crash. Sarla was grounded, but not her creativity. She took up with equal passion her love for the arts. She started studying fine arts and painting at Lahore’s Mayo School of Arts. She returned to Delhi after Partition, where she continued to paint. She married RP Thakral in 1948. She also started designing jewellery and clothes and set up a successful business which she ran till she passed away in 2008.

Sarla—high flier, in the sky and on the ground! And an inspiration for many young girls in India who have over the years taken to the skies.

One of the concerns expressed by young Zara is that there is still a big gender gap in the field of aviation in many western countries. Globally, according to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots, around 5 percent of pilots are women. In India, the share of women pilots is significantly higher – at over 15 percent, more than twice as high as in most Western countries, including the United States and Australia. According to one report India has a total of 17,726 registered pilots out of which the number of women pilots is 2,764.

We have, in the last few years, always experienced a surge of pride when we hear a woman’s voice introducing herself as the pilot on a commercial flight. Even more uplifting is the increasing number of women who are flying shoulder-to-shoulder with men in the armed forces.

Women pilots have been flying transport aircraft and helicopters in the three Forces for a long time. As far back as 1994, when many people had reservations about allowing women pilots in the Indian Air Force, Gunjan Saxena, along with Srividya Rajan, defied convention, and took up the challenge; they were two of the 25 young women to form the first batch of women IAF trainee pilots. The Kargil War of 1999 was a real test of the true grit of these women. They fearlessly flew helicopters in the combat zone, and into hostile territory to drop supplies, evacuate injured soldiers and spy on enemy positions. Gunjan and Srividya’s contribution in this critical war effort was highly commended, and an inspiration for many young women who dreamed of a career in uniform.

In October 2015, the Indian Air Force opened the fighter pilot stream to women. The first three female pilots to be inducted in the fighter squadron in June 2016 were Avani Chaturvedi, Bhawana Kanth and Mohana Singh.  These young women, were fuelled by the sense of adventure as well as the spark of contributing to the defence of our country.

Today the Indian Air Force has 111 women pilots who fly transport planes and choppers, and 10 women fighter pilots.

As Bhawana Kanth said “It is not the right time for it now, it has always been the right time for women to become fighter pilots.”

Last year Flight Lieutenant Bhawana Kanth on 26 January 2021, became the first woman fighter pilot to be take part in the Indian Air Force’s (IAF’s) tableau at the Republic Day parade at Delhi’s Rajpath.

This year, as we mark the many strides forward that our Republic has made, and salute with pride the accomplishments of its citizens, let us put our hands together for all the young women who dare to dream, and who make their dreams come true. Soar high, sisters and daughters, and may even the skies not be your limit.

–Mamata

Indian Coffee House: An Institution with a Hoary Past

Most of us, at least the more senior among us, would definitely have visited an Indian Coffee House at some stage in our lives. Quaint places, which serve coffee and snacks at reasonable prices. Usually centrally located, these places are manned by liveried bearers in old-style uniforms. But the best part—one can linger there fairly indefinitely over coffees and conversations.

The Indian Coffee House chain goes back to 1958, proving that coffee-places in India are not something invented or haunted by the young and with-it crowd. Our parents and grandparents ‘been there, done that’!

Coffee-drinking in India is only about a century old, though coffee has been grown here since the 16th century. But Indians didn’t take to it for a long time. The oldest reports are of Tam-Brahm Mamas drinking coffee in the 1920s in Chennai. It was pretty class and caste stratified, as were most things in those times.

The coffee-house culture which started in the 18th century here, was also subject to social restrictions—in this case racial discrimination. Only whites were allowed into these.

As time went on, the need to increase domestic coffee consumption was seen as important—purely economic reasons of course. With a view to to popularize the drinking of coffee and increase the sale of coffee seeds, the Coffee Cess Committee started a chain of coffee-houses, called India Coffee House. The first came up in 1936, in Mumbai. As a part of this objective, the British Government also set up the Coffee Board in the early 1940s. The chain of Coffee-Houses (then called India Coffee House) quickly gained popularity, and in fact became addas for freedom fighters, political leaders, students, intellectuals, artists and thinkers. These continued to flourish even after Independence, and were at the hub of political and intellectual discussions.

But in 1957, the losses were mounting and the Government wanted to close down the Coffee Houses. Not only would this have been a huge loss to the availability of spaces for debate and discussion, it would have resulted in retrenchment of several employees working in these places.  The All India Coffee Board Labour Union decided to take a hand in the matter.  Their Leader Shri. A.K. Gopalan a prominent Communist, along with some workers met the then Prime Minister Shri. Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru. The Prime Minister suggested that the coffee-houses could be taken over and run by worker-cooperatives formed by the retrenched workers.  As a result of this meeting, it was decided to form separate co-operative Societies in areas where these coffee houses were located, and to run the Coffee Houses as Cooperatives. In 1957, the first coffee house, now called Indian Coffee House, under this cooperative plan was opened, in the Theatre Communication Building in Connaught Place in Delhi.  Totally, 14 Societies were formed in different parts of India, and ever since then, have been running these units. Today, these have over 400 outlets spread across 20 States of India. Each worker in each of these units is a co-owner of the business and has a stake in its success. A unique model indeed.

Even after Independence, Indian Coffee Houses continued as intellectual hubs. In fact, so powerful a force were they that they were feared by the powers-that-be in the pre-Emergency era.

Indian Coffee House designed by Laurie Baker

Kerala has the largest number of Indian Coffee Houses—51 in fact. West Bengal has several too, with the most famous on being on Kolkata’s College Street—an outlet which in its time hosted intellectuals and artists including the likes of Satyajit Ray, Amartya Sen, Mrinal Sen and Aparna Sen.

The Coffee House at Trivandrum is very special in that it is an architectural landmark. Designed by the famous architect Laurie Baker, it is a continuous spiral ramp, with a circular central service core, and eating spaces provided on the outer side; jaalis let in light and ventilation. It stands on a very small plot in the middle of a busy urban area, and it is only by adopting the innovative circular design and interior design that it is able to cater to its many customers.

As we enter 2022, a time when capitalism is becoming more and more dominant, here’s a shout-out for the cooperative movement!

Long live coffee, long live coffee houses, long live addas which allow space for discussion and debate, long live the co-operative movement. Long live Indian Coffee House, which is all of the above!

–Meena

Veerappan: Re-visiting the Story of the Forest Brigand

In the ‘80s, ’90s and early into this century, Verappan was a name we often saw in newspaper headlines. As in:

India’s Most Wanted.

Outlaw of Jungle.

In the Lair of India’s Asthmatic Bandit King.

Veerappan Strikes Again.

Veerappan Kidnaps Rajkumar, Three Others.

A Ruthless and Daring Bandit.

And then, in October 2004, the headlines:

Veerppan walked into well-laid trap.

Veerappan shot dead.

Death of a Demon.

A ruthless killer, a sandalwood smuggler, a poacher who was responsible for the killing of elephants  in the four-figures; a kidnapper; a murderer; a hero to his gang and some poor communities; a man wanted and actively hunted by the security forces of two states and the BSF sent by the Centre, Veerappan was an elusive figure. A figure who fed news headlines, who kept security forces on their toes, and who with his dramatic moustache and daredevilry, excited the imaginations of many.

Why, 17 years after his death, have I suddenly been reminded about Veerappan? Well, I happened to stumble upon this book called BIRDS, BEASTS AND BANDITS: 14 DAYS WITH VEERAPPAN.

It is the true story of two wildlife-film maker-conservationists who were kidnapped by Veerappan and his gang under the mistaken impression that they were government officials who could be useful as bargaining chips for some of their demands. The gang captures a Bengali scientist visiting the forests as a tourist, as well as three forest guards as well, to add heft to their bargaining power. The seven hostages are marched across the forest for 14 days before they are released. The book is the account of these 14 days by the two main hostages, Krupakar and Senani.

They wrote their account for a Kannada weekly magazine ‘Sudha’ in 1998, a year after they were captured and released, and subsequently, as a book in Kannada. About 10 years after that, the book was translated and brought out in English by Penguin.

It is a light-hearted book, though it talks of an ordeal which must have taken a lot of guts to endure. And though light-hearted, it is not trivial. It touches upon many serious issues, from the injustice that Veerappan and others in his gang have faced, which may have driven them to become what they did. But it does not justify their actions. It mentions the unfair portrayal of his misdeeds in the press and by officialdom, in terms of chalking up a lot of crimes,  elephant-poachings and murders to his account, than he could have possibly committed.

Most importantly, it brings us glimpses of Veerappan as a person. His incredible abilities as well as his incredible instability; his naiveté and ignorance of the world, as well as his understanding of the jungles and the tribulations of the poor; his humour as well as his tantrums; his readiness to use the gun, as well as his gentleness in some situations.

As much as bringing Veerappan to us, the book brings us Krupakar and Senani. How they take the whole ordeal as pretty much routine—all in a day’s work, so to speak. Their equanimity, their fearlessness, their presence of mind, their strategic and thoughtful approach to communicating with their captors to move them towards the decision to release them—all these shine through. They don’t mention any of this explicitly, but as one reads, one is completely awed by this. The equanimity and stoicism of Dr. Maithi, an agricultural scientist from West Bengal who is another captive is unbelievable too! He spends his time meditating, indifferent to his situation, and in fact trying to teach the others meditation! And the incredible integrity of all the three, whether in their intentions that a peaceful resolution be brokered between Veerappan and the official machinery, or in their sympathy and empathy with the gang members, is touching.

There can be no sympathy with ruthless killers like these, but the book does portray their human side—their motivations, hopes and dreams.

The prize goes however to the following incident that Veerappan narrates to his prisoners, with whom the gang builds up a warm and emotional relationship. Veerappan tells them of how he had once kidnapped a government official and asked for a ransom of Rs. 3 crore for his release. A government emissary appears on bike, carrying a bag. Veerappan asks him to throw the money on the road to ensure that the bag does not have a bomb or something. He sees that the money is much less than promised (Rs. 3 lakh in fact). When angrily questioned, the emissary, a second-division clerk, is pretty fearless and says that this is what he was given. Disgusted, Veerappan tells him to go. But the man keeps standing there.  The story continues in Veerappan’s words as follows:

‘I was taken aback. People run the moment they see Verappan. But here I was telling this man to get lost, and he was still standing around.

‘What else?’ I asked loudly.

‘He bent forward, scratching his head with his left hand, and said ‘Nothing for me, sir?’

‘I gave him ten thousand, to rid myself of his wretched presence’.

Definitely a book for a weekend read!

–Meena

Pen Friends Through the Years

It has been some years now since I used what we called a Fountain pen. All through my schooldays, from the time that we reached the class where we graduated from pencils to pens, the fountain pen was an essential part of our compass box. The pens had a number of accoutrements—ink bottles (think Quink!), plastic ink fillers, rags of cloth to mop up spills, and sometimes even extra nibs. The ritual of filling (and spilling) the ink was as much a part of the evening routine as packing the schoolbags. The fountain pen was an integral part of life, and being gifted a Parker pen or a Waterman pen by someone who came from abroad was a highlight of that life!

I was surprised to learn recently that until the late 1950s India did not manufacture pens; all pens were imported, as also was ink. It was only after Independence, due to the thrust by the government to encourage domestic production that Indian pen manufacturing companies were set up. By the mid-1960s there were 12 Indian manufacturers of which Ratnam and Sons, based in Rajamundry were the most famous. It is believed that the Ratnam pen was the first truly ‘swadeshi’ pen. The story goes that when Gandhi had just launched the Swadeshi movement, he met KV Ratnam in 1921, and advised him to make a product using solely Indian components. When Ratnam asked him what he should make Gandhi said that he could make anything, from a pin to a pen. And Ratnam chose the pen! After studying the intricacies of a fountain pen, Ratnam set about meeting Gandhi’s mandate to make a truly ‘Indian’ pen. After several years of experimenting with local materials and technology, he finally developed one in 1933 and sent it to Gandhiji. Gandhiji was not fully convinced. He sent one of his secretaries to the Ratnam factory to confirm that no imported element was used in the product. It was in 1935 that Gandhiji was satisfied, and he started using the Ratnam pen, which he continued to do till his death in 1948.

For years ink-stained fingertips were the sign of a prolific writer, or a leaky pen! It was to address the issue of leaking ink that in other parts of the world, the path to the invention of what came to be called the ballpoint pen were already underway. The international history of the transition from the fountain pen to the ball pen is interesting.

The first patent for this kind of pen was obtained by an American lawyer John J Loud in 1888. Loud wanted an ink pen which would be able to write on rougher materials such as wood and leather, as well as paper. He experimented with, and developed a pen with a revolving steel ball, which was held in place by a socket—literally a pen with a ball point. Loud’s pen was indeed able to write on leather and wood, but it was too rough for paper. The device was deemed to have no commercial value and the patent eventually lapsed. But inventors continued to experiment with variations on the ball point.

One of these was a Hungarian-Argentinian journalist named László Biro who was frustrated with the leaky pens that he had to use in large numbers. László had realised that the ink used in fountain pens was too slow to dry; what was needed was something more like the quick-drying ink used on newspapers. In his quest for a more suitable ink he turned to his brother, Győrgy, a dentist who was also a talented chemist. Győrgy came up with a viscous ink which spread easily but dried quickly. After a number of trials, the brothers filed a patent, in 1943, for the ballpoint pen. Their pen was originally called a ‘Birome’ but became popularly known as a biro (an example of an eponym!) The pen became an instant hit. The Biro brothers sold their patent to Bic. And Bic pens are known all over the world even today. The ballpoint pen revolutionized the act of writing. Where the fountain pen needed a fixed place for writing where the accompaniments like the inkpot could be kept, the ballpoint pen led to great mobility and flexibility; it could be carried and used anywhere and anytime..

By the time I graduated from school to college, the trend in India had also moved from fountain pens to what we then called ballpoint pens, that later became the ubiquitous ball pens. At the time relatives coming from abroad used to bring Bic pens as gifts, although Milton Reynolds an American entrepreneur had introduced ballpoint pens in India in 1947. While Rajamundari was the cradle of the indigenous fountain pen, it was in Rajkot in Gujarat that the first Indian ballpoint inks and pens were manufactured. It was only in 1962 that Dhirajlal Joshi, after a lot of struggle, got approval to make ballpoint pen ink in India. There were hiccups in terms of quality of ink, nibs etc. but by the 1970s these had been smoothened and many pen manufacturing partnerships were set up, including with countries like Japan and Germany.

From Ratnam pen to Space pen–I value them all!

In the last two decades the market has been flooded with a great variety of pens, transitioning from pens with refills, to use-and-throw gel pens. There is even a Space Pen that is able to write in zero gravity and works upside down, under water, over grease and in extreme temperatures. Today fountain pens have become collector’s items or status symbols. Ink fillers, ink bottles and ink stained rags may soon be seen only in museums. Even refills for ball point pens are not easily available at my local stationary shop, as I painfully steel myself to throw away gel pens when they run out. These are perhaps manifestations of a time, which is almost upon us, when pens themselves, in any form, become redundant in an age of digital technology.

I have, all my life, loved writing by hand, and pens have been an integral part of that process of writing; each transition in the type of pen that I have used, marking also a different phase in my life. Pens gifted with love, pens picked up as souvenirs, pens handed out at meetings and conferences, and pens chosen and bought from stationary shops, and more…I have kept them all. These are my valued pen friends even today.  

–Mamata