True Grit

Winter is the season of Doctor’s conferences in my city, when super specialists of many branches of medicine meet to discuss professional research and new developments. Among these are many women who are working shoulder-to-shoulder with their male counterparts. It is difficult to imagine that just over 150 years ago, a woman doctor was unheard and undreamt of. This reminder was strongly communicated in a recent performance that traced the life of India’s first female doctor–Anandibai Joshi.

Anandibai Joshi is known to be the first woman of Indian origin to graduate with a degree in medicine in the US.  Her story of grit and determination is an inspiration, and a trailblazer.

Born in 1865 as Yamuna, the third unwanted daughter, she was married off at the age of nine to a widower postal clerk 20 years her senior. Her husband Gopalrao took charge of her life by first changing her name to Anandi; but also encouraged her to study, which was unusual for that time. Anandi was a bright and curious girl-child, balancing between her innocence, her thirst for learning and her expected chores and role as ‘wife’. She became a mother at the age of 14, but lost her 10-day old child due to lack of medical care and facilities. Traumatised by this event, she began to dream the undreamable– to become a doctor so that she can help other women like herself. In a time when a girl going to school was spat at, and looked upon with intense disapproval, Anandi was supported to some extent by her husband.

Even more unusual is the story of how she reached America. A letter written by Gopalrao to an American missionary asking if Anandi could study medicine in America, was published in some American magazines, where a woman called Theodicia Carpenter read it and wrote to the young girl with an offer of a home and support if she were to go to New York. Against opposition from all quarters in India, Anandi embarked upon this journey into the unknown, reaching New York after an arduous two-month ship voyage. Once she reached, with support from her mentor Theodicia, Anandi Gopal Joshi applied to the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and was granted admission at the age of 19. Medical school and life in an alien land was extremely difficult; but Anandi met the challenges head on—the extreme cold weather (she changed her attire from the traditional nine-yard sari to the six-yard one), the food (at one point she became so nutritionally deficient she had to start eating eggs), very poor health, loneliness, hostile classmates and neighbours, and nasty letters from her suspicious husband. Anandi persevered towards her goal and got through medical school, graduating in 1886. She returned to India the same year and was appointed as the physician-in-charge at the Albert Edward Hospital in the then princely state of Kohlapur (in present day Maharashtra).

Tragically, before she could finally make her childhood dream come true, by practising as a doctor, Dr Anandi Joshi died of TB in 1887, just over a month before her 22nd birthday. As per her wish, her ashes were sent to Theodicia Carpenter, who placed them in her family cemetery in Poughkeepsie, New York.

The true-grit story of Yamuna/Anandi was brought to life in a solo performance by Manasi Prabhakar Joshi. Titled Dr Anandibai this powerfully transposed the story of the path breaker in the context of the challenges that women face even today—reminding us that while on the one hand much has changed, on the other, much remains the same. Anandibai’s story continues to remain an inspiration and a beacon.

–Mamata

 

 

World Disability Day: December 3

The disabled are often called the most ignored minority.

2011 Census reports indicate that there are about 2.68 crore disabled people in India–2.21% of the population. But NGOs and others who work in this field feel that this is too conservative an estimate. According to them, the figure is more like 5-8% of the population.  World Bank data suggests the number is between 4 and 8 crore. And this is expected to increase steeply, as age-related disabilities grow and traffic accidents increase.

The most tragic part of this is that many of the disabilities in our country are preventable. A large number of mental and physical disabilities arise from lack of nutrition and proper health care for pregnant mothers and young children. Many irreversible disabilities are linked to poor nutrition of the mother—e.g., anemic conditions. Similarly deficiency of Vit. A in childhood may lead to blindness; deficiency of iodine may lead to mental retardation. Similarly, immunization coverage and disabilities are clearly correlated.

If infants and the very young are vulnerable, so are the old. Over 23% of visual impairment in India is due to cataract—a normal phenomenon associated with aging, and one which is correctable. But thousands in our country live without vision because they cannot access or afford the simple surgery required.

Other statistics which should disturb us: Close to 40% of school age children with disabilities are not in school. If the children do not go to school, they can never hope to be employable. This feeds the poverty-disability cycle.

In India, figures indicate that the number of disabled in employment actually fell between 1991 and 2002! Though there is legislation for 3% reservation in government sector, this is seldom fulfilled. And how can it ever be, if the disabled don’t get an education? If public transport and offices are not accessible to the disabled? If our own attitudes prevent us from employing the disabled?

On paper we have laws and policies for inclusivity in education, for reservation in jobs, for access to public spaces, etc., etc. But on the ground, there is little happening. The first barrier is in our minds—if we can truly accept that there are no ‘disabilities’, only ‘different abilities’, we may be able to see our way to building a more inclusive society. Just as I can’t sing, there are some who cannot speak! Just as I can’t dance, there are some who cannot walk! I don’t think of myself as any the less because of these lacks. Why then should I think of people who cannot speak or walk as different?

We need to translate attitude to action: Check if your child’s school has a policy for inclusive education, and if there are indeed differently-abled children. If not, gently bring it up in the next PTA meeting. Encourage your ward’s school or college to have traffic education sessions. Ensure that your own ward does not break traffic rules. Check your organization’s employment policy to see if there is anything about employing differently-abled people. If not, lobby for it! Spread the message for proper nutrition and immunization for pregnant women and young mothers. Support cataract operations through service organizations. Write to the managers of public spaces if they do not provide disability access.

Each of us may take a different route. But go on, make a resolve to make small difference on the 3rd of December!

–Meena

Toxic

The word of the year is Toxic! Crowned by the Oxford Dictionary this word was selected as the one “judged to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year, and have lasting potential as a term of cultural significance.”

The claim to fame was gained by the word not only on the basis of the number of times it was searched, but more for the sheer variety of contexts in which it is being used today.  “Toxic” has been used to describe workplaces, schools, relationships, cultures, and most recently has become a keyword in the #MeToo movement.

My own association with the word dates back over 30 years when I started as an Environmental Educator. We used the word mainly in the context of something that poisoned the natural environment—air, water, flora and fauna. This was based on its dictionary definition as meaning ‘poisonous’, with its roots derived from the medieval Latin term toxicus, meaning poisoned or imbued with poison. Environmental Educators worldwide tried to create awareness about what makes things toxic and how this affects the environment—through ‘gloom and doom’ scenarios, through motivation and action, and even through humour!

An interesting example of the last one was a limerick competition run by the English newspaper The Observer in association with the Friends of the Earth inviting limericks that reflected the (then) toxic state of the environment. The competition was open to all, from ages 5 years and up!

Although this was almost 30 years ago, on revisiting these limericks, I felt that they are as relevant today (if not more, than ever before!) Here is a taste…

Said the seal to the salmon and otters,

Did God really design us as blotters,

To mop up the oil

From the sea and the soil

Spewed out by those corporate rotters?

 

When politicians say they are green

One wonders what they really mean,

For all their hot air

Only rises to share

In the Greenhouse Effect it would seem!

 

An ostrich from a tropical land

Once buried his head in the sand.

The move was a riot,

They all had to try it—

Evading the issue was grand!

Fast forward to 2018. Has anything changed? At least not for the better, alas! The word has simply exploded in scope and toxicity. As Oxford University Press’s president of dictionaries, said: “Reviewing this year in language, we repeatedly encountered the word ‘toxic’ being used to describe an increasing set of conditions that we’re all facing. Qualifying everything from the entrenched patriarchy to the constant blare of polarising political rhetoric, ‘toxic’ seems to reflect a growing sense of how extreme, and at times radioactive, we feel aspects of modern life have become.”

To sum up, cannot resist this one…

A girl with a problem was faced

Rushed off to her doctor in haste.

He said with a laugh

As she broke into half,

‘My dear, you’ve got toxic waist!’

–Mamata

 

Audio Books

A recent article titled Human Library immediately grabbed my attention. Being always drawn to anything related to books and libraries I was curious to know what this was. Turns out that this was literally a library where people instead of books are issued out! I was intrigued—What, How and Why?

At a Human Library event, the “books” are people with special experiences; “readers” can choose from various “titles” and then “borrow” them. The procedure is similar to that of a regular library.  At the main desk there is a list of “books” available and each “reader” is given a Human Library card by one of the librarians. They then choose a “book”, sometimes with the help of an official matchmaker or library assistant. The reader and the book then move to a space where there are numerous tables and chairs; this is where a safe and respectful conversation begins, and lasts for up to half an hour. The “reader” reads the “book” by asking the “book” questions about their personal situation. The “book”, as well as answering pertinent questions, has the option not to answer and also to ask their own questions.

The most interesting aspect of this library is the choice of “books”. In keeping with its fundamental premise which is ‘to build a positive framework for conversations that can challenge stereotypes and prejudices through dialogue’, the Human Library encourages people to challenge their own preconceived notions—to truly get to know, and learn from, someone they might otherwise make a snap judgement about. As the website says “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

Most of the stories that the “books” tell have to do with some kind of stereotype or stigmatized topic. For example in the Human Library UK  “The titles celebrate diversity and promote equality by deliberately acknowledging differences, lifestyles, ethnicities, faiths, disabilities, abilities and characteristics that may be stigmatised in the hope it might provoke an assumption or even prejudice in readers.”

While new to me, it turns out that the concept of human libraries is not that new. The Human Library is an international organization and movement that first started in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2000. It was “a place where difficult questions are expected, appreciated and answered.” Its objective was to address people’s prejudices by helping them to talk to those they would not normally meet, and to initiate conversations between people of different orientations, backgrounds and religions, by urging participants to listen to each other’s life experiences.

It began with an event which was open eight hours a day for four days straight and featured over fifty different “titles”. More than a thousand readers took advantage leaving books, librarians, organisers and readers stunned at the impact of the Human Library.

Today the movement has become an international phenomenon with “libraries” in more than 70 countries. In India there are Human Libraries in several cities including Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, and spreading.

What an amazing and inspiring movement! For me the term ‘audio books’ has acquired a unique human dimension.

–Mamata

 

Colour and Cheer

 

 

P1130289 (1).JPGRight through the long and dusty summer months when all the other plants drooped and dried, it was the riot of pink and white bougainvillae in my little garden that bestowed colour and cheer to the sweltering days.

I have always enjoyed the sight of the colourful mass, and took it pretty much for granted until I read an interesting story about how the plant was discovered. In 1766 the French government had commissioned French Navy admiral and explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville to sail around the world, to find new territories for France. Accompanying him on this voyage of circumnavigation was Philibert Commerson a botanist, whose brief was to collect hitherto unknown plants from the different continents and countries during the voyage. It is Commerson who is thought to be the first European to describe the plant we know of as bougainvillae.

Recently, the story of the discovery of bougainvillea has been revised. It turns out that Commerson did go on the voyage and was the botanist. But he was accompanied by his housekeeper and lover, Jeanne Baret. The French navy absolutely and explicitly prohibited women on naval vessels. Nevertheless, Baret disguised herself as a man and not only sailed with Commerson, she was with him while he was exploring plants in the new lands where the ship docked. As Commerson was frequently unwell, it was Baret who did most of the plant collecting, and she is believed to have discovered many of the plants which are attributed as being Commerson’s discoveries.

It is now believed that it was probably Baret who found bougainvillea at the very beginning of the trip, in Rio de Janiero. Impressed by the bright blossoms, Commerson named them Bougainvillea after the admiral. Baret also thus became the first woman known to have circumnavigated the globe. Interestingly the surviving journals of the expedition barely mention her, probably due to the fear of the consequences of admitting that the “no women!” rule had been broken.

Since the introduction of the first two species to Europe in the late 1700s, Bougainvillea have made their home all around the tropical world. They are drought-, salt- and wind-resistant, but require hot climate and hours of full sun. They will grow as shrubs, or vines, or even low ground covers and are found in many colours. Currently, there are over 300 varieties of bougainvillea around the world, and since many of the hybrids have been crossed over several generations, it is now difficult to identify their respective origins. Botanists, however, have traced back most of today’s rich variety of bougainvillea back to only three of the original eighteen South American species identified.

While the Bougainvillea is popularly known as an ornamental plant, the people of the Amazon region had long used bougainvillea as a medicinal herb, and it is only more recently that it medicinal values are being recognised by other schools of medicine.

There is definitely more to the bougainvillea than colour and cheer!

P1130286 (1).JPG
 It’s not the flowers that make this plant so colourful, it’s actually the bracts or modified leaves that surround the tiny white flowers. 

–Mamata

 

One Man’s Meat….

‘One man’s meat is another man’s poison’. This expression is often used when two people disagree over something, especially food. Believed to have been coined by Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius in the first century BC, the expression is a pithy reflection of how deeply food tastes and taboos are ingrained in every culture (and indeed every family). What is tasty and what is not; what is healthy and what is harmful; what is culturally acceptable and what is not…the history of food and cultures has laid down norms since time immemorial.

I was reminded of this when I read about the Disgusting Food Museum which opened recently in the city of Malmo in Sweden. The museum features 80 dishes from around the world that, for one reason or another, have earned the epithet of being “disgusting.” Among these are Surströmming: fermented herring from Sweden; Cuy: roasted guinea pigs from Peru; Casu marzu: maggot-infested cheese from Sardinia; Mouse wine from China; Hákarl: well-aged shark from Iceland, and Durian: the infamously stinky fruit from Thailand.

The purpose of the museum is not so much to sensationalize the weird and the exotic, but rather to sensitize to the fact that food-related notions are subjective. What is delicious to one person can be revolting to another. The Museum invites visitors to explore the world of food and challenge their notions of what is and what isn’t edible.

This made me think about the many examples of these notions that are so intrinsically entwined with our food and food habits. In a country as diverse as India, the notions are as diverse as the nation; the state, the region, religion, schools of health (from hot and cold foods in Ayurveda to mutually incompatible foods in other systems), and above all family traditions and cuisines—all these combine to define what kind of food each one of us considers suitable, tasty and palatable.

This diversity presented a challenge when I had the opportunity to be a part of an exercise to develop national textbooks for primary students. One of the objectives was to develop lessons that celebrated the richness of diversity, especially food. How to do this led to numerous debates within the team itself—to talk about the fried caterpillar larvae as a delicacy in the Northeast of India, to talk about “non-vegetarian” food, even to talk about the different cooking oils used in different parts of the country? And how to present these in a manner that evokes not disgust and shutting out of ‘what is different’ but rather curiosity and openness about the richness of cuisines and cultures.

When I was in school we did not have too many such theoretical lessons, but every recess time was a live lesson. It was food that connected us—lunch boxes were opened, food was shared and tasted, and new tastes were cultivated; mothers exchanged recipes, and exploring and discovering different food that you and your friends ate was an everyday adventure, not part of a visit to a food museum!

Today with the homogenization of food (I suspect many lunch boxes contain the ubiquitous Maggi and Lays) we are losing such a rich link. Even more worrying is the fact that food is being used to create boundaries rather than bonds. The old Lucretius expression is, sadly, more true than ever before. It is time to remember another adage “Sharing a meal is the best way to turn strangers into friends.”

–Mamata

 

Old Wine in New Bottles

In recent days the life and style sections of the newspapers are carrying numerous articles with titles like 10 Beauty Hacks to Make you Glow, Be the Best Hostess With These 20 Useful Party Hacks; 15 Kitchen Hacks to Save Time; Have a Sparkling Diwali With These Simple Hacks…

I was intrigued by this oft-used word Hack. My vocabulary dates back to days before even Computer Hackers became news. The only meaning of Hack that I could recall related to the act of roughly chopping down a tree or, as we read in novels, a word used to refer to a slogging journalist or so-so writer. How the word leant itself to beauty and parties and kitchens was a mystery to me.

Being the curious word aficionado that I am, I looked up the word Hack in the dictionary. I was surprised to find the word had many more meanings than I had imagined:

Cut away

Fix a computer programme piecemeal until it works

Significantly cut up a manuscript

Cough spasmodically

Be able to manage successfully

Kick on the shins

One who works hard at boring tasks

A mediocre and disdained writer

An old-fashioned taxi

An old and overworked horse.

This search, having significantly expanded my list of two meanings, still did not reveal what I was looking for—the links with beauty, kitchens and parties. I thought to myself “What the Hack”!

And then Eureka—I came upon the word Life Hacks! And I discovered…

Life hack (or life hacking) refers to any trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method that increases productivity and efficiency, in all walks of life.

It is a tool or technique that makes some aspect of one’s life easier or more efficient.

Aha thought I,  at last!

Then came the more amusing part. I discovered that there are so many websites offering innumerable Life Hacks for everything from how to get up in the morning, to how to carry out some of the most basic functions of life and living—from the sublime to the absurd! For example: ‘Do a 20 minute good workout in the morning and you can be lazy the whole day without feeling guilty!’ OR  ‘If you left home and forgot to brush your teeth or you ran out of toothpaste, chewing an apple can help with bad breath.’

I am sure one could come across some handy tips, but thinking back a bit…

Were these nifty suggestions not too long ago shared widely as DIY TIPS!

Baking soda and hot water to clean drains; a face pack of honey, cream and turmeric for that glowing skin…where did I hear those before? From mothers and aunts, of course. And magazines carried them under the title Grandmother’s Secrets!

I certainly spent an amusing hour browsing the many sites, and along the way I also found what I think is the best way to describe this term: A life hack is a colloquial term for common sense that makes people feel good about their basic creativity, or lack thereof. Typically life hacks are not all that helpful, they are simply advertised well so as to provide a false sense of improvement in the user’s day-to-day operation.

Well well well. What a great way of repackaging tried and tested ‘do-it-yourself’ ideas. Why go to Granny when Youtube will show you how!

–Mamata

Stitch and Rip

I am clumsy and so often put rips and tears on my clothes, and break my buttons. I only have to look at food and I put on weight. Between these two tendencies, I need to stitch up tears, and let out clothes.

So the two most important ‘simple machines’ in my life are the Needle Threader and Stitch Ripper. Simple, but oh, what amazing inventions. For those who don’t know what these are, here is a brief.  And even if you are young and sharp-eyed and the super sorted-out, do not scoff at these, for the day will come when you need them!

Needle Threader: A needle threader is a small sewing tool designed to help pull a thread through the eye of a sewing needle.

When exactly the first needle threader was invented is unknown, but within the European context it is likely to be an eighteenth or early nineteenth century development. There were various forms of nineteenth century needle threaders. But the one most commonly in use even today is a late nineteenth century form which consists of a small plate (often stamped with a profile image of a woman), with a diamond shaped loop of fine steel wire attached to it. The wire loop is flexible and easily passes through the eye of a needle. The sewing thread is passed through the loop and the loop (with thread) is then pulled back through the needle eye.

A number of needle threading devices were patented in the United States in the early 1900s, including Herman Trzeciak’s model patented in 1924 and Carl J. Schuster’s design in 1945. The first automatic needle threader incorporated into a sewing machine was designed by Juki in 1978.

Seam Ripper: There doesn’t seem to be much agreement on who invented this but there is a patent application by Allie  M. Minter, from Petersburg, Colorado in the US and Canada, in 1903.

Seam rippers are an item designed for breaking or undoing sewn stitches, often on seams. A seam ripper is also known as a ‘stitch unpicker’, ‘quick unpic’ and a ‘quick unpick’. (I call them Stitch Rippers). Typically, seam rippers have two spokes, one sharp and the other blunt, connected by a handle, while the intersection is usually a sharp blade.

I sometimes have nightmares of a gangsta (or a lady older and clumsier than me), holding me up with a gun (or pair of knitting needles), and saying “Your Needle Threader or your Stitch Ripper”. I have thought this horrific scenario through. I will part with the Stitch Ripper. One can substitute a safety pin to do this function (albeit a bit clumsily). But for the Needle Threader, there is no substitute!

–Meena

 

 

 

 

Bananadrama

Guess what is making cricketing news these days? Runs and wickets? Tantrums and tampering? No, it is none other than the good old Banana! It is reported that the Indian team has requested an ample supply of bananas for the team during their 2019 World Cup tour to England. The banana has been designated the “fruit of their choice!”

While the mango always lays claim to being the king of fruits, the solid trustworthy banana is taken much for granted, as it does not make a dashing seasonal appearance and compete for awards of the most varieties and the best of them all!

But, there’s more to a banana…

Bananas are both a fruit and not a fruit. While the banana plant is colloquially called a banana tree, it’s actually an herb distantly related to ginger, since the plant has a succulent tree stem, instead of a wood one.

Bananas grow in what are known as “hands,” so-called because of their appearance, which make up the larger stalk, known as a “bunch.”

The banana skin that we peel and throw is, in fact, a fruit because it contains the seeds of the plant. Although since bananas have been commercially grown, the plants are sterile, and the seeds have gradually been reduced to little specs.

The banana plant evolved in the humid tropical regions of S.E. Asia with India as one of its centres of origin. During the seventh century AD its cultivation spread to Egypt and Africa.  Carl Linnaeus an 18th century Swedish botanist whose work led to the creation of modern-day biological nomenclature for classifying organisms was the first person to successfully grow a fully flowered banana tree in the Netherlands.

Today banana is grown in more than 150 countries, and it is widely believed there are more than 1,000 types of bananas in the world, which are subdivided into 50 groups. There are at least 300 varieties of banana in India.

Even then, Linnaeus speculated about other uses for the versatile banana such as boiling bananas with sugar to cure anger, mashing bananas with honey to soothe eye inflammation and crushing banana root soaked in milk to alleviate dizziness. Today the banana is an acknowledged as a Superfood by all schools of health from Ayurveda to the trendy Diet and Nutrition experts. From digestive issues to depression…the banana is the panacea for all ills!

banana.jpg
source: Google

And there is an International Banana Museum in California, which they claim is “the most aPEELing destination” with over 20,000 (and still adding) banana related items…the world’s largest collection devoted to any one fruit!

I do know that the Banana was my father’s favourite fruit. He always used to say “sabse achha kela!” “Banana is the best”. So true…The scientific name for banana is musa sapientum, which means “fruit of the wise men.”

–Mamata

 

 

It’s All in the Name!

In Gujarat it was, till quite recently, very common to ask for “Amul ni Cadbury”, where Cadbury was used as the generic name for chocolate! In the days of yore, (before Amul became utterly butterly ubiquitous) was a time when one used to “lagaao Polson” or in other words “Butter someone up” as it were!

Similarly all photocopy related matters were clubbed under “Xerox”. So one would get papers Xeroxed from a Xeroxer and enclose Xeroxes with applications! Then of course, even older, was something called “Bata price” for anything that was priced at 9.99 or the same in higher figures.

Brand names often become synonymous with a generic product or process, and trip easily over millions of tongues. Brand names are critical—they are what gives a product a single universally recognised identity that leads to the best consumer recall. It is said that more time is spent in deciding the name of a new product than on any other aspect of its development. Inventing a new name that does not clash with the already registered trade marks is a highly complex and time-consuming process. Several hundred names need to be proposed and each has to be checked from a linguistic, marketing and legal aspect.

An old story about the well-known Dunlop tyres is a case in point. The company spent over two years researching a name for a new tyre, to no avail. They then launched an international campaign among their employers, receiving over 10,000 entries. 300 names were shortlisted from these, but not one was found to be legally available in all the countries where it was to be marketed. After further work, a viable name was found–Denovo–for the world’s first ‘fail-safe’ tyre.

A word pronounceable in one language may be impossible to say in another, or unanticipated connotations may creep in. Here is the latest one on this.

Starbucks has recently sued the Indian coffee chain SardarBuksh for sounding too close to them for comfort! Newspapers report that Delhi’s home-grown coffeewalalogo.jpgs have agreed to change their brand to Sardarji-Bakhsh on a condition that it, too, would be allowed to sue any businesses who tried to use the name ‘Baksh’ in their branding!  Star Wars continue!

–Mamata