Boring Buzzers: Carpenter Bees

Every few months when we step out onto our little sit-out deck in the morning, we find pockets of sawdust strewn on the floor. Initially we thought that it was termites that had started eating away at the old wooden pergolas over the deck. But a general check could not reveal any other tell-tale signs of termites. So we continued to be baffled about what was responsible for this.

One morning as we sat there we saw a large black bumble bee flying about the pergolas, and then quite mysteriously disappearing somewhere into the wooden beam. A closer examination revealed a hole in the wood, and it seemed to be the one into which the bee had vanished. So now we had a possible suspect, but as yet no confirmation of the link between the sawdust and the bee. The next time there was sawdust, we checked the wood just above it and sure enough we found a neat hole. The next step was to find out if a bumble bee could also be a boring bee!

Some preliminary research confirmed one suspicion—that the drilling in the wood was indeed the work of a bee. But it also refuted the supposition that this was a bumble bee. What we discovered was that this was a bee called the Carpenter Bee, and also many interesting facts. 

To start with, of course, the name. Carpenter bees are aptly named for their habits of drilling into wooden surfaces such as logs and tree branches, or in urban areas, wood used for construction. They drill a neat hole in the wood and tunnel into the wood in order to make their nest and lay their eggs. In a couple of hours the carpenter bee can drill a hole a few inches deep, leaving beneath the debris of sawdust.

Source: en.wikipedia.org

Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa latipes) are one of the largest bees we have here in India. They are big and black with an intimidating appearance. Their wings shine in the sunlight with metallic blue, green and purple colours. The male and the female are more or less similar, but the male has hairier legs.   

Carpenter bees do indeed resemble bumblebees, but while bumblebees usually have a hairy abdomen with black and yellow stripes, carpenter bees typically have a shiny, hairless abdomen. The two bees also have different nesting habits–bumblebees nest in an existing cavity often underground (e.g., in abandoned rodent burrows), whereas carpenter bees tunnel into wood to lay their eggs.

Another distinguishing feature of Carpenter bees is that they are solitary bees, unlike most other honeybees and bumblebees that live in colonies and are known as social insects. The honeybees make hives, while carpenter bees excavate and make well structured tunnels in wood. They vibrate their bodies as they rasp their mandibles against the wood.

After boring a short distance, the bee makes a right angle turn and continues to make a tunnel extending about 30-45 centimetres, parallel to the wood surface. Inside the tunnel, five or six cells are constructed. Each cell houses a single egg, and each one is provided with a wad of pollen collected from flowers, which could serve as nourishment for the larva when the egg hatches. Each cell is then sealed with regurgitated wood pulp and saliva. The larvae feed on the high protein and calorie pollen beebread, and enter hibernation, before they turn into adult bees and emerge from the tunnel. Adult females can live up to three years and can produce two generations of offspring per year, though they never see their offspring!

What an amazing feat of insect architecture was going on, hidden from us, in the single beam of wood right over our head, as we sipped our morning tea!

Equally impressive is the contribution of these bees to the cycle of nature. Carpenter bees typically visit large open-faced flowers which have a lot of pollen as well as nectar. They use vibrations to release the pollen from the flower’s anthers, and are described as buzz pollinators. As they feed on nectar from many flowers, the pollen from the flowers sticks to the underside of the abdomen and the legs, which is transported from flower to flower as they flit and settle to feed, playing a vital role in pollination.

Curiously while I have seen the bee hovering around the wooden beams, I have yet to see one buzzing around the flowers. So the next step in my tracking the bee’s journey still remains incomplete. Even the drilling seems to happen after dusk, as the saw dust appears only in the morning, when the bee appears to be rather ominously hovering around, guarding the entrance to its nesting tunnel, and then flying off into the sunlight.

Interestingly, despite their intimidating appearance, it seems that the males are harmless and do not sting. Female carpenter bees can inflict a painful sting but will seldom do so — unless they are handled or bothered by people– another difference between these solitary bees and other bees and wasps that inflict dangerous stings.

While carpenter bees are have their own place in nature, when they start their drilling activities in wood in houses and gardens, they can become pests. As they hollow out the wood, this can lead to the deterioration or collapse of wooden structures. With our already old and weather-worn wooden beams starting to become favoured nesting sites for Carpenter bees, we had to look for ways to stop these boring buzzers. Research indicated that one option was to inject chemical insecticides or pesticides into the holes. We could not bring ourselves to do this.

We then read that these quiet-loving bees do not like vibration or noise around their nests, but seeing as they were happily drilling right next to our large and loud wind chime, this was obviously not bothering them.

Another thing that these bees are said to be very sensitive to is citrus scents near their nest, and spraying citrus oil into the holes was a recommended way to foist them off. We have arrived at our version of this by plugging the new holes with wedges of lemon. We think that this is playing some part in preventing their access, so one battle at a time is won. But this has certainly not deterred their efforts at drilling new holes; so if the hollowed-out beam collapses on our heads one fine morning, the bees would have won the war! 

–Mamata

Concerted Cultivation

Source:kidskintha.com

“Tiger moms’, ‘helicopter parenting’; ‘authoritative parenting or authoritarian parenting’; ‘permissive parenting’ or ‘uninvolved parenting’… In the last decade or more there has been a lot of discussion and debate around ‘parenting styles’. In nuclear families with both working parents, and one or two children, there seems to be a situation where parents are overly conscious about “parenting” in order to give the “best of everything possible” to their children. Paradoxically, this is now beginning to show somewhat alarming outcomes. 

I recently read a thought-provoking book titled The Coddling of the American Mind: How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure. The book’s primary intent is to understand the phenomenon of rising intolerance on college campuses in America. In order to do this the authors attempt to go back to the contemporary practices of child-raising that impact psyche and behaviour of these children as they reach adulthood. Although these premises are based on a study of trends and theories in the Unites States, it was surprising and disturbing that a lot of this applies also to some sections of parents in India.

One of the chapters in the book looks at the changes in parenting styles in America over the last five decades or so. Parents of children born in the nineteen fifties were strongly influenced by Dr Benjamin Spock who taught that “children should be permitted to develop at their own pace, not pushed to meet the schedules and rules of adult life.” Spock encouraged parents to relax and let children be children. Children growing up in the fifties, and through the sixties and seventies roamed freely around their neighbourhood and played without adult supervision. Unsupervised time had many positives in terms of child development—joy, independence, problem solving, and resilience.

But starting from the 1980s, and gaining strength in the 1990s, there was shift in thinking about child upbringing, moving away from Spock’s “permissive parenting” to a new model of “intensive parenting.” Which is what sociologist Annette Lareau describes as “concerted cultivation”. Parents using this style see their task as cultivating their children’s talents while stimulating the development of their cognitive and social skills. They fill their children’s calendars with adult-guided activities, lessons and experiences, and they closely monitor what happens in school. They talk with their children a great deal using reasoning and persuasion, and they hardly ever use physical force or physical punishment.

The main converts to this were educated middle class parents who were reading about new theories of ‘early stimulation’ (such as babies who listened to Mozart would become smarter) and who felt that they needed to give their children every possible advantage in the increasingly competitive race to get into a good college.

Cultivation of such conditions for children requires that parents make a concerted effort to plan their children’s time.  Children have after school activities like music lessons, team sports, tutoring and other structured and supervised activities. Younger children have ‘playdates’. Children are overscheduled, over parented and over monitored.

The race for getting the child into a good college begins even before the child starts school. A telling example of the change in expectations are two checklists of reference indicators for parents to check whether their child is ready for first grade.

Checklist in 1979

–Will your child be six years six months or older when he begins first grade and starts receiving reading instruction?

–Does your child have two to five permanent or second teeth?

–Can your child tell, in such a way that his speech is understood by a school crossing guard or policeman where he lives?

–Can he draw and colour and stay within the lines of the design being covered?

–Can he stand on one foot with eyes closed for five or ten seconds?

–Can he tell his left hand from his right?

–Can he travel alone in the neighbourhood (four to eight blocks) to store, playground, or to a friend’s home?

–Can he be away from you all day without being upset?

–Can he repeat a simple eight or ten word sentence, if you say it once?

–Can he count eight to ten pennies correctly?

–Does your child try to write or copy letters or numbers?

A Checklist from a school, circa 2015, had about thirty items on it, mainly academic standards. This included the expectation that the six-year-old child should be able to:

–Identify and write numbers to100.

–Count by 10’s to 100, 2’s to 20 and 5’s to 100.

–Interpret and fill in data on a graph.

–Read all kindergarten-level sight words.

–be able to read books with five to ten words per page.

–Form complete sentences on paper using phonetic spelling (i.e. journal and story writing).

Kindergarten in the 1970s was devoted mostly to social interaction and self-directed play with some instruction in art, music, numbers and the alphabet. Kindergarten today is much more structured and sedentary with children receiving direct instruction to academic subjects—known as ‘drill and skill’ method of instruction.

In recent years, in addition to over parenting, protective parenting has grown into ‘paranoid’ parenting. Parents want to keep their children ‘safe’ from anything that they perceive might harm them—food, activities, people, words…This is creating a cult of safetyism, where children grow up believing that the world is full of danger.

The authors believe that such parenting, has adverse, rather than supportive effects on children. Overprotected children are also shielded from the small but necessary challenges and risks that they need to face on their own. The children grow up with a sense of fear, anxiety and distrust. They are denied the necessary opportunities to develop important ‘life skills’ such as self-directed learning, cooperation, negotiation, compromise, dispute resolution, decision making, and perspective taking.

 Free outdoor play, a critical component of growing up that develops these skills is increasingly missing from children’s lives today.  Studies in America have found that compared to previous generations, children growing up in the second decade of the 21st century are spending hardly any time in outdoor activities, especially free play; they spend less free time with friends and more time interacting with parents, and much more time interacting with screens.

This is perhaps almost as true now for most other parts of the world. Indeed, much more so in the last year and a half of the pandemic lockdowns. Even while the current conditions deny children many vital experiences and opportunities, it would be important to remember that even well-intentioned over parenting can harm rather than help our children. Children are naturally ‘antifragile’, their brains require a wide range of inputs from their environment in order to configure themselves for these environments. Like the immune system they must be exposed to challenges and stressors (within limits and appropriate to their age) to build resilience as they grow. Overprotection makes them weaker and less resilient later on. Given that risks and stresses are unavoidable parts of life, we may indeed be preparing our children better to cope with these, not by over-protecting them, but by helping them to develop their innate abilities to grow and learn from challenging experiences. As the authors write, you cannot teach your child antifragility directly but you can give your child the gift of multiple experiences they need to become resilient, autonomous adults.

Prepare your child for the road. Not the road for the child.

–Mamata

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.

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

High-tech Barriers to Heritage

In between the first COVID wave and the second ongoing one, we were tempted to get a little adventurous. We scouted around for sites which we could visit on day-trips.

It is in this process that we got to know about a beautiful Hoysala-style temple situated in Somanathapura, which lies about 130 kms from Bangalore. This is the Chennakeshava Temple built by the Hoysala commander, Somanatha, in 1268 A.D.

And we made our way there with some friends.

It is an astounding structure, made completely of sandstone, with the most intricate carvings, built at the peak of Hoysala architectural excellence.

Chennakeśava means ‘handsome Keshava’, and the temple is dedicated to three forms of Vishu—Keshava, Janardhana and Venugopala. The main temple is on a star-shaped platform with three garbagrahas, each dedicated to one on the three forms. Besides this, there are 64 corridor shrines, set in magnificent pillared corridors. The main temple is surrounded by a pradakshina patha, all along which are carvings from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagavata Purana etc., which unfold as one undertakes the pradakshina.  The ceilings are decorated with intricate sculptures depicting different stages of the unfolding of a lotus. The massive stone pillars supporting the inner shrine were turned in ancient animal-drawn lathes.

The temple took several decades to build, but was in worship for only 60-70 years before it was sacked by invaders. Since the statues and the structure were defaced and broken, worship could no longer take place there, as per tradition.

It is a wonder that such an old and disused structure still stands in such good shape today—it is nearly 700+ years after it stopped being an active temple. It is in the hands of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), and one must appreciate their efforts to have the site in such good shape, standing in such well-maintained grounds. Even the toilets are fairly functional and clean.

But….

And it is a big BUT.

It is plagued by some problems which many of our heritage sites suffer from. For instance, we did not see a single signage anywhere on the roads telling the passers-by of the existence of such an amazing monument close by. Or to direct those who were looking for it.

Within 25 kms of the structure—leave alone on or near the premises—there is not a decent restaurant or even a picnic ground for those who had their own food.

But for the first time we came across a tech-challenge in such a place!

When we reached the gates of the monument and looked around for a ticket window, there was none. Instead there were a few flex posters, informing us of the rates (Rs 20 for online tickets), and a barcode to scan and pay. There were about six groups of tourists, all desperately trying to scan but no one was successful. After about five minutes, the helpful security guard came up to us and told us that it was not working. He suggested we should try to log into the ASI site, pay online and get our tickets. We all tried dutifully. But the signal was at best patchy and the site slow. My friend could get in. The names of each one of the group had to be entered. And the Aadhar or PAN of the person doing the booking. When she tried to pay, it got into a loop which there was no coming out of. We looked around, and many other people were in the same soup. We asked the Guard if he could not just take the money and give us tickets, but he told us that was not allowed. By this time, one person from another group was successful in getting his ticket from the ASI site. So using typical Indian jugaad, we begged him not to exit, but to do our ticketing online, and that we would pay him the Rs. 20/head in cash. He obligingly did this for some of us.

The whole process took us about 20 minutes and was pretty stressful.

And then we went in to visit the monument. Which fortunately was amazing enough to make it all worth while.

But it left us wondering what the point was. Does anyone who wants to visit a heritage site HAVE to have a smartphone? In a country where literacy, let alone digital literacy, is not to be taken for granted, should lack of these prevent a person from such basic access (never mind that it is a barrier even to COVID vaccination!). Is there an inherent age-discrimination–many older people are uncomfortable with all these scan-and-pay modes.  If the wifi does not work at a site, are people to go back the 150 kms they came to visit the monument? And why is the name of every visitor needed for buying entry tickets? Why is Aadhar or PAN information needed? Where does this information go, and what becomes of it?

If the purpose of technology is to make life easier for citizens, then this is surely not the way! The system is good in that it provides a nudge for digital payment (if you scan and pay it is Rs. 20, and if you could buy a physical ticket it is Rs. 25 per ticket). Nudges are good for bringing about behavior change. But taking away options is discriminatory and against basic rights. As is seeking information which is not relevant to anything!

Why does something like a visit to our own heritage sites have to become a battleground about rights?

–Meena

The Nifty Little Fix-It

Lost a button, snapped a strap; need something to hold it, or fix it? It’s the thing to reach for in an emergency. From the diaper to the toddler’s hanky, the sari pallu to the Scottish kilt, from the school badge to the split seam, this is what holds it together. It is the simple but multipurpose safety pin! Of all the many inventions that have made our day-to-day life simpler, it is these small but unsung ones that hardly ever make it to the headlines, but without which we would be quite lost.

The story of the safety pin is one of those. Its inventor Walter Hunt came from humble beginnings. He was born on a small farm in Lewis County, New York in 1796, the eldest of 13 children. He started his education in a one-room school, and dropped out of formal education in his early teens to take to farming. While Hunt was not keen on the 3Rs, his mind was sharp and curious, and he was fascinated with mechanical objects. This led him to help out at a nearby textile mill where several of his family members worked. With his love for tinkering, he worked out some improvements to the flax spinning machine used there. The owner took out a patent on this, but Hunt was not included in that. Hunt however went on to develop an even better flax spinning machine which he patented. But he could not find any investors who would support the production of these machines. Eventually, in frustration, he sold the patent, just to support his family, and relocated to New York.

This was in the days before the motor car. One day he saw a little girl being knocked down by a horse carriage which was the mode of transport. These carriages had air horns to warn the pedestrians who shared the roads, but the driver could not use the horn as he had to hold the reins with both hands. Hunt observed this issue, and developed a foot-operated metal gong to sound the horn. In 1827, he filed a patent for this device. Once again, he could not find an investor to manufacture this device, and so once again he sold the patent. And never made any money from the profits from the sales of his invention.

This was to be the pattern of Hunt’s life. He was always in the need for quick money to support his family, and so he sold his patents outright rather than holding on to them, or opting for the longer-term profits from royalties. Luckily for him, he could also come up with invention after invention.

It was one of those patents that he sold in 1849 that gave us the nifty device we call the safety pin. Here too was a case of a quick invention for quick money. In this instance, he was being pressured to settle a 15-dollar debt, which had to be repaid the following day. As was his default setting, he sat at night tinkering with a piece of wire, while wondering what new product he could invent and sell the next day. The wire reminded him of a pin, which in those days was straight length of metal with a sharp edge. Hunt wondered how he could make the pin less prone to poke the user, and thereby more safe.  In 3 hours, he worked out a sketch, and made a tiny model of a new type of pin. He used a brass wire, coiled it at the centre which provided a springing mechanism, and formed a clasp or catch on one end which shielded the wearer from being the sharp point when worn. He called this a ‘dress pin’.

As he described in his patent application: “The distinguishing features of this invention consist in the construction of a pin made of one piece of wire or metal combining a spring, and clasp or catch, in which the point of said pin is forced, and by its own spring securely retained.”

He then sold the patent outright for $400, and never got a single penny more for a product that has sold in trillions across the world, over more than a hundred and seventy five years.

The dress pin was only one of Hunt’s many inventions.  Earlier, in 1834, he had designed one of the world’s first eye-pointed-needle sewing machines. But his daughter talked him out of commercializing the device by warning him that it would lead to massive unemployment among seamstresses. He created a prototype in wood of the sewing machine, and sold the idea to a company that made it in metal. And in history, the credit for the invention went to Isaac Singer, and the Singer sewing machines became a household name.

Hunt continued his prolific spree of improving upon, inventing, and patenting numerous other daily-use objects. These included for a saw for easily cutting down trees, a flexible spring attachment for belts and suspenders, and an attachment for boats to cut through ice. He developed a machine for making nails, hob nails for boots and shoes, a knife sharpener, an inkstand, a fountain pen, bottle stoppers, paper shirt collars, and a non-explosive lamp. He developed a repeating gun and cartridge that was eventually adapted by Smith and Wesson. He even invented an suction apparatus that could be attached to shoes so a person could walk upside down on a ceiling. The contraption was used by circus performers as late as 1937.

Walter Hunt died on June 8, 1859 at the age of 62, with perhaps as many inventions under his hat as his years on earth. All his life he continued to outright sell his patents, and did not reap a single penny in royalties. His only claim to fame, if not fortune, is that 10 April has been designated as International Safety Pin Day, to mark the day on which he received his patent for the safety pin!

Let’s hear it for the safety pin–a handy little friend in need!

–Mamata

Get that Goat!

Last week, newspapers reported that when the Army Medical Corp Centre at Lucknow marked its Foundation Day, the marching band was led by Munna Havaldar. Mr. Munna is not a man but a goat, serving as a non-commissioned officer in the Regiment. And he is not the first! There has been a Munna Havildar in the regiment since 1951, the title handed down without break from one handsome Marwari goat to the next!

This is in keeping with the tradition of animal mascots that many army regiments, not only in India, but across the world have. Probably a tradition popularized by the British. Today, the British Army has nine animal mascots, from goats to ponies.

The Spanish Legion has its own goat mascot, ‘Odin’. The Bengal Tigress ‘Quintas Durga’, is the mascot for the 5th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment. ‘Chesty XV’ an English Bulldog is a mascot to the US Marine Corps.  The Sri Lankan Light Infantry mascot is an elephant. This is a tradition since 1961, and they are all named after the most famous elephant in Sri Lanken history, ‘Kandula’. ‘Brigadier Sir Nils Olav’ is a King Penguin who is the mascot of the Kings Guard of Norway. Toronto Zoo is home to the Canadian Army’s mascot, ‘Juno’, a female polar bear. ‘Bill the Goat’ is the mascot  of the United States Naval Academy.

Armies have both official and unofficial mascots or pets. Official mascots have a rank, and are maintained at the expense of the State. As with human soldiers, they too can even be promoted and demoted!

For some reason, goats are very popular mascots. In fact, they may be among the first-ever army animal mascots. The Royal Welsh Fusiliers have adopted goats as mascots since the 1770s, starting from the American War of Independence, during the famous Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775, when a wild goat entered the battlefield and led the Royal Fusiliers from the field.

Of course, goats are not very well-behaved or tractable. Lance Corporal William ‘Billy’ Windsor, mascot of 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh, earned a demotion in 2006 when he deviated from the parade he was leading in front of the Queen and tried to head-butt the drummers marching ahead of him.

Which reminds me of another goat which was a mascot not of a Unit in the Army, but of a road in Vastrapur, Ahmedabad. This strip of road (extremely narrow, bumpy and non-straight), lined with shops, parked vehicles, thelas and carts, temples and milling humanity, was a vital one connecting IIM, PRL, ISRO Colony etc. to the ‘other side’.

And it was ruled by a huge goat. He lay down in the middle of the road when he felt like, and all traffic had to flow around him. If he decided to take a walk and charge any pedestrian, they just had to may their way to safer ground. He was fed and pampered by all the shop keepers and denizens of the street. He had his pick of the choicest vegetables and fruits from the carts. If he felt like some sweets, he just had to make his way to one or the other sweet shop in the market. On festival days, he was festooned with garlands and daubed with paint. He was given to smoking, and the paan gallawallahs used to light beedies and put them in his mouth for him to puff at.

Sadly, the goat which gave the road so much character passed away of old age some years ago. Not being an Army Regimental Mascot, he was not replaced.

But thankfully, the road has been widened and smoothed!

–Meena

Feeling Fool-ish?

When we were in school this was the day when we were on high alert—looking over our shoulder, and wary about opening packages and envelopes; while at the same time planning silly pranks to play on family and friends. Whether the attempts on both sides were a hit or a flop, perhaps the highlight was the gleeful shouts of “April Fool”!

Interestingly, this is one day that does not have any specific geographical, cultural or religious significance but it is universally marked by fool-hearted fun and frolic. And yet, it is a day with a long, and somewhat hazy history. While it has been celebrated for many centuries by different cultures, there are several theories about its exact origins. 

Some historians speculate that it may have originated in 16th century Europe when France switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. Traditionally, the spring equinox which fell around the first of April was thought of as the beginning of the year in the Julian calendar, but in 1582, with the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, January 1 was designated as the start of the new year. As the stories go, it was a while before everyone found out about this change, and adopted it. Those who were ignorant about the change, or who refused to accept it, and continued to celebrate it in March-April were the butt of derision and pranks, and were called ‘April Fools.” One of the popular pranks was to paste a paper fish on their backs, and calling them “poisson d’avril” (April fish), which referred to a young, easily caught fish, symbolising a gullible person.

Other historians feel that its precedents lie even further back to a Greco-Roman festival called Hilaria, honoring Cybele, an ancient Greek Mother of Gods, which was celebrated with parades, masquerades and jokes. In fact most cultures have some kind of festival to mark the end of winter and the return of spring which is marked by the vernal equinox. These “renewal festivals” were an occasion to invert the traditional social order for a day—children could challenge the authority of parents, and servants of masters—and tensions were diffused with boisterous hilarity and playful pranks. Anthropologists see 1 April as a modern form of a renewal festival where forms of behaviour that are normally not allowed (lying, deception, playing pranks) become acceptable, for this one day.

It is only in the 18th century that April Fools’ Day spread through Britain. With time, different parts evolved their own traditions and events to mark the day. In Scotland and Ireland, a popular prank was to send people on phony errands; someone was asked to deliver a sealed message that supposedly requested help. In fact, the message read “Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile” which translated means “don’t laugh, don’t smile, send the messenger another mile“. Each recipient upon reading it would send the person on to the next person with an identical message. This version of a wild goose chase was called “hunting the gowk” as gowk means a cuckoo bird, which symbolises a fool.

With time, even as its history became more blurred, the spirit of April Fools’ Day spread across the world, triggering challenges to devise and play the most elaborate and outrageous  hoaxes. These were no longer confined to slapstick pranks and juvenile jokes. Newspapers, radio and TV stations and websites also joined the tradition by publishing or broadcasting reporting outrageous reports and news that would convincingly fool their audiences.

One of the best remembered hoax was pulled off by none other than the BBC, which had an old and solid reputation for its reliable reporting. On 1 April 1957, the BBC show Panorama gave the news about a bumper spaghetti harvest in Switzerland and aired a three-minute segment showing people harvesting spaghetti from trees. Viewers were totally taken in; many wrote in asking how they could grow their own spaghetti trees! The BBC even replied: “Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best!”

In 1962, before the days of colour TV, a ‘technical expert’ on the Swedish national network told the public that viewing its black-and-white broadcasts through nylon stockings would enable them to view these in colour. Many Swedes seriously tried this, ruining many stockings in the effort!

The neighbouring Germans have contributed their bit of April foolery too. In 1994, a Cologne-based radio station ran a story saying that local joggers should keep their speed below ten kilometres an hour so as not to disturb squirrels during mating season; while in 2004, Berlin paper Tageszeitung reported that the American embassy would be relocating to get away from the French embassy across the street.

As the world leap-frogged from print and broadcast to virtual communication, the pranks continued, in more high tech and sophisticated forms. Google became known for its clever annual pranks on its different platforms, cooked up by its best tech minds. It goofed however when it announced the real trial launch of Gmail on 1 April 2004, and everyone thought it was a joke! Last year, April 2020, for the first time since it began its April Fools tradition in 2000, Google did not put up any pranks and jokes, as a mark of respect for the unprecedented Covid situation that the entire world had been plunged into. And Stop Press! It has decided not to do so this year also.

Once upon a time, hoaxes were a once-a-year bit of fun and games, with the guileless gowks running around to carry so-called news. Today with social media flooded 24/7 with news, views, gossip and rumours, it is becoming increasingly difficult to sieve the fake news from the real. We no longer need to wait for April 1, to fool and be fooled. The joke is on gullible us, the always-in-a-rush consumers, who unquestioningly lap it all up, and spread it far and wide. That is not funny; that is foolish. More fool me and more fool you!

–Mamata