Thanks, but No Thanks: Awards Declined

Last week I was ruminating on KK Shailaja and her refusal of the Magsaysay award. She is not alone. There are several people across the world who for principles or personal choices refuse awards.

Arguably the most prestigious award in the world is the Nobel. But there are two people who have refused the Noble too.

The first was the author Jean-Paul Sartre, who in principle refused all official awards. He declined the 1964 Literature Prize, stating: ‘A writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if it takes place in the most honourable form.’

The other person who refused the Nobel was Le Duc Tho of North Vietnam. He and Henry Kissinger were awarded the 1974 Peace Prize together  ’for jointly having negotiated a cease fire in Vietnam in 1973’. However, Le Duc Tho refused the award ‘on the grounds that his opposite number had violated the truce’. He said ‘peace has not yet been established’.

Russian mathematician Grigori Perelman’s reason for declining the Fields Medal, considered the Nobel of mathematics, was similar to Jean-Paul Sartre. He said that he had no interest in money and fame and did not want to be on display like a zoo animal. Considering that the inaugural award was $1-million, that was a brave stand.

Arundati Roy
Arundati Roy

Protest against governments is often a reason to refuse awards. For instance, Arundhati Roy, Booker-winning novelist, refused the Sahitya Akademi Award for her collection of political essays  The Algebra of Infinite Justice saying she could not accept an award from an institution supported by the Indian government, whose policies on “big dams, nuclear weapons, increasing militarization and economic liberalism” she disagreed with.

Chinua Achebe
Chinua Achebe

Another author who refused an award from his government was the renowned novelist Chinua Achebe. Nigeria offered him the ‘Commander of the Federal Republic’. But Achebe in a letter to the then-president Olusegun Obasanjo expressed his great discomfort with events in Nigeria. His letter said ‘I had a strong belief that we would outgrow our shortcomings under leaders committed to uniting our diverse peoples. Nigeria’s condition today under your watch is, however, too dangerous for silence.’ He again turned down the honour again in 2011

Not against the government, but Marlon Brando registered his protest against the establishment—in this case Hollywood. He refused the Oscar for Best Actor for the film Godfather in 1973, citing the ill-treatment of native Americans by the film industry as the reason.

Several Indians have refused the government’s high honours for several reason.  Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, freedom fighter and our first Education Minister declined the honour, taking the principled stand that those who were on selection committees for national honours should not themselves receive them.

PN Haksar bureaucrat and diplomat who served as Principal Secretary to the PM was offered the Bharat Ratna in 1973 specially in the light of his role in brokering the Indi-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, as well as the Shimla Agreement. He declined saying ‘Accepting an award for work done somehow causes an inexplicable discomfort to me’. Some other civil servants have also taken this stand.

A communist who probably set the standard for KK Shailaja was EMS Namboodiripad, General Secretary of the CPI (M) and the Kerala’s first Chief Minister who declined the 1992 Bharat Ratna–he said it went against his nature to accept a state honour.

Some others like Swami Ranganathananda have declined awards because it was given to them as individuals, and not to the organizations that they were part of—in this case, the Ramakrishana Mission.

Two prominent journalists—Nikhil Chakravarty and K. Subrahmanyam (who was also a civil servant)—refused Padma Bhushans because they thought it was not appropriate for journalists to accept awards from the government. As Nikhilda put it ‘journalists should not be identified with the establishment.’

Romila Thapar the distinguished historian refused to accept the Padma Bhushan twice. Her stand was that she would accept awards only ‘from academic institutions or those associated with my professional work.’

Several distinguished people have refused or returned honours due to specific incidents, as a mark of protest against the government. These include Hindi author and parliamentarian Seth Govind Das, and Hindi novelist and playwright Vrindavan Lal Varma, both protesting against the amendment of the Official Languages Act to allow for the continued official use of the English language. The famous Kannada novelist Shivram Karanth  returned his award to protest against the declaration of Emergency. PM Bhargava, scientist and founder-director of Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology returned his award in protest of the Dadri mob lynchings and out of concern at the ‘prevailing socio-political situation’ in the country. Prakash Singh Badal ex-CM Punjab, and SS Dhindsa leader of the Shiromani Akali Dal (Democratic) party, returned their awards to show their support to the Farmers’ protests.

Some return awards because they feel the recognition has been delayed too long, or because they feel that people junior to them have been recognized before them. These include playback singer S. Janaki who felt it came too late. Sociologist GS Ghurye refused his award because he felt that people who had contributed less had been given more prestigious awards.

Whatever the reasons, when people of achievement refuse or return awards, governments and establishments need to seriously listen to the reasons. If they think the person is worth honouring, surely the point that they make by refusing the award must be worth listening to?

–Meena

The Biscuity Taste of Nostalgia

Last week, some friends knowing that we had spent several years at Hyderabad, brought us a box of Osmania biscuits. One of the specialities of Hyderabad, as per the box, the recipe for the biscuits wsa thought up on the demand of the last Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan, who wanted a snack that was a little sweet and a little salty. So teatime this week has been pretty good!

Which made me think about biscuits in general. What exactly is a ‘biscuit’?

The word biscuit came to English from French (bis-qui), which is from the Latin root panis biscotus, which roughly means ‘bread twice cooked’. The origin of biscuits goes way back maybe even to Neolithic times. But for sure the Romans had them. In Roman times, biscuits were basically bread which was re-baked so that it would last longer, and hence could be useful for marching armies or travellers. From the 14th century onwards, biscuits became popular in England and were an important part of naval food supplies, carried on ships which set out on long journeys. These naval biscuits were highly inedible, but still an important part of a ship’s provisions as they could last for very long!

As per the dictionary, a biscuit is ‘a small baked unleavened cake, typically crisp, flat, and sweet’. Which of course is inadequate, as biscuits are often salty, and as we shall see below, sometimes leavened (made with yeast or other raising agent).

Biscuits apparently fall into four broad categories. The categories are differentiated by their recipes (mainly the amount of fat, sweet and water), and the baking process. These are:

Crackers:This covers a wide range of products characterised by crispy, open texture and savoury flavours. They are leavened.

Hard sweet biscuits: They have low sugar and fat. They have an even colour and texture,  and good volume.

Short doughs (moulded biscuits): The doughs for these are ‘short’ (ie, have more fat and less water) compared to the dough for crackers of hard sweet biscuits.

Cookies (inlcuding filled cookies): These are made from very soft doughs which are put directly on to the oven band for baking.

India is a pretty big consumer of biscuits—another legacy of our colonial past, I suppose.  Per capita consumption of biscuits in India has been estimated at 2 kilos. The biscuit industry was valued at Rs. 37,000 crore before the pandemic. Lockdowns were good for biscuits, as people stocked up on these foods with long shelf-lives, and the industry saw sharp growth.  The top-selling brands domestically are: Parle-G, Marie Gold, Good Day, Unibic and Bourbon.

India is also an important producer of biscuits along with the US and China. Significant quantities are exported to Haiti, Ghana, Angola, the UAE and the US

My all-time favourites are from a bygone era. In Delhi, my mother would take tins of atta, ghee and sugar to a nearby bakery in the morning, and send one of us to collect the biscuits in the evening. It was difficult not to slyly ‘steal the cookie from the cookie jar’ on the way home. These atta biscuits had typical stripes running along the length. I don’t know if local bakeries even exist today or take such custom-orders. But those biscuits were delicious!

Another biscuit I miss are the Mangaram wafers, or cream biscuits as we used to call them. They came in yellow and pink. They were more expensive than the normal biscuits and so were a special treat for special occasions—birthdays or if one did exceptionally well in a test or exam! Apparently, the Mangharams were from Sukkur, Sindh and had a major factory there from 1937 onwards (as also factories in Delhi, Calcutta and Mumbai). The Sukkur factory was declared evacuee property and given to a Muhammad Yakoob. It was re-named the Yacood Factory. JB Mangharam, the patriarch of the family, settled in Gwalior when they came to India during Partition, and started a factory there. After the death of the founder, the company was restructured in 1969 and again in 1977. In 1983 it became a part of the Britannia Group. Somewhere along the way, the cream biscuits fell out of favour. Was it that the family was too caught up in internal squabbles to pay attention to its star product? Or could they not keep with external competition? Or was it that tastes changed? Whatever the reasons, old-timers like me will always miss those light, sweet, exotic biscuits.

–Meena

PS: Maybe modaks or ladoos would have been a more appropriate topic today. But somehow I feel Ganesha would be game to try something new—a plateful of sweet cookies for instance. Happy Ganesh Chaturthi!

Purposefully Unparliamentary

Over the last week, media has been full of news, editorials, funny pieces and trying-to-be-funny pieces about the list of banned words issued by the Parliament Secretariat in India—apparently a standard practice before the start of a session.

banned words

The use of language and words is a zone of contention in most parliaments across the world. Nor is this a phenomenon of recent times. The earliest recorded instances are from 991 AD, when incidents of ritual cursing and boasting (called flyting) were reported between Germanic chieftains.

The discretion to rule what is acceptable and what is not, is generally left to the Speaker of the house, but there are often lists and books and rules to guide them. While some Speakers revel in the power to cut down the words of their House colleagues, others feel constrained to do so by the duty imposed on them. For instance, ‘Un-parliamentary language is one of the things for which a Speaker must be on guard. Since the beginning of Confederation, a list has been drawn up of words, expressions and sentences that are not to be used by Members in the House. To employ them is to incur the wrath of the presiding officer of the day, and the penalties can be swift and harsh.. Now, as a humane, civilized man, it is not a task I relish, but there must be discipline in the Chamber, and I will take whatever measures, no matter how repressive they may seem, to quell unrest.’ said the Speaker of the Canadian House in 2001.

But obviously the members test the limits. For instance, the Scottish Parliament objected to the First Minister being called a liar. So the member who used that word substituted it with ‘dishonest’ and ‘perpetuating a con trick’, which had the precedent of having been used in the same debate but not objected to.

Or they use the word and then apologize: Irish MP Paul Gogarty of the Green Party used the F-word after being heckled by the opposition. He immediately apologized for the rant, which he admitted was “the most unparliamentary language”. Justin Trudeau, before he became PM of Canada, called an MP a ‘piece of shit’ and then quickly apologized.

On the other hand, some don’t apologize or withdraw their words, and are ready to face the consequences. Plaid Cymru AM calling the Queen “Mrs. Windsor” and became the first MP to be ordered out of the Welsh assembly chamber  because she refused to withdraw her words. In the UK, Dennis Skinner called the then-PM David Cameroon “Dodgy Dave”, and was kicked out from the Commons.

There is actually a lot academic research and theorizing on why parliamentarians are so unparliamentary in their speech! Here are some insights from ‘Language and Ideology’ a book edited by Rene Dirven, Roslyn Frank and Cornelia Ilie, which has a whole chapter devoted to this: ‘In a hierarchically-based and rule-regulating setting like parliament, insults are powerful because they challenge the ‘status quo’.’

Our parliamentarians will surely agree with the following finding: ‘Language users have noticed that abusive and derogatory words tend to have a detrimental effect on the target of the insult, while at the same time, they may strengthen the position of the insult initiator.’ The researches aver that ‘By offering the insults publicly, insult initiators intend to reach a wider audience.’

The book explains the three major objectives of parliamentary insults:

  1. To score points by silencing, embarrassing, and/or humiliating political adversaries
  2. To challenge the authority and institutional role of political adversaries
  3. To redress the political imbalance and to strengthen group cohesion.

So next time we hear some unparliamentary language, more than worrying about the words, maybe we should try to fathom the motive!

–Meena

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