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

A March to Remember

Source: en.wikipedia.org

Last week there were a flurry of events to commemorate a significant March. It was on 12 March 1930 that Mahatma Gandhi embarked on the march that was to become a milestone in India’s non-violent struggle for Independence from British rule. The 241-mile walk from Sabarmati Ashram to the coast at Dandi in Gujarat was a symbolic protest against the prohibitive provisions of the Salt Tax imposed by the British. The Dandi March was the spark that ignited the flames of a non-violent resistance and protest movement, and caused the idea of mass civil disobedience to spread like wildfire across the nation. The movement culminated in India gaining Independence on 15 August 1947.

This year, the run up to the 75th anniversary of our Independence, was marked by the symbolic re-enactment of the 24-day Dandi March, following the original route that Gandhi and his band of 79 marchers took in 1930. According to newspaper reports all sorts of “events” have been planned around this, including ‘patriotic’ entertainment programmes where the marchers halt every evening; competitions and contests, and even a “virtual ultra challenge” to walk, run or cycle as per one’s convenience at any place and any time between the challenge dates.

In an age where histrionics make headlines, and memories are as fleeting as Instagram images and tweets, perhaps not many today would know the historical facts about the original Dandi March 91 years ago. This is a good week to remind ourselves.

On 2 March 1930 Gandhiji had written a letter to the Viceroy giving notice of his intention to launch a civil disobedience movement by symbolically breaking the Salt Law which in his opinion was “the most iniquitous of all from the poor man’s standpoint.” He was snubbed in return; which strengthened his resolve. He selected Dandi, a seaside village in Gujarat as the site for his symbolic gesture, and planned to walk the distance of 241 miles from his Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, along with a select band of co-workers. The date for setting off on the march was fixed for 12 March and 6 April was the date set for the ‘breaking of the salt law” at Dandi.

Gandhiji vowed not to return to the Ashram till his mission was accomplished; he was also sure that he would be arrested before he could complete his journey. On 11th March Gandhi addressed a gathering of over 10,000 people at the end of the evening prayers on the banks of the Sabarmati saying “In all probability, this will be my last speech to you. Even if the Government allow me to march tomorrow morning, this will be my last speech on the sacred banks of the Sabarmati. Possibly, these may be the last words of my life here.”

On March 12, 1930 at 6.30 a.m. Gandhiji, left the Ashram accompanied by 78 satyagrahis. These represented a cross-section of the people from all over the country: Andhra Pradesh, Bengal, Bihar, Bombay, Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala, Kutch, Maharashtra, Punjab, Rajputana, Sind, Tamil Nadu, U.P. Utkal, and even Nepal. The group included members of all communities. They fell in a broad age spectrum from 16-year-old Vitthal Liladhar Thakkar to 61-year-old Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi! The main criteria for the selection, that he personally made, was that the marchers were disciplined, and strictly adhered to the principles of ahimsa and satyagraha. Interestingly, the group did not include any women. One of the later historians attributed this to Gandhi’s concern that the British would taunt the marchers for being cowardly and “hiding behind the women.” He also anticipated that the marchers would have to face the physical aggression of the police, and did not want to women to bear the blows. But he encouraged women to participate and contribute to the struggle by taking up picketing of liquor shops and foreign cloth, and taking up spinning, as well as to make salt locally wherever they lived. 

The route of the 24-day march was meticulously planned; it would pass through 4 districts and 48 villages. An advance party of volunteers from the Gujarat Vidyapith were to go ahead and collect information about each village and its residents so that Gandhijji could plan his evening talks so as to be relevant to the local needs of the village where they halted. He admonished the villagers if their village was not clean and sanitary. In every village the volunteers registered new satyagrahis and received resignations from village officials who chose to end their cooperation with the British rule. The marchers slept in the open and depended on the villagers’ hospitality to provide them with food and water. Gandhi felt that this engagement would bring the poor into the struggle for sovereignty and self-rule. .

The group walked an average of 15 km each day, taking a mid-day halt, and reaching their night halt before dusk. Every sixth or seventh day was a rest day. The entire route was lined with huge crowds and decorated with arches, flags and buntings. Gandhiji led the group, walking with his customary speed and energy; he was indefatigable, spinning or writing letters even at the mid-day rest halts; he did not waste a single minute. He addressed public meetings and gave interviews until he retired at 9 pm. He was up at 4 am, writing letters, even by moonlight. After morning prayers at 6 am he addressed the marchers and answered questions, before setting off for the day.

His satyagrahis were expected to follow an equally exacting routine of prayer, spinning and writing their daily diary.  Even the advance party volunteers were not exempt. In a talk to volunteers on March 17 1930 he said: Ours is a sacred pilgrimage and we should be able to account for every minute of our time. Let those who are not able to finish their quota or do not find time to spin or write up their diaries see me. I shall discuss the thing with them. There must be something wrong with their time table and I should help them to readjust it. We should be resourceful enough to do all our daily duties without the march coming in our way.

Day after day, as the marchers covered mile after mile, of what he considered to be  “nothing less than a holy pilgrimage”.  Gandhiji addressed thousands of people; he urged them to join the civil disobedience movement in large numbers; to boycott foreign cloth, adopt Khadi, and desist from the evil of drinking. Every day, more and more people joined the march, until the procession of marchers was at least 3 km long by the time it neared Dandi.

On April 5 the marchers reached Dandi. Early the next morning, after prayers Gandhiji walked into the waters of the Arabian Sea; he bent down and picked up a lump of salt. The Salt Law was broken, and that simple gesture, triggered a groundswell of protest; across the country local leaders led people to the seaside to do the same; everywhere, in towns and villages, people made salt in pots and pans. The people of India had openly challenged the British Government.

A simple gesture, but one backed by a canny calculation of the tremendous impact that it would have; and a symbolic march that signified not just the determination of a nation to win their birthright, but equally the demonstration of a movement driven by the principles of discipline, ahimsa and satyagraha. As a nation that has, for 75 years, been savouring the fruits of this momentous movement, the best way to commemorate this would be not simply by symbolic events, but by reminding ourselves of, and adherence to, these principles. They are needed now, more than ever before.   

–Mamata

The Postman Does Not Knock Even Once

When is it that you last saw letters slipped under your door by the postman? For that matter, can you recall where your nearest postbox is?

The Indian postal system has a hoary history. The official website of India Post informs us that: ‘For more than 150 years, the Department of Posts (DoP) has been the backbone of the country’s communication and has played a crucial role in the country’s social economic development. It touches the lives of Indian citizens in many ways: delivering mails, accepting deposits under Small Savings Schemes, providing life insurance cover under Postal Life Insurance (PLI) and Rural Postal Life Insurance (RPLI) and providing retail services like bill collection, sale of forms, etc. The DoP also acts as an agent for Government of India in discharging other services for citizens such as Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) wage disbursement and old age pension payments. With more than 1,55,000 post offices, the DoP has the most widely distributed postal network in the world.’

True, every word. Except alas, it needs a high school grammar exercise to be truthful: ‘Transform the verbs in present continuous to the past tense’. So the truth will read: ‘For more than 150 years, the Department of Posts (DoP) was the backbone of the country’s communication and played a crucial role in the country’s social economic development. It touched the lives of Indian citizens in many ways.

The post office has sadly lost its relevance completely–at least in the urban context. One can understand the supplantion of some of the functions: Telegrams are not relevant now that we have emails and whatsapp and phones for instantly reaching out; the phone at the post office which was used in the pre-privatization era has obviously given way to mobile phones in every pocket; money orders which we looked forward to so eagerly in our hostel days have been efficiently replaced by money transfer apps galore.  But we are still sending documents, packages, invitations etc. physically from one point to another. But we never think of using the postal system do we? By default, we use the private courier.

Private couriers came in with the promise of overnight delivery. At most, if it was the other end of the country, it was 48 hours. And that did work, for the first few years. And they do come over and pick up and drop off things. The Postman will definitely not come home if you have a package, even for a charge. And so we all started shifting to couriers.

But today, for all the fancy tracking and tracing systems, except for a few premier and highly expensive couriers, they take a good 3-4 days. And whatever the level of service, they charge a huge multiple of the value of stamps I think I would have stuck on a good old letter or package.

I am sure the Postal Department has a huge workforce. We see occasional announcements as to additional functions they will take on. But in day to day life, one seldom sees this happening.

A sad example of the public sector’s presence and importance diminishing in a key vital sector. I don’t care if Govt. of India sells all its PSUs—it probably should. But are there not some core citizen services where its presence needs to be maintained? Should these not be the focus of modernization, revitalization and re-imagination? Are we, as a country not the losers if India Post is not able to live up to its Vision and Mission quoted below?

Vision​​​

India Post’s products and services will be the customer’s first choice.​

Mission​

  • To sustain its position as the largest postal network in the world touching the lives of every citizen in the country.
  • To provide mail parcel, money transfer, banking, insurance and retail services with speed and reliability.
  • To provide services to the customers on value-for-money basis.
  • To ensure that the employees are proud to be its main strength and serve its customers with a human touch.​
  • To continue to deliver social security services and to enable last mile connectivity as a Government of India platform

–Meena

Zizzer-zazzer-zuzz Dr Seuss

A small news item caught my eye yesterday because it had the name of one of my favourite children’s author–Dr Seuss; and it reminded me that 2 March is his birth anniversary. The news however was somewhat unsettling. It reported that after being in print for almost half a century, six Dr Seuss books will no longer be published because the estate of the deceased author consider that “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” 

In an age that it overly sensitive to the portrayal of different cultures and races, and in the effort to be “politically correct” or “woke” as it is now termed, this seems to be the latest item on the list of vetting children’s books for “appropriate content.”

Curiously, Dr Seuss books have always been more about vocabulary than content. Several generations of children have been introduced to words by being read aloud from his books. It was the simple rhymes and rhythm of his verses that opened up the fun of language, and the characteristic zany drawings that accompanied them that attracted young and old.

Theodor Seuss Geisel was born on March 2, 1904, in Springfield, Massachusetts to German immigrant parents. He left home at the age of 18 to attend Dartmouth College, where he became the editor-in-chief of its humour magazine. He was kicked off the magazine’s staff when he and his friends were caught drinking in their dorm, in violation of the Prohibition era laws. But he continued to contribute to the magazine under the pseudonym Seuss, which was his mother’s maiden name.

After graduating from Dartmouth, Theodor left for England in 1925 to study at the University of Oxford, with plans to become a Professor someday. But as his notebooks from the period indicate, while he diligently took lecture notes initially, soon the pages were filled only with doodles and drawings. In 1927, he dropped out of Oxford and gave up his idea of becoming an academic. Later when he began to make a name as a writer he added ‘Dr.’ to Seuss, as a sort of joke, because his father had always wanted him to get a doctorate and become a professor. And Dr Seuss he became and remained till the end of his days, and even today.

Theodor had always loved to play with words and it was with words and sketches that he began his professional life. On his return to the United States, Theodor worked for a number of years as a freelance magazine cartoonist, selling cartoons and humorous prose pieces to the major humour magazines of the 1920s and 1930s. One of his best known assignments was the humorous advertisements for the bug spray Flit. He went on to create advertising campaigns for several large companies including the Ford Motor Company.

His new avatar as a children’s writer was born with the publication of his first book in 1937. In 1936, Geisel and his wife were returning from an ocean voyage to Europe when the rhythm of the ship’s engines inspired the poem that became his first children’s book: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. But his manuscript was met with rejection from publisher after publisher.

After the 27th publisher rejected his manuscript, Theodor was dejectedly walking on Madison Avenue in New York when he bumped into an old friend from Dartmouth, Mike McClintock, who that very morning had started a job as an editor in the Vanguard Press children’s section. Within hours, the men signed a contract. In 1937 Vanguard Press published And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street. The book was an instant hit and Dr. Seuss began what was to be an extraordinary literary career.   

The outbreak of World War II forced Theodor to temporarily give up writing for children and to devote his talents to the war effort. Working with the Information and Education Division of the U.S. Army, he made documentary and animated films for American soldiers. He also illustrated political cartoons; but his heart was in children’s books.

After the war, Geisel and his wife moved to La Jolla California where he returned to writing children’s books, working hard for hours at juggling words and rhymes and colour palettes to create madcap characters and adventures. He also loved coining playful nonsensical words that were as zany as his characters: Yuzz-a-ma-tuzz, murky-mooshy, gluppity-glup, schloppity shlop—words that children would love to twist their tongue around! It was a few years before his best known book The Cat in the Hat would be written. And this has an interesting background.

In the early 1950s the most widely used early school primers were a series featuring a boy and girl named Dick and Jane who were too neat, clean, and well behaved to be true!. By the mid-fifties some educators began to debate how effective these were in laying the foundation for literacy, and encouraging and exciting early readers.

One of the people who were concerned, and were imagining alternatives was William Spaulding who was then director of the education division at the Houghton Miffin publishing house. In 1955 Spaulding invited Dr Seuss to create a book for six- and seven-year-olds who had already mastered the basic mechanics of reading. He reportedly challenged, “Write me a story that first-graders can’t put down!”

The additional challenge was that Theodor was given a limited list of 250 words that he could use for his story. Theodor decided to quash his frustration by deciding to pick the first two rhyming words that he found in the list and create a story based on those. The words were Cat and Hat! The next challenge was to write the story. It took Theodor nine months to complete The Cat in the Hat—a 236 rhyming word book which while doing its traditional job of a reading primer was also entertaining. It was the story of two children, bored and alone at home who were visited by a cat in a top hat and red bow tie, and their mad capers in one afternoon.

We looked

and we saw him

the cat in the hat!

and he said to us

‘why do you sit there like that?

i know it is wet

and the sun is not sunny

but we can have

lots of good fun that is funny!

When it was published in 1957, the book was met with immediate critical and commercial success. Reviewers saw it as an exciting alternative to traditional primers. Three years after its debut, the book had already sold over a million copies.

The enthusiastic reception of The Cat in the Hat led Geisel to found Beginner Books, a publishing company specializing in easy-to-read books for children.

If 236 words was a challenge he took on successfully, one of his most popular books, Green Eggs and Ham, was the result of a bet that he could not write a book using only 50 words. But he did!

Dr Seuss never began his stories with a moral in mind. He felt that this was the one thing that immediately put children off. He believed in talking to kids not at them. He also cautioned other writers not to patronize children. As he said, “They can smell a phony a mile away. They are the toughest audience to write for.”

However his writing was not just word play; all his stories have an inherent moral, subtly permeating the rollicking words and the insouciant illustrations. With their plot twists and rebellious heroes who do the unexpected, the books cover a wide range of social and environmental issues. The Lorax at one time became a much-quoted environmental fable. His art work had a unique style, generally devoid of straight lines, and characteristic droopy figures.

Dr Seuss became a household name. Between 1937 and 1991, when he died aged 87, he published more than 60 books, which have sold half a billion copies between them–more even than J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books! The books have been translated into many languages. Some of his books were also adapted and made into animated films, TV shows and theatre productions.

I have spent as many hours reading Dr Seuss to my children as they were growing, as I have spent in perusing his books again and again, even when the children had outgrown them. I am sure that similar members of the Seuss fan club have not been unduly tarnished by what today is being perceived as writing and images promoting racial stereotypes, or being culturally insensitive. With six Seuss classics, including his first book And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street ceasing publication and sale, it would be a pity if we were to return to the sanitized versions of children’s books like Dick and Jane.

You’ll come to a place where streets are not marked.

Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked.

A place where you could sprain both your elbow and chin!

Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in?

How much can you lose? How much can you win?

(Oh, the Places You’ll Go!)

–Mamata

Let’s-Read-a-Story Time

It was a special time of day. The time to shut out the entire day’s blur of activity and individual routines, and join the antics of old-familiar or just-introduced characters. The time to put behind lists of chores and responsibilities and indulge in carefree cavorting or fantastical adventures. The time to switch off from the mundane and monotonous, and switch on the magical and mythical.

It was “Let’s read a story time”.

This time was an important and inviolable part of our day—mine and my children’s for a large part of their early years. Reading aloud from a storybook as we were cosily tucked in bed was a special time indeed. A time to explore new words and worlds together, a time to share, and a time to bond. Many years later, for me those memories of reading stories are still strong and comforting, as they are, I hope, for my children.

I adopted the reading aloud ritual quite instinctively as a new mother. As one who loved to read, it was the most natural thing for me to introduce my children to the joy of books by sharing these with them from the time they were infants. Much before they learned how to read by themselves, they were encouraged to handle books, leaf through and look at the pictures, and tune their ears to the sound of words and spoken language; and much of this was achieved through our reading-aloud-together time. One generation later, I re-lived the magic once again when my grand-nephew and I tongue-twisted our way through the capers of Gajapati Kulapati and Snoring Shanmugan!

Today there is a lot of research and literature on the important role of reading aloud to children which endorses what was, for me, an intuitive and integral component of bringing up my children. Here are some key findings from different studies.

It is accepted that reading aloud is the single most important activity for reading success, and the foundation for literacy development. Several studies have found that reading aloud to children every day puts them almost a year ahead (academically) of children who do not receive daily read-aloud.

Reading aloud to children creates a lifetime interest in reading. Children learn to love the sound of language before they even notice the existence of printed words on a page. Hearing the flow of words helps them develop language and listening skills and prepares them to understand the written word. When the rhythm and melody of language become a part of a child’s life, learning to read will be as natural as learning to walk and talk.

Children who have been read to when they are young are much more likely to grow into a habit of reading. When they associate reading with happy memories, they are more likely to persist in learning to read, even when they run into occasional roadblocks in the process of learning to read.

Reading aloud to children aids in language development. By hearing the words as they are read out children pick up pronunciation, word usage and sentence structure, even as their vocabulary increases. One study found that children are exposed to a larger vocabulary from picture books read aloud than from conversations with adults. This is because we tend to speak with the same 5000 most popular words; while books–even picture books–are more likely to use words outside those that make up our daily vocabulary.  

Reading to young children extends their attention spans. While toddlers tend to flit from activity to activity, a story can hold their attention and keep them engaged for longer periods. Hearing a story read aloud involves some level of comprehension, and comprehension is dependent on paying attention, so the child gradually learns to listen and follow the thread of the story, as it is curious to know “what happens next”?

Reading aloud to young children helps to stimulate their imagination. By listening to the story while leafing through the pages and the illustrations, children can visualize and imagine events and situations that are outside of their own personal experiences. Even before they can read, their mental world is already enriched by multi-cultural and multi-dimensional characters and situations. They can picture life in other parts of the world and in other cultures, and more easily accept that the world is made up of all kinds of characters—naughty, quirky, good, bad, and more.

Children also love applying stories to their own lives. This feeling of identifying with situations can be very supportive in helping a child cope with different situations they encounter in their everyday experience, such as fear of dark places or doctors; apprehension about meeting new people or starting school; liking and disliking certain food, places or activities. The stories also engender empathy, a sense of community and the comfort of not “being the only one like that”.

And perhaps the most precious of all, read-aloud time is great bonding time for both readers and listeners. It is a wonderful opportunity to connect in essential ways with children, creating nurturing spaces for them, and ways to talk and think together.

In 2010 LitWorld, an organisation that believes in the incredible power of reading proposed that a special day should mark, and celebrate, the many connections that reading aloud can make. “Because when every child is read aloud to for 15 minutes every day from birth, it will change the face of education…”

Since then, 3 February is celebrated as World Read Aloud Day to remind us to celebrate the power of reading aloud, and the magic of sharing journeys of words together, not just for a day, but every day.

–Mamata

Fruit Salad

Last week someone gave us a fruit that was perfect in form and colour. We learnt that this was a persimmon.  I had read poems and descriptions of persimmons in Japanese literature, but had not seen nor tasted this ‘exotic’ fruit before.

This is one of the many exotic fruits that are now being seen and sold in India. Some children today are perhaps more familiar with the taste of fruits like kiwi and dragon fruit, than fruits like ber, custard apple, mango, guava, and the ubiquitous banana, that we grew up eating.

With a lot of the new fruits being introduced and cultivated in India, and several being imported from other countries, the lines between indigenous and exotic fruits are rapidly getting blurred. Along with this, and better storage systems, so is the concept of fruits that are associated with, and available in specific seasons.

Perhaps it is a good time to go back to the roots of the fruits, as I did, with the help of A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food. Here are some interesting facts.

In terms of food, fruit falls in the category of items called phala that refers to crops that are not cultivated using the plough, in contrast to food grains (cereals and pulses).

Fruits that are indigenous to India, or have been here since recorded history include ber, pomegranate, amla, sweet orange, lemon, lime, mango, sugarcane, jamun, and grapes; as well as coconut, banana and jackfruit. There is mention of these in texts as old as Vedic literature, and their use prescribed in ancient medical treatises.

Interestingly several of these have, today, gained international celebrity as Wonder Foods. Like the amla or gooseberry which is recognised as one of the richest natural sources of Vitamin C

Later arrivals were some forms of the apple, mulberry, peach, pear, plum and apricot. These were not originally of very high quality, but many of these were improved by grafting in Mughal times.

After 1500 AD there was a wave of immigrant fruits from South and Central America that included the papaya, sapota, guava, pineapple, custard apple, and avocado. But over time these began to be widely cultivated, and eventually became fruits of the native soil.

Ancient texts such as Sushruta Samhita, one of the most important surviving ancient treatises on medicine, prescribes fruits as the first item in a meal, beginning with a first round of fruits that could be chewed such as pomegranate, grape and ber; and a second round of fruit to be sucked, like sugarcane, dates, oranges and mangoes.

Fruit was traditionally preserved in India in the form of spicy pickles of mango, lime etc., or with the sweet sour flavouring of Gujarat.  With the Muslim Unani medical tradition came the murabba in which fruits were preserved in a thick sugar syrup, and flavoured with spices like ginger, cardamom, and cloves. The British took a liking to these “preserves” and started to export large quantities of these along with chutneys.

Sweet anticipation: Waiting for the papaya in the garden to ripen!

One of the major use of fruit was to ferment it to obtain alcoholic beverages. The Charaka Samhita, believed to be one of the oldest and the most important ancient authoritative writings on Ayurveda, has a long list of fruits used for this purpose which included sugarcane and its products like molasses and jaggery, grape, mango, wood apple, date, ber, banana, jackfruit and pomegranate.

While we certainly enjoy pickles and fruit wines in all seasons, it does feel a bit strange to be having a mango or watermelon in the winter. For me the anticipation of biting into the first mango in the searing heat of May, or seeing the first custard apples around the time of the Diwali festival, or picking the ripe purple jamuns that match the dark monsoon clouds is an integral part of the seasonal calendar. The pleasure of eating local and seasonal fruits is unmatched by the thrill of buying and trying exotic fruits like the dragon fruit and persimmon.

As we start 2021 which is the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables it is a good time to think about the fruits we eat, where they come from, how we buy them, and how we eat and enjoy them. After all the word fruit itself comes from the Latin fructus, whose root is frui, which means “to enjoy.”

–Mamata

What Will 2021 Mark?

Hopefully, safe and effective vaccines against COVID, a fair, equitable and swift distribution of the same, and life back to normal!

It will also mark, as decided by the international community, several other things:

World Health Organization has appropriately designated 2021 as the International Year of Health and Care Workers in recognition of the dedication and sacrifice of the millions of health and care workers at the forefront of the Covid-19 pandemic, unanimously

United Nations (UN) has, through various resolutions, decided that 2021 shall be marked as:

  • International Year of Peace and Trust
  • International Year of Fruits and Vegetables  
  • International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour
  • International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development 

The first three are self-evident, and much needed, especially in the post-Covid world. But I was not familiar with the fourth—i.e., what is a Creative Economy?

Well, it seems that Creative Economy is not easy to define, and there are about 27 definitions floating around. Apparently the term was introduced by Peter Coy in 2000, and at its crux, it is an economy driven by “the growing power of ideas.”  John Howkins was the next to define it, and referred to it as ‘a new way of thinking and doing that revitalizes manufacturing, services, retailing, and entertainment industries.’ Ana Carla Fonseca  says that creative economy is about ‘products and services that rely on creativity to generate innovation, added value and differentiation”.  According to UNESCO and Ernst and Young, as of 2015, about 3% of the world’s GDP (more than US$ 2.25 trillion in revenue) pertained to creative economy.

As per a fairly accepted classification, there are four major sectors of the creative economy:

Media

– Editorial (books, magazines and digital content)

– Audiovisual (video content, television schedule and broadcast in general)

Consumption

– Architecture (building, landscape and environmental design, space planning)

– Design (products and visual and multimedia content)

– Fashion (clothing design)

– Advertising (creation of publicity pieces, marketing, market research and event organization)

Culture

– Arts and Cultural Heritage (museology, cultural production and heritage sites)

– Music (recording, edition, creation and music interpretation)

– Performing arts (acting, production and direction of shows)

– Cultural expressions (handcraft, folklore, cuisine and festivals)

Technology

– Research and Development (academic research)

– Biotechnology (bioengineering and lab research)

– Information technology (software, systems development and robotics).

Well, I suppose that doing a blog is a creative enterprise. So I shall count myself as a part of the creative economy (though sadly this one adds nothing to the GDP nor our personal bank accounts, so I wonder if it is an economic activity!).

And on a more serious note, this blog shall do its best and its bit to mark the other themes– Peace and Trust; Fruits and Vegetables; Elimination of Child Labour; and Health and Care Workers.

Happy 2021. May it be Peaceful and Healthy!

–Meena