Between the Headlines

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I am a newspaper person. My day does not begin until I have perused my three morning papers. Even during the first Covid Lockdown when newspaper vendors stopped home-delivering newspapers, and after a week of serious withdrawal symptoms, my husband and I found an enterprising footpath vendor who braved the police to provide newspapers to addicts like us.  

In the last couple of weeks a lovely poem by Gulzar is doing the rounds, which beautifully captures this addiction. Called Newspaper Mornings, it opens with the line Bina akhbar ke, chai subah ki adhoori lagti hai (the morning tea feels incomplete without the newspaper).

 An article related to this succinctly sums up the charm of the printed newspaper vis-à-vis the blizzard of 24/7 TV channels and Social Media that relentlessly batters our senses and our lives. The newspaper does not try to recruit you to its agenda, it puts you in control. …The important thing is that you get to choose. You comment on a headline, smile at a cartoon, match wits with the crossword, eyeball a celebrity, pore over the sports statistics. …And then there is the pleasure of serendipity. You discover what you didn’t know before, you learn new things at random.

Exactly how I relate to newspapers! I often miss the headlines, but I very much enjoy reading the little items tucked away among the big news. From the mundane to the bizarre, these tidbits add the spice to my chai!

Here is a random taste from the last one month’s newspapers.

Uplifting News: People attending a kite festival in Taiwan were left looking on in horror after a three-year-old girl was lifted high into the air by powerful winds after she got entangled in the strings of a gigantic kite. The child hovered above throngs of spectators and was zipped around by strong winds for a heart-stopping 30 seconds amid inflatable pandas and astronauts as screams erupted from spectators. The girl, who was identified only by her last name Lin, landed mostly unscathed, except for abrasions around her neck and face. 

Lip-smacking News: Waking up to a town coated in chocolate powder sounds like a childhood fantasy, but for some residents in Olten, Switzerland, it was a reality on Friday morning, when it started snowing particles of cocoa powder. Popular chocolate company Lindt & Sprüngli has confirmed local reports that there was a defect in the cooling ventilation for a line of roasted cocoa nibs in its factory; as a result of which the fine chocolate dust escaped. Combined with strong winds the powder spread across the town, leaving a fine cocoa dusting on everything.

Missing News: At least 513 animals have been reported as having gone “missing” from Marghazar Zoo in Islamabad, a report said on Sunday. In July 2019 there were a total of out of 917 animals in the zoo. But by July 2020 the number came down to 404. The animals are suspected to have been stolen.

Chilling News: Austrian athlete Josef Koeberl broke the world record for longest time spent submerged in ice. He lasted more than two hours in the box, wearing nothing but a swimsuit. Koeberl took on the challenge in front of Vienna’s main train station, fully submerged up to his shoulders in a clear box filled with ice cubes. Over the course of the two hours, his temperature was monitored, and afterward, his health was checked by medical officials in an on-site ambulance. Josef Koeberl beat the previous record for full-body contact, which he set himself last year, by over 25 minutes.

Searing News: A couple’s plan to reveal the gender of their baby-to-be-born went up not in blue or pink smoke but in flames when the device that they used sparked a wildfire that burned thousands of acres and forced people to leave from a city east of Los Angeles in California. The couple went into a field and fired a device which was to let out the coloured smoke, but an errant spark quickly ignited the tall grass there, leading to the disaster. This was as part of a trend where confetti, coloured smoke, and balloons are used to announce the coming baby’s gender.

Educational News: Surat, Gujarat’s Diamond City is creating a new benchmark in green learning with its innovative approach to promote cycling among young children. To pedal up its efforts the local civic body has designed a course ‘Cyclology’. The subject will be a ten-hour course for which books have already been printed. Students will be taught history of bicycle, traffic rules, along with environmental, health, social and financial benefits in the course.  “If we teach them early kids will develop a habit for life.”

(NB No mention of whether kids will actually have to learn cycling!)

DIY for Dummies News: Whether you have hundreds of gigabytes or boxes of decades-old albums here are some simple ways to catalogue and organise your images. Cathi Nelson founder of a global community of photo organisers uses a prioritisation system she calls ABCS. Album (photos worthy of a physical or online album), Box or Backup (photos you want to keep in some form but don’t need access to), Can (as in trash can) and Stories (photos that conjure up a great memory and are thus worth holding on to). She further advises “Don’t get too lost—you only want to look at each photo for two or three seconds, max.”

Vocal for Local News: The red-purple dragon fruit that has helped Kutchi farmers make a killing may soon get a new name—kamalam (lotus). Officials and farmers say that the shape and external appearance of the fruit has a striking resemblance to a lotus. Kutch farmers have already started branding the fruit as ‘kamalam’ in the local markets.  

Breaking News: In a daring loot near Surat, burglars stole an entire ATM weighing at least 500 kg, and took it to an isolated spot in a farm about 150 feet away. They used cutters to break open the cash tray, and took away nearly Rs 8 lakh from it, in the early hours of Wednesday. They escaped leaving the damaged machine behind.

News That You Can Use: All of the above. I just did!

–Mamata

How (Not) to be Grandparents

With a Special Day for almost everyone and everything, how can we leave Grandparents behind! Yes, 13 September is marked as Grandparents Day. As with all Days it is the marketing hype that takes over. We are reminded that it is the time to show our love for our grandparents with cards and gifts. Having just recently come to know about this day, it got me thinking about grandparents.

I never really knew three out of my four grandparents. My mother’s father died much before I was born. My father’s father is a very hazy memory. My paternal grandmother is an image of a little old lady in white sitting in a large chair in the family home. The only one that I remember clearly is my mother’s mother—equally tiny, fastidious, and scolding; one whose sharp tongue we children were wary of. Not exactly grandparents like the ones we read about in storybooks–roly-poly grannies who cuddled, and baked cookies and cakes, and indulgent grandfathers who told awesome stories.

As years went by, we, the grandchildren grew up and, moving ahead, had our own children. Suddenly our own parents became grandparents. I wonder what memories our children have of their grandparents–Hazy, clear, happy, unhappy, or more complex. More years whizzed by, and now, our children have grown and married, and have children of their own. And believe it or not, we find ourselves being bestowed with the exalted title of Grandmother and Grandfather! How did that happen?

As one writer humorously put it: Except for the fact of our birth, grandparenthood is probably the only state of adult being that is thrust upon us without our permission or concurrence. We choose a husband, we decide on a child, we become a doctor, lawyer or Indian chief. Only on the grandparent level we are suddenly and arbitrarily informed of what has been done to us after there is no undoing it.

I must admit that I have not yet been officially conferred the title, although I am delighted to be an honorary Nani. But as my contemporaries take on this new role, I have been observing, and thinking about, changes in the role and function of grandparents. As a bystander I may have a different perspective on things, and I beg to be excused if I am way off the mark.

Most of my generation grew up to be career women. While we did not live in joint families, we did seek the comfort and succour of our parents or in-laws’ home when it was time for our babies to be born. Yes we did read our Benjamin Spock and had some notion of child rearing, but we more or less went with the wisdom and experience of our mother or mother-in-law, especially in matters of infant care. Today’s generation of young career parents have much more access to information, much wider exposure to a range of theories on child rearing, and definitely clearer ideas on the subject. At the same time our own generation is not quite the ‘waiting at home for the daughter’s confinement’ one. We are, ourselves, reaching almost the peak of our own careers, but gladly taking the time out for getting into our new roles, just as our daughters take time out from their rising careers to take on motherhood.

Interestingly this has created new challenges for all three generations—children, parents and grandparents. And along with How to be a Good Parent guidebooks, there were also numerous advisories on How to be (or not) a Good Grandparent! There are reminders to grandparents to NOT do just what their parents did, and hints on how to tiptoe gently around the protocols established by the parents!

The battle between the generations will go on as long as there are different generations. As will the special role that grandparents play in a family. The fact is that we all need each other. And children especially do need grandparents to care for them and comfort them, to provide role models and role alternatives for them, and to create a living link between the past and the present.

Margaret Mead, one of the most eminent cultural anthropologists of the twentieth century describes this important connection in a passage she wrote in 1966, and which rings just as true even today.

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Margaret Mead Source Google

In a changing society, grandparents themselves change. Far from representing what is stubbornly old-fashioned, they are men and women who in the contemporary world have the greatest experience in incorporating new ways and ideas. Very often their daughter is mired down in a thousand details of baby care and housekeeping and their sons are struggling to establish themselves in the world but grandparents have the leisure to follow up what is most modern and new. And unlike their own parents who grew old early under physical stress, today’s grandparents generally have years of vigorous living ahead.

More often than we realise, grandparents who move away from the homes where they brought up their own children are not settling into ‘retirement’ but are instead into new activities. Some of them have—and more could have a very important role in their grandchildren’s lives. Because as adults they have lived through so much change—the first talkies and television, the first computers and satellites—they may well be the best people to teach children about change.

With a lifetime of experience of how far we have come and how fast, grandparents can give children a special sense of sureness about facing the unknown in the future. Having experienced so much that is new, they can keep a sense of wonder in their voices as they tell their grandchildren how something happened, what it was like the first time, and open their grandchildren’s eyes to the wonder of what is happening now and may happen soon. And as men and women who are making new beginnings, developing new interests they can demonstrate to children that growing up is only a stage in a lifetime of growth. As in the past they represent continuity. But now, in a changing society this continuity includes the future and the acceptance of the unknown.  Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views   June 1966

–Mamata

Teacher Teacher   

My father-in-law will be 96 years old this month. He trained as an artist, but spent his career teaching machine drawing in a government polytechnic. He has now been retired for more years than he taught a subject that he was not passionate about. But what he was passionate about was reaching out to his students, not driven by any great philosophy or mission, but his innately sociable and open personality.  Even today, he gets phone calls from his old (literally—some are 75 years and over!) students, just for them to say that they remember him fondly. Till a couple of years ago he clearly remembered names and attributes of so many of his students. It is that life force which continues to energize him even today.

The word Teacher itself is loaded with so much meaning. After all teachers were the key players in the long drama of one’s school (and college) life, with distinct characters, roles and parts. As a part of the student audience, and at times, minor characters in the crowd scenes, we spent a great deal of time and emotion on ‘adoring’, ‘hating’, ‘fearing’, ‘hero worshipping’,  ‘imitating’, or ‘buttering up’ our teachers.

Teachers were a necessary evil that dominated every ‘period’ of our school days.­­­­­­­­­­­ It is when we were older (and perhaps a wee bit wiser) that we could look back with nostalgia and remember those teachers. This was also when we realized the lasting impressions and influences that different teachers had left on us. Not all of these were related to the subject they taught. More often, it was how they taught, or what they said and did, or even what they wore, and how they behaved. We could now see these as individuals with distinct personalities and persuasions. For some of us, the older we get, the more sentimental we get. And Teachers Day, celebrated in India on 5 September, revives many such memories.

In the good old school days, the run up to T-Day was exciting. This was the day that the tables were turned, as it were. It was the one day when students turned into teachers! This was how Teachers Day was celebrated in many schools.

This year for the first time perhaps in memory, the Covid wave has meant that educational institutions across the world are closed. In just a few months, our age-old understanding of educational spaces, classroom transactions, and players has been turned on its head. The e-learning revolution is sweeping across the globe.

Children of all ages (starting from nursery and kindergarten) passively face a small screen which reflects other small faces and a bigger face. It is in this virtual classroom that lessons are communicated (rather than taught). The day is divided into sterile time slots, rather than a time table in which the best parts were the time-outs for rowdy recesses and roistering assemblies. The Teacher is just a talking head who pops up at a designated time. As the young eyes and ears strain to keep alert and awake, the other senses lie dormant. Missing are the smells from the tiffin boxes, the touch of the dog-eared books and scarred desks, the jostling camaraderie of classmates, the fights and the making-up, the shared secrets, and playful antics…and with it the range of emotions that mark the gamut of relationships among the students, and between the teacher and the taught.itscalledreading (1).gif

I must confess that I have no current and direct experience of e-learning, as a teacher, learner, or parent. But as Teacher’s Day approaches, I cannot help wondering and worrying about this new model of teachers and teaching. Yes, we have no alternative at this moment when safety and health is the priority. True that technology has enabled a safer and more widespread route to reaching out. Agreed that there are examples of inspiring innovations and models. But what will a child of the Age of Corona and Era of E-learning remember of her classroom, her classmates and above all, her teacher? What stories will he share with his children? Who will she remember with a smile or a grimace on another Teacher’s Day?

One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.   Carl Jung

–Mamata

 

Feed Them Young

fruitsSeptember is observed as Nutrition Month in India. And God knows we need to do all we can, considering how poorly we are faring. Just to reiterate some of our national statistics:

  • Under-five prevalence of stunting (when a child has a low height for their age) is 37.9%, which is greater than the developing country average of 25%. Under-five wasting (low weight for a child’s height) prevalence of 20.8% –greater than the developing country average of 8.9%.
  • 40 per cent of adolescent girls and 18 per cent of boys are anaemic.
  • 4% of women of reproductive age have anaemia.

No questions about it, there have been tremendous efforts. India’s school mid-day meal programme is the largest feeding initiative in the world. Some states, apart from hot meals, also provide milk to the children. The Anganwadi role of providing supplementary nutrition and take-home rations for under-6 children and pregnant and lactating mothers is another crucial input. The efforts to strengthen the Public Distribution System are key. The opening of subsidized canteens in many states is something that has seen success too. Non-government actors too have played a role—Akshaya Patra’s mid-day meals are something which many school children look forward to, and indeed are often the reason why children want to go to school! Many other NGOs have innovative programmes too.

Proper nutrition for all age groups is important, but it takes on special importance in the case of infants and children, as this lays the foundation for healthy adolescence and adulthood.

it is not just what parents DO NOT feed the children that is important. It is equally important what they DO. Here is a sight one can often see. A daily-wager mother is on her way home. The child is hungry and crying. It may still take them half an hour to get home. Not only is the child demanding food, but a particular kind of food—a packet of chips or namkeen. The mother often succumbs, stretching her affordability to satisfy the child and the hunger. Other times, the scene is repeated with a slight variation—a small child walking home from school insists the mother buys a small packet of noodles to cook for the evening snack.

Not to say that every child and adult does not deserve to indulge once in a while on junk foods. But when it is a habit and a lifestyle, and when it comes at the cost of nutrition for a child, it takes on a serious dimension. Rs. 10 can easily buy an egg and a fruit. But the mother has only Rs. 10. And that that goes for the chips or namkeen, which at best does not contribute much nutritionally, and at worst is actually unhealthy. And the child does not get the egg and fruit.

One supposes that it is not right to hope that government will ban such small packs for unhealthy foods—after all, it is a free market and people have to make their choices. And what is more, we have been told that there are fortunes to be made at the bottom of the pyramid, and that it is indeed our duty to make these fortunes by adapting products and services to meet this demand! But can they be more informed choices? Can there be huge educational campaigns not only for what is good nutrition for a child, but what is not? Can schools step up their education about this? Can we reach parents? Can packs carry warnings?

And more proactively, can the Government Subsidized Canteens also sell items like boiled eggs, fruit by the piece, chikki made of groundnuts and jaggery? Can every village panchayat put up hand-carts with these items at certain times of the day? And if at all we are to have small packs of anything, can it be milk at Rs. 10?

COVID times have made all these issues more challenging—not only through disruptions to the official systems, but more seriously in the long term, due to loss of jobs and incomes. We have to go into mission mode and plan how we will overcome these. This is a problem that affects not just our today, but a whole generation.

–Meena

 

Montessori–For All Our Children

August 31 marks the birth anniversary of Maria Montessori, whose name of course is synonymous with the education system all of us wish our children to undergo. But even if she had not pioneered this revolutionary system of education, Ms. Montessori would still be in annals of history as a path-breaker. In 1883-84, at the age of 13, she enrolled in classes at an all-boys technical school. Not only did she choose technical subjects, but she did it with the hope of becoming an engineer, an almost unheard of choice for a girl. By the time she graduated in 1890, she had changed her mind and decided to become a doctor instead. This was not an easier choice though! She was strongly discouraged from taking up medicine in the University of Rome. So she enrolled for a degree in natural sciences, earning her diploma di licenza in 1892. This along with her studies in Italian and Latin, qualified her for entrance into the medical program at the University in 1893. This was only the first step though.  She was met with hostility and harassment from students and professors. Her attending classes with men in the presence of a naked body was considered inappropriate, and she was required to perform her cadaver dissections alone, after college hours. Nothing deterred her, and she graduated from the University of Rome in 1896. The mores of the times also brought unhappiness in her personal life. She loved a colleague, Giuseppe Montesano, and even had a son with him. But she could not marry him because if she married, she would have to give up her professional work.

She specialized in pediatrics and was involved in the education of mentally challenged children. In 1906, she was invited to set up a childcare centre in San Lorenzo , a poor, inner-city district of Rome, working with the most disadvantaged children of the area, who had no previous exposure to school. She called the center the Casa dei Bambini—Italian for “Children’s House. It was a quality educational environment for youngsters whom many had thought were unable to learn. About 50-60 children were enrolled to being with, and the building porter’s daughter was the first teacher, under Dr. Montessori’s guidance.

BunnyThe school showed amazing results. Soon the children exhibited great interest in working with puzzles, learning to prepare meals and clean their environment, were calm, orderly, self-regulating, and engaging in hands-on learning experiences—essentially teaching themselves.

Montessori’s experiments began to be widely studied and replicated, not only in Italy but across the world, till today it is a household name. India too has a long history of Montessori education, going back to the 1920s.

This system of education is undoubtedly what is needed for our young children today. Every Anganwadi  and primary school should be a Montessori school. Considering that the whole experiment began with the aim of catering to under-privileged children who were first generation learners, and with a not very educated daughter of a building porter as the teacher, it is the most obvious model for adoption.

But alas somewhere, this system of education has become identified with exclusive schools for the children of the rich and famous. The fees are out of reach of even the middle class.

Is it that we have, in the pursuit of the letter of Montessori’s methods, completely missed the spirit, and have become inflexible and unable to adapt to make it workable at low cost?

At a time with the new National Education Policy has recognized the importance of education for ages below 5 for the first time, it is time for introspection, creativity and a re-think on how this pedagogy can be the basis of learning in every educational institution.

–Meena

 

Home and Homeland

Despite having been a student as well a teacher of Political Science, I have never been able to grasp the complexities of the politics of the Middle East or West Asia. The convoluted conflict between Israel and Palestine has been going on for almost 75 years now, making headlines when there is an escalation or an extreme event, and smouldering in the background when another geo-political volcano erupts.

In the last two weeks two news related to this region made headlines. First was the horrific blast in Beirut that decimated a large part of the city and rendered tens of thousands homeless. The other was the announcement of an intention of a historic rapprochement between Israel and the UAE as a part of which Israel would give up its plan to annex the West Bank, the main territory of a state that the Palestinians want.

In other circumstances I would have noted, but not fully registered these two news items. However, quite coincidentally I have, in this same period, been reading a novel which is set in this region, and suddenly the context and the history took on a different dimension.IMG_20200819_105523

Mornings in Jenin is a poignant story of four generations of one family’s struggle and survival over sixty years of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The story which traverses from Jerusalem to Lebanon to America is told by Amal, a girl born to Arab parents in a refugee camp in Jenin; it traces the lives of her grandparents, herself, and her daughter.

As World War II raged in Europe in 1941, Amal’s  grandparents were living on their ancestral olive farm in the village of Ein Hod, not far from Bethlehem, in what was then Palestine. Their oldest son, Hasan, was best friends with a refugee Jewish boy, and the two were welcomed in each other’s homes. In May 1948, the Jewish state of Israel was proclaimed, and all the original inhabitants of the area were moved to the Jenin refugee camp. And this is where three subsequent generations lived, married, were born, and died.

The story follows Amal’s family as they live through a half century of violent history. It is not a political treatise, but the many interwoven stories, stretching backwards and forward in time, reveal what politics can do to ordinary people. It is a tale of hatred and fear, loss and pain, faith and hope. Above all is a saga of waiting—waiting to return to a lost home and homeland. Amidst the indignities and sufferings of these uprooted lives, there is also a tender celebration of family ties, the intensity of a mother’s love, sibling bonding, and enduring friendship.

It is also the story of Palestine from the time when it was a productive land of olive groves and proud self-sufficient inhabitants, through the 1948 War, the Occupation by Jews and conversion into the land of Israel, and the many Arab-Israeli wars from 1967, up to 2002.

Today we are so heavily bombarded with news (printed and audio visual) about conflict and displacement, all clubbed under the umbrella of ‘international humanitarian crises’ that we are either becoming inured, or choose to pretend that this does not concern us directly. For those of us who are fortunate and secure in our home and homeland we cannot imagine what it must be to be without a home nor homeland. As Amal describes “He [my brother] was denied, imprisoned, tortured, humiliated and exiled for the wish to possess himself and inherit the heritage bequeathed to him by history.” 

The novel is tagged as fiction, but the refugee camp of Jenin is real. The northernmost camp in the West Bank, it was set up in 1953 to house the displaced persons from the first Israeli takeover of territories in Jerusalem in 1948.  Over the years it was attacked several times by Israeli forces, and as lately as in 2002, it was the site of a terrible massacre. Even today Jenin camp has a population of about 14,000 residents cramped together in an area of 0.42 sq km.

Mornings in Jenin is written by Susan Abulhawa who was born in Kuwait to Palestinian refugees of the Six-Day-War of1967 war. She now lives in the USA. She is a human rights activist and founder of Playgrounds for Palestine, an NGO that advocates for Palestinian children’s right to play by building playgrounds in refugee camps in Lebanon. In 2002 she visited the refugee camp of Jenin and the book reflects real events.

While this book is “The story of one family, in an obscure village, visited one day by history that was not its own, and forever trapped by longing between roots and soil” it is a moving reminder that the faceless “humanitarian crisis” is made up of myriad individual human beings, each with their own personal life story, and common yearning for home and homeland.

–Mamata

 

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A Tree for all Reasons

The recent festival of Janamashtami brought to mind one of the few poems that I remember well from my school Hindi textbook. The first verse, roughly translates as:

Mother, if this Kadamb tree

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Photo credit: Rekha Chhaya

Was on the bank of the Yamuna

I too would sit on its branches

And turn into a Krishna.

For years, in my mind, the Kadamb tree and Krishna were closely associated. This was reinforced by many traditional paintings depicting Krishna and his consort under the shade of what was meant to be a Kadamb tree. I did not see a real Kadamb tree till years later.

We had long wanted to plant a Kadamb tree in our little garden but felt that there would not be enough space for it to grow comfortably. A couple of years ago the huge Rain tree just outside our gate began to dry and decline. We felt that this was a good time and place to plant our Kadamb tree. Watching it grow has led us to learn more about this tree.

The Kadamb (Anthocephalus kadamba, Neolamarckia cadamba) or Burflower tree is indigenous to South and South East Asia. It is a fast-growing tree, especially in its early years, and may reach heights of 15-20 metres. The straight uniform trunk is usually smooth and grey, becoming slightly cracked as the tree ages. The trunk sends out uniform horizontal branches creating an umbrella-shaped crown, and the leaves are alternately arranged and clustered at the ends of the branches.  The light glossy green leaves are oval, and 15 to 30 cm long. They have prominent veins on top and are lightly haired underneath. The tree sheds its leaves to conserve water in areas with a long dry season, but stays evergreen where the dry season is short. The leaves are fed to cattle.

Flowering usually begins when the tree is 4–5 years old; and flowers appear between June and August.  The Kadamb flower that looks like a pom pom is, in fact, a ball of tightly-packed tiny funnel-shaped yellow-orange flowers. They have a sweet fragrance and are used for making perfumes. The flowers are offered in temples, and worn as hair adornments.

This year, with Covid on our minds, the flowers which were usually described as a resembling furry tennis ball have taken on an uncanny resemblance the Corona virus!

The flowers are followed by compound fruit that also resembles the round flower head. The fruit is made up of numerous small fleshy capsules compressed together in a ball. It is relished by monkeys, bats and birds. A single ball may contain almost 8000 seeds. When it turns orange and ripens, the small capsules split apart, releasing a burst of seeds. A single ball may contain almost 8000 seeds which are dispersed by wind and rain. So the cycle of nature continues.

The different parts of the tree are also said to have pharmacological and biological properties that have medicinal value. In traditional medicine the bark is used to cure fever and cough, and juice of the fresh bark to treat inflammation of the eyes. The plant parts are believed to be effective in curing digestive disturbances, parasitic infection, high cholesterol and triglycerides, antibacterial activity, musculoskeletal diseases, fungal infections, cancer and anti-diabetic activity, and find place in Ayurvedic preparations.

For many Indians, it is not so much the botany as the mythology of the tree that fascinates. The Krishna connection is the best known, and this tree where he is said to have rested, romanced, and played his flute, is a recurring motif in poems, stories and paintings. The tree is also referred to as Haripriya or favourite of the God.

But the Kadamb tree also features in many a lore and legend in different parts of India. It is mentioned in the epics and the Puranas as a beautiful shady tree blossoming in the rainy season. The tree lends its name to the Kadamba Dynasty which said to be the first ruling kingdom of Karnataka, with Banavasi as its capital. It was considered a holy tree by the dynasty. The Kadambotsava spring festival is celebrated in honour of the Kadamba kingdom by the Government of Karnataka at Banavasi in February every year. The Kadamba flower was the emblem of Athmallik State, an erstwhile princely state of India, now part of Odisha.

According to another belief, Goddess Durga Devi, an avatar of Devi Parvathi, loved to live amidst Kadamba trees, and her presence is sensed if the koel sings in the Kadamb forest. Hence, the name Kadamba-vana-vasini or Kadamba-vana-nilaye (one who dwells in the Kadamb forest). In Madurai in Tamil Nadu, the Kadamba tree is considered to be the sthalavruksham (tree of the place) and a withered relic of the tree is preserved at Meenakshi Temple. The tree is also associated with a local deity called Kadambariyamman and the place was once said to be a Kadambavanam (Kadamba forest).

The Kadamb is part of the folk lore of many tribal communities, and even now is associated with tribal festivals and rituals. In Madhya Pradesh the festival of Karma or Karam is celebrated with dance and songs in the bright fortnight of the month of Bhado (August-September), during the rainy season. One of its rituals consists of the worship of the Karam or Kadamba tree.  In West Bengal and Odisha, agricultural communities celebrate Kadam festival by planting Kadamb saplings. Tribal communities of Chattisgarh believe that planting Kadamba trees close to lakes, rivers and ponds, brings happiness and prosperity.

In Theravada Buddhism, it is believed that the Kadamb tree was where Sumedha Buddha achieved enlightenment.

From medicine to mythology, the Kadamb has something to offer. As I watch my young Kadamb growing fresh and tall in this rainy season, every new leaf seems to have its own tale to tell. And my friend Rekha and I, like two fond mothers, exchange notes on our respective Kadamb trees. Hers is flowering this year; I will have to wait another year.

–Mamata

 

 

Shape-shifting Youth

Tomorrow, August 12, is marked as International Youth Day.

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But the very definition of youth is pretty fluid! It is the time between childhood and adulthood. Biology is only one aspect of it. Youth is more to do with a socio-cultural context. One way to look at it is that youth have high levels of dependency on their family emotionally and economically.

There are different minimum limits of age at which some decisions or actions can be taken freely, independently or legally. These may be taken as the crossover age from childhood to youth. But these are socio-culturally determined, for example voting age or drinking age or driving age. While leaving behind childhood leads to certain rights, it may deprive a person of certain other  rights—maybe the right to free and compulsory education.

Though the UN declared the International Youth Day in 1999, it cannot be said to be absolutely clear on who youth are! The United Nations defines youth as persons between the ages of 15 and 24. But the UN itself recognizes that its various statutes and entities are somewhat confused on this issue—for instance, under this definition children are those under the age of 14, while under the 1979 Convention on the Rights of the Child, those under the age of 18 are regarded as children. The UN also recognizes that the definition varies from country to country.

In India, Youth are defined as those aged 15 to 29, as per the National Youth Policy (2014).

There are several rights which distinguish children from youth. Often even within a country, there is no uniformity across these. For instance, the Age of Consent in India is 18 years. The legal age of purchasing and consuming alcohol varies from state to state in India. In some states, the consumption of alcohol is totally prohibited and in some states, the legal age for consumption varies from 18 to 25. In terms of criminal justice, which became a major issue in the Nirbhaya case, children below 7 years are considered to be incapable of committing crime; between the ages of 7 to 12 there is a presumption of innocence given in favor of the child but if it is proved with evidence that the crime was committed by that child then he can be prosecuted as a juvenile; and those from 16 to 18 years, if liable for any heinous crime, can be tried as an adult after a general test that he/she has done the crime with his own knowledge and with adequate understanding about the crime and it’s consequences. And of course, the voting age is now 18 (down from 21 previously). With regard to legal working age, the Child and Adolescent Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, defines a “Child” as any person below the age of 14, and prohibits any employment for these, including as domestic help. Children between age of 14 and 18 are defined as “Adolescent” and the law allows them to be employed except in the listed hazardous occupation and processes which include mining, inflammable substance and explosives related work. and any other hazardous processes.

The important landmark rights which come on crossing childhood and could be taken as indicators of having attained youth are:

Voting age

The minimum age established by law that a person must attain to be eligible to vote in a public election. Typically, the age is set at 18 years; however, ages as low as 16 and as high as 21 exist.

Age of candidacy

This is the minimum age at which a person can legally qualify to hold certain elected government offices.

Age of consent

This refers to the age at which a person is considered legally competent to consent to sexual acts. A person below the minimum age is regarded as the victim, and their major sex partner as the offender.

Defense of infancy

This relates to the age of criminal responsibility and implies that children below this age lack the judgment that comes with age and experience to be held criminally responsible.

Legal working age

The legal working age is the minimum age required by law for a person to work.

Drinking age

The legal drinking age is the age at which a person can consume or purchase alcohol.

Driving age

This is the age at which a person can apply for a driver’s license.

Smoking age

The smoking age is the minimum age a person can buy tobacco, and/or smoke in public.

Even if all this has left us more confused than ever as to who youth are, let us take the spirit of the theme of IYD 2020, which is “Youth Engagement for Global Action”, and seek to promote it.

The COVID context has exacerbated the situation of youth, and hence it is even more important than ever to focus on them. For instance,

# The economic impact of COVID-19 is set to make the job market more challenging for youth.

# Recent estimates suggest that 600 million jobs would have to be created over the next 15 years to meet youth employment needs.

# The proportion of young people not in employment, education or training (the youth NEET rate) has remained stubbornly high over the past 15 years and now stands at 30% for young women and 13% for young men worldwide.

India prides itself on its demographic dividend, it huge youth population. Youth constitutes 27.5% of India’s population and in terms of numbers, we are the highest in the world. So more than any other nation, we have to be concerned about our youth. The noble vision of the Youth Policy “To empower youth of the country to achieve their full potential, and through them enable India to find its rightful place in the community of nations” has to move from rhetoric to action.

–Meena

 

War and Peace

6 August 2020 marks 75 years since one of the most devastating events in the history of warfare took place. On this day, in 1945, an American bomber plane called Enola Gay dropped a 4000+ kilo uranium bomb named ‘Little Boy’ on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

It was as if the city was struck by a blinding flash; the bomb exploded, and a giant mushroom-shaped cloud rose to the sky. The blast flattened the city and killed nearly 100,000 people; tens of thousands were injured. Three days later, on 9 August, the Americans dropped another nuclear bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. On 15 August 1945 World War II ended.

But for the survivors of the nuclear blasts the battles had just begun. Within a month of Little Boy hitting Hiroshima, radiation exposure is thought to have caused the deaths of at least 6,000 people who survived the blast. And the long-term effects of radiation exposure, physical and psychological, continued to reveal themselves for the next decades. There was a documented rise in cancer, especially, in leukaemia cases. In the years following the attacks, the survivors became known as the hibakusha (the explosion-affected people) and were subjected to widespread discrimination as it was believed that they were carriers of a contagious disease. And for years the ugly spectre of the after-effects kept raising itself.

Amidst all this, there were still some stories of hope and resilience. One of the classic stories that beautifully captures this is that of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr. This is based on the life of a real little girl named Sadako who lived in Hiroshima from 1943 to 1955. Sadako Sasaki was a baby when the bomb devastated Hiroshima. Her grandmother died in the explosion. The story opens ten years later when Sadako is a lively girl who dreams of becoming a runner. One of the annual outings of Sadako and her family is on 6 August to what was called the Peace Park to commemorate those who lost their lives on that fateful day in 1945, and to pray for peace and good luck.

Sadako loves her family, her friends and her school. One day as she is practicing for a big race, she feels dizzy. Quickly, and without any obvious causes, the dizziness and weakness continue to worsen. After some tests at the Red Cross Hospital, the doctors’ worst fears are confirmed: Sadako has leukemia, the dreaded “atom bomb disease”. The cheerful little girl’s world is turned upside down.

Sadako needs to stay on in hospital. One day, Sadako’s best friend Chizuko comes to visit her in hospital. Chizuko has brought with her some golden paper, and she folds this to make a crane. She tells Sadako: Don’t you remember that old story about the crane? It’s supposed to live for a thousand years. If a sick person folds one thousand paper cranes, the gods will grant her wish and make her healthy again. She handed the crane to Sadako. “Here’s your first one”.

This gives Sadako hope and cheer. She spends the next few weeks folding as many orizuru or paper cranes as she can, even as she is getting weaker and sicker. Soon everyone becomes a part of the project. 

Everyone saved paper for Sadako’s good luck cranes. Chizuko brought colored paper from the bamboo class. Father saved every scrap from the barbershop. Even Nurse Yasunaga gave Sadako the wrappings from packages of medicine. And Masahiro hung every one of the birds, as he had promised. Sometimes he strung many on one thread. The biggest cranes flew alone. 

Sadako channels all her fast depleting energy into painstakingly folding paper crane after paper crane, making a wish with the completion of each one, and determined to reach the magic number of 1000 paper cranes.   

She never complained about the shots and almost constant pain. A bigger pain was growing deep inside of her. It was the fear of dying. She had to fight it as well as the disease. The golden crane helped. It reminded Sadako that there was always hope.

 Against all odds, Sadako manages to complete 644 cranes before she slowly sinks into a peaceful death.

She looked at her flock hanging from the ceiling. As she watched, a light autumn breeze made the birds rustle and sway. They seemed to be alive and flying out through the open window. How beautiful and free they were! Sadako sighed and closed her eyes. She never woke up.  

Sadako died on October 25, 1955. Her classmates folded the remaining 356 cranes, and all 1000 paper cranes were buried with her. Her classmates also collected her letters and journal and published them in a book. The book reached young people across Japan, and they all came to know the story of the courageous Sadako and her cranes.

Sadako’s classmates resolved to honour the memory of their friend in as many ways as possible. Their efforts sparked a children’s peace movement that swept through Japan, and then the world. This transformed the origami paper crane into an international symbol of peace. Their fundraising campaign led to the establishment of the Children’s Peace Monument in the centre of Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park. Here stands a statue of Sadako holding aloft a golden crane.

Today millions of paper cranes, reach here from all corners of the globe, symbolizing the universal value of peace and the preciousness of life. In Japan a popular tradition is to fold 1000 cranes and string these together, usually 25 strings of 40 cranes each, which are given as gifts called senbazuru which literally means, ‘one-thousand cranes’.

On 6 August every year, people still place folded paper cranes at Sadako’s statue, and reiterate the same wish that is engraved at the base of the statue:origami crane.jpg

This is our cry,

this is our prayer;

peace in the world. 

Today the long and complex history of the World War II is just that—history. But more than ever before, the unleashed peril of a nuclear explosion continues to keep the entire world on tenterhooks. Hiroshima is a reminder of the horrific legacy of nuclear warfare, but the Peace Memorial is a reminder that there can be another legacy—one of peace.

–Mamata

 

Friendship Matters

In thepooh friends.png next few days the hype will build up. There will be a marketing blitz reminding us that Friendship Day nears, and that the best way to be friends is by buying and gifting for each other, and that the proof of friendship is the number of cards and presents that one gets.

Indeed the idea of this day has commercial origins. As far back as 1919 Hallmark cards in the United States came up with the idea of celebrating the first Sunday of August every year as Friendship Day. It was intended to be a day for people to celebrate their friendship by sending each other cards and thereby boost the sales. Even today many countries celebrated this day in August.

However 30 July marks what is called International Friendship Day. Interestingly both the origin and the intent of this Day have a non-commercial history.

It began over sixty years ago in Paraguay. Dr Ramon Artemio Bracho was a surgeon who had worked as a doctor in rural areas for many years before he became a military doctor for his national government. Dr Ramon strongly believed that friendship is central in overcoming people’s cultural, political and religious differences. As he recalled, the seed was sown one evening when he was invited by a worker’s union to a meeting to celebrate trees. The doctor was inspired. In his words, “I began to remember what had happened the night before and I told myself how interesting it is, the gesture of the man of having created the day of the tree.  In that same instant it came to my mind that friendship is something so important and does not have its day, so it seemed to me an extraordinary idea.” The very next evening, on 20 July 1958, over dinner with close friends in Puerto Pinasco, a town on the Paraguay river, he proposed the idea of a campaign designed to promote the value of friendship in order to foster a more peaceful society. Thus was born the Cruzada Mundial de la Amistad (World Friendship Crusade).Today the World Friendship Crusade is a Foundation that promotes friendship and fellowship among all human beings, regardless of race, colour or religion.

For many years the World Friendship Crusade lobbied the United Nations to recognize and declare an international day to mark the sentiments of the Foundation.

On 5 August 1997, Mrs. Nane Annan, wife of then United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, designated the much loved children’s book character Winnie the Pooh as “Ambassador of Friendship”. This was to encourage young people to learn what they could do to forge ties of friendship and understanding among different cultures to bring about peace and harmony around the world. The books by A A Milne featuring Pooh the little bear and his band of close friends are a beautiful celebration of the simple joys of companionship, loyalty and friendship.

It was on 27 July 2011 that the 65th Session of the United Nations General Assembly declared 30 July as the International Day of Friendship. The United Nations invites all Member States to observe this day in accordance with the culture and customs of their local, national and regional communities, including through education and public awareness-raising activities.

It is a reminder that we are often so caught up in seeing the “otherness” in people that we cannot look beneath, to recognise the “sameness”. A great deal of how we interpret another person’s behaviour and intentions is merely a manifestation of the picture our minds have constructed about them. We assume that we can be only friends with those who are like us, and those that are not, are the “other”. But otherness can also be the most beautiful ground for connection, for it is through the blending of the sameness and the otherness that the rich tapestry of friendship is woven. Openness in thought and deed is the glue of true friendship, not just between individuals but equally cultures, communities and countries.

Today more than ever before, in a topsy-turvy world, we need to remind ourselves of the original intent of Friendship Day as Dr Ramon described it: “I think it is a special day and that it helped or helps people to remember friends in a special way, to be able to cultivate and value more this beautiful feeling that one has towards others.”

While we may not be able to physically meet our friends, while we cannot celebrate with parties and shopping sprees, what enables us to carry on in our respective mental and physical spaces is the comfort of friends and friendship. What better time to be grateful for the gift of friendship that sustains us, and to celebrate the bonds that make our life so much richer?

A friend is one of the nicest things that you can have and one of the best things you can be. Winnie the Pooh

–Mamata