The Ship has Sailed

Last week I was reminiscing on my parents’ sojourn in London, and the similarities it held with the sojourn of an ex-PM (Dr. Manmohan Singh) and his family in the UK, around the same time.

Surprisingly, the similarities did not end there. Both families made their way back by sea, on the SS Chusan, a ship of the P&O Company (but at different times).

These days, one thinks of sea-travel in terms of expensive luxurious cruises. But I suspect that in the early ‘60s, it may have been comparative in price to the cost of air-tickets, with the added advantage that it was a great 2-week holiday, with the novelty of the shipboard experience and the possibility of seeing a few new countries on the way.

And indeed the shipboard experience was something that was special. As the book ‘Strictly Personal’ by Damam Singh, a memoir of the lives of Dr. Manmohan Singh and Mrs. Gurcharan Singh says, ‘The SS Chusan offered virtually all the comforts of the cruise. The ship had 464 first-class and 541 tourist class cabins that had only recently been fitted with air-conditioning.’

Of course the first days were horrific with sea sickness for some of the passengers, but the organized fun and frolic was something my parents had probably never experienced before. (I too was there, as evidenced by photographs, but can remember nothing!).  My brother however remembered a penny being pulled out his ear by a magician who was part of the shows put up for kids. There were a variety of shows, music, dancing and games for all age groups. For all of us, as for Mrs. Gurcharan Singh ‘it was like a fifteen-day carnival.’

Many aspects of shipboard life were very formal. For instance, children were not allowed into the dining rooms.  Dr. Manmohan Singh recalls: ’At mealtimes, we could not take Kiki into the dining room. We had to leave her in the nursery, and she used to cry and cry.’ I was quite a happy child, so my parents did not have this problem.

SS Chusan
Being coached by my brother on the deck to run a race!

The SS Chusan was rather a special ship. It was the last and largest ship built for the P&O Company’s Far Eastern Service. It was eqipped with the latest (for the time!) marine technology, and was the first ocean-going passenger ship to be fitted with anti-roll stabilizers (imagine how many more people would have been sea-sick without that!). She was launched in 1949, and was decommissioned in 1973.

Incidentally, P&O stands for ‘The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company’, which originally started in 1840. It is, even today, Britain’s biggest cruise line. But today, it declares that ‘We are a holiday company’—as different as can be from the services of yore used by middle-class professionals to commute from UK to India!

And if you have wondered why the names of ships are prefixed with some cryptic letters, well, these indicate the purpose or distinguishing characteristic of the boat. ‘SS’ stands for Steam Ship, or in more recent times, for ‘Single-screw ship’ which refers to the method of propulsion of the ship. Other prefixes include: FB for Fishing Boat; TS for Training Ship; RMS for Royal Mail Ship; MV for Merchant Ship; RV for Research Vehicle, etc.

I still wonder at the shared experiences of Indian families who went to the UK in the early ‘60s. Alas, there was no social media which could have helped them connect and share their experiences, learn from each other and make life a bit easier.

If that had been, who knows, we might have been old family friends of the ex-PM!


It Begins With an Idea

It began with an idea. Meena mailed to say “why don’t we start a blog?” I was all agog, but cautious. “A blog? What do we know about blogging?”  We were two people who shied away from anything “too techy”, and equally from opening up our thoughts and broadcasting them far and wide. How would we deal with a new medium of communication, and more important, what would we communicate? And why would anyone be interested in what we had to say? But somewhere the spark was kindled. After all we had been writing partners for decades. We had written as part of our work as environmental educators, then, while we had some freedom about how to write something, the “what to write” was often a given. But that had been a while ago.

“Let’s think about it” I countered. “We need time to get our act together, as they say.” But Meena said, “No if we procrastinate, it won’t happen. It is Women’s Day next week, a perfect day to launch into a new space for a new time”. And before we could retreat, the die was cast. And so it was that the Millennial Matriarchs joined the blogosphere!

With the flurry of writing and posting our first pieces, came the panic. We had, in our enthusiasm, decided that each of us would write two pieces a week. But before we wrote anything, we needed to have something to write about! There began the continuous challenge of getting “ideas” for what to write about.

That took us back to the very notion of an idea. There are plural definitions of idea: Any conception existing in the mind as a result of mental understanding, awareness, or activity. A thought, conception, or notion. An impression. An opinion, view, or belief. A plan of action; an intention. A groundless supposition or fantasy.

These opened up a broader canvas for us. This was reflected in the sub title: Musings on Life and Times: Views, Reviews, Previews, Interviews…and Advice.

Indeed that became our guiding spirit, week after week. We discovered, day-after-day that ideas for writing lurked everywhere—newspaper items, things around us, books that we read, people we met, places we visited, conversations we had, birds and animals, changing seasons, history, folklore, festivals, and sometimes just a flight of fantasy! These had always been there, now we were more finely tuned to the potential and possibilities of pulling these out, looking deeper into them, making connections, and putting these in words. And every time this happened, it was an Aha Moment!

An idea comes, and you see it, and you hear it, and you know it…Ideas are beautiful gifts. And if you catch an idea that you love, that’s a beautiful day. And you write that idea down so you won’t forget it. And that idea that you caught might just be a fragment of the whole. Thinking about that small fragment will bring in more, and they’ll come in and they’ll hook on. And more and more come in, and pretty soon you might have a script. (David Lynch)

 We were looking at the world around us with a different lens. Even as the seasons changed, or we heard about an encounter or event, we were subconsciously filing away the raw material. The great fun then was the process of researching the topic or theme, compiling possibly useful information and then, making the connections. These were skills to be developed and honed. 

A book titled A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young published in 1939 discussed how the highest importance in the production of ideas involves developing a habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts.  

Every really good creative person…whom I have ever known has always had two noticeable characteristics. First, there was no subject under the sun in which he could not easily get interested — from, say, Egyptian burial customs to modern art. Every facet of life had fascination for him. Second, he was an extensive browser in all sorts of fields of information.

Gathering raw material in a real way is not as simple as it sounds. It is such a terrible chore that we are constantly trying to dodge it. The time that ought to be spent in material gathering is spent in wool gathering. Instead of working systematically at the job of gathering raw material we sit around hoping for inspiration to strike us. When we do that we are trying to get the mind to take the fourth step in the idea-producing process while we dodge the preceding steps.

The book lays down some principles: The first principle is that an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements. The second important principle involved is that the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships. To some minds each fact is a separate bit of knowledge. To others it is a link in a chain of knowledge. It has relationships and similarities. It is not so much a fact as it is an illustration of a general law applying to a whole series of facts.

What you do is to take the different bits of material which you have gathered and feel them all over, as it were, with the tentacles of the mind. You take one fact, turn it this way and that, look at it in different lights, and feel for the meaning of it. You bring two facts together and see how they fit. What you are seeking now is the relationship, a synthesis where everything will come together in a neat combination, like a jig-saw puzzle.

In many ways this process has gradually become a habit of mind for us. It has fine-tuned our antennae to try and catch any “idea” that can transform into a piece, and to put it through the permutations and combinations, to twirl the bits in the kaleidoscope as we watch them form and re-form new patterns and. Oliver Wendell Holmes said: A mind once stretched by a new idea never regains its original dimension. We are grateful for this opportunity to continuously explore and discover, and, we hope, to share some of that excitement.

This week, as we complete five uninterrupted years of Millennial Matriarchs (two pieces every week) we feel that we are at the third stage of what Arthur C. Clark wrote: New ideas pass through three periods: 1) It can’t be done. 2) It probably can be done, but it’s not worth doing. 3) I knew it was a good idea all along!

But even a good idea cannot survive in a vacuum. The writer cannot do it alone. The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it alive: a live thing, a story. (Ursula K le Guinn)

This is with gratitude to all our readers who have been gracious enough to join us on our journey, and who have shared our ideas.  

P.S. Coincidentally, while we began this blog as a celebration to mark International Women’s Day on 8 March, we find that this month is significant for another reason. March is celebrated as International Ideas Month! This month is all about realizing the value of an idea, no matter how fantastical or far-fetched it may seem at first. As the founders urge: If there is something you have been mulling over for a while, an idea you have not really thought of making it a reality, then this month is the time to get it rolling!

–Mamata and Meena

A True Gift of Love: Books

The last few weeks have seen a deluge of marketing gimmicks to remind people of the day which is meant to be a demonstration of love–Valentine’s Day. This love, as glossy advertisements remind us, is to be demonstrated by gifting loved ones with “appropriate” tokens such as red roses, chocolates, candlelight dinners, and jewelry.  Thousands of rupees are spent in this market-driven frenzy on products and experiences that soon fade, wilt, or melt away.

Lost in the glimmer and glitz of Valentine’s Day, was another day that is also marked on 14 February every year. This is International Book Giving Day.

This is a global, totally volunteer initiative that seeks to increase children’s access to, and enthusiasm for books. The goal of the day is to get books into the hands of as many children as possible. The day is said to be the brainchild of Amy Broadmoore, a K-5 school librarian in the United States. In 2010 Amy, then a mother of three young children started a blog called Delightful Children’s Books. As a lover of books herself she was passionate about raising her children to be curious, creative and to love books. She wanted to share this passion with others. Amy was also aware that there was a serious lack of access to books for children. Even in countries like the USA and UK large numbers of children did not have any books. In 2012 she collaborated with fellow blogger Zoe Toft to create an event that celebrated the gifting of books to children, especially to those who did not have access to books. The event held on 14 February made waves on social media. Emma Perry a UK children’s author reached out to Amy and offered to help. In 2013 Amy handed over the reins of the project to Emma. A decade later, the passion, fuelled by volunteers, has spread and the day is now celebrated in almost 45 countries across the globe.

International Book Giving Day is not just about giving books, but a symbol of the ongoing crusade to use books to foster a child’s appetite and enthusiasm for great storytelling and literary adventures.

Coincidentally, I was recently part of a stimulating discussion which posed an important question towards the same end. How to nurture children’s responses to literature? The panelists, themselves authors and educators, shared both experiences as well examples of how books can provide comfort, companionship, and entertainment. They discussed the critical role that books can play to stimulate imagination and foster creativity; create and answer questions, and expand the worlds of children.

The magic of books is beautifully evoked by American author Anne Lamott in a letter to children:

If you love to read, or learn to love reading, you will have an amazing life. Period. Life will always have hardships, pressure, and incredibly annoying people, but books will make it all worthwhile. In books, you will find your North Star, and you will find you, which is why you are here.

Books are paper ships, to all the worlds, to ancient Egypt, outer space, eternity, into the childhood of your favorite musician, and — the most precious stunning journey of all — into your own heart, your own family, your own history and future and body.

Out of these flat almost two-dimensional boxes of paper will spring mountains, lions, concerts, galaxies, heroes. You will meet people who have been all but destroyed, who have risen up and will bring you with them. Books and stories are medicine, plaster casts for broken lives and hearts, slings for weakened spirits. And in reading, you will laugh harder than you ever imagined laughing, and this will be magic, heaven, and salvation. I promise.

Which raises the primary question, of how to bring children and literature together, before they can respond to the magic.

The first step towards this would be to facilitate children’s access to books. Classrooms and libraries are perhaps the more formal spaces for such access, while homes are the cradle where exposure to books could sow the seeds of a life-long engagement with words and visuals. 

However, passive or organized access to books alone may not be enough. To nurture this initiation requires also facilitating contexts where children could express their ‘response’ to books. Which also raises the question of what do we mean by ‘response’?

Each child responds in a different and very personal way to the same book. Some children respond to the sound of words, some respond to the characters in the story, some respond to the situations, some respond to the pictures. Perhaps the last thing that children respond (or not respond to) is the “message”. But is that even really important? What the book has done for each child is unique to that child. What is common is that the child has had the opportunity to look at, touch, feel, (even smell and taste!) a book. Whichever way a child may respond, it is important that a child have the time and space to absorb and interpret the experience in its way.

While the panellists in the discussion agreed strongly about the potential of engaging with printed books, there was also the concern about the huge challenge to this posed by the overwhelming attraction, (almost addiction) to digital media. In an age of information at ones fingertips, fleeting bytes, and constant rush, these words by a Lithuanian children’s writer help us to pause and ponder, once more, the power of books.

No less frequently do we hear that we live in the age of information overload, haste and rush. But if you take a book into your hands, you immediately feel a change. It seems that books have this wonderful quality – they help us slow down. As soon as you open a book and delve into its tranquil depths, you no longer fear that things will whizz by at a maddening speed while you see nothing. All of a sudden, you come to believe you don’t have to dash off like a bat out of hell to do some urgent work of little importance. In books, things happen quietly and in a precisely arranged order. Maybe because their pages are numbered, maybe because the pages rustle gently and soothingly as you leaf through them. In books, events of the past calmly meet events that are yet to come. Books help us not to rush, books teach us to notice things, and books invite us or even make us sit down for a while.

I am sure that books are never bored when they are in your hands. Someone who enjoys reading – be it a child or adult – is much more interesting than someone who doesn’t care for books, who is always racing against the clock, who never has time to sit down, who fails to notice much of what surrounds them.

If only we could make this message heard more widely. Perhaps at an individual level each one of us can play a small role by gifting books to children in the hope that some seeds may find fertile soil to sprout and grow.


Red is the Notice

In the last few weeks, we have seen Interpol in the news in Inida, what with the 90th General Assembly of the organization having concluded just last week in New Delhi. The GA is the supreme governing body of the Interpol, and is made up of delegates appointed by the governments of the member countries. It is the top decision-making body of the organziation.

But to take a step back, what is Interpol itself?

Well, Interpol is the International Criminal Police Organization. It is an inter-governmental organization with 195 member countries. The idea is to help police in all the countries work together. They do this by connecting all the member countries via a secure communications system called I-24/7. Members can use this network to contact each other, and the Interpol Secretariat. They can also access Interpol databases and services. The agency also coordinates networks of police and experts in different crime areas, and facilitates their coming together through working groups and at conferences to share experiences and ideas.

Most of us usually hear the term INTERPOL in connection with Red Notices. These are international requests for cooperation or alerts allowing police in member countries to share critical crime-related information. Though we most often hear about Red Notices, notices come in a rainbow of colours.

The best known Red Notice is about wanted people and is a request to seek the location and arrest of persons wanted for prosecution or to serve a sentence. These are by far the commonest and there are currently about 70,000 valid ones out. Within Red Notices, there is a specific type of criminal notice for fugitives wanted for environmental crimes put out on the occasion of World Environment Day. There are seven people in this list including people wanted for smuggling protected species and their derived products; illicitly dealing in wildlife trophies and organized criminal activity; and illegal logging in a protected forest.

Next in numbers but far behind are Blue Notices which seek to collect additional information about a person’s identity, location or activities in relation to a criminal investigation. There are about 15,000 such notices out currently.              

Yellow and Green Notices follow with about 12.500 currently valid ones in each category. Yellow Notices are about missing people and seek help to locate such persons, often minors, or to help identify persons who are unable to identify themselves. Green Notices are warnings and intelligence about a person’s criminal activities, where the person is considered to be a possible threat to public safety.

Black Notices seek information on unidentified bodies, while Purple Notices seek or provide information on modus operandi, objects, devices and concealment methods used by criminals. There are between 1000-2000 of each.

Orange Notices are the fewest in numbers, just a few hundreds. They are about imminent threat, and seek to warn of an event, a person, an object or a process representing a serious and imminent threat to public safety.

Apart from this, there is the INTERPOL–United Nations Security Council Special Notice which is issued for entities and individuals who are the targets of UN Security Council Sanctions Committees.

When I glanced through the list of most wanted Red Notices, what I found most disturbing was that many of the persons listed are under 30 years of age, with some as young as 19. The list also had a 74 year old woman. And in the quick browse, it seemed to me that most of the listed people were from South America. So do these countries resort to asking for Red Notices more often? Or do their requests get accepted faster?

Who knows? But for sure, when I see something in media about Interpol Notices, I will take more notice now!


Based on:

The Post Lady Always Knocks Twice

9 October is marked as World Post Day. As an extension to this, the Indian Department of Post is celebrating 9 to 13 October as National Postal Week.

The last month has been unusual in that we have had more knocks on the door by our post lady than by couriers. In the last few years one had become so used to sending and receiving letters and parcels through courier services that we had almost forgotten what an important part post offices and postal services had played in our lives. In the days of ‘life in the slow lane’ the process of hand-writing letters, finding appropriate envelopes, going to the neighbourhood post office to get stamps, and slipping the letter in the post box afforded a great sense of satisfaction. Equally wonderful was the anticipation of receiving letters of response, and other exciting missives announcing results, admission notices, job interviews, and news from near and far. We didn’t consciously realize it then, but the postal service was an integral part of our life.

The history of the postal communication in India dates back to ancient times of kings who used to convey important messages, especially wartime news, through a relay of runners on foot. During the reign of Emperor Chandragupta Maurya, trained pigeons with small cachets of letters tied to their feet were used to send communications across the vast kingdom. This system of ‘pigeon post’ continued even during the time of Emperor Ashoka. The Mughals used a system of runner services which expanded to include horses. Horses were stationed at relay posts every few miles, and the messages were passed on from horseman to horseman. During the reign of Sher Shah Suri it is believed that there were 3400 horses with riders all along the Grand Trunk Road, for conveyance of news.

Post offices, as we know them, were first established in India by the East India Company. The Company opened its first post office in 1727 and the postal service was administered with the main aim to serve their own commercial interests. The post service was opened to the public in March 1774 with the establishment of the Calcutta GPO. This was followed by the opening of the Madras GPO in 1786, and then the Bombay GPO in 1794, and the Bangalore GPO in 1800.  The Post Offices were manned by the respective District Collectors or military officers acting as ex-officio Postmasters.

In addition to managing the postal services of British India, the Post Office was involved in the transmission of correspondence between England and India. This was done by the sea route, and one way travel time was up to three months. In the 1820s Thomas Waghorn, then a naval officer with the East India Company, investigated a possible overland route between Alexandria and Suez, which could cut down the time to just over a month. It took ten years for the British Government and East India Company to be convinced of the viability of this route, which it subsequently took over.

Lord Dalhousie appointed a Post Office Commission in 1850 and the approved recommendations of Commission were framed as Post office Act XVII, 1854. Under this Lord Dalhousie recognized the Indian Post Offices as separate organization of national importance. 700 Post offices which included what were called 55 Receiving Houses were placed, for the first time, under the unitary control of a Director General, Henry Phillip Archibald Buchanan Riddell, on 1st October 1854. The Head Quarters was at Bengal, and was responsible to Home Department of the Government of India.

Roadways were at the time the main form of transporting post. The first line of postal communication by railway was opened from 18th September 1854. Mail service by steamer was introduced between Calcutta and Port Blair on 28 May 1859. And it was in India that the world’s first official “airmail” was operated on 21 February 1911 when Henri Pequet, a French pilot flew a biplane carrying 6500 pieces of mail from Allahabad to Nainital—a distance of six miles.

The Indian Postal Service has come a long way since then, to become the world’s largest postal network managing more than one-and-a-half lakh post offices. The postal department has met the challenges of India’s diverse geography, catering innovatively to remote areas. There is a floating post office in a houseboat on the Dal Lake in Kashmir; and the world’s highest post office in a small cottage in Hikkim district in Himachal Pradesh. The Nagpur Post Office is located in a large Victorian-style heritage building which accommodates the post master’s residence, a parcel hub, a postal depot, a recreation club, and a canteen. And there is a small metal post box among the tea plantations of Munnar in Kerala which has been used for a hundred years now. Known simply as Postal Number 9, the oldest postal number in the country, the post office continues to deliver mail to thousands of plantation workers. 

The Indian Postal Service does much more than delivering mail. It offers a range of other services that help reach out to people and places which do not have access to variety of institutions like banks and other agencies. The post office remits money in the form of money orders (which is the only way of sending money for many Indians). The Postal Department also offers a variety of small savings schemes. It provides life insurance coverage under Postal Life Insurance and Rural Postal Life Insurance. It also plays an important role in discharging government services such as payment of pensions to senior and retired citizens. Wages under government welfare MGNREGA are also distributed through post offices. During the COVID lockdown the red postal vans were even used to deliver medical equipment like N95 masks, medicines, test kits and ventilators across states as part of their “essential services”.

My family has had pleasant experiences with India Post in the past few years. From efficient despatch and delivery of parcels both within the country, and even overseas (all the way to New Zealand!), to the Speed Post with its online Track and Trace (that is sometimes overzealous in informing about the journey of the post), it is indeed a service that calls for respect. This year we could also avail of the home visit by Postal Staff for taking biometrics of my 97 year-old father-in-law for his Jeevan Praman (Life Certificate for continuing pension).    

No wonder then that the post office (dak khana) and the postman (dakiya) on his trusted bicycle were always a component of “village life” in stories and movies in the past. Even today, when we get message on our phone that Tinuben our post lady is on her way to deliver a speed post, we await her scooter and her knock on the door. From pigeon post to speed post, India Post has come a long way indeed!


Thanks, but No Thanks: Awards Declined

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

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

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

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

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

Arundati Roy
Arundati Roy

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

Chinua Achebe
Chinua Achebe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Biscuity Taste of Nostalgia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Purposefully Unparliamentary

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

banned words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The book explains the three major objectives of parliamentary insults:

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

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


Walk, Don’t Run!

What is this life if, full of care
We have no time to stand and stare?

These words were penned by the Welsh poet W.H. Davies over a hundred years ago. Even as the world continues to progress rapidly in every way, and along it, also the pace of life, in every age there have been some voices that remind us about what we are losing as we rush headlong through our daily lives, in our quest to make a living. But as they remind us, are we, along the way not missing out on the simple joys of living?

One of the simplest joys is that of walking. Walking not as in getting from point A to point B, but walking for the sheer pleasure of it, with the senses attuned to the very act of moving while also imbibing the sights, smells and sounds around. And this sort of moving even has a word that defines it. The word is ‘saunter’.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the verb ‘saunter’ to mean ‘to walk along in a slow and relaxed manner without hurry or effort’; and the noun ‘saunter’ to mean a ‘leisurely stroll’. According to the Cambridge dictionary, ‘to saunter’ is to ‘walk in a slow and relaxed way, often in no particular direction’. Saunter probably derives from the Middle English word santren, which meant ‘to muse’. The first modern use of the word ‘saunter’ in its current form was in the 17th century.

Definitions aside, the concept of a walk such as this was best described and promoted by Henry David Thoreau an American author, poet, and natural philosopher, in the mid-nineteenth century. While he wrote about the joys of a simple life in nature, Thoreau’s essay Walking focuses on the spiritual importance of walking in nature. The essay was first published in 1862, after his death. For Thoreau, the goal or destination of walking is less important than the meditative state of mind which walking induces. He argues that walking cultivates curiosity and wonder, qualities which are often discouraged or undervalued in society.

The walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine at stated hours–as the swinging of dumb-bells or chairs; but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day. If you would get exercise, go in search of the springs of life. Think of a man’s swinging dumbbells for his health, when those springs are bubbling up in far-off pastures unsought by him!

As Thoreau describes it, the genius of walking lies not in mechanically putting one foot in front of the other en route to a destination but in mastering the art of sauntering.

Many years after Thoreau, and at a time when the pace of life had become much faster, and preoccupations with “getting there” propelling every kind of journey, some people felt that it was necessary to remind ourselves that “stopping to smell the roses” along the way was not a waste of time.

Among these was an American WT Rabe who was concerned about the growing popularity of jogging as a fitness trend in the mid-1970s. Rabe was a Public Relations professional who combined his skills and concerns to encourage people to slow down and appreciate the world around them. Rabe was then working as a PR person for the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan, which was famous for having the longest porch in the world. Rabe organised an event inviting people to spend a day taking a leisurely walk, free of stress and strain, focusing on the pure joy of the act. In other words–to saunter. Sauntering, as Rabe described it ‘is going from point X to point Z which means you don’t care where you’re going, how you’re going or when you might get there’. In response to this, thousands of people descended on the Grand’s famous front porch, simply to saunter (upon paying a fee of two dollars each). As Rabe’s idea caught on, and his followers increased, he went on to propose that there should be an annual day to celebrate the concept and the act. And so 19 June was designated as World Sauntering Day! 

While this may be a successful PR gimmick, sauntering has its advocates among some of my favourite writers. Thoreau’s conviction was that walking should involve a ‘connection’ with our natural world and approached with the mind set of becoming ‘fully present’. He believed that ‘busy’ was a conscious decision. He spoke of returning to his ‘senses’ after a saunter in the wild.

These sentiments are beautifully echoed in a recent essay by Pico Iyer, a contemporary essayist and novelist known for his travel writing. The essay describes the same walk that he has taken for over twenty-five years in Nara a small town near Kyoto in Japan.  

For years I used to take this walk as a break after five hours at my desk, a small reward, perhaps, for forcing myself to stay sitting through sunshine and mist. But then I began to notice something: walking shook things loose in me. The very act of ambulation sent my thoughts down different tracks. Movement in some ways—because I had no destination and didn’t have to notice where I was going—allowed my mind to run off the leash like a dog on a beach. If I was stuck at my desk, walking could unstick me.

As he further says, A wise friend from New York sent me his paraphrase from the American naturalist John Burroughs last year: To learn something new, take the same path you took yesterday.

Although this is not a day that is very well known, for most of us who spend a large part of our life with no time ‘to stand and stare’, World Sauntering Day is indeed a good reminder that it is important sometimes to be “pointless on purpose”. This Sunday, let’s celebrate the day with a saunter.  


It’s a Dog’s Life!

At the outset let me start with a disclaimer. I have nothing against dogs. In fact I love dogs and my family has had pet dogs right through my childhood and adolescence. And thus any dog-related story catches my eye. The most recent one was a story in my local newspaper that perhaps really takes the cake.

The story that covered several column inches mourned the passing away of a Saint Bernard dog who had been purchased at a premium price, and translocated from the alpine heights to a home in arid Gujarat. The tiled floors of the home had been replaced with wooden floors for the ease of walking of the big dog. The much pampered ‘son’ of the family was fed on milk, curd and paneer from the best Gir cows, as well as seasonal fruits like papaya and melon. The dog was also celibate, which the owners claimed added 4 extra years to his life [sic]. The dog’s recent passing away was marked with full Vedic rites.   

As an avid (physical) newspaper reader it is the news that does not make the headlines that attracts my attention, and provides me not only with wonder and amusement, but also in some ways, provides a window into ‘trends’, as it were.

Prominent among these has been the increasing amount of space being taken up by pet stories, with particular reference to dogs. In the past one usually found a small news item about the annual dog show, with a few pictures of prize winning dogs with their proud owners. Then came dog trainers, followed by dog sitters and dog walkers; these were usually found through word of mouth, or were duties of the domestic help or the children who had a roster of turns to take the dog for its little ‘routine’.  

In the last couple of years one has been seeing from a quarter to a half page of glossy newsprint with dog-related information. This is in the form of advice and tips for “pet parents”. This includes not just diet and grooming, but also a gamut of psychiatric support (which grew exponentially during the pandemic). These can make up a best-selling Dr Spock for canines!  How to handle ‘sibling’ jealousy when your (human) baby is born; How to handle separation anxiety when you return to office after a long stretch of WFH; How to keep your dog from joining the zoom call (without making it feel left out!). There is a whole new profession of pet therapists, psychiatrists, and even ‘pet psychics’ who claim to have telepathic powers to communicate with pets to understand what they are going through and offer support on mental health issues.  

Then of course there are grooming tips galore. Starting with exclusive brands to pamper your pet; these are offered through “pawsome” spa treatments which include luxurious shampoo and bath, hair trimming and styling, and nail clipping, but also offer services like aromatherapy and acupressure massages. One such service even claims: “We offer a unique microbubble spa therapy, with high-density ozone bubbles for cleaning the pets’ coats. Apart from being an absolute fun session for them, it helps deal with rashes and irritation. We also have an automatic pet cabin dryer for noiseless and quick drying,” Bow Wow Wow!

I remember well the weekly struggle I had to put up with to just quickly pour one bucket of water over my very recalcitrant dog. And I still have a scar from when he bit me on a particularly difficult bath day! It will take a wild jump of fantasy to imagine my Bosky wallowing in microbubbles!  I marvel at the ‘new age’ canines who presumably sink gracefully into a bubble bath as they politely extend their paws for a perfect ‘pawdicure’.

But why stop at an afternoon at a Spa? In the highly stressed world that they inhabit, don’t dogs need some ‘time out’ too? Well the travel and leisure industry is all set to make this happen. There are dog resorts, and even luxury hotels for staycations and weekend getaways. Making news is Critterati a luxury pet hotel in Gurugram India which offers ‘air conditioned room; premium beds with luxury bedding, soft padded floors that are easy on paws, three meals for small buddies, and two meals for medium, large and X-large buddies; four times potty break; a nightcap treat before bedtime; TV lounge access; pampering sessions; socializing, vet visit, daily hair brushing to improve blood circulation.’ I kid you not! Check out their website.

Between vacations, for the occasional ‘doggy dine out’ there are dog cafes in many cities that offer a wide menu for the discerning pooch palates—from specially brewed beer to designer dishes. For the more politically correct canines there are sustainable vegan and gluten free options. For a change from the urban jungle there are pet event planners that offer ‘bespoke’ picnic experiences amidst nature.  

I think back to my dogs who lived a middle-class life as did we, doing very well thank you, on roti and milk. The highlight of my Bosky’s gourmet experience was being indulged by my old aunts with the traditional Gujarati snack of ganthia!

From food to accessories the race is on to offer something new, different, unique, and basically ‘pawsome’! A recent half page article in my newspaper described how to help pets beat the heat an array of cool accessories. These included a dog umbrella, a self-filling water bowl and a water bowl that keeps water cool, cooling collars and cooling mats.

With millennials as pet parents it sure is not a dog’s life anymore!

No wonder then that the pet care market is booming as never before. While it has been on the upswing in other countries, India is fast catching up. It is the world’s fastest-growing market, expanding at around 17% annually and is expected to be valued at around $500 million by the end of 2022. Among the growing affluent  generation of aspirational millennials who have the means to indulge their pets as they do themselves, there are also enterprising millennials who are smartly cashing in on the rapidly growing demand by creating and offering a tantalising menu of pet services and products.

If every dog has his day, this indeed is the day and age for every dog!