The last three months of lockdowns across the world have, among other things, put the spotlight on parenting. With children and parents in continuous and close confinement, both have been tearing their hair out in frustration. The challenge of keeping children ‘occupied’; the careful negotiation of time and space that respects personal and physical boundaries; the sharing of responsibilities amidst the constantly looming uncertainty of when and where the virus could strike, has put everyone on tenterhooks.
This has led to a proliferation of Advice Columns. From counsellors to therapists, psychologists to agony aunts, there seems to be an overdose on ‘good parenting’ tips. In our zeal to do the best for our children we sometimes tend to forget the most basic and simple guidelines that are based on the fundamental premise of mutual respect.
These were offered almost a hundred years ago by Gijubhai Badheka one of the pioneers of the Montessori system of education in India, lifelong advocate of children and their rights, and creator of some of the best loved and popular children’s literature in Gujarati. Gijubhai believed that every child has its own distinct personality. We as adults need to recognise and respect this. He urged parents to convert to the faith of trust, respect, freedom and love for children. Starting with these five fundamental tenets.
If You Really Want To
If you would like to do just one thing for children…
What could you do?
Do not hit children.
If you would like to do two things; what could you do?
Do not scold children
Do not insult them.
If you would like to do three things; what could you do?
Do not scare children
Do not bribe them to do something
Do not overindulge them.
If you would like to do four things for children; what would these be?
Do not preach to children
Do not blow hot and cold
Do not keep finding fault
Do not exercise authority all the time.
If you are keen to do five things; what will you do?
Do not do whatever the child demands; teach it to do for itself.
Let the child do what it desires to do.
Do not take a child’s work lightly.
Do not interfere into a child’s work.
Do not take away a child’s work.
In a world that has changed dramatically in the last 100 years, these timeless tenets remain as, if not more, true today.
Gijubhai Badheka passed away on 23 June in 1939, at the early age of 54 years leaving behind a prodigious legacy of writing for children, parents and teachers.
Gijubhai was my grandfather. In my small way, I try to carry forward his legacy by sharing and translating his works from the original Gujarati into English.
This is a week of Days—international days to mark events, or create awareness about different themes and issues. 22 May is the International Day for Biological Diversity, and 23 May celebrates Turtles–one of the millions of species
that are part of the incredible tapestry of biodiversity.
This took me to revisit some of the teaching-learning material on these themes that we developed in CEE, among them, an Educator’s Manual on Turtles. Going through it I rediscovered the inspiring story of Archie Carr–the Turtle Man.
Archie Fairly Carr Jr., was an American zoologist whose studies unraveled many mysteries about giant sea turtles, and whose writings and conservation efforts have helped to save sea turtles from near extinction.
Archie Carr was born on June 16, 1909, in Alabama, where his father was a Presbyterian minister and his mother a piano teacher. It was his father who instilled in him his love for nature. The backyard of their home was filled with cages of snakes, frogs, lizards, and turtles that the young Archie collected. As a child he also developed a keen ear for language and music. In later years he further developed these language skills which led him to master several languages, and his work in collecting dialects from the Caribbean area and east Africa where he travelled and worked.
Archie Carr originally went to the University of Florida to study English but was diverted to biology by a professor who recognised the young student’s love for nature. In 1937 he became the first to be granted a PhD in zoology by the University. And it was his alma mater that became his lifelong academic home; he was associated with the University for more than fifty years.
Carr was a true, and early, ecologist of his times. While his early training was in taxonomy and evolutionary biology, he combined this with his wide knowledge of zoology, botany, soils, geology, history, and cultural anthropology, and he showed his students the need to weave together all of these disciplines to begin to understand the subject matter of ecology. This breadth of understanding and perspective also permeated his writings which beautifully combined the different strands.
Above all, Archie Carr was a great biologist. His early descriptive studies of turtles set the standard of quality in the field of natural history. He published his first paper on sea turtles in 1942, but it was not until he wrote his classic Handbook of Turtles (1952) that he began to focus his research on sea turtles. He described his early discoveries about the plight of sea turtles in his book The Windward Road particularly in his chapter The Passing of the Fleet, which was a call to arms and resulted in global efforts to conserve sea turtles from extinction
As he focused on sea turtles, Carr moved toward ecology and behaviour, although his work always retained a taxonomic and evolutionary perspective. His decades-long research at the research station at Tortuguero in Costa Rica, enabled him to initiate one of the longest lasting and most intensive studies of an animal population that has ever been done. Almost all of these studies have significance for conservation; Archie Carr was a conservation biologist long before the field was recognized.
Carr’s book The Windward Road published in 1959 deeply touched a newspaperman Joshua Powers. He sent copies of the book to twenty friends with an invitation to join a new organisation called The Brotherhood of the Green Turtle; this grew into The Caribbean Conservation Corporation, and later the Sea Turtle Conservancy, which became an international force for the preservation of sea turtles.
Like many of his generation Carr was at one time an avid hunter, but he gave this up after his travels in Africa. This change he described in his book Ulendo: Travels of a Naturalist in and out of Africa, in 1964. And also, like many hunters turned conservationists, such as Jim Corbett in India, Carr wrote extensively and evocatively about wildlife and nature. ”It was the lion song, and I sat quiet to learn it, as you learn the trill of a tree toad, or how an alligator goes. And though there may have been little real song in the sound, it came in strong and lonely through the whisper of the mist; and to me, at the time, it seemed to tell of an age being lost forever.”
He was far from the stereotype of a ‘scientist’ whose highly technical and academic language could be understood only be a select band of fellow scientists. He combined his original academic interest in English, and his love for the language, with his passion for biology by writing 11 books, several of which won top awards were a model of authoritative yet lively scientific writing.
His colleagues remember him for his sense of humour that often included practical jokes, and which peeped through his writing. “I like the look of frogs, and their outlook, and especially the way they get together in wet places on warm nights and sing about sex”.
His wife once jokingly told him “You’ve done a lot for turtles.” To which he replied “They’ve done a lot for me too.”
Professor Carr, died at his home on May 21, 1987. At the time of his death, he was the world’s leading authority on sea turtles.
The world that Archie Carr explored and wrote about has changed a lot today. Yet the sea turtles remain, thanks to the painstaking pioneering work, passion and life-long mission of this brilliant scientist and inspiring human being.
Today is a good day to remember his words, “For most of the wild things on earth, the future must depend on the conscience of mankind.”
As we celebrate the 200th birth anniversary of Florence Nightingale this week, it is time to let go of our romantic notions of a do-gooder with a lamp in one hand, soothing the fevered brows of soldiers with the other—a visual firmly ingrained in most of our heads, thanks to illustrations from our textbooks.
Of course she did that! She was very hands-on and did make rounds of the soldiers’ wards night and day, to care for them.
But she was much more.
She was a statistician par excellence, and in 1860, was elected the first woman Fellow of the Statistical Society.
Her meticulous approach to collecting data and analysing it, at a time when even deaths were not properly tallied in the war hospital where she worked, led to a better understanding of the situation and to reducing deaths. For instance, analysis by her and statisticians appointed by the British Government led to the conclusion that 16,000 of the 18,000 deaths in her hospital were not due to battle wounds but to preventable diseases, spread by poor sanitation. By using applied statistical methods, she effectively made the case for bringing in better hygiene practices, and thus saving lives. (Early example of evidence based policies, which won the Noble Prize this year!)
Florence was also one who shook up systems and brought in systemic changes. She battled with entrenched bureaucracies most of her working life, in order to bring about these changes. She was aware that it would be difficult to convince decision makers of the need for change, and maybe out of this requirement was born what is today counted as her major contribution to statistics—the first infographics ever made. The best-known of the infographics she invented are what are called the “coxcomb” diagrams, understandable by even the public. ‘The coxcomb is similar to a pie chart, but more intricate. In a pie chart the size of the ‘slices’ represent a proportion of data, while in a coxcomb the length which the slice extends radially from the center-point, represents the first layer of data. The specific organization of Nightingale’s chart allowed her to represent more complex information layered in a single space. In her coxcomb during the Crimean War, the chart was divided evenly into 12 slices representing months of the year, with the shaded area of each month’s slice proportional to the death rate that month. Her color-coding shading indicated the cause of death in each area of the diagram.’*
There are many who believe that if she were around today, she would have brought very strong statistical analysis of The COVID situation to bear on policy making, and advocated for solutions based on pure, hard evidence (the implication obviously being that today’s solutions are not fully there!). But it is the duty of the present generation to ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’ and do the needful! No point in wishful thinking.
We in this country also have to thank her for her campaign for clean drinking water, famine relief and sanitary conditions in India—based on statistics and data she collected.
In 2020, it is not surprising that there are many women playing a prominent part in developing vaccines to protect us against the current scourge—Covid 19. I know nothing about this field, but a casual search threw up many names—Prof Sarah Gilbert, Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, Dr. Nita Patel. And Dr. Patel had a good explanation—she says that lab work in science is mostly done by women, so it is not surprising that women are prominent in the race to find the vaccine.
But it was not always so. Even though women have played a critical role in the development of many vaccines, they have not always got their due.
Polio was a dreaded disease in the early 20th century. It left death in its wake, but even more, it paralysed. Till date, there is no cure for polio, and the only defence is vaccination. Jonas Salk rightly deserves the credit for the polio vaccine, but there were two women, without whose work things would not have happened as they happened, when they happened. One was Dr. Isabel Morgan of Johns Hopkins University, whose work was a turning point in understanding host immunity to polio and on use of killed-virus (vs. live-virus) as the basis of vaccines for this disease. The other was Dr. Dorothy Horstmann of Yale and her team, whose work is said to have paved the way for oral polio vaccines.
Other women to whom we owe a safer world are: Dr. Anna Wessels Williams, who developed a diphtheria vaccine; Drs. Pearl Kendric and Grace Eldering who developed a vaccine for whooping cough; Dr. Margeret Pittman, whose work led to the vaccine against meningitis and pneumonia; Dr. Anne Szarewski, whose breakthroughs helped to develop vaccines against cervical cancers; and Dr. Ruth Bishop who led the team which developed a vaccine against rotavirus which is a major cause for diarrhoea in children.
But the best for the last! The most amazing story is of the woman who introduced the concept of immunization to the Western world, Lady Mary Montagu. Born in 1689, she was a path-breaker in many ways. But her contribution to vaccination is the one we are going to focus on here. She was a brilliant and beautiful woman, whose beauty was marred by an attack of smallpox in 1715. Earlier she had lost her brother to it. So it was no wonder that the deadly disease was something she worried about where her children were concerned. Lady Mary’s husband Lord Edward Montagu was posted to Constantinople as Ambassador in 1716. There she interacted closely with Turkish women and got to know their customs. One of these was the practice of variolation, wherein women would take the pus from the smallpox blister of someone who had a mild case of the disease, and introduce it into the scratched skin of uninfected children. Lady Mary observed that children thus infected never did contract the disease seriously.
She developed such a strong belief in this that she got the Embassy surgeon to inoculate her five year old son.
When she got back to England, she promoted this procedure with all her passion, but the medical establishment blocked and resisted it. The reasons are probably two-fold—it was seen as an Oriental folk treatment, not a Western, scientific one. And it was being promoted by a woman!
In 1721, a smallpox epidemic struck England, and Lady March had her daughter also inoculated. She persuaded the Princes of Wales on the efficacy of this, and the Princess had her two daughters inoculated. And though it took a long, long time for Jenner to come along and develop a safer technique of vaccination, using cowpox rather than smallpox virus, the concept started taking root, and the foundation for vaccination had been laid!
With thanks to all the back room girls (and boys) helping find vaccines and cures, as well as all front line workers.
Two news items last week took me to my cache of ‘saved for a rainy (read lockdown) day’ books.
The first was that the tagline for this year’s World Health Day is ‘Support Nurses and Midwives’. April 7 is celebrated as World Health Day as it marks the anniversary of the World Health Organization which was founded in 1948.
The second news was that on April 3 Britain’s first emergency field hospital exclusively for coronavirus patients was inaugurated in the East End or docklands of London. More remarkable, that a large exhibition space, usually used for large events such concerts and conferences, was transformed into this 4000 bed hospital in just nine days. The hospital is fittingly called NHS Nightingale Hospital. Similar Nightingale hospitals are planned to be set up in different cities of UK, as emergency sites to treat coronavirus patients.
Calling these facilities Nightingale hospitals, is an apt and timely reminder of Florence Nightingale, who almost 200 years ago changed the face of nursing from a mostly untrained profession to a highly skilled and well-respected medical profession with very important responsibilities.
These stories took me to the book titled Called the Midwife by Jennifer Worth. The book is the memoir of the years that Jenny, this young nurse and midwife spent in the poor slums of the East End of London. 23 years old and newly qualified she lived and trained as a midwife with a dedicated group of nuns St Raymond Nonnatus.
Though set in the 1950s, the conditions of the area, and the people who lived in these docklands were appalling in terms of health, hygiene and sanitation. The book recounts anecdotes that paint vignettes of the people, and the experiences as a midwife, delivering babies at home amidst challenging and often overwhelming circumstances. But where the narration could have been dark and depressing, Jenny’s description of her patients and their families brings out the touching humanity, and tough spirit that rises above the squalor. Whether it is the pen portraits of the nuns, each with a unique personality; the fellow trainees; and the soon-to-be or new mothers (from the first baby of a 14 year-old girl, to the 25th baby of a 45 year-old woman!), the book captures the power and spirit of the vocation. Rushing on their bicycles through the freezing smoggy streets with their simple delivery bags to attend a calling the middle of the night (almost 100 deliveries a month), to the daily routine of morning and evening home visits for pre and post-delivery check-ups, one cannot help but applaud the total dedication and role of the midwives.
Interestingly in India generations of children had been born at home under the hand of the local midwife or dai. Around the time when Jennifer Worth was a midwife in England, hospital deliveries started becoming more common in India. In the last fifty years, with advances in the world of medicine, and advancing technology, the traditional art and craft of midwifery was replaced with the science of sonography and Csections. Interestingly, in the last ten years or so, there seems to be a return to the traditional ways of childbirth. While at the one end of the spectrum, there are boutique clinics offering 5-star deliveries, other young women are opting to ’call the midwife’. And there is a new generation of Jennys who are undergoing the rigorous training of midwifery to qualify and practice as midwives.
It is fitting indeed that WHO has designated 2020 as the Year of the Nurse and Midwife, in honour of the 200th birth anniversary of Florence Nightingale who fought, against all odds, in the frontlines of the Crimean war. And once again, more than ever before, it is time to salute these brave and tireless soldiers who are at the frontline of the Corona war. Hail, to all these Nightingales!
These four words open up windows to entire universes—unexplored, or familiar. This is how many a story begins. Stories are a life force that have imbued human life with that something extra, since the dawn of civilization. Stories are a way to convey history, culture, language, spirituality, and identity. One way to keep stories alive is storytelling. Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of communication.
20 March is celebrated as World Storytelling Day–a day to remember and remind ourselves of the magic and power of stories. What began in Sweden, on this date in 1991, as All Storytellers Day has now become a global celebration of the art of oral storytelling. On World Storytelling Day, as many people as possible tell and listen to stories in as many languages and at as many places as possible, during the same day and night.
On this day I celebrate a storyteller who collected, recreated, and created a timeless repertoire of stories. Generations of children have grown up with these tales, told and retold by parents and grandparents over the last one hundred years. This was my grandfather Gijubhai Badeka, one of Gujarat’s foremost educationists and storytellers.
In Gujarati, as in most Indian languages, the child reader had remained somewhat neglected till the middle of the nineteenth century. There was hardly any specific literature for children; only stories retold from classical Indian literature, or heroic stories from Western literature, in not very satisfactory translations. Gijubhai pioneered the creation of special literature for children that also contributed to preserving the oral tradition of literature through exploring and compiling the rich legacy of folk literature. His search for folk tales crossed the boundaries of language and country. This journey of exploration he described thus, in his seminal work titled Vaarta nu Shastra (The Art and Craft of Stories) published in 1925. “So many stories have travelled in foreign lands, so many stories have changed their religion and form; it is an adventure to trace their journeys. If we become wandering travellers with the stories, we will discover that we find one story in Tibet and will see the same story in Africa; we will discover the same story wrapped in snow at the North Pole, and yet if we wander in the Arabian desert, there it will be, but uncovered and bare…but still we recognise the story. Some stories adapt to their land, taking on the form and language of their adopted home, while others retain their origins wherever they may settle. Some stories follow the creed of universal brotherhood, they see the world as their home and go wherever they get a chance to serve and please. Some settle firmly in different countries and come to be recognised as belonging to that place. They are then only translated to reach other countries.”
Many of Gijubhai’s stories are members of this travelling band. Gijubjai transformed and localised these stories, so that they are steeped in the sounds and colours of Gujarat, and have today become not only Gujarati, but uniquely ‘Gijubhai’s’ stories. They are simply told tales characterised by a mixture of prose and rhyme. The repetition of rhymes makes for lively storytelling which listeners join in. Gijubhai retold delightful tales of ordinary people, and familiar birds and animals. With equal panache he churned out stories of common folk with common trades—tailors, potters, barbers, shopkeepers, but also kings, queens and princesses. The characters reflect basic human traits—greed, envy, fear, desire for one-upmanship. Animal tales reflect a close and symbiotic relationship between animals and people. Many open with “once upon a time”… and end “happily ever after.” A hundred years after they were written these stories still touch a cord in the child, and also the child in each of us.
Stories are older than us, they are smarter than us, they keep going, and they are a part of us even though we do not realise this. But stories need human beings to reproduce, much as we need food… we need things to keep ourselves alive.
Hungarian-born American polymath Thomas Sebeok said “…what we can do, I think, is try and create stories that are interesting enough and important enough that our grandchildren might want to tell those stories to their grandchildren — because that’s the purpose of stories, that’s what they’re for: They make live worth living and, sometimes, they keep us alive.
In my own small way, I try to carry forward the legacy of my grandfather by translating and retelling these timeless tales.
28 February marks National Science Day in India–it is the day in 1928 when Sir C. V. Raman discovered the Raman Effect. For his discovery, Sir C.V. Raman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1930.
The discovery of the Raman Effect itself happened at Calcutta, but Bangalore was also Sir Raman’s ‘karma bhoomi’, in that he worked at the Indian Institute of Science from 1933 till his retirement in 1948, after which he founded the Raman Research Institute in the city, and continued working there till his death in 1970.
So on this Science Day, here is a little information on one of the exciting science education venues coming up in Bangalore. Science Gallery Bengaluru, under construction in Hebbal (not too far from IISc and the Raman Research Institute), ‘will be a dynamic new space for engaging young adults at the interface between science and the arts’. The under-construction centre anticipates a footfall of about 40,000 people a year, with a focus on 15-25 year olds. It is a multi-stakeholder collaboration, including Govt. of Karnataka, Trinity College UK, Indian Institute of Science, etc.
Scheduled to open in 2021, the Science Gallery is already active, having put up several events including ‘Submerge’ a major exhibition on Water.
And keeping with the theme of Science Day 2020 which is “Women in Science”, the Executive Director of the Science Gallery is Dr. Jahnavi Phalkey, a historian of science and technology. The Board is chaired by Dr. Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, and includes Dr. Geetha Narayanan.
Bodes well for Science and Women Scientists!
Let us hope that the Science Gallery will help to infuse young people with the spirit of what Sir CV Raman said: ‘Ask the right questions and nature will open the doors to her secrets.’
Last week we wrote about Uncle Moosa and his single-handed mission to take books and reading to the remotest parts of North East India.
Here is the story of another man with a similar mission, one that he has been pursuing with undiminished passion and fervour for over 70 years! He is Mahendra Meghani. And this is the story of Lokmilap, the bookshop that he started, and which became a symbol of all that he has devoted his life to. And one to which I too have old links.
In the summer holidays when we used to go to Bhavnagar, our ancestral hometown, one of visits most looked forward to, was the one to Lokmilap. For us this was treasure house from which we were allowed to select a few books. More precious, because it was perhaps the only one that stocked English language books, in addition to some of the best literature in Gujarati. We often met Mahendrabhai there, who was also a family friend, and he would show us the new arrivals including the beautifully illustrated children’s books from the Russian People’s Publishing House.
In those days this was as much as we knew about Lokmilap. Over the years as we grew, we learnt more about Mahendra Meghani and his tireless mission to take literature to “the people” in every way possible.
Mahendrabhai’s own lineage in literature goes back to his father, the famed Gujarati litterateur Zaverchand Meghani, who was given the title Lok Shayar or People’s Poet by Mahatma Gandhi. It is said that while Zaverchand took literature from people’s tongues to people’s hearts, Mahendrabhai took literature to every person, home and society.
Born in 1923, Mahendrabhai, graduated from high school in Mumbai, and joined L. D. Arts College in Ahmedabad for further education. It is said that when he was getting ready to move from Mumbai to Ahmedabad, his father advised, “It gets very hot in Ahmedabad, so make sure you cover your head with a topi”. Complying with his father’s suggestion, Mahendrabhai started wearing the khadi cap which became an integral part of his attire, and remained so through the years. After two years in Ahmedabad he returned to Mumbai to join the Elphinstone College, but left that to join Gandhi’s Quit India movement. He did not return to college, but instead helped his father with his journalistic work. After the death of his father in 1948, Mahendrabhai went to the US to study journalism at Columbia. Living in the International Student’s House in New York, he would, every day, buy two newspapers and peruse the many pages. It is here that he also discovered Reader’s Digest. And he found his calling! He decided to return to India and start a similar magazine in Gujarati. And so, on 26 January 1950, India’s first Republic Day, was born Milap, a monthly journal in Gujarati which set high standards of language and literature, and yet garnered a wide and faithful readership.
Tired of the hectic life in Mumbai, Mahendrabhai moved to Bhavnagar in Gujarat where the journal Milap engendered the publishing house as well as the book shop Lokmilap (meeting of people). It is through these that Mahendrabhai lived his passion to take good literature, at affordable prices, to as wide a reading public as possible. The bookshop, as he said, “included books from all publishers, but not all books from all publishers.” Lokmilap’s vision was not simply to sell books; they wanted to open windows to the best in world literature, to give people a perspective about life, and how to live life. They published hundreds of original Gujarati books, but also translated and abridged versions of classics of world literature (many of them translated by Mahendrabhai himself). More critically, the books were very nominally priced, to suit even the shallowest pocket. They introduced “pocket books”, initially to take poetry to the people, but later diversified to include a vast range of literature. Priced then, as low as 50 paise, the books sold in lakhs.
In 1969, the Gandhi Centenary year, he compiled a special collection of 400 books that celebrated Gandhi’s life and message, and a booklet titled Discovering India Book Exhibition. The books were exhibited in many countries across the world with the condition that the sponsoring organisation would buy the set, and donate it to a local library or community centre.
Mahendrabhai himself has travelled far and wide, always clad in his simple khadi attire, sharing his love for language and literature with wide and diverse audiences. In Bhavnagar he was a familiar sight, riding his bicycle no matter what the weather. His tireless quest to share the best with everyone had many facets—at one point hand grinding wheat and baking bread which he distributed, to starting a film club which screened some of the classics of world cinema, and to which he would bring people who had never before been exposed to such experiences.
The man and his mission have inspired and touched millions across generations and nations. Last month, on India’s 70th Republic Day, Lokmilap also marked its 70th anniversary by announcing its closure. Expressing the sentiment that everything that has a start will have an end; what better than the end that is brought about by the ones that made the start? For all of us whohad taken Lokmilap as one of those comforting points of stability and continuity in lives and cities that have changed so much, it is a sense of losing moorings. But secure that the seeds of the institution have been planted deep and strong.
A man whose mission has brought the love of letters to millions, Mahendrabhai, at age 97, carries on with his writing and reading, somewhat frailer in body but indomitable in spirit.
When I saw the name Sathyanaryanan Mundayoor on this year’s Padma Shri list, a recognition for playing a ‘seminal role’ in spreading
education in Arunachal Pradesh, I was delighted. He epitomises for me a true passion for books and reading, and an inspiring story of a lifetime devoted to this mission. I first heard of him and his library mission, over a decade ago, from my old colleague and friend Ambika Aiyadurai. I sent him some of the books that we had developed in CEE, and over the years we corresponded sporadically. I have not yet been able to meet him in person, but truly hope to do so sometime. In the meanwhile I feel that his work needed to be shared. What could be better than a first-hand account from Ambika who has known him and seen his work over the years.
Thank you Ambika for sharing this!
I first heard about Sathyanaryanan Mundayoor, way back in 2006 when I started my research work in Arunachal Pradesh. School teachers, students, engineers, administrators, doctors and local villagers in Lohit district of Arunachal Pradesh suggested I meet him. In Lohit and later Anjaw district, where I started my field research, every one fondly spoke of ‘Uncle Moosa’, a name that people of Arunachal had given him. It was only after two years, in 2008, that I had a chance to meet him at Wakro (Lohit district). My accommodation was in the Circuit House, and he had come there to meet someone. With a pleasant smile, a gentle, fragile-looking man greeted me with a ‘namashkaram’. What struck me was his dress. That evening, in the chill of October, all Uncle Moosa had over him was a sweater and shawl, and a cotton veshti. In fact, I have only seen him in a veshti all these years.
Uncle Moosa invited me to visit Bamboosa library the next day. The days were short, so I decided to visit the library at 3 p.m. A group of children was in the library, sitting on a carpet on the floor, reading books. Few sat on chairs placed along the wall. Soon, another set of students arrived. With an assortment of books neatly arranged on the shelves, this single room is a wealth for local children. Students were free to choose any book, read on their own, or in groups. This library in Wakro is a result of Uncle Moose’s mission to inculcate reading skills and promote a reading culture among children in Arunachal Pradesh. And he has spent the last 30-odd years on this mission to connect rural children of Arunachal Pradesh with books. Starting with the Bamboosa library in Tezu, followed by Apne library in Wakro, and Hutong library in Yatong in Anjaw district, by now 13 libraries have been set up in the state, as part of the youth library network.
Uncle Moosa’s first visit to Arunachal Pradesh was in the year 1979 as part of a Vivekananda Kendra Vidyalaya mission. He took this up after quitting his government job in the income tax department in Mumbai. Till 1996, he worked with VKV, dedicating his entire time to the library movement, and never went back to Mumbai nor to his home state of Kerala. In addition to running libraries, Uncle Moosa would invite scholars and other visitors to give a talk in the library and interact with the students. Uncle mentored senior students to become reader activists and there are several events organized during Gandhi Jayanti, World Environment Day and Independence Day where students affiliated with the library movement would perform plays, skits, reading sessions and poem recitals. Those who have known him for several years tell me that Uncle Moosa would carry books in small trunks and suitcases to remote villages to set up reading camps. Hopping onto state transportation buses, and in places with little road connectivity, he would walk for several kilometers to reach a village.
Not many know about Uncle Moosa’s frugal living. A small single room with a bed and a shelf was his accommodation in Wakro. His day begins at four in the morning by doing yoga and meditation. His favourite breakfast is upma, and he prepares his own food himself every day. Full of energy, and with a kind, ever-smiling face, talking with him is a joy. His dedication to the library movement and helping students with their education has earned him love and respect, both from adults and children. He continues to live in Arunachal Pradesh, and is now based in Roing. Many years have passed, and I have completed my PhD, but every time I go back to Arunachal Pradesh, I look forward to meeting Uncle Moosa!
Uncle Moosa has dedicated his life to promoting education and fostering a culture of reading in the remote areas of the North-Eastern state. May his tribe increase!
This is thanksgiving week in many parts of India. A week of festivals marked with celebration and gratitude for nature’s bounty that feeds and sustains us. With the winter season drawing to a close, it is time to reap the harvest of the long months of labour and prayers. Lohri in north India, Pongal in south India, Makar Sankranti in the west, and Magh Bihu in the northeast of the country celebrate the harvest with joy, festivities, and food.
Interestingly, in many other parts of the world, it is autumn, before the winter sets in, that is the season of harvests. In America Thanksgiving weekend is marked by families joining hands in gratitude over sumptuous meals; in Japan generations of poets and painters have tried to capture the spirit of the annual cycle of seasons in Haikus and brush strokes. Other parts of the world have their traditional ways of marking the cycle of sowing and reaping. Increasingly, as more of the world’s population moves from direct links with the soil to urban life, we seem to revel more in the food and festivities related to these festivals, often forgetting these very elements of nature—sunlight, air, water and soil–that make all life possible.
This week also marks the start of a new calendar year, and the start of the period when the sun begins its northward journey. A good time to give thanks for what has made all this possible, and a reminder to value and cherish every new morning.
This poem by Mary Oliver captures the sentiment beautifully.
Why I Wake Early
Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and the crotchety –
best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light –
good morning, good morning, good morning.
Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.
Mary Oliver was an acclaimed and award-winning American poet whose work reflects a deep communion with the natural world in an age of excesses of modern civilization. She died, almost exactly a year ago, on 17 January 2019, at the age of 83.