The Moon Is Not Going Anywhere

full-moon-moon-bright-sky-47367If there were no failures associated with space forays, what would Hollywood do, considering that so many of its blockbusters are centered around this theme!

We lost contact with Vikram Lander. But we will still be getting information from Chandrayaan, which will be useful to the world’s scientific community. And if not this time, next time around, we are going to make it to the moon and other frontiers.

Dr.Vikram Sarabhai, father of India’s space program and the person for whom the Lander was named, would laud the spirit of ISRO which has dusted itself after the setback and is all gung-ho to carry on. This was the spirit he tried to imbue his institutions with, as testified by a quote from a paper on him:

“He has come. Tell him.”

“I didn’t do it. You tell him.”

“No, you tell. I feel scared.”

“What is it ?’

“The meter is burnt, sir. We passed too much current.”

“Oh, I see. Well, don’t worry. How else would one learn? Next time you will be more careful.”

That, in a nutshell, was Professor Vikram Sarabhai. Meters were scarce those days. In fact, we did not get a new one for almost two months and the work was held up. But the human qualities of this great man were evident even before he took courage in both hands and shaped the destiny of the scientific institution that was to be PRL, and brought it national and international repute. Visionaries there are many and finally nothing succeeds like success; but in the case of Vikrambhai one could see straightaway that he had to succeed; there was just no other alternative!”

The world’s scientific community is with ISRO. India is with ISRO.

It is a universal human quest—to explore the frontiers and expand our knowledge. This is, in the ultimate analysis, beyond boundaries. It is about the human spirit.


Vikram Sarabhai Centenary

header_leftA remarkable man was born a hundred years ago in our country. He dared to dream impossible things and proceeded to make them possible. I would have thought the country would have been abuzz this year, with multitudes of events to remind the younger generation of his achievements in myriad fields from space science, to management, to atomic energy, to textile research, to education. That the institutions he had set up would not just celebrate the moment but also introspect and re-dedicate themselves to his principles.

ISRO is the only one which seems to be doing it at any scale. Chandrayaan went up, and all those associated with ISRO did remember and thank him. The mission’s lander is appropriately called Vikram. They are also launching a year-long calendar of programs for schools; awards for journalists in space science, technology and research; releasing a commemorative coin, a coffee table book, a space education van, etc.

But what is really disappointing for me is that his contribution to management and institution building is not being celebrated. Everyone acknowledges that his greatest achievements were probably in institution building. ISRO, IIM, PRL are just some of the prominent institutions which stand testimony to this in the public eye, but ‘Sarabhai was a prolific institution builder. He set up an institution every year beginning from 1947 till his death in 1971. He left his imprint in fields as diverse as space technology and performing arts.’

That makes it about 2 dozen institutions!!

There are a few old papers on his approach to institution-building. But I would have thought it should be seriously taught in management schools; there should be training programs for all levels of managers based on his thinking; that academics would delve into it and write papers by the dozens; that seminars and workshops would be held. In this year at least! But I haven’t heard of any such.

Indian organizations wither and die (if not physically, in spirit and achievements), within decades of their birth. Is it not important for managers in both the public and private sectors to understand how institutions that Dr.Sarabhai built have been able to retain the spirit and reaching the heights—literally the moon—close to five decades after his passing away? Dr.Sarabhai straddled the worlds of industry, government, academia and research, and used the same approach to all. So his approach to institution building should have messages for every manager.

Well, I owe a lot to his approach to institution building. So I thought to put together something as my tiny tribute. (The following are quotes majorly from two sources, one whose authorship it has not been possible to find. Since this is not an academic paper, I have taken liberty to quote from it.).

On Institutional Culture:

‘Trust was an important element of both personal and organizational relationship’.

‘The operating culture of (his) institutions were such that administration played a supportive role and helped the institutional growth through implementation of research programmes. This is unlike many organizations, especially educational, research, governmental, and public sector organizations, where the tail wags the dog.

He believed that an institution based on caring for people gave assurance to individuals to innovate and to respond to situations creatively.

Sarabhai was opposed to rigid controls and often wrote and spoke against controls which, he believed, “damaged innovative behaviour and consequently the growth of new institutions.”

On Building People to Build Institutions:

‘Sarabhai’s institution building philosophy was centered around development of individuals. For him people were more important than buildings. He created and nurtured various institutions through developing and nurturing young individuals. He gave trust, freedom of work and autonomy and showed care and concern to them in return he received creativity and commitment, which ultimately strengthened the institutional goals’.

On Institutional Leadership:

‘Vikram Sarabhai was very particular in selecting the head of an institution. The chief executive can make or mar the institutional fabric.’

In selecting a head of institution, it was very important to Dr. Sarabhai to see ‘how suitable he is as a human being’.

‘According to Sarabhai, a basic requirement of an institutional leader is the ability to provide the appropriate operating culture which would be created by the attitudes and assumptions of its people rather than by the formal organizational structure’.

On Staffing A New Institution:

‘In selecting researchers for ATIRA, Sarabhai insisted on recruiting fresh candidates with knowledge of scientific methodology and preferred those without previous experience. This was a deliberate move, for he believed that taking away experienced and trained people from universities and research institutions would create a vacuum which would weaken them.’

Respect for Individuals:

He showed tremendous respect to each individual he, met. Parikh (1972, p44) described this “Many times I have seen Dr, Sarabhai patiently listening to people who would go on with long incoherent monologues which seemed to convey nothing. Yet, In the end, Dr. Sarabhai would summarise the monologue, giving it a very constructive interpretation and meaning. I am told that when asked why he suffered fools so lightly, Dr. Sarabhai had replied that in a vast country like India where people come from diverse backgrounds not everyone has had a privileged upbringing. One should, therefore, allow for this in listening to people and try to see behind the words what they are trying to say.”

Summing up the Spirit:

And finally, in his own words: ‘There is no leader and there is no led. A leader, if one chooses to identify one, has to be a cultivator rather than a manufacturer. He has to provide the soil and the overall climate and the environment in which the seed can grow. One wants permissive individuals who do not have a compelling need to reassure themselves that they are leaders through issuing instructions to others; rather they set an example through their own creativity, Love of nature and dedication to what one may call the ‘scientific method.’ These are the leaders we need in the field of education and research’.


Institution building: Ganesh S.R., Joshi P. (1985) Lessons from Dr. Vikram Sarabhai’s leadership. Vikalpa. Vol. 10, No 4.



Gentle Birdman Leaves Us

Many mornings, sitting in our little garden with our cups of tea, as we watch the birds already busy going about their day’s business, we may spot one that we had not seen before. And before it disappears we say, “Bring Lalsinhbhai’s book and let’s find out what this is.” Lalsinhbhai’s handy bird book is always close at hand. With the help of the beautiful life-like illustrations we open to the description, and always learn so much more than the name of the bird. Written in simple conversational Gujarati, Lalsinhbhai’s bird books are over and above the traditional description of birds. They capture nuances of birds that make them truly our Lifelong Companions, as one of his books is titled.

Lalsinhbhai Raol, passionate nature lover, the birdman of Gujarat, and an inspiration to countless nature lovers, passed away recently. For the Matriarchs, who both stepped into the charmed campus of CEE with relatively little prior exposure to the natural world, he was one of the wonderful guides that gently led us to explore and discover the world of birds.

Lalsinhbhai was then working with CEE on a book series called Introduction to Nature. For many generations, Salim Ali’s book had been the Bible for all birdwatchers. Lalsinhbhai’s series, in Gujarati, not only opened up the fascinating world of birds to non-English speaking audiences, but also opened windows to the birds of Gujarat—starting with the most commonly found birds, to birds of wetlands, of grasslands, and of the forest and its environs. Lalsinhbhai not only translated his long years of bird observation into succinct, interesting descriptions, but also coined appropriate Gujarati names for several of these.

His was a quiet, unobtrusive presence on CEE campus, but whenever you met him, he would always have a gentle word of concern and encouragement, and an exciting bird fact to share.IMG_20190801_110849.jpg

I had the privilege of sharing his great knowledge and passion when he kindly agreed to be the author of NatureScope Birds, one of a series of Teachers’ Manuals that I was editor of. This involved not only putting together a compendium of information about Indian birds in a teacher and student-friendly style, and also linking this with relevant and exciting activities that could be easily done. For me this was a greatly enriching and inspiring collaboration. Even today, I often dip into the book for facts, ideas, and activities with the confidence that every word is accurate and vetted by an expert ornithologist.

Meena has her own special memories of learning from Lalsinhbhai. I had the privilege to work with Lalsinhbhai on developing a proposal for a project of Bird Study for the Visually Challenged almost 30 years ago. It was a unique project, in that its purpose was to make ‘bird watching’ possible without the ‘watching’. Recorded bird sounds were of course an important part; but we also proposed providing tactile experiences such as touch-and-feel albums of feathers; collection of birds’ nests; true-size models of birds, birds’ feet, beaks, eggs; and trips to bird areas to experience the environment, sounds, etc. As always, Lalsinhbhai could empathise with the needs, and gave wonderful insights and ideas. The Ministry of Human Resources accepted the proposal and the team carried out a very successful project in Ahmedabad.

We feel fortunate for having known, and learnt from this gentle soul. May his spirit always soar high with the birds that he so loved.

–Mamata and Meena


Hidden Figures, No Longer

This is the week of moon missions—past, present and future. Fifty years since the first man walked on the moon, and very soon, India’s own Chandrayaan-2  will become the first space mission to make a soft landing on the South Pole of the moon. Another ‘first’ worth celebrating is the fact that this moon mission is being led by two women, along with a team that comprised 30 per cent women. While programme director Muthayya Vanitha has nurtured Chandrayaan-2 over the years, the journey will be navigated by mission director Ritu Karidhal. Much to be proud of indeed!

Interestingly, while today women are rightfully making the headlines in science and technology, the scene was very different just 60 years ago. The booIMG_20190718_102016.jpgk titled Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race traces the true story of black female mathematicians who worked as ‘computers’ (then a job description of those who did calculations by hand) at NASA, during the space race. The book describes how the three mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, overcame discrimination and racial segregation, with determination and hard work, to use their brilliant mathematical minds to contribute substantially to some of America’s greatest achievements in space.

The book traces the period from the 1930s through the 1960s in America, when women were still expected to be at home, and faced social, racial and gender discrimination.  Through sheer tenacity, force of will, courage and intellect, these women scientists ensured their stamp on history.

Written by Margot Lee Shetterly, herself an African-American, whose father was a research scientist at NASA during that period. His accounts of the work, and of his co-workers inspired her to research and tell the story of some of these women whose contributions were hardly known, let alone recognised. Shetterly is the founder of The Human Computer Project which is an endeavour to recover the names and accomplishments of all of the women who worked as computers, mathematicians, scientists and engineers at the NACA and NASA from the 1930s through the 1980s.

Just this year, the street outside NASA’s headquarters has been named “Hidden Figures Way”, in belated honour of these three African-American women whose work helped pave the way for future generations at the space agency.

The book Hidden Figures has also been adapted as a film by the same name, which captures the spirit of the book, although not the details of the work environment at the NASA Langley Research Centre, and the lives and experiences of these women.

In the meanwhile we are proud to honour all the women who are, rightfully, no longer simply hidden figures. What all the women (hidden and otherwise) do have in common is the passion that drove them to achieve their dreams.

As Ritu Karidhal has said “Since my childhood, I realised that science was not just a subject for me, it was a passion. When you are passionate about something, it just keeps you going, it doesn’t matter who is in front of you or what obstacles comes.”

Yes, even the sky is not the limit for those who not just dream, and but also dare!



Calico Dome: My Introduction to the Genius of Buckminster Fuller

Born July 12, 1895. A tribute on his birth anniversary.

When I moved to Ahmedabad in 1984, one of the ‘must see’ places was the Calico Dome. So dutifully, I went there as part of the Old City sightseeing and shopping experience.

It took me quite a while to figure out what the big deal about the dome was.

….That the dome was more than a showroom for the Calico Mills. That it was more than a venue for a fashion show that Parveen Babi had once taken part in as a student. That it was a historic structure, the first space frame structure in India (today so common in airports, for instance). That it was a design inspired by Buckminster Fuller‘s geodesic domes, and designed by Gautam and Gira Sarabhai and inaugurated in 1962.

Well, so what? Nothing, except the geodesic dome is ‘recognized as the strongest, lightest, and most efficient means of enclosing space yet devised by man’.

A geodesic dome is composed of a complex network of triangles. These structures are extremely strong. They can withstand high winds, earthquakes and heavy snow, making them ideal structures for any type of environment. They are also efficient and sustainable. Due to their spherical nature, dome homes provide a large amount of living space, while taking up very little surface area. And due to their lower area-to-volume ratio, they require less energy for heating and cooling.


The geodesic dome embodies all that Buckminster Fuller stood for— ‘Less is More’, and a constant effort towards sustainability through design. Dedicating his life ‘to making the world work for all of humanity’, his designs have continued to influence generations of designers, architects, scientists and artists working to create a more sustainable planet. He was the first person to use the term ‘Spaceship Earth’.

He was a practical philosopher who contributed to many facets of life and has been called a ‘comprehensive, anticipatory design scientist.’. Just a few examples of how his work has contributed beyond architecture and design: Molecular biologists have now established that his mathematical formula for the design of the geodesic dome applies perfectly to the structure of the protein shell that surrounds every known virus. Several leading nuclear physicists are convinced that the same formula explains the fundamental structure of the atomic nucleus, and is thus the basis of all matter.

Other paradigm shifting designs include the Dymaxion houses, cars and map.

He visited India several time, giving the Nehru Memorial lecture in 1969. During one of his visits to India, he helped build a geodesic structure on the campus of Bengal Engineering College (now, Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology, Shibpur, West Bengal)

Happy that geodesic domes were something I encountered, including on drives to the airport at Ahmedabad for 20 years, at one of the garden-chowks!















The mills and shops closed in the 1990s and the dome went into disrepair. In the 2001 earthquake, the centre of the dome collapsed and heavy rains damaged the interior of the underground shop. Later the dome collapsed completely.[3] [4]

On liquidation of Calico Mills, Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) bought it as a heritage property in 2006.



Putting their novelty aside, dome homes have the potential to solve many of our most pressing environmental and societal challenges. R. Buckminster Fuller’s ultimate goal in designing geodesic dome structures was to solve the housing challenges of an ever-increasing population. He set out to design human shelters that were strong, sustainable and affordable.

The geodesic design is a perfect marriage of the sturdy arch and the rigid triangle, which enables dome homes to be extremely strong. They can withstand high winds, earthquakes and heavy snow, making them ideal structures for any type of environment, especially in an increasingly volatile climate.

Along with their strength, dome homes are incredibly efficient and sustainable. Due to their spherical nature, dome homes provide a large amount of living space, while taking up very little surface area. And due to their lower area-to-volume ratio, they require less energy for heating and cooling.

Additionally, dome homes require far less building materials than traditional homes do, and can be made out of a variety of eco-friendly building materials. They’re also typically less expensive to make than traditional homes, and the fact that they are much smaller than traditional single-family homes also helps keep the costs down. These factors make them ideal for people looking to build an environmentally friendly home on a budget.

While the residential application of the geodesic dome is most heralded in American culture, the original Fuller domes—as well as many since—were actually constructed for commercial use.

In fact, the first dome that was constructed after Fuller filed his patent for the structure was part of the Ford Motor Company headquarters in Dearborn, Mich., in 1953. The Ford Rotunda was originally an open-air pavilion, which the company then retrofitted with a roof to create an indoor space. However, the building could not sustain a traditional roof, which would weigh more than 160 tons. Ford turned to Fuller to design a geodesic dome that weighed just 8 tons. Although the Rotunda was destroyed in a fire in 1962, it was proof of concept for many commercial buildings to come.

After the success of the dome used for the Rotunda, other clients came calling, including the U.S. military. The government looked to the Fuller domes for two reasons. First was for how impervious they were to wind and weather, as the military needed shelter for their radar equipment that could withstand the harsh conditions at the Arctic Circle. The dome shape proved to be ideal to withstand high winds with minimal maintenance.

And second, the U.S. government explored using geodesic domes for their light weight and ease of construction. The domes were used to create “speedy but strong” housing for soldiers overseas in the 1950s, according to the Buckminster Fuller Institute. In fact, the Marines went as far as creating a 30-foot dome that could be delivered by helicopter and assembled in just over two hours—and that could withstand a day-long barrage of 120-mile-per-hour wind gusts.


Since the early days of experimentation with geodesic structures, many have been built, including Epcot Center’s Spaceship Earth (although it’s technically a geodesic sphere, not a dome), the Tacoma Dome in Tacoma, Wash., the original hangar used to house the Spruce Goose, and the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station (from 1975–2003). As architecturally impressive as they are utilitarian, these domes allow their proprietors to do more with less.

This do-more-with-less mentality has also led optimistic individuals to use the geodesic dome shape to solve urban problems such as creating transitional housing in Silicon Valley. A recent proposal by the entrepreneur Greg Gopman aims to provide a small village of dome homes available to rent for just $250 per month.

After all, what the geodesic dome—and its potential—shows us is the impact that architects and builders can have when they truly think outside the box.


  1. Buckminster Fuller was a renowned 20th century inventor and visionary born in Milton, Massachusetts on July 12, 1895. Dedicating his life to making the world work for all of humanity, Fuller operated as a practical philosopher who demonstrated his ideas as inventions that he called “artifacts.” Fuller did not limit himself to one field but worked as a ‘comprehensive anticipatory design scientist’ to solve global problems surrounding housing, shelter, transportation, education, energy, ecological destruction, and poverty. Throughout the course of his life Fuller held 28 patents, authored 28 books, received 47 honorary degrees. And while his most well know artifact, the geodesic dome, has been produced over 300,000 times worldwide, Fuller’s true impact on the world today can be found in his continued influence upon generations of designers, architects, scientists and artists working to create a more sustainable planet.


The Dymaxion Map, 1943

Not limiting himself to any one discipline, Fuller took on cartography with this invention – credited as the first two-dimensional map of the entire Earth’s surface that shows it without distortions.

To create the piece, Fuller projected the world map onto the surface of a three-dimensional icosahedron, which was then unfolded and laid flat.

he Dymaxion map or Fuller map is a projection of a world map onto the surface of an icosahedron, which can be unfolded and flattened to two dimensions. The flat map is heavily interrupted in order to preserve shapes and sizes.

The projection was invented by Buckminster Fuller. The March 1, 1943 edition of Life magazine included a photographic essay titled “Life Presents R. Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion World”. The article included several examples of its use together with a pull-out section that could be assembled as a “three-dimensional approximation of a globe or laid out as a flat map, with which the world may be fitted together and rearranged to illuminate special aspects of its geography.”[1] Fuller applied for a patent in the United States in February 1944, the patent application showing a projection onto a cuboctahedron. The patent was issued in January 1946.[2]


geodesic dome, which has been recognized as the strongest, lightest, and most efficient means of enclosing space yet devised by man.


Molecular biologists have now established that his mathematical formula for the design of the geodesic dome applies perfectly to the structure of the protein shell that surrounds every known virus. Several leading nuclear physicists are convinced that the same Fuller formula explains the fundamental structure of the atomic nucleus, and is thus the basis of all matter.


Gira and Gautam Sarabhai and his team designed the Calico Dome, inspired by Buckminster Fuller‘s geodesic domes. The dome housed the showroom and shop for Calico Mills, which opened in 1962. The first fashion show in Ahmedabad was organised in the Dome.[2] Indian actress Parveen Babi took part in shows in the 1970s when she was a student.[2]

Inaugurated in 1962, the 12-meter wide structure

It was the first space frame structure in India

The mills and shops closed in the 1990s and the dome went into disrepair. In the 2001 earthquake, the centre of the dome collapsed and heavy rains damaged the interior of the underground shop. Later the dome collapsed completely.[3] [4]

On liquidation of Calico Mills, Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) bought it as a heritage property in 2006.


The Danseuse and the Turtles

May 23 is World Turtle Day. And this is my turtle tale!IMG_20190523_095146.jpg

It was an unlikely subject–not one that I would have volunteered for! Among the diverse subjects that I had an opportunity to learn about when I was developing a series called NatureScope India, Turtles happened to be the subject of the next issue. That was going to take some research on my part! As it turned out, I found out a lot about turtles, but also had the wonderful opportunity to meet someone extraordinary–Dr Priyambada Mohanty-Hejmadi.

Dr Priyambada was a member of our Governing Council in the early 2000s. Sarees being a greater passion for me than turtles, I always admired this elegant lady who used to wear the most beautiful handwoven sarees from Odisha. Then I found out that she was one of India’s foremost authorities on turtles! And that she was also one of the earliest and well-known proponents of the Odissi dance form. What an awesome combination!

Over 60 years ago, Priyambada was already learning Odissi, when as a student she represented Odisha at an Inter-University Youth Festival in New Delhi and gave a performance of Odissi. This was perhaps the first time that the dance was performed outside of Odisha. The audience was rapturous, and a review by a Hungarian dance critic, put Odissi on the pan-Indian map. Today this dance form has found a niche in the international arena.

Priyambada continued to dance, but also to pursue her studies in Zoology. She moved to the United States on a fellowship to pursue higher studies in Zoology. Though her dance workshops and learning continued, her academic work took precedence. Her research on marine turtles has been globally recognised.

Of the seven species of turtles in the world, five species are known to occur in Indian coastal waters—the Olive Ridley (the smallest), Hawksbill, Loggerhead, Green, and Leatherback (the largest). Sea turtle females come ashore to lay their eggs. Orissa is the only state in India which has three large rookeries or turtle nesting sites of which Gahirmatha is the world’s largest known sea turtle rookery.

Priyambadaji has been at the forefront of the efforts to protect the Olive Ridley Turtle. Not so long ago these turtles were endangered due to the disturbances in the areas where they nested.  With the active campaigns and efforts of a number of groups, and with inspiration and support from people like Priyambadaji, there is now a resurgence of nesting turtles. This February-March it is estimated that nearly four lakh turtles came ashore for Arribada—a Spanish term for mass nesting, to lay their eggs on beach at Gahirmatha that was declared a marine sanctuary in 1997 by the Odisha government.

Advocating policy changes, supporting local NGOs to create awareness, and guiding plans for protection, while also pursuing academic research and writing, Dr Priyambada has been an inspiring supporter of the Turtles.

Dr Priyambada’s work in science earned her a Padma Shri. Her academic excellence saw her as the Vice Chancellor of Sambalpur University. Her passion for, and life-long immersion in dance has led her to write a number of books and articles on Odissi and related subjects.

I feel honoured to have had the opportunity to have interacted with this inspiring lady, who so graciously took the time to give her comments and guidance on the draft of the NatureScope book on Turtles. Priyambadaji truly demonstrates an interweaving of Science and Art, as beautiful as the sarees she wears!




A crossword clue led me to this by chance. The clue was ‘word was first coined in the book If I Ran a Zoo by Dr Seuss’. The answer was Nerd! This immediately caught If-i-ran-the-zoo-cover (1).jpgmy attention because Dr Seuss is one of my all-time favourite children’s writers. I adored his books when I was young and tried to pass on the love to my children by reading out his quirky verses night after night, twisting our tongues over his wonderful, wacky invented words.

But it is only now I discovered that the word Nerd is thought to have been coined by none other than Dr Seuss in his book If I Ran a Zoo published in 1950! The book is about a boy named Gerald McGrew who, when visiting a zoo, finds that the exotic animals are “not good enough”. He says that if he ran the zoo, he would let all of the current animals free and find new, more bizarre and exotic ones. Among these fantastical animals is a critter called a Nerd! To quote directly: “And then, just to show them, I’ll sail to Ka-Troo/And bring back an It-Kutch, a Preep and a Proo/ A Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker too!”

One year later, in 1951, Newsweek magazine included the word in an article using it to define someone who is a “drip” or a “square”. Today the word ‘nerdy’ is used to describe someone who is not attractive, and awkward or socially embarrassing; or someone who is extremely interested in one subject, especially computers, and knowing a lot of facts.

A ‘word-nerd’ would tell you that when we use Twitter, and Tweet away today, it would be worth remembering that the word was coined by Geoffrey Chaucer, known as the father of English poetry, who died 620 years ago, to describe the continuous chirping of a bird.

And that, well before a search engine was named Yahoo, the Yahoos appeared as legendary creatures in Gulliver’s Travels published in 1726.

Surprisingly a number of words that we tend to believe are so ‘trending’ and ‘21st century’ were coined well over a hundred years ago. These can be attributed to 19th century authors, many of whom were creative wordsmiths–inventing, importing, adapting, and generally messing about with language!

The revered Bard, Shakespeare was one of the first to print words like Obscene and Eventful, as well as much-used phrases such as Bated Breath and Love is Blind.

And for those of us who plodded through Charles Dickens it is he, himself who coined the word Boredom! Writing in the early 1800s Dickens also coined very not-boring words like Abuzz, Flummox, and Devil-May-Care!

And to think that bureaucratic red tape is an affliction of modern times, Wait! The word Red Tape comes from the English practice of using red or pink tape to tie official documents and,  as early as 1851 Dickens coined the apt term ‘red tape’ as slang for “the collection or sequence of forms and procedures required to gain bureaucratic approval for something, especially when oppressively complex and time-consuming.” Thus according to the OED, a Red Tape-worm’ is “a person who adheres excessively to official rules and formalities.” Sounds like a breed we all know too well!?

For those of us who describe our calling as ‘Freelance’ writers, we may be interested to learn that in 1820 author Sir Walter Scott used the term free-lance to describe a mercenary soldier, one whose lance (a long spear) was not exclusively in the service of a single master, but was hired out along with its owner to those to needed, and paid for, the service.

Today the lance has replaced by the pen (or its electronic version) but the nature of service remains the same!



Black Magic

I can never forget mum meticulously grinding whole spices using a mortar and pestle and cooking Meen Kuzhambu (fish curry) in rustic looking manchattis (earthenware). Mum loved cooking fish in clay since it retained nutrition and made the dish flavoursome.

As a tribute to the good old days, one of the first things I did as a married woman and novice cook-in-charge of an entire kitchen for the first time, was to purchase a manchatti. I resolved to carry and pass on mum’s traditional ways. This was my favourite piece of cookware until I was introduced to Longpi.

I first read about Longpi in a blog post. What drew my eyes to the article were beautiful pictures of black earthenware with cane trimming. I was intrigued! I quickly dialled the numbers mentioned in the post and got in touch with Ms. Priscilla Presley. As luck would have it, she was in Bangalore at the time and had an exhibition-stall at the famed Chitrakala Parishath. The very next day, I met Priscilla, who enthusiastically introduced me to the history of Longpi stone pottery.

IMG_20190316_165954__01Traditionally called, “Loree Hamlei”, this pottery was historically used exclusively by the royal and noble families of Manipur. The original name is derived from the village of Longpi in Manipur where the Tangkhul Naga tribe specialise in creating this pottery.

The materials used are called weather rock and serpentinite found in abundance along the river banks of Longpi. The two rocks are crushed together and mixed in the ratio of 5:3, using very little water, and are then kneaded and shaped by artisans with bare hands and placed in moulds. This makes it one of the rarest forms of pottery as it does not use the potter’s wheel. Once it is dried and hardened, the mould is placed in a kiln and fired for about 5 to 7 hours till the temperature reaches 9000 C. It is then removed whilst still hot and rubbed with a local leaf known as Machee (Pasania Pachiphylla).

These vessels get better with age and can easily go from cookware to serveware due to their elegant and simple designs. They can also be popped into the oven and microwave provided they do not have the cane accents. Additionally, they can be easily cleaned using a mild soap solution.

Today as my cooking improves (slowly), I beam joyfully whenever guests ask me about the origin of the black beauties laid out before them.

To learn more about Longpi pottery you can contact Priscilla at 9902370318.


PS: Intrigued when I saw her collection of this pottery, I requested my friend Sudha to do a piece. Meena.

Ross: Malaria Detective

On the occasion Malaria Day (April 25), marked across the world to focus on efforts to rid humanity of this scourge, here is a short sketch of the life of Sir Ronald Ross, who made a life- mission of cracking the puzzle of the spread of malaria.

From: ‘Beyond the Call of Duty’. V. Raghunathan, Veena Prasad. Harper Collins.

Ronald Ross was born in 1857 – the year of Indian Mutiny — in Almora, to Campbell Ross an army officer. When ten, he was sent home to England for his schooling. Ronald was an average student, interested more in composing music and writing poems and plays than in academics. But his father would have none of it and forced Ronald into taking up medical studies, threatening to stop his money if he did not!

Young Ronald respected and trusted his father enough to give up his own ambitions and in 1875 ended up at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, in Smithfield, London to study medicine. This was the oldest hospital in all Europe, established in 1123, and then re-founded by King Henry VII in 1546. The hospital occupies its original grounds even today.

Completing his medical studies, Ronald Ross landed up at Bombay on 23rd October, 1880 to join the Indian Medical Service in the army the following year.

Ronald, thanks to his mediocre performance in the LSA examination, was at first relegated to the Madras Services, considered the least attractive of the three presidencies – Bengal, Bombay and Madras. Then he was posted as acting Medical In-Charge to the 17th Madras Infantry for six months at Vizianagaram.  Later Ronald would reminisce about his life in Vizianagaram as being “better than the home life of a professional man in England”.

He soon was sent to the Presidency General Hospital in Calcutta where his early work on mosquitoes took shape. Visitors to Kolkata can still find the beautiful red brick Hospital within a stone’s throw of the Victoria Memorial. Today, it houses the Post Graduate Medical Education and Research Centre. The hospital, built in 1707, was probably the first hospital ever built in Kolkata, and was initially meant only for the British army. It was probably only after 1770 that the hospital was thrown open to the non-Europeans.

Malaria: The Mother of All Killers

In ancient times, it was assumed that malaria spread through bad air; hence the name mal-aria – Italian for bad air. Perhaps malaria and humanity evolved around the same time, somewhere in Africa (fossils of mosquitoes as old as 30 million years old have been found). It probably came to be recognized as a disease as early as 4000 B.C.

Malaria has killed millions over the centuries. Fortuitously, at the turn of the sixteenth century, Peruvian Indians found a cure f in the bitter bark of the Cinchona tree. By mid-seventeenth century the bark reached England, where quinine – the toxic alkaloid extracted from the bark – was used for the benefit of victims suffering from “agues”.

Quinine notwithstanding, as late as the turn of nineteenth century, the British Army in India which at the time had a strength of about 180,000 men, some 75,000 were found to be suffering from malaria.  In 1897 alone, an estimated 5 million Indians would succumb to malaria.  In 1935, about 1 million Indians died of malaria.

Ronald’s Medical Career in India Unfolds

Following his transfer to the Presidency Hospital, Ronald spent the next seven years in Calcutta, though from here was constantly being shunted to various other places including Calcutta, Bangalore, Burma and the Andaman Islands. His experience in Madras and Calcutta presidencies undoubtedly brought him close to the strange battlefields in which thousands of soldiers suffered at the hands of an enemy called malaria. Ronald an inquisitive and dogged mind which he would bring to bear on solving the mysteries of malaria.

Some kind of association of mosquitoes with certain diseases was not entirely unknown. For instance, only five years before, around 1878, one Patrick Manson had discovered that mosquitoes could be hosting the parasites responsible for filaria. Around 1880, another scientist, Charles Lavarean, had shown that the malaria parasite must in all probability lie outside the human body.

Since both mosquitoes and malaria are abundant where bad air prevailed, mosquito was beginning to emerge as a seriously shortlisted suspect in relation to malaria, and if, as Lavarean had shown, malaria probably had an external carrier, the mosquito was the the prime suspect– and the mosquito-malaria hypothesis was born.

In 1883 Ronald Ross built a small residence at Mahanad village on the Bandel-Burdwan line, and housed a little laboratory there. He would frequent this house every now and then journeying from Calcutta on mosquito-collecting forays to Mahanad and nearby villages, rich in mosquitoes, and peer into the innards of the pests for hours in his makeshift lab, trying to make the link with malaria in some way.

His work was interrupted when he was transferred to Bangalore as Acting Garrison Surgeon.  Here he was attached to the well-known St. John’s Hospital. For most, the transfer would have been excuse enough to let the study he had commenced in Calcutta to be disrupted. But not for Ronald Ross, who seems to have found a mission in life – to solve the puzzle that mal air, mosquito and malaria together seemed to present.

In Bangalore, Ronald, still only in his twenties, found his living quarters quite acceptable, though he could hardly relax here, what with the buzz of mosquitoes forever assaulting the eardrums. He noticed too that his own quarters seemed to be a more attractive destination of for these mosquitoes than the adjoining ones. The specific beacon to which the mosquitoes were drawn seemed to be an old drum with some stagnant water, near one of the windows. A closer inspection into the contents of the barrel revealed a mass of tiny grubs writhing in the water.

A very basic demonstration of cause-effect relationship between stagnant water and mosquitoes seems to have revealed itself to Ronald.

Ronald would take the lead from here and work on and on to study the malaria parasite – the grubs – all the way through their life cycle. Such was his diligence and sincerity of purpose that he spent his own money and earned leave to go collecting mosquitoes for his studies, because research into Malaria was not part of his official responsibility!

Commemorative Plaque at Presidency General Hospital, Calcutta

His laborious exertions through 1880s and 90s, would ultimately prove the precise mosquito-malaria hypothesis, resulting in his winning the Nobel prize in 1911. Ross became Kolkata’s first Nobel Laureate (also the United Kingdom’s first, and the first laureate to be born outside of Europe).

With his growing fame and influence, it was only a matter of time before his admirers set up a prestigious Institution in his honour. Ross Institute and Hospital of Tropical Diseases and Hygiene was set up in London and Ronald Ross appointed its President for life. He also remained the President of the Society of Tropical Medicine.


In fact his fame had spread far and wide. There were few countries with scientific culture where Ronald had not been honoured for his many contributions.  His was an extraordinary story of the triumph of perspiration over inspiration.










The Beauty of Ordinary Things

lockWhy should a lock be shaped like a lady? Perfect to every last detail—the braid at the back, the holes in the ears and nose for ornaments, the necklace, the drape of the dress. Every feature sharp and defined.

Did someone commission the craftsman, saying ‘I want a very unusual lock. Shaped like a lady.’ Or did the craftsman himself decide to create something original, a break from his routine, a need to speak to his buyers and to the future about his skills, his imagination? And if he did, did he show it off to lots of people? Did the owner show it off, or since it was a lock, was it hidden away somewhere, fastened on a secret cabinet or door? What drove the artist to take so much trouble and pour in so much of his energy and love into this?




chuna spreader

Even more mundane, a chuna-spreader (used by paanwallahs to spread lime on betel leaves). Was it a particularly quirky shopkeeper who commissioned this? Or a nawab or zamindaar addicted to paan, who wanted to add a touch of beauty to the ritual of making his beedas? Or was it just the artist indulging himself?


The two preceding objects were probably custom-made or made in small numbers. The first is about 200 years old, and the second may be from the turn of the last century.





But this whistle, available at Rs. 20 in many melas today, is contemporary. A potter’s piece, this is shaped like a bird. But even more fascinating, it sings like a bird! Fill it to the halfway mark with water and blow into it, an unsuspecting guest will think that a melodious bird co-habits the house with you. Who dreamt this up?


I just picked three random objects from my house. The beauty and aesthetic of Indian crafts! But sadly, much of what is produced today in the name of craft displays neither the aesthetic nor the pride of craftsmanship. How is lost pride brought back?