On 15 December 2022 an estimated 100,000 nurses went on strike across hospitals in the UK, marking the first-ever nationwide walkout in the history of the nursing union in the country. This is probably the culmination of a year that has seen a great deal of labour unrest across Britain which has manifested in a series of strikes. From British Rail workers, to postal workers, bus drivers and baggage handlers at airports, and NHS nurses, several essential services have been disrupted and daily activities affected by these.

Labour unions have had a long history in Britain. It is interesting that one of the earliest examples of labour militancy, was in 1888, and was sparked off by young girls who worked in appalling conditions in a match factory. The Match Girls’ Strike as it came to be known was a key moment in British history and a milestone in the labour movement.

This historic development dates back to the late-nineteenth century in London’s East End, an area inhabited by the very poor, with unsanitary living conditions and rife with disease and malnourishment. This area also provided cheap labour for the nearby factories. Among these was the Byrant and May Match Company. The company employed young girls (starting as early as age 13) who worked, standing on their feet, for 14 hours a day, for very meagre wages from which they had to also feed, clothe and house themselves. Their earnings were further cut by fines and deductions for small mistakes such as leaving a match on the work bench. The girls who were forced to work as they came from large and poor families, had hardly anything left to take home. The girls also suffered abuse at the hands of the foremen. Over and above the economic exploitation, was the hazardous work environment.  

The production of match sticks involved dipping the sticks, made from poplar or pine wood, into a solution made up of many ingredients including phosphorus, antimony sulphide and potassium chlorate. Within this mixture, it was the white phosphorus that was extremely hazardous for bones and lungs. Inhaling it would cause toothaches, and in the long run, a condition called “phossy jaw” an extremely painful type of bone cancer leading to horrendous disfiguration of the face.

Matchgirls strike work!

The Company employed around 1400 such women and made huge profits, even as they managed to circumvent some of the basic labour rules of the time. It was fully aware of the impact of phossy jaw but if anyone complained, they simply instructed them to have the tooth extracted. While discontent simmered within the workers, there was little that the girls could do to change the situation; but the glowing embers were getting hotter; until a spark ignited the matches.

Henry Burrows a social activist and Theosophist, and a close friend of Annie Besant, had heard rumours about the work conditions in the match factory. He first made contact with some of the girls who worked in the factory, and Annie Besant met many of them and heard from them about their appalling work conditions. This prompted her to write an article about this titled White Slavery in London. The article was published on 23 June 1888 in a weekly magazine called The Link which was published by Annie Besant.  

The powerful matchstick industry had never been challenged like this before, it was outraged, and promptly denied everything. Bryant and May threatened to sue Annie Besant for libel and demanded that their employees sign a statement claiming that  the article was untrue. They refused. The company retaliated by sacking one of the workers who they accused of being ring leader. This was the final straw for the Match girls. And so it was that on 5th July 1888, 200 girls and women downed their tools walked out. They marched to the office of The Link and their representatives met Annie Besant. Mrs Besant did not agree with the strike action in principle but she agreed to help them. Her leadership helped to give the girls direction and organization. The ripples spread quickly, and soon about 1,400 workers had walked out in sympathy. 50 girls visited Parliament, to describe their grievances to MPs “in their own words”.

Besant and Burrows proved crucial in organising the campaign which led the women through the streets whilst setting out their demands for an increase in pay and better working conditions. Such a display of defiance against a powerful industrial lobby was met with great public sympathy, and donations for the cause started pouring in. The empathy demonstrated for the plight of working women was also a sign of changing times.

The factory management saw that the bad publicity could harm their interests and they had no choice but to offer improvements in wages and working conditions. This agreement represented a resounding success for the Match girls, who returned to work the next day. Although it would not be until 1908 that the House of Commons finally passed an act prohibiting the use of the deadly white phosphorous in matches.

An important outcome of the Match girls’ strike was the creation of a union for the women to join; this was extremely rare as female workers did not tend to be unionised even into the next century. The Union of Women Matchmakers, which lasted until 1903, was extremely significant, considering that even as late as 1914, less than 10 per cent of female workers were unionised. It also meant that the organisation of the workers did not just disappear after the strike, as had been the case previously.

The Match girls’ success gave the working class a new awareness of their power, and unions sprang up in industries where unskilled workers had previously remained unorganized. As The Link wrote on 4 August 1888 the strike “put new heart into all who are struggling for liberty and justice”. The next year saw the Great Dock Strike, where many of the dock workers were male members of the families of the Match girls. Ultimately, these two strikes led to the formation and growth of the labour movement and Labour Party itself. 


Kindness Day

Yes indeed, there is a World Day for Kindness! It is marked on 13 November, and the idea is to promote kindness. Initiated in 1998 by a group of NGOs, it ‘aims to promote kindness throughout the world and presents us with the opportunity to reflect upon one of the most important and unifying human principles. It is a day devoted to the positive potential of both large and small acts of kindness, trying to promote and diffuse this crucial quality that brings people of every kind together.’ 

Kindness Day
Kindness Day

Kindness is defined as ‘the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate’. Kindness is obviously not to be confined to one day. But this Day is designated to prompt us to think consciously about kindness, and to make resolutions to help us practice kindness every day

It sounds simplistic. Why on earth should anyone be reminded to be kind? But when we look around us, we find there is indeed need to do so. Why look ‘around us’? We will find the same thing when we look into ourselves. Did we say a smiling thank you to someone who was nice to us? When was the last time we did anything for anyone? Do we show basic courtesies in queues, on the roads, in public places?

In a world where people are growing increasingly disconnected, and it’s all about ME, ME, ME, it definitely seems that these behaviours we used to take for granted are disappearing. Never was the need for an initiative like Kindness Day greater.

A measurable proxy for kindness is an attribute called ‘Social Mindfulness’. This refers to being thoughtful of others and considering their needs before making decisions. Social mindfulness is related personality traits of honesty, humility, empathy, agreeableness and pro-social value orientation.

There have been international studies to understand social mindfulness and associated behaviours. One of the best known studies in recent times is the one by Neils Doesum and his associates, who carried out research across 31 countries to understand differences in social mindfulness among the countries. They studied most common, everyday acts of cooperation which require very little effort– for example, stepping to a side to let someone pass on a sidewalk.

Alas, India came up near the bottom of the pack! Japanese scored the highest—they made socially mindful decisions– decisions which kept the well-being of others in mind–72% of the time. Austrians and Mexicans were also towards the top of the list. People in Indonesia were at the bottom, making such co-operative, unselfish decisions only 46% of the time. But India at 50% was not much better.

So obviously, we Indians need to be more aware of this trait, and if at all there is an occasion to be marked with earnestness, it is World Kindness Day.

And remember, it is not about some earth-shaking decisions or major actions. It is about our everyday interactions with people around us—can we make their lives more better, less difficult, more pleasant?  The simplest way to start being more kind and socially mindful would probably be with the old adage ‘Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.’

Specific steps would include:

  • Being conscious of the needs, feelings and thoughts of others.
  • Taking these into consideration before making decisions.
  • Not restricting choices available to other people by being selfish.
  • Being grateful for the kindness of others, and expressing that gratitude.
  • Taking a moment to help someone in need, or to make someone’s life easier.
  • Making it a habit to do random acts of kindness, however small.
  • Resolving to bring a smile to someone’s face, everyday.

Let’s take the occasion of World Kindness Day 2022 to start the personal journey to a more kind, caring and socially mindful world.

Go on, make your resolutions today.


Elaben Bhatt: Simply Inspiring, Inspiringly Simple

Last week we lost Elaben Bhatt, Gandhian, founder of Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), co-founder of Women’s World Banking, Chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith, Trustee of Gandhi Ashram;  winner of national and international awards including the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the Right Livelihood award and the Padma Bhushan.

Ela Bhatt

As people who worked in the development sector in Ahmedabad, we have of course seen her, heard her and admired her. Her simplicity, her straight-forwardness and compete dedication to the cause of the economic empowerment of unorganized women, lifted our eyes and minds to a higher plane, and showed us the possibility of the difference one soft-voiced person could make.

Much has been written about her in the last few days, and maybe there is nothing startlingly new to add. But we still need to refresh our memories of this stalwart and pay our homage.

So here are some excerpts from a book called ‘Don’t Sprint the Marathon’* which can give us some insights on the early influences which shaped her. Elaben spoke to the author and the write-up is based on these conversations.

‘Ela never topped her school or the college. She might have been in the top 10 percentile, but was never unduly pushed into driving herself very hard. Her father would typically buy a variety of books during the summer vacations and expect her to read them to improve her language skills, which she largely did. Her overall value system was shaped not only by her highly principled father, but the entire nationalistic climate of the time. She was growing up in an India which was all set to break the shackles of British rule. Gandhi was a household name, his teachings the religion of the day, and his life and example to be emulated.

Ela, even as a child, seems to have had a highly developed sense of fairness as well as being highly sensitive to any form of exploitation of the under-privileged.

Her mother’s deep involvement in the women’s movement seems to have raised her hackles against the exploitation of women, who she saw were contributing more than their fair share to the economy of the country. But just because they weren’t paid for their ‘service’ and they were not organized in any manner, they seemed to be easy prey for all sorts of exploitation at the hands of the entire organized system. For example, even as a youngster, Ela was sensitive to the fact that while women did most of the agricultural work in the villages, apart from running the households, they did not qualify for any loans from the banking system.

It is awareness of inequities such as these which probably came through her parent’s work that shaped Ela’s perspective and future. Given her nature, she had to stand up for the underdog.’

Nothing can capture her humility and sensitivity like this para in the introduction to her book ‘We Are Poor, But So Many’: ‘In writing about the lives of poor self-employed women, I have been presumptuous. I have written about women who are unlikely to read what I have written about them. Moreover, my perception is unavoidably limited by the economic and social environment to which I belong. So in all honesty, I cannot claim to speak for the women I write about, I can only speak for myself.’ And this from the person who spent her entire working life working with these very women and among them!

May her soul rest in peace, and may she continue to inspire.


*V. Raghunathan. Don’t’ Sprint the Marathon. Harper Collins.

Bridge-building Women

The recent tragedy of the collapse of the suspension bridge in Morbi in Gujarat has brought into focus a lot of information on bridges and news reports are filled with engineering terms related to bridges.   

While the blame game is on about who was at fault—engineers, contractors, civic authorities, or just the uncontrollable rush of holiday makers, it is perhaps a good week to go back and understand a little about early bridges and bridge builders. And to discover that one of the first patents for a chain-suspended bridge in England was filed in 1811 by a woman! This was Sarah Guppy an engineer, inventor, campaigner, designer, reformer, writer, environmentalist and business woman, in a period when it was unthinkable that women could be anything except wives, homemakers and mothers.

Sarah was born in 1770 in a wealthy merchant family of Birmingham. It was a period when the industrial revolution was shifting the largely agrarian economy of England towards mechanized manufacture. In 1795 Sarah married Samuel Guppy, a rich Bristol merchant fifteen years older to her and settled into family life in Bristol.    

As per the societal norms of the time, women were expected to keep house and raise children. Sarah largely conformed to her role (she went on to have six children), but she was far from docile and dull. Sarah was exceptionally well-read, talented and creative; she and her husband were part of a Bristol social set that included mercantile and innovative people. Among their friends were Thomas Telford a road and tunnel engineer, and the family of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Brunel was one of the most versatile engineers of the 19th century, responsible for the design of tunnels, bridges, railway lines and ships. He is best remembered for his construction of a network of tunnels, bridges and viaducts for the Great Western Railway (GWR). Coming into contact with such people sparked Sarah’s interest in the science and craft of engineering, and triggered in her creative mind the desire to herself invent engineering solutions.

Sarah was an early advocate of a suspension bridge in Clifton, and was engaged in preparing models of a bridge that could span the river Avon, a project that had long been debated and discussed. Her idea was to work on a way of piling foundations to create a new type of suspension bridge, and she made drawings for the same. Her son Thomas was GWR’s principal engineer, and she gave the design and plans for her bridge over the Avon to Brunel.

When her youngest daughter was just a year old, Sarah applied for a patent for a way of piling foundations to create a new type of suspension bridge. In March 1811, she obtained a patent for ‘erecting and constructing bridges and rail-roads without arches or sterlings, whereby the danger of being washed away by floods is avoided’.  What was noteworthy was that Sarah became the first woman ever to patent a bridge. Even more noteworthy that this was in a period when married women could not even own property in their own name. This included patents which were considered to be intellectual property which could have some value.

The patent had no drawings and no detailed information as to how the bridge was actually to be built. However her designs provided the blueprints for Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge and Thomas Telford’s Menai Bridge. When Telford approached her for permission to use her patented invention, she reportedly waived the fees, but managed to claim credit for its design.

Sarah’s inventive mind did not stop with that. She developed a devise to prevent barnacles forming on boat hulls, and sold the contract to the British Navy. She also put forward a scheme to prevent soil erosion on railway embankments by planting willow and poplar trees. Even as she played her role as homemaker, she came up with innovations. She designed a bed that could also be used as a gym with steps and bars for exercising; and a coffee urn whose steam could be used to boil an egg and at the same time keep the toast warm. An all-in-one breakfast hotplate! She was even granted a patent for this in 1812. In all Sarah took out ten patents, a remarkable the late Georgian and early Victorian period.  

Sarah was not just ahead of her times in her engineering prowess. She wrote and presented schemes for a wide range of issues including animal welfare, education, agriculture and horticulture. She also wrote a book for children, and founded a charity school for girls. 

Bridging the span across continents, and across nearly a century, this is a good time to remember Shakuntala A. Bhagat—India’s first woman civil engineer. Shakuntala was born on 6 February 1933. Her father S.B. Joshi is regarded as the Father of Bridge Engineering in India. She was just 20 years old when she got her civil engineering degree from VJTI in Mumbai, the first woman in India to do so. From 1954-1956 she went to West Germany and UK for practical training, and went on to get her master’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. She returned to India to join IIT Mumbai as assistant professor in 1960. She went on to become Head of the Heavy Structures Laboratory at IIT.

Shakuntala was more than an academic. She pioneered many innovative structural designs, especially for bridges. She and her husband designed and patented an innovative prefabricated modular system known today as the Quadricon Modular Bridge System. This is a series of prefabricated mass-produced modular bridge steel parts, small and lightweight enough to make transport easier for builders. They can be used in different types of bridges, different spans, traffic widths, and loads, all they had to do was change the combination of the assemblies.

Shakuntala Bhagat was awarded the Woman Engineer of the Year Award in 1993.  She passed away in 2012, a century after the first patent for a bridge was awarded to Sarah Guppy. She left behind a lasting legacy of over 200 Quadricon bridges around the world (including 69 in India) in terrains that challenge engineers even today.

Recently the Government of India announced the establishment of the Indian bridge management system to collect information on bridges. This would certainly be enriched by adding information on the pioneers who designed and built bridges.   


Saralabehn: Gandhian, Educator, Enviromentalist, Feminist

Of the many women who dedicated themselves to Gandhiji’s thoughts and practices, the name of his English disciple Mirabehn (nee Madeleine Slade) is well known. Perhaps not as much written about, but no less inspiring, is the story of his other English follower who took the name Saralabehn.

Catherine Mary Heilman was born in Shepherd’s Bush, London on April 5 1901. Her mother was English and her father was of German origin, who had come to England via France. As a child living in a bi-national and bi-lingual liberal family, When she was in her teens, Catherine was rudely shocked when her German surname led her to be stigmatized during the World War and its aftermath. Her father was wrongly jailed as an enemy, and the young Catherine was not allowed to take part in school activities, and deprived of a scholarship. At sixteen she had to leave her studies and work in an office where the hostility continued.

It was while she was in a London boarding house in 1920 that she met a group of Indians who became her friends. This is when she began to learn and understand something about the nationalist struggle that was going on in India against the imperialist colonial rule. She realised that the way her history books had presented the colonies as the “white man’s burden” was quite different from the accounts she heard from her new friends. She also learnt about the non-violent nationalist struggle that was being led by Mahatma Gandhi. She started following news of the movement as it was evolving in India, and began to empathize with his thinking and practice. As she later wrote: “For the first time in my life, I was exposed to ideas that resonated with me. Every statement uttered and every word written by this individual, Gandhi, clad in just a small dhoti, held true meaning”.  Even as her European friends warned and discouraged her from getting carried away by events that were happening in a country far away, Catherine was planning to go to India herself.

Catherine wrote to Gandhi to request permission to join his work but he was not very encouraging. She continued to explore ways of getting to India. She had no particular skills nor training, so she enrolled for a midwifery course which brought her in contact with English pacifist groups. Before she finished the course she received a letter inviting her to work at a school in Udaipur, so she transferred to a short programme in child education. In January 1932 Catherine finally reached India, and did not go back again.

She started work in Vidya Bhavan in Udaipur; work which along with teaching included manual work in fields, cleaning toilets, washing one’s own clothes and utensils. This gave her a sense of the typical chores that women did, as well as the dignity of labour. But she still did not feel that she had achieved what she had set out for—to participate in Gandhi’s Constructive Programme, which she considered to be “the true foundation of the freedom struggle”. She continued to write to Gandhiji, the man whose pull had brought her to India, but did not hear from him. In the meanwhile Catherine steeped herself in the life and culture of her new home, and at some point also took on the name Saralabehn.

In 1935 Saralabehn visited Mahila Ashram in Wardha. Gandhi was there at the time, and one morning the two finally met. Gandhiji asked her who she was and how long she was staying, and on being told ten days, he assigned her some work. Saralaben relocated to Wardha in 1936 and worked on the education of the girls in the Ashram based on the principles of Nai Talim. In 1941, when her health declined and Gandhi suggested that she move to cooler climes and concentrate on Nature Cure. There was a Gandhian Ashram in a village called Chanauda in the foothills of the Uttarakhand Himalaya and this is where she reached in August 1941.

As her physical health improved, Saralabehn began to get restless. She had her own routine which included learning how to spin Tibetan wool; she started travelling through the villages of the area and learning the local language. She also interacted with the villagers, especially the women, and began to discuss Gandhi’s ideas on Gram Swaraj or village self-reliance. She continued to be active in Gandhi’s nationwide civil disobedience movement.

The British placed her under house arrest for her involvement in the 1942 Quit India Movement. As soon as she was released, she again devoted herself to helping freedom fighters and to further preparations for the freedom movement. Hence in 1944 she was arrested and imprisoned again. After her release Saralabehn returned to her karma bhoomi. Having lived and work in the Kumaon villages she felt that the best way to carry forward Gandhiji’s constructive programme was to establish an educational institution for the local girls.  

A local Indian Civil Service officer offered a cottage which he had named Lakshmi after his wife, for the new venture. Thus was founded the Lakshmi Ashram in 1946. Beginning with three students, Lakshmi Ashram began imparting education based on the principles of Nai Talim—education for economic self-reliance where Hands, Heart, and Head should all develop in Harmony.

As there was no local tradition of sending girls to residential schools, Saralabehn had first to gain the trust of the parents. Saralabehn designed her own syllabi and taught the first girls herself. Her curriculum included science, mathematics, Hindi, history and geography. In keeping with the applied-learning focus of Gandhian education, field work which involved close interaction with the local community and manual labour was an important component. This provided the opportunity of learning directly from villagers, especially women, as well as interactive settings for ashram students and teachers to share information about hygiene and health, as well as social, ecological, and political issues. Students also learned to spin, weave, and sew khadi.

An important step was to make the Ashram self-supporting. Saralabehn and her first students worked together to do all the chores of the Ashram. Milk and yogurt came from their own cows, and they collected fuel wood and fodder from the forest. They dined on vegetables, spices, and fruit that flourished in terraced gardens that they established on the ashram grounds, and prepared simple meals over a wood-burning hearth. They did their own housekeeping and ran a khadi shop and a homeopathic dispensary in a roadside bazaar. The aim of the all-round education and exposure was to teach girls to become self-reliant, self-confident community activists who could meaningfully contribute to the Gandhian ideal of Gram Swaraj.

Lakshmi Ashram grew to accommodate more students. Saralabehn continued to engage herself not only with its programme but also with other movements for similar causes. She journeyed to Bihar to join the Bhoodan movement, which Vinoba Bhave had initiated in 1951. In the early 1970s, she went to the Chambal Valley to work with families of surrendered bandits.

By then many of her early students had themselves taken on unconventional leadership roles, pioneering social and environmental movements especially in the Uttarakhand region. These include the famous Chipko Movement, protests against large dams and strip mining, campaigns against alcoholism, and protecting the forests and natural resources. The important role many of her students played demonstrates how a different type of education can have a powerful impact.

Saralabehn continued to live and work in her adopted country until she passed away on 8 July 1982. She was cremated at Lakshmi Ashram where she lived and worked not just as an educator but as a visionary who helped change lives of Himalayan women, and equally fought for the cause of the environment.


Gandhiji’s Amanuensis: V. Kalyanam

When one thinks of Gandhiji’s personal secretary, the name that immediately comes to mind is that of Mahadev Desai, also one of Gandhi’s close associates. Not as well-known is V. Kalyanam who worked as Gandhiji’s personal secretary after Mahadev Desai passed away, and remained with him until the end of Gandhi’s life. Kalyanam’s story is worth sharing.  

Like many people from South India in the early 1900s, Venkatram had moved to Delhi in 1914. This was where jobs could be found, working for the British government where the South Indian work ethic and knowledge of English were appreciated. Venkatram married Meenabal, and the young Tamil couple settled in Delhi. On 15 August 1922 a son was born to them; they named him Kalyanam.

In those days the entire apparatus of government used to work in Delhi for part of the year and move to the cooler climes of Shimla during the hot summer months. So also Venkatram’s family, with their son Kalyanam, who spent his school days shuttling between Delhi and Shimla. After school he studied at the Shri Ram College of Commerce in Delhi. Upon graduation the young man also found a job with the British government.

Kalyanam grew up as a thoroughly anglicized and faithful servant of the British, till then more or less oblivious of the growing nationalist movement in the country. Having started work, he took to reading the newspapers and found that they were full of news about a man called Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. He wondered why this man was so adamant to free India from British rule. The Quit India movement had just started, but Kalyanam had no interest nor inclination for what was happening around the country. However on request of some South Indian friends, he agreed to help them to secretly slip some anti-British pamphlets under doors at night. Young Kalyanam had not read the pamphlets himself, but one night he was arrested by the British police and accused of treason. He ended up spending nine months in Lahore jail. After his release he returned home to find that he had lost his government job, but he found work in an insurance company. Little did he know that his life was very soon going to take him on quite another path.

During this time he was introduced to Gandhji’s son Devdas Gandhi who was also C. Rajagopalachari’s son-in-law. Young Kalyanam expressed his frustration at his secretarial job, and his love for all kinds of manual work, Devdas suggested that he go to Sevagram Ashram. Kalyanam knew nothing about the Ashram, nor did he then know about Devdas’ link to Gandhiji. But he was willing to visit what he thought was a spiritual Ashram, and luckily his boss gave him 2 months leave to do this.  Around the same time he accompanied his British Boss’s wife to a Khadi shop in Chandni Chowk. Here bought a handkerchief and towel for three rupees and a kurta pyjama for nineteen rupees. From that day onwards he never wore any western clothes.

In October 1943, Kalyanam arrived in Wardha after a two-day train journey, and presented himself to the manager of Sevagram ashram, still not knowing anything about the place. Gandhiji himself was at the time interned at the Aga Khan Palace in Pune. Kalyanam’s introduction to the very frugal and basic living conditions was an eye-opener for the city-bred boy. In addition to the common chores, everyone in the Ashram had the specific duties. As he knew good English, Kalyanam was assigned the work of segregating by language the many letters that arrived for Gandhi every day, from every part of the country and the world. The first lesson he was taught was how to open the envelopes in such a way that the unused side could be used by Gandhi for writing!

Kalyanam finally met Gandhi in Bombay when he was released from jail for medical treatment. He was introduced as “the Madrasi boy sent by Devdas.” Gandhiji was weak and ill, but he asked Kalyanam many questions. The last one was whether he could type. Kalyanam was surprised because he assumed that he was at the Ashram to do menial work that he enjoyed, and to avoid the secretarial work that he hated. But he admitted that yes, he could type, and that he was fluent in English and Hindi, as well as versed in Tamil.

Once more, Kalyanam’s life was about to take an unplanned turn. Gandhiji’s long-time and faithful personal secretary Mahadev Desai had passed away in prison in 1942; and Gandhiji saw in this young man a possible replacement. Kalyanam returned to Sevagram, and awaited Gandhi’s return on 1 October 1944. From that day on Kalyanam’s life changed. Till then he had been working in the garden and fields most of the time, but now he was assigned a new job as the Mahatma’s stenographer.  

With that he also became a part of Gandhiji’s daily routine which started at four o’clock every morning. Kalyanam’s job was to segregate the hundreds of letters by language, give each letter to Gandhi and take dictation for the replies that Gandhi personally gave for each letter. He then had to type the English letters, and give them back to Gandhi to correct. This was done from 5 to 6 every morning, except on Monday when Gandhiji observed the vow of silence. On this day he would write notes for Kalyanam, who found it hard to decipher his handwriting. Kalyanam recalled that he never saw Gandhi read a book. He did not read the daily newspapers either. It was Kalyananm’s duty to read the papers and type the important items on a piece of paper and place it before Gandhiji. His other duties included accompanying Gandhiji wherever he went and noting every word he said, replying to correspondence, scheduling interviews, preparing his English speeches and coordinating with the press. Kalyanam was on-the-job, as it were, from the time Gandhiji woke up till he went to bed at 9 pm. But as he recalled, he never felt tired as everything he did was interesting. Although it certainly did have many moments that challenged the young assistant.

One incident as recalled by him was when he was on the train with Gandhi; being his day of silence, Gandhiji drafted a note and gave it to Kalyanam to type. Kalyanam thought that this could be done when the train reached is destination. But in the evening Gandhi asked him for the letter and Kalyanam confessed that he was not carrying his typewriter. Gandhiji was not pleased. He muttered “When I send for a barber, I expect him to bring his tools.” Kalyanam somehow managed to get it typed on a typewriter belonging to some journalists who were travelling on the train.

Kalyanam remained as Gandhii’s personal secretary from 1944 till the minute  Gandhji breathed his last on 30 January 1948. Every moment of those four years were a unique learning experience for Kalyanam; and the frugal habits, discipline and commitment to a cause that were planted in those days became a way of life for him for the rest of his long life, until he passed away at the age of 99 years on 4 May 2021.

At the age of 93 years, V.Kalyanam had shared many reminiscences of his years with Gandhi with author Shobha Warrier, and these were published as a book titled His Days With Bapu: Mahatma Gandhi’s Personal Secretary Recalls. A fascinating and inspiring read. 


Inspired by Gandhi: Lal Bahadur and Lalita Shastri

October 2 is the birth anniversary of two greats who contributed to the building of modern India—Mahatma Gandhi and Lal Bahadur Shastri. The celebration of the first has always overshadowed the second (though with each passing year, both are fading from memory).

To make up, here are some gleanings building on a biography of Shastri that I recently had the opportunity to read (Lal Bahadur Shastri: Politics and Beyond. Sandeep Shastri–not a relative by the way, only an ardent admirer).

Shastri’s father was a school teacher and later clerk in government service. Sadly, he died when Lal Bahadur was barely 18 months old. His mother, the daughter of a teacher, moved back to her maternal house where the children grew up.

Shastri’ family was not particularly active in the Freedom Movement, but he was highly influenced by a teacher, Nishkameshwar Prasad Mishra, who was passionately involved in the Movement. Inspired by his teacher, young Lal Bahadur started reading the works of national leaders, and after attending a meeting addressed by Gandhiji and Madan Mohan Malaviya, he dropped out of school just 3 months before his Std. 10 exams,  to join the independence struggle. He later graduated in Philosophy and Ethics from Kashi Vidyapith, where ‘Shastri’ was the degree given, which then became attached to his name!

As a member of the Servants of the People Society, he worked under the guidance of Gandhiji for the betterment of Harijans. Under the Mahatma’s influence, he also became a member of the Indian National Congress 1928, and went on to play a leadership role in the organization and during various phases of the struggle, including the Quit India movement.

After Independence, he went on to the Central Government after a short stint in UP. He went on to hold several portfolios, before becoming the Prime Minister in 1964.

A few snippets and facts which are not widely known:

Shastri is known for the slogan ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’. But his respect for business people was no less. Exhibiting a very modern understanding of the linkages between business and society, as far back as 1965 he said businessmen had ‘an even greater role than that of an economist and the politician. Too often the community views the businessman’s aims as selfish gain.. (That) impression can be removed only when business becomes fully alive to its social responsibilities.’

He was the one behind India’s White Revolution–the national campaign to increase the production and supply of milk. It was his political leadership that saw the Amul milk co-operative take shape, and the creation of the National Dairy Development Board.  

Lal Bahadur married Lalita Devi in 1927. She too was an ardent Gandhi follower and lived a very simple life. Her unstinting support to her husband enabled him to live a life of service to the nation.

This story is a beautiful illustration of Lalitaji’s high ideals and principles.

Once when Shastri was in jail, he learnt that Lalita was unwell. He wrote to her, asking her to take a glass of milk every day. The reality was that the household was very short of money, and she just could not afford a glass of milk for herself. But she did not want to trouble her husband by telling him this. So she found an ingenious way to do what her husband wished. She found a tiny glass, such as used to feed infants, and took milk in this every day. She wrote to her husband that she was doing as he wished. It was only much after his release that he learnt about this. He was amazed by how she stuck to the truth and still helped him stay him untroubled by the everyday problems so that he could focus on his work.

To such people of integrity and principles do we owe our freedom. Every day the thought should trouble us as to whether we are living up to their vision.




Engineering Woman Power: A. Lalitha

15 September is celebrated as Engineering Day in India to mark the birth anniversary of M Visvesvaraya, one of India’s greatest engineers who made a vital contribution to the field of engineering and education. Visvesvaraya is best known for designing one of India’s first flood protection systems, construction of dams and reservoirs, and setting up one of the first engineering institutes in the country, the Government Engineering College, now called University Visvesvaraya College of Engineering, Bengaluru.

Today there are hundreds of engineering colleges in India and tens of thousands of students, both boys and girls, compete to gain places in the best of these colleges. While the idea of a woman pursuing engineering is not uncommon today, the way had been paved by spunky pioneers who took on numerous challenges in a different time and circumstances. This is a good day to remember one of these women—A. Lalitha.

Lalitha was born on 27 August 1919 in a middle class Telugu family, one of seven siblings. Her father was himself an engineer, and fairly broad-minded, but societal norms and expectations took precedence over personal beliefs. Thus, as was the norm in those days, while Lalitha’s brothers were supported in pursuing higher studies, the girls in the family were educated only till the primary level, and then married off. Lalitha herself was married at the age of 15. But her father ensured that even in her new life she could continue to study till she completed class 10.

Sadly Lalitha’s married life was short-lived. Her husband passed away when she was just 18 years old. Lalitha had recently become a mother to a baby girl. Now she was a young widow with a four-month-old daughter, living in a society where widows were shunned and relegated to a life of isolation and austerity. This is where Lalitha’s fighting spirit led her to quietly start breaking the first of many barriers.

She moved back to her father’s house with a strong resolve to study and get a professional degree so that in future she could become self-reliant. Her father supported her decision, and Lalitha cleared the intermediate exam from Queen Mary’s College in Madras. This was the first step to moving ahead.

At the time there were women who were studying medicine. But Lalitha felt that a career in medicine would not leave her sufficient time and attention for her young daughter, who was her priority. Living in a family of engineers, this was an option that came to her mind. At that time technical education was itself in a nascent stage in India, and the idea of women entering this field was unheard of. No institute was admitting women. Once again, her father Pappu Subbarao helped to open a door for his daughter. He was a professor of electrical engineering in the College of Engineering (CEG) in Guindy, and he put up a special request to the then Principal of CEG Dr KC Chacko, that his daughter be permitted to take up an engineering course. He also put forward the appeal to the Director of Public Instruction, RM Statham. Luckily, both these officials were forward thinking and were agreeable to opening admission for a woman for the first time in the history of CEG. Lalitha applied for the electrical engineering course.

Thus Lalitha became the only girl in a college with hundreds of boys. But as accounts go, she never felt uncomfortable there. Accommodation in a separate hostel was arranged for her, while her daughter was looked after by her brother’s family; Lalitha visited her every weekend. While Lalitha was comfortable and happy in her classes, she missed having company in the hostel. Once again her father encouraged the authorities to open admissions for more women. In response to the advertisement two more women—Leelamma George and PK Thresia joined in the civil engineering course the following year.

As per the government rule then, engineering students had to put in four years of academic work and one year of practical training before they could graduate. Lalitha completed her practical training with a one-year apprenticeship at the Jamalpur Railway Workshop, a major repair and overhaul facility. 

Lalitha received her Bachelor of Engineering degree in 1943. Although they were technically junior, the three women engineers graduated together. Interestingly, the degree certificate of CEG had to replace the word He with She for their first three women graduates! 

Having already crossed several hurdles, Lalitha was ready to start a new phase of life as a professional. However she continued to give priority to her daughter Shyamala and looked for work opportunities which would not compromise her care. She accepted a job offer as an engineering assistant at the Central Standards Organisations of India, Simla. This was suitable as she was able to live with her brother’s family which offered support and care to her daughter. After two years in this job, she moved to Chennai work with her father helping him with his research which had led to several patents. This was intellectually stimulating, but financial pressures led Lalitha to find other work. She moved to Calcutta to work in the engineering department of Associated Electrical Industries. Once more her second brother and his family provided a home for her daughter. 

Lalitha got the opportunity to put all her education to practice, and gained experience and expertise. She worked on large projects, including the upcoming Bhakra Nangal Dam, which was then to be the biggest dam in India. Her tasks included the designing of transmission lines, substation layouts, and protective gear. Her brilliance and abilities began to gain national and international attention.

In 1953, the London-based Council of Electrical Engineers invited her to be an associate member. Visiting a British factory as an Indian woman dressed in a sari attracted a lot of press attention. She later became a full member. In 1964 she was invited to the First International Conference of Engineers and Scientists in New York. She was the first Indian woman engineer to attend. Lalitha subsequently became involved in several international organisations for women engineers. In 1965 she became a member of the Women’s Engineering Society of London.

Lalitha continued to work with Associated Electrical Associates (later taken over by General Electric Company) until she retired in 1977. She also lived with her sister-in-law in the same house in Calcutta for 35 years.  Throughout her career she championed the idea of women in STEM careers. Her daughter Shyamala followed in her mother’s footsteps by studying science and maths, and making a career in teaching maths. In an interview her daughter summed up the essence of her mother’s work and life: “What I take from her life is her extreme patience towards people and the quality of doing instead of just talking. She believed that people come into your life for a reason and leave when the purpose is over.”

Not long after retirement Lalitha suffered from a brain aneurysm and passed away at the age of 60, in 1979. Today as many girls take up engineering as a career, most would not know about the grit and determination of a woman who helped pave the way. A. Lalitha—a young widow, dedicated single mother, a brilliant student, a path-breaking professional clad in a sari, who did not need to wear power suits to break the glass ceiling. 


The Conviction to Refuse an Honour

The Ramon Magsaysay Award is undoubtedly a high honour and prestige. Instituted in 1957 (with the first awards given in 1958), it is called the Noble Peace Prize of Asia. It ‘celebrates greatness of spirit and transformative leadership in Asia.’ It has till date, been conferred on 300 individuals and organizations  ‘whose selfless service has offered their societies, Asia, and the world successful solutions to some of the most challenging problems of human development.’ The awardees are selected by the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation trustees who call for nominations from a pool of international confidential nominators. The nominations go through a rigorous process of evaluation by the trustees.  

Awardees include Vinobha Bhave, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Verghese Kurian, Tribhuvandas Patel, The Peace Corps in Asia, Jayaprakash Narayan, Muhammad Yunus….the list of luminaries is distinguished indeed!

KK Shailaja
KK Shailaja

This year, Kerala’s former health minister KK Shailaja (called Shailaja Teacher) was one of those selected. This was in recognition of her stellar performance as health minister of Kerala, especially the management of Covid-19 in Kerala. She was one of the first people world-wide to recognize the potential seriousness of the virus, and ensured that her state was ready to combat it.

When she got the news of her award, Shailaja informed her party, the CPI(M). They deliberated on this and asked her to refuse it. Being a loyal party worker, she politely wrote to the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation refusing the award, saying that the battle against Covid was a collective effort, and that she was not individually responsible for it, and thus could not accept the award.

Controversy has raged since then. Was it jealousy on the part of some of her senior colleagues that she was getting such a high-profile recognition? It has been perceived for some time now that some of the party leaders in Kerala fear her success and her being highlighted on the international stage, and that is why she was refused a second term as Minister. Was it misogyny? That some people will do anything to bring down a successful women?

Well, maybe a bit of both.

But there is more to it. In fact, deep ideological reasons.

The Ramon Magsaysay Award was instituted in memory of Ramon Magsaysay, former President of the Philippines, and his commitment to integrity in governance, courageous service to the people, and pragmatic idealism within a democratic society.And indeed Ramon Magsaysay did live by these ideals. He did a lot for the people of his country, cleaned up the administration and made government responsive. He created the Presidential Complaints and Action Committee, a body which heard grievances of the public and recommended remedial actions.  He established the National Resettlement and Rehabilitation Administration (NARRA) which redistributed thousands of acres of lands to the landless. He set up the Agricultural Credit and Cooperative Financing Administration (ACCFA) to make available rural loans to small farmers and share tenants loans at low interest rates.He played a significant role in regional affairs too. Magsaysay’s presidency was considered one of the cleanest and most corruption-free in Philippine history.

So he was a tall leader, no doubt. But the explanation for Shailaja’s refusal of an award names after him goes a little further back in time. In early August 1950, using his own experiences in guerrilla warfare during World War II he was the strategist behind then-President Quirino’s plan to fight the Communist guerrillas. He led this attack when he was named Secretary of National Defence in September 1950. All his life, he opposed communism not only in speeches and forums, but also on the ground through military action.  All through his years in power, he was a close friend, ally and supporter of the United States whose foremost enemy was communism.  All his life, Magsaysay was a vocal spokesman against communists. 

So that is one part of it.

Coming to the award itself. The Ramon Magsaysay award was instituted through an endowment from the Rockefellers Brothers Fund. The Rockefellers were staunchly anti-communist. For instance, as Assistant Secretary of State, Nelson Rockefeller played a big role in the establishment of NATO, its stance against the Soviet Union, and the resolution of NATO members to defeat communism and its spread. The Rockefellers also had a big hand in the shaping of the UN and its stance against communisim.

So the people who instituted the award as well as the man whom it commemorates were dead against communism.

To me, it makes sense why Ms. Shailaja, a life-long member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), with a deep committment to the communist ideology, refused the award. I am now a bigger fan than ever!

KK Sahilaja has a host of awards and recongitions from across the world, and awards probably do not matter to her.

But I hope that she will be able to play a bigger part in the management of public affairs not only in her state but the country too. We would be the poorer if she cannot!


From Tagore to Ken Robinson: Creative Education

Continuing musings on education this week. This time with some thoughts from Sir Ken Robinson, one of the most influential contemporary thinkers on education, and discovering uncanny similarities in his vision with that of Rabindranath Tagore.

British-born teacher, author and speaker Ken Robinson spoke out against what he describes essentially an industrial model of education, a manufacturing model, which is based on linearity and conformity, and ‘batching’ people. As he said: We have sold ourselves into a fast food model of education, and it is impoverishing our spirits and our energies as much as fast food is depleting our physical bodies.

He viewed large school systems as being rigid and unresponsive, squeezing the creative juices out of children by overemphasizing standardized testing and subjects like mathematics and science over the arts and humanities.

Ken Robinson advocated strongly for schools not only to broaden their curriculums but also to support teachers as creative professionals; and to personalize learning by breaking large classrooms — artificial environments that invite boredom, he said — into small groups.

Over a hundred years after Tagore, he shared Tagore’s vision of a good teacher: Good teachers activate children’s minds instead of helping them to assimilate and collect information, and inspire children through their own self-development.

Ken Robinson made it his life’s mission to highlight the importance of systems and environments that nurtured creativity. In his book Creative Schools he describes how he views creativity.

 Imagination is the root of creativity. It is the ability to bring to mind things that aren’t present to our senses.

Creativity is putting your imagination to work. It is applied imagination. Innovation is putting new ideas into practice. There are various myths about creativity. One is that only special people are creative, another is that creativity is only about the arts, a third is that creativity cannot be taught, and a fourth is that it’s all to do with uninhibited “self-expression.”

None of these is true. Creativity draws from many powers that we all have by virtue of being human. Creativity is possible in all areas of human life, in science, the arts, mathematics, technology, cuisine, teaching, politics, business, you name it. And like many human capacities, our creative powers can be cultivated and refined. Doing that involves an increasing mastery of skills, knowledge, and ideas.

Creativity is about fresh thinking. It doesn’t have to be new to the whole of humanity— though that’s always a bonus— but certainly to the person whose work it is. Creativity also involves making critical judgments about whether what you’re working on is any good, be it a theorem, a design, or a poem. Creative work often passes through typical phases. Sometimes what you end up with is not what you had in mind when you started. It’s a dynamic process that often involves making new connections, crossing disciplines, and using metaphors and analogies. Being creative is not just about having off-the-wall ideas and letting your imagination run free. It may involve all of that, but it also involves refining, testing, and focusing what you’re doing. It’s about original thinking on the part of the individual, and it’s also about judging critically whether the work in process is taking the right shape and is worthwhile, at least for the person producing it.

Creativity is not the opposite of discipline and control. On the contrary, creativity in any field may involve deep factual knowledge and high levels of practical skill. Cultivating creativity is one of the most interesting challenges for any teacher. It involves understanding the real dynamics of creative work.

The real driver of creativity is an appetite for discovery and a passion for the work itself. When students are motivated to learn, they naturally acquire the skills they need to get the work done. Their mastery of them grows as their creative ambitions expand. You’ll find evidence of this process in great teaching in every discipline from football to chemistry.

We have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process, it’s an organic process. And you cannot predict the outcome of human development. All you can do, like a farmer, is to create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish.

Tagore dreamed the same dream and urged for the same process when he wrote: Do not be preoccupied with method. Leave your instincts to guide you to life. Children differ from one another. One must learn to know them, to navigate among them as one navigates among reefs.

This week as we all remembered the teachers who have, in some way or the other, contributed to making us who we are, words of such visionaries help us to better articulate what it means to be a real teacher.