Of Textbooks and More

Exactly 80 years ago this April, ‘Academies and Societies’ which I suppose was a catalogue of learned scientific publications, listed ‘Modern Inorganic Chemistry’ (Tamil) by N. Ananthavaidyanathan, published by Annamalai University and priced modestly at Rs. 2-8.

The Reference!

A lot of family history behind this entry, as the afore-mentioned Ananthavaidyanathan was my grandfather. He was a Professor of Chemistry at Annamalai University having joined it in the mid-1920s, when it was still Sri Minakshi College, and he saw the growth of the College and its sister institutions into Annamalai University in 1929 .

The book was written in response to a competition organized by the University, to come out with the first Tamil under-graduate science textbooks in the country. My grandfather’s ‘Modern Inorganic Chemistry’ won the prize.

My grandmother told us tales of the days and nights and weeks and months of work that went into the book. With no precedents of modern scientific writing or references in regional languages, my grandfather had to coin several names for chemicals, for processes, for phenomena. Being the conscientious, old-school scholar he was, that involved a lot of research and consultation. With Tamil type-writing skills not easy to find, and moreover, the problems of typing chemical formulae in the typewriters of those days, it was a physical challenge as well as an intellectual one! My grandmother helped him proof-read draft after draft.

The hard work paid off, and his was the first college-level chemistry textbook in Tamil.

Annamalai University is an institution with a hoary past. Rajah Sir S. R. M. Annamalai Chettiar, In the early 1920s, set up three educational institutions– Sri Minakshi College, Sri Minakshi Tamil College and Sri Minakshi Sanskrit College—in the temple-town of Chidambaram, and these soon became intellectual centres. The purpose of setting up the educational institutions was to educate the poor, and to give a fillip to literature in Tamil. And I suppose it was in pursuit of the second aim that the competition was organized.

Sir Chettiar was an enlightened industrialist and banker with a deep interest in education. He contributed generously to philanthropic causes and set up institutions. He was one of the founders of Indian Bank. He counts Shri AC Muthaih (who served as the Chairman of SPIC and the President of Board of Cricket Control of India), and Shri PC Chidambaram (former Finance Minister of India) among his grandsons.

In 1928, Sir Annamalai agreed to hand over the group of educational institutions he had set up, to the local government to establish a University. On 1 Jan, 1929, Annamalai University was established under a State Act–India’s first private University.

In its time, the University has been the centre of Tamil, of intellectual debate, of students who questioned the status quo of their day, of strikes, of agitations and of academic excellence. Today it is one of the largest public residential universities in Asia

We are an ‘Annamalai University family’, with my grandfather having taught there for several decades. My father studied Physics there—he had to choose between studying Physics and Chemistry, but my grandfather would not let him join the Chemistry faculty because he was the Head of the Dept., and did not want any controversy about his son being a student in the same department. My brother studied Engineering there. My father and brother both served the Defence Research and Development Organization all their lives, and my brother was honoured with the Padma Shri for his contribution to Agni and Prithvi Missiles. So I suppose I have much to thank Annamalai University for!


Doctor Without Borders: Jonathan Kaplan

Last week I wrote about a young doctor who chose to use his medical training to serve people in war situations. This was Dr Kotnis who worked with passion and dedication on the war front in China, almost a century ago. Every generation and every period of history has examples of such professionals who voluntarily choose to serve in some of the most difficult and dangerous situations.

Doctors without Borders

I recently read a fascinating account by such a doctor in our own times. This is Dr Jonathan Kaplan who began his medical career, as do all doctors, after long and intensive years of study. Dr Kaplan graduated from medical school in South Africa and spent the next ten years acquiring specialist qualifications and training as a general surgeon, and super-specialization in vascular surgery in hospitals in the UK and USA. This equipped him to move on to become a “consultant” with a comfortable and prosperous practice. In his own words:

Master of Surgery. The title had a ring of Zen about it, as though I was now a sage of some martial art, a mystic bladesman. I had trodden the path of professional dedication, served the necessary years at the required levels of experience and responsibility, paid all my dues to date. A consultant post—the reward for all this industry—lay ahead, with attendant success and security. But I found myself beset by an odd emptiness…

This sense of emptiness led Jonathan to choose otherwise. He became a “medical vagabond” as he describes himself. He spent many years as a volunteer surgeon in some of the world’s most dangerous war zones in the 1990s. He attended to the casualties of apartheid in Cape Town; worked on the front line treating Kurdish fighters during the uprising at the end of the Gulf War, and in a part of Burma’s Shan state under attack by the Burmese army; in Mozambique during the civil war, and in Eritrea at the time of the Ethiopian offensive in 2000.

Besides the blood, sweat and tears of the battlefield, the adventurous Jonathan Kaplan was always looking for new challenges. In his own words Working as a doctor in war zones was voluntary and unpaid. My hospital career looked increasingly uncertain—my curriculum vitae was a curious patchwork of jobs that shocked the sensibilities of staid consultants—and I was considering a full-time post in accident and emergency medicine where I hoped a varied resume might be less provocative to the interview committees.

But that was not to be. A variety of chance offers led to interesting stints where Dr Kaplan saw different sides to the realities of illness and emergency care. Among these was being an air ambulance doctor, and a resident doctor on a cruise liner. He also became deeply engaged in an investigation on the impacts of mercury poisoning in a part of Brazil.  

For most of his life Jonathan Kaplan worked tirelessly, and with minimal resources, amidst the most challenging conditions and heart-rending human tragedy, using every skill at his disposal to treat the wounded, and save lives. At the same time he also meticulously documented the politics, struggles, and universal human dilemmas. These have been published in a book titled The Dressing Station.

The book is a fascinating read, that vividly describes some of the most tragic and devastating impacts of war on human beings, alongside some highly technical details of surgery, and the contradictions of war-zone realities. But Jonathan is much more than a reporter. He also shares his angst and his internal struggles to maintain his humanity even under the most inhuman circumstances. He wonders about human life, and the role that doctors have to play in the human drama between birth and death. That is what makes his writing both eye-opening, as well as thought-provoking, not just for medical practitioners, but for every one of us who are on the other side of the ‘consulting table’.

As he shares: I have practised medicine in diverse fields: as a hospital surgeon, a flying doctor, a ship’s medical officer. I have operated on wounded straight off the battlefield, treated people with rich stains of tropical disease raging in their bloodstreams, and tried to help those affected by occupational illness from industrial toxins or work place stress. I have run research programmes funded by corporate finance—that met the needs of the shareholders before they benefitted any patients—and I’ve cared for children wasted by diseases of famine and war. Like most doctors I have seen my craft used and abused; been part of its successes and witnessed its failings. It is by the means of this unforgiving arena that we struggle to define ourselves.

He further ponders on his work and on life: No clinician can give an objective account of that work: the intersection between doctor and patient is mutual and intimate, and in the end comes down to something between us that is a fragile thing, as fragile as life. All we can do is the best we can in the war against death and against despair, including our own. For at its extreme the practice of medicine is a succession of front line, and each victory is only a temporary respite.

Dr Kaplan continues to take periodic assignments as a volunteer surgeon in conflict zones amidst UK hospital surgery, film-making, academic teaching, and working as a photographer, and as an advisor on medical TV dramas. He has also proposed, investigated, researched, produced and directed documentaries on health, development and environmental issues for several TV channels.

I picked up The Dressing Station by chance, not having earlier heard of Jonathan Kaplan. It was a gripping read. I look forward to reading his second book Contact Wounds.


A Doctor Abroad: Dr Kotnis

Much has been written in the past month about Indian medical students going to distant and relatively unfamiliar countries to pursue medical studies. Many of these young students have ambitions of making a successful and prosperous career after they obtain their degrees. Here is an unusual story about an Indian doctor who went abroad, over a century ago, not in the pursuit of name and money, but to use his education and skills in the service of those who needed them the most.  

Dwarakanath Shantaram Kotnis was born on 1 October 1910 in a middle-class family in Sholapur, Maharashtra. He grew up as one of seven children in the family, and his father had to take loans to support his children’s education. Dwarakanath moved to Bombay to pursue medical studies at the Seth GS Medical College. Possibly unlike his fellow students at that time, the young Dwarakanath’s ambition was to practise medicine in a different part of the world. And as destiny would have it, his dream took on an unexpected form.

Dwarakanath acquired his medical degree in 1938. The world was already in the throes of conflicts that would escalate into World War II. China had been invaded by in the early 1930s by the Japanese who were seeking raw materials for their growing industries. By 1937 Japan controlled large sections of China, and war crimes against the Chinese became commonplace. There were large scale massacres of civilians, and the Chinese resistance army suffered heavy casualties. At the same time there was an acute shortage of doctors who could attend to the injured and the dying.

It was at this time that General Zhu De, a Chinese revolutionary had written to Jawaharlal Nehru with a plea to send doctors to save the lives of the soldiers. India was in the midst of its own movement of freedom from British rule. The Indian National Congress under the leadership of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose decided to send a team of five doctors to China to show the solidarity of the people of India with the Chinese in their fight against the Japanese aggression.

There was a call for doctors to volunteer for this mission. Dwarakanath was one of those who volunteered. He was 28 years old; neither he nor his family knew much about China, but he felt an inner urge to venture beyond familiar territory to practice the subjects that he had studied, in challenging circumstances. This decision would prove to be a life-changing one.

Thus young Dr Kotnis joined the team of five Indian doctors headed for China. The other four members of the team were M Cholkar from Nagpur, BK Basu and Debesh Mukherjee from Calcutta, and M Atal from Allahabad.

Dr Kotnis in China Source: https://www.chinadaily.com

The young doctors, the first medical team from another Asian country who had volunteered help, were personally received by Mao Zedong and General Zhu De. They were plunged straight into the war zone in Northern China where mobile medical units were treating wounded soldiers. The situation was very stressful, physically and mentally. About 800 injured soldiers had to be attended to every day which meant that the doctors often worked round the clock without rest or sleep. The young doctors stood up to the challenge, saving hundreds of lives and treating thousands of wounded.

As the battle in the North subsided, the Indian team was free to return home, and four members did so. But Dr Kotnis was reluctant to return. He wanted to spend more time in a country that he was beginning to know and love, and continue to contribute to the war effort. He joined Mao-led Eighth Route Army in 1939. He continued to work tirelessly, performing operations for up to 72 hours without a break, and treating hundreds of patients, day and night. He did not return home even when he heard about his father’s death.

Years later he was remembered by the ordinary people as a kind doctor who not only helped ease their pain and suffering, but was also concerned about their basic needs. He learned to read and write Mandarin Chinese and was able to communicate with the people in their language. He became one of them. They in turn adopted him and called him Kedihua dai fu (Kedihua was Kotnis’ Chinese name and dai fu meaning doctor).  He was also nicknamed “Dr Thoughtful” and “Old Ke”.

Around this time he also met Guo Qinglan who had volunteered as a nurse in the Eighth Route Army. The couple got married in December 1941.They had a son who they aptly named Yinhua; the Chinese character for Yin meant India and Hua meant China.

In 1941 Dr Kotnis was appointed as director of the Bethune International Peace Hospital in Shijiazhuang named after the famous Canadian surgeon Norman Bethune. Bethune was a Canadian physician and social activist who had also moved to China in 1938-39 during the Second Sino-Japanese and volunteered as a medical advisor to the 8th Route Army. He was a brilliant surgeon who not only worked on battlefields, but also helped in training medical personnel, and setting up medical programmes and hospitals to reform the health care system in China. He was deeply committed to the welfare of the poor. Dr Bethune died on the frontline, of blood poisoning in 1939, and became a national hero.

Dr Kotnis was a fit choice to carry forward the legacy of the revered Dr Bethune, who had had a similar professional path. Dr Kotnis continued to work with the same intensity and passion as he had done on the battlefield. He was also teaching medical students. As there were no textbooks he started compiling them himself. But the unrelenting stress had taken a toll on the young doctor’s health. Only three months after the birth of his son, Dr Kotnis was struck by a series of epileptic seizures that cut short his life. Even as he was writing his second surgery textbook, he collapsed, and following a seizure, died on 9 December 1942. He was just 32 years old.  He was buried in the Heroes Courtyard in Nanquan village in China among the people he made his own.

While the work of Dr Kotnis is not as well documented or known in India, the name and legacy of Ke Dihua as he was fondly called, are still remembered and revered in China. The Shijiazhuang Ke Dihua Medical Science Secondary Specialized School been named after him; from which over 45000 medical professionals have graduated. There are memorials and statues of him in several towns in China.

7 April is marked as World Health Day. A good time to remember a doctor who lived his short life with complete commitment and passion for the health of all people.


Weather Woman Anna Mani

When she turned eight, Anna Modayil Mani was to be gifted a pair of diamond earrings, as per her family tradition. Young Anna requested instead a gift of Encyclopaedia Britannica! This was a bit of a shock for the Mani family in Travancore in Kerala. Anna, the seventh of eight siblings, grew up in a well-to-do but traditional family where sons were groomed for high level careers and daughters were trained to be mothers and housemakers in preparation for an early marriage. Anna however showed signs of breaking the mould from an early age when she spent her time devouring all the books in the house. Her lifelong love for nature was planted and nurtured by long walks in the forests around her father’s cardamom estates, and swimming in the backwaters and rivers. And her scientific mind was imprinted with her father’s teaching not to accept any statement unless it could be tested and verified.

Born in 1918, Anna was only seven years old when Mahatma Gandhi visited Travancore which was the epicentre of the Vaikom Satyagraha. Gandhi’s visit made such a deep impression on the young girl that she decided to wear only khadi. The spirit of nationalism that pervaded the period also instilled in young Anna the fierce spirit of freedom, including the freedom to make her own decisions. Thus, she chose to pursue higher education rather than marriage which her sisters had easily opted for.

Anna joined Presidency College in Madras from where she graduated with an honours degree in Physics in 1939. A year later she got a scholarship to undertake research at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore where she was accepted as a research scholar in CV Raman’s laboratory to work on the spectroscopy of diamonds and rubies. Thus Anna began to research the very stone that she had turned down in her childhood.

The experiments were challenging and laborious; Anna worked for long hours, often through the night. Between 1942 and 1945, she published five single-authored papers on luminescence of diamonds and ruby. In August 1945 she submitted her PhD dissertation to Madras University. The University, with a blend of bureaucracy and gender bias, denied granting her the degree on the basis that she did not have an MSc degree. This, despite the fact that she had won a scholarship for research at the Indian Institute of Science, and had worked with CV Raman.

Anna was not daunted by this. Around the same time, the Indian government had announced scholarships for internships abroad in various fields, and Anna applied. In 1945, just as WWII was ending, she boarded a troopship to England with the government scholarship to take up an internship in in meteorological instrumentation at the Imperial College in London. Although she had wanted to pursue further research in physics, this was the only internship available. And it is meteorology that was to become her life’s metier.

Anna Mani returned to an independent India in 1948, and joined the Indian Meteorological Department at Pune where a programme to design weather instruments was taking shape. Anna was put in charge of construction of radiation instrumentation. Despite a paucity of resources, she would not compromise on research or quality; she inspired the scientists under her to “Find a better way to do it!”

Anna Mani standardised the drawings for nearly 100 different weather instruments and started their production. She worked with members of the World Meteorological Organisation to rigorously compare measurements to verify the accuracy of Indian instruments, as she fiercely believed that “Wrong measurements are worse than no measurements at all.” She continued her link with academic research and published a number of papers on subjects ranging from atmospheric ozone, to the need for international instrument comparisons and national standardisation

During the International Geophysical Year (1957-58), she set up a network of stations in India to measure solar radiation. Her focus was on the instrumentation meant to measure solar radiation, taking into account its seasonal and regional variation across India.

By 1964, Anna Mani became involved in the ozone-monitoring efforts in India; this was well before the Ozone Hole became an international issue. India had stations to measure ozone since the 1940s, but it was Mani’s team that in 1967, developed the Indian ozonesonde, a balloon-borne instrument to measure ozone levels. They also updated ground-based equipment so that Indian scientists had a lot of data to work with. The scientist also published a number of papers on subjects ranging from atmospheric ozone to the need for international instrument comparisons and national standardisation. Anna Mani received a citation from the International Ozone Commission for her work on ozone-level measurements from 1960 to 1990.

In 1963, at the request of Vikram Sarabhai of she successfully set up a meteorological observatory and an instrumentation tower at the Thumba rocket launching facility.

Anna Mani’s work of three decades made a valuable contribution to Indian meteorological sciences, indigenously manufactured instruments, reliable data, scientific rigour and up-to-date methodology. It was Mani who spearheaded India’s efforts to manufacture its own weather observation equipment, such as barometers and wind gauges, dramatically bringing down their cost – at the same time, she ensured their reliability and precision.

Anna Mani retired as deputy director general of the Indian Meteorological Department in 1976. She returned to the Raman Research Institute as a visiting professor for three years. Later she set up a millimetre-wave telescope at Nandi Hills, Bangalore. She published two books, The Handbook for Solar Radiation Data for India (1980) and Solar Radiation over India (1981), which have become standard reference guides for solar tech engineers.

Mani did not marry, she spent her life in the pursuit of science, In 1994 she suffered a stroke which affected her mobility; and died in 2001.

Anna Mani was steeped in, and driven by her passion for work. As she once said “I should be most unhappy to wake up without the prospect of some work to do.” But she went on to say that when the work was done, she enjoyed listening to music, reading and enjoying nature, her childhood passions.

Her advice to young meteorologists was, “We have only one life. First equip yourself for the job, make full use of your talents and then love and enjoy the work, making the most of being out of doors and in contact with nature.”

23 March is marked as World Meteorological Day. This is a good time to celebrate Anna Mani and her significant contributions that made independent India self-reliant in measuring aspects of the weather, and helped lay the ground for harnessing solar and wind power as alternative sources of energy.


Two Faces of War

As the world watches in despair at another meaningless war, amidst the dark and dismal narratives, it is the stories of hope and resilience that resonate the loudest. And unknown or forgotten connections are remembered anew.

For many of us, Ukraine was just another name on the map, and we imagined that it was far away geographically and personally. Until we read about the many many Indians who have been living, studying and working there. It got even closer with the media in Gujarat full of stories not only of the Gujarati students who were stranded there, but equally of the way other Gujaratis in neighbouring countries were offering overwhelming help and support to fellow countrymen in need. In Poland especially food and shelter is being given with open hearts and homes—helping to create a little India in a distant land.  

This link with Poland goes back many years, back to another war—World War II, and a reverse flow of displaced people. One of the heart-warming stories is about how the Maharaja of Jamnagar created a Little Poland in Gujarat.

In 1939 Poland was invaded by both Germany and Russia. There were mass arrests, massacres, grabbing of land and businesses, and large-scale deportations. Over two million Polish civilians were sent to camps in Siberia, and thousands died, even before they got there. Hundreds of Polish children were left orphaned or abandoned. In 1941 there was an international amnesty that allowed the destitute refugees to leave the Soviet Union. They undertook arduous and long journeys to distant lands that were offering them refuge.

India was at the time, still under British rule and the British government was not keen on accepting refugees. In the face of severe opposition by the British, Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji Jadeja or “Jam Saheb” as he was called, the Maharaja of Nawanagar, a princely state in Gujarat was the first to offer the orphaned children from Poland refuge. The 46 year old king had developed a special interest in Polish culture ever since his meeting with Ignacy Padrewski, a Polish pianist that he had met in Switzerland. He was moved by the plight of the Polish orphans. Despite the official British refusal to accept these refugees, as the head of a princely state the Maharaja had some level of autonomy. He was determined to use it and take in the homeless children. 

In early 1942 the first group of 170 children who reached Bombay, and travelled on to Balachadi a small seashore town close to the maharaja’s capital Jamnagar. The maharaja welcomed them with the words “You are no longer orphans. From now on you are Nawanagarians and I am Bapu, father of all Nawanagarians, so I’m your father as well”.

Bapu Jam Saheb and his Polish children at a Xmas show

Jam Saheb was true to his word. The children were initially put up in tented accommodation while the Balachadi camp was being built. The maharaja went to great lengths to ensure that Balachadi became a home away from home for these children who, at a young age, had experienced dislocation, loss of family and home, and the horrors of war. He built dormitories in which each child had a separate bed, and generously provided food, clothes and medical care. He converted the guest house of his Balachadi palace into a school, and even set up a special library with Polish books so that the children would not forget their mother tongue. He was concerned that they should not forget their own culture; he encouraged the children to put up shows including their songs and dances, and continued the country’s strong traditions of Scouts and the church. He encouraged children to play sports, and they were free to use his gardens, squash courts, and pool. He was concerned about their choice of food and would host special meals for the children. One of the children recalled, many years later, how the children did not like the way spinach was cooked and went on a ’spinach strike’. When the Jam Saheb heard about this he immediately ordered the cooks not to include spinach in the meals. 

Between 1942 and 1946 over 600 Polish children found a home in Little Poland thanks to the maharaja. When the war ended and the orphans had to return to Europe, both the children and the maharaja were heart-broken. The unusual bond that was formed remained strong, and played a crucial role in giving stability and hope to children who had lost everything.

The Maharaja died in 1966. His Polish “children” had spread across the world in countries where they started new lives after the end of the war. 76 years later, as a testimony to the enduring bonds, and to mark 100 years of Poland’s independence, in 2018, six of these “children” (now in their nineties) returned to Balachadi. They walked down memory lane, remembering the Bapu who not only gave them a home, but also their childhood.

Jam Saheb is remembered not only by his children, but is also considered a hero by the country that honours his generosity. He was posthumously awarded the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit. A city square in the heart of Warsaw is named Skwer Dobrego Maharadzy (The Square of the Good Maharaja). When he was alive the Maharaja had been asked how the Polish people could thank him for his generosity and he had replied that they could name a school after him. One of the city’s foremost private schools is named the Maharaja Jam Saheb Digvijaysinhji High School. A fitting tribute indeed.

Today, as another war rages, Poland is welcoming thousands of displaced women and children. Perhaps some of them will find refuge in the Square of the Good Maharaja, and history would have come full circle.


Women of Substance

Some people know the name Savita Ambedkar. Fewer know the name Gyan Patnaik. These were women who were achievers in their own right, but decided to stay in the background, while their husbands took the larger stage. A small peek into their lives…

Savita Ambedkar: Dr. Savita (born Sharada) Ambedkar was the wife of Dr. BR Ambedkar. Born in 1909, she belonged to a very forward-looking family which gave great importance to education. This enabled her to pursue her MBBS in a day and age when it was not very common for women to even complete school. After graduating from Grant Medical College Bombay, she was appointed as Medical Officer in a major hospital in Gujarat. However, due to ill-health, she gave up her job there and returned to Bombay in a while, and started assisting a senior doctor in his practice. It was at this time that she met Dr. Ambedkar at the house of a common acquaintance He was immersed in his work as Labour Minister in the Viceroy’s Council. The acquaintanceship began with a few conversations about women’s rights, Buddhism, etc., and continued for many years. . Dr. Ambedkar had lost his first wife and had resolved not to marry. During the writing of the Constitution which obviously must have been a very stressful time,  Dr. Ambedkar’s health suffered and he came to Bombay for treatment. Dr. Savita was closely involved in his treatment, and they had many conversations about social change, literature, religion, etc. Their friendship grew, and they decided to get married in 1948. After that, she not only lent her intellectual support in his many tasks, she also acted as his personal doctor-nurse, and was involved in social work. Dr. Ambedkar has credited her with increasing his life-span by 8-10 years.

Tragically, after his death, she was accused of having poisoned him. Govt. of India set up committee to look into the circumstances of his death. The committee found no indication of foul play. While during Dr. Ambedkar’s life, she was a very respected figure in the Dalit-Buddhist movement, after that, there were allegations that she was not really committed to it, given her Brahmin birth. However, after some years, there was a reconciliation and she actively participated in it once again. She was responsible for the preservation of many documents and papers related to her husband and received the posthumous Bharat Ratna on his behalf.

Gyan Patnaik: Fiesty Gyan was the wife of the flamboyant Biju Patnaik.  She was one of the first women-aviators in India, and probably the first woman to get a commercial pilot’s license in the 1930s. It was their joint love of flying that brought the Punjabi Gyan and the Odiya Biju together.  He piloted his baraat across the country for the wedding, and was known as Punjab’s son-in-law.

Gyan participated fully in the nationalist movement with Biju. She co-piloted the plane with him in his daring rescue of Indonesian leaders from Dutch-occupied Java. She went back there on several missions with Biju to bring humanitarian aid to the beleaguered people. She was also very active in supporting the freedom struggle in Nepal in the 1950s. She flew several sorties to Burma along with her husband to rescue British families as the Japanese invaded the country during World War II.

Gyan Patnaik with her Husband
Gyan Patnaik with her Husband

She was passionately interested in science and the use of science for improving people’s lives, and provided leadership to these initiatives through the Kalinga Foundation. She was a wise counselor not only to Biju Patnaik, but also to many leaders in Orissa. However, during the later years, Biju preferred that she live away from Orissa so as not to get caught up in the rough and tumble of state politics.

A woman-doctor and a lady-pilot in the 1930s were on path breaking journeys and would have made waves. Being married to prominent men brought them to the public eye and they garnered accolades in a different way—one where they were seen more as supporters of men on the national stage, rather than achievers in their own right.

On International Women’s Day, we claim back the stage for them and many others like them, and wish all readers.


PS: We started our blog on International Women’s Day, 2018. Four years and 480 posts–an opportunity for immense learning and sharing. A big thank you to all our readers!

War and Peace

Once again the world is at war. Just as the images of the ravages in Afghanistan were beginning to fade, our senses are once again overwhelmed with the heart wrenching narratives of the unfolding tragedy of war in Ukraine. As the powers that be are flexing their muscles and showcasing their might, and statesman are spouting rhetoric, people like you and me have had their entire life turned upside down overnight. Behind the smoke and the rubble are thousands of human faces, each with their personal stories of loss and trauma, looking into an abyss of uncertainty.  

In all the din and despair, we all need some words of sanity and hope, but there are so few voices now that can bring some reason and solace. Sadly in the last few months the world lost two such voices who saw the senselessness of war and dedicated their life to peace. One was Archbishop Desmond Tutu who passed away in December 2021 and to whom we paid tribute in our piece Looking Ahead With Hope posted on 30 December 2021. The other was Thich Nhat Hanh who passed away in January this year at the age of 95.                        

Thich Nhat Hanh was a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who was a prolific author, poet, teacher and peace activist. He was born as Nguyen Dinh Lang in Hue in Central Vietnam on October 11, 1926. He joined a Zen monastery as a novice monk at the age of 16. Upon his ordination in 1949, he assumed the Dharma name Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich is an honorary family name used by Vietnamese monks and nuns. Later he was universally best known as Thay which means teacher.

Even as a young bhikshu (monk) in the early 1950s, Thich Nhat Hanh was actively engaged in the movement to renew Vietnamese Buddhism. He was one of the first bhikshus to study a secular subject at university in Saigon, and one of the first six monks to ride a bicycle.

When war came to Vietnam in the mid-1950s, monks and nuns were confronted with the question of whether to adhere to the contemplative life and stay meditating in the monasteries, or to help those around them suffering under the bombings and turmoil of war. Thich Nhat Hanh was one of those who chose to do both. Even as he was getting deeper into the spiritual realm of Buddhist beliefs, he was also actively engaged in the efforts at mitigating the devastating effects of the war on his people and country. In the early 1960s, Thich Nhat Hanh founded the School of Youth and Social Service, a grassroots relief organization of 10,000 volunteers including young monks. They went into the war affected areas to care for the wounded, to resettle the refugees by setting up new places for these people to live, to build schools and health centres. The youth did not see themselves as just social workers, but as practitioners of the Buddhist principles of non-violence and compassionate action.

In 1961 Thich Nhat Hanh travelled to the United States to teach Comparative Religion at Princeton University, and the following year went on to teach and research Buddhism at Columbia University. He returned to Vietnam in 1963 to join the growing Buddhist opposition to the U.S.-Vietnam War, which attracted global attention because of self-immolation by several monks as a gesture of protest. He travelled once more to the U.S. and Europe to make the case for peace and to call for an end to hostilities in Vietnam. Towards the height of the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s he met civil rights leader Martin Luther King, whom he persuaded to speak out against the conflict.

In 1964 Thich Nhat Hanh published a poem called Condemnation in a Buddhist weekly. It reads in part:

Whoever is listening, be my witness:
I cannot accept this war.
I never could I never will.
I must say this a thousand times before I am killed.
I am like the bird who dies for the sake of its mate,
dripping blood from its broken beak and crying out:
“Beware! Turn around and face your real enemies
— ambition, violence hatred and greed.”

The poem earned him the label “antiwar poet,” and he was denounced as a pro-Communist propagandist. As his voice began to be heard in America and Europe, and because he refused to support either North or South Vietnam in the conflict, both the communist and non-communist governments banned him from entering the countries, forcing Thich Nhat Hanh to live in exile for over 39 years. As he explained “I did not intend to come and to stay for a long time in the West. In fact, I was invited to deliver a series of talks and took the opportunity to speak about the war, the version that was not heard by people outside of Vietnam because the Buddhists in Vietnam, we represent the majority who do not side themselves with any warring parties. And what we wanted really is not a victory, but the end of the war. So what I told people over here at that time did not please any warring parties in Vietnam. That is why I was not allowed to go home.”

During this period of exile, Thich Nhat Hanh, who spoke seven languages, became a global advocate for peace and spoke and wrote widely against the cycle of war and violence. He also continued to teach, lecture and write on the art of mindfulness and ‘living peace,’ and in the early 1970s was a lecturer and researcher in Buddhism at the University of Sorbonne, Paris. In 1975 he established the Sweet Potato community near Paris, and in 1982, moved to a much larger site in the south west of France, known as Plum Village which grew into the West’s largest and most active Buddhist monastery, with over 200 resident monastics and up to 8,000 visitors every year, who come from around the world to learn “the art of mindful living.”

Thich Nhat Hanh was able return to Vietnam only in 2005, when the Communist government allowed him to teach, practice and travel throughout the country. His anti-war activism continued. In 2014, a month after his 88th birthday he suffered a severe stroke which left him largely paralyzed and unable to speak but he continued to spread his message through his serene presence. Thich Nhat Hanh passed away peacefully at his root temple, Tu Hieu, in Hue, Vietnam, on January 22, 2022 at the age of 95.

If his physical presence was here today, the gentle monk would have been anguished by yet another meaningless war and reminded the world that there is an alternative path of trust, compassion and fellowship.  Let us remember his words:

“We know very well that airplanes, guns and bombs cannot remove wrong perceptions. Only loving speech and compassionate listening can help people correct wrong perceptions. But our leaders are not trained in that discipline, and they rely only on the armed forces to remove terrorism.”

And most of all: “Hope is important, because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.”

With hope for a better tomorrow.


Rahul Bajaj: Carrying on the Legacy of Jamnalal Bajaj

Rahul Bajaj was a doyen of Indian industry, and a rare brave man who spoke his mind under all circumstances. His passing away is the end of an era in which he played a major role–from operating in the licence-permit raj, to competing in the liberalized regime, to establishing India’s position as an industrial force to be reckoned with.

What made him ‘him’ was surely shaped by his family influences—especially his grandfather, Jamnalal Bajaj. And that is whom we talk about today.

Jamnalal Bajaj was considered Gandhiji’s fifth son, and adopted all his values—from Ahimsa, to his dedication to the poor, to his commitment to locally made goods, to his patriotic spirit. Shri Bajaj was an active member of the Congress Party, and gave up the Rai Bahadur title conferred on him by the British Government and joined the non-cooperation movement. He fought for the admission of Harijans into temples, and in the face of strong objections, opened up his own family temple in Wardha—the first temple in the country to do this.

Wardha, Maharastra was where Jamnalal’s family was settled, and that is how it came to play such an important part in the Freedom Struggle. When Gandhiji left the Sabarmati Ashram at Ahmedabad for the Dandi March, he vowed not to go back till freedom was achieved.

Jamnalal had earlier spent time at Sabarmati Ashram with his family, and had been deeply moved by the experience. He invited Gandhiji to come to Wardha and set up an Ashram there after the Dandi March. And thus did the Sewargram Ashram come up there, and Wardha become the centre of the Freedom Movement.

A few years ago I was privileged, during a visit to Wardha, to visit Bajajwadi, where critical meetings with regard to the freedom struggle were held, marked by the presence of not only Gandhiji but also Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, Maulana Azad, Sarojini Naidu, Sardar Patel, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Dr. Pattibhi Sitaramayya among many others. All of them stayed there when they came for meetings and discussions. The historical resolution calling for the Quit India movement was signed at Bajajwadi.

Room in Bajajwadi where Quit India movement was discussed

Wardha was also the site where the Gandhiji’s idea of Nai Talim or New Education was developed, discussed at a National Education Conference in 1937, and put into practice at a model school.

The basic tenets of Nai Talim were:

  • That education should include a “reverent study of all religions.”
  • Education meant lifelong learning
  • And a re-definition of the role of the teacher, which is summed up by him as : “A teacher who establishes rapport with the taught, becomes one with them, learns more from them than he teaches them. He who learns nothing from his disciples is, in my opinion, worthless. ..In this way, a true teacher regards himself as a student of his students.”

Another important initiative rooted close to Wardha was Maharogi Seva Samiti, the first indigenous leprosy care centre in India. Manohar Diwan, one of Gandhi’s followers became the first non-missionary Indian to work on leprosy, and set up the centre under the guidance of Vinoba Bhave and Gandhiji in 1937.

Jamnalal Bajaj was deeply involved in the freedom movement and every one of these political and social reform movements. Apart of course to his involvement in business and the founding of the Bajaj Group.

And thus was Rahul Bajaj’s role cut out for him!


Ref: https://www.jamnalalbajajfoundation.org/

The Silent Valley Saga: A Landmark in India’s Environmental Movement

Last week, we paid our tribute to Prof. MK Prasad—one of the key people behind saving Silent Valley. This week, I thought I would re-visit some details about Silent Valley and the campaign.

The Silent Valley deep in the Western Ghats of Kerala is a very special forest. In fact, it is one of the oldest stretches of rainforest in the world, ‘the last authentic sizeable evergreen forests left’, in the words of MK Krishnan, the eminent naturalist.

Lion tailed Macaque
Lion-tailed Macaque. Illustration: CEE

It is home to about a 1000 species of flowering plants, 107 species of orchids, 100 ferns, 200 liverworts, 75 lichens and about 200 algae, many of them endemic to the area. It counts 34 species of mammals, 292 species of birds, 31 species of reptiles, 22 species of amphibians, 13 of fishes, 500 of butterflies and moths, besides a multitude of other orders of animal life (keralatravels.com). And these are only the species documented! The valley’s flagship species is the lion-tailed macaque, a species endemic to the Western Ghats.

Many are the myths and legends associated with this forest. It is said that the Pandavas, during their peregrinations after they lost their kingdom to the Kauravas, happened to come to this forest. So enchanted were they that they decided to make it their temporary home. The river that runs through the forest is called Kuntipuzha, in memory of their mother, and the forest itself was called Sairandhari, this being another name for Draupadi.

In 1847, the Englishman Robert Wright came upon the thick forest. He or his colleagues named it Silent Valley. There are several theories about why this name was given. It could of course be an Anglicization of Sairandhari, the traditional name. Or it could be because there are no cicadas in this forest. The constant hum in most forests is due to cicadas, and the absence of this noise can be quite stark. Cicadas do not thrive in wet climate, and that is why they are not common here. Yet another theory is that the British gave it this name due to the presence of the rare lion-tailed macaque whose Latin name is Macaca silenus. But in spite of its name, the Silent Valley resounds to the cadences of the river, bird-calls, monkey-whoops, and insect chirrups.

Silent Valley burst into the national consciousness in the 1970s, when the Kerala Government proposed to construct a dam on River Kuntiphuzha, to generate electricity for the State’s growing needs. When scientists and environmentalists came to know about this, they were very concerned, as it would mean that the Silent Valley would be flooded, and that would be the end of that very special habitat and the unique flora and fauna there.

Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parshat (KSSP), a people’s science movement, took up the cause. On the one hand they did techno-economic and socio-political studies to show the impact of the project, and its pros and cons. On the other hand, they mobilized public opinion, and garnered the support of eminent scientists and people. They also came up with alternatives to building the dam e.g., building a series of small dams, rather than one large one.

It was a long and hard battle. It became a bitter war between the State which wanted the project, and the people who did not. The Centre through the course of the controversy saw many changes, and some of the PMs were for and others against the project. Each set up Committees of scientists. Media was also ranged on the two sides, beginning with local media predominantly in favour of the project, and then slowly veering against it. For a long time, national media paid little attention to the issue, but later weighed in favour of the environment. International environmental organizations also came into the fray. The matter went to court to—with the High Court at some stage giving the go-ahead.

It was when Mrs. Indira Gandhi came back as PM that it began to look as if the conservation movement would win. In 1981, she declared Silent Valley a protected area. But it was found that the hydroelectric dam was not covered in the area under protection. Protests began anew, till finally the project was scrapped in 1983. In 1984, Mrs. Gandhi declared it a National Park—the highest level of protection that can be given. And Silent Valley was saved!

Kerala government has recently decided to declare the buffer zone of Silent Valley National Park as a wildlife sanctuary—the Bhavani Wildlife Sanctuary spread across 148 square km.  So hopefully, Silent Valley continues to remain safe!

Hats off to the scientists, environmentalists, poets, artists, students, NGOs , media, politicians and the common people who fought the long and hard battle to preserve our common heritage.

There are other such success stories, but sadly not very many. And even more sadly, hardly any in recent times.


Activist Poet: Homero Aridjis

This week several of my friends shared their fond remembrances of Prof MK Prasad. For us at CEE, MKP was the mentor with the twinkle in his eye and a gentle rebuke or prodding, even as he solicitously asked about our families, and encouraged us in our work as environmental educators.

Professor MK Prasad was a rare combination of utmost humility and simplicity with the mind of a brilliant academic, a fighter’s spirit, a scientist’s rigour, a leader’s passion, a prolific writer, and a relentless campaigner for the environment. As one newspaper article mentioned ‘activism and writing are not always identical. The activist has to be amidst people organising and motivating them while garnering available scientific facts. A writer has to confine himself to his study for long hours to research, read, think and write.’ Prof MK Prasad, like some of his other fellow members of the Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad (KSSP) beautifully combined activism and writing. This was also a unique characteristic of the Save the Silent Valley Movement that Meena described—the coming together of poets, writers, activists and citizens for an environmental issue.  

There is perhaps one other similar story that echoes this movement. The story of Homero Aridjis, a Mexican poet, novelist, activist, and diplomat, and founder of the Group of 100 a group of intellectuals and artists who united to tackle and environmental issues in Mexico, and raise awareness of environmental issues internationally.

Homero Aridjis was born in 1940, and grew up in the Mexican state of Michoacán near the area where Monarch butterflies gather for the winter. He recalled how as a child he saw Monarch butterflies flying across his village every winter. There was also his annual school excursion to the sanctuaries in the nearby mountains to see the butterflies. On these excursions he also saw that the mountains were being deforested with the connivance of politicians, loggers and local farmers who were cutting down the oyamel fir trees where the Monarchs roosted. Since then the young Homero became concerned that this would mean the loss also of the Monarch butterflies as the forests were their habitat. The Monarch butterfly, a fragile insect that flew thousands of miles from Canada to Mexico every winter sparked the poet in him, and he wrote many poems about butterflies. The butterfly also became, to him, a symbol of the environment. As he explained: I love poetry and the environment for me is the poetry of life. I can’t be living now in a world without poetry or be a member of humanity without feeling the poetry of human beings.

As he grew older, and embarked upon a career in the Diplomatic Service, being posted as his country’s envoy to several European countries, Homero’s passion for the environment was also growing. One day in 1985 he read a letter sent by a philosopher friend to a local newspaper. He felt that a single small voice of dissent would not make a difference, but he thought that if the writers and artists of Mexico joined together to make a strong statement, they would perhaps stand a chance of being heard. A few weeks later, on 1 March 1985, a fierce critique of the environmental havoc amidst which we live was signed by 100 leading personalities in the arts, literature, culture and science in Mexico.

The statement was published in the national and international media. Thus was born The Grupo de los Cien — the Group of 100 which took up the cause to reverse ecological damage and environmental degradation in Mexico, raising awareness about the threats to many species and habitats and campaigning to ensure the continuance of Mexico’s rich biological diversity.

Due to public pressure the President of Mexico in 1986, declared the habitat of the Monarch butterfly and five other sanctuaries as ‘protected’. But illegal logging and other destructive activities continued in the forests. Homero took up his pen as a weapon and wrote many articles in the newspapers and many petitions to draw attention to this. His diplomatic posting as an ambassador to UNESCO helped him to take the battle to an international stage. Before he left UNESCO, the committee of the natural heritage approved the monarch butterfly sanctuaries as protected Natural Heritage of Humanity.

The Group of 100 continued to take up critical issues that that threatened the delicate balance between environment and development. They campaigned to seek protection for the beaches where sea turtles laid their eggs, and that resulted in ending the commercial killing of sea turtles in Mexico. In 1995 they launched a fierce   fight against a planned industrial salt plant that would have had catastrophic impacts on the lagoons where gray whales came to give birth as well as the surrounding environment and local communities. It took five years of battles before the plant was cancelled. Homero bore the brunt of the hostility from vested interests and even received death threats. The Group of 100 remains active to this day, fighting the same battles, with the same undiminished spirit.

As Homero Aridjis put it: You have to have a commitment and a conviction to defend the environment even if you know that the forces of destruction are very big. You have governments, you have corporations, you have individuals, you have criminals, you have many people against nature. That is very difficult but you as a human being and a person with an environmental conscience you have to do everything you can, always in peaceful ways and in legal ways, to defend the environment. You have to defend the things you love.

MK Prasad and Homero Aridjis two warriors who fought with pen as well as sword.