International Day of Women and Girls in Science, 11 February

Gagandeep Kang: Virologist, Professor, Department of Gastrointestinal Sciences at Christian Medical College, Vellore, India.  First Indian woman to be elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society.  At the forefront of COVID science.

Kiran Majumdar Shaw: Chairman-MD of Biocon India Group known for its breakthroughs in clinical research. The first Indian company to export enzymes to the United States and Europe, the first Indian company to gain the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the manufacture of a cholesterol-lowering molecule.

Vijayalakshmi Ravindranath: Chairperson at Centre for Neuro Sciences at Indian Institute of Science, who leads research that will help us understand and cure Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Tessy Thomas: Expert in ‘solid propellants’, which fuel India’s Agni missiles developed by Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO). Called Agniputri by media, after the missiles she has helped develop.

Ms J Manjula:  DRDO Outstanding Scientist, and Director, Defence Avionics Research Establishment.

Minal Sampath, Systems Engineer working on India’s mission to Mars. Anuradha TK, senior-most women officer at ISRO. Nandini Harinath, Project Manager Mission Design, Deputy Operations Director, Mars Orbiter Mission, ISRO. And the many other Mars-Mission Women.

Inspirations, one and all. And they are not the only women-achievers in science and technology.

But still such a minuscule number!

Not just India, but the world and Asia too have this challenge of attracting and retaining women in these fields.

For instance, worldwide:

  • Only 35% of all higher education students enrolled in STEM-related fields are female.
  • Only 28% of all of the world’s researchers are women

Recently, UNESCO Bangkok brought out a report on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education for girls and women in Asia, 2020. The report points to a cycle which hinders girls for pursuing STEM education and hence careers in science.  It highlights the reality that right from a young age, girls receive messages that these subjects are not suitable for girls. One of the issues is that girls do not see any role models of successful women scientists around them. Even when girls do take up this stream of education, there are several barriers to success—from discrimination, to having to handle multiple responsibilities outside the job, to glass ceilings.

It is in recognition of these challenges that the United Nations in 2015, decided that ‘In order to achieve full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls, and further achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution A/RES/70/212 declaring 11 February as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science’.

The theme for this year is ‘Women Scientists at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19’. Indeed it is a matter of pride that so many women are indeed there—whether as researchers, as doctors, healthcare professionals or in manufacturing vaccines and medicines.

The journey has started, but there is such a long way to go. Leaving 50 per cent of humanity’s brainpower and entrepreneurial energies out of the search for fundamental scientific truths and putting these to the service of humanity, seems a sad waste indeed!

Make a resolution today to encourage a girl in science. Take her to visit a Science and Technology museum. Buy her a science kit. Take her on a visit to a Scientific Institution on its Open Day. Tell her stories of women-scientists. Gift her a book about science and scientists. In fact, gift a few boys some books about women scientists too!

Do anything, but do something…

–Meena

PS: Two books by women, to get the reading list started:

The Spark that Changed Everything. Veena Prasad. Hachette.

Fantastic Adventures in Science—Women Scientists of India. Nandita Jayaraj, Aashima Freidog. Puffin Books.

Remember Surabhi?

Yes, the weekly culture-magazine that Doordarshan viewers so looked forward to in the 1990s! I was surfing the channels one afternoon, and came across something called DD Retro, where Surabhi was airing. I scrolled down to see other programmes scheduled for the day. They didn’t resonate, but I have started tuning in whenever possible to catch Surabhi.

It was path-breaking in many, many senses of the word. It ran 9 seasons and clocked an incredible 415 episodes (as compared to 236 of Friends!). It was India’s longest-running cultural programme, and had among the highest audiences ever for a TV show of that time (without any TRP fixing!).

Long before such information was literally at our fingertips, Surabhi brought the length and breadth of the country into our drawing rooms, and introduced us to wonders selected most eclectically–from the ‘classical’ arts to the ‘folk’ arts; architecture to sculpture to music, dance, etc. etc. ; museums and individual collections; natural wonders to manmade marvels. It introduced us to parts of the country which in that era are even-less known than they are now, especially the North East and the Andamans. It went deep into the nooks and corners of the country. It made us proud of our art and craft traditions, and even more, brought home the sense that these were living traditions, not some artefacts in the confines of a museum.

It terms of format, it was not a documentary as was the wont those days for giving serious, highbrow information on culture. It was a lively magazine format with short segments covering a wide variety, with no particular discernable theme for the day. Something for everyone and just enough information to whet the appetite.

The key to the success was probably the anchors: Siddharth Kak who brought a gravitas to the proceedings, and Renuka Sahane who lit up the screen with a million-volt smile. Both spoke with so much sincerity and were backed with good research. Never flippant or frivolous, the script was informative and in pretty high-level Hindi, but never seemed to intimidate. Probably because the excitement of the anchors on each new discovery and their genuine joy in sharing it were so palpable.

Audience participation was another key. Many of the items covered were suggested by viewers and after due research, the Surabhi team showcased them. And the competitions! Each episode ended with a question posed by the anchors to the audience. And what a response they used to get. According to the Limca Book of Records, they once got 14 lakh responses in a week! And it was not about clicking something on the screen. People had to make the effort to go to the Post Office, buy a postcard, write down their answers, go to a post box and post it. The Indian Postal service is said to have introduced a special ‘Competition Postcard’ costing Rs.2 (as opposed the normal 15 paise) thanks to Surabhi!. Week after week, how did they even go through all the responses? But they did, and then all the correct responses would be piled up in the room in a special segment, and children would come in to pick the lucky winners from among them.

The prizes for the competitions were bang on in keeping with the spirit of the programme. Usually sponsored by state government tourism corporations and Indian Airlines, they went from air tickets and a few days stay at beach, mountain and tourism resorts of the states, to gift coupons to be used at State Emporia; to gifts of Mysore crepe saris and Mysore sandal soaps!

My family’s close encounter with Surabhi was a lovely one. I wrote in to them describing Raghu’s unique collection of old Indian locks, and unlike today, when one can write 10 mails to ‘info@’ and not get a response, they responded in a few weeks. After seeking more information and sending a local team to take a look, a time for the final shoot was set up, and the team including Siddharth Kak were at home! The airing of the collection on Surabhi is definitely an integral part of the story of Raghu’s lock collection!

Re-watching Surabhi, I felt it was still as interesting today (albeit a few things will look quaint to today’s viewers). Would surely be worth showing at better times and creating more publicity around it? And if there could be an easy-to-find Youtube channel with all the programmes, that would be amazing!

–Meena

Never Say Die: A Tribute to Dr. V. Shanta

A Tribute on Republic Day to Builders of our Institutions of Excellence

The story of Dr. V. Shanta (1927-2021), is the story of The Cancer Institute, Adyar. For her, the institute and its mission were everything. She admitted that work was her only interest,  that she was not social, had few friends, and did not keep in touch with those she had! So tied up was her life to the Institute that when she felt unwell a few days before her death, she said to those around her: “If I die, sprinkle my ashes all over the institute. I don’t want to leave this hospital,”

She joined the Institute in 1955, just a year after it was founded by another remarkable lady, Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy. Dr. Shanta served there till she passed away last week at the age of 93, still seeing patients and managing the institute as Chairperson. Dr. Shanta, who was related to two of India’s Noble Laurates (Dr. CV Raman and Dr. S Chandrashekar), was a Magsaysay Award recipient (2005) and a Padma Vibhushan (2015).

Her Magsaysay citation mentions: “In an era when specialised medical care in India has become highly commercialised, Dr Shanta strives to ensure that the Institute remains true to its ethos, ‘Service to all’. Its services are free or subsidised for some 60 percent of its 100,000 annual patients […] 87-year-old Shanta still sees patients, still performs surgery and is still on call twenty-four hours a day.”

Adyar Cancer Institute was only the second comprehensive cancer centre in India. It pioneered many areas of cancer care, becoming the first in the country to set up a Nuclear Medical Oncology Department; to set up a Medical Physics Department; to set up a Pediatric Oncology Department; to start a Medical Oncology Unit; carry out the country’s first rural cancer survey; create the first super-specialty course in oncology in India; set up the first cancer registry..and many, many more.

While it stays at the cutting edge of medical developments related to cancer, the core of the Institute is its Mission to provide quality care for every patient, irrespective of their ability to pay. In fact, of the 535 beds in the hospital, only 40% are fully-paid beds; 20% patients pay a nominal amount; 40% beds are free, where not only do patients not pay for treatment, but boarding and lodging is free too–living up to its Mission ‘To provide state of art to any cancer patient irrespective of his or her economic status.’

This was the lifework of Dr. Shanta, along with Dr. S. Krishnamurthi, son of the founder Dr. Muthulakshmi.

May the legacy of Dr. Muthulakshmi and Dr. Shanta continue to live on, and may their dream of a world free of suffering and pain come true!

–Meena

In memory of my father, Shri A. Nagaratnam, one of the country’s early Medical Physicists, who had the privilege of professional interactions with Dr. Shanta.

Father Valles, whom Mamata wrote about a few weeks ago in ‘The Mathematical Priest’ has been bestowed posthumously with the Padma Shri. A fitting tribute indeed.

Wisdom of the Ages: Thiruvalluvar Day

What was his name?

What was his faith?

What was his occupation?

When did he live?

Who knows? And more importantly, who cares?

For the heritage of poetry, philosophy, dharma and wisdom he has left us is beyond all these.

Thiruvalluvar, the revered Tamil poet, whose Thirukural even today is taught in every school in Tamil Nadu, and whose couplets on a range of subjects, from love and family life to economics and politics, are quoted by politicians, movie stars, professors, and common people alike, to clinch any argument.

I am but a poor Tamilian, who can neither read nor write Tamil, and am hence missing out on the riches of one of the world’s most ancient languages. Maybe to make up, I decided to do this blog on Thiruvalluvar on the occasion of Thiruvalluvar Day, Jan 15. The Tamil Nadu government has been observing this day as part of Pongal celebrations for many decades now.

Very little is known about him. Even his name is not certain—his works do not name an author! In fact, the Thirukural as a book itself does not carry a name! The French translator Ariel has referred to it as ‘the book without a name by an author without a name’.

His works have been dated by various scholars from 4th century BC to 5th century AD! In 1935, Govt. of Tamilnadu recognized 35 BC as the Year of Valluvar.

He may have been a Hindu. Equally, he may have been a Jain. Some claim Christian influences in his work. Many scholars hold he was beyond religion. For instance, Mu. Varadarajan says he probably “practiced religious eclecticism, maintained unshakeable faith in dharma but should have rejected religious symbols and superstitious beliefs.”

He may have been a weaver, a farmer, a priest, a drummer or an ‘outcaste’.

What is of moment are his works, especially the Thirukural, a collection of 1330 couplets. Each couplet consists of just seven words (termed ‘kural’), but pithily encapsulates wisdom. The 1330 verses have been divided into three sections by the author: the first is Arathuppaal which gives norms and codes for a virtuous life; the second, Porutpaal deals with the right way of acquiring wealth and expounds the fundamentals of politics and statecraft; the last, Kamathuppaal deals with family life and love in all its manifestations.

While urging you to visit any of the many sites devoted to the Kural and its translations, here is just a taste to whet the appetite:

Verse 211: Kaimmaru venda kadappadu marimattu ennarrun kollo ulaku.

Meaning:  

The benevolent expect no return for their dutiful giving.

How can the world ever repay the rain cloud?

Verse 541: Orndhukan notaadhu iraipurindhu yaarmaattum therndhusey vaqdhe murai.

Meaning:

Investigate well, show favor to none, maintain impartiality

Consult the law, then give judgment-that is the way of justice.

Verse 1032 : Uzhuvaar ulakaththaarkku aaniaq thaatraadhu ezhuvaarai ellaam poruththu.

Meaning:

Farmers are the linchpin of the world

For they support all those who take to other work, not having the strength to plow.

–Meena

Based on Wikipedia (of course!), as well as ‘Tirukkural-Arathuppal’ Prof SN Chokkalingam, Vanitha Press; https://ilearntamil.com/thirukural-with-english-meaning-athigaram-104/ and https://tamilnation.org/literature/kural/kurale1

The Artful Microbes

2020 has been a year dominated by a microbe. In our imaginations and our nightmares, microbes are demonic creatures which have brought the world to its knees, and are out to destroy us. The year has served to reinforce a general belief that bacteria and viruses are villainous creatures behind disease and death.

However, as all of us who have gone through middle-school biology know, on the balance, microbes as a class do more good than harm.  To recall, microbes are microscopic living organisms, too small to see with the naked eye, There are five main groups of microbes: bacteria, viruses, fungi, algae and protozoa. While some of them do cause disease, many microbes are beneficial, and many, many others do neither active harm nor good but are an intrinsic part of the ecosystem. Bacteria and fungi in the soil are essential for decomposing organic matter and recycling old plant material. Some soil microbes form relationships with plant roots and help provide the plant with important nutrients like nitrogen or phosphorus. In fact, we could not digest food without gut bacteria. They protect against infection and even maintain reproductive health. We would not have bread or yogurt without microbes. Scientists say that nearly fifty percent of the oxygen that is present in the atmosphere is produced by bacteria.

But listings are boring and a picture is worth a 1000 words! And that is what the work of the American Society for Microbiology does for microbes through its annual ASM Agar ArtContest. The results of the 2020 edition were just announced. And they help us appreciate microbes–not through a recital of benefits, but by creating art with them!

First Prize: “Strands of Antisense” by Riley Cutler, Mississippi State University Starkville.

This annual contest is for ‘art created in a petri dish using living, growing microorganisms. Creators use either naturally colorful microbes, like the red bacteria Serratia marcescens, or genetically modified microbes, like the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae transformed with violacein genes, as ‘paint’ and various types, shapes and sizes of agar as a ‘canvas.’

The contest has been gaining popularity and this year’s edition had close to 200 countries entries from 29 countries across the world. It vindicates Fleming (yes indeed, the discoverer of penicillin) who was probably the first agar artist but whose art form was not appreciated in his time. He would fill Petri dishes with agar (a medium used to grow microbes), and then use a lab instrument called a loop to introduce different types of bacteria on different parts of the agar. He created many ‘paintings’ by culturing microbes of different natural colours—brown, violet, pink, yellow, orange etc., in Petri dishes, planned in way to create colourful patterns. It is not that simple either. Because he had to find the right colour of bacteria and dexterously introduce it on the exact spot on the dish. Further, different bacteria grow as different speeds, and hence have to be introduced at different times, with the end result in mind. And the art is ephemeral, because soon one bacteria will grow into another’s space and blur things out.

Second Prize: “Microbial Peacock: Balaram Khamari. Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning, Puttaparthi, India

Agar art thus is not just about creating beautiful things where they are least expected. But today, is also being recognized as a part of the art curriculum in some countries, and incorporated into biology curricula in some, since it has the potential to help students learn so much about microbes in such a hands-on way.

Thank you ASM, for showing us beauty where we least expect it, for helping us to put things in perspective, and for providing a platform for art to take wings! In 2021, may we too be able to do this in our everyday lives! May the year bring victory over the ‘bad’ microbes!

–Meena

Though these words did not make it to any listings, here are two words without which it is impossible to study microbes:

agar

agar (noun) · agar-agar (noun)a gelatinous substance obtained from certain red seaweeds and used in biological culture media and as a thickener in foods.

Petri dish

A Petri dish is a shallow transparent lidded dish that biologists use to hold growth medium in which cells can be cultured, originally, cells of bacteria, fungi and small mosses. The container is named after its inventor, German bacteriologist Julius Richard Petri. It is the most common type of culture plate. The Petri dish is one of the most common items in biology laboratories.

Pics from: https://asm.org/Events/ASM-Agar-Art-Contest/2020-Winners

The Mathematician Priest

This week as we celebrated Dr AR Rao, a great teacher of mathematics, it is the right time to make it a double celebration. Coincidentally this teacher of mathematics was not only a contemporary of Dr AR Rao, but also made Ahmedabad his karmabhoomi, and the teaching of math his life’s mission.

He was Father Carlos Valles, a Spanish Jesuit priest whose contribution to mathematics education, as well as to the Gujarati language and literature left a significant mark in both fields. The life and work of Father Valles are inspiring, as well as humbling.

Carlos Valles was born in Spain on 4 September 1925. His father, a respected engineer died when Carlos was only 10. But he left a very strong impression on his young son, who through his life reiterated “My father trusted me. I would never let him down.” Soon after his father died, Carlos’ family lost everything in the civil war that broke out in Spain. His mother took refuge with a sister of hers in a city where the Jesuits had just opened a school, and Carlos and his brother got scholarships to study and board in the school. When he was 15 Carlos joined the Jesuit religious order as a novitiate. This was also when he wrote his first book The Art of Choosing, where he reflected on this turning point in his life—detaching from the family for Christ and a lifetime of service. His next ‘detachment’ was leaving the country of his birth. On his own request that he be “sent East”, he was asked to go to India. As it happened, his Jesuit order was planning to start a new St Xavier’s college in Ahmedabad, and the young priest was given the task of helping to set this up. And so, in 1949, Carlos Valles left his mother country for India, which became his home for the next many decades. As he later wrote “There I went in the fullness of my youth. My father had taught me never to do things by halves”.

He also wrote that right from the moment he arrived, he felt so at home in India, that his Indian friends were convinced that he had been an Indian in his previous reincarnation. It was here that he completed his education with a Mathematics honours degree from Madras University in 1953. For someone who knew only Spanish, the course led him to become proficient not only in math but also in English, the medium in which the course was taught.

Around the same time he was also became convinced that if he were to work and teach in Gujarat, then his teaching would need to be in the local language. As he wrote “English was enough to teach mathematics, but not to reach the heart. The heart is reached through the mother tongue”. He had already studied basic Gujarati but he realised that this was not enough. So he went on to hone his language skills at Vallabh Vidyanagar University in Gujarat, living in the hostel for one year with fellow Gujarati students, immersing himself in the language and culture, until he gained mastery over Gujarati.  This was followed by four years of theological studies in Pune, where he continued to practice writing in Gujarati for two hours every day. Carlos Valles was ordained to priesthood in 1958, in the presence of his mother who came to India for the first time.  

Finally it was in 1960, the year that Gujarat separated from Bombay and became a new state, that Father Valles started his mathematics teaching at St Xavier’s College in Ahmedabad. The story goes that on the train from Bombay, he could not get a seat, and so stood all the way, and when in the melee one of his slippers fell off the train, he also threw the other one out, saying that now there is a complete pair that someone can use.

And there started the transformation from being a student to a teacher who was eager to give his body and soul to his teaching. And Father Valles was not one to take the easy path with tried and tested teaching techniques. He not only devised innovative ways of communicating math concepts, but also took upon himself to coin appropriate Gujarati terms for the concepts. He was also convinced that it was his duty not only to reach the minds, but also the hearts of his students; through dialoguing with them on all aspects that affected their life beyond the classroom. He started by writing a small book in Gujarati. Many publishers rejected the manuscript as they felt that no one would read such a book. Eventually Father Valles published it himself with some money that his mother sent him. The book titled Sadachar went onto see twenty editions in three languages.

Thus began the double life of Father Valles—as a Mathematics teacher and as a writer—both in Gujarati. Father Valles soon became a regular columnist for Gujarati periodicals and newspapers. In his original Sunday column in Gujarat Samachar titled To the New Generation he wrote about a wide range of topics– youth, family, society, religion, psychology, morals and contemporary issues. He secretly hoped, as he wrote, that the old generation would read it first. His writings became hugely popular over the years and were compiled and published as books. He did not ignore his first subject either, and with his colleagues, he wrote a whole series of mathematical textbooks in Gujarati which were used and remembered by generations of students in Gujarat.

But it is not only through newspaper pages that Father Valles entered the hearts of Gujaratis. He was a familiar sight riding on his bicycle across the city with his cloth sling bag. To learn from close quarters about the lives, mentalities, attitudes to life, beliefs and traditions of the people of the city, he lived with families in the narrow pols of the old city. As he wrote, “…so I lived the whole day with them, sharing their two daily vegetarian meals, their floor space on a mat at night, and their family life in all its richness, blessings and problems for a few days till I knocked at the door of another family in a continuous pilgrimage. I cycled daily to and from the college for my classes, but for the rest I lived fully as a member of the family I lodged with for the time. I spent ten years in that happy way. Perhaps that is possible only in India”.

For 22 years, Father Valles carried out his mission with heart and soul, in a city that he thought would be his home for life. However as he wrote, “circumstances shaped new and unexpected paths for me.” His mother turned 90 and expressed a wish for her son’s company. Without a second thought, Father Valles moved to Madrid to be with her until she died at the age of 101. He continued to write, now in three languages—English, Gujarati and Spanish, and travel. In 1999, at the age of 74, with his undiminished passion for reaching out, he bought a computer and started a website in Spanish.

Father Valles continued to live in Madrid, but he could make a trip back to his beloved Ahmedabad in 2015. Ahmedabad had changed much since he had left, but his gentle presence reminded its citizens once again about his life’s mission of bringing harmony. As he once said “I would like the word Harmony to be the summary of my life.”

Father Valles passed away in Madrid on 9 November this year, 5 days after his 95th birthday.

Sadly I was not living in Ahmedabad in the years when he was here, but the heartfelt reception he got on this last visit, made me wish that I could have had the privilege of having met this innovative teacher, prolific multi-lingual writer, and above all, an incredible human being.

–Mamata

Go Figure: National Mathematics Day

December 22, the birthday of the mathematical genius Shri Srinivasa Ramanujam, has been observed as National Mathematics Day in India since 2012, the start of the celebration of his 125th birth anniversary. The Day has, since then, been marked in schools and colleges by special events like maths quizzes, competitions etc. Hopefully, the enthusiasm will be carried over to the digital medium this year.

Those of us who fear math will also recall they feared their math teachers. In fact, the fear of math stems in most of us because we just did not understand what was happening in the class. And math teachers seldom felt the need to do anything differently to help students understand the abstract concepts better.

It is in this light that Mathematics Educators like Shri AR Rao stand out. He dedicated his life to math education and inspired generations.

Born in the small village of Jakka Samudram of Salem district, Tamilnadu, he had his initial schooling at Tanjore—not far from Kumbakonam, where Ramanujam and studied lived when he was young.  He studied chemistry, not mathematics at graduate level, and then took a post graduate degree from Chennai. But his karmabhumi was Gujarat. He joined Bahauddin College, Junagadh in 1933, as a Professor of Mathematics and spent 27 years there. After that he taught in various other colleges in the state.

After ‘retirement’ in 1974, he started his second innings. He became a mathematician at VASCSC (Vikram Sarabhai Community Science Centre), a pioneering science education facility in the county. The teacher of formal mathematics became the flag-bearer of non-formal mathematics as a means to popularize mathematics. His mission was to make mathematics enjoyable for students and everyone else.

His innovative mind came up with dozens of puzzles, games, models and teaching aids towards this.

He set up India’s first Mathematics Laboratory at VASCSC. He traveled, attended workshops and seminars, and spoke all over the country to popularize these ideas.

I had the great good fortune of having interacted with Shri AR Rao to some extent. When I was helping at VASCSC, his 90th birthday came up. It was decided to throw a surprise party at the Centre. Just to ensure that he did come in that day, a message was sent to him that the Trustees wanted to meet him.

I still remember the joy and the excitement of the many students and bhakts who came for the party. And at last the guest of honour, Shri AR Rao, walked in. He was truly surprised and thrilled. He almost broke down when it was his turn to speak. He said that he had come in very nervously, thinking that the Trustees had wanted to meet him to ask him to retire now that he was 90! Such was his love and passion for spreading the word on mathematics education that he wanted to come in to work at this age. And indeed he did, till the age of 100. He passed away on 4th April, 2011.

If today the teaching of mathematics in India has become more comprehensible to the average student, if students appreciate and enjoy the beauty of mathematics, and if teachers have begun to employ innovative methods to teach the subject, Prof. AR Rao had a lot to do with it.

It would be appropriate to end with a quote from him:

“Although everyone concedes that without mathematics, modern science and technology can hardly make any progress, it is common knowledge that the students everywhere consider mathematics as a very difficult subject. Of the many reasons that can be found for this, perhaps, the most important are, some defective methods of teaching, over emphasis on exams and indiscriminate cramming of materials from the text books and the so-called guides. So what is really needed is inculcation of a power of understanding and a capacity of creative thinking.” AR Rao.

Blessed indeed to have met such people!

–Meena

Much of the material has been drawn from http://www.vascsc.org/images/pdfs/Glorious-Innings-of-Prof.A-R-Rao.pdf.

When Social Responsibility was Risky Business!

Philanthropy has been garnering headlines in the world media for some years now, with the most successful entrepreneurs speaking more about their giving initiatives that their businesses. And it has indeed set off a virtuous cycle.  

But lest we think giving by industrialists is a new phenomenon …

In continuation of last week’s blog which marked 13 November (designated as World Kindness Day), and November 16 (International Day for Tolerance and Peace), here is a look at a few examples of Indian industrialists whose philanthropy exhibited a sense of enlightenment and responsibility that was path-breaking . The critical thing to remember is that most of the industrialists of the late 18th and the early 19th centuries saw building up India’s industry and infrastructure and supporting the freedom movement as their most critical social responsibilities. They were flying in the face of the Raj in doing this, and the Raj had the power to destroy them! But that did not stop them.

The Vision of Jamsetji Tata

Shri Jamsetji Tata was a pioneer in setting India on the path to industrial self-reliance. But it was not just about technology. His vision for the well-being of his workers was truly enlightened. Way back in the 1880s, he offered facilities like crèches for workers in his mills, as well as short working hours, properly ventilated workspaces, fire safety, etc. In 1886 he instituted a Pension Fund, and in 1895, began to pay accident compensation.

The story of Jamshedpur is another testimony to his vision. The work on this township for housing the workers of the Steel Mills was commenced in 1908. Shri Jamsetji dreamt of more than basic housing for his workers. He wanted to build a proper modern planned city. His instructions regarding the city were:  “Be sure to lay wide streets planted with shady trees, every other of a quick-growing variety. Be sure that there is plenty of space for lawns and gardens; reserve large areas for football, hockey and parks; earmark areas for Hindu temples, Muslim mosques and Christian churches.”

It was private philanthropy that led to the creation of institutions like the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore and Tata Institute for Fundamental Research, Mumbai. It is said that Jamsetji mooted the idea of contributing to an institute like IISC as early as 1898, long before Carnegie’s endowment to set up a Technical School (today Carnegie Mellon University).

From Temples to Gods, to Temples of Education

Shri G.D. Birla was a strong supporter of Gandhiji and gave considerable resources to the freedom struggle. Many of us would have at some time or other visited a Birla Mandir–many a large town in India boasts one. Apart from this charitable activity of temple-building, a landmark contribution of Shri Birla is the creation of one of India’s best higher educational institutions—the Birla Institute of Technology. This was started as a school for G.D. Birla and R.D. Birla by their grandfather in 1901. It grew into a high school  in the 1920s. In the forties, the Birla Education Trust was founded and the institution went from strength to strength, adding degree and post-graduate courses in a variety of disciplines.  In 1964, taking advantage of a Ford Foundation grant, the institute formed a partnership with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA, and was well on the path to leading India’s achievements in technical education.

Gandhi Ashram is Saved!

When Gandhiji  first came to Ahmedabad, he set up his Ashram at Kochrab. He invited a Dalit family– Dudabhai and Danibehn–to come and live at the Ashram. This led to considerable agitation among the Ashram’s neighbours as well as many funders, leading to a financial crisis, which forced Gandhiji to think of shifting the Ashram.

Kochrab Ashram

And then one day, in Gandhiji’s words: “A car drew up near our quarters and the horn was blown. The children came with the news. The sheth did not come in. I went out to see him. He placed in my hands currency notes to the value of Rs 13,000 and drove away. I had never expected this help, and what a novel way of rendering it!”

This gift saved the Ashram. It is well-known that the ‘Sheth’ was Shri Ambalal Sarabhai, one of the foremost industrialists of the time. However, neither he nor Gandhiji ever admitted this!

Jamnalal Bajaj: Exemplary Patriotism

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 and his patriotic spirit. He fought for 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.

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.


Importantly, Jamnalalji, in line with the trusteeship concept propounded by Gandhiji, felt that inherited wealth was a sacred trust to be used for the benefit of the people, and dedicated most of his wealth for the poor and under-privileged.

On the shoulders of giants….

–Meena

 www.tata.com

https://jamnalalbajajfoundation.org/jamnalal-bajaj/about

Mr Kindness

Last week I wrote about Children’s Day. Earlier this month two other important international days passed almost unnoticed. 13 November which is designated as World Kindness Day, and November 16 which is marked as International Day for Tolerance and Peace.

For its fiftieth anniversary on 16 November 1995, UNESCO’s Member States adopted a Declaration of Principles on Tolerance. Among other things, the Declaration affirms that tolerance is respect and appreciation of the rich variety of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human. While this is a universal ideal and aspiration, it is at the level of the individual that the foundation of tolerance and respect is laid.

And this is what the World Kindness Day seeks to do–reinforce the understanding that compassion for others is what binds us all together. It is this that has the power to bridge the gap between people, communities and nations. This global day promotes the importance of being kind to each other, to oneself, and to the world.

The idea of this day was promoted by an international non-profit organisation called the World Kindness Movement which works to inspire individuals towards greater kindness to create a kinder world; and their guiding tenet: The world is full of kind people. If you can’t find one, be one.

Nothing, and no one, exemplifies the spirit and practice of all the three days better than the beloved Mr Rogers whose TV show celebrated kindness, and helped millions of children to develop empathy.

I came upon the inspiring story of Mr Rogers via Tom Hanks when I saw the movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood. After seeing Tom Hank’s version I wanted to know about the real Mr Rogers!

Fred McFeely Rogers grew up in America in the 1930s as a shy, somewhat awkward, and sometimes bullied child. After getting his first degree in music, he returned home for the vacation before he prepared to enter the seminary and study to become a priest. It was then that he saw television for the first time at his parent’s home. He was appalled to see the kind of programmes where as he said ‘people were throwing pies in each other’s faces.’ While he found this disgusting, he also saw the enormous potential that TV had for connection and enrichment. That eureka moment changed his life—and the lives of millions of Americans.

Fred Rogers went on to create a TV show called Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which first aired on 19 February 1968 and continued for over 30 years. The last episode of the 31 seasons was aired on 31 August 2001. Fred Rogers was the host of all 895 episodes, the composer of its more than 200 songs, and its puppeteer.

The set of simple hand puppets featuring 14 characters from his first show continued to be with the friendly Mr Rogers, clad in his trademark red cardigan and sneakers, for over 40 years. The puppets who inhabit the Neighbourhood of Make Believe, portray real-life feelings as they live and learn with the help of their neighbourhood human friends who represent a wide variety of interests and talents. The puppets and the humans live together, care about and learn from each other. As they often reminded viewers “We all have different gifts, so we all have different ways of saying to the world who we are. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.”

Mr Rogers was far from preachy. He did not shy away from difficult topics like bullying, divorce, and death; he talked honestly and openly about subjects that adults are hesitant to discuss with children, but that children wonder and worry about silently. He reassured children and adults that it was ok if there were some things that they could not understand. He addressed children’s fears and insecurities, and instilled a sense of faith and trust. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping”.

Although Fred Rogers later acquired graduate degrees in child development as well as divinity, he always consulted with his close associate and child psychologist Dr Margaret Mcfarland, to ensure that his scripts would authentically reflect the real concerns and feelings of children.

His show also offered children the tools to be lifelong learners—a sense of wonder, a curiosity about the world around us, the willingness to ask questions. “Did you know, when you wonder you are learning?”

The concept of neighbour and neighbourhood in the leitmotif of Mr Rogers’ life and work. “Neighbours are people who live close to each other. Neighbours look at each other, they talk to each other; they listen to each other. That’s how they get to know each other.” In his neighbourhood everyone was welcomed and valued, and the characters taught how to appreciate and respect others.

Mr Rogers’ ‘neighbourhood’ in a sense becomes the symbol of community; it extends beyond a residential address to embrace the city, the country, the continent, and ultimately the planet that we all inhabit. It metaphorically embraces the universe. And it reminds us of the dire need for, and the gentle power of sharing and compassion. “All of us, at some time or other, need help. Whether we’re giving or receiving help, each one of us has something valuable to bring to this world. That’s one of the things that connects us as neighbours—in our own way, each one of us is a giver and a receiver.”

Today teaching and learning respect, tolerance, sharing, acceptance of differences, and celebration of diversity are highlighted in “values education” curricula. This is the kind of education proposed by UNESCO in its declaration of four pillars of education, i.e. learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together and learning to be.

Over 50 years ago Fred Rogers planted the seeds of basic human values in millions of children, who must themselves have grandchildren now! And for all this he offered only one mantra: “There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.”

–Mamata

Winter Is Coming….

Unlike the Starks, I don’t need to worry about endless nights and freezing cold; or White Walkers and scary creatures breaking through the Wall.

But I do have to worry about keeping my skin moisturized.

I am bewildered when I go into a shop these days, with the multiplicity of choices. When we were young, there was a default setting. It was cold cream—in fact, Ponds Cold Cream. It was used on face, on arms, legs or any other exposed parts of the body. For particularly recalcitrant dryness, there was Vaseline, also used on chapped lips. There was the weekly ‘oil bath’ in Tam households wherein til oil was mercilessness massaged into the skin till it saturated every pore, and then washed away with shikai powder or besan.

We were simple and naïve. We didn’t even know there were other types of creams and lotions and potions. There was one dream product though, that our hearts yearned for. But seldom did we get our hands on it. I am not sure why—was it very expensive? Or was it that it was a ‘frivolous’ beauty cream and not a ‘useful’ moisturizing cream? (I saw a recent article mentioning  Afghan Snow as a fairness cream, but I don’t have any memory of it being billed in those days as such). Whatever the reasons middle-class mothers of those days had, I do remember the longing of my young heart for Afghan Snow.

I am not sure if it is still available, but I do remember the light, sparkly, ethereal look of the cream. It came in a blue glass bottle and had a lovely gentle smell. It was the most exotic thing that we knew in terms of cosmetics.

Recently, trying to figure out a bit more about this, I unearthed the fascinating Atmanirbhar story behind this product.

Ebrahim Sultanali Patanwala, originally from Rajasthan, made his way to Mumbai in the early 20th century. He found work with a perfumer and quickly picked up the techniques of blending perfumes. Soon he branched out and set up as an entrepreneur. His first product was a hair oil called ’Otto Duniya’ which met with quite some success, enabling him to set up his own lab and offices.

Messrs. E.S.Patanwala was established in 1909. The company sold oils and perfumes—both those they made, and imported ones. He developed quite a clientele among the Britishers as well as Indian royalty. This did not content him and he took himself off to Europe to learn more. He knew little English, but his earnestness and desire to learn opened doors for him. He connected with Leon Givaudan of Switzerland, at that time the world’s biggest manufacturer of aromatic chemicals. With the training and mentorship he got in Europe, he developed the formula for what was to become one of India’s most popular cosmetics—a cream.

He came back to India and set up a factory in Byculla to make the cream itself, but imported the glass bottles from Germany and the labels from Japan. Around that time, King Zahir of Afghanistan was visiting India and wanted to meet some Indian entrepreneurs. Patanwala was one of them, and he presented the King a hamper of his products included the new, as-yet-unnamed cream. The King is supposed to have opened the bottle, been charmed by the look and perfume, and made the remark that it reminded him of the Snow of Afghanistan. The enterprising Patanwala immediately asked if he could name the cream as Afghan Snow, and the King agreed, and product was launched in 1919 (making it more than 100 years old!)

The product was extremely popular, but ran into some rough weather during the Swadeshi Movement. Because the bottle and labels looked (and were) imported, people thought it was an imported product and listed it as one of the items to be boycotted. Patanwala sent a letter to Mahatma Gandhi, telling him that the product was wholly indigenous and manufactured in Byculla. Mahatma Gandhi then wrote in his newspaper about Afghan Snow, saying that it was a mistake to boycott it, and that he was appreciative that such a good product was being made in India, and that he personally endorsed it.  

I yearn even more for the product now that I know the story! What I would not give for a dark blue glass bottle full of beautifully-perfumed, light frothy shiny white snow, promising to transport me into a fairy tale!

Even more, I yearn for biographies of these amazing people who broke so many barriers, who did so many pioneering things, and who made products whose name still evokes so many memories a hundred years down the road! How they succeeded and why they did or did not sustain.

–Meena