Harvest Season

This is thanksgiving week in many parts of India. A week of festivals marked with celebration and gratitude for nature’s bounty that feeds and sustains us. With the winter season drawing to a close, it is time to reap the harvest of the long months of labour and prayers. Lohri in north India, Pongal in south India, Makar Sankranti in the west, and Magh Bihu in the northeast of the country celebrate the harvest with joy, festivities, and food.

Interestingly, in many other parts of the world, it is autumn, before the winter sets in, that is the season of harvests.  In America Thanksgiving weekend is marked by families joining hands in gratitude over sumptuous meals; in Japan generations of poets and painters have tried to capture the spirit of the annual cycle of seasons in Haikus and brush strokes. Other parts of the world have their traditional ways of marking the cycle of sowing and reaping. Increasingly, as more of the world’s population moves from direct links with the soil to urban life, we seem to revel more in the food and festivities related to these festivals, often forgetting these very elements of nature—sunlight, air, water and soil–that make all life possible.

This week also marks the start of a new calendar year, and the start of the period when the sun begins its northward journey. A good time to give thanks for what has made all this possible, and a reminder to value and cherish every new morning.

This poem by Mary Oliver captures the sentiment beautifully.

 Why I Wake Early

Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and the crotchety –

best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light –
good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.

Mary Oliver was an acclaimed and award-winning American poet whose work reflects a deep communion with the natural world in an age of excesses of modern civilization. She died, almost exactly a year ago, on 17 January 2019, at the age of 83.

–Mamata

SLEEP OVER IT!

It’s the age of startups! Every day one hears of enterprising young 20-somethings making their first million with an innovative product or service that people today lap up with enthusiasm.

I recently read about a number of such ventures that are literally cashing in on sleep (or the lack thereof!) Online mattress brands! In these times when the millennials have too much stress, too little time, inability to get a good night’s sleep, but the ability to afford quick-fix solutions and products, there are smart operators who combine all this into successful commercial ventures. With inviting names like Wakefit, Wink and Nod, Sleepycat and Sunday Mattress, these offer “sleep solutions”. And attractive “offers” from free home delivery and installation, free trial and return, to “sleep internships”, and customised recommendations of the best fit based on an analysis of the customer’s age, height, weight and location!

ripImagine needing so much help to get a good night’s sleep! I have grown up in an age when mattresses had very different connotations. Mattresses were filled with cotton, and were usually of the same size and thickness. Often this cotton was carded by hand by itinerant carders who established camp at the house for a few days marked by the twang of their simple tools, and fluff-filled air. The cotton was filled in covers, stitched in with strong thread, and then beaten heartily with sticks to even out the lumps and bumps. All this done with dexterity and the long experience of a traditional occupation. With mechanisation, these occupations were replaced with neighbourhood shops where the same process was done by a simple machine. Now one took one’s old mattresses there to be opened and redone, with dire warnings that the cotton within was not to be mixed up with any other inferior variety!

This was an exercise carried out every few years. The annual exercise was the sunning of the mattresses. This was a traditional ritual, generally after the rainy season and before Diwali when the strong sun took away the dampness and made the cotton swell. The wonderful smell and feel of freshly-sunned mattresses was guaranteed to induce the cosiest slumber; without any ‘scientific’ testing to arrive at the perfect ergonomic formula.

Furthermore, in addition to supporting the large numbers of family members, most households had a stack of spare mattresses, and quilts. These were stored carefully; many traditional houses had a special space and arrangement for this. They were taken out when guests arrived, and when there were family gatherings like weddings. Over time, as families, and houses grew smaller, and people’s mobility increased, the stacks of mattresses decreased. Then the market began to offer ready-made mattresses, introducing other materials like foam and coir. It became easier to go to a shop and order the one best suited from the limited options available. The familiar childhood mattresses remained at the family home with the parents, to be slept on when visiting them. And as time moved on, and life got faster, the new breed of urban nomads had not the time nor space to go the shop to buy a mattress. Life became so stressed and so frenzied that sleep also became a sought-after commodity. And voila, the market was open for online sleep solutions!

I do appreciate the needs of the times, as well as admire the enterprise to meet the needs. But it also makes me grimace and smile! Belonging as I do to a generation of ‘home-made’ cotton mattresses, I have also inherited several of these. I try, in my own way, to follow some of the annual air-and-sun traditions. And I am grateful that I still get a good night’s sleep without any external help!

–Mamata

 

LOOKING AHEAD…

The last day of the year. The last day of a decade. A day that calls for stock-taking of the months and days gone by. And often, a day for feeling short-changed by life; the self-doubts of what did one achieve? Regrets for unscaled heights and unfulfilled aspirations. Guilt at the unfulfilled resolutions (oops! now where did I safely put that list?!)

In today’s existence which is defined by the measure of busyness and “achievements”; a life of what Hermann Hesse described as one of “aggressive haste”, we seem to be unable to get off the hamster-wheel—running faster while not getting anywhere. The fallout of this is reflected in the daily news of burn outs and breakdowns,or drowning further in hedonistic pleasures.

The dilemma is not peculiar to our times. More than a hundred years ago, Hermann Hesse lamented on the pursuit of as much as possible, as fast as possible: The high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy.

What really matters? What really counts? As Time, that wily old gypsy man, trundles through the minutes and hours that add up to one year, and then ten, does it really mean so much to try to catch Time, or run alongside the caravan, breathless and trailing behind? Something to think about!

As a new year dawns it will be the time for yet another list of resolutions. Before we reach midnight, here is a simple mantra to make our ride a little less bumpy, and the journey little more meaningful—Make some time to stop and stare!

Hermann Hesse’s 1905 essay titled ‘On Little Joys’ gently reminds of how the ability to cherish small everyday moments can open our hearts and lift our spirits. ”My advice to the person suffering from lack of time and from apathy is this: Seek out each day as many as possible of the small joys, and thriftily save up the larger, more demanding pleasures for holidays and appropriate hours. It is the small joys first of all that are granted us for recreation, for daily relief and disburdenment, not the great ones.These little joys are so inconspicuous and scattered so liberally throughout our daily lives that the dull minds of countless workers hardly notice them. They are not outstanding, they are not advertised, they cost no money”!

The play of light and shadow; the quite enjoyment of a favourite author with a cup of tea; the scent of wet earth after the first shower; the delight of meeting a friend; sharing a happy meal with loved ones…all it takes is to linger awhile with all senses newly tuned, and the switching off of the numerous demands and distractions of our daily grind.

While we can’t change all the big things, we can make the small ones matter. Looking ahead, what can be a better resolution than to make time for the little pleasures?

Here is to a year of savouring the simple joys!

–Mamata

LOOKING BACK…

As the second year of our joint matriarchal venture winds down, it’s time to muse a bit. Living up to our original intent of using this space to share our thoughts on life and times we have vented, agonised, rejoiced and reminisced. We have tried to make some sense of the often mad and sad events that the world has experienced over the past year. We have shared stories of people and places that have inspired us. We have tried to pay our humble tributes to some mentors who have enriched our lives. We have tried to capture memories and moments. We have played with words, and reveled in the quirks of language and literature.

In some ways we have tried to chronicle the year through our own responses to events and experiences, drawing upon our own personal and professional lives, and resources collected over the years. In many ways we have taken this project as a personal exercise in journaling.  While we may not have a following of thousands, nor an ardent fan club, we have found a sense of accomplishment in not missing a single designated day of posting, through a seamless long-distance coordination of thoughts and words.

We are no doubt not the first or the last to have attempted this. In 1884 Leo Tolstoy decided to compile “a wise thought for every day of the year, from the greatest philosophers of all times and all people”. He spent the next seventeen years doing this. In 1902, nearing the end of his life, he compiled these into a book originally titled A Wise Thought for Every Day.  This was later published as A Calendar of Wisdom. Each quote is accompanied by Tolstoy’s own comments or thoughts on the subject. As he wrote “I know that it gives one great inner force, calmness, and happiness to communicate with such great thinkers. …They tell us about what is most important for humanity, about the meaning of life and about virtue.”

One of the quotes in the book from Jean Jacques Rousseau echoes this sentiment: “Real wisdom is not the knowledge of everything, but the knowledge of which things in life are necessary, which are less necessary, and which are completely unnecessary to know. Among the most necessary knowledge is the knowledge of how to live well, that is, how to produce the least possible evil and the greatest goodness in one’s life.

It is these sentiments that continue to propel us to keep sharing. While we cannot even come remotely close to joining the select club of great thinkers and writers, we humbly strive to chronicle our own life and times.

Thank you for bearing with us!

–Mamata and Meena

The Shortest Day

The days grow shorter, and darkness is longer than light. It is winter in the Northern hemisphere, and nearing the time when the year takes its final bow with the Winter Solstice. The date is 21/22 December, the day when the path of the sun in the sky is farthest south in the Northern Hemisphere and the Sun travels the shortest path through the sky marking the twenty four hour period with the fewest daylight hours of the year. That is why it is known as the shortest day or longest night of the year. Though the winter solstice itself lasts only a moment in time, it is also popularly used to refer to the day on which it takes place.

Today, we know that the solstice is an astronomical event, caused by Earth’s tilt on its axis and its motion in orbit around the sun. Because Earth doesn’t orbit upright, but is instead tilted on its axis by 23 1/2 degrees, Earth’s Northern and Southern Hemispheres trade places in receiving the sun’s light and warmth most directly. The tilt of the Earth – not our distance from the sun – is what causes winter and summer. At the December solstice, the Northern Hemisphere is leaning most away from the sun for the year.

While 21 December marks the winter solstice for the northern hemisphere, the southern hemisphere marks the same day in the year as its summer solstice, and sees its longest day and shortest night.

The word Solstice itself is rooted in sol, the Latin word for ‘sun’. The ancients added  stit (meaning ‘standing’) to sol and came up with solstitium. Middle English speakers shortened solstitium to solstice in the 13th century. Translated literally it indicated the ‘standing still of the sun’ which was so perceived because at the solstices, the Sun’s declination appears to “stand still”; that is, the seasonal movement of the Sun’s daily path (as seen from Earth) stops at a northern or southern limit before reversing direction

But centuries before the science was explained, cultures around the world lived and marked time by the movement of the sun and the moon. Time was governed by the patterns of light and darkness, warmth and cold. For the ancient people living in the northern part of the northern hemisphere, the period of the seeming death of light, and harsh conditions of the long winter months which made survival a challenge, the winter solstice was a significant event signalling the start of the change of seasons; and symbolising the transition from the cold and dark to the renewal of light. This regeneration of the source of light and life was marked by rites and celebrations to welcome back the light, and celebrate the rebirth of life.

“So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.”  (Susan Cooper The Shortest Day)

Today this day is marked on calenders, largely without rituals and celebrations, as an astronomical event. But as we roll towards the end of yet anotsolstice.jpgher revolution of the earth around the sun, it may be a good time to use the longest night of the year to reflect on the year that was, and give thanks for the warmth and light that we have begun to take for granted. In the dark and chilling times that we live in (literally and metaphorically) it may be wise to remember the ancient reverence, and celebration, of the renewal of light, hope and faith.

“As never before, our world needs warmth in its cold, metallic heart, warmth to go on and face what has been made of human life, warmth to remain humane and kind.” Henry Beston

–Mamata

Words of Warning

As an environmental educator, one that did not academically have a ‘science’ background, my own ‘learn as you teach’ education included the building up of a glossary of environment-related terms. As environmental educators, our learning needed to be well-grounded; we had to correctly, but creatively communicate the concepts related to the words. In the early 1990s one of these terms was the Hole in the Ozone Layer. We developed an information and activity package to share the causes and consequences of this aberration to Nature’s way of protecting life on earth.

Over the decades that followed, the same exercise was carried out to communicate the issues of global warming, carbon footprint, unsustainability, and other words and concepts that held within them the frightening story of how humankind, in its race for technological and lifestyle progress was carelessly and callously destroying the very foundations of a sustainable life for all living things on earth.

While we struggled as educators to reach out, speci

climate change.jpeg
https://www.cathywilcox.com.au/

ally to the younger generation with the plea to tread lightly on the earth, the world galloped ahead—consuming more, wasting more, and damaging more, in the race to becoming faster, bigger, and stronger. Nature, overwhelmed, responded with increased frequency and intensity of natural disasters. And scientists introduced, what soon became the ubiquitous  term Climate Change.  This became the blanket word describing the frightening state of the world we live in; the core of international conferences and agreements, and the harbinger of the worse that was still to come. Millions of words were written and spoken on the subject, paying lip service to the concerns about climate change, while actions demonstrated the very opposite.

One way to mark this year that has seen probably the direst impacts of climate change, is the selection of Climate Emergency as the Oxford Word of the Year.  This has been defined as ”a situation in which urgent action is required to reduce or halt climate change and avoid potentially irreversible environmental damage resulting from it.”

The annual Oxford Word of the Year is a word or expression that has attracted a great deal of interest over the past 12 months. Every year, this word is selected from a list as the one that best reflects the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year, and is perceived to have lasting potential as a word of cultural significance. Surprisingly this year the shortlist was dominated by words related to the environment including ‘climate action’, ‘climate denial’, ‘eco-anxiety’, ‘extinction’ and ‘flight shame’. But the term Climate Emergency stood out like a flashing danger signal.

Interestingly, last year, climate did not feature in the top words typically used in the context of ‘emergency’ which is generally associated with human health, hospital, and family emergencies. The attachment of the word Emergency with Climate reflects, for the first time, the fact that the health of the environment is being viewed with the same sense of urgency as the health of humans. As the editor-in-chief of The Guardian said: ‘We want to ensure that we are being scientifically precise, while also communicating clearly with readers on this very important issue. The phrase “climate change”, for example, sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity.’

Climate Emergency–Words that warn of impending cataclysm, even as nations and leaders talk and talk at the ongoing UN Climate Change Conference COP 25. Hopefully there will be some words, (and more actions) of wisdom as a fragile world teeters into a new decade.

–Mamata

 

Timekeepers to the Nation

For most of us growing up in India in the 1970s and 80s thIMG_20191202_114741.jpge passage of time was marked by the HMT watch!  One’s first watch, the graduation watch, the watch that one was gifted, or gifted for a wedding—all these came in the form of an HMT watch.

It was the bond that was also marked by a sense of national pride in wearing something of world class quality that was totally indigenously manufactured. The news of the shutdown of the HMT factory in 2016 saddened many faithful users and supporters.

A recent visit to the HMT Heritage Centre and Museum in Bengaluru was like a travel back in time, reviving many memories. Set in the verdant grounds of the HMT Township, and housed in a lovely old two-storied bungalow that was once the residence of the Chairman, the exhibits trace the history of Hindustan Machine Tools Limited (HMT), the country’s first machine manufacturing company, set up by the Indian government in 1953. While HMT is usually synonymous with watches, it was a company manufacturing a number of other products including tractors, bulbs, machine parts, printing units and defence equipment. The museum includes exhibits of the great variety of these products, and traces their history, along with interesting facts and figures. For example it is interesting to note that there was a time when most of the factories in India had at least one HMT machine and every household had at least one HMT product.

The display starts with a pictorial chronology of the history of the company, and how it marked its presence in different parts of India. Then, of course, are the watches—over 2000 of them mounted on wooden blocks which are recycled from benches, windows and doors from the school and employee quarters that HMT once used to run in the vicinity. From the first watch presented to the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1962 till the 100 millionth watch manufactured and gifted in 2000 to the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee—the array boasts several other landmark models—Braille watches, India’s first Day-Date quartz and Ana-Digi watches, watches that were used as fashion accessories, and even the Nurse Watch that nurses who could pin upside down on their uniform for quick viewing. Models named Archana, Sujata, Abhishek, Kanchan, Sona and Lalit became part of millions of families across the country, as did Janata—the common man’s watch. Walking through this section one could nostalgically identify the models that one’s own family members wore.

The next section provides a peep inside the casings to reveal the cogs and wheels that made these time pieces go tick-tock; and the sequence of putting these different parts together. Magnifying glasses and microscopes help to look closely at some of these minute parts. One can only marvel at the meticulous care with these were assembled.

Moving on to the next large and well-lit space we see some of the other machines and printing equipment that was also manufactured by HMT. To get a real feel of walking onto a factory floor, is the time clock which the workers used to punch in their arrival by pushing down a lever. This is operational still, and one can punch and print the time of one’s visit on a card. The display of a variety of machines is impressive indeed. Imagine a company producing everything indigenously, from a part the size of a pin head to giant tractors!

The first-floor documents the range of machine tools manufactured by the company since its inception, along with a world map that indicates their collaborators from across the world. An AV room plays a video that shares HMT’s history, and its different units. The last section explains the origin and development of the HMT tractor, along with its functioning parts. There is also an operational tractor on which one can take a ride!

And while one is still lost in memories of the times that were, one walks out into the fresh air and greenery to a shop that sells some of the remaining pieces of HMT watches. A perfect souvenir of a legacy that we are all proud to be a part of.

–Mamata

https://www.hmtwatches.in/

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read to Order

Last week I wrote about the vibrancy that marked the refree reading.jpgcent children’s literature festival that I was a part of. At my story readings I started by spreading out an array of books related to that session. As soon as the children gathered there, each once grabbed a book and started leafing through it. Every child urged that I should read for them the book she/he had picked up. The excitement of seeing books accessibly displayed, and being able to pick up a book themselves was palpable.

A few days later I read an article about how in most cases parents are the ones that make the decisions about the leisure-time reading for their children. Yes they take children to a bookshop, but it is they who choose the books that are eventually bought. These decisions are guided by a number of factors, among them the parent’s perception of what they consider “appropriate reading” for their child; sometimes titles or names that they are familiar with, and often, the price.

That is not to decry the role of parents, nor their genuinely good intentions of providing their child with desirable extra-curricular reading. Indeed the very fact that parents take their children to a bookstore or library is commendable enough. However it is possible that the selection of books may not be the one the child would have made. Added to which may be the added pressure on the child to dutifully read the selected books.  Probably a good way to kill the joy of reading itself!

In this process, what seems to be somewhat missing is the pleasure of browsing, exploring and discovering something new, something unfamiliar, or even something completely unknown. And it is this step that leads on to a lifelong love of meandering through the world of books. It is through these wanderings that not just children, adults also discover previously unknown worlds, cultures, and ways of looking at the world. For some people however, it is, perhaps, this very possibility that seems to pose a risk.

Take the recent news story about the self-styled book censor who is deliberately hiding certain books in a library in a small town in Idaho in the USA. These books seem to be those which are critical of the US President Trump, and those that deal with “liberal” issues such as gun control, human rights, immigration, and LGBTQ rights. An anonymous note left by the mystery censor stated “I am going to continue hiding these books in the most obscure places I can find to keep this propaganda out of the hands of young minds. Your liberal angst gives me great pleasure.” Fortunately it seems that this mystery stasher has not destroyed the books but simply squirreled them away randomly among the shelves where they do not belong as per the Dewey Decimal System! For biblio-wanderers like myself, this may add to the excitement of finding literally “hidden” treasures while browsing the shelves!

Going back to children and reading, as adults who play a part in selecting books for children, we need to accept that providing the space for a child to explore and discover the world of books as an independent traveller may help in unearthing unknown treasures which can keep curiosity alive, enrich imagination, and build skills of making choices (even if sometimes it is the wrong choice!).

Read to order or order to read—there is a thin line between the two.

–Mamata

BOOKAROO!

What is more fun than a barrel of monkeys? A bunch of bubbly Bookaroons telling stories at the Baroda Bookaroo! No this isn’t a new tongue twister, nor the setting and characters from Dr Seuss. This describes the two-day Festival of Children’s Literature recently held at Vadodara in Gujarat.

Bookaroo, as the festival is called, is a celebration of the magic of books that brings together children and tellers and creators of stories (writers and illustrators). The Festival that focuses on Reading for Pleasure, began in 2008 with its first event in Delhi. In the decade since then, it had grown bigger, and also travelled to 13 cities in different parts of India.  Besides the main two-day event that brings children to a common venue, Bookaroo also reaches out to those children who cannot come to the festival for various reasons, with authors visiting schools for the underserved, and with special needs; hospitals, construction sites, orphanages and remedial homes. Another form of outreach has been storytelling and art activities in public spaces like parks, metro stations, monuments, museums and public libraries.

I was privileged to be a part of this wonderful festival held in IMG_20191114_104834.jpgthis past weekend. The venue itself was unique—the Art District in Alembic City with its sprawling lawns, old trees, and intriguing studio spaces housed in what was Alembic’s (remember those ubiquitous Yera glasses?) first factory, over a hundred years old! Imagine this coming alive with the colour, sound and movement of thousands of children—a vibrant tapestry seamlessly weaving the past, present and future.

The two days were packed with parallel events catering to children from ages 4 to 14. There was something for everyone—listening and reading, doodling and drawing, singing and crafting, meeting favourite authors in person, discovering new stories and books, and of course, making new friends. Gandhian Jyotibhai Desai, all of 93 years, with a twinkle in his eyes, answered children’s questions about Gandhi and his life, inspired each one to become a change-maker. Others carried children far and wide on the magic carpet of tales old and new.

The same excitement permeated the storyteller Bookaroons. The time that we spent together was bubbling with fun and laughter. A motley group from far and near, each of us passionate about telling tales in our own ways, all of us were immediately bound by our common love for words and passion to reach out to children. For those two dizzy days we Bookaroonas put aside our hats as mothers, daughters, mothers-in-law, daughters-in-law, and grandmothers, and donned our favourite kiddie-hats—giggling and teasing; chatting and chortling late into the night; sharing ice-cream rolls and shopping tips, and swapping ghost stories!

Bookaroo’s journey started in 2003 with the setting up of India’s first exclusive children’s bookstore Eureka–a place that children could call their own, choose books of their choice without parents or teachers dictating what a good book is. Bookaroo has travelled far since then, connecting children and books in so many ways. Bookaroo is a winner of the Literary Festival Award at the London Book Fair’s International Excellence Awards, 2017. It was the first time that an Indian children’s literature festival was recognised in the international arena.

For myself, who often agonises in this blog about the dying age of the printed word, and the joy of reading, it was exhilarating to see so many happy children with paint-smudged fingers clutching their new books, and looking for the authors to autograph them. Thank you Bookaroo for a wonderful reiteration and reassurance that all is not lost!

–Mamata

14 November is celebrated as Children’s Day in India. For Bookaroo, every day is Children’s Day!