Tiger! Tiger!

Gujarat is aIMG_20190221_103219.jpgll agog with the news that a Tiger has been spotted within its political boundaries. Papers are full of speculation about where it came from and where it went. In the meanwhile the state has quickly laid claim to be the only one in the country with three big cats—lion, leopard, and now tiger!

The news led me to relook at a book the Matriarchs had done for teachers over a decade ago. Called Tales of the Tiger it was an attempt to create awareness and excitement about the tiger through providing interesting information and activity ideas for students.

Compiling information for the book was in itself an exciting and educative safari. It was not just looking at this awe-inspiring cat from the zoological point of view, but seeing it as an integral part of the ecosystem, as well as the social and cultural environment.

Beyond the roar to the lore, as it were!  Sharing a few fascinating facts.

Tigers do not simply roar, growl and snarl. They have a wide variety of vocalisations such as chuffing, hissing, grunting, and mewling. A ‘chuff’ or ‘prusten’ is a friendly and non-threatening sound made when two tigers meet. The ‘pook’ sound is a sound similar to the alarm call of the sambar, a favourite prey animal of the tiger. It has been variously interpreted as a way of locating prey, a mating call, or to announce its presence to other tigers. A tigress uses moans to communicate with her cubs. Tigers also use body (especially tail) language to show aggression, affection and curiosity.

Beyond the jungles, tigers have long been a part of folklore and literature in every culture. The tiger is variously feared, respected, admired, and distrusted, depending on the context. According to stories from Indian mythology the tiger is believed to have powers to do everything from fighting demons to creating rain; keeping children safe from nightmares, and healing. Tribal beliefs, arts and crafts often place the tiger as a central symbol of worship. For example the people of the Warli tribe offer a part of their harvest every season to the worship of the tiger. The people of the Bhil tribe believe that they have descended from tigers. Songs, proverbs and sayings in most Indian languages feature the tiger.

In India the earliest visual representations of the tiger are found on the seals and terracotta figurines on the Indus Valley Civilisation. A seal found at Mohenjo Daro, believed to date back about 5000 years shows a man sitting in a tree angrily addressing a tiger waiting below for him.

Even as scientists have studied and tracked tigers in an effort to understand them better, tigers all over the world are threatened and endangered. In India Project Tiger, launched in 1973, has been an important milestone in the history of tiger conservation in India. 

While the new sighting of the tiger may possibly turn into a contest of “Mine, Mine!” it may be wise to remember and respect that this magnificent cat knows no political boundaries. May it always walk in majesty, wherever it may roam.

–Mamata

 

 

The BBC Connect

I recently attended a thought-provoking talk by anthropologist and storyteller Gauri Raje on autobiographical storytelling and personal stories. Gauri, an old friend, now lives and works in the UK with refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. For several years  Gauri has worked, through biographical storytelling, with ‘displaced people’ from many parts of the world–refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, seeking to start a new life in England. Through workshops involving story telling and story making, these people, uprooted from all that was familiar, in a precarious situation regarding their future in a strange and alien culture, were encouraged to tell  personal stories that they have never told in public. Gauri shared some of her many heart-rending, heart touching exchanges with these fragile people. The stories they shared were tales of incredible grit and resilience.

One of the stories was of a young Sudanese man who entered England as a stowaway clinging to the undercarriage of the Chunnel train. When the young man reported to the local police station where he had stepped onto English soil, he found that he could not understand the English that the police spoke. In an interesting aside to his story, he was emphatic that this was not at all like the English that he had heard spoken over the BBC radio that he listened to when he was in his home country!

While this revelation had its own impact (and that is another story!), it reminded me of a book I read a few months ago which, curiously, was based on another BBC connection. This was the true story of an unlikely friendship between a journalist with the BBC World Service in London and a Professor of English in war-battered Baghdad.

It began in 2005 when Bee Rowlatt, the journalist emailed May Witwit an Iraqi woman to confirm and prepare for a telephone interview about day-to-day life in Baghdad, and about her thoughts on the forthcoming elections there. May’s detailed and frank responses prompted more curiosity and questions from Bee, and a friendship developed between the two women. The “official BBC e-mail” planted the seeds of a correspondence that spanned from 2005-2008, with the two women sharing their news and thoughts about their work, family and life—at some levels-the social and political-poles apart, and yet so close in terms of shared emotions—despondency, depression, laughter and love.

The correspondence developed into a project to get May out of the dangerous and unhappy life in Iraq to seek asylum in Britain. The e-mails traces the challenges and travails in this venture—to gain asylum status and enough money to start a new life in a new land. Interestingly, here also the e-mail correspondence turned out to be key to this – its publication in book form helped to raise funds so May could prove that she had the financial support to come with her husband, to study in Britain.

The book is titled Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad: the True Story of an Unlikely Friendship

 I am sure Gauri has facilitated many such stories to be told and shared from people in similar circumstances and I hope, some day, to hear some of these stories from her.

For now, it is for me just to share a coincidence of two stories that had a BBC Connect in their own special way.

–Mamata

 

The Coucals are Calling

 

The Coucals are calling at the break of day,P1020594.JPG

Wooing and courting, a-hooping away.

 

The starlings have arrived from far far away,

They chirp and they chatter in a chorus all day.

 

Sometimes balmy, often chilly, that capricious breeze,

Raising billows of dust, and rustling through the leaves.

 

The sun plays hide and seek with wispy clouds,

The koels stridently shriek out loud.

 

Fresh blossoms bloom on some trees

While leaves are shed from other trees.

 

It’s Spring!

Celebrating Basant Panchami

 

IMG_20180902_085109152.jpg

–Mamata

 

 

Streetwise

One of the most important parts of my day at work was the walk home at the end of the day. It was not a very long walk (under 15 minutes) and certainly not a route that offered great beauty of nature or landscape. For me, the walk was more than the act of getting from the physical space of work to that of home. It was an important ritual that helped in the transition from the mental space of ‘work’ to ‘home’. Through my three decades of work there were different transitions that took place. As a young mother, it was the bridge between leaving behind of the role of busy professional and bracing for an evening with the mental and physical energy required in parenting young children. As the children grew older, and one’s parents older still, it was the period of putting behind the challenges of the job to tackle the challenges of coping with geriatric health and care-taking issues. When both children and parents no longer needed the sort of support I could give, it was simply the luxury of going over the day—hours which had passed, and the few hours ahead. Walking thus was form of therapy for me.

I like walking. And I enjoy walking on busy streets. I like observing people and activities, and my walk home offered much. There were the familiar regulars—walkers like myself, and others that I would cross or pass on the way. Strangers at one level, but a familiar and comforting daily cast of characters—I used to imagine who they were, what they did, and what awaited them that evening. As someone aptly put it, “Simply by being outside on the street, people are inadvertently revealing their life histories in their bodies, in their steps, in the hunch of their shoulders, or set of their jaw.”

Walking thus, even as one is observing people there is an odd sense that you are invisible yourself! I was occasionally reminded of the fact that others may be “doing unto you what you do unto them” when someone I did not recognise would tell me “we don’t see you walking these days” or “I know where I have seen you—you walk everyday on that road.”

There were the little ‘milestones’ on the route–the small Hanuman temple at the corner, and the Momo mobile stall, and the busy tailor with his sewing machine right on the footpath; the pavement dwellers lounging on the battered tattered sofa that they had salvaged; the ‘party plot’, where in the wedding season one could see last night’s decorations being taken down in the morning while going to work, and new ones being put up in the evening for that night’s wedding.

There were the trees along the route, especially the huge mango tree—and always the eagerness to spot the first blossoms on it. The big open ground which hosted a variety of water birds when it filled with the monsoon water, and which hosted a variety of handloom and handicraft melas in the winter. There were the cows that crossed the road along with you, and the dangerously straying puppies in puppy season.

Of course there were no real footpaths or pavements! It was an exercise in agility and alertness—sidestepping the cowpats and litter; circumventing the potholes and muddy patches; dodging the scooters and cars that veered dangerously close, and finding the perfect moment to cross the road amid the chaos of the traffic. Whatever the challenges, the walk was always an adventure!

As one of my favourite authors Ruskin Bond puts it so well—“The adventure is not in arriving, it’s the on-the-way experience. It is not the expected; it’s the surprise. You are not choosing what you shall see in the world, but are giving the world an even chance to see you.”

–Mamata

 

I Wonder

While I soak in the sunshine on a pleasantly cool Ahmedabad winter day I read that the big Arctic chill has hit North America and Europe. It’s cold, cold, cold! News reports show how the blanket of snow has brought life to a standstill, and people are being interviewed to share how they are coping.

I remember a poem that wonders how the Snow itself must feel.

SNOW PILE

Snow on top
must feel chilly
the cold moonlight piercing it.

 Snow on the bottom
must feel burdened
by the hundreds who tread on it.

 Snow in the middle
must feel lonely
with neither earth nor sky to look at.

The poem was written in the 1920s by a young Japanese poet Misuzu Kaneko. “Teru” as she was called, was born in 1903 in a family of booksellers in a small fishing village in western Japan.  The book-loving child was encouraged to study by her mother and grandmother, and she stayed in school until she was 18, a rare achievement for Japanese girls at the time. She began writing poetry at age 20, and signed her work “Misuzu”, in an allusion to classical Japanese literature meaning “where the bamboo is reaped.”

In her poetry, Misuzu would share her sense of curiosity and wonder–What does snow feel in a drift?  Where does day end and night begin?  Why don’t adults ask the questions children do?   “To Misuzu, everything was alive and had its own feelings—plants, rocks, even telephone poles! She felt the loneliness of whale calves orphaned after a hunt. She felt the night-time chill of cicadas who had shed their old shells. And she felt the tearful sadness of a flower wet with dew.”

Sadly her personal life was tragic and she committed suicide when she was only 27 years old. Kaneko and her work were forgotten for the next 50 years. The only known copy of her poems had been destroyed during the bombing of Tokyo in WWII. The bookstore where she once worked was long gone. No one seemed to know if she had any surviving family. It is only in the 1980s that another Japanese poet Setsuo Yazaki, recovered her poetry manuscripts and these were published.

Today, almost a 100 years later, Kaneko’s poems remain as fresh and moving with their innocent sense of wonder.

I wonder why
the rain that falls from black clouds
shines like silver.


I wonder why
the silkworm that eats green mulberry leaves
is so white.


I wonder why
the moonflower that no one tends
blooms on its own.


I wonder why
everyone I ask
about these things
laughs and says, “That’s just how it is.”

If only we could all retain that magical sense of wonder rather than simply accepting “That’s just how it is.”

–Mamata

 

Language is More Than Words

2019 has been declared as The International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL2019) by UNESCO.  The official launch of IYIL was held on 28 January 2019.  The aim of IYIL is to “draw attention to the critical loss of indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize and promote indigenous languages around the world”.

Of the 6000-7000 languages in the world today, about 97% of the world’s population speaks only 4 % of these languages, while only 3% of the world speak 96% of all remaining languages. A great majority of those languages are spoken mainly by indigenous peoples.

India is one of four countries, along with Nigeria, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, with the largest number of living languages. A mammoth project to conduct a comprehensive survey of Indian languages was launched in 2010. Initiated by Prof. G.N. Devy, founder of the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre in Vadodara, and undertaken by a large team of scholars, the project called the People’s Linguistic Survey Of India (PLSI) set out to document and preserve 780 languages which are being spoken in India today. These are being published in the multi-volume People’s Linguistic Survey of India, towards providing an overview of the extant and dying languages of India, as evolved till 2011, and as perceived by their speakers. The volumes chronicle the evolution of these languages in all their socio-political and linguistic dimensions, and encapsulate the worldview of their speakers. PLSI proposes to complete its task of publishing 92 volumes by 2020.

In the last couple of years, I have had the enriching opportunity to learn about some of the indigenous people of the north east of India and a glimpse of not just the incredibly rich traditions of textiles in the region, but equally the close ties between language of the people and the language of their textiles. Not only does every tribe have their own dialect, but each dialect has wonderfully nuanced words to describe every textile that they weave, and even every motif that is woven on these.

Names of textiles of the tribes have references to the history and geography of the tribe, as well as names that literally relate to colour, size, on which part of the body they are worn, as well as referring to age and status of the wearer. There are specific shawls for elder men or women, for those who have special social status (as in the Naga the Feast of Merit shawl), for a new bride to wear to her marital home, and for covering the deceased.

As Ganesh Devy puts it “in every manner without any exception, the language we learn or use is the absolute condition of our narrative of the world and the way we see the world.”

Of the numerous examples of this, is that of a textile of the Bodo Kachari tr

IMG_20190129_103102.jpg
Aronai with Hawjagor pattern

ibe of Assam.The multi-use decorative textile called Aronai is characterised by a zig-zag motif called Hawjagor (hill pattern) in the Bodo dialect. This pattern is inspired by the hills which form an important part of the history as well as the geography of the Bodo people who settled by the foothills, on the north bank of the Brahmaputra in Assam.

It is in the names of motifs that women weave onto the textiles that the symbiosis between life, nature and culture is most evident. The names not just reflect how nature inspires form, but also reveal a keen eye for subtle detail and the richness of language to reflect this.

A common triangular motif on wrap skirts of the women of a small Naga tribe is called impeak bam. The word Impeak translates to ‘stretching out/extending/ spreading out’ and bam means ‘wings’; and the motif symbolises a flying Hornbill. While a similar but smaller triangular motif is named to mean the wings of the bird called a Swift.

Some of the motifs of the Liangmai Naga tribe in Manipur are named literally to represent elements such as fish bone (kakhara thua), cow’s teeth (kabui hu), and ripples in a lake (kazai kapai). There is even a woven line stitch line called matiang kang meaning ‘group of ants.’ These are only the tip of the iceberg of detail, as it were.

One of the traditional shawls of a small Naga tribe of the Manipur Naga Hills has a motif called  inchitatpi that translates to ‘head of a long worm’ found in the woods. Another has a pattern representing cucumber seed called angi thei ru. Getting into even more minute detail, another tribe has a popular motif called aphinamik which literally means the ‘eye of a dove’.

There are patterns representing frog’s feet called sangkang nou ban and grasshoppers’ egg called changkow gum, and even a stitch called kabi n’dui where kabi translates to ‘good’ and ndui translates to ‘egg’, relating to the arrangement of eggs on a paddy plant!

What evocative words and how beautifully they capture richness of life lived in synergy with one’s environment. These are only a tiny sprinkling of the vocabulary of a tiny segment of indigenous people and languages.

Sadly with ‘modernisation’ comes homogenisation. A lot of the local weaving traditions are being replaced with mass-produced machine-made garments, and with it are lost not just the textiles and motifs but also the language that represented these.

According to UNESCO, approximately 600 languages have disappeared in the last century, and they continue to disappear at a rate of one language every two weeks. Up to 90 perccent of the world’s languages are likely to disappear before the end of this century if current trends are allowed to continue.

And Ganesh Devy expresses the Domino Effect that this has—“When a language dies, its speakers decide to migrate. First, they migrate to another language and then they physically start migrating to another region. The second thing that happens is that their traditional livelihood patterns go down. They may have some special skills and that disappears. Thirdly, a unique way of looking at the world disappears.”

–Mamata

 

 

 

A Celebration of Solitude

I was introduced to Ruskin Bond over 30 years ago by Uncle Ken and Rusty. These were the characters in the first books that I translated. I so enjoyed the madcap adventures of the eccentric Uncle Ken and the restless school boy Rusty, not just for the stories but for the simple style of writing and the lovely use of language. As a translator it was a challenge to try to retain the spirit and the form in another language.

Following this introduction I continued to follow Ruskin Bond on his wanderings and meanderings through his essays and columns. Here was someone who was not only sensitive to, and entranced by every minute detail of nature, but one who could share this evocatively through words.

When Ruskin Bond’s autobiography was published just over a year ago, I was curious and eager to fill in the blanks and to know more about Ruskin the person. I recently read the book called Lone Fox Dancing: My Autobiography.  In it saw how many parts of his own life have been woven in his writings. Ruskin’s story is simply told and flows gently through eight decades, capturing flavours of the life of the angrez and the Anglo-Indians from the colonial times, through the Second World War, India’s partition and the birth and development of the new republic.

Ruskin writes about family and friends, travels and travails, painting word pictures that make one feel as if one is leafing through a real photo album. As he wrote “That’s what life is really like—episodic, full of highs and lows and some fairly dull troughs in between. Life is not a novel, it does not have the organisation of a novel. People are not characters in a play; they refuse to conform to the exigencies of a plot or a set of scenes. Some people become an integral part of our lives; others are ships that pass in the night. Short stories, in fact.”

For me there were “Eureka” moments when one recognized the people who became memorable characters in many of his stories. I marveled at the memory that could conjure up images from sixty-seventy years ago, but I also learnt the value of keeping a journal, something that Ruskin has done since his school days.

Above all, what the book reiterated was the celebration of solitude.  Ruskin Bond is not a recluse nor one who shuns human contact. As a boy he writes that he was lonely, “loneliness that was not of my seeking. The solitude I sought. And found.” This solitude he found in nature, nature is the companion that has sustained and energized him over eighty years, and with it, the magic of the words to share the joy with others.

“I’m like a lone fox dancingIMG_20190126_102042 (2).jpg

In the morning dew.”

–Mamata

 

 

CityScape SnapShots

Air–the poison we breathe Ads that sell Aspirations

Buildings Business Busyness 

Concrete jungles Crash Clatter Clash and Clamour

Dreams that draw millions from far and wide Dust and Depression

Emissions foul from Energy sources

Fast food Fast life Fast lanes at work and play

Garbage Garbage Garbage burying the Greenery

Heritage Habitats Hotels and Hovels

Islands of heat Islands of Isolation Islands of luxury amidst seas of slums

Job seekers Jump starters Jugaad makers

Kaleidoscope of colours, cuisines, communities and callings

Landfills Landladies Latchkey children Lifestyles

Malls and Multiplexes Mobile towers and Middle class aspirations

Noise Nightlife Non-functional essentials Nature in decline

Overload Overconsumption Overreaction…Over the top

Plastics Pavements that aren’t Parking battles where Parks used to be

Quality of life? Question mark indeed!

Roads with Roaring traffic Risks to Rare Ramblers

 Skeleton Scaffoldings Scavengers and Smog

Traffic jams Towers grow where Trees once stood

Ugly urban settlements Unplanned spaces Unruly crowds

Vendors Vandals  Vistas Vitiated

Windows that look out onto other Windows Water more precious than gold

Xerox shops at the corner X-ray shops   Xamination-prep shops   Xtremes of everything

Yuppies Yearnings Year-end discounts

Zero tolerance…road rage, warring neighbours, violence in speech and deed.

–Mamata

Back to Brighton

This morning’s Google Doodle triggered the trip back in time. I was intrigued by the doodle of what looked like Indian spices, and an unknown face and name– Sake Dean Mahomed. Clicking on, I discovered not just the interesting life and times of this man, but also a link to mine own days of yore!

Sake Dean Mahomed was a man of many talents and accomplishments—author, entrepreneur, restaurateur, and pioneer masseur and spa owner! He was the first Indian author to publish a book in English; to establish, the first Indian restaurant in Britain named the Hindostanee Coffee House, and the first to introduce Indian style champi or massage in Brighton!

Brighton! The name took me back to my own Brighton (or fringe thereof) year, many moons ago. It was to the University of Sussex that I headed for my second Master’s degree—a small progressive campus nestled amidst the rolling Sussex Downs. That was a special year—opening of new windows, explorations and discoveries, and above all the starting of the bonds of friendship that have not only lasted, but strengthened over the decades. Cocooned as we were in the routine of the campus, the highlight of the week was a trip into Brighton, the nearest town, which was about 6 km away.

In the initial months we did the necessary “must see” sights—the Pavilion, the pier, the crescents, and the Baths. But then, our weekly trip into town consisted of what we then considered Splurge Saturday! In our early twenties, and with a very shoestring student budget, this meant taking the bus into town, a window-shopping walk around, finding something interesting and cheap to eat, and finally a movie! And, then the last bus back to campus with a sense of a day well spent! Simple joys, multiplied many times over by the excitement of the Friday evening pre-planning (where to eat, what to see that week), and the exuberant spirit of pure friendship and sharing.

Today I learnt, that more than a century and half before I explored and discovered Brighton, Sake Dean Mahomed (a Person of Indian Origin!) set up in Brighton, Mahomed’s Baths, which became known for its champi or massage followed by a steaming bath of Indian herbs and oils. Mahomed’s Baths gave a new twist to the early 19th century trend for seaside spa treatments, and it was hugely successful. Mahomed became known as “Dr Brighton”. Hospitals referred patients to him and he was appointed as ‘shampooing surgeon’ to both King George IV and William IV.

Incidentally, I also found out that the word “shampoo” did not take on its modern meaning of washing the hair until the 1860s, but as early as 1838, Mahomed wrote about  Shampooing or benefits resulting from the use of the Indian Medicated Bath.  I suspect this was simply an anglicised version of good old champi!

I must admit that I had no clue about Mahomed nor his famous baths while I was in Brighton. But thank you Google doodle and Dr Brighton for taking me back to Brighton today!

–Mamata

 

Humpty-Dumpty Words

One of my all-time favourite authors has been Lewis Carrol with his Alice’s Adventures in WonderlandThrough the Looking-Glass, and The Hunting of the Snark. More than the story it has been the language that always amused and fascinated me. The made-up, nonsensical sounding words like slithy and mimsy, frabjous and galumph were such fun to read aloud, and try to use in other contexts, even though one did not exactly know what they meant. Alice herself was equally confused on this count, and in the story she approaches Humpty Dumpty and asks him to elucidate the meaning of the some of these.  Humpty Dumpty replies: “Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy’. ‘Lithe’ is the same as ‘active’. You see it’s like a portmanteau–there are two meanings packed up into one word.” Humpty Dumpty uses the analogy of a portmanteau–the French word for a dual-compartment suitcase to explain that these are words that contain aspects of two distinct words fused into one new word. So ‘mimsy’ is a blending of flimsy and miserable, and  ‘frabjous’ is a blend of either fabulous and joyous, or fair and joyous, while  ‘galumph’ comes from a blend of ‘triumph’ and ‘gallop’.

And so it is that Humpty Dumpty introduced the concept and term Portmanteau words to describe a word that is formed by combining two different terms to create a new entity.

Today Portmanteau words have become so much a part of our vocabulary that we do not realise that they are blended and coined words. We use words like smog (smoke+fog), motel (motor+hotel), modem (modulation+demodulation), motorcade (motor+cavalcade), netizen (internet + citizen), and even internet (international+network), as if they have always been there.

Portmanteau words are a great favourite with the entertainment industry—from Cineplex, infotainment and infomercial, to Bollywood; from Brangelina to our own Nickyanka; from celebutant(e) to chillax we even have emoticons and fanzines that coin and create a whole new vocabulary!

People no longer rough it out, they go glamping (glamour+camping), and bigger than big is ginormous (giant+enormous)! There are some who suffer from affluenza (affluence+influenza), while others are beset with anticipointment (anticipation+disappointment), and both may end up as chocoholics (or workaholics)!? (There is even a word for !?–interrobang (interrogative+bang).

If we stop and think about the words that we use and see every day we would be surprised to find how many of these are Portmanteau words. And while we imagine that we are so trendy to be coining words like BREXIT, and yes, even BLOG, let us remember that Humpty Dumpty thought of it first in 1871!

–Mamata