A Dolls House

At a recent get together with my sisters we were reminiscing about how we used to spend our childhood summer holidays in Delhi. In addition the many simple DIY activities that we devised, one of the highlights was the visit to the BC Roy Memorial Children’s Reading Room and Library. In an age when reading and books were the main pastime, this exclusive library for children, with its wide selection of books, and a welcoming ambience was a perfect place to be.

The library was housed in the building of the Children’s Book Trust. One summer, when we used the library we also discovered another fascinating display in the same building. This was the Dolls Museum which became not only our favourite destination, but also an essential visit for friends and relatives who visited Delhi.

All the three unique institutions were the brainchild of Keshav Shankar Pillai, popularly known as Shankar, who was India’s most celebrated political cartoonist before and after India’s Independence. The Children’s Book Trust which he founded in 1957, was among the pioneer publishers of children’s books in independent India. CBT continues even today with its mission to promote the production of well-written, well-illustrated and well-designed books for children at prices within the reach of the average Indian child. The BC Roy Library which was set up in 1967 was to become the largest library exclusively for children.

From books to dolls—how did that happen? The story has earlier roots. Shankar used to publish a political satire magazine called Shankar’s Weekly. In 1949, under the auspices of the magazine Shankar announced a competition inviting paintings and writings from children across India. It got an overwhelming response. The following year the competition was thrown open to children from all over the world. It was called Shankar’s International Children’s Competition. Today, the competition receives about 160,000 entries from over 160 countries. The entries are judged by an international jury.

In the early 1950s Shankar received a doll from the Hungarian Ambassador to be given away as a prize for this competition. Shankar with his childlike fascination for unusual things fell in love with the doll which was dressed in a traditional Hungarian costume. He asked the Ambassador if he could keep the doll for himself. The little doll triggered in Shankar the itch to collect more costume dolls. As a journalist who often accompanied the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on his trips abroad, Shankar had the opportunity to visit many countries where he began to pick up dolls in the traditional national and regional costumes, made by local craftsmen.

Shankar’s collection grew rapidly and soon he had a collection of nearly 500 dolls. He decided to exhibit these dolls in different parts of India along with the children’s paintings from the competitions. The frequent packing and unpacking began to damage the dolls; this worried and upset Shankar. An exhibition put up in Delhi was visited by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi. As they appreciated the collection, Shankar also shared his concern about the frequent moving of the displayed dolls. Indira Gandhi suggested that the exhibition should have a space of its own. The most natural place for it was in the building then being put up for the Children’s Book Trust in Delhi. And there the dolls found their permanent home. The International Dolls Museum as it became known was inaugurated on 30 November 1965 by the then President of India Dr S Radhakrishnan.

The Museum opened with a collection of a thousand dolls. Between 1965 and 1987 another 5000 were added, a vast majority coming as gifts. Today the Museum has a display of 7000 exhibits from almost eighty-five countries, giving it a truly international character. One section has exhibits from European countries, the U.K., the U.S.A, Australia, New Zealand, and the Commonwealth of Independent States, and the other from Asian countries, the Middle East, Africa and India. The dolls cover a wide range, both geographical and historical. The oldest exhibit is of a Swiss woman lying in bed dating back to 1781. There are dolls from the Queen of England’s Collection, Samurai and Kabuki dolls from Japan, Spanish flamenco dancers, ballet characters from South Korea, and nomadic singer dolls from Turkmenistan, among many others spanning the globe.  In addition to Shankar’s original collection, the collection has grown mainly from dolls gifted by dignitaries from different countries visiting India, as well as ambassadors of different countries to India. The dolls stay on as continuing little ambassadors of their countries, each telling its own story.

The section on Indian costume dolls showcases the incredible diversity of culture, heritage and traditions of our country. The dolls are meticulously handcrafted based on research that focuses on an accurate representation of physical attributes, dress, ornaments, and accessories like farming equipment, musical instruments, baskets and bags. There is a collection of bride and groom dolls depicting wedding traditions of different parts of India, and one of dolls in different dance costumes. Some of the dolls are arranged as group installations depicting markets, farming activities, household and festival scenes which demonstrate a sense of community.

The Indian dolls are made at a workshop attached to the museum. In addition to display the dolls are given in exchange for gifts to the museum from other countries, or sold to collectors. Apart from this workshop, there is also a ‘clinic’ where damaged dolls are repaired and restored.

Unlike other museums that one usually associates with ancient relics and artefacts, the Dolls Museum is a vibrant and living experience. It provides a rich panorama of the incredible diversity of the human race and cultures; it sparks imagination and curiosity; it transports the child into a ‘doll-filled’ world of its dreams, and the adult back to the innocent joys of childhood.   

Although my association with the Children’s Book Trust has continued over the years—from reader to contributing writer, it is many years since I visited the Dolls Museum. But as we mark International Museum Day on 18 May, it is a good time to remember and celebrate this special museum. As an educator now, I see the tremendous potential of this museum to help children explore, discover, and celebrate the diversity of cultures. As the International Council of Museums puts it “Museums are important means of cultural exchange, enrichment of cultures and development of mutual understanding, cooperation and peace among peoples.”

–Mamata

LABURNUM: MOLTEN SUNSHINE

As the late April heat intensifies and the scorching sun begins to wilt and melt all that it beats down upon, it is time for the golden showers. The Indian laburnum or Golden Shower tree is in bloom. Its masses of yellow blossoms cascade from the tree like waterfalls of molten gold. Indian summer is really here!

laburnum

Indian laburnum or Cassia fistula gets its genus name from the word Kasia which was given by an ancient Greek botanist Pedanius Dioscurides, and its species name fistula meaning pipe, which refers to its tube-like pods.  

C. fistula is widely grown as an ornamental plant in tropical and subtropical areas. It is native to Southeast Asia and is found in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, South and SW China, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan and other tropical Asian countries, some parts of Australia and tropical Africa.

The Amaltas as it is commonly called in Hindi, is one of the most widespread of Indian trees and occurs throughout the country including the Andamans, and thus it has a vernacular name in all Indian languages. Many of the names refer to the long stick-like pods which appear almost alongside the blooms.

The Indian Laburnum is the common English name of this moderate-sized, deciduous tree. Its bark is greenish-grey and smooth on young trees, but with age it becomes brown and rough. This is not a tree that attracts attention for the large part of the year. It has a nondescript branching pattern and scant foliage. Between February and May the leaves get dull and ragged and many of them fall. New leaves are a beautiful fresh green sometimes tinged with pink, or a rich copper colour, and covered with a soft down; they remain folded and hang loosely downwards until they are fully grown.  It is with the onset of the summer that the laburnum bursts into full glory with sprays of golden flowers. It is the profuse mass of colour that attracts immediate attention. But a closer look reveals the delicate distinct beauty of the individual flowers that make up the mass. Each flower has five spoon-shaped petals of unequal size and ten yellow stamens of which three are long and curve gracefully upwards, the next four are shorter and curve the opposite way, while the remaining three are even shorter and straight. All are crowned with large, brown anthers where pollen is produced.

Around the same time, the long hanging cylindrical pods that give the tree some of its common names like Pudding Pipe tree appear in large numbers, making a striking picture of brown with yellow. At first the pods are green and soft, then they turn brown, and eventually become black and very hard. The pods contain large numbers of shiny brown seeds arranged in small compartments surrounded by a sticky brown pulp. 

In the scorching sun, the blooming flowers are a magnet for a wide range of insects and birds, which in turn creates dynamic ecological interactions. Bees and butterflies are important pollinating agents. The laburnum is specially connected to the Carpenter bees; the vibrations generated by the bees as they hover near the flowers cause the pollen grains to break out of the stamens, and attach to the bee’s body, and therefrom travel far and wide. Weaver Ants lurk around the flowers to pounce and prey on pollinators that visit the flowers. While flowers are the star attraction, the leaves too play important supporting roles. Greater Short-nosed Fruit Bats consume the leaves of the Golden Shower Tree, which are rich in protein and calcium. Butterflies like Mottled Emigrant, Common Emigrant and Common Grass Yellow, lay eggs on the leaves, which also provide the first food for the caterpillars as they emerge from the eggs. The ripe pods also attract mammals like monkeys, jackals, bears and pigs who break these open to eat the pulp, thereby helping to scatter the seeds that lie within, either directly or through their ingestion and excretion.

For humans, the Indian Laburnum also provides much more than sheer aesthetic pleasure. Its leaves, fruits and flowers are known to have medicinal relevance in Ayurveda and other traditional systems of medicine. In fact, in Sanskrit, the tree is revered as Aragvadha or ‘disease killer’. The fruit pulp is known to have laxative properties, while its flowers are used in certain folk remedies. The leaves have also been used as fodder to supplement the diets of domestic cattle, sheep, and goats, and as green manure. The flowers are also eaten by some tribal communities, and more recently, new age chefs are creating innovative ‘Amaltas’ recipes of teas, chutneys, jams, and salads using the flowers.

As with most indigenous trees, the Amaltas finds a place in culture and tradition. The tree finds mention in literature from the epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata, to folk literature, and is depicted in paintings and pictures. The Indian Postal Department issued a stamp in its honour, and some cities in India have beautiful avenues of Laburnum trees, original planted by the British.

In Kerala, the Kondrai or Kannikona flower as it is locally known has great cultural and religious significance. According to traditional belief it is very auspicious to have a first sighting of the flowering tree at dawn on Vishu, the New Year’s Day. The Vishukanni (literally the first sight on the day of Vishu) ritual includes an offering of all the ‘golden items of seasonal harvest’ like jackfruit, golden cucumber, mangoes and cashews, on this day. In fact the Kannikona flower is the state flower of Kerala.

Several countries of South East Asia also honour this beautiful tree. The golden hues of the Laburnum flowers signify royalty in Thailand where this has been designated as the national flower, and there is an annual flower festival is named after this tree.  In Sri Lanka where it is called Ehela, this tree is planted around Buddhist temples. In Laos the blooming flowers known as Dok Khuan are also associated with their new year when the flowers are offered at temples and also hung in homes in the belief that they will bring happiness and good luck to the house and family.

As I look out from my window at the glorious golden cascade of the Amaltas, I too wish that the auspicious sighting will bring the same to my home.

–Mamata

A Beauty With Brains: Hedy Lamarr

From Hollywood to Bollywood, a beautiful face is what defines the world of cinema and glamour. And along with that, the clichéd belief that beauty and brains inhabit two different worlds, “and never the twain shall meet!”

I recently read about a movie superstar who combined a career in films with a lifelong passion for invention. This was Hedy Lamarr who was once known as the most beautiful woman in the world.

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born on 9 November 1914 in Vienna, in what was then Austria-Hungary. The First World War had just begun. Hedy was the only child of her Jewish parents. Her father was a Bank director, who adored his daughter and encouraged her curiosity. They often took long walks and he would discuss with her the working of different mechanical objects—from printing press to street cars. Hedy’s young mind was fascinated with the mysteries of machines. When she was five years old she took apart and reassembled her music box to find out how it worked. Her mother was a concert pianist who introduced her daughter to the arts; and she started ballet and piano lessons from a young age. Hedwig thus grew up in an environment that nurtured both her scientific as well as artistic temperament. She was also endowed with stunning looks.

Before the young girl could further explore her scientific interests, it was her beauty that attracted the attention of a film director Max Reinhardt who invited her to Berlin to study acting. She got her first small role in a German film when she was just 16 years old. In 1932, her role in a controversial film Ecstasy, drew wider attention to Hedy as an actress.

In 1933 she married Austrian munitions dealer Fritz Mandl. It was an unhappy alliance; Hedy felt trapped under her husband’s total control, and in her role as hostess to his circle of friends who included unscrupulous businessmen and members of the Nazi party. But even as she played the beautiful wife and hostess, Hedy’s sharp mind was following the dinner conversations and absorbing knowledge of arms and ammunitions.

Desperate to escape the stifling life, she managed to reach Paris, disguised as a maid, and then made her way to London in 1937. An introduction to Louis B Mayer of the famed MGM Studios was the stepping stone to Hollywood. Hedwig transformed into the European beauty Hedy Lamarr, who charmed American audiences with her accent, and mystical grace.

Hedy soon found herself in the famous Hollywood social circuit. Among the many illustrious people she met was Howard Hughes. Hughes was a high-flying American business magnate, investor, record-setting pilot, engineer, film director, and philanthropist. The two became good friends. Hedy’s attraction to Hughes was not so much for his wealth and name, but for his interest in innovation that appealed to her bottled-up inventive streak. Hughes took Hedy to see his airplane factories, showed her how the planes were built, and introduced her to the scientists behind process. He also recognised Hedy’s passion for the mechanical and encouraged her in this. He gifted her a set of equipment that she kept in her trailer on the film sets and tinkered with between takes. She continued to have her own ‘inventing table’ at home.  Hughes shared with Hedy his dream to make faster planes that he could sell to the US military. Hedy got deeply engaged in the project, researching fish fins and bird wings to understand how they were designed for maximum speed and efficiency, and she made engineering sketches for a new wing design for Hughes’ planes. Howard Hughes was very impressed with the designs, and called Hedy a “genius”.

Hedy Lamarr continued to live two parallel lives as it were. She was a celebrated Hollywood star in public, but was also a tinkerer and inventor who often spent evenings at home studying research texts and working at her drafting table to create inventions to improve current designs. She claimed that “improving things comes naturally to me”. Rather than star-studded parties she enjoyed being among a small group of friends discussing ideas.

It was at the start of the 1940s when the United States was on the brink of being pulled into World War II that Hedy felt the strong urge to put her innovative mind to work overtime. One story goes that her Jewish mother who had managed to escape from Austria to London was waiting to cross the Atlantic to the US, and at the time the American ships were in danger of being torpedoed by the enemy forces. Another version is that Hedy was deeply disturbed by the fact that children had perished in torpedo attacks while on board ships intended to take them to safety.

She knew that the Nazis were hacking the radio systems of the Allies ships so that they could track and attack them. Hedy drew upon her knowledge of war weapons to work on inventing a remote controlled torpedo, and develop a method to improve the United States’ weak torpedo guidance systems. She knew that radio frequencies were the key to the solution—but the single radio frequencies that were being employed for torpedo guidance at the time were ineffective in escaping Nazi surveillance. She worked to create ‘a secret communication system that could not be hacked’. The system utilized changing radio frequencies to prevent enemies from decoding messages. Multiple radio frequencies were used to broadcast a radio signal, which changed frequencies at split-second intervals in an apparently random manner. To anyone listening, it would just sound like noise. But the signal would be clear if both the sender and receiver hopped frequencies at the same time.

Hedy worked on this system with an unlikely partner. This was music composer George Antheil who was known for his experimental compositions. Antheil, like Hedy, was an inventor at heart. As the war loomed the two began sharing concerns, and once when playing the piano together, the idea of the extraordinary new communication system emerged. The torpedo and the guiding vessel would change radio frequencies very rapidly in an identical pattern, controlled by a device similar to a paper roll in a player piano. In this way, the vessels could communicate with each other in a secure manner that could not be intercepted by the enemy thereby allowing the torpedo to find its intended target. And thus Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum Technology was born.

After its creation, Lamarr and Antheil sought a patent and military support for the invention. They were awarded a Patent in August 1942, but the US Navy decided against the implementation of the new system. The Patent remained  classified until 1981, and during that time was only used in military technology such as sonar or satellite communications. Lamarr was disappointed, but she continued to support the war efforts of her adopted country by using her celebrity status to sell war bonds. She became an American citizen in April 1953.

Hedy Lamarr continued with her passion for invention, and even till she passed away at the age of 85, she was inventing things: a fluorescent dog collar, modifications for the supersonic Concorde, and a new kind of traffic light, among many others.

It is believed that Lamarr’s Frequency Hopping innovation was the forerunner of today’s wi-fi technology and other wireless communications like GPS and Bluetooth. Difficult as it is to relate a famous movie star and acclaimed musician with the same technology that now brings movies and music to our very fingertips.

Hedy Lamarr’s name will always be primarily associated with her beauty on the silver screen. But so much more interesting and inspiring is her other side that illustrates that beauty and brains can coexist productively. As her son said after her death, “She would love to be remembered as someone who contributed to the well-being of humankind.”

–Mamata

A Wordy Adventure

 “I’m bored!” How many little boys and girls, across the world, echo the same words. More than ever before, the last two years when the pandemic confined families within four walls, this was the refrain. But this is nothing new.

There once was a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself not just sometimes but always.

That is the opening line of The Phantom Tollbooth, first published in 1961, which went on to become a classic of children’s literature.

The Phantom Tollbooth is the story of Milo, a 10 year-old boy who is utterly bored with everything around him. One day he comes home to finds a mysterious package with a bright blue envelope which reads “For Milo. Who has plenty of time.”

When unpacked it reveals a magical toy tollbooth which he sets up in his room. Having nothing better to do, he drives his toy car through it and there begins his whacky journey through the different realms of language. He is accompanied on his travels by a “watchdog” named Tock—a large dog with an alarm clock for a body. 

Crossing Expectations and going through the Doldrums, Milo heads for Dictionopolis, ruled by King Azaz the Unabridged–Monarch of Letters, Emperor of Phrases, Sentences and Miscellaneous Figures of Speech. He is welcomed by five tall thin gentlemen who introduce themselves as The Duke of Definition, The Minister of Meaning, the Earl of Essence, the Count of Connotation, and The Undersecretary of Understanding.

We offer you the hospitality of our country, nation, state, commonwealth, realm, empire, palatinate, principality.

Do all those words mean the same thing? asked Milo.

Of course, certainly, precisely, exactly, yes, they replied in order. They also explain: Dictionopolis is the place where all the words in the world come from. They’re grown right here in our orchards.

Milo wanders around the marketplace of words where there are thousands of words on sale, with the vendors trying their best to sell theirs. It is here that he meets the giant Spelling Bee, that can spell any word, and who joins him on his travels.

Finally he meets the king who asks him what he can do. Milo has no answer. The King thinks:”What an ordinary little boy. Why my cabinet members can do all sorts of things. The duke here can make mountains out of molehills. The minister splits hairs. The count makes hay while sun shines. The earl leaves no stone unturned. And the undersecretary hangs by a thread.”

And thus Milo embarks on a wordy adventure where the characters indulge in a riot of word play that initially throws Milo into deep confusion, but gradually his curiosity leads him not only to learn new things, but eventually to join in the pun-fun as it were. 

From Dictionopolis to Digitapolis, from the Foothills of Confusion, and over Mountains of Ignorance; through the Valley of Sound and the Forest of Sight; the Sea of Knowledge and Island of Conclusions (he had to jump to get there!), and the Kingdom of Wisdom, Milo encounters an army of new words as he is roped in to rescue the captured princesses of Rhyme and Reason imprisoned in the Castle in the Air, while fighting the fearsome Hate and Malice.

The Phantom Tollbooth is an absolute delight for word lovers such as me. The word play is clever and stimulating, reminding one of the adventures of Alice in Wonderland. When the book was published, several reviewers wondered whether children would even understand so many new and unfamiliar words, and whether they had the ability to really enjoy the play on words. These apprehensions were vindicated when the book sold millions of copies; and continues to remain a favourite even 60 years after it was first published in 1961.

Years later the author Norton Juster explained his approach: My feeling was that there is no such thing as a difficult word. There are only words you don’t know yet, the kind of liberating words that Milo encounters on his adventure. Today’s world of texting and tweeting is quite a different place, but children are still the same as they’ve always been.

The story of how the book came about is equally interesting. Norton Juster was a young architect working in New York. He had received a Ford Foundation grant for a book on cities for children, and spent months researching it. One day, in a restaurant, he overheard a boy asking the question   “What’s the biggest number there is?” That put him on a totally different path.

I started to compose what I thought would be about a child’s confrontation with numbers and words and meanings and other strange concepts that are imposed on children,” he wrote. “I loved the opportunity to turns things upside down and inside out and indulge in all the bad jokes and puns and wordplay that my father had introduced me to when I was growing up.

The grant never fructified into the intended book, but there began the story of The Phantom Tollbooth. Norton recalled: When I wrote the book I really didn’t write it with any sense of mission. I wrote it for my own enjoyment. The book in no way was written to any sense of what it was that children needed or liked.

However, under all the word play is just what children need–a feeling that navigating the world can be an exciting adventure in itself. As Norton puts it: And I think what kids do — it’s a fairly universal kind of thing – I think the general sense of the book – the feeling of it is something most kids experience one way or another. They’re at times disconnected, or they don’t know what to do with themselves. They don’t know why anything is happening. All the things that they’re learning don’t connect to other things. One of the things that happens in your life is you start out learning a million facts and none of them connect to any other facts. As you get older you gradually realize that something you learned over here connects to something you experienced over there. And you start drawing sort of mental lines, and after a while, like when you get to my age, there’s almost nothing that you learned that doesn’t connect with 80,000 other things. So it all has some kind of a meaning and context to it, and I think kids slowly begin to feel that too.

In an age when children have so many distractions, and yet are always “bored” this book encourages them to look anew at the world around them. You have to constantly look at things as if you’ve never seen them before. Or look at them in a way that nobody has ever seen them before. Or turn them over and look at the other side of everything. That is the magic formula.

Serendipitously, at the time Norton was writing the book, his illustrator friend Jules Feiffer, who was also his upstairs neighbour, read some of it and spontaneously produced a bunch of perfectly-suited drawings that brought the characters to life. And The Phantom Tollbooth continues to be loved by children even six decades later.  

I seem to have missed reading this book in my childhood, but I am delighted to have discovered it in the sixth decade of my life. Thank you Evan for sharing this, a favourite childhood read of yours, with me!

–Mamata

The Wonder Bulb: Garlic

It adds a special flavour to numerous dishes, in many cuisines, across the world. In India, in many kitchens some dishes are incomplete without adding a dash of its paste, while some communities strictly abstain from it. It is often hailed as a wonder herb with numerous health benefits, while it also carries with it the lore of being a vampire repellent! This is the much used, but generally taken for granted–Garlic. However, this edible bulb which is a vegetable as well as herb, has been given its due in America which has designated 19 April as National Garlic Day!

Garlic or Allium sativum is a perennial flowering plant growing from a bulb. It belongs to the Lily family, in the onion genus Allium, and is a close relative of the onion, shallot, leek and chive. The word ‘garlic’ comes from the old English word garlēac, derived from gar (spear) and lac (plant), a reference to the long pointed shape of fresh garlic leaves.

While the name comes from the Anglo Saxon, the plant itself has a much older history. It is believed to be one of the oldest cultivated horticultural crops, with the centre of origin in Central Asia, mostly in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. It is mentioned in many ancient texts, and references to garlic have been found in Egyptian and Indian cultures dating back 5000 years. Later, it spread to China, and then into Southern Europe.

Garlic has also been part of human diet for thousands of years. It was first incorporated into ancient Egyptian cuisine, making it the first ancient civilization to use garlic. Ancient Egyptians included garlic in the diet of the labourers who built the pyramids, to boost their strength and endurance. King Tutankhamen (1500 BCE) was buried with garlic cloves, which were found in a well-preserved state when his tomb was excavated hundreds of years later. Garlic was also consumed by Greek and Roman soldiers, sailors and peasants. Olympic athletes in Ancient Greece were given garlic – possibly the earliest example of “performance enhancing” agents used in sports. For the Romans garlic was a spice and a medicinal herb. It was used to treat tuberculosis, fever and other diseases.

The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates known today as “the father of Western medicine,” prescribed garlic for a wide range of conditions and illnesses. Later research has indeed proved that this bulbous strong-smelling herb is an excellent source of minerals and vitamins necessary to maintain the body in a healthy condition. Garlic cloves are one of the richest sources of potassium, iron, calcium, magnesium, manganese, zinc and selenium.

The use of garlic for its antibiotic properties was also promoted in traditional and folk medicine from the earliest times. In ancient India garlic was a commonly-used medication for a wide range of ailments. An Egyptian medical guide from 1550 BCE, written on papyrus, prescribed garlic as a treatment for abnormal growths.  Ancient nomadic tribes knew the anti-microbial effects of garlic when they mashed and rubbed in a combination of salt, garlic and red peppers to preserve meat during their long caravan travels. In Europe medical practitioners used garlic throughout the Middle Ages. Doctors in eighteenth century England carried garlic in their pockets to ward of the odour of disease. Garlic remained in the realm of medicine for most of the 19th century. In 1861, a book titled The New Domestic Physician by John Gunn prescribed simple home remedies using medicinal plants in which garlic was included.

Louis Pasteur first discovered that garlic juice was a powerful antimicrobial in 1858; he maintained that it killed bacteria and was effective even against some bacteria that was resistant to other treatments.  At the time when antibiotics did not exist, a bulb of garlic was itself akin to a broad-spectrum antibiotic. It was used as the main antiseptic for treating wounds; there are stories of it being used widely in the trenches during the First World War as there were very few other substances available to kill bacteria and clean wounds. During World War II, Russian soldiers wounded in battle were treated with garlic when antibiotics were running out, and it became known as Russian Penicillin.

What was it that gave garlic these properties? It was in 1944 that the oily, colourless, unstable substance called allicin was isolated from garlic. Later it was established that allicin, the sulphurous substance that gives garlic its distinctive smell has strong antibiotic and antifungal properties, even when diluted. In 1947, the chemical formula of allicin was determined. Allicin is also the compound to which most potential health benefits attributed to garlic have been credited. The allicin in garlic is released only when the cloves are cut or mashed. So the most effective way to activate the allicin is to cut the garlic and let it sit for 10-15 minutes before using it.

Garlic also contains 17 amino acids. Amino acids are essential to nearly every bodily function, and make up 75 per cent of the human body. Every chemical reaction that takes place in the body depends on amino acids and the proteins that they build. Today garlic is being promoted as a wonder bulb that can be helpful in managing blood pressure, cholesterol and immune function.

No wonder then that the “stinking rose” as it has been called, has featured in the folklore, traditional medicine, and cuisines of so many cultures around the world. 

So as we inhale their “aroma” let us give those cloves of garlic a deeper thought as we add them to our cooking. Unless of course you suffer from alliumphobia—a fear of garlic! 

–Mamata

Doctor Without Borders: Jonathan Kaplan

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

Doctors without Borders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Mamata

A Doctor Abroad: Dr Kotnis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Mamata

One-Bird Orchestra: Magpie Robin

The mellifluous notes fill the pre-dawn darkness. You wonder who these “earlier birds” are that have already got their orchestra going in full throttle, even before the other ‘early birds’ clear their throats and tune up for the day ahead. As you walk along you see a little bird on the ground under a tall tree. Dapper in its neat dress of black and white, its tail is held upright as it moves, just as the baton of the orchestra conductor. This is the Magpie Robin—the conductor and orchestra all rolled into one.  This one does not need a warm up. It bursts straight into a symphony.

The Oriental Magpie Robin is a member of the order Passeriformes which includes more than half of all the bird species. Passerines are perching birds which are distinguished by their toe pattern—three toes facing forward and one toe facing backward—which allows the bird to easily grasp, and cling to both horizontal and nearly vertical perches, including branches and tree trunks

Its scientific name is Copsychus saularis. In the early days there was confusion about this name as early scientists were misled by its Indian name dhaiyal which they believed referred to sundial and hence ‘solaris’. An Englishman Edward Blyth thought that this was inappropriate, and rather felt that the Hindi term saulary (meaning hundred songs) was more fitting. A specimen of the bird along with its Hindi name, was even sent from Madras to James Petiver, a London apothecary famous for his collections of specimens.  

Saularis or hundred songs aptly describes this handsome song bird. A black-and-white bird with a cocked tail and upright stance, it is about the size of a bulbul. The male has glossy blue-black upper parts, head and throat, with a white belly, and a broad white band on the wing and white edges on the tail. The female has similar markings, but with slate-grey upperparts and buff flanks.

Magpie Robins are commonly found hear human habitation, in gardens, parks and wooded areas. They can be seen singly or in pairs near shrubs and bushes. But for the most part of the year they are not conspicuous, as they are shy and quiet, only uttering a plaintive swee-ee and harsh chr-r, chr-r notes from time to time.  

It is during their breeding season from March till June that they attract our attention, not so much by their sighting but by their sound. This is when the male Magpie Robin pours his heart out in song to attract a mate, as well as to declare and guard his territory. He can be seen perched on a post, or unseen, high up on a leafless tree top, filling the air with his musical notes, punctuated with upward jerks of his tail.

The little fellow has an amazing repertoire of tunes, switching effortlessly from one to another. Besides his own calls, he is also adept at perfectly mimicking the calls of other birds. This ability he uses, not so much to charm his future mate, but to guard his territory. Sometimes, by pretending to be three different birds calling from different locations, the magpie robin male can fool potential intruders into believing that the large territory is already occupied, and unavailable for new lodgers. In case a bold outsider ventures within, the songster transforms into a pugnacious defender, raising his bill, fanning the tail, puffing up his feathers, and strutting aggressively.   Additionally, the bird also emits different types of calls, such as threat calls and distress calls, depending on the occasion.

Having finally won over his mate with song and macho displays, the Magpie Robin is ready to set up home. It is the female who takes on the task of the nest builder, making a pad of grass, rootlets and hair in a hollow cavity in a tree trunk, old bough or wall. She lays three to five pale blue green eggs with brownish specks; the eggs are oval in shape. She alone incubates the eggs for 8-14 days, and then feeds her fledglings. Her musical mate however shares some other domestic duties such as protecting the nest from intruders or damage.

Magpie Robins are largely insectivorous. Though chiefly arboreal, they pick crickets, grasshoppers, ants, caterpillars and other insects off the ground, as well as eating worms, snails, centipedes and small lizards. They also visit Silk Cotton and Coral tree blossoms to feed on the nectar.  

The Magpie Robin is known by many names in different parts of India. Dhaiyal or Dhaiyar in Hindi and Bengali; Daiyyad in Gujarati; Dominga in Marathi; Kali sooi chiria in Madhya Pradesh.

The bird is equally familiar and known in our neighbouring countries where it is viewed in different ways. In Sri Lanka this bird is called Polkichcha (coconut bird) as well as Pahan-Kichcha (Dawn bird); and it was traditionally believed to be a bird of ill-omen. Its singing is believed to announce bad news, and villagers usually chase it away from the neighbourhood of their dwellings.

On the other hand, in Bangladesh the Magpie Robin known as Doyel or Doel is so well known, and liked, that it has been recognized as the national bird of the country, It is a widely used symbol, even appearing on currency notes in Bangladesh; and a landmark in the capital Dhaka is called Doel Chattar (Doel Square).

Unfortunately it is the song of this bird that puts its own survival in danger. Magpie Robins are popular as caged song birds and there is a widespread illegal trade in these birds, which are sold as pet songbirds. They are smuggled out in large numbers especially from Malaysia, leading to an alarming decline in their populations. As with all species, these birds are also threatened by habitat destruction and climate change. Although the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List has listed the Oriental Magpie Robin as a species of Least Concern, the declining numbers are beginning to cause concern. In Singapore and Hong Kong, this species of birds is protected by law.

In these times when the senses are besieged 24/7 by sights and sounds of war and destruction, I feel blessed that I can start my day with the lilting music of the Magpie Robin. And I cannot but help wistfully thinking what the world would be like if we humans too could defend our territories with songs instead of guns and bombs.

–Mamata

Weather Woman Anna Mani

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Mamata

Colours

It is the season of colours. In Nature this is when blossoms and blooms announce the arrival of spring. The birds flaunt their plumage to attract their mates. It is colours that make this statement with an astounding variety of shades, from the flamboyant to the nuanced.

Colours are also significant in the world of humans. They express our moods, and our preferences. They indicate our race, nationality, or our sexuality. They inspire, as well as give form to our art, our textiles, and our cuisines. Each colour is unique in itself, but it is when colours come together that the real magic happens.

Sadly it is when colours begin to define race and politics that the magic turns murky. It is when national colours become the label of “friend” or “enemy”, and when the colour of the skin assumes pejorative tones that colours begin to create dangerous schisms and chasms. This when humans become so blinkered that colours begin to assume divisive identities; that colours increasingly create silos within which monochromatic sentiments fester until they explode in violence and war.

These ruminations were triggered by a poem that I came across. The words are simple, but the thoughts profound.

CRAYONS

While walking into a toy store

The day before today

I came upon a crayon box

With many things to say.

“I don’t like Red!” said Orange.

And Green said “Nor do I”.

“And no one here likes Yellow.

But no one knows just why.”

“We are a box of crayons

That does not get along.”

Said Blue to all the others,

“Something here is wrong.”

Well I bought that box of crayons

And I took it home with me.

And I laid out all the crayons

So the crayons could all see.

They watched me as I coloured

With Red and Blue and Green.

And Black and White and Orange

And every colour in between.

They watched as Green became the grass

And Blue became the sky.

The yellow sun was shining bright

On white clouds drifting by.

Colours changing as they touched,

Becoming something new.

They watched me as I coloured

They watched till I was through.

And when I finally finished,

I began to walk away.

And as I did the crayon box.

Had something more to say.

“I do like Red” said Orange

And Green said “So do I!”

“And Blue, you were terrific.

So high up in the sky!”

“We are a box of crayons

Each of us unique.

But when we are together

The picture is complete.”

Today as we celebrate Holi, the festival of colours, let the colours unite us in our revelries, in their true spirit. Let colours become all-inclusive rather than exclusive. Let the many different shades and tints come together to weave a magnificent and rich multi-hued tapestry. Let us remember that within every colour lies a story, and stories are the binding agent of cultures.

Happy Holi!

–Mamata