Ides to Ideas

Beware the Ides of March! Perhaps never in the living memory of humankind, has this dire and gloomy prophecy proved so true. It is in this month that the world has been brought to its knees by an invisible force that seems to have united all of humanity in facing a common enemy.

The world, and way of life as we know, have overnight, changed beyond our wildest imagination, and no soothsayer can foretell what lies ahead, in the near and distant future. From now on, the month of March will be marked as the month that changed the world.

But before all this began, March had been designated as the International Ideas Month.

Ideas–our brain is churning out ideas all the time; even though we may not consciously register these. From small ideas about routine matters, ideas.jpgto Eureka moments, ideas keep our little grey cells ticking away. Sometimes we let these slip away because we are preoccupied with what we feel are more serious or important matters, and sometimes because we feel that the ideas is too inane to pursue.

International Ideas Month is meant to celebrate the value of ideas. And an encouragement to get one’s ideas rolling—no matter how silly, or profound they may seem.

Ideas spring from imagination, and imagination is the single most useful tool mankind possesses. And yet in these times when even creativity is measured by its market price, or ideas that help make large profits; imagination is seen as the indulgence of children and dreamers, writers and painters.

In the words of American author Ursula K. Le Guin “Imagination is not a means of making money. It has no place in the vocabulary of profit-making. It is not a weapon, though all weapons originate from it, and their use, or non-use, depends on it, as with all tools and their uses. The imagination is an essential tool of the mind, a fundamental way of thinking, an indispensable means of becoming and remaining human. …Like any tool, the imagination requires that we first learn how to use it or, rather, that we unlearn how to squander it. Children have imagination to start with, but as we grow, we tend to put aside imagination as an indulgence. All human beings need exercises in imagination as they need exercise in all the basic skills of life, bodily and mental: for growth, for health, for competence, for joy. This need continues as long as the mind is alive.”

One way to nurture imagination is to give the time and space that ideas need to take root and grow. This garden cannot be meticulously planned, pruned and scheduled. Ideas turn up anytime, anywhere—on a morning walk, at the kitchen sink, in the shower, and in the middle of the night.

Because Ideas do not have a fixed time and place to appear, it is important not to let them slip away. Grab them, capture them on paper, take your time and mull over them, incubate them, or put them into practice right away!

The right time and space is now–when we are in a physical lockdown. While we cannot physically wander far and wide, when we seem to suddenly have time on our hands–What better time to unlock and unleash all those ideas that have been hibernating or aestivating in our minds.

Turn the Ides of March into the Ideas of March.

–Mamata

 

Once Upon a Time…

These four words open up windows to entire universes—unexplored, or familiar. This is how many a story begins. Stories are a life force that have imbued human life with that something extra, since the dawn of civilization. Stories are a way to convey history, culture, language, spirituality, and identity. One way to keep stories alive is storytelling. Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of communication.

20 March is celebrated as World Storytelling Day–a day to remember and remind ourselves of the magic and power of stories. What began in Sweden, on this date in 1991, as All Storytellers Day has now become a global celebration of the art of oral storytelling. On World Storytelling Day, as many people as possible tell and listen to stories in as many languages and at as many places as possible, during the same day and night.

On this day I celebrate a storyteller who collected, recreated, and created a timeless repertoire of stories. Generations of children have grown up with these tales, told and retold by parents and grandparents over the last one hundred years. This was my grandfather Gijubhai Badeka, one of Gujarat’s foremost educationists and storytellers.

In Gujarati, as in most Indian languages, the child reader had remained somewhat neglected till the middle of the nineteenth century. There was hardly any specific literature for children; only stories retold from classical Indian literature, or heroic stories from Western literature, in not very satisfactory translations. Gijubhai pioneered the creation of special literature for children that also contributed to preserving the oral tradition of literature through exploring and compiling the rich legacy of folk literature. His search for folk tales crossed the boundaries of language and country. This journey of exploration he described thus, in his seminal work titled Vaarta nu Shastra (The Art and Craft of Stories) published in 1925. “So many stories have travelled in foreign lands, so many stories have changed their religion and form; it is an adventure to trace their journeys. If we become wandering travellers with the stories, we will discover that we find one story in Tibet and will see the same story in Africa; we will discover the same story wrapped in snow at the North Pole, and yet if we wander in the Arabian desert, there it will be, but uncovered and bare…but still we recognise the story. Some stories adapt to their land, taking on the form and language of their adopted home, while others retain their origins wherever they may settle. Some stories follow the creed of universal brotherhood, they see the world as their home and go wherever they get a chance to serve and please. Some settle firmly in different countries and come to be recognised as belonging to that place. They are then only translated to reach other countries.”

Many of Gijubhai’s stories are members of this travelling band. Gijubjai transformed and localised these stories, so that they are steeped in the sounds and colours of Gujarat, and have today become not only Gujarati, but uniquely ‘Gijubhai’s’ stories. They are simply told tales characterised by a mixture of prose and rhyme. The repetition of rhymes makes for lively storytelling which listeners join in. Gijubhai retold delightful tales of ordinary people, and familiar birds and animals. With equal panache he churned out stories of common folk with common trades—tailors, potters, barbers, shopkeepers, but also kings, queens and princesses. The characters reflect basic human traits—greed, envy, fear, desire for one-upmanship. Animal tales reflect a close and symbiotic relationship between animals and people. Many open with “once upon a time”… and end “happily ever after.” A hundred years after they were written these stories still touch a cord in the child, and also the child in each of us.

Stories are older than us, they are smarter than us, they keep going, and they are a part of us even though we do not realise this. But stories need human beings to reproduce, much as we need food… we need things to keep ourselves alive.

Hungarian-born American polymath Thomas Sebeok said “…what we can do, I think, is try and create stories that are interesting enough and important enough that our grandchildren might want to tell those stories to their grandchildren — because that’s the purpose of stories, that’s what they’re for: They make live worth living and, sometimes, they keep us alive.

In my own small way, I try to carry forward the legacy of my grandfather by translating and retelling these timeless tales.

–Mamata

Forth and Back

“Madam I’m Adam”. When I was young I was amused by this clever phrase because one could read it the same way from left to right and right to left. As my interest in words and love for word play grew along with me, I was always looking for such words or phrases. Somewhere along the way I discovered that a word, sentence, verse, or even number, that reads the same backward or forward was called a Palindrome. The English word Palindrome was created in the early 1600s based on Greek roots that literally mean “running back on itself” (palin meaning ‘again’ or ‘back’, and dromos meaning ‘running’.)

I began to collect examples of these, and was excited whenever I found one; one highlight being ‘A man, a plan, a canal-Panama’. Until I discovered that there were more avid collectors, and loads of such examples. Here is sharing some, from the daily use ones (that we do not even register as being palindromes) to the funny, clever ones.

Family–sweet and simple in any form: Mum, mom, amma, pop, dad, sis.

Moving on to mechanics–rotor, level, racecar, radar, refer, reviver, rotator, and repaper… (graduating to the next level as ‘Won’t I repaper? Repaper it now!’

Some simple (and sometimes silly) ones:

palindrome.jpg
Source: Google

Dennis sinned.

Don’t nod.

Never odd or even.

No lemons, no melon.

We panic in a pew.

Won’t lovers revolt now?

Sir, I demand, I am a maid named Iris.

Eve, mad Adam, Eve!

Never a foot too far, even.

Nurse, I spy gypsies, run!

Delia sailed as sad Elias ailed.

Ned, I am a maiden.

Some clever ones:

A hitman for hire: Murder for a jar of red rum.

A gross creature: Oozy rat in a sanitary zoo.

Call your mother: Mum

Sane advice: Do not start at rats to nod.

Weather forecast: Too hot to hoot.

Teutonic pride: I, man, am regal; a German am I.

Philosophical musing: Do geese see God?

Old cats: Senile felines.

On ET’s menu: UFO tofu

Bad eyesight: Was it a car or a cat I saw?

A moral dilemma: Borrow or rob?

And one curious one–Murdrum (the crime of killing an unknown man).

And our own and bona fide one: Malayalam!

A wonderful one that sounds like what it means: Tattarrattat—meaning a knock on the door. It was coined by James Joyce and used in Ulysses in 1922. It is also the longest palindromic word in the Oxford English Dictionary.

And last but not the least, there is even a palindromic word for an irrational fear of palindromes—aibohphobia! WOW!

–Mamata

Fatso

Fatso! The word always reminds of the storybooks we read in which the

garfield fat.jpg
Source: Pintrest.com

chubby baby with pink cheeks grew into a rotund schoolboy or roly-poly schoolgirl who was the butt of many jokes and cruel teasing. For many children who were actually on the plump side, it was a real-life experience that followed them through the years of teenage and adulthood. Fat characters depicted in books, movies and television are usually the bumbling comic ones, designed to raise a laugh. The simple three letter word ‘fat’ is, more often than not, used as an adjective that is derisive and pejorative.

The history of the word in the English language reveals that this was not always the case. In the late 1300s, fertile and abundant land was described as ‘fat land.’ In the 1600s, a wealthy or affluent person was described as a ‘fat’ person. This was a period when the general population suffered from poverty and food shortages, and anyone with excess body fat was recognised as being prosperous. Paintings of the Renaissance period in Europe depicted full-figured people. This was also the case in several other parts of the world, including India, where chubbiness was extolled when admiring “healthy” babies, and a skinny child would always be asked “does your mother not give you food?” In women of a marriageable age, a well-rounded body structure was desirable as it was considered suitable for future child bearing.

Changing times brought changing trends. In the 19th and 20th centuries, in the West, technology and industry made food production more stable, cheaper, and more widely available; it also introduced the wave of processed food. This, along with a rise in the overall standard of living, and more sedentary lifestyles, created new concerns, and perceptions, about weight. By the 1940–50s, ‘thinness’ became the new ideal for health and beauty. As early as March 1954, Life magazine featured an article, “The Plague of Overweight,” which characterized obesity as “the most serious health problem today.” “The uncompromising truth,” it went on, “is that obesity is caused by gluttony.” At that time, around three percent of Americans were considered obese. In 2015-2016 the prevalence of obesity in American adults was 39.8%. Today India is one of the countries in which obesity has reached almost epidemic proportions.

As medical science produces numerous reports on the health impacts of obesity, the popular culture has climbed on to the merry-go-round slogan of ‘fat is evil’. This has manifested itself in wave after wave of money-minting slimming coaches, new-fangled fad diets, and lose-weight mantras.

The social fall-out of this has been the culture of ‘fat shaming.’ Responses to this have been varied. The 1960s saw the rise of the movement of ‘body positivity’ to raise awareness of the barriers faced by fat people and highlighted the need for human rights for bigger bodies. As far back as 1969, a civil rights organisation was founded in the United States, The National Association of Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) which works to eliminate discrimination based on body size, through advocacy, public education and support.

Today there is a Fat Acceptance Movement, with Fat Activists, which is working to challenge bias against fat people and end discrimination against them, especially in work places.

At the other end of the cultural spectrum, in several parts of the world, “fat is indeed beautiful.” Heavier girls and women are viewed as beautiful, wealthy and socially-accepted.  As they believe, if you are fat, people respect you; people honour you. Wherever you go, they say, “Your husband feed you fine.” In Mauritania, it is believed that a woman’s size indicates the amount of space she occupies in her husband’s heart!

Even today, in many tribes in Africa, a woman’s attractiveness is measured by her obesity, and a young woman is prepared for marriage in ways guaranteed to ˜fatten her up.” Traditionally brides-to-be would be confined to a hut where they would be fed and fed and fed on high calorie foods until they achieved the desirable size and shape.  Even today, in some places women go to fattening centres, just as in others they go on a slimming programme, before their wedding.

The Fat vs Healthy debate rages on. Every day, through every media, we are besieged by confusing and contradictory messages. Beneath all this, science seems to suggest that that body size is the result of a complex web of factors, including social and economic influences, genetics, food production and availability, urban design, land use, and advertising.

Fatso, or beanpole, beauty, it seems, is in the eyes of the beholder!

–Mamata

 

 

Wild is Wondrous!

March 3 is celebrated as United Nations World Wildlworld wildlife day 2.jpgife Day. This marks the day of signature of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1973. Every year on this day, events are held around the world to celebrate and raise awareness of the world’s wild animals and plants.

The theme of World Wildlife Day 2020 is “Sustaining all Life on Earth”. This celebrates the special place of wild plants and animals in their many varied and beautiful forms as a component of the world’s biological diversity.

India is a treasure house of biological diversity. It harbours 8% of the world’s biodiversity on just 2% of the earth’s surface. It is one of the 17 mega-diversity countries in the world with ten biogeographic zones, and an incredible diversity of habitats, flora and fauna.

Here is my small ode to this wild and wondrous land and its denizens.

I live in such a magical land

Of mountains and valleys, plateaus and sand.

Jungles and farmland, deserts, islands and seas,

Here’s to my land of biodiversity.

 

Biodiversity Biodiversity

It’s all about Life and Variety

 

In forests and fields, deserts and seas,

Animals and crops, microbes and trees.

Colours and patterns, functions and form,

To survive and thrive, adapt and transform.

 

Snow leopard and yak, and double-humped camels

The Himalayan cold desert is home to these mammals.

Shining blue lakes in the rugged landscape

Welcome winged visitors many coloured and shaped.

 

Biodiversity Biodiversity

Experience it, share it, enjoy it.

 

Where the mighty Ganga flows

River dolphins swim and gharials are found.

Proud tigers prowl, and deer abound

The fertile plains with bounteous yields

From forests and farmlands and fields.

 

Biodiversity Biodiversity

See it, taste it, smell it, feel it.

 

The North East is truly a garden of Eden

Full of priceless treasures, many still hidden.

Feathery ferns, bright orchids, bamboos tall

Where rhinos roam and Hoolock Gibbons call.

 

Biodiversity, Biodiversity

Appreciate it, savour it, explore it.

 

Discover that deserts are dry but alive,

Their dwellers have special tricks to survive

Store water, shed leaves, or burrow in the sand.

Why, even tigers and lions roar in this land.

 

Biodiversity, Biodiversity

Treasure it, enjoy it, study it.

 

In the Western Ghats meet a tahr, and a tiger too

Jumbos in jungles and a hornbill or two.

Colourful frogs that croak and call

Snakes and snails that slither and crawl.

 

Biodiversity Biodiversity

Learn from it, weave with it, heal with it.

 

Deccan highlands and grasslands, plateaux that soar

Dotted with buffalos, cows, goats and sheep galore

There grow seeds and cereals upon which we feast

And people who celebrate it all with their dancing feet.

 

Biodiversity Biodiversity

Plant it, grow it, cook it, eat it.

 

Deep in the seas meet clown fish and anemone in a coral jungle

Crabs, crocs and tigers in a mangrove tangle.

On islands in waters blue and green

See a megapode, a monitor, a Nicobar pigeon preen.

 

Biodiversity Biodiversity

Track it, live with it, delight in it!

 

Biodiversity Biodiversity

It’s all about Life and Variety.

Biodiversity Biodiversity

Celebrate it, protect it, conserve it!

–Mamata

 

Food Glorious Food!

In the past week or so, food and menus have been much in the news. The most recent being the menu which has been planned for the banquet that the President of India is hosting tonight for American President Donald Trump and his delegation who are visiting India. And then, there was the news about the Historical Gastronomica event that the National Museum in New Delhi is hosting. This event offered an Indus Valley dining experience through a “specially crafted menu that strictly includes ingredients identified by archaeologists and researchers from sites of the Indus-Saraswati civilization.” The latter event has been in the news because of the controversy over whether the people of that place and time ate ‘non vegetarian’ food or not. The controversy has generated many articles referring to the works of scholars in this area.

One of the food historians referred is K.T. Achaya and his auIMG-20200225-WA0000.jpgthoritative volume on the history of Indian food titled Indian Food: A Historical Companion. This led me to my bookshelf to pull out another book by this renowned authority on Indian food. This one, titled A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food followed his earlier ones. In this he attempts to bring together, in alphabetical order, material from his vast work on the subject. The book draws upon historical writing, archaeology, botany, genetics and ancient literature in Sanskrit, Pali, Tamil and Kannada to trace the gastronomic history and food ethos of India. The entries cover a wide range including recipes; narratives of visitors to India, starting with the Greeks in the fourth century; the etymological evolution of certain words, and the close links of food with ancient health systems such as Ayurveda. While this is a valuable scholarly work with meticulous and voluminous referencing, it is simply written, with a delightful menu–from A to Z–that one can dip into, and savour according to one’s own taste and appetite.

For me every entry is fascinating. For today I will share an excerpt about two elements that are the starting point of a menu and a meal—Guest and Host!

‘Guests had an honoured place in Vedic society, ranking only below the father, mother and guru. On arrival, a guest was ceremoniously received, given water to wash his hands and feet, and offered the ambrosial beverage madhuparka. In early Vedic times, if the guest was an honoured Brahmin or a member of royalty, a large bull or goat would be sacrificed in his honour, even if the guest was a vegetarian. Later this ritual became symbolic, and the guest was given a knife in token of the sacrifice, which he returned after a prayer. During the meal, the host had to be solicitous, either eating later, or finishing his own meal quickly, so as to rise early and look after his guests.

In the Manava Dharmashastra (Manusmriti) a host is exhorted in these terms: Let him, being pure and attentive, place on the ground the seasoning for the rice, such as broth and pot herbs, sweet and sour honey, as well as various kinds of hard foods that require mastication, and soft food, roots, fruits, and savoury and fragrant drinks. All these he shall present, and being pure and attentive, successively invite them to partake of each, proclaiming its qualities: cause them to partake gradually and slowly of each, and repeatedly urge them to eat by offering the food and extolling its qualities.

All the food shall be very hot and the guests shall eat in silence. Having addressed them with the question: Have you dined well? Let him give them water to sip, and bid farewell to them with the words: Now rest.’

(A Historical Dictionary of India Food K.T.Achaya (pp 96)

And so in India–Atithi Devo Bhava–The guest is God!

–Mamata

One Man, One Mission

Last week we wrote about Uncle Moosa and his single-handed mission to take books and reading to the remotest parts of North East India.

Here is the story of another man with a similar mission, one that he has been pursuing with undiminished passion and fervour for over 70 years! He is Mahendra Meghani. And this is the story of Lokmilap, the bookshop that he started, and which became a symbol of all that he has devoted his life to. And one to which I too have old links.

IMG_3289.jpg
Photo credit: Ajay Desai  

In the summer holidays when we used to go to Bhavnagar, our ancestral hometown, one of visits most looked forward to, was the one to Lokmilap. For us this was treasure house from which we were allowed to select a few books.  More precious, because it was perhaps the only one that stocked English language books, in addition to some of the best literature in Gujarati. We often met Mahendrabhai there, who was also a family friend, and he would show us the new arrivals including the beautifully illustrated children’s books from the Russian People’s Publishing House.

In those days this was as much as we knew about Lokmilap. Over the years as we grew, we learnt more about Mahendra Meghani and his tireless mission to take literature to “the people” in every way possible.

Mahendrabhai’s own lineage in literature goes back to his father, the famed Gujarati litterateur Zaverchand Meghani, who was given the title Lok Shayar or People’s Poet by Mahatma Gandhi. It is said that while Zaverchand took literature from people’s tongues to people’s hearts, Mahendrabhai took literature to every person, home and society.

Born in 1923, Mahendrabhai, graduated from high school in Mumbai, and joined L. D. Arts College in Ahmedabad for further education. It is said that when he was getting ready to move from Mumbai to Ahmedabad, his father advised, “It gets very hot in Ahmedabad, so make sure you cover your head with a topi”. Complying with his father’s suggestion, Mahendrabhai started wearing the khadi cap which became an integral part of his attire, and remained so through the years. After two years in Ahmedabad he returned to Mumbai to join the Elphinstone College, but left that to join Gandhi’s Quit India movement. He did not return to college, but instead helped his father with his journalistic work.  After the death of his father in 1948, Mahendrabhai went to the US to study journalism at Columbia. Living in the International Student’s House in New York, he would, every day, buy two newspapers and peruse the many pages. It is here that he also discovered Reader’s Digest.  And he found his calling! He decided to return to India and start a similar magazine in Gujarati. And so, on 26 January 1950, India’s first Republic Day, was born Milap, a monthly journal in Gujarati which set high standards of language and literature, and yet garnered a wide and faithful readership.

Tired of the hectic life in Mumbai, Mahendrabhai moved to Bhavnagar in Gujarat where the journal Milap engendered the publishing house as well as the book shop Lokmilap (meeting of people). It is through these that Mahendrabhai lived his passion to take good literature, at affordable prices, to as wide a reading public as possible. The bookshop, as he said, “included books from all publishers, but not all books from all publishers.” Lokmilap’s vision was not simply to sell books; they wanted to open windows to the best in world literature, to give people a perspective about life, and how to live life. They published hundreds of original Gujarati books, but also translated and abridged versions of classics of world literature (many of them translated by Mahendrabhai himself). More critically, the books were very nominally priced, to suit even the shallowest pocket. They introduced “pocket books”, initially to take poetry to the people, but later diversified to include a vast range of literature. Priced then, as low as 50 paise, the books sold in lakhs.

In 1969, the Gandhi Centenary year, he compiled a special collection of 400 books that celebrated Gandhi’s life and message, and a booklet titled Discovering India Book Exhibition. The books were exhibited in many countries across the world with the condition that the sponsoring organisation would buy the set, and donate it to a local library or community centre.

Mahendrabhai himself has travelled far and wide, always clad in his simple khadi attire, sharing his love for language and literature with wide and diverse audiences. In Bhavnagar he was a familiar sight, riding his bicycle no matter what the weather. His tireless quest to share the best with everyone had many facets—at one point hand grinding wheat and baking bread which he distributed, to starting a film club which screened some of the classics of world cinema, and to which he would bring people who had never before been exposed to such experiences.

The man and his mission have inspired and touched millions across generations and nations. Last month, on India’s 70th Republic Day, Lokmilap also marked its 70th anniversary by announcing its closure. Expressing the sentiment that everything that has a start will have an end; what better than the end that is brought about by the ones that made the start?  For all of us whohad taken Lokmilap as one of those comforting points of stability and continuity in lives and cities that have changed so much, it is a sense of losing moorings. But secure that the seeds of the institution have been planted deep and strong.

A man whose mission has brought the love of letters to millions, Mahendrabhai, at age 97, carries on with his writing and reading, somewhat frailer in body but indomitable in spirit.

–Mamata

Uncle Moosa

When I saw the name Sathyanaryanan Mundayoor on this year’s Padma Shri list, a recognition for playing a ‘seminal role’ in spreading

Uncle Moosa.jpeg
Photo credit: Bapenlu Kri 

education in Arunachal Pradesh, I was delighted. He epitomises for me a true passion for books and reading, and an inspiring story of a lifetime devoted to this mission. I first heard of him and his library mission, over a decade ago, from my old colleague and friend Ambika Aiyadurai. I sent him some of the books that we had developed in CEE, and over the years we corresponded sporadically. I have not yet been able to meet him in person, but truly hope to do so sometime. In the meanwhile I feel that his work needed to be shared. What could be better than a first-hand account from Ambika who has known him and seen his work over the years.

Thank you Ambika for sharing this!

–Mamata

I first heard about Sathyanaryanan Mundayoor, way back in 2006 when I started my research work in Arunachal Pradesh. School teachers, students, engineers, administrators, doctors and local villagers in Lohit district of Arunachal Pradesh suggested I meet him. In Lohit and later Anjaw district, where I started my field research, every one fondly spoke of ‘Uncle Moosa’, a name that people of Arunachal had given him. It was only after two years, in 2008, that I had a chance to meet him at Wakro (Lohit district). My accommodation was in the Circuit House, and he had come there to meet someone. With a pleasant smile, a gentle, fragile-looking man greeted me with a ‘namashkaram’. What struck me was his dress. That evening, in the chill of October, all Uncle Moosa had over him was a sweater and shawl, and a cotton veshti. In fact, I have only seen him in a veshti all these years.

Uncle Moosa invited me to visit Bamboosa library the next day. The days were short, so I decided to visit the library at 3 p.m. A group of children was in the library, sitting on a carpet on the floor, reading books. Few sat on chairs placed along the wall. Soon, another set of students arrived. With an assortment of books neatly arranged on the shelves, this single room is a wealth for local children. Students were free to choose any book, read on their own, or in groups. This library in Wakro is a result of Uncle Moose’s mission to inculcate reading skills and promote a reading culture among children in Arunachal Pradesh. And he has spent the last 30-odd years on this mission to connect rural children of Arunachal Pradesh with books. Starting with the Bamboosa library in Tezu, followed by Apne library in Wakro, and Hutong library in Yatong in Anjaw district, by now 13 libraries have been set up in the state, as part of the youth library network.

Uncle Moosa’s first visit to Arunachal Pradesh was in the year 1979 as part of a Vivekananda Kendra Vidyalaya mission. He took this up after quitting his government job in the income tax department in Mumbai. Till 1996, he worked with VKV, dedicating his entire time to the library movement, and never went back to Mumbai nor to his home state of Kerala. In addition to running libraries, Uncle Moosa would invite scholars and other visitors to give a talk in the library and interact with the students. Uncle mentored senior students to become reader activists and there are several events organized during Gandhi Jayanti, World Environment Day and Independence Day where students affiliated with the library movement would perform plays, skits, reading sessions and poem recitals. Those who have known him for several years tell me that Uncle Moosa would carry books in small trunks and suitcases to remote villages to set up reading camps. Hopping onto state transportation buses, and in places with little road connectivity, he would walk for several kilometers to reach a village.

Not many know about Uncle Moosa’s frugal living. A small single room with a bed and a shelf was his accommodation in Wakro. His day begins at four in the morning by doing yoga and meditation. His favourite breakfast is upma, and he prepares his own food himself every day. Full of energy, and with a kind, ever-smiling face, talking with him is a joy. His dedication to the library movement and helping students with their education has earned him love and respect, both from adults and children. He continues to live in Arunachal Pradesh, and is now based in Roing. Many years have passed, and I have completed my PhD, but every time I go back to Arunachal Pradesh, I look forward to meeting Uncle Moosa!

Uncle Moosa has dedicated his life to promoting education and fostering a culture of reading in the remote areas of the North-Eastern state. May his tribe increase!

Ambika Aiyadurai

 

 

 

 

From A to …?

Imagine an alphabet that ended questionably with a Y? rather than a reassuring Z! Well there was actually a time when this familiar tailender was removed from the alphabet!

The English alphabet we know today took its modern 26-letter shape in the 16th century. But the origins of most letters of the English alphabet can be traced back to Egyptian hieroglyph symbols of 4,000 years ago, with a sprinkling of Semitic, Phoenician, Greek and Roman influences thrown in.

As with many letters of the English alphabet, Z also has an interesting history. Three-thousand years ago the Phoenicians used a letter called ‘zayin’, meaning ‘ax.’ It was in the form of a vertical line, with horizontal lines at the top and bottom–like an uppercase ‘I’.

The Greeks adopted it as ‘zeta’ around 800 BC. By this time the vertical line had become slanted, and the top and bottom lines had become elongated. Zeta took on the shape that we know as Z today.

But around 300 BC, the Roman Censor Appius Claudius Caecus felt that this letter was not being used frequently and decided that it had become archaic, and this letter was removed from the alphabet. According to some biographers he simply did not like the sound of the letter, and felt that when it is pronounced by pulling the lips over the teeth, the speaker looked like a smiling corpse!

Two hundred years later, Z was reintroduced to the Latin alphabet. At the time, it was used only in words taken from Greek. Because of its absence and reintroduction, zeta is one of the only two letters to enter the Latin alphabet directly from Greek.

So Z returned to the 26th place, but it was not always the last. For years, the ‘&’ symbol (now known as the ampersand) was the final letter. The symbol was pronounced as “and” but always used together with the Latin ‘per se’ meaning ‘by itself.’ So when rattling off the letters  “X Y Z and per se“ these rolled into being recited as ”X, Y, Z, ampersand.”

Early English did not have a Z, but used S for both the sibilant sounds. Even today the letter is relatively less used in ‘British English’ spellings as compared with ‘American’ English; (it is sometimes an irritant to find all these words underlined by Spellcheck if spelled with an S!)

It is also interesting to browse through the Z letters in tz cartoon.jpghe English dictionary and discover that the majority of the words listed there have their origins in a variety of other languages and cultures. Who would have thought that “ze leetle zee” would have such had such an adventurous history!

I for one enjoy the letter Z. It’s zippy, zappy, full of zest, and helps to create the right buzz!

–Mamata

Year of the Rat

This month has been one of the start of the New Year for several different communities, especially in India, as I wrote earlier. Every culture has its own calculations, myths and legends associated with the annual cycle of time. rat.png

Last week was the Chinese New Year, and the start of the Year of the Rat. The year of the Rat signifies the first year in the 12-year cycle of Chinese zodiac. The years of the Rat include 1912, 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008, and now, 2020.

The Chinese zodiac is based on a repeating 12-year cycle, with each year signified by an animal, in the following order–Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. Those born in a specific year are said to possess certain characteristics of the animal, as defined in the Chinese belief system; and their fortunes are determined accordingly. For example people born in the year of the Rat are supposed to be intelligent, charming, quick-witted, practical and ambitious. They are also likely to be timid, stubborn, greedy, devious, too eager for power, and love to gossip!

Why these animals and why this specific order?  There is an interesting legend linked to this. The story has many versions, but in essence it tells about a race. This is one version.

Once long, long ago, the Jade Emperor, one of the most important gods in traditional Chinese religion wanted to select 12 animals to be his guards. He sent his messengers to earth to invite all the animals in the world to take part in a race which would end by entering the Heavenly Gate.

Twelve species turned up at the start line: a pig, dog, rooster, monkey, sheep, horse, snake, dragon, rabbit, tiger, ox and rat.

As a reward for turning up, the Emperor named a year in the zodiac after each of these animals, but the race was to determine the order in which each animal would be placed in the zodiac, depending upon the order in which they reached the finish line.

All the animals set off on the course. On the way there was a big river that they had to cross. The Rat had got up and started early, but when it reached the river it felt helpless. But then it saw the strong Ox about to enter the water, so it used its wits and climbed onto the Ox’s head. The Ox was kind and let it ride with him. But as soon as they reached the other side, the wily rat quickly slid down and scampered to the finish line. And so the Rat came first, followed at number two by the diligent Ox.

Tiger and Rabbit were not far behind. Both were fast and competitive, but Tiger was faster and came in third. Rabbit who nimbly crossed the river by hopping on stepping stones and a floating log came fourth.

Everyone thought that the dragon with his magical powers of flight would be in front. But in fact the dragon took a detour to go ashore to help some villagers extinguish a fire. When it returned to the river, it saw that Rabbit was struggling on the log, and so the dragon used its breath to blow it to shore. The Rabbit never found out where the helpful breeze came from, but it finished before the Dragon, who came in at number five.

The Horse wasn’t far behind the Dragon and thought that sixth place was in the bag. However, it hadn’t noticed that the Snake had hitched a ride by wrapping itself around the Horse’s legs to save energy. Just as the finish line was in sight, the snake uncoiled itself and frightened the Horse. The Snake thus slyly slithered to sixth place while the horse came in seventh.

Next up were the Sheep (or Goat in some stories), Monkey and Rooster. They decided to work as a team and made a small raft to help them across the river. When they reached the other side, they dashed to the finish line. The Sheep/Goat reached first followed by the Monkey and the Rooster—ranking at number eight, nine and ten respectively.

That left the Dog and the Pig. The dog was playful and could not help splashing and enjoying itself in the river water while all the others overtook it. It landed up wet and panting to claim the eleventh rank. And where was the Pig? True to its nature, half way into the race it got hungry. So it decided to look for, and eat something to keep it going. But it ate so much that it just had to lie down and nap! When it awoke from its snooze, and made its way to the finish line, all the other animals had long crossed it. The Emperor had almost given up on it, but was happy to assign it the final space in the zodiac.

And so the 12 animals became the Emperor’s guards and were also assigned their place in the zodiac.

There is an interesting Post Script to this story which explains why the Cat is missing from the list. As the tale goes, Cat and Rat were then good friends, and both decided to join the race. But the Cat had a habit of waking up late. So, fearing he might miss the grand race, he asked the Rat to wake him up the next morning. The Rat, however, forgot his promise and left without his best friend.

Alas, when the Cat finally woke up, it was already too late, and he did not make it to the race on time. Hence, there is no year in the Chinese zodiac named after the Cat. And, this is why, until this day, the Cat will always hunt the Rat!

Here’s to the Year of the Rat!

–Mamata