True Grit

Winter is the season of Doctor’s conferences in my city, when super specialists of many branches of medicine meet to discuss professional research and new developments. Among these are many women who are working shoulder-to-shoulder with their male counterparts. It is difficult to imagine that just over 150 years ago, a woman doctor was unheard and undreamt of. This reminder was strongly communicated in a recent performance that traced the life of India’s first female doctor–Anandibai Joshi.

Anandibai Joshi is known to be the first woman of Indian origin to graduate with a degree in medicine in the US.  Her story of grit and determination is an inspiration, and a trailblazer.

Born in 1865 as Yamuna, the third unwanted daughter, she was married off at the age of nine to a widower postal clerk 20 years her senior. Her husband Gopalrao took charge of her life by first changing her name to Anandi; but also encouraged her to study, which was unusual for that time. Anandi was a bright and curious girl-child, balancing between her innocence, her thirst for learning and her expected chores and role as ‘wife’. She became a mother at the age of 14, but lost her 10-day old child due to lack of medical care and facilities. Traumatised by this event, she began to dream the undreamable– to become a doctor so that she can help other women like herself. In a time when a girl going to school was spat at, and looked upon with intense disapproval, Anandi was supported to some extent by her husband.

Even more unusual is the story of how she reached America. A letter written by Gopalrao to an American missionary asking if Anandi could study medicine in America, was published in some American magazines, where a woman called Theodicia Carpenter read it and wrote to the young girl with an offer of a home and support if she were to go to New York. Against opposition from all quarters in India, Anandi embarked upon this journey into the unknown, reaching New York after an arduous two-month ship voyage. Once she reached, with support from her mentor Theodicia, Anandi Gopal Joshi applied to the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and was granted admission at the age of 19. Medical school and life in an alien land was extremely difficult; but Anandi met the challenges head on—the extreme cold weather (she changed her attire from the traditional nine-yard sari to the six-yard one), the food (at one point she became so nutritionally deficient she had to start eating eggs), very poor health, loneliness, hostile classmates and neighbours, and nasty letters from her suspicious husband. Anandi persevered towards her goal and got through medical school, graduating in 1886. She returned to India the same year and was appointed as the physician-in-charge at the Albert Edward Hospital in the then princely state of Kohlapur (in present day Maharashtra).

Tragically, before she could finally make her childhood dream come true, by practising as a doctor, Dr Anandi Joshi died of TB in 1887, just over a month before her 22nd birthday. As per her wish, her ashes were sent to Theodicia Carpenter, who placed them in her family cemetery in Poughkeepsie, New York.

The true-grit story of Yamuna/Anandi was brought to life in a solo performance by Manasi Prabhakar Joshi. Titled Dr Anandibai this powerfully transposed the story of the path breaker in the context of the challenges that women face even today—reminding us that while on the one hand much has changed, on the other, much remains the same. Anandibai’s story continues to remain an inspiration and a beacon.

–Mamata

 

 

Moon Tiger

“On the bedside is a Moon Tiger. The Moon Tiger is a green coil IMG_20181211_082936 (1).jpgthat burns slowly all night, repelling mosquitoes, dropping away into lengths of green ash, its glowing red eye a companion of the hot insect-rasping darkness. She lies there thinking of nothing, simply being, her whole body content. Another inch of Moon Tiger feathers down into the saucer.”

When I read these words my eyes fell on the Good Knight coil by my bedside…and I looked at it with completely new eyes.  Imagine, this taken-for-granted necessity being described so eloquently. Even more interesting was the fact that this description refers to the period of the first World War II in Egypt when mosquito repellent coils were widely used and sold under the name of Moon Tiger. So much for my thinking that Good Knight was a very desi product of our times!

The revelation came as I was recently reading a book by the same name. Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively was published in 1987 and won the Booker Prize that year.

Moon Tiger is the tale told by Claudia Hampton, a beautiful, once-famous writer of history books, who lies dying in hospital. As she lies there she is conjuring in her mind ‘a history of the world … and in the process, my own’. Gradually she re-creates the rich mosaic of her life and times peopled with those near and dear to her. In doing so she confronts her own, personal history, unearthing the passions and pains that have defined her life.

The most poignant of these is her memories of her time in Egypt as a war correspondent and her brief affair with her one great love, both found and lost in wartime Egypt. The description of the Moon Tiger that burns all night, slowly dropping its coil into ash, forms both the central image of the story and its structure.

Penelope Lively, an acclaimed novelist and children’s writer was herself born in Cairo, Egypt, in 1933 and brought up there. In this novel she weaves an exquisite mesh of memories, flashbacks and shifting voices, in a haunting story of loss and desire. Moon Tiger is also about the ways in which we are connected to people, places, and history.

I have always enjoyed reading Penelope Lively, but this book soars above them all in terms of the language, the flow and the sensitive journey through the landscape of the mind.  The title itself is ‘a metaphor for the persistence of some experiences and the burning present-ness of some memories’.

Coincidentally I discovered this book this year—2018—the same year that the Golden Man Booker list, which chose one book for each of the five decades that the Booker Prize has been running, announced that Moon Tiger was the chosen book for the decade of the 1980s.

–Mamata

Warp and Weft

I love textiles. Over the years I have enjoyed wearing, and finding out about fabrics, designs, and unique characteristics of these. Living in a country with its incredible and rich variety of textiles means that the journey of exploring and discovering never ends.

The journey has been further enriched in the past few years when I have had the opportunity to learn about the textile traditions of the Northeast of India. Weaving is such an integral and important part of every tribe here; each part of their life and culture is closely interwoven with the fabrics they weave. Traditionally every girl learnt how to weave as naturally as she learned to walk and talk and carry out the daily life functions. No house would be without a loom, and the women wove all the garments for the family. The threads were not just the intermeshing of warp and weft, but carried in them a wonderful repertoire of narratives.

The folklore of every tribe has a wealth of tales around weaving. A tale from one of the tribes in Assam relates this to the web-spinning spider.

Once upon a time, there was a competition between the women from heaven and the women from earth. The women from earth were very

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confident of their weaving skills, and accepted the challenge. When both the teams were ready, the women from heaven came down to the earth and the competition began. With their great wonderful skills, the women from earth won the contest. After weaving the fabric of required length, the Earth women began to fill bobbins by moving the spinning wheel and clearing the knots in between. The women from heaven could not accept their loss and cursed the ladies of the earth, “From now your life shall always be tangled between yarns and forever you shall be busy spinning them for yourself.” It is believed that as a result of this curse the ladies were transformed into spiders that keep weaving cobwebs around themselves.

Many of these tales are still passed on through the oral tradition, but there is an urgent need to document and share these before they are lost with the tradition of loom weaving itself. A recent book has done just this. Banyan Tree’s new book The World of the Weaver –Five Stories and a Prayer compiles some of the stories from different parts of the country. As the jacket says they are ‘Tales of imagination woven around the weaver’s looms. Though they are fables, the stories highlight the value of hand weaving in a harmonious society.’

The beautifully illustrated book is available in Hindi, English and Telugu. For more contact banyantreebookstore@gmail.com>

–Mamata

Toxic

The word of the year is Toxic! Crowned by the Oxford Dictionary this word was selected as the one “judged to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year, and have lasting potential as a term of cultural significance.”

The claim to fame was gained by the word not only on the basis of the number of times it was searched, but more for the sheer variety of contexts in which it is being used today.  “Toxic” has been used to describe workplaces, schools, relationships, cultures, and most recently has become a keyword in the #MeToo movement.

My own association with the word dates back over 30 years when I started as an Environmental Educator. We used the word mainly in the context of something that poisoned the natural environment—air, water, flora and fauna. This was based on its dictionary definition as meaning ‘poisonous’, with its roots derived from the medieval Latin term toxicus, meaning poisoned or imbued with poison. Environmental Educators worldwide tried to create awareness about what makes things toxic and how this affects the environment—through ‘gloom and doom’ scenarios, through motivation and action, and even through humour!

An interesting example of the last one was a limerick competition run by the English newspaper The Observer in association with the Friends of the Earth inviting limericks that reflected the (then) toxic state of the environment. The competition was open to all, from ages 5 years and up!

Although this was almost 30 years ago, on revisiting these limericks, I felt that they are as relevant today (if not more, than ever before!) Here is a taste…

Said the seal to the salmon and otters,

Did God really design us as blotters,

To mop up the oil

From the sea and the soil

Spewed out by those corporate rotters?

 

When politicians say they are green

One wonders what they really mean,

For all their hot air

Only rises to share

In the Greenhouse Effect it would seem!

 

An ostrich from a tropical land

Once buried his head in the sand.

The move was a riot,

They all had to try it—

Evading the issue was grand!

Fast forward to 2018. Has anything changed? At least not for the better, alas! The word has simply exploded in scope and toxicity. As Oxford University Press’s president of dictionaries, said: “Reviewing this year in language, we repeatedly encountered the word ‘toxic’ being used to describe an increasing set of conditions that we’re all facing. Qualifying everything from the entrenched patriarchy to the constant blare of polarising political rhetoric, ‘toxic’ seems to reflect a growing sense of how extreme, and at times radioactive, we feel aspects of modern life have become.”

To sum up, cannot resist this one…

A girl with a problem was faced

Rushed off to her doctor in haste.

He said with a laugh

As she broke into half,

‘My dear, you’ve got toxic waist!’

–Mamata

 

Audio Books

A recent article titled Human Library immediately grabbed my attention. Being always drawn to anything related to books and libraries I was curious to know what this was. Turns out that this was literally a library where people instead of books are issued out! I was intrigued—What, How and Why?

At a Human Library event, the “books” are people with special experiences; “readers” can choose from various “titles” and then “borrow” them. The procedure is similar to that of a regular library.  At the main desk there is a list of “books” available and each “reader” is given a Human Library card by one of the librarians. They then choose a “book”, sometimes with the help of an official matchmaker or library assistant. The reader and the book then move to a space where there are numerous tables and chairs; this is where a safe and respectful conversation begins, and lasts for up to half an hour. The “reader” reads the “book” by asking the “book” questions about their personal situation. The “book”, as well as answering pertinent questions, has the option not to answer and also to ask their own questions.

The most interesting aspect of this library is the choice of “books”. In keeping with its fundamental premise which is ‘to build a positive framework for conversations that can challenge stereotypes and prejudices through dialogue’, the Human Library encourages people to challenge their own preconceived notions—to truly get to know, and learn from, someone they might otherwise make a snap judgement about. As the website says “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

Most of the stories that the “books” tell have to do with some kind of stereotype or stigmatized topic. For example in the Human Library UK  “The titles celebrate diversity and promote equality by deliberately acknowledging differences, lifestyles, ethnicities, faiths, disabilities, abilities and characteristics that may be stigmatised in the hope it might provoke an assumption or even prejudice in readers.”

While new to me, it turns out that the concept of human libraries is not that new. The Human Library is an international organization and movement that first started in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2000. It was “a place where difficult questions are expected, appreciated and answered.” Its objective was to address people’s prejudices by helping them to talk to those they would not normally meet, and to initiate conversations between people of different orientations, backgrounds and religions, by urging participants to listen to each other’s life experiences.

It began with an event which was open eight hours a day for four days straight and featured over fifty different “titles”. More than a thousand readers took advantage leaving books, librarians, organisers and readers stunned at the impact of the Human Library.

Today the movement has become an international phenomenon with “libraries” in more than 70 countries. In India there are Human Libraries in several cities including Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, and spreading.

What an amazing and inspiring movement! For me the term ‘audio books’ has acquired a unique human dimension.

–Mamata

 

Food Spy

It is said that America is a country of immigrants. Over the centuries people from all continents made their way to the ‘promised land’ and made it their home. Interestingly, a lot of the food that is today so much a part of the American diet, is also part of another immigration story. Quinoa, kale, avocado, nectarines, soya beans; even pineapples, oranges and lemons—just about 150 years ago, these were unseen and unheard of in America. Many of these were introduced to the country by a single man, David Fairchild, who called himself an agricultural explorer.

David Fairchild grew up in Kansas at the end of the 19th century, a time when the diet of his countrymen was made up primarily of bland meat, potatoes and cheese, and excluded vegetables and fruit. Fairchild was no gourmet himself, but he loved plants, and he loved travel, and he found a way to combine both into a job for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At the age of 22, he created the Section of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction of the USDA, and for the next 37 years, he travelled the world, visiting every continent except Antarctica, in search of useful plants to bring back to America. When he started out in his new job, with little knowledge or knowhow, he began by stealing seeds, but over time he learnt other strategies like talking to the local people, visiting local markets and observing what people were growing and eating. This also earned him the sobriquet of Food Spy!

With a combination of strategies, and often at the risk of his own life, Fairchild managed to send back seeds or cuttings of over 200,000 kinds of fruits, vegetable and grains. His department, the Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction, researched these and distributed new crops to farmers around the states.

It was not an easy process, introducing new food crops. Farmers did not like to take risks, the general public was suspicious of new foods and fearful that the overseas immigrants would bring in tropical disease and insects. Even today there is a Quarantine Law which forbids anyone from bringing in agricultural material into the US. Uphill task though it was, Fairchild did succeed to a large extent, and managed to introduce mangoes, quinoa, dates, cotton, soybeans, bamboo, and even the flowering Japanese cherry trees that blossom all over Washington D.C. each spring.

In 1904 Fairchild was invited to speak at the National Geographic Society where he met the famous inventor Alexander Graham Bell who was the Society’s second president; years later Fairchild married Bell’s daughter.

Last week the National Geographic Society hosted a curated dinner where the menu featured some of the many foods—avocados, dates, and other that David Fairchild brought to the United States more than 100 years ago, thus changing the country’s culinary palate.

The story of this amazing food traveller is told in a book by Daniel Stone titled The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats.

 —Mamata

 

Colour and Cheer

 

 

P1130289 (1).JPGRight through the long and dusty summer months when all the other plants drooped and dried, it was the riot of pink and white bougainvillae in my little garden that bestowed colour and cheer to the sweltering days.

I have always enjoyed the sight of the colourful mass, and took it pretty much for granted until I read an interesting story about how the plant was discovered. In 1766 the French government had commissioned French Navy admiral and explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville to sail around the world, to find new territories for France. Accompanying him on this voyage of circumnavigation was Philibert Commerson a botanist, whose brief was to collect hitherto unknown plants from the different continents and countries during the voyage. It is Commerson who is thought to be the first European to describe the plant we know of as bougainvillae.

Recently, the story of the discovery of bougainvillea has been revised. It turns out that Commerson did go on the voyage and was the botanist. But he was accompanied by his housekeeper and lover, Jeanne Baret. The French navy absolutely and explicitly prohibited women on naval vessels. Nevertheless, Baret disguised herself as a man and not only sailed with Commerson, she was with him while he was exploring plants in the new lands where the ship docked. As Commerson was frequently unwell, it was Baret who did most of the plant collecting, and she is believed to have discovered many of the plants which are attributed as being Commerson’s discoveries.

It is now believed that it was probably Baret who found bougainvillea at the very beginning of the trip, in Rio de Janiero. Impressed by the bright blossoms, Commerson named them Bougainvillea after the admiral. Baret also thus became the first woman known to have circumnavigated the globe. Interestingly the surviving journals of the expedition barely mention her, probably due to the fear of the consequences of admitting that the “no women!” rule had been broken.

Since the introduction of the first two species to Europe in the late 1700s, Bougainvillea have made their home all around the tropical world. They are drought-, salt- and wind-resistant, but require hot climate and hours of full sun. They will grow as shrubs, or vines, or even low ground covers and are found in many colours. Currently, there are over 300 varieties of bougainvillea around the world, and since many of the hybrids have been crossed over several generations, it is now difficult to identify their respective origins. Botanists, however, have traced back most of today’s rich variety of bougainvillea back to only three of the original eighteen South American species identified.

While the Bougainvillea is popularly known as an ornamental plant, the people of the Amazon region had long used bougainvillea as a medicinal herb, and it is only more recently that it medicinal values are being recognised by other schools of medicine.

There is definitely more to the bougainvillea than colour and cheer!

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 It’s not the flowers that make this plant so colourful, it’s actually the bracts or modified leaves that surround the tiny white flowers. 

–Mamata

 

One Man’s Meat….

‘One man’s meat is another man’s poison’. This expression is often used when two people disagree over something, especially food. Believed to have been coined by Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius in the first century BC, the expression is a pithy reflection of how deeply food tastes and taboos are ingrained in every culture (and indeed every family). What is tasty and what is not; what is healthy and what is harmful; what is culturally acceptable and what is not…the history of food and cultures has laid down norms since time immemorial.

I was reminded of this when I read about the Disgusting Food Museum which opened recently in the city of Malmo in Sweden. The museum features 80 dishes from around the world that, for one reason or another, have earned the epithet of being “disgusting.” Among these are Surströmming: fermented herring from Sweden; Cuy: roasted guinea pigs from Peru; Casu marzu: maggot-infested cheese from Sardinia; Mouse wine from China; Hákarl: well-aged shark from Iceland, and Durian: the infamously stinky fruit from Thailand.

The purpose of the museum is not so much to sensationalize the weird and the exotic, but rather to sensitize to the fact that food-related notions are subjective. What is delicious to one person can be revolting to another. The Museum invites visitors to explore the world of food and challenge their notions of what is and what isn’t edible.

This made me think about the many examples of these notions that are so intrinsically entwined with our food and food habits. In a country as diverse as India, the notions are as diverse as the nation; the state, the region, religion, schools of health (from hot and cold foods in Ayurveda to mutually incompatible foods in other systems), and above all family traditions and cuisines—all these combine to define what kind of food each one of us considers suitable, tasty and palatable.

This diversity presented a challenge when I had the opportunity to be a part of an exercise to develop national textbooks for primary students. One of the objectives was to develop lessons that celebrated the richness of diversity, especially food. How to do this led to numerous debates within the team itself—to talk about the fried caterpillar larvae as a delicacy in the Northeast of India, to talk about “non-vegetarian” food, even to talk about the different cooking oils used in different parts of the country? And how to present these in a manner that evokes not disgust and shutting out of ‘what is different’ but rather curiosity and openness about the richness of cuisines and cultures.

When I was in school we did not have too many such theoretical lessons, but every recess time was a live lesson. It was food that connected us—lunch boxes were opened, food was shared and tasted, and new tastes were cultivated; mothers exchanged recipes, and exploring and discovering different food that you and your friends ate was an everyday adventure, not part of a visit to a food museum!

Today with the homogenization of food (I suspect many lunch boxes contain the ubiquitous Maggi and Lays) we are losing such a rich link. Even more worrying is the fact that food is being used to create boundaries rather than bonds. The old Lucretius expression is, sadly, more true than ever before. It is time to remember another adage “Sharing a meal is the best way to turn strangers into friends.”

–Mamata

 

Old Wine in New Bottles

In recent days the life and style sections of the newspapers are carrying numerous articles with titles like 10 Beauty Hacks to Make you Glow, Be the Best Hostess With These 20 Useful Party Hacks; 15 Kitchen Hacks to Save Time; Have a Sparkling Diwali With These Simple Hacks…

I was intrigued by this oft-used word Hack. My vocabulary dates back to days before even Computer Hackers became news. The only meaning of Hack that I could recall related to the act of roughly chopping down a tree or, as we read in novels, a word used to refer to a slogging journalist or so-so writer. How the word leant itself to beauty and parties and kitchens was a mystery to me.

Being the curious word aficionado that I am, I looked up the word Hack in the dictionary. I was surprised to find the word had many more meanings than I had imagined:

Cut away

Fix a computer programme piecemeal until it works

Significantly cut up a manuscript

Cough spasmodically

Be able to manage successfully

Kick on the shins

One who works hard at boring tasks

A mediocre and disdained writer

An old-fashioned taxi

An old and overworked horse.

This search, having significantly expanded my list of two meanings, still did not reveal what I was looking for—the links with beauty, kitchens and parties. I thought to myself “What the Hack”!

And then Eureka—I came upon the word Life Hacks! And I discovered…

Life hack (or life hacking) refers to any trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method that increases productivity and efficiency, in all walks of life.

It is a tool or technique that makes some aspect of one’s life easier or more efficient.

Aha thought I,  at last!

Then came the more amusing part. I discovered that there are so many websites offering innumerable Life Hacks for everything from how to get up in the morning, to how to carry out some of the most basic functions of life and living—from the sublime to the absurd! For example: ‘Do a 20 minute good workout in the morning and you can be lazy the whole day without feeling guilty!’ OR  ‘If you left home and forgot to brush your teeth or you ran out of toothpaste, chewing an apple can help with bad breath.’

I am sure one could come across some handy tips, but thinking back a bit…

Were these nifty suggestions not too long ago shared widely as DIY TIPS!

Baking soda and hot water to clean drains; a face pack of honey, cream and turmeric for that glowing skin…where did I hear those before? From mothers and aunts, of course. And magazines carried them under the title Grandmother’s Secrets!

I certainly spent an amusing hour browsing the many sites, and along the way I also found what I think is the best way to describe this term: A life hack is a colloquial term for common sense that makes people feel good about their basic creativity, or lack thereof. Typically life hacks are not all that helpful, they are simply advertised well so as to provide a false sense of improvement in the user’s day-to-day operation.

Well well well. What a great way of repackaging tried and tested ‘do-it-yourself’ ideas. Why go to Granny when Youtube will show you how!

–Mamata

Bananadrama

Guess what is making cricketing news these days? Runs and wickets? Tantrums and tampering? No, it is none other than the good old Banana! It is reported that the Indian team has requested an ample supply of bananas for the team during their 2019 World Cup tour to England. The banana has been designated the “fruit of their choice!”

While the mango always lays claim to being the king of fruits, the solid trustworthy banana is taken much for granted, as it does not make a dashing seasonal appearance and compete for awards of the most varieties and the best of them all!

But, there’s more to a banana…

Bananas are both a fruit and not a fruit. While the banana plant is colloquially called a banana tree, it’s actually an herb distantly related to ginger, since the plant has a succulent tree stem, instead of a wood one.

Bananas grow in what are known as “hands,” so-called because of their appearance, which make up the larger stalk, known as a “bunch.”

The banana skin that we peel and throw is, in fact, a fruit because it contains the seeds of the plant. Although since bananas have been commercially grown, the plants are sterile, and the seeds have gradually been reduced to little specs.

The banana plant evolved in the humid tropical regions of S.E. Asia with India as one of its centres of origin. During the seventh century AD its cultivation spread to Egypt and Africa.  Carl Linnaeus an 18th century Swedish botanist whose work led to the creation of modern-day biological nomenclature for classifying organisms was the first person to successfully grow a fully flowered banana tree in the Netherlands.

Today banana is grown in more than 150 countries, and it is widely believed there are more than 1,000 types of bananas in the world, which are subdivided into 50 groups. There are at least 300 varieties of banana in India.

Even then, Linnaeus speculated about other uses for the versatile banana such as boiling bananas with sugar to cure anger, mashing bananas with honey to soothe eye inflammation and crushing banana root soaked in milk to alleviate dizziness. Today the banana is an acknowledged as a Superfood by all schools of health from Ayurveda to the trendy Diet and Nutrition experts. From digestive issues to depression…the banana is the panacea for all ills!

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source: Google

And there is an International Banana Museum in California, which they claim is “the most aPEELing destination” with over 20,000 (and still adding) banana related items…the world’s largest collection devoted to any one fruit!

I do know that the Banana was my father’s favourite fruit. He always used to say “sabse achha kela!” “Banana is the best”. So true…The scientific name for banana is musa sapientum, which means “fruit of the wise men.”

–Mamata