Between the Headlines

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I am a newspaper person. My day does not begin until I have perused my three morning papers. Even during the first Covid Lockdown when newspaper vendors stopped home-delivering newspapers, and after a week of serious withdrawal symptoms, my husband and I found an enterprising footpath vendor who braved the police to provide newspapers to addicts like us.  

In the last couple of weeks a lovely poem by Gulzar is doing the rounds, which beautifully captures this addiction. Called Newspaper Mornings, it opens with the line Bina akhbar ke, chai subah ki adhoori lagti hai (the morning tea feels incomplete without the newspaper).

 An article related to this succinctly sums up the charm of the printed newspaper vis-à-vis the blizzard of 24/7 TV channels and Social Media that relentlessly batters our senses and our lives. The newspaper does not try to recruit you to its agenda, it puts you in control. …The important thing is that you get to choose. You comment on a headline, smile at a cartoon, match wits with the crossword, eyeball a celebrity, pore over the sports statistics. …And then there is the pleasure of serendipity. You discover what you didn’t know before, you learn new things at random.

Exactly how I relate to newspapers! I often miss the headlines, but I very much enjoy reading the little items tucked away among the big news. From the mundane to the bizarre, these tidbits add the spice to my chai!

Here is a random taste from the last one month’s newspapers.

Uplifting News: People attending a kite festival in Taiwan were left looking on in horror after a three-year-old girl was lifted high into the air by powerful winds after she got entangled in the strings of a gigantic kite. The child hovered above throngs of spectators and was zipped around by strong winds for a heart-stopping 30 seconds amid inflatable pandas and astronauts as screams erupted from spectators. The girl, who was identified only by her last name Lin, landed mostly unscathed, except for abrasions around her neck and face. 

Lip-smacking News: Waking up to a town coated in chocolate powder sounds like a childhood fantasy, but for some residents in Olten, Switzerland, it was a reality on Friday morning, when it started snowing particles of cocoa powder. Popular chocolate company Lindt & Sprüngli has confirmed local reports that there was a defect in the cooling ventilation for a line of roasted cocoa nibs in its factory; as a result of which the fine chocolate dust escaped. Combined with strong winds the powder spread across the town, leaving a fine cocoa dusting on everything.

Missing News: At least 513 animals have been reported as having gone “missing” from Marghazar Zoo in Islamabad, a report said on Sunday. In July 2019 there were a total of out of 917 animals in the zoo. But by July 2020 the number came down to 404. The animals are suspected to have been stolen.

Chilling News: Austrian athlete Josef Koeberl broke the world record for longest time spent submerged in ice. He lasted more than two hours in the box, wearing nothing but a swimsuit. Koeberl took on the challenge in front of Vienna’s main train station, fully submerged up to his shoulders in a clear box filled with ice cubes. Over the course of the two hours, his temperature was monitored, and afterward, his health was checked by medical officials in an on-site ambulance. Josef Koeberl beat the previous record for full-body contact, which he set himself last year, by over 25 minutes.

Searing News: A couple’s plan to reveal the gender of their baby-to-be-born went up not in blue or pink smoke but in flames when the device that they used sparked a wildfire that burned thousands of acres and forced people to leave from a city east of Los Angeles in California. The couple went into a field and fired a device which was to let out the coloured smoke, but an errant spark quickly ignited the tall grass there, leading to the disaster. This was as part of a trend where confetti, coloured smoke, and balloons are used to announce the coming baby’s gender.

Educational News: Surat, Gujarat’s Diamond City is creating a new benchmark in green learning with its innovative approach to promote cycling among young children. To pedal up its efforts the local civic body has designed a course ‘Cyclology’. The subject will be a ten-hour course for which books have already been printed. Students will be taught history of bicycle, traffic rules, along with environmental, health, social and financial benefits in the course.  “If we teach them early kids will develop a habit for life.”

(NB No mention of whether kids will actually have to learn cycling!)

DIY for Dummies News: Whether you have hundreds of gigabytes or boxes of decades-old albums here are some simple ways to catalogue and organise your images. Cathi Nelson founder of a global community of photo organisers uses a prioritisation system she calls ABCS. Album (photos worthy of a physical or online album), Box or Backup (photos you want to keep in some form but don’t need access to), Can (as in trash can) and Stories (photos that conjure up a great memory and are thus worth holding on to). She further advises “Don’t get too lost—you only want to look at each photo for two or three seconds, max.”

Vocal for Local News: The red-purple dragon fruit that has helped Kutchi farmers make a killing may soon get a new name—kamalam (lotus). Officials and farmers say that the shape and external appearance of the fruit has a striking resemblance to a lotus. Kutch farmers have already started branding the fruit as ‘kamalam’ in the local markets.  

Breaking News: In a daring loot near Surat, burglars stole an entire ATM weighing at least 500 kg, and took it to an isolated spot in a farm about 150 feet away. They used cutters to break open the cash tray, and took away nearly Rs 8 lakh from it, in the early hours of Wednesday. They escaped leaving the damaged machine behind.

News That You Can Use: All of the above. I just did!

–Mamata

How (Not) to be Grandparents

With a Special Day for almost everyone and everything, how can we leave Grandparents behind! Yes, 13 September is marked as Grandparents Day. As with all Days it is the marketing hype that takes over. We are reminded that it is the time to show our love for our grandparents with cards and gifts. Having just recently come to know about this day, it got me thinking about grandparents.

I never really knew three out of my four grandparents. My mother’s father died much before I was born. My father’s father is a very hazy memory. My paternal grandmother is an image of a little old lady in white sitting in a large chair in the family home. The only one that I remember clearly is my mother’s mother—equally tiny, fastidious, and scolding; one whose sharp tongue we children were wary of. Not exactly grandparents like the ones we read about in storybooks–roly-poly grannies who cuddled, and baked cookies and cakes, and indulgent grandfathers who told awesome stories.

As years went by, we, the grandchildren grew up and, moving ahead, had our own children. Suddenly our own parents became grandparents. I wonder what memories our children have of their grandparents–Hazy, clear, happy, unhappy, or more complex. More years whizzed by, and now, our children have grown and married, and have children of their own. And believe it or not, we find ourselves being bestowed with the exalted title of Grandmother and Grandfather! How did that happen?

As one writer humorously put it: Except for the fact of our birth, grandparenthood is probably the only state of adult being that is thrust upon us without our permission or concurrence. We choose a husband, we decide on a child, we become a doctor, lawyer or Indian chief. Only on the grandparent level we are suddenly and arbitrarily informed of what has been done to us after there is no undoing it.

I must admit that I have not yet been officially conferred the title, although I am delighted to be an honorary Nani. But as my contemporaries take on this new role, I have been observing, and thinking about, changes in the role and function of grandparents. As a bystander I may have a different perspective on things, and I beg to be excused if I am way off the mark.

Most of my generation grew up to be career women. While we did not live in joint families, we did seek the comfort and succour of our parents or in-laws’ home when it was time for our babies to be born. Yes we did read our Benjamin Spock and had some notion of child rearing, but we more or less went with the wisdom and experience of our mother or mother-in-law, especially in matters of infant care. Today’s generation of young career parents have much more access to information, much wider exposure to a range of theories on child rearing, and definitely clearer ideas on the subject. At the same time our own generation is not quite the ‘waiting at home for the daughter’s confinement’ one. We are, ourselves, reaching almost the peak of our own careers, but gladly taking the time out for getting into our new roles, just as our daughters take time out from their rising careers to take on motherhood.

Interestingly this has created new challenges for all three generations—children, parents and grandparents. And along with How to be a Good Parent guidebooks, there were also numerous advisories on How to be (or not) a Good Grandparent! There are reminders to grandparents to NOT do just what their parents did, and hints on how to tiptoe gently around the protocols established by the parents!

The battle between the generations will go on as long as there are different generations. As will the special role that grandparents play in a family. The fact is that we all need each other. And children especially do need grandparents to care for them and comfort them, to provide role models and role alternatives for them, and to create a living link between the past and the present.

Margaret Mead, one of the most eminent cultural anthropologists of the twentieth century describes this important connection in a passage she wrote in 1966, and which rings just as true even today.

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Margaret Mead Source Google

In a changing society, grandparents themselves change. Far from representing what is stubbornly old-fashioned, they are men and women who in the contemporary world have the greatest experience in incorporating new ways and ideas. Very often their daughter is mired down in a thousand details of baby care and housekeeping and their sons are struggling to establish themselves in the world but grandparents have the leisure to follow up what is most modern and new. And unlike their own parents who grew old early under physical stress, today’s grandparents generally have years of vigorous living ahead.

More often than we realise, grandparents who move away from the homes where they brought up their own children are not settling into ‘retirement’ but are instead into new activities. Some of them have—and more could have a very important role in their grandchildren’s lives. Because as adults they have lived through so much change—the first talkies and television, the first computers and satellites—they may well be the best people to teach children about change.

With a lifetime of experience of how far we have come and how fast, grandparents can give children a special sense of sureness about facing the unknown in the future. Having experienced so much that is new, they can keep a sense of wonder in their voices as they tell their grandchildren how something happened, what it was like the first time, and open their grandchildren’s eyes to the wonder of what is happening now and may happen soon. And as men and women who are making new beginnings, developing new interests they can demonstrate to children that growing up is only a stage in a lifetime of growth. As in the past they represent continuity. But now, in a changing society this continuity includes the future and the acceptance of the unknown.  Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views   June 1966

–Mamata

Teacher Teacher   

My father-in-law will be 96 years old this month. He trained as an artist, but spent his career teaching machine drawing in a government polytechnic. He has now been retired for more years than he taught a subject that he was not passionate about. But what he was passionate about was reaching out to his students, not driven by any great philosophy or mission, but his innately sociable and open personality.  Even today, he gets phone calls from his old (literally—some are 75 years and over!) students, just for them to say that they remember him fondly. Till a couple of years ago he clearly remembered names and attributes of so many of his students. It is that life force which continues to energize him even today.

The word Teacher itself is loaded with so much meaning. After all teachers were the key players in the long drama of one’s school (and college) life, with distinct characters, roles and parts. As a part of the student audience, and at times, minor characters in the crowd scenes, we spent a great deal of time and emotion on ‘adoring’, ‘hating’, ‘fearing’, ‘hero worshipping’,  ‘imitating’, or ‘buttering up’ our teachers.

Teachers were a necessary evil that dominated every ‘period’ of our school days.­­­­­­­­­­­ It is when we were older (and perhaps a wee bit wiser) that we could look back with nostalgia and remember those teachers. This was also when we realized the lasting impressions and influences that different teachers had left on us. Not all of these were related to the subject they taught. More often, it was how they taught, or what they said and did, or even what they wore, and how they behaved. We could now see these as individuals with distinct personalities and persuasions. For some of us, the older we get, the more sentimental we get. And Teachers Day, celebrated in India on 5 September, revives many such memories.

In the good old school days, the run up to T-Day was exciting. This was the day that the tables were turned, as it were. It was the one day when students turned into teachers! This was how Teachers Day was celebrated in many schools.

This year for the first time perhaps in memory, the Covid wave has meant that educational institutions across the world are closed. In just a few months, our age-old understanding of educational spaces, classroom transactions, and players has been turned on its head. The e-learning revolution is sweeping across the globe.

Children of all ages (starting from nursery and kindergarten) passively face a small screen which reflects other small faces and a bigger face. It is in this virtual classroom that lessons are communicated (rather than taught). The day is divided into sterile time slots, rather than a time table in which the best parts were the time-outs for rowdy recesses and roistering assemblies. The Teacher is just a talking head who pops up at a designated time. As the young eyes and ears strain to keep alert and awake, the other senses lie dormant. Missing are the smells from the tiffin boxes, the touch of the dog-eared books and scarred desks, the jostling camaraderie of classmates, the fights and the making-up, the shared secrets, and playful antics…and with it the range of emotions that mark the gamut of relationships among the students, and between the teacher and the taught.itscalledreading (1).gif

I must confess that I have no current and direct experience of e-learning, as a teacher, learner, or parent. But as Teacher’s Day approaches, I cannot help wondering and worrying about this new model of teachers and teaching. Yes, we have no alternative at this moment when safety and health is the priority. True that technology has enabled a safer and more widespread route to reaching out. Agreed that there are examples of inspiring innovations and models. But what will a child of the Age of Corona and Era of E-learning remember of her classroom, her classmates and above all, her teacher? What stories will he share with his children? Who will she remember with a smile or a grimace on another Teacher’s Day?

One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.   Carl Jung

–Mamata

 

How Montessori Came to India

The year was 1911. A young man set up practice as a District Pleader in Vadhwan Camp, in the erstwhile princely state of Bhavnagar in Saurashtra. His practice was doing well, he was gaining a name and earning too, but his heart was not in the machinations of legal matters.

In 1913, he became a father to a son. The advent of the child Narendra triggered the life mission which would launch him into a new role. The man was Gijubhai Badheka and his mission was to bring about a revolution in the field of child development and education.

Indian education during that time was a curious mixture of the Macaulayism as practised by the English rulers and the traditional “spare the rod and spoil the child” tenet. Narendra’s parents saw the sorry state of the local schools and were apprehensive about the kind of education their son would get. Gijubhai yearned for something different for his child, but was not able to visualise what this could be. So he started reading whatever he could find about education and educators. He also started sharing his anxiety and dilemmas with his friends.

One of these was friends was Darbarshri Gopaldas Desai, who visited Vadhwan Camp often. He told Gijubhai “If you want to read literature about children’s education, and see a new kind of school, go to Vaso and meet Motibhai Amin”. This was when the door opened for him. Gijubhai went to Vaso, met Motibhai and saw his school. He came back with many books; among which was a book describing the Montessori Method of education. This was Gijubhai’s introduction to the thinking of Maria Montessori, and her writing.

The more he read, the more deeply he started thinking about children and child development, and about putting the theory to practice. He also started experimenting with young Narendra, and sharing his observations with his friends, as also the ideas of Montessori. As his desire to spend more time and energy into this new challenge grew, the further he drifted from his legal practice.

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Dakshinamurti Balmandir

That is where serendipity stepped in. In 1915, Gijubhai helped to frame the constitution of an educational institution in Bhavnagar called Dakshinamurti. Its founders were kindred spirits, all grappling with dilemmas about education, as well as reading the works of Montessori. This was the turning point. In 1916, at the age of 32, Gijubhai quit his legal practice, and joined Dakshinamurti, initially as Assistant Warden of the student’s hostel, and teaching in the High School. His direct interactions with students reinforced his conviction that if real change had to happen it was critical to start from early childhood. He put forth a proposal to the Board to start an experimental pre-school (Balmandir). His wish was granted and in 1920 the Dakshinamurti Balmandir started. This became Gijubhai’s karmabhoomi (the land where one works). And this is where he applied the Montessori philosophy and method, drawing upon the core beliefs and tenets about child development, while adapting the methods and techniques to suit the local realities.

In 1925 Gijubhai took on three major initiatives that created a revolution in the thinking and practice of children’s education across Gujarat.

He set up a formal Adhyapan Mandir to train young people in the philosophy and practice of pre-school education.

To spread the thinking and to attract larger interest in children’s education, the first Montessori Sammelan (Conference) was held at Dakshinamurti. It was chaired by Saraladevi Sarabhai, who had personal experience in using the Montessori system in educating her own children, and who had tremendous belief in this philosophy. The Sammelan concluded with the setting up of the Nutan Bal Shikshan Sangh, headed by Saraladevi Sarabhai to take the work ahead.

Gijubhai invited all citizens interested in the new children’s education approach to join. The enthusiastic support of these members helped spread the new wave not only across Gujarat, but also other parts of the country. The Sangh became a platform to carry this forward. It was proposed to publish a monthly Shikshan Patrika to give voice to the movement.

In 1926, the second Montessori Sammelan was held at Ahmedabad, presided by Gijubhai. Educationists came from all parts of India and carried back the Montessori message.

In the short period from 1920 when he embarked on his mission, till his death in 1939 at the age of 54 years Gijubhai not only pursued his passion for, and practice of his vision of pre-school education, but wrote prolifically for children, teachers and parents.

He combined the scientific perspective of an experimenter, the desire to do something new, the insight to draw out some light from the doldrums that the educational system was in, and faith. This was supported by the revelations from the writing of Madame Montessori.

Sadly the two great like-minded people never met in person. Madam Montessori first came to India in 1939, the year that Gijubhai passed away, at the invitation of Theosophical Society of India. She was then 69 years old. She made Adayar, Chennai her home and lived there along with her son, Mario till 1946.

By then seeds that her writing had sown had already taken root and spread, and Gijubhai was the gardener that nurtured the early shoots, and encouraged the branches to spread far and wide.

The Dakshinamurti Balmandir continues to function today, in its original building, one hundred years after it was first established.

It is necessary for the teacher to guide the child without letting him feel the pressure too much, so that she may be always ready to supply the desired help but may never be the obstacle between the child and his experience.

If we could say: “We are respectful and courteous in our dealings with children, we treat them as we would like to be treated ourselves” we should certainly have mastered a great educational principle and undoubtedly be setting an example for good education.

Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook (1914)

A teacher’s work is like flowing water. …If we do not understand those who have to be educated; do not think about what they like and what they do not, then our work and theirs will go in vain. The fulfilment of the work of education is not in teaching one or two subjects nor preparing for a certain class, or passing matric or BA. Real education lies in making humans aware about their own unending strengths. It is to reveal the secret of how to animate these and how to use them. To do this requires that the strengths are respected. Their individual development needs to be given first place. Rather than being taught, they need to be guided onto the path of self-knowledge. This is the work of education today.

Gijubhai Badheka  Note to Teachers circa 1920.

–Mamata

 

Home and Homeland

Despite having been a student as well a teacher of Political Science, I have never been able to grasp the complexities of the politics of the Middle East or West Asia. The convoluted conflict between Israel and Palestine has been going on for almost 75 years now, making headlines when there is an escalation or an extreme event, and smouldering in the background when another geo-political volcano erupts.

In the last two weeks two news related to this region made headlines. First was the horrific blast in Beirut that decimated a large part of the city and rendered tens of thousands homeless. The other was the announcement of an intention of a historic rapprochement between Israel and the UAE as a part of which Israel would give up its plan to annex the West Bank, the main territory of a state that the Palestinians want.

In other circumstances I would have noted, but not fully registered these two news items. However, quite coincidentally I have, in this same period, been reading a novel which is set in this region, and suddenly the context and the history took on a different dimension.IMG_20200819_105523

Mornings in Jenin is a poignant story of four generations of one family’s struggle and survival over sixty years of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The story which traverses from Jerusalem to Lebanon to America is told by Amal, a girl born to Arab parents in a refugee camp in Jenin; it traces the lives of her grandparents, herself, and her daughter.

As World War II raged in Europe in 1941, Amal’s  grandparents were living on their ancestral olive farm in the village of Ein Hod, not far from Bethlehem, in what was then Palestine. Their oldest son, Hasan, was best friends with a refugee Jewish boy, and the two were welcomed in each other’s homes. In May 1948, the Jewish state of Israel was proclaimed, and all the original inhabitants of the area were moved to the Jenin refugee camp. And this is where three subsequent generations lived, married, were born, and died.

The story follows Amal’s family as they live through a half century of violent history. It is not a political treatise, but the many interwoven stories, stretching backwards and forward in time, reveal what politics can do to ordinary people. It is a tale of hatred and fear, loss and pain, faith and hope. Above all is a saga of waiting—waiting to return to a lost home and homeland. Amidst the indignities and sufferings of these uprooted lives, there is also a tender celebration of family ties, the intensity of a mother’s love, sibling bonding, and enduring friendship.

It is also the story of Palestine from the time when it was a productive land of olive groves and proud self-sufficient inhabitants, through the 1948 War, the Occupation by Jews and conversion into the land of Israel, and the many Arab-Israeli wars from 1967, up to 2002.

Today we are so heavily bombarded with news (printed and audio visual) about conflict and displacement, all clubbed under the umbrella of ‘international humanitarian crises’ that we are either becoming inured, or choose to pretend that this does not concern us directly. For those of us who are fortunate and secure in our home and homeland we cannot imagine what it must be to be without a home nor homeland. As Amal describes “He [my brother] was denied, imprisoned, tortured, humiliated and exiled for the wish to possess himself and inherit the heritage bequeathed to him by history.” 

The novel is tagged as fiction, but the refugee camp of Jenin is real. The northernmost camp in the West Bank, it was set up in 1953 to house the displaced persons from the first Israeli takeover of territories in Jerusalem in 1948.  Over the years it was attacked several times by Israeli forces, and as lately as in 2002, it was the site of a terrible massacre. Even today Jenin camp has a population of about 14,000 residents cramped together in an area of 0.42 sq km.

Mornings in Jenin is written by Susan Abulhawa who was born in Kuwait to Palestinian refugees of the Six-Day-War of1967 war. She now lives in the USA. She is a human rights activist and founder of Playgrounds for Palestine, an NGO that advocates for Palestinian children’s right to play by building playgrounds in refugee camps in Lebanon. In 2002 she visited the refugee camp of Jenin and the book reflects real events.

While this book is “The story of one family, in an obscure village, visited one day by history that was not its own, and forever trapped by longing between roots and soil” it is a moving reminder that the faceless “humanitarian crisis” is made up of myriad individual human beings, each with their own personal life story, and common yearning for home and homeland.

–Mamata

 

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A Tree for all Reasons

The recent festival of Janamashtami brought to mind one of the few poems that I remember well from my school Hindi textbook. The first verse, roughly translates as:

Mother, if this Kadamb tree

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Photo credit: Rekha Chhaya

Was on the bank of the Yamuna

I too would sit on its branches

And turn into a Krishna.

For years, in my mind, the Kadamb tree and Krishna were closely associated. This was reinforced by many traditional paintings depicting Krishna and his consort under the shade of what was meant to be a Kadamb tree. I did not see a real Kadamb tree till years later.

We had long wanted to plant a Kadamb tree in our little garden but felt that there would not be enough space for it to grow comfortably. A couple of years ago the huge Rain tree just outside our gate began to dry and decline. We felt that this was a good time and place to plant our Kadamb tree. Watching it grow has led us to learn more about this tree.

The Kadamb (Anthocephalus kadamba, Neolamarckia cadamba) or Burflower tree is indigenous to South and South East Asia. It is a fast-growing tree, especially in its early years, and may reach heights of 15-20 metres. The straight uniform trunk is usually smooth and grey, becoming slightly cracked as the tree ages. The trunk sends out uniform horizontal branches creating an umbrella-shaped crown, and the leaves are alternately arranged and clustered at the ends of the branches.  The light glossy green leaves are oval, and 15 to 30 cm long. They have prominent veins on top and are lightly haired underneath. The tree sheds its leaves to conserve water in areas with a long dry season, but stays evergreen where the dry season is short. The leaves are fed to cattle.

Flowering usually begins when the tree is 4–5 years old; and flowers appear between June and August.  The Kadamb flower that looks like a pom pom is, in fact, a ball of tightly-packed tiny funnel-shaped yellow-orange flowers. They have a sweet fragrance and are used for making perfumes. The flowers are offered in temples, and worn as hair adornments.

This year, with Covid on our minds, the flowers which were usually described as a resembling furry tennis ball have taken on an uncanny resemblance the Corona virus!

The flowers are followed by compound fruit that also resembles the round flower head. The fruit is made up of numerous small fleshy capsules compressed together in a ball. It is relished by monkeys, bats and birds. A single ball may contain almost 8000 seeds. When it turns orange and ripens, the small capsules split apart, releasing a burst of seeds. A single ball may contain almost 8000 seeds which are dispersed by wind and rain. So the cycle of nature continues.

The different parts of the tree are also said to have pharmacological and biological properties that have medicinal value. In traditional medicine the bark is used to cure fever and cough, and juice of the fresh bark to treat inflammation of the eyes. The plant parts are believed to be effective in curing digestive disturbances, parasitic infection, high cholesterol and triglycerides, antibacterial activity, musculoskeletal diseases, fungal infections, cancer and anti-diabetic activity, and find place in Ayurvedic preparations.

For many Indians, it is not so much the botany as the mythology of the tree that fascinates. The Krishna connection is the best known, and this tree where he is said to have rested, romanced, and played his flute, is a recurring motif in poems, stories and paintings. The tree is also referred to as Haripriya or favourite of the God.

But the Kadamb tree also features in many a lore and legend in different parts of India. It is mentioned in the epics and the Puranas as a beautiful shady tree blossoming in the rainy season. The tree lends its name to the Kadamba Dynasty which said to be the first ruling kingdom of Karnataka, with Banavasi as its capital. It was considered a holy tree by the dynasty. The Kadambotsava spring festival is celebrated in honour of the Kadamba kingdom by the Government of Karnataka at Banavasi in February every year. The Kadamba flower was the emblem of Athmallik State, an erstwhile princely state of India, now part of Odisha.

According to another belief, Goddess Durga Devi, an avatar of Devi Parvathi, loved to live amidst Kadamba trees, and her presence is sensed if the koel sings in the Kadamb forest. Hence, the name Kadamba-vana-vasini or Kadamba-vana-nilaye (one who dwells in the Kadamb forest). In Madurai in Tamil Nadu, the Kadamba tree is considered to be the sthalavruksham (tree of the place) and a withered relic of the tree is preserved at Meenakshi Temple. The tree is also associated with a local deity called Kadambariyamman and the place was once said to be a Kadambavanam (Kadamba forest).

The Kadamb is part of the folk lore of many tribal communities, and even now is associated with tribal festivals and rituals. In Madhya Pradesh the festival of Karma or Karam is celebrated with dance and songs in the bright fortnight of the month of Bhado (August-September), during the rainy season. One of its rituals consists of the worship of the Karam or Kadamba tree.  In West Bengal and Odisha, agricultural communities celebrate Kadam festival by planting Kadamb saplings. Tribal communities of Chattisgarh believe that planting Kadamba trees close to lakes, rivers and ponds, brings happiness and prosperity.

In Theravada Buddhism, it is believed that the Kadamb tree was where Sumedha Buddha achieved enlightenment.

From medicine to mythology, the Kadamb has something to offer. As I watch my young Kadamb growing fresh and tall in this rainy season, every new leaf seems to have its own tale to tell. And my friend Rekha and I, like two fond mothers, exchange notes on our respective Kadamb trees. Hers is flowering this year; I will have to wait another year.

–Mamata

 

 

War and Peace

6 August 2020 marks 75 years since one of the most devastating events in the history of warfare took place. On this day, in 1945, an American bomber plane called Enola Gay dropped a 4000+ kilo uranium bomb named ‘Little Boy’ on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

It was as if the city was struck by a blinding flash; the bomb exploded, and a giant mushroom-shaped cloud rose to the sky. The blast flattened the city and killed nearly 100,000 people; tens of thousands were injured. Three days later, on 9 August, the Americans dropped another nuclear bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. On 15 August 1945 World War II ended.

But for the survivors of the nuclear blasts the battles had just begun. Within a month of Little Boy hitting Hiroshima, radiation exposure is thought to have caused the deaths of at least 6,000 people who survived the blast. And the long-term effects of radiation exposure, physical and psychological, continued to reveal themselves for the next decades. There was a documented rise in cancer, especially, in leukaemia cases. In the years following the attacks, the survivors became known as the hibakusha (the explosion-affected people) and were subjected to widespread discrimination as it was believed that they were carriers of a contagious disease. And for years the ugly spectre of the after-effects kept raising itself.

Amidst all this, there were still some stories of hope and resilience. One of the classic stories that beautifully captures this is that of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr. This is based on the life of a real little girl named Sadako who lived in Hiroshima from 1943 to 1955. Sadako Sasaki was a baby when the bomb devastated Hiroshima. Her grandmother died in the explosion. The story opens ten years later when Sadako is a lively girl who dreams of becoming a runner. One of the annual outings of Sadako and her family is on 6 August to what was called the Peace Park to commemorate those who lost their lives on that fateful day in 1945, and to pray for peace and good luck.

Sadako loves her family, her friends and her school. One day as she is practicing for a big race, she feels dizzy. Quickly, and without any obvious causes, the dizziness and weakness continue to worsen. After some tests at the Red Cross Hospital, the doctors’ worst fears are confirmed: Sadako has leukemia, the dreaded “atom bomb disease”. The cheerful little girl’s world is turned upside down.

Sadako needs to stay on in hospital. One day, Sadako’s best friend Chizuko comes to visit her in hospital. Chizuko has brought with her some golden paper, and she folds this to make a crane. She tells Sadako: Don’t you remember that old story about the crane? It’s supposed to live for a thousand years. If a sick person folds one thousand paper cranes, the gods will grant her wish and make her healthy again. She handed the crane to Sadako. “Here’s your first one”.

This gives Sadako hope and cheer. She spends the next few weeks folding as many orizuru or paper cranes as she can, even as she is getting weaker and sicker. Soon everyone becomes a part of the project. 

Everyone saved paper for Sadako’s good luck cranes. Chizuko brought colored paper from the bamboo class. Father saved every scrap from the barbershop. Even Nurse Yasunaga gave Sadako the wrappings from packages of medicine. And Masahiro hung every one of the birds, as he had promised. Sometimes he strung many on one thread. The biggest cranes flew alone. 

Sadako channels all her fast depleting energy into painstakingly folding paper crane after paper crane, making a wish with the completion of each one, and determined to reach the magic number of 1000 paper cranes.   

She never complained about the shots and almost constant pain. A bigger pain was growing deep inside of her. It was the fear of dying. She had to fight it as well as the disease. The golden crane helped. It reminded Sadako that there was always hope.

 Against all odds, Sadako manages to complete 644 cranes before she slowly sinks into a peaceful death.

She looked at her flock hanging from the ceiling. As she watched, a light autumn breeze made the birds rustle and sway. They seemed to be alive and flying out through the open window. How beautiful and free they were! Sadako sighed and closed her eyes. She never woke up.  

Sadako died on October 25, 1955. Her classmates folded the remaining 356 cranes, and all 1000 paper cranes were buried with her. Her classmates also collected her letters and journal and published them in a book. The book reached young people across Japan, and they all came to know the story of the courageous Sadako and her cranes.

Sadako’s classmates resolved to honour the memory of their friend in as many ways as possible. Their efforts sparked a children’s peace movement that swept through Japan, and then the world. This transformed the origami paper crane into an international symbol of peace. Their fundraising campaign led to the establishment of the Children’s Peace Monument in the centre of Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park. Here stands a statue of Sadako holding aloft a golden crane.

Today millions of paper cranes, reach here from all corners of the globe, symbolizing the universal value of peace and the preciousness of life. In Japan a popular tradition is to fold 1000 cranes and string these together, usually 25 strings of 40 cranes each, which are given as gifts called senbazuru which literally means, ‘one-thousand cranes’.

On 6 August every year, people still place folded paper cranes at Sadako’s statue, and reiterate the same wish that is engraved at the base of the statue:origami crane.jpg

This is our cry,

this is our prayer;

peace in the world. 

Today the long and complex history of the World War II is just that—history. But more than ever before, the unleashed peril of a nuclear explosion continues to keep the entire world on tenterhooks. Hiroshima is a reminder of the horrific legacy of nuclear warfare, but the Peace Memorial is a reminder that there can be another legacy—one of peace.

–Mamata

 

Friendship Matters

In thepooh friends.png next few days the hype will build up. There will be a marketing blitz reminding us that Friendship Day nears, and that the best way to be friends is by buying and gifting for each other, and that the proof of friendship is the number of cards and presents that one gets.

Indeed the idea of this day has commercial origins. As far back as 1919 Hallmark cards in the United States came up with the idea of celebrating the first Sunday of August every year as Friendship Day. It was intended to be a day for people to celebrate their friendship by sending each other cards and thereby boost the sales. Even today many countries celebrated this day in August.

However 30 July marks what is called International Friendship Day. Interestingly both the origin and the intent of this Day have a non-commercial history.

It began over sixty years ago in Paraguay. Dr Ramon Artemio Bracho was a surgeon who had worked as a doctor in rural areas for many years before he became a military doctor for his national government. Dr Ramon strongly believed that friendship is central in overcoming people’s cultural, political and religious differences. As he recalled, the seed was sown one evening when he was invited by a worker’s union to a meeting to celebrate trees. The doctor was inspired. In his words, “I began to remember what had happened the night before and I told myself how interesting it is, the gesture of the man of having created the day of the tree.  In that same instant it came to my mind that friendship is something so important and does not have its day, so it seemed to me an extraordinary idea.” The very next evening, on 20 July 1958, over dinner with close friends in Puerto Pinasco, a town on the Paraguay river, he proposed the idea of a campaign designed to promote the value of friendship in order to foster a more peaceful society. Thus was born the Cruzada Mundial de la Amistad (World Friendship Crusade).Today the World Friendship Crusade is a Foundation that promotes friendship and fellowship among all human beings, regardless of race, colour or religion.

For many years the World Friendship Crusade lobbied the United Nations to recognize and declare an international day to mark the sentiments of the Foundation.

On 5 August 1997, Mrs. Nane Annan, wife of then United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, designated the much loved children’s book character Winnie the Pooh as “Ambassador of Friendship”. This was to encourage young people to learn what they could do to forge ties of friendship and understanding among different cultures to bring about peace and harmony around the world. The books by A A Milne featuring Pooh the little bear and his band of close friends are a beautiful celebration of the simple joys of companionship, loyalty and friendship.

It was on 27 July 2011 that the 65th Session of the United Nations General Assembly declared 30 July as the International Day of Friendship. The United Nations invites all Member States to observe this day in accordance with the culture and customs of their local, national and regional communities, including through education and public awareness-raising activities.

It is a reminder that we are often so caught up in seeing the “otherness” in people that we cannot look beneath, to recognise the “sameness”. A great deal of how we interpret another person’s behaviour and intentions is merely a manifestation of the picture our minds have constructed about them. We assume that we can be only friends with those who are like us, and those that are not, are the “other”. But otherness can also be the most beautiful ground for connection, for it is through the blending of the sameness and the otherness that the rich tapestry of friendship is woven. Openness in thought and deed is the glue of true friendship, not just between individuals but equally cultures, communities and countries.

Today more than ever before, in a topsy-turvy world, we need to remind ourselves of the original intent of Friendship Day as Dr Ramon described it: “I think it is a special day and that it helped or helps people to remember friends in a special way, to be able to cultivate and value more this beautiful feeling that one has towards others.”

While we may not be able to physically meet our friends, while we cannot celebrate with parties and shopping sprees, what enables us to carry on in our respective mental and physical spaces is the comfort of friends and friendship. What better time to be grateful for the gift of friendship that sustains us, and to celebrate the bonds that make our life so much richer?

A friend is one of the nicest things that you can have and one of the best things you can be. Winnie the Pooh

–Mamata

 

Tiger Tales

July 29 is celebrated as International Tiger Day as a way to

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Photo credit: Seema Bhatt 

raise awareness about the magnificent but endangered tiger. The day was founded in 2010 at the Saint Petersburg Tiger Summit, when the 13 tiger range countries came together to create Tx2—the goal to double the number of tigers in the wild by the year 2022. While this deadline is only two years away, it is reported that the current number still far from the goal. It is estimated that the total number of tigers in the wild in the world is 3900.

India is one country which has been showing a significant rise in its tiger population. Last year on International Tiger Day, the results of the Tiger Census 2018 were announced to reveal that the total population of the Royal Bengal Tiger in India is 2967, which is more than double that of 2006. India is also now officially one of the biggest and safest habitats of the Tiger.

As someone who is more comfortable with stories rather than statistics, all the tiger talk took me to the story of Jim Corbett—a teller of many a tiger tale.

James Edward Corbett was born on 25 July 1875 into a family of English ancestry in Nainital, in what is now Uttarakhand; he was one of twelve children. His father who was the postmaster of Nainital died when James was only four years old, leaving his widow to raise the large family on a meagre pension. The young James, or Jim as he was called, had to start earning at an early age to help out the family.

Jim was a wanderer from the time he could walk, and he spent his childhood exploring every nook and corner of the nearby forest, observing the plants, animals and birds. In those days, hunting was a part of everybody’s life. When he was just 5 years old Jim was taken by his brother on a hunting expedition. He was handed a gun and asked to report if he sighted a bear. Much later Jim wrote in one of his books, Jungle Lore, that that was the most frightening experience of his life. But this experience also laid the foundation of Jim’s life-long link with forests.

The fear of the jungle combined with the desire to know more about it led Jim to be observant but also careful. He learned to be silent, which places to avoid, and which to explore further. By the age of 7 he began to be totally absorbed in the natural world around him, appreciating it, trying to understand it, and even attempting to classify animals he saw by the functions they performed. For example, different kinds of birds. He wrote in his diary:

Bird’s that beautify nature’s garden: In this group I put minivets, orioles and sunbirds.

Birds that warn of danger: drongos, red jungle fowl and babblers.

Birds that perform the duty of scavengers: vultures, kites and crows.

Having sorted the jungle birds and animals according to his own classification, Corbett began to study them in detail, tracking them, understanding their calls and pugmarks, and learning to mimic their many sounds. In one of his books he shares this mystery and magic thus: “There is no universal language in the jungles; each species has its own language, and though the vocabulary of some is limited, as in the case of porcupines and vultures, the language of each species is understood by all the jungle-folk.”

Honing all his senses to recognise the signs and movements of wildlife, the observant and fleet-footed young Jim soon became a shikari in the true sense–a person who is one with the environment in which he hunts, and with the hunted. Shooting his first leopard at age eight, Corbett went on to become an excellent hunter, and gained fame for killing several dreaded man-eating tigers. But history has it that he has never killed any big cat without confirming that it had harmed a human.

Over the years, Jim’s love for animals translated into wildlife photography. Inspired by his friend, Frederick Walter Champion, he started to record tigers on film. In the mid 1920’s, when he was in his fifties, Corbett completely gave up shooting with a gun and turned to shooting with a camera. He felt that “far more pleasure was got from pressing the button of a camera than is ever got from pressing the trigger of a gun.”

Jim Corbett spent his remaining years in writing about his hunting adventures and jungle experiences, and promoting the cause of conservation. In November 1947, Corbett and his sister left for Kenya, where he lived till his death in 1955. Jim Corbett’s entire life was a testimony to his close connection to nature, and the joy it gave him. As he wrote: “The book of nature has no beginning, as it has no end. Open this book where you will, and at any period of your life, and if you have the desire to acquire knowledge you will find it of intense interest, and no matter how long or how intently you study the pages, your interest will not flag, for in nature there is no finality.”
But what makes Corbett so special is that he became one of the first champions of the conservation movement in India. Using his influence over then Provincial Government, Corbett played a key role in the establishment, in 1939, of Hailey National Park, India’s first national reserve for the endangered Bengal tiger. In 1957, the park was renamed Jim Corbett National Park in his honour. In 1968, one of the five remaining sub-species of tigers was named after him as Panthera Tigris Corbetti, or Corbett’s Tiger.

For us in India, tiger tales and Jim Corbett are closely linked. And today, his words are as true as they were when he wrote them in 1944:

“The tiger is a large-hearted gentleman with boundless courage and that when he is exterminated–as exterminated he will be unless public opinion rallies to his support–India will be the poorer, having lost the finest of her fauna.”

–Mamata

 

 

 

Much in Little

It is almost six months since the world as we knew it, changed. For many, this period of lockdown has also been one of unlocking some simple joys of life and living.

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A reprieve from the frenetic activities of modern life has given Nature a new lease of life. And humans, from behind their glass windows, are discovering the wonders of the world that we share with millions of other living beings. People are noticing plants, birds and insects in their immediate surroundings; they are hearing bird song and rain symphonies which had been drowned out by incessant urban cacophony and pollution. Locked inside, humans are rediscovering nature.

Humans are also rediscovering that it is possible, even satisfying, to live with what one has; that life can go on without 24/7 doings and happenings, extravagant shopping sprees, dining out, and other self-indulgences. That the quality of life is not dependent entirely on the quantum of material resources.

But this is not the first time in history. Almost 200 years ago Henry David Thoreau took a break from the often numbing routine of daily life which was driven by the need to earn a living. As he put it “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” He wondered, “Was it possible to lead a different kind of life?”

Thoreau spent two years, two months and two days living by himself in a basic wooden cabin that he built himself, on the shore of Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts in America. He wanted to answer for himself the question “how simple can a life be and still be a good one?”, and to illustrate his belief of “much in little.”

As he wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.”

Even while at Walden Pond, Thoreau did not live a life of seclusion. He had visitors, and walked to the nearby village often. His experiment was more to prove that one does not have to go far in any physical sense to “get away from it all.”

During this period in 1845-46, he observed, enjoyed and recorded his observations of the natural world around him. These were to be published as Walden, one of his best known works. It also earned him the moniker Father of Environmentalism.

Thoreau was however much more than a nature writer. He wore many hats–social reformer, naturalist, philosopher, transcendentalist, scientist, and conscientious objector.

Born on July 12, 1817 in New England, USA in a middle class family, he graduated from Harvard following which he spent some years teaching in school, and also working in his father’s pencil factory. The young Thoreau was greatly influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson who became his close friend and mentor. He began to publish essays that reflected his deeply-felt political views which were considered radical in those times. He was an outspoken abolitionist and was arrested (and jailed for one day) for resisting to pay poll tax to a government that supported slavery. This experience led him to write one of his best-known and most influential essays titled Civil Disobedience. He made a strong case for acting on one’s individual conscience and not blindly following laws and government policy. “The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right,” he wrote.

Thoreau’s non-violent approach to social and political resistance greatly influenced Mahatma Gandhi who adopted many of his thoughts while developing his concept of Satyagraha.

Following his Walden experiment Thoreau wrote extensively, although a lot of his writing was published and became well-known only after he died. He continued his daily afternoon walks in the Concord woods and kept a journal of his nature observations and ideas. He travelled and lectured, living on a modest income, till he died of tuberculosis in 1862, at the age of 45.

Thoreau, a man of simple tastes and high thinking, was indeed an original thinker of his times. The lesson he taught himself and that he tried to teach others, was summed up in the word “simplify”. That meant simplify the outer circumstances of your life, simplify your needs and your ambitions; learn to delight in simple pleasures which the world of nature affords. It meant also scorn public opinion, refuse to accept the common definition of success, refuse to be moved by the judgement of others. And unlike most who advocate such attitudes, he put them into practice.

A few years ago on a trip to the United States I had the opportunity to retrace Thoreau’s footsteps on a walk around Walden Pond, and see the modest shack where he penned his notes on nature. At that time I knew him mainly as an evocative nature writer. Today I find that his philosophy of life and living is more relevant than perhaps ever before. And Walden is so much more than a nature lover’s diary—it is an inspiring guide to changing the way we view ourselves and the life we want to live, especially in these times when we are feeling lost, and the times that will follow.

Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify. Henry David Thoreau

–Mamata