2023: The Year of the Rabbit

Three weeks ago we bade farewell to the old year, and welcomed the New Year, 2023 according to the Gregorian calendar. This month also marked the start of a new year for several different communities in different parts of India. Other parts of the world are also celebrating new beginnings. In many countries in East and Far East Asia it is the Chinese New Year that will herald 2023 as the Year of the Rabbit on 22 January this week.

The Chinese zodiac follows a 12-year astrological cycle in which a zodiac animal is assigned to each year in an ever-repeating rotation. The 12 zodiac animals are, in order: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. Each year has an animal sign according to the 12-year-cycle. The Year of the Rabbit signifies the fourth year in the 12-year cycle of Chinese zodiac

There are several myths and legends related to the origin of this. According to one story, the legendary Jade Emperor invited all the world’s animals to a banquet, but only these twelve animals accepted his invitation. Thus he honoured them by dedicating one year on the Chinese calendar to each.

Another Chinese zodiac origin story claims that the Buddha himself called for 12 sacred animals to protect his palace. He thus organized a race that involved all animals on earth to identify the most worthy. At the end of the race, the first 12 animals to complete the race were selected as his guards. Now, they represent the 12 Chinese zodiac signs.

The most popular tale is that of The Great Race that explains the order of the animals in the zodiac has many variations, but the essence is the same.

According to legend the Jade Emperor decided that in order to determine the order in which each of these twelve animals would be placed in the zodiac, they would have to run a race, and they would be assigned their places depending upon the order in which they reached the finish line.

All the animals set off on the course. On the way to the finishing point 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; how could it navigate the swirling waters? 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 diligently plodding Ox.

Year of Rabbit

Tiger and Rabbit were not far behind. Both were fast, but Tiger was faster and came in third. Rabbit though fast on the ground, was stumped when it reached the river; it could not swim but it used its strong legs to hop from stone to stone in the river. However at one place it slipped and fell in the water, but it grasped a floating log and hung onto it, and was tossing with the current.

Dragon who everyone thought would easily win the race because it was believed to have magical powers fell behind as it took  a detour on the way to help some villagers to  extinguish a fire. When it returned to the river it saw the rabbit clinging to the log which was being carried away by the currents. Dragon used its breath to push the log to the shore. Thus the rabbit was the fourth animal to complete the race. Rabbit never found out where the breeze that had helped it ashore came from. The helpful dragon thus came after the rabbit, to be fifth in the race.

The story goes on to describe the adventures and machinations of the other seven animals who completed the race.

2023 is the Year of the Rabbit. The Chinese zodiac assigns an animal and its attributes to each year. 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. The years of the Rabbit include 1915, 1927, 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011, and now 2023.

The rabbit is historically known as the gentlest of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac. The attributes also apply to the people born in the year of that animal. Thus those born in the year of the rabbit are believed to be gentlequietelegant, and alertas well as quick,ingenious,skilfulkindpatient, and very responsible. Those born under the sign of the Rabbit are known for their calm and decisive nature, which helps them to navigate difficult situations effectively. They are sometimes reluctant to reveal their minds to others and have a tendency to escape reality, but are always faithful to those around them. In the Japanese zodiac that also follows these 12 animal signs, rabbits represent fortune, moving forward and cleverness.

In addition to these traits, according to the Chinese theory of five elements, each zodiac sign is also associated with one of the five elements: Gold (Metal)WoodWaterFire, orEarth. These occur once in a 60-year cycle. According to this, 2023 is the year of Water Rabbit. Water rabbits are characterized as being gentle, amicable, able to adjust readily to different conditions, but with a firm mind set and principles.

In today’s world where there is an increasing prevalence, (indeed even positive recognition) of more aggressive traits of competitiveness, and ruthlessness, this year is a reminder of the value of gentleness, tenderness and empathy. In Chinese and Japanese cultures the sign of the Rabbit is revered as a symbol of longevity, peace and prosperity.

According to Chinese astrology, 2023 the year of the Water Rabbit will be less tumultuous than last year which was the year of the Tiger. It is predicted to be a year of Hope. This is what the world needs so badly now.

Here is to the Year of the Rabbit 2023—a year of hope, peace, and moving forward with empathy. 


Underground Treasures: Tubers

This is the season of relishing a variety of underground edible delights. These are the root and tuber vegetables that are consumed in numerous ways, in a variety of dishes. In Gujarat these are celebrated in the undhiyu, a mix of winter vegetables led by several kinds of tubers including yams, sweet potatoes and potatoes, traditionally slow-cooked in an earthen pot. The winter season is also a multi-coloured celebration of root vegetables like carrots, beets, radish, turnip, fresh turmeric and ginger that add crunch, colour and flavour to salads, and sweets (carrot hawa!).

The distinction between tubers and roots is more botanical than culinary. Both root vegetable and tubers are geophytes, a botanical classification for plants with their growing point beneath the soil. All tubers fall under the root vegetable umbrella, but not all root vegetables are tubers. Root vegetables are aptly named because the meat of the crop is the root of the plant, growing downwards and absorbing moisture and nutrients from the soil. Above ground are the leaves, below ground, are the roots which are eaten as vegtables. Tubers, however, form at the base of the root. Tubers store energy and support new stem growth. You can get several tubers from one above-ground plant, while root crops will have one root vegetable from each plant.

The general belief is that tubers are starch heavy and difficult to digest. Many people feel very full after eating tubers. In fact, the complex carbohydrates found in tubers balance the glucose levels in blood, and help remain full for a longer period, thereby prevent cravings and overeating.  While they do contain more carbohydrates than protein, tubers are a rich source of essential nutrients—vitamins (especially vitamin C), minerals like copper, manganese and potassium, and beneficial enzymes. They are also high in fibre that helps to keep the digestive and excretory system healthy. 

Indigenous people all over the world have traditionally consumed a variety of local tubers to supplement their diet as a balanced and healthy food source. In the Andean region of South America, tuber-forming or storage root crops have been continuously domesticated from wild ancestors and improved via selection and breeding during centuries by the local indigenous people. Some have been used as part of traditional medicine for their healing properties. Tubers thus provided food security as they could survive the vagaries of weather conditions, especially drought.

Tubers are slowly attracting attention again for all these reasons. Tubers are packed with nutrition, but majorly neglected in our diets. They are naturally resistant to pests and diseases, and are chemical-free unlike most fruits and vegetables. Unlike other food, tubers survive for three-four months after being pulled out of the soil.

Realising their multi-faceted potential for a hunger-free world, the Food and Agriculture Organization has categorised tubers like the sweet potato, along with pulses and millets, as Future Smart Food (FSF). 

However with the spread of monocultures and new varieties of cereal crops, as well as accessibility and popularity of other vegetables, over time the genetic as well as nutritional properties of tubers have been largely forgotten or neglected.

This is what motivated Shaji NM, a farmer from Kerala to take on a one-man crusade to save and celebrate tubers. Shaji grew up in a family of farmers that often resorted to subsisting on a diet of different tubers that they cultivated, or collected from the nearby forest, when they could not afford any other food grain. While Shaji himself became familiar, early on, with a variety of tubers, as he grew he saw that these were slowly being forgotten as the market became flooded with cereals and vegetables from far and wide. He also realized that while traditionally most farmers had cultivated some tubers in their fields, these were being increasingly replaced by the cultivation of cash crops like pepper, cardamom, nutmeg. Shaji felt that he needed to do something to protect and preserve tuber varieties before they disappeared altogether. And thus began a mission that has been continuing for almost two decades now. 

Shaji began travelling across Kerala to look for wild tubers. He went deep into the forests to meet the local tribal communities. It is here that he discovered a variety of wild yams and other tubers that were part of their traditional diet, grown in small patches near their homes, or collected from the forest. These were not grown nor available commercially. Shaji saw that many such varieties were on the verge of disappearing and he began to collect the seeds of all the varieties that he came across. He brought the seeds back and started growing these on his own one acre of land. But he also began to give the seeds back to the local communities, encouraging them to cultivate these and include these in their diet.

Today Shaji has accumulated a rich basket of tuber species. Greater yam, lesser yam, elephant foot yam, arrowroot, colocasia, sweet potato, tapioca, Chinese potato are just a few among the over 200 varieties of tubers that he grows on his small farm named Kedaram that means ‘cultivation’ in Malayalam. Shaji’s passion has extended to preserving other endangered plant varieties as well. He cultivated over 52 varieties of indigenous and traditional rice varieties, 100 varieties of vegetables and fruits, as well as medicinal plants. With a small fish farm, rearing of honey bees and a few cows and goats, Shaji has demonstrated the enormously rich potential of even a small landholding.

Shaji organizes a seed festival at his farm every year. He generously gives away, for free, the seeds of tubers and rice to others who want to cultivate these with the strict condition that the people return the same amount of seeds they take from him once they harvest the crop. This helps to ensure that the seeds are properly cultivated.

Shaji N.M., a truly grassroots biodiversity champion, strives to spread his mission every way he can from personal interactions, to technology like Facebook to connect and train farmers. The Tuber Man of India as he is popularly called has been recognized for his efforts through several state and national level awards.  He was awarded the India Biodiversity Award 2021 in the individual category of Conservation of Domesticated Species.

I will certainly relish my undhiyu with more respect this year!




On 15 December 2022 an estimated 100,000 nurses went on strike across hospitals in the UK, marking the first-ever nationwide walkout in the history of the nursing union in the country. This is probably the culmination of a year that has seen a great deal of labour unrest across Britain which has manifested in a series of strikes. From British Rail workers, to postal workers, bus drivers and baggage handlers at airports, and NHS nurses, several essential services have been disrupted and daily activities affected by these.

Labour unions have had a long history in Britain. It is interesting that one of the earliest examples of labour militancy, was in 1888, and was sparked off by young girls who worked in appalling conditions in a match factory. The Match Girls’ Strike as it came to be known was a key moment in British history and a milestone in the labour movement.

This historic development dates back to the late-nineteenth century in London’s East End, an area inhabited by the very poor, with unsanitary living conditions and rife with disease and malnourishment. This area also provided cheap labour for the nearby factories. Among these was the Byrant and May Match Company. The company employed young girls (starting as early as age 13) who worked, standing on their feet, for 14 hours a day, for very meagre wages from which they had to also feed, clothe and house themselves. Their earnings were further cut by fines and deductions for small mistakes such as leaving a match on the work bench. The girls who were forced to work as they came from large and poor families, had hardly anything left to take home. The girls also suffered abuse at the hands of the foremen. Over and above the economic exploitation, was the hazardous work environment.  

The production of match sticks involved dipping the sticks, made from poplar or pine wood, into a solution made up of many ingredients including phosphorus, antimony sulphide and potassium chlorate. Within this mixture, it was the white phosphorus that was extremely hazardous for bones and lungs. Inhaling it would cause toothaches, and in the long run, a condition called “phossy jaw” an extremely painful type of bone cancer leading to horrendous disfiguration of the face.

Matchgirls strike work!

The Company employed around 1400 such women and made huge profits, even as they managed to circumvent some of the basic labour rules of the time. It was fully aware of the impact of phossy jaw but if anyone complained, they simply instructed them to have the tooth extracted. While discontent simmered within the workers, there was little that the girls could do to change the situation; but the glowing embers were getting hotter; until a spark ignited the matches.

Henry Burrows a social activist and Theosophist, and a close friend of Annie Besant, had heard rumours about the work conditions in the match factory. He first made contact with some of the girls who worked in the factory, and Annie Besant met many of them and heard from them about their appalling work conditions. This prompted her to write an article about this titled White Slavery in London. The article was published on 23 June 1888 in a weekly magazine called The Link which was published by Annie Besant.  

The powerful matchstick industry had never been challenged like this before, it was outraged, and promptly denied everything. Bryant and May threatened to sue Annie Besant for libel and demanded that their employees sign a statement claiming that  the article was untrue. They refused. The company retaliated by sacking one of the workers who they accused of being ring leader. This was the final straw for the Match girls. And so it was that on 5th July 1888, 200 girls and women downed their tools walked out. They marched to the office of The Link and their representatives met Annie Besant. Mrs Besant did not agree with the strike action in principle but she agreed to help them. Her leadership helped to give the girls direction and organization. The ripples spread quickly, and soon about 1,400 workers had walked out in sympathy. 50 girls visited Parliament, to describe their grievances to MPs “in their own words”.

Besant and Burrows proved crucial in organising the campaign which led the women through the streets whilst setting out their demands for an increase in pay and better working conditions. Such a display of defiance against a powerful industrial lobby was met with great public sympathy, and donations for the cause started pouring in. The empathy demonstrated for the plight of working women was also a sign of changing times.

The factory management saw that the bad publicity could harm their interests and they had no choice but to offer improvements in wages and working conditions. This agreement represented a resounding success for the Match girls, who returned to work the next day. Although it would not be until 1908 that the House of Commons finally passed an act prohibiting the use of the deadly white phosphorous in matches.

An important outcome of the Match girls’ strike was the creation of a union for the women to join; this was extremely rare as female workers did not tend to be unionised even into the next century. The Union of Women Matchmakers, which lasted until 1903, was extremely significant, considering that even as late as 1914, less than 10 per cent of female workers were unionised. It also meant that the organisation of the workers did not just disappear after the strike, as had been the case previously.

The Match girls’ success gave the working class a new awareness of their power, and unions sprang up in industries where unskilled workers had previously remained unorganized. As The Link wrote on 4 August 1888 the strike “put new heart into all who are struggling for liberty and justice”. The next year saw the Great Dock Strike, where many of the dock workers were male members of the families of the Match girls. Ultimately, these two strikes led to the formation and growth of the labour movement and Labour Party itself. 


Hoopoe Who?

This is the time of year when I look at my little patch of lawn in the mild December sunshine and miss the winter visitors who used to add little dabs of colour and movement on the grass. Alas, in the last few years, with the erstwhile fields now transformed into towering concrete jungles, these feathered friends have forsaken us. Among these was one of my favourites—the hoopoe.

The Eurasian hoopoe (Upupa epops) is a striking bird distinguished by its appearance. A fawn-coloured bird, about the size of a myna, it has zebra-like black and white markings on its back, wings and tail; and the head is topped by a conspicuous fan-shaped crest. It has a long, slender, gently curved beak.

The bird has a soft, musical hoo-po or hoo-po-po call which may go on intermittently for ten minutes at a stretch. It may be this call that has given rise to its name. Another possible root of its common English name is that it is a derivation of the French name for the bird huppee which means crested.

Hoopoes have two basic habitat requirements: bare or sparsely vegetated ground and vertical surfaces with cavities for nesting. Hence they are found in a wide range of habitats including lawns, gardens, and groves. They are usually found singly, but sometimes in pairs, striding over the ground and periodically pausing to probe the ground to forage for food. They eat mainly a variety of insects, small reptiles, frogs, plant matter, seeds and berries. The beak is also used as a lever to move stones and flake from tree bark. The strong musculature of the head allows the beak to be open like forceps when probing the soil. While probing, the crest is folded back into a neat point behind the head.

While mainly a ground-walking bird with a quail-like waddling gait, the hoopoe has broad, rounded wings capable of strong flight. Due to the wings half closing at the end of each beat or short sequence of beats, hoopoes have a characteristic undulating flight like a giant butterfly. As it lands, the crest opens out fully, as it does when the bird is agitated or frightened. The hoopoe likes to sunbathe by spreading its wings and tail close to the ground and raising its head. Hoopoes also enjoy dust and sand baths.

Hoopoes are territorial and the males call out to proclaim the ownership of their territory. The male and female pair for a single mating season. The nest is in a natural hollow in a tree or wall lined untidily with straw, rags and rubbish; which usually make the nest stink. The female alone is responsible for incubating the eggs. It is the stink which act as the defence against predators. The stink is not just from the rotting rubbish but also from a foul-smelling liquid generated by the incubating female. The secretion is rubbed into the plumage of the mother and chicks to deter not just predators but also parasites and harmful bacteria.  The secretions stop when the nestlings are about the leave the nest.

These distinctive birds have made a cultural impact over much of their range. Considered sacred in Ancient Egypt, they were depicted on the walls of tombs and temples. The Egyptian considered the hoopoe as symbolical of gratitude because it repays the early kindness of its parents in their old age by trimming their wings and bringing them food when they are acquiring new plumage.

The Arabs call it the doctor, believing it to possess marvellous medicinal qualities. The hoopoe is also considered a waterfinder. It can see through the earth and can point out hidden springs, a virtue which is much appreciated by desert dwellers.

In contrast, hoopoes were thought of as thieves across much of Europe and as harbingers of war in Scandinavia. In Estonian tradition, they are strongly connected with death and the underworld. Their song is believed to foreshadow the death of people or livestock. But in many parts of the world they are seen as harbingers of good things.

In the Middle East, there is an interesting legend about how the hoopoe got its crown. Solomon the wise king was once journeying across the desert, and was fainting with heat, when a large flock of hoopoes came to his assistance, and by flying between the sun and the King, thus protecting him from the strong sun.

Grateful Solomon asked the birds how he could reward them. After some consultation among themselves the hoopoes answered that they would like each bird to be decorated with a golden crown. Solomon cautioned them that this would not be in their own interests, but as the birds persisted, he gave each Hoopoe crown of gold. For some days the Hoopoes preened in self-admiration and showed off their gift to all the other birds. Then a bird-catcher discovered the prize on their head, and as the word spread, every hunter in the land started pursuing and catching hoopoes. The hoopoes’ very existence was in danger. They begged for forgiveness for their greed and requested Solomon to take away their crowns of gold. Solomon granted their request, and removed the golden crown from their heads; but, being unwilling that the birds should be left without a mark by which they might be distinguished from their fellows, he substituted a crown of feathers for that of gold. And thus the Hoopoe still wears its distinguishing crown of feathers.

It must be that Solomon also gave the hoopoes the gift of wisdom. A classic 12th-century Sufi epic poem titled The Conference of the Birds tells the allegorical story of thirty birds who set out on a journey across the seven valleys of Quest, Love, Understanding, Detachment, Unity, Amazement, and Death in a quest to find their true king, Simorgh. The birds are led through the journey by the Hoopoe who the birds recognize as their spiritual leader thus:

Dear hoopoe, welcome! You will be our guide:
It was on you King Solomon relied
He knew your language and you knew his heart.

Nevertheless each bird is afraid to undertake the journey, and comes up with its excuses. The poem is made up of one-to-one stories in which the Hoopoe addresses each bird’s concern and excuse. What makes the Hoopoe’s responses even more insightful are the anecdotes and stories that follow each piece of advice. The Hoopoe is full of words of encouragement and wisdom reminding the birds to look at the bigger picture and aspire for the higher goals; explaining that the quest for ultimate wisdom must not be limited by oneself or the system! These words are as relevant to every one of us too.

The ocean can be yours; why should you stop  
Beguiled by dreams of evanescent dew
The secrets of the sun are yours, but you
Content yourself with motes trapped in beams.”


Save Our Soils

December 5 is marked as World Soil Day every year as a means to focus attention on the importance of soil as a critical component of the natural system, and as a vital contributor to environmental and human well-being. The day reminds us of the degrading state of this resource, and urges for the sustainable management of soil resources. The date of 5 December was chosen because it corresponds with the official birthday of the late H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, King of Thailand, who was one of the main proponents of this initiative.

At first glance soil seems just like a layer that covers the earth’s land surface. In fact soil is a world in itself, made up of inorganic and organic components, that provides food for humans and animals through plant growth. The inorganic components include air, water, minerals, and masses of tiny particles of rock broken down over millions of years by baking sun, rainwater, atmospheric gases, cracking ice and penetrating roots. It is the living organisms like lichen, algae and fungi, as well as earth-dwelling organisms from earthworms to microscopic bacteria—dying, decomposing and leaving their remains on and in the soil that transform these lifeless particles into a form that initiates and maintains life on earth, and that can support millions of life forms. Hard to believe that there are more living organisms in a tablespoon of soil than people on Earth!

Like humans, soils need a balanced and varied supply of nutrients in appropriate amounts to be healthy. When this balance is disturbed soil loses its ability to process nutrients and convert them into a form that enables plants to grow.

Agricultural systems lose nutrients with each harvest, and if soils are not managed sustainably, fertility is progressively lost, and soils will produce nutrient-deficient plants. Soil nutrient loss is a major soil degradation process threatening nutrition. It is recognized as being among the most critical problems at a global level for food security and sustainability all around the globe.

The theme for World Soil Day 2022 is “Soils: Where Food Begins”.  This aims to raise awareness of the importance of maintaining healthy ecosystems and human well-being by addressing the growing challenges in soil management, increasing soil awareness and encouraging societies to improve soil health.

Even as humans are using this day to speak up for the health of the soil, I thought that it should also would be a chance for the soil to speak up for itself!

Here is what I imagine the soil would like to share!


I am soil, ever thought about me?

Always underfoot, you think I’m here for free.

In your fields and gardens, roads and lawns

On mountains, in deserts, in cities and towns.

I can be living, feeling, strong and healthy like you

But I can also get sick, and sometimes tired too.

I can often get weaker, unable to help life to grow

How can that happen, would you like to know?

Year after year, season after season

You plant me with the same crops with the reason

That the more you put in, the more you will get.

But that’s just where you will lose the bet.

In such a hurry you are to sow and to reap

Have you ever dreamed that I too need time to breathe?

Ever thought that I also need to recuperate

From trying to keep up at such an unnatural rate?

Give me break, give me a rest

Be kind to me, I’ll give you my best.

The unending cycle will sap all my strength

Suck the minerals and nutrients right from my depths.

One day quite soon I’ll just run out of steam

Then those bountiful harvests will be only a dream.

Then you will pump me with every artificial aid

Chemicals, fertilizers, all the tricks of the trade.

Imagining that the fruit I bear will be so good,

But could you thrive on just pills, not natural food?

Give me a break, give me a rest

Be kind to me, I’ll give you my best.

You will drug me with pesticides and insecticides

To destroy all “enemies” in just one stride.

You don’t realize that with the deadly dose

My allies too are dying, not only the foes.

You strip me of my protective cover

Rip the grasses, trees, and shrubs that flower.

Those keep me protected in a secure cloak

From the fury of rains and the winds that blow.

You leave me exposed, naked and bare

To be blown, swept or washed away somewhere.

You clad me in an armour of tar and concrete

So I can’t breathe, nor can the creatures beneath.

Give me a break, give me a rest

Be kind to me, I’ll give you my best.

Cover me again with a mantle of green

Let my own magic do the job you’re so keen

To assign to factories, labs and vans

And potions from bottles and boxes, sprays and cans.

Let the humus, leaf litter and the biomass

The lichen, the algae, the roots and grass

The bugs and beetles, the worms and snails

Do the job they’ve always done, one that never fails.

It’s these myriad earth dwellers that give me life

That in turn I bestow upon all plant life.

Let my friends and foes all show their might

If I am strong and healthy, it will be all right.

Give me a break, give me a rest

Be kind to me, I’ll give you my best.


Angela Ruiz Robles: eBook Pioneer

What is it that would help to lighten the weight of school bags, is portable, makes learning more attractive and adapts teaching to the level of each student; can be used in the dark, supports learning with sounds, can be used in multiple languages, can be a useful teaching aid for teachers?

Today most school children can easily answer this as a “Tablet”. But this list, and this vision of such a teaching-learning device was made over 75 years ago, and resulted in an invention called Mechanical Encyclopedia. The inventor was Angela Ruiz Robles–a Spanish school teacher. 

Angela’s story is fascinating and inspirational.

Angela Ruiz Robles was born on 28 March 1895, in Villamanin, a municipality in the province of Leon in Spain. Her father Feiciano Ruiz was a pharmacist and her mother Elena Robles a housewife. Angela completed her higher education at the teacher training college in Leon, and went on to teach shorthand, typing and business at the same college from 1915 to 1916. In 1917 she was a teacher and director at the Gilberto Gordón School in Gordón, a town located near the city of León.

In 1918 she accepted a position as teacher in Santa Eugenia de Mandía, a village near Ferrol in Galicia, and remained there for the next decade. It is here that she found her true calling as a teacher. She was totally dedicated to her students, giving personal attention to each one; noting those who required special attention according to their needs. Her work was not confined to the classroom; she visited the homes of her students to provide additional instruction and support. She understood that every child has unique learning abilities, personalities and insecurities. As her old students recalled: “Doña Angelita, who was known by her first name to all of us, was the perfect teacher. She never treated any student differently and always honoured each individual learner’s needs.” Angela spent ten years in the village school and was greatly loved and respected by all.

Angela lost her husband when she was 40, and in 1928 she moved to Ferrol. She needed to teach, but now also to provide for her family. She founded the Elmaca Academy named after her daughters Elena, Maria Elvira, and Carmen. The Academy located in her own home provided classes for those aspiring to join customs, become mail carriers, or telegraph operators, as well as apply for business management studies. Her academy followed participatory pedagogical methods that were much ahead of their time; and this was reflected in the highest pass rate in the country for her students.

Along with the regular courses Doña Angelita gave free night classes to people with few resources. The Academy also became a social centre. Letters were read to, and written for illiterate immigrants; literary gatherings were held; food distribution was organized, and religious processions could be watched from here.

In 1934, she became manager of the Escuela Nacional de Niñas del Hospicio (National Girls’ School of the Hospice) in Ferrol, which cared for orphaned or abandoned girls. Doña Angelita made sure that the girls got a primary education, musical education and learned a useful trade so that they could earn and integrate with society.

As Doña Angelita continued her teaching and other educational work, she also had to support and bring up her three young girls by herself, but she made time for her own research and writing. Between 1938 and 1946, she wrote, lectured, edited and republished sixteen books. She published three of them: Compendium of Castilian Orthography, Castilian Orthography (abbreviated) and Modern Abbreviated Martinian Shorthand—books addressing the conventional Spanish spelling systems. In 1944, Ángela Ruiz started her Scientific-Grammatical Atlas project. Her goal was to teach Spanish grammar and spelling while making Spain better known through Spanish grammar, syntax, morphology, spelling and phonetics.

Angela Ruiz was also constantly thinking of resources, innovations, and inventions that would help to improve the teaching-learning process, and spent hours after her daily work in exploring and experimenting with such tools. Her aim was simple: “To make teaching easier, to get maximum knowledge with minimum effort.”

It was then that she dreamed of what she described as a “Mechanical Encyclopaedia” which addressed the needs listed in the first paragraph of this piece. This book included a vast range of information which was represented in graphic, sound or textual form. It could be made of waterproof and lightweight materials. It had the possibility of directly incorporating lighting and magnifying glasses.

Her invention consisted of patterned sheets. When you put your finger on them, they lit up and an educational text appeared. For this to happen, she incorporated an electrical circuit that she designed herself.

Angela made a sketch and detailed out her new kind of book which she described as “a mechanical, electrical, and air pressure procedure for reading books“. She was certain that her invention was a valuable educational tool and she went to Madrid to find promoters. Her invention was appreciated, but did not result in any funding for her to develop the patent. Angela was disappointed, but undeterred she continued to work on improving her invention.

On 10 April 1962, ten years after her first attempt, she filed a patent entitled An Apparatus for Various Readings and Writings. That prototype made of zinc and bronze was the Mechanical Encyclopedia. Today this prototype is exhibited at the National Museum of Science and Technology in A Coruña in Spain.

With that physical prototype, she once again undertook the rounds of different ministries in Madrid. Again the previous story was repeated: many pats on the back, but not a single penny. After all she was a woman, and a provincial school teacher, how could her invention be taken seriously? Angela continued her efforts until she was almost 75 years old, but she was unable to develop or distribute her inventions.

Today writer and philanthropist Michael Hart is best known as the inventor of the e-book, and in 1971, he created the Gutenberg Project, the first project to make e-books freely available via the internet. Sadly, forgotten in history books is the name of Angela Ruiz Robles, a passionate and dedicated teacher, and the original pioneer of the electronic book.


The Tree Pies Are Here!

The last couple of weeks we have been hearing a new addition to the usual morning symphony of bird calls in our garden. This new sound was different—a somewhat harsh and raucous intermittent call. The other birds fall silent while this fills the air. As we looked for the source of sound, at first we could not see anything except the familiar babblers and doves and crows going about their morning business, until a rustling among the drying leaves of the tall old palm tree caused us to look closer. Suddenly we saw a hitherto unknown bird emerge and perch on the branch. Another swoop brought its partner flying from beyond to perch next to it. The first thing that struck us was the striking colouring and long tail that set these birds apart from the more staid and dull-hued birds that usually frequented the tree.

Rufous treepie
Rufous treepie

The tree-pies were in the neighbourhood! Last year they had caused a similar excitement when we had spotted them one day, but sadly that was only a one-time sighting, and we did not see them again. This time it seemed as if they were seriously prospecting the tree as a suitable site for potentially settling in to nest and breed.  

The Rufous treepie (Dendrocitta vagabunda) belongs to the Corvidae family, to which also belongs the common crow. The bird is endemic to the Indian subcontinent, and it is found in open forests, woodlands, groves and gardens in cities and villages. This species is not found elsewhere.

The body of the bird is the size of a myna, but it is elongated with a long tail which distinguishes it. The body is rust orange, with an ashy-black head and breast. The tail feathers are black interspersed with light grey, and the wing feathers are black with a white-grey band down the outside. The beak, legs and feet are black; the eyes are deep red with black pupils. The beak is slightly hooked at the tip.  With such striking colouring, the tree pie makes quite a contrast to its relative, the common crow, with its monochromatic colouring.

What this bird does share with its Corvid family kin is the attraction to shiny objects. Tree pies look for and steal shiny objects such as coins and small jewellery, and stash these in their nest. Possibly a male ploy to attract the females! No wonder then that one of the local Indian names for this bird is taka chor, literally ‘coin stealer’. The bird is also called kotri, derived from one of its calls which sounds like a screeching ‘ko-tree’.

The tree pie indeed has quite a repertoire of calls—from the loud, harsh and guttural to some which are sweet and melodious like ko-tree or bob-o-link. Thus it is confusing when one looks for the source of the squawking call, only to find a melodious tune emanating from the same place. It makes one wonder if it is one bird or several different ones calling.

The tree pie is an arboreal bird, rarely seen on the ground. It is an agile climber and hops agilely from branch to branch, or flies from tree to tree with a swift noisy flapping followed by a short glide on out stretched wings.

The rufous tree pie is an omnivorous and opportunistic feeder. Its diet includes fruits, seeds, small lizards, insects, as well as the eggs of other birds, and even small birds and rodents. In the forest tree pies often join mixed hunting groups of birds like drongos and woodpeckers; they collectively disturb insects in tree canopies and feast on them. 

Tree pies make their nests concealed in the foliage of middle-sized trees. The nest resembles that of its cousin the crow, made of thorny twigs, but it is deeper and well-lined with rootlets. It is here that 4-5 eggs are laid, and when they hatch both male and female share the parental duties.

A fortnight has passed since we heard the first harsh call of the tree pies. Since then we have been able to also enjoy the rest of their repertoire, in something like sound-surround. The soft melodious chirping coming from the foliage of the karanj tree, the bob-o-links that punctuate from the neem tree, and the kotri call from the top of the straggly palm. If we look hard enough we can also spot the tip of the long tail peeping out from the leaves, and occasionally are treated to a glimpse of its sweeping graceful flight from one perch to the other. It looks like the tree pies are here to stay this year.


Poppy for Remembrance

As a watcher of the BBC news channel, one thing that I have been noticing since this month began was that all the newscasters and other people who appeared on the channel have been wearing a lapel pin in the form of a poppy. This week there was also a picture of Britain’s new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also wearing the same while flagging off the Poppy Appeal.

Why are poppies so much in the news? The crimson poppy flower has become a symbol to honour those who have fallen in battle over the years, and also symbolizes hope and gratitude. The history of this century-old tradition goes all the way back all to World War I.

 As the story goes, during World War I, after a particularly bloody battle in the fields of Flanders in Belgium, thousands of bright red flowers mysteriously appeared. These were common poppies. Interestingly, the common poppy (Papaver rheos) is technically classified a weed which can grow even in the most inhospitable of landscapes. Basically it sprouts naturally in areas where there is massive disruption of the soil and the natural environment, such as bare lands which had been disturbed by the movement of troops and battle equipment. It is believed that during the Napoleanic wars of the early nineteenth century poppies bloomed profusely around the bodies of fallen soldiers, painting the battleground blood red. The same thing must have happened at Flanders.

John McCrae, a lieutenant colonel in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces fighting in Flanders, who had just lost a close friend in the battle, was so moved by this spontaneous bloom that he wrote a poem about the flowers’ resilience and ability to grow in such inhospitable conditions. Titled In Flander’s Field, it was told from the perspective of the fallen soldiers buried beneath the poppies, and honoured the troops who lost their lives in that conflict. The opening lines of the poem:

In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

McCrae’s poem was published in London’s Punch magazine in December 1915. It touched a chord in all those who were suffering the losses of loved ones in the war. The poem was read at memorial services, and reprinted it in many publications. Moina Michael, a professor at the University of Georgia in the United States, first came across In Flanders Field in the Ladies Home Journal and was so moved by it that she vowed always to wear a red poppy in remembrance of the lives lost in war. She found some poppies made of fabric in a store; and bought 25 silk poppies for herself and her friends. Once the war ended she herself began to make poppies out of red silk, and sell these to raise money to support the veterans returning from the war. She also lobbied for the poppy to be recognised as a memorial symbol. In 1920 the little red flower was recognized by the National American Legion as the official national emblem of remembrance.

The United States marks this memory on two days– Memorial Day is celebrated in May while 11 November marks Veterans Day. Over time, in the United States, the tradition of the poppy as the symbol of the day has been largely replaced by the yellow ribbon and red, blue and white ribbon campaigns. 

The poppy tradition however took firm root across the Atlantic, and continues to flourish. It first reached France through a French lady Madame Guerin who had seen the introduction of the poppy in America. She thought that selling poppies was a great way to raise money for children who had been affected by the war in France, and she engaged thousands of war widows in making paper poppies, and selling over a million poppies by 1921.  The Royal British Legion adopted the symbol immediately. The idea also spread to the other Commonwealth countries. The first poppy event was held on 11 November 1921.

Thus for over a century now, wearing a poppy has become a symbol of remembering the soldiers lost during World War I in many countries. The flower made of paper or fabric, is generally affixed to the left shoulder to symbolize the act of keeping those who have passed away close to one’s heart; the left shoulder is also one where military medals are worn. 

In the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Belgium, Australia and New Zealand, red poppies are worn in November, especially on 11 November. This date is marked as Remembrance Day as it commemorates the anniversary of the signing of the armistice that formally ended World War I “at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” of 1918. This day is now an occasion to remember all those who have lost their lives in all conflicts since World War I.

While the original batch of poppies were bought from France, the first factory to produce poppies in England was set up in 1922, employing five disabled ex-military personnel. Today the Royal British Legion has a factory that employs 50 ex-servicemen all the year round to make poppies for fund-raising events. The poppy has transcended its purely commemorative status to become an object that provides financial stability for the war-affected. 

The annual Poppy Appeal flagged off by the British Prime Minister last week raises funds for The Royal British Legion to support the armed forces community who have served, or are currently serving in the armed forces, and have subsequently been affected physically, mentally or economically by war.

In an age that is even today more war-torn than ever, where young people are laying down their lives in brutal and meaningless warfare in so many parts of the world, this single flower serves as a powerful symbol not only of remembrance, but also a mark of honour, pride and support for those who still give up everything for the security and peace of nations.


Bridge-building Women

The recent tragedy of the collapse of the suspension bridge in Morbi in Gujarat has brought into focus a lot of information on bridges and news reports are filled with engineering terms related to bridges.   

While the blame game is on about who was at fault—engineers, contractors, civic authorities, or just the uncontrollable rush of holiday makers, it is perhaps a good week to go back and understand a little about early bridges and bridge builders. And to discover that one of the first patents for a chain-suspended bridge in England was filed in 1811 by a woman! This was Sarah Guppy an engineer, inventor, campaigner, designer, reformer, writer, environmentalist and business woman, in a period when it was unthinkable that women could be anything except wives, homemakers and mothers.

Sarah was born in 1770 in a wealthy merchant family of Birmingham. It was a period when the industrial revolution was shifting the largely agrarian economy of England towards mechanized manufacture. In 1795 Sarah married Samuel Guppy, a rich Bristol merchant fifteen years older to her and settled into family life in Bristol.    

As per the societal norms of the time, women were expected to keep house and raise children. Sarah largely conformed to her role (she went on to have six children), but she was far from docile and dull. Sarah was exceptionally well-read, talented and creative; she and her husband were part of a Bristol social set that included mercantile and innovative people. Among their friends were Thomas Telford a road and tunnel engineer, and the family of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Brunel was one of the most versatile engineers of the 19th century, responsible for the design of tunnels, bridges, railway lines and ships. He is best remembered for his construction of a network of tunnels, bridges and viaducts for the Great Western Railway (GWR). Coming into contact with such people sparked Sarah’s interest in the science and craft of engineering, and triggered in her creative mind the desire to herself invent engineering solutions.

Sarah was an early advocate of a suspension bridge in Clifton, and was engaged in preparing models of a bridge that could span the river Avon, a project that had long been debated and discussed. Her idea was to work on a way of piling foundations to create a new type of suspension bridge, and she made drawings for the same. Her son Thomas was GWR’s principal engineer, and she gave the design and plans for her bridge over the Avon to Brunel.

When her youngest daughter was just a year old, Sarah applied for a patent for a way of piling foundations to create a new type of suspension bridge. In March 1811, she obtained a patent for ‘erecting and constructing bridges and rail-roads without arches or sterlings, whereby the danger of being washed away by floods is avoided’.  What was noteworthy was that Sarah became the first woman ever to patent a bridge. Even more noteworthy that this was in a period when married women could not even own property in their own name. This included patents which were considered to be intellectual property which could have some value.

The patent had no drawings and no detailed information as to how the bridge was actually to be built. However her designs provided the blueprints for Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge and Thomas Telford’s Menai Bridge. When Telford approached her for permission to use her patented invention, she reportedly waived the fees, but managed to claim credit for its design.

Sarah’s inventive mind did not stop with that. She developed a devise to prevent barnacles forming on boat hulls, and sold the contract to the British Navy. She also put forward a scheme to prevent soil erosion on railway embankments by planting willow and poplar trees. Even as she played her role as homemaker, she came up with innovations. She designed a bed that could also be used as a gym with steps and bars for exercising; and a coffee urn whose steam could be used to boil an egg and at the same time keep the toast warm. An all-in-one breakfast hotplate! She was even granted a patent for this in 1812. In all Sarah took out ten patents, a remarkable achievement.in the late Georgian and early Victorian period.  

Sarah was not just ahead of her times in her engineering prowess. She wrote and presented schemes for a wide range of issues including animal welfare, education, agriculture and horticulture. She also wrote a book for children, and founded a charity school for girls. 

Bridging the span across continents, and across nearly a century, this is a good time to remember Shakuntala A. Bhagat—India’s first woman civil engineer. Shakuntala was born on 6 February 1933. Her father S.B. Joshi is regarded as the Father of Bridge Engineering in India. She was just 20 years old when she got her civil engineering degree from VJTI in Mumbai, the first woman in India to do so. From 1954-1956 she went to West Germany and UK for practical training, and went on to get her master’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. She returned to India to join IIT Mumbai as assistant professor in 1960. She went on to become Head of the Heavy Structures Laboratory at IIT.

Shakuntala was more than an academic. She pioneered many innovative structural designs, especially for bridges. She and her husband designed and patented an innovative prefabricated modular system known today as the Quadricon Modular Bridge System. This is a series of prefabricated mass-produced modular bridge steel parts, small and lightweight enough to make transport easier for builders. They can be used in different types of bridges, different spans, traffic widths, and loads, all they had to do was change the combination of the assemblies.

Shakuntala Bhagat was awarded the Woman Engineer of the Year Award in 1993.  She passed away in 2012, a century after the first patent for a bridge was awarded to Sarah Guppy. She left behind a lasting legacy of over 200 Quadricon bridges around the world (including 69 in India) in terrains that challenge engineers even today.

Recently the Government of India announced the establishment of the Indian bridge management system to collect information on bridges. This would certainly be enriched by adding information on the pioneers who designed and built bridges.   


Splendid Bloomer: Silk floss Tree

In most parts of India, March is usually the month when the big trees are in bloom. In cities like Delhi which have avenues of old trees, it is a delight to see the changing colours of the blooms on different trees. October however, is the month that is marked by the spectacular blooming of the Silk floss tree.

Sometimes mistaken for the Silk Cotton tree with its flamboyant red flowers, the Silk floss tree (Ceiba speciosa), is unique in many ways. The species was originally named Chorisia speciosa in 1828. The generic name Chorisia was in honour of Louis Choris, a Russo-German painter and explorer who was one of the earliest expeditionary artists (artists who accompanied military, exploring, and trade expeditions to document the expedition through sketches and paintings). He accompanied Otto von Kotzebue, a Baltic German navigator in Russian service on several expeditions across South America and Europe, and is said to have painted nature as he saw it.  However, in 1998 the genus Chorisia was merged with the genus Ceiba (which is the Brazilian name for the tree). Speciosa means ‘beautiful’, or ‘splendid’ (Latin), alluding to its spectacular flowers. Thus, the currently accepted name for the species is Ceiba speciosa.

This grand ornamental deciduous tree is in fact native to Argentina and Brazil. With its bulging prickly trunk, exotic flowers, great height, and pods with pea-sized seeds and silky floss, this unique tree literally stands out from other trees.

The Silk floss tree begins as a young sapling with a small bulge near the base of the trunk that slowly enlarges as it grows. But the tree tapers again upwards of the bulge, reaching a height of anywhere between 50 to 70 feet, with wide-spreading branches. The immature trees have an attractive green bark, which turns grey as the tree ages, and its girth increases. The trunk and branches are characterized by the coarse sharp conical spines that cover it, but these fall off as the tree gets older. The spines not only protect the tree from climbing animals, they are also good dew collectors; they collect the moisture from the air that the drips down to the soil below, making the tree capable of surviving even in arid conditions. In dry regions, in ancient times, the presence of the ceiba trees indicated the presence of nearby water sources, which led to the establishment of human settlements where these trees grew.

It may take many years before the trees start to flower. But when they do, it is the flowers that make this tree a show-stopper. Each one as large as an open hand, the hibiscus-like flowers are usually in different shades of mauve-pink. The five petals envelope a delicate creamy-white centre. The flowers appear after the tree has shed its leaves, and they cover the branches with a profusion of blossoms that make for a spectacular sight. The nectar attracts pollinating insects such as butterflies and bees, as well as hummingbirds in their native South America.

It takes a Ceiba tree at least seven years to mature to produce its first seed pods. These woody avocado-shaped pods were called pochote by the Mayan people. The pods grow gradually, and then crack open, exposing pea-sized black seeds surrounded by flossy white fibres.  It is this component that gives the tree its common English name Silk floss tree. In Hindi it is popularly known as resham rui (literally silk cotton). In pre-Hispanic times this fibre was important for making cloth. The floss was traditionally used for stuffing pillows and mattresses as this did not cause any allergies. In the 1940s it was also used to fill life jackets because of its buoyant properties and water resistant abilities. In the 1950’s it was used to fill automobile seats and upholstery. Over time it has been replaced by synthetic fibres.

Other parts of the tree also have multiple uses; the wood from the trunk has been used to make wood pulp; the light and flexible wood is suitable for making boxes, packing material and even canoes; while thin strips of the bark can be woven to make ropes, and the seeds pressed into edible and industrial oil. 

As in all indigenous cultures, where people lived in close connect with their surroundings, this tree is associated with its share of myths and legends in its native lands. In Argentina the tree is commonly referred to as Palo Boracho, literally ‘drunken stick’ referring to its swollen trunk that tends to lean on one side.

In Bolivia this tree is called Toborochi which means ‘tree of refuge’ or ‘sheltering tree’. A beautiful legend explains why this is so.

When the world was still very new, the Aña, or spirits of the darkness, liked to abuse and kill humans. When they found out that Araverá, the beautiful daughter of a native chief, cacique Ururuti, who had married the god Colibri (Hummingbird), was pregnant and would give birth to a son, the spirits were alerted. The spirits believed the son would punish them when he grew up, so they decided to kill Araverá. With the help of a flying seat her husband Colibrí had given to her, Araverá fled from the village, but the evil spirits followed her and harassed her wherever they found her hiding.

Finally she was so exhausted that she decided to hide in the trunk of a Toborochi tree. Sheltered within, feeling secure and at peace, she gave birth to her son. The boy grew up and fulfilled the prophecy, killing the spirits and avenging his mother. But as the gods had decreed, Araverá, could never come out of hiding, and had to stay inside the tree until she died.

But as the legend goes, while forever buried in the bulging trunk of a Toborochi, Araverá does come out, in the shape of a beautiful flower that attracts hummingbirds. And thus, she keeps contact with her husband.

While the tree is indigenous in South America it is also native to Central America, where the ceiba or yaxché, is considered as the sacred tree of the Mayas, a place to withdraw for meditation. The Mayans believed that the ceiba tree connected the different levels of the universe, from the underworld to the sky. The story is told of a mythical ceiba tree that functioned as the axis or centre of the world, encompassing the three planes of the universe: the roots are Xibalba, the underworld, the trunk and branches are Cab or the terrestrial level, and the bird Quetzal, perched on top of its canopy, the sky. Once again, reinforcing the link between the flowers and the birds. The Ceiba is thus a tree of life that plays an important part in ceremonies, art and mythology.

Though far from their native lands, the Silk floss trees which have taken roots in other parts of the world, are a majestic symbol of the ancient spirit of trees of life. And nothing is a better reminder of this than the magnificent flowering of these towering trees.