Mr Kindness

Last week I wrote about Children’s Day. Earlier this month two other important international days passed almost unnoticed. 13 November which is designated as World Kindness Day, and November 16 which is marked as International Day for Tolerance and Peace.

For its fiftieth anniversary on 16 November 1995, UNESCO’s Member States adopted a Declaration of Principles on Tolerance. Among other things, the Declaration affirms that tolerance is respect and appreciation of the rich variety of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human. While this is a universal ideal and aspiration, it is at the level of the individual that the foundation of tolerance and respect is laid.

And this is what the World Kindness Day seeks to do–reinforce the understanding that compassion for others is what binds us all together. It is this that has the power to bridge the gap between people, communities and nations. This global day promotes the importance of being kind to each other, to oneself, and to the world.

The idea of this day was promoted by an international non-profit organisation called the World Kindness Movement which works to inspire individuals towards greater kindness to create a kinder world; and their guiding tenet: The world is full of kind people. If you can’t find one, be one.

Nothing, and no one, exemplifies the spirit and practice of all the three days better than the beloved Mr Rogers whose TV show celebrated kindness, and helped millions of children to develop empathy.

I came upon the inspiring story of Mr Rogers via Tom Hanks when I saw the movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood. After seeing Tom Hank’s version I wanted to know about the real Mr Rogers!

Fred McFeely Rogers grew up in America in the 1930s as a shy, somewhat awkward, and sometimes bullied child. After getting his first degree in music, he returned home for the vacation before he prepared to enter the seminary and study to become a priest. It was then that he saw television for the first time at his parent’s home. He was appalled to see the kind of programmes where as he said ‘people were throwing pies in each other’s faces.’ While he found this disgusting, he also saw the enormous potential that TV had for connection and enrichment. That eureka moment changed his life—and the lives of millions of Americans.

Fred Rogers went on to create a TV show called Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which first aired on 19 February 1968 and continued for over 30 years. The last episode of the 31 seasons was aired on 31 August 2001. Fred Rogers was the host of all 895 episodes, the composer of its more than 200 songs, and its puppeteer.

The set of simple hand puppets featuring 14 characters from his first show continued to be with the friendly Mr Rogers, clad in his trademark red cardigan and sneakers, for over 40 years. The puppets who inhabit the Neighbourhood of Make Believe, portray real-life feelings as they live and learn with the help of their neighbourhood human friends who represent a wide variety of interests and talents. The puppets and the humans live together, care about and learn from each other. As they often reminded viewers “We all have different gifts, so we all have different ways of saying to the world who we are. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.”

Mr Rogers was far from preachy. He did not shy away from difficult topics like bullying, divorce, and death; he talked honestly and openly about subjects that adults are hesitant to discuss with children, but that children wonder and worry about silently. He reassured children and adults that it was ok if there were some things that they could not understand. He addressed children’s fears and insecurities, and instilled a sense of faith and trust. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping”.

Although Fred Rogers later acquired graduate degrees in child development as well as divinity, he always consulted with his close associate and child psychologist Dr Margaret Mcfarland, to ensure that his scripts would authentically reflect the real concerns and feelings of children.

His show also offered children the tools to be lifelong learners—a sense of wonder, a curiosity about the world around us, the willingness to ask questions. “Did you know, when you wonder you are learning?”

The concept of neighbour and neighbourhood in the leitmotif of Mr Rogers’ life and work. “Neighbours are people who live close to each other. Neighbours look at each other, they talk to each other; they listen to each other. That’s how they get to know each other.” In his neighbourhood everyone was welcomed and valued, and the characters taught how to appreciate and respect others.

Mr Rogers’ ‘neighbourhood’ in a sense becomes the symbol of community; it extends beyond a residential address to embrace the city, the country, the continent, and ultimately the planet that we all inhabit. It metaphorically embraces the universe. And it reminds us of the dire need for, and the gentle power of sharing and compassion. “All of us, at some time or other, need help. Whether we’re giving or receiving help, each one of us has something valuable to bring to this world. That’s one of the things that connects us as neighbours—in our own way, each one of us is a giver and a receiver.”

Today teaching and learning respect, tolerance, sharing, acceptance of differences, and celebration of diversity are highlighted in “values education” curricula. This is the kind of education proposed by UNESCO in its declaration of four pillars of education, i.e. learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together and learning to be.

Over 50 years ago Fred Rogers planted the seeds of basic human values in millions of children, who must themselves have grandchildren now! And for all this he offered only one mantra: “There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.”

–Mamata

Of the Children, For the Children

A recent article titled What We Want Our Parents to Know was a poignant reminder of the difference between what adults think they know about children, and how children perceived adults. Written by a child psychologist, with specific reference to the impact that the corona-imposed lockdown is having on the mental health of children, it reflected some of the (often unheard) pleas of children to be heard and respected.

The profound idea that children are not just objects who belong to their parents and for whom decisions are made, or adults in training; rather, they are human beings and individuals with their own rights got international recognition when world leaders came together and made a promise to every child to protect and fulfil their rights. This was by adopting an international legal framework that laid down that children have their unique set of rights, and that these need to be articulated, advocated, protected, and implemented.

On 20 November 1989 this commitment was officially endorsed when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).

The Convention says that childhood is separate from adulthood, and lasts until the age of 18 years. This is a special, protected time, in which children must be allowed to grow, learn, play, develop and flourish with dignity.

The Convention views children not as objects of compassion or pity, but as subjects of human rights under international law. It protects children’s rights by setting standards in health care, education, and legal, civil and social services. It sees children as active participants in their own development and agents of change.

The four core principles of the Convention are: Non-discrimination; devotion to the best interests of the child; the right to life, survival and development, and respect for the views of the child.

The UNCRC is a detailed document with an explicit list of 54 articles covering a wide variety of rights all children automatically enjoy, regardless of where or when they are born. Broadly these rights fall under four main categories–rights to:

  • Life, survival and development
  • Protection from violence, abuse or neglect
  • An education that enables children to fulfil their potential
  • Be raised by, or have a relationship with, their parents
  • Express their opinions and be listened to.

The Convention provides a universal set of non-negotiable standards to be adhered to by all countries. These were negotiated by governments, non-governmental organizations, human rights advocates, lawyers, health specialists, social workers, educators, child development experts and religious leaders from all over the world, over a 10-year period. The standards set minimum entitlements and freedoms that should be respected by governments. They are founded on respect for the dignity and worth of each individual, regardless of race, colour, gender, language, religion, opinions, or origins.

The Convention obliges the State and other responsibility holders (parents, guardians, care-givers, civil society, etc.) to address the needs and interests of children as entitlements or rights.

The UNCRC has become the most ratified international human rights treaty in history, now signed by 196 countries. But as with most international treaties, while the intentions are noble, there is often a wide gap between intent and implementation. It has been thirty-one years since the Convention came into force, yet every day one hears and reads of children in tragic situations—from the home to the school; from the homeless to those deprived of education; from those who are suppressed and exploited in so many ways–from the local to the global.

The time is well past the Victorian norm of “children should be seen and not heard.” It is the time when children should be heard. And while governments and non-government organisations continue efforts towards protecting and ensuring these rights, it is the family, as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members, where children should experience the empowerment of having rights, and not just the onus of having duties. And it is for every parent to remember that these rights need to be respected.

India celebrates Children’s Day on 14 November, and November 20 is marked across the globe as World Children’s Day. A good week to remind ourselves of the UNCRC.

–Mamata

Mamitu and Emaye: Women Warriors

This year the term ‘frontline warriors’ has become deeply embedded in the vocabulary around the world.  As we show our respect and appreciation for these tenacious, dedicated health workers, here is a much older story of two remarkable women who saved and changed the lives of thousands of others. The story spans over 60 years, and starts from two different places.

It begins in 1959 when a young doctor couple in Australia, Reginald and Catherine Hamlin, saw an ad in The Lancet looking for gynaecologists in Ethiopia.  With the zeal to do something useful, the idealistic couple flew across the oceans and continents to land in a tiny airport in Addis Ababa. They had plans to stay for 3 years, but they never went back.

Among the many gynaecological and obstetrics cases that they treated, the most common and most horrendous was a childbearing injury known as obstetric fistula. The condition is caused when prolonged labour opens a hole in the birth canal, leaving many women incontinent. For Ethiopian women, the injury often led to their being rejected by their husbands and ostracized by their communities.

When the Drs. Hamlin arrived in Ethiopia, there was little or no treatment available for such patients anywhere in the country, causing of thousands of women to barely survive, with life-threatening and life-changing injuries. Poring through medical books, journals and drawings of operations by other experts, the young doctors developed innovative surgical techniques to repair the damage.

One day in 1963, a 16 year-old girl was brought to them from a distant village, carried for twelve hours through mountainous terrain, on a primitive stretcher made from eucalyptus branches, and then on a bus to Addis Ababa. She had been in labour for four days, and her baby had died. She was in excruciating pain, and close to dying.

Her name was Mamitu Gashe. She was illiterate and terrified. She had never left her village, nor seen white people before; in her delirium she thought that they were angels. The agony, and the trust of the girl immediately touched the hearts of the doctors. Her injuries were the worst they had handled. It took months of repairs and treatment to heal her ravaged body. By then the innocence and indomitable spirit of Mamitu had created a special bond between the patient and her saviours.

As she gradually started her road to recovery, the young girl did not know how to show her gratitude to her doctors. Even while she was still in hospital, she started helping with chores like sweeping and changing sheets. Then as she regained her strength and confidence, Mamitu started to greet and comfort new patients, remembering her own terror when she first came. She refused to go back to her husband and village, and declared that she would stay and help the doctors. They in turn treated her like a daughter. She started calling them Emaye (mother) and Abaye father).

Over the next ten years Mamitu worked shoulder to shoulder with the Hamlins, helping out in the operating theatre, and then assisting in their operations; initially sewing up at the end of the surgery but progressing to learn all the steps in an operation. She learned to operate on fistulas by placing her hands over the surgeon’s and tracing her intricate incisions as she worked to save the women. In 1987, at the age of 40, Mamitu began operating on her own. She still could not read nor write, or speak English, but she had the gift of dextrous fingers, and just the right touch. Under the training and guidance of the Hamlins, Mamitu went on to be recognised as one of the finest fistula surgeons in the world. In 1989 she won the Gold Medal for surgery from the Royal College of Surgeons in London.

Emaye Catherine and Mamitu Source:https://hamlin.org.au/

In 1993 Reginald passed away, but Catherine continued with her life’s mission, with Mamitu by her side. In 1995 they built another new hospital, one of a series that had started with their first in 1975–Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital. Today an estimated 60,000 women have been treated, and cured, by the Hamlins’ hospital and clinics. 

Mamitu and her Emaye were inseparable companions for 57 years. In the later years, Mamitu became the caregiver of the one who once gave her a new life and purpose. The two were finally separated in March 2020, when Catherine Hamlin, passed away, aged 96. Seven months later, the still-grieving Mamitu has recently returned to the operating theatre. Now 74 years old Mamitu carries on her parents’ legacy, and continues to be a formidable frontline warrior.

–Mamata

The Madness in the Method

A recent piece by one of my favourite columnists bemoaned the fact that there is increasingly reduced use of physical dictionaries because of instant and easy access to online dictionaries.

It made me feel a bit guilty as I have begun to succumb to the same short cut, but I still keep my trusty Concise Oxford Dictionary and my bilingual dictionary within hand’s reach on my table, and yes, I do look up words from these tomes. As my erstwhile colleagues may recall, the COD was a permanent fixture on my desk at work. This old friend continues to give me a sense of familiar comfort, as well as continuity in my work and play with words.

While COD is the friendly go-to dictionary, it is the Oxford English Dictionary or OED, which is widely regarded as the accepted authority on the English language. The OED today, is an unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of 600,000 words, past and present, from across the English-speaking world. It contains not only not only present-day meanings, but also the history of individual words from over 1000 years of the English language, traced through 3 million quotations from a wide range of sources, from classic literature to cookery books.

What is equally fascinating is the history of the early development of the OED.

Until the 19th century, the English language did not have a complete dictionary. In 1857 the members of the Philological Society of London decided that it was time for a complete re-examination of the language, and embarked on an ambitious project to compile a comprehensive compendium of the English language.

The new dictionary was planned as a four-volume, 6,400-page work that would include all English language vocabulary from the Early Middle English period (1150 AD) onward, plus some earlier words if they had continued to be used into Middle English. It was estimated that the project would be finished in approximately ten years. However, no one realized the full extent of the work, or how long it would take to achieve the final result. After the first grand announcement, the project took a while to take off. And five years after it was launched the editors had only reached as far as the word ‘ant’.

Then in 1879 James Murray a little known school teacher and philologist was given the editorship of this challenging project. His first task was to advertise in all the leading newspapers of the day that the project was looking for ‘volunteers’ in the English-speaking world to send him quotations which would show how the meanings of words had changed over time.

This early experiment in crowdsourcing attracted many volunteers. The most prolific and systematic contributor was a man called Dr William Chester Minor. He regularly sent in meticulously detailed slips tracing the etymology of words, accompanied by relevant examples and quotations. The return address on his letters read simply: Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire.

For almost a decade, Murray assumed that his favourite volunteer was a reclusive doctor of literary tastes with a good deal of leisure. Then, by chance, Murray discovered that Minor was a murderer who had been committed to the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, which was less than 40 miles from Oxford where Murray was based. In 1891, ten years after they had started corresponding, Murray visited Broadmoor and met Minor. This was the start of a close friendship between the two men that continued for the next twenty years. And one that enriched the OED immeasurably.

Minor’s own story was tragic, as well as inspiring. Born in America, he qualified as a surgeon and joined the Union Army just before the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. After being released from the Army, Minor left for London in 1871 with his books and paints in the hopes of starting a new and more peaceful life. However the war experiences left deep scars on the sensitive and clever young man. He became delusional and paranoid. In one such moment he unintentionally shot a man and killed him.

Minor’s ‘insanity’ plea helped him to avoid going to prison. But he was incarcerated in the Broadmoor mental asylum in 1872. He was a well-behaved, quiet, scholarly inmate. With the approval of the asylum authorities, and using his US army pension he managed to accumulate and build a library of rare and antique books in his cell. It was this collection that provided the useful information about nearly 10,000 words, and examples of their usage, which he shared with Murray. The subsequent close friendship between the two which was marked by a common love for words and their history, scholarship, mutual respect and drive, was crucial in the compilation of the OED–the last word on words for over a century.

Murray acknowledged Minor’s invaluable contribution when in 1899 he said “we could easily illustrate the last four centuries from his quotations alone.” Murray also petitioned tirelessly for the release of his friend arguing that a mental asylum was no place for a man of his intellectual calibre. Sadly, Minor’s mental condition deteriorated. Finally he was released, and died in obscurity at his home in 1920.

The two men who gave half their lives to a project of unprecedented historical and cultural importance, did not live to see the publication of their magnum opus. It took roughly forty years for the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary to be completed.

So it was, the story that made the words, rather than the words that made the story!

–Mamata

Sankofa

A few days ago my niece asked if, in India, we had a concept or symbol similar to that of Sankofa. This was a new word for me, and as I love to do, I immediately wanted to find out more. What I discovered was beautiful and meaningful.

The concept of Sankofa is derived from King Adinkera of the Akan people of Ghana in West Africa. The word Sankofa is derived from three words in the Akan language: San (return), Ko (go), Fa (look, seek and take). Translated literally it would mean ‘go back or return, and look’. In the Akan dialect this concept is expressed as “se wo were fi na wosan kofa a yenki which means “it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot.”

This reflects the strong belief of the Akan that the past serves as a guide for planning the future. While the Akan believe that there must be forward movement and new learning as time passes, they caution that as the march ahead proceeds, it is the wisdom in learning from the past which ensures a strong future.

Sankofa bird

Visually and symbolically, Sankofa is depicted as a mythical bird with its feet firmly planted forward, or sometimes flying forward (to represent looking or moving ahead), with its head turned backwards (looking to the past). The Sankofa bird is always shown with an egg in its mouth, or as turning back to take an egg off its back. The egg represents the ‘gems’ or knowledge of the past upon which wisdom is based; it also signifies the generation to come that would benefit from that wisdom. Thus, the bird graphically demonstrates the Akan belief that the past serves as a guide for planning the future.

The depiction of the bird as bending its neck with effort, to reach back for the abandoned but precious egg signifies the diligence and effort required to pay due reverence to the past, and give it its proper place in the current scheme of events.

Sankofa teaches us that in order to move forward we must go back to our roots. That does not mean that we remain in the past, but rather we use the lessons and wisdom from that knowledge, and use it to make the best of the present, and a better future. It is a way of looking to the past with the understanding that both the good and the bad have formed the present situation. The concept emphasises the value of learning not only from the good things, but also from the bad things and mistakes of the past so as not to repeat these in the future.

 Sankofa embodies the spirit and attitude of reverence for the past, reverence for one’s ancestors, reverence for one’s history, and reverence for one’s elders. All indigenous cultures across the world have traditionally acknowledged and revered their elders who are regarded as the fount of knowledge, based on experience and wisdom, who can help guide the way. Sadly, in this century there has been an increasing trend to shrug off their wisdom as ‘old wives tales’. Why go to the grandparents when Google Guru has all the answers you need? An interesting contemporary initiative reminds us of the value of this wisdom. 

In July 2007 Nelson Mandela marked his 89th birthday by forming a Council of Elders dedicated to finding new ways to resolve some of the world’s long-running crises, reduce conflict and despair, and foster peace. In his words “They will support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair.”

The Elders were visualised as individuals who had “earned international trust” and “a reputation for inclusive, progressive leadership”, but no longer held public office, and were independent of any national government or other vested interest.

The original Elders included India’s Ela Bhatt; Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general; Jimmy Carter, the former US president, and Desmond Tutu, the retired South African archbishop. Other members were former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland; Mandela’s wife Graca Machel, a children’s rights campaigner; former Irish president Mary Robinson, and Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen bank, the pioneering micro-credit institution.

A inspiring initiative and much-needed recognition of the need for collective wisdom of the past experience to guide the future of a world besieged with conflict, chaos, and confusion.

Sadly today, across the world, there is a dangerous trend of going back to the past, not so much to learn from it but to choose selectively from it in order to perpetuate what seems convenient to suit the political agenda or religious climate. Alternately there is also the inclination to erase all traces of the past, and build the future on a brand-new slate.

Sankofa is a gentle reminder that if even in our arrogance we overlook the gems from the past, when we come to our senses we should be humble enough to retrace our steps and make amends. As the popular saying goes, those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.

There is no shame in going back to our roots. That is Sankofa, simple yet profound.

Thank you Suparna, for introducing me to Sankofa.

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. Steve Jobs

–Mamata

Wash ‘Em Clean

One of our favourite childhood books was a delightfully illustrated Russian book called Wash ‘Em Clean. It was a funny poem about a little boy who would not wash and bathe, and how he was converted to cleanliness.

Instilling the habit of proper hand hygiene has been one of the great challenges through the ages.

On 15 October, in 2008, over 120 million children in more than 70 countries around the world washed their hands with soap. This marked the first Global Handwashing Day, founded by the Global Handwashing Partnership as a way to raise awareness about the importance of washing hands. Since then, this day is celebrated annually to reiterate the simplicity and value of clean hands. The theme for this year is Hand Hygiene For All.

Ironically, in just over a decade since then, a single Handwashing Day is not enough. Handwashing is making daily headlines across the world as, possibly, the most effective protection from Covid 19.

Interestingly this was the very message that was sought to be promoted as far back as 1847 by Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, a German-Hungarian physician and scientist. Armed with a doctorate from the University of Vienna and a Master’s degree in midwifery, Semmelweis joined as Director of the maternity clinic at the Vienna General Hospital in Austria.  At that time a mysterious infection known as ‘childbed fever’ was leading to high mortality rates in new mothers in maternity wards across Europe. Semmelweis was determined to understand what caused this rampant infection, and he began to closely observe the practices of the doctors on duty.

Until the late 1800s surgeons did not scrub up before and after surgery, or even wash their hands between patients; causing infections to be transferred from one patient to another. In fact, even after dissecting corpses, doctors and medical students went straight to the maternity wards to examine women who had recently delivered, without first washing their hands. Semmelwies deduced that it was the doctors who were transmitting infections to the patients. In maternity wards these infections led to the new mothers dying from puerperal fever or ‘childbed’ fever as it was called.

This was in the era before antibiotics (and before the recognition that germs are the agents of infectious disease).

Dr Semmelweis immediately instituted a strict regimen wherein all medical staff had to wash their hands between patient examinations. This seemingly simple step was the most difficult to implement. His peers were very sceptical, some were openly hostile; how could he dare to claim that the doctors were killing their patients? His own staff rose against him. He was labelled a madman because of his fanatic insistence on hand washing.

But the results of his ‘lunacy’ spoke for themselves–before hand washing was instituted in May 1847, his clinic’s mortality rate was 18.3%. By July, the rate had dropped to 1.2%, and it was zero the next year. But despite the clear link between cause and effect, most doctors did not change their practices.

Instead, in the face of opposition from a large part of the medical fraternity, the doctor  was dismissed from his post, and he moved to Budapest. At the age of 47 he was committed to a mental asylum, and died there only 14 days later.

Semmelweis never published an explanation of the logic behind his theory.  His experiments with hygienic practices were only validated some years later when Louis Pasteur expanded on the germ theory of disease. This was taken further by Joseph Lister a British surgeon. Based on his observations as a surgeon, Lister also deduced that a high number of post-operative deaths, which were attributed to ‘ward fever,’ were caused not by the surgery but by infections spread by germs from unwashed bed linen and surgical instruments, as well as lack of hand hygiene among doctors. Lister saw this as the cause, as well as the solution, to the problem. He started using carbolic acid to wash hands and to sterilize instruments, as well as to dress wounds. He experimented successfully with these techniques, and, unlike Semmelweis, went on to publish everything he discovered in a medical journal The Lancet in 1867. He became known as the father of antiseptic surgery.

That was a hundred and fifty years ago; but how much have things changed even now?

Here are some shocking facts.

Most patients and their families believe that a hospital is the safest place in terms of hygiene. But the Centers for Disease Control (CDCs) in America estimate that 1 in 25 patients pick up an infection while hospitalized. In 2011 there were more than 700,000 health care-related infections at intensive-care hospitals, and about 10 per cent of the infected patients died during their hospitalization. One of the major contributors to the spread was low hand-washing compliance among the attending doctors and nurses.

The well-known author and surgeon Dr Atul Gawande wrote an eye-opening essay in 2004. Titled On Washing Hands the essay endorsed that hand washing non-compliance was a major factor in spread of infection. But it also explained why this seemingly simple measure is, in practice, very complicated due to the sheer volume of interactions between a medical caregiver and a patient. For example, in a regular 12 hour shift a nurse would have up to 100 occasions on which hand washing is required. Given the tremendous pressure of time and patients, he accepts that the kind of hand washing that would be effective would mean that one-third of the medical staff’s time would be spent on washing.  While this is not realistic, he urges that even a small increase in compliance would mean saving at least a few more lives that are lost to infection.  

From Semmelweis to Gawande, the crusaders for hand washing have been spreading the message for almost 200 years. In this year of the Corona, never before has hand washing been more critical and more imperative. Handwashing is not just for doctors. Every one of us can save lives—especially our own, by becoming fanatical about hand washing.

Let’s put our hands together to applaud the super power of soap and water.

–Mamata

Looking and Seeing

A couple of months after the lockdown started there was a spurt of pieces and pictures about different aspects of the natural world that people had started noticing around them—the variety of birds and insects; the hues of the sunsets and sunrises; the vegetation with its changing cycles; the diverse sounds of nature, and much more. True that these became more evident as the relentless activity and cacophony of urban life became more muted. But perhaps, more likely, it was the fact that we humans have had more time to ‘stop and stare’ as it were.  

If we were to stop a moment and think about it, we are always ‘looking’ at things but how often are we really ‘seeing’ something? We use our eyes, but our gaze is glancing, merely considering the objects, people and scenes that pass before our eyes. Things appear as they are at first glance, and we move on, not stopping to take in the image in all its dimensions and depths.

The dictionary says that to look means to direct your eyes in a particular direction, while in order to see, you must notice or become aware of someone or something. Seeing is not only noticing that something is, but understanding it, attending to it, and looking past the obvious to enjoy its more subtle nuances. It means noticing not only the details but also how those details are part of a whole.

Thus seeing is not just a function of the eyes but rather a combined effort of the eyes and the brain, which work together to sort out visual input and arrange it into meaningful images, within a context, and with significance to detail.

How do an artist and a scientist ‘look at’ and ‘see’ the same thing? Two beautiful passages bring these together on the same canvas.

Georgia O’Keeffe a 20th-century American painter and pioneer of American modernism best known for her canvases depicting enlarged flowers explained why she did this: A flower is relatively small. Everyone has many associations with a flower–the idea of flowers. You put out your hand to touch the flower–lean forward to smell it–maybe touch it with your lips almost without thinking–or give it to someone to please them. Still–in a way–nobody sees a flower—really–it is so small–we haven’t time– and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time. If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small. So I said to myself–I’ll paint what I see–what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it–I will make even busy New-Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.

Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman sees more than the aesthetic. As he said: I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe…

I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.

As the great French novelist, playwright, essayist, and filmmaker Marguerite Duras said “The art of seeing has to be learned”. This takes time, patience, and attention. And having learnt it, a skill that continually needs to be honed.

Today we are inundated with fast moving visual images that grab our eyeballs as they flash across our screens. But our attention spans are continually decreasing, as is our attention to detail. We do spend most of our times with our eyes wide open, but how much of that time do we spend in seeing? What better time than now, to start practicing the art of seeing?

Look! Can you see what I did?

As I look at my little garden blooming after the rains, aflutter with multi coloured butterflies, and vibrant with the hum of the bees, I rejoice in ‘seeing’ it with new eyes each day.

–Mamata

Gandhi the Vegetarian

In September 1888 a young Gujarati man named Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi set sail for England where he would pursue studies in law. Before he left he made a vow to his mother that while he was abroad he would not touch wine, women and meat. Easier said than done!

The challenge began as soon as he boarded the ship–managing to find something to eat, which both his religious belief and palate could support. A fellow passenger, an Englishman, assured him that it was so cold in England that one could not possibly survive without eating meat. The young man managed to subsist on what he could, until he reached England. It did not get any easier when he tried a couple of different lodgings. The English landladies were kind, but at a loss about what to feed their boarder. He ate oatmeal for breakfast, but barely subsisted on bland spinach, a few slices of bread and jam for lunch and dinner. The young man was almost always hungry, but was adamant to keep his vow.

As time passed, he began to find his feet in his new environs. He began to walk around the neighbourhood. He also began to look for vegetarian restaurants; walking sometimes ten or twelve miles in his search. Then one day, as he described in his autobiography: During these wanderings I once hit on a vegetarian restaurant in Farringdon Street. The sight of it filled me with the same joy that a child feels on getting a thing after his own heart. Before I entered I noticed books for sale exhibited under a glass window near the door. I saw among them Salt’s ‘A Plea for Vegetarianism’. This I purchased for a shilling and went straight to the dining room. This was my first hearty meal since my arrival in England. God had come to my aid.

Henry Salt’s book opened up a new perspective for Gandhi, and it whetted his appetite for dietetic studies. As he recalled over 40 years later when he shared the dais with Henry Salt at a meeting organised by the London Vegetarian Society on 20 November 1931: I received the invitation to be present at this meeting, I need not tell you how pleased I was because it revived old memories and recollections of pleasant friendships formed with vegetarians. I feel especially honoured to find on my right, Mr. Henry Salt. It was Mr. Salt’s book ‘ A Plea for Vegetarianism’, which showed me why apart from a hereditary habit, and apart from my adherence to a vow administered to me by my mother, it was right to be a vegetarian.

Till then Gandhi was a vegetarian by religion and tradition, but from the moment he read Salt he became ‘a vegetarian by choice’ and the spread of vegetarianism became his mission. He read whatever he could find on the subject. He found that there was a Vegetarian Society in London; he subscribed to its weekly journal, and then began to attend its meetings. In his new zeal, he even formed a branch of the Society in the locality where he then lived. Through the meetings he made friends with like-minded people. One of these friends was a man named Josiah Oldfield who was an active member of the London Vegetarian Society and editor of its journal. Sometime later, the two friends also shared accommodation, and dietetic experiments. In September 1890 Gandhi was elected to the Executive Committee of the Vegetarian Society as Secretary.

Badge of the Vegetarian Society as designed by Gandhi

Interestingly the start of Gandhi’s life-long prolific writing was a series of six essays that he wrote for the Society’s journal The Vegetarian. These were published from February to June 1891 under the heading Indian Vegetarians. In one of the essays Gandhi explained how Asian vegetarianism differed from its European counterpart. Unlike the English, the Indians do not take each dish separately, but they mix many things together. …Each dish is elaborately prepared. In fact, they don’t believe in plain boiled vegetables, but must have them flavoured with plenty of condiments, e.g., pepper, salt, cloves, turmeric, mustard seed, and various other things for which it would be difficult to find English names unless they be those used in medicine.’ He explained how the Indian diet was richer and more varied, except in one respect—the fruit, yes, the all-important fruit, is sadly conspicuous by its absence in the above-mentioned specimen dishes.

Gandhi’s essays took apart some common myths and misconceptions. They also  helped him to articulate his early thoughts on what was to remain a life-long passion and preoccupation. His experiments in dietetics continued during his time in South Africa, and throughout out his life in India. As he experimented, Gandhi also continued to write about diet and health. In 1906 while in South Africa, he wrote some articles under the heading Guide to Health. He further consolidated and expanded his ideas while he was confined to the Aga Khan Palace in Poona in 1942. These were published under the title Key to Health. This booklet concisely but comprehensively covers a wide spectrum of topics related to all aspects of health.

Today, across the world there is a proliferation of gyan on healthy foods and lifestyle. Movements like veganism are trending; as are the paeans to fruit, nuts and seeds; eliminating refined sugar and salt, and adopting non-dairy milks such as almond and soya milk. Whole grains and raw food, and even fasting are being promoted as the newly-discovered pillars of healthy life.  

1 October is celebrated as World Vegetarian Day, and 2 October marks the birth anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. An appropriate time to remind ourselves that well over a hundred years ago, MKG had already “been there, done that.”

–Mamata

A Preposterous and Perplexing Beast

Dürer’s 1515 RHINOCERVS Source:https://en.wikipedia.org

In the sixteenth century, trade and merchant ships used to carry plants, spices and exotic animals from the colonial outposts of the ruling powers to Europe. In 1515, among the ship load of gifts despatched by the governor of Portugese India, Alfonso d’Albuquerque, to King Manuel I in Portugal, was a curious animal known by its Gujarati name of genda, and its Indian keeper, named Ocem. This rhino was the first to arrive in Europe since the days of the Roman Empire, and it caused quite a sensation. The animal was examined by scholars and the curious, and letters describing the fantastic creature were sent throughout Europe.

Albrecht Dürer, an artist, mathematician, engraver and painter living in Nuremberg read about this strange animal and based on the description, he began a pen sketch which became a woodcut. Dürer’s 1515 RHINOCERVS became famous. Dürer himself had never seen a rhino and hence his rendering was more fanciful than accurate.

In many ways a rhinoceros is an odd-looking creature. Even its name, literally meaning a creature with a horn on its nose, belies its unusual appearance. Much before Dürer, even for those who had seen a real rhino, its strange form and peculiar characteristics spawned a variety of tales. Tribes in Africa and Asia where the rhinoceros is found in the wild, have their folk tales that imagine how this creature came to be what it is. Here are some abridged versions.

A folk tale of the Tharu people of the Terai grasslands at the foothills of the Himalaya describes how the beast was created by the Hindu god Vishwakarma. He picked the best parts of many animals on earth and stitched them together. His creation had the skin of an elephant, the hooves of a horse, the ears of a hare, the eyes of a crocodile, the brains of a bear, the heart of a lion, and horns like Nandi, Shiva’s bull. Viswakarma creatively twisted, moulded and further modified these parts, even fusing two horns into one. The result was beyond his expectation, a masterpiece of the art of imperfection.

The naturalist and wildlife writer Edward Pritchard Gee recounted an ancient Indian myth that explains the ‘armour plating’ of the rhino. It is said that, once, Lord Krishna decided to use rhinos in place of elephants in battle. However, when the creature, all covered in armour for battle, was brought in, it was found to be too stupid to obey commands. Therefore, it was sent back to the forest. Unfortunately, they forgot to take off its armour—and so it remains until this day.

One African tale tells of how the rhino got its skin. Long long ago, when all the animals were without a skin, God gave each one a needle and told them to sew a skin for themselves. The animals got to work, each creating for themselves beautifully patterned and fitting skins. But Kifam, the first black rhino, was clumsy and short sighted. As he started on his skin, he dropped his needle; so he charged back and forth looking for it, but being short sighted, he could not find it. In frustration, he snatched up a thorn and started stitching, trying to put something together. When he put on his hastily assembled patchwork coat, it hung in wrinkles and folds. The other animals all laughed at him; this made him very cross; he was sure that they had hidden his needle. Since then the rhino charges at everything that crosses his path.   

Another African folktale explains the rhino’s habit of scattering its dung. As the story goes: In days long ago when animals could talk, Elephant always used to tease rhino about his near-sightedness and bad temper. One day Rhino really lost his temper. He challenged Elephant to a contest. The contest was to see who could produce the largest dung heap. Imagine two very large animals and the vast quantities of vegetation they eat, and you can imagine the lot of dung that they both make! But in the contest, Rhino made the larger pile of dung. The elephant was enraged. He attacked the poor rhino with his trunk and tusk and beat him till he cried for mercy. Finally the Elephant stopped the beating but made Rhino promise that he would never again challenge Him—the mighty Lord of the Beasts. Rhino never forgot that dreadful beating, and he is afraid to ever offend Elephant again. And that is why he always kicks at his dung heap, scattering it until it is quite flat, so that it always looks smaller than that of the Elephant.

While Rhino’s looks may be perplexing, it is the Rhino’s survival in the wild which is a   pressing issue for wildlife conservationists. Rhinos also have the unfortunate distinction of being one of the most endangered animals on earth.

Of the world’s five species of rhino, two are found in Africa–the Black Rhino and the White Rhino. The other three species are found in Asia. These are the Greater One-Horned (Indian) Rhino, the Sumatran Rhino and the Javan Rhino. While each of these species faces a different level of threat, some of the common threats that all of them face include poaching for their horn, habitat loss, and extreme climate events like floods and tsunamis.

Around 2010 less than 30,000 rhinos were alive in the wild. The plight of the Rhinoceros was not widely known around the world, and most people didn’t know just how close to total extinction majestic species was. So WWF-South Africa announced World Rhino Day in an effort raise awareness about this beast in peril, in an effort to save the world’s remaining rhinos.

Today this has become an international event. How this came about is another, modern-day, story of two determined and dedicated women.

In mid-2011, Lisa Jane Campbell of Chishakwe Ranch in Zimbabwe was preparing for World Rhino Day. She searched online for ideas and potential collaborators, and found a blog by Rhishja Cota-Larson from Saving Rhinos in the USA. Lisa Jane sent Rhishja an email, and the two found they shared a common goal of protecting rhinos. In the months that followed, they worked together to make World Rhino Day 2011 an international day of celebration of all five species of rhinos, and awareness of the threats that they face. The two continued to work together to promote this day every year.

22 September–World Rhino Day has since grown to become a global phenomenon, uniting NGOs, cause-related organisations, businesses, and concerned members of the public from nearly every corner of the world!

This is my small celebration of this quirky creature with a horn on its nose!

–Mamata

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