Cheetah Lore

The last week’s news coverage was unusual. The faces that dominated the newsprint were not those of politicians or movie stars, but of the new celebrities in India—eight cheetahs! The beautiful face and body of this graceful animal captivated our attention. The vital statistics of the new arrivals from Namibia were shared and analysed, compared and contrasted with that of the other Big Cats.

Indeed the cheetah is a beautiful creature. With its narrow lightweight body, the cheetah is quite different from all other cats, and is the only member of its genus, Acinonyx. The cheetah’s unique form and structure—flexible spine, long slender  legs, and long muscular tail that acts as a counterbalance to its body weight, allowing it to attain the high speeds for which it is famous as the fastest animal on land.

Unlike other cats, the cheetah’s foot pads are hard and less rounded. The hard pads function like tire treads providing them with increased traction in fast, sharp turns. The short blunt claws, are closer to that of a dog than of other cats. The semi-retractable claws work like the cleats of a track shoe to grip the ground for traction when running to help increase speed.

While these characteristics are studied by zoologists, these have equally been noted by the indigenous peoples who have traditionally lived in proximity to these animals. And these have found a place in their imagination and folk lore. The Bushmen of southern Africa have a charming story about the cheetah’s speed and special paws.

How Cheetah Got Its Speed

Long long ago, the Creator designated certain special qualities to the different animals that he had created. When it came to deciding which one had the greatest gift of speed, he decided that there should be a race. He shortlisted the cheetah and the tsessebe antelope to run the final race. The race was to start from the giant Baobab tree and the two contestants were to run across the plains to a hill on the far side. The cheetah was a fast runner over short distances, but it realised that its soft paws would not be able to take the rigour of a long run. So it borrowed the sturdier set of paws from a wild dog.

The Creator himself flagged them off. The tsessebe sprang off and was away, soon leaving the cheetah far behind. But alas! Suddenly it stumbled on a stone and fell, and broke its leg.

When the cheetah caught up, it found its rival lying on the ground, in pain. All the cheetah had to do was to run ahead and win the race. Instead it stopped to help its opponent.

The Creator, on seeing this was so pleased with the cheetah’s unselfish act that he bestowed on the cheetah the permanent gift of great speed, and the title of the fastest animal on land. He also allowed it to keep the paws of the wild dog.

Along with its streamlined form, the cheetah is also distinguished by its markings of solid black spots, and especially by the distinctive black stripes that run from the eyes to the mouth. These stripes resemble the track of tears and needless to say, this feature must have led to a lot of stories told around the fireplace in the days when the desert people in South Africa lived in close harmony with their natural surroundings.

Here is a Zulu story that tells one of these tales.

Why the Cheetah’s Cheeks are Stained with Tears

Long long ago a hunter was idly sitting under a tree. While most hunters were out all day in pursuit of food, this one was different. He was lazy, and always looking for an easier way of doing things. As he lolled under an acacia tree, he saw a herd of springbok (antelopes) grazing on the grassy veldt. The hunter was daydreaming about how wonderful it would be if he could get their meat without having to chase them. Just then he noticed a movement, and saw that that there was a female cheetah close by. He noted how the cheetah was silently advancing, keeping downwind of the herd, so that they could not sense her presence. As she stalked noiselessly, the cheetah identified a springbok that had strayed from the rest. In the blink of an eye the cheetah gathered her long legs under her and hurtled forward with the speed of lightning. Even as the rest of the herd sensed danger and fled, the lone springbok did not have a chance. The cheetah’s hunt was over.

The hunter, still unmoving, observed how the mother cheetah dragged her prize to the edge of the clearing. In the undergrowth he saw that there were three cubs waiting to be fed. The hunter thought: how nice to be given a meal without having to toil for it; these cubs are lucky. The second thought that struck him was: Imagine if I had a hunter who would do the hunting for me! And further, a wicked idea dawned. If he stole one of the cubs and trained it to hunt for him, his desire would be fulfilled.

The lazy daydreamer continued to lie there as he plotted and planned how to do this. At sunset when the mother cheetah went to the waterhole, leaving the cubs concealed in a bush, he took his chance. The cubs were too young to know what was happening, nor to protect themselves. He first picked up one cub, but then got greedy and stole all three, thinking that he was getting a triple bonus! And away he went before the mother returned.

When the mother cheetah came back and found her cubs missing, she was heartbroken. She cried and cried all night. By morning her tears had left dark stains as they flowed down her cheeks. An old hunter who was passing by heard her loud crying. This wise old hunter knew the ways of the animals. When he found out what the lazy hunter had done, he was very angry. Stealing the cubs from their mother was not only wicked, it was also against the traditions of the tribe which decreed that every hunter must use only his own strength and skill in hunting. Any other way of obtaining prey was a dishonour to the whole tribe.

The old hunter returned to the village and told the elders what had happened. The villagers became angry. They found the lazy hunter and drove him away from the village. The old man took the three cheetah cubs back to their mother. But the long weeping of the mother cheetah stained her face forever.

And so the Zulu believe that even today the tear-stained cheeks of the cheetah are a reminder to the tribesmen that it is not acceptable to hunt in any way other than that what the ancestors had decreed as wise and honourable.

As we in India welcome these unique animals, let us also welcome the ancient lore and wisdom from the days when humans and animals were closely linked in more ways than one.

–Mamata

Engineering Woman Power: A. Lalitha

15 September is celebrated as Engineering Day in India to mark the birth anniversary of M Visvesvaraya, one of India’s greatest engineers who made a vital contribution to the field of engineering and education. Visvesvaraya is best known for designing one of India’s first flood protection systems, construction of dams and reservoirs, and setting up one of the first engineering institutes in the country, the Government Engineering College, now called University Visvesvaraya College of Engineering, Bengaluru.

Today there are hundreds of engineering colleges in India and tens of thousands of students, both boys and girls, compete to gain places in the best of these colleges. While the idea of a woman pursuing engineering is not uncommon today, the way had been paved by spunky pioneers who took on numerous challenges in a different time and circumstances. This is a good day to remember one of these women—A. Lalitha.

Lalitha was born on 27 August 1919 in a middle class Telugu family, one of seven siblings. Her father was himself an engineer, and fairly broad-minded, but societal norms and expectations took precedence over personal beliefs. Thus, as was the norm in those days, while Lalitha’s brothers were supported in pursuing higher studies, the girls in the family were educated only till the primary level, and then married off. Lalitha herself was married at the age of 15. But her father ensured that even in her new life she could continue to study till she completed class 10.

Sadly Lalitha’s married life was short-lived. Her husband passed away when she was just 18 years old. Lalitha had recently become a mother to a baby girl. Now she was a young widow with a four-month-old daughter, living in a society where widows were shunned and relegated to a life of isolation and austerity. This is where Lalitha’s fighting spirit led her to quietly start breaking the first of many barriers.

She moved back to her father’s house with a strong resolve to study and get a professional degree so that in future she could become self-reliant. Her father supported her decision, and Lalitha cleared the intermediate exam from Queen Mary’s College in Madras. This was the first step to moving ahead.

At the time there were women who were studying medicine. But Lalitha felt that a career in medicine would not leave her sufficient time and attention for her young daughter, who was her priority. Living in a family of engineers, this was an option that came to her mind. At that time technical education was itself in a nascent stage in India, and the idea of women entering this field was unheard of. No institute was admitting women. Once again, her father Pappu Subbarao helped to open a door for his daughter. He was a professor of electrical engineering in the College of Engineering (CEG) in Guindy, and he put up a special request to the then Principal of CEG Dr KC Chacko, that his daughter be permitted to take up an engineering course. He also put forward the appeal to the Director of Public Instruction, RM Statham. Luckily, both these officials were forward thinking and were agreeable to opening admission for a woman for the first time in the history of CEG. Lalitha applied for the electrical engineering course.

Thus Lalitha became the only girl in a college with hundreds of boys. But as accounts go, she never felt uncomfortable there. Accommodation in a separate hostel was arranged for her, while her daughter was looked after by her brother’s family; Lalitha visited her every weekend. While Lalitha was comfortable and happy in her classes, she missed having company in the hostel. Once again her father encouraged the authorities to open admissions for more women. In response to the advertisement two more women—Leelamma George and PK Thresia joined in the civil engineering course the following year.

As per the government rule then, engineering students had to put in four years of academic work and one year of practical training before they could graduate. Lalitha completed her practical training with a one-year apprenticeship at the Jamalpur Railway Workshop, a major repair and overhaul facility. 

Lalitha received her Bachelor of Engineering degree in 1943. Although they were technically junior, the three women engineers graduated together. Interestingly, the degree certificate of CEG had to replace the word He with She for their first three women graduates! 

Having already crossed several hurdles, Lalitha was ready to start a new phase of life as a professional. However she continued to give priority to her daughter Shyamala and looked for work opportunities which would not compromise her care. She accepted a job offer as an engineering assistant at the Central Standards Organisations of India, Simla. This was suitable as she was able to live with her brother’s family which offered support and care to her daughter. After two years in this job, she moved to Chennai work with her father helping him with his research which had led to several patents. This was intellectually stimulating, but financial pressures led Lalitha to find other work. She moved to Calcutta to work in the engineering department of Associated Electrical Industries. Once more her second brother and his family provided a home for her daughter. 

Lalitha got the opportunity to put all her education to practice, and gained experience and expertise. She worked on large projects, including the upcoming Bhakra Nangal Dam, which was then to be the biggest dam in India. Her tasks included the designing of transmission lines, substation layouts, and protective gear. Her brilliance and abilities began to gain national and international attention.

In 1953, the London-based Council of Electrical Engineers invited her to be an associate member. Visiting a British factory as an Indian woman dressed in a sari attracted a lot of press attention. She later became a full member. In 1964 she was invited to the First International Conference of Engineers and Scientists in New York. She was the first Indian woman engineer to attend. Lalitha subsequently became involved in several international organisations for women engineers. In 1965 she became a member of the Women’s Engineering Society of London.

Lalitha continued to work with Associated Electrical Associates (later taken over by General Electric Company) until she retired in 1977. She also lived with her sister-in-law in the same house in Calcutta for 35 years.  Throughout her career she championed the idea of women in STEM careers. Her daughter Shyamala followed in her mother’s footsteps by studying science and maths, and making a career in teaching maths. In an interview her daughter summed up the essence of her mother’s work and life: “What I take from her life is her extreme patience towards people and the quality of doing instead of just talking. She believed that people come into your life for a reason and leave when the purpose is over.”

Not long after retirement Lalitha suffered from a brain aneurysm and passed away at the age of 60, in 1979. Today as many girls take up engineering as a career, most would not know about the grit and determination of a woman who helped pave the way. A. Lalitha—a young widow, dedicated single mother, a brilliant student, a path-breaking professional clad in a sari, who did not need to wear power suits to break the glass ceiling. 

–Mamata

From Tagore to Ken Robinson: Creative Education

Continuing musings on education this week. This time with some thoughts from Sir Ken Robinson, one of the most influential contemporary thinkers on education, and discovering uncanny similarities in his vision with that of Rabindranath Tagore.

British-born teacher, author and speaker Ken Robinson spoke out against what he describes essentially an industrial model of education, a manufacturing model, which is based on linearity and conformity, and ‘batching’ people. As he said: We have sold ourselves into a fast food model of education, and it is impoverishing our spirits and our energies as much as fast food is depleting our physical bodies.

He viewed large school systems as being rigid and unresponsive, squeezing the creative juices out of children by overemphasizing standardized testing and subjects like mathematics and science over the arts and humanities.

Ken Robinson advocated strongly for schools not only to broaden their curriculums but also to support teachers as creative professionals; and to personalize learning by breaking large classrooms — artificial environments that invite boredom, he said — into small groups.

Over a hundred years after Tagore, he shared Tagore’s vision of a good teacher: Good teachers activate children’s minds instead of helping them to assimilate and collect information, and inspire children through their own self-development.

Ken Robinson made it his life’s mission to highlight the importance of systems and environments that nurtured creativity. In his book Creative Schools he describes how he views creativity.

 Imagination is the root of creativity. It is the ability to bring to mind things that aren’t present to our senses.

Creativity is putting your imagination to work. It is applied imagination. Innovation is putting new ideas into practice. There are various myths about creativity. One is that only special people are creative, another is that creativity is only about the arts, a third is that creativity cannot be taught, and a fourth is that it’s all to do with uninhibited “self-expression.”

None of these is true. Creativity draws from many powers that we all have by virtue of being human. Creativity is possible in all areas of human life, in science, the arts, mathematics, technology, cuisine, teaching, politics, business, you name it. And like many human capacities, our creative powers can be cultivated and refined. Doing that involves an increasing mastery of skills, knowledge, and ideas.

Creativity is about fresh thinking. It doesn’t have to be new to the whole of humanity— though that’s always a bonus— but certainly to the person whose work it is. Creativity also involves making critical judgments about whether what you’re working on is any good, be it a theorem, a design, or a poem. Creative work often passes through typical phases. Sometimes what you end up with is not what you had in mind when you started. It’s a dynamic process that often involves making new connections, crossing disciplines, and using metaphors and analogies. Being creative is not just about having off-the-wall ideas and letting your imagination run free. It may involve all of that, but it also involves refining, testing, and focusing what you’re doing. It’s about original thinking on the part of the individual, and it’s also about judging critically whether the work in process is taking the right shape and is worthwhile, at least for the person producing it.

Creativity is not the opposite of discipline and control. On the contrary, creativity in any field may involve deep factual knowledge and high levels of practical skill. Cultivating creativity is one of the most interesting challenges for any teacher. It involves understanding the real dynamics of creative work.

The real driver of creativity is an appetite for discovery and a passion for the work itself. When students are motivated to learn, they naturally acquire the skills they need to get the work done. Their mastery of them grows as their creative ambitions expand. You’ll find evidence of this process in great teaching in every discipline from football to chemistry.

We have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process, it’s an organic process. And you cannot predict the outcome of human development. All you can do, like a farmer, is to create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish.

Tagore dreamed the same dream and urged for the same process when he wrote: Do not be preoccupied with method. Leave your instincts to guide you to life. Children differ from one another. One must learn to know them, to navigate among them as one navigates among reefs.

This week as we all remembered the teachers who have, in some way or the other, contributed to making us who we are, words of such visionaries help us to better articulate what it means to be a real teacher.

–Mamata

Sweet Offerings

Meena’s biscuit trail led me to look into the history and story of what is perhaps one of the favourite pan-Indian sweets—the modak or laddoo. This seemed appropriate in a week marked by the preparing, offering and the partaking of this sweet for Ganesh Chaturthi.

The connection between the elephant-headed God and his love for modaks can be traced back to ancient lore and legends. One story goes thus. One day, Anasuya, the wife of the ancient rishi Atri invited lord Shiva, his wife Parvati, and their baby son Ganesha for a meal. Shiva was ready to start eating but Anasuya said that the adults could eat once the Bal Ganesha was fed. She laid out a sumptuous spread, and Ganesha immediately started to partake of the goodies. He ate and ate everything that was before him, but just did not seem to have had enough. His parents and hostess looked on in wonder. Anasuya then went in and brought a single piece of sweet and offered it to the seemingly ever-hungry Ganesha. As soon as he ate it, Ganesha let out a loud burp. At last, he was sated! At exactly the same time, by now  the very-hungry Shiva also burped 21 times. Parvati was curious to know what this wonder sweet was that seemed to have satisfied the hunger of both father and son. Anasuya told her that it was a modak. Thereafter Parvati expressed her wish that all devotees of Ganesha should offer him 21 modaks. This tradition has carried on to this day.  

While the traditional modak recipe is said to have its origins in Maharashtra, modaks  are prepared across India in a variety of ways, and are known by various names– mothagam or kozhukattai in Tamil, modhaka or kadubu in Kannada, or modakam or kudumu in Telugu. Modaks are made both by steaming, and by frying. Their traditional recipe includes fillings of grated coconut and jaggery with a hint of cardamom or nutmeg, encased in a covering made of flour.

Churma laddoo

While in several parts of India, modak refers to the steamed and stuffed version, in some states like Gujarat the word modak and laddoo are synonymous. The word laddoo is used to refer to the spherical sweet primarily made from flour, ghee, and sugar or jaggery. Laddoos themselves have a long history, both in lore as well as in the culinary culture of India.

An interesting folktale traces the origins of what may have caused the difference between laddoo and modak. The story goes that Ganesha’s maternal grandmother Queen Menavati used to indulge her grandson by feeding him with laddoos that she made. As he grew, his appetite for the sweet was insatiable. Grandmother could not keep up with his endless capacity to gobble them down, especially as making  laddoos is a laborious and time-consuming process, as each ball has to be individually moulded and set . She thought that by making a similar stuffed sweet that could be steamed together in larger numbers would hasten the process. Her grandson was equally delighted with this variation. And thus came about the steamed modaks, and Ganesha’s moniker Modakpriya—lover of modaks.

The history of laddoos can be traced back a long way. The term ladduka first finds mention in the Mahabharata. Sushruta Samhita the classical Sanskrit text on medicine and surgery also has references to laddoos. It is believed that Indian physician, Sushruta, used ladoos as an antiseptic to treat his surgical patients. In the 4th century BC, he used a concoction of ingredients like sesame seeds, jaggery and peanuts which had nutritional properties, to make laddoos which provided strength and energy. Even today new mothers and pregnant women are given laddoos with special additional herbs and seeds to boost their immunity, and improve lactation. Old texts also mention laddoos being carried during long journeys, and wartime because of their long shelf life.  

The wonderful diversity of culinary traditions across India has led to a mouth-watering array of ‘speciality’ laddoos made with different ingredients. Over the years, people from different communities started experimenting with the ingredients and replaced them with whatever was readily available in their region. Other elements like geography, weather and diets of communities also play a significant role. For example laddoos with gond (edible gum) are eaten in winter as they are believed to give warmth and energy. The Sankranti festival in Gujarat is incomplete without the variety of laddoos made from seasonal ingredients like sesame, peanuts and jaggery. 

From the besan laddoos which are common to several states, the boondi or motichur laddoo that is originally said to hail from Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, churma laddoo from Gujarat and Rajasthan, coconut ladoo and rava laddoo from the southern states, the Assamese black sesame laddoo–each region-specific laddoo has its distinct identity, and has specific associations with the local traditions and culture.

The laddoo also has associations with celebrations. While traditionally the partaking of laddoos is a part of certain festivals, the distribution and sharing of laddoos is an important part of any happy or auspicious occasion—an engagement, a wedding, the birth of a baby, exam results, a new job appointment. All “good news” was heralded by sending and receiving a box of laddoos.

Times are changing though. In urban areas, the time-honoured tradition is now being represented by boxes of designer chocolates, and gift hampers with imported goodies. Celebrity chefs are conjuring up fusion recipes for old sweets to create innovative desserts. And yet, for many of us, there is sense of nostalgia and comfort that the very word laddoo or modak brings. For me it evokes memories of my mother-in-law’s literal labour of love in making trays full of churma laddoos coated with poppy seeds, family feasts where these were consumed with gusto, and the wonderful feeling of being happily replete before sinking into a deep siesta. A modak by any name tastes just as sweet!

–Mamata

Mahatma Gandhi and Madam Montessori

India is currently in the process of introducing the New Educational Policy (NEP 2020). Exercises are ongoing to develop the curricula and frameworks for education at all levels, starting from Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE).  As per the Policy document: The overall aim of ECCE will be to attain optimal outcomes in the domains of physical and motor development, cognitive development, socio-emotional-ethical development, cultural/artistic development, and the development of communication and early language, literacy, and numeracy.

This vision for laying the strongest foundation for lifelong learning has its seeds in the thoughts and writing of many educationists and thinkers. It has a deep resonance with Gandhiji’s thoughts on education. In 1937, at a conference in Wardha, Maharashtra, Mahatma Gandhi seeded an important idea to revamp the educational system through Nai Talim or Basic Education.

Gandhiji’s vision was that this new paradigm of education should prepare the young learners to become morally sound, individually independents, socially constructive, economically productive and responsible future citizens. The foundation for this was to be laid in early childhood. Gandhiji believed that education should develop all the capacities of the child so that he becomes a complete human being. “By education I mean all-round drawing out of the best in child’s and man’s body, mind and spirit. Literacy is neither the beginning nor the end of education. This is only a means through which man or woman can be educated. 

In Gandhiji’s educational thoughts the integrated development of the personality of child is more important than mere literacy or knowledge of different subjects. Thus his vision was of life-centred as well as child-centred education. Besides learning of three R’s–Reading, Writing and Arithmetic in school, he insisted on development of the three H’s–Hand, Heart and Head.

While these thoughts took formal shape in the form of Nai Taleem in 1937, they had long been brewing in his mind. Over the years he was also assimilating the writing and educational philosophies of other thinkers and practitioners of alternate and innovative systems of teaching and learning. One of these was Madam Montessori.

The two had already met in spirit before they met in person. Gandhiji was in London to attend the Round Table Conference in October 1931. Maria Montessori was at the time holding one of the International Training Courses for teachers. Common friends brought them together. At their first meeting which was around 9 October 1931, the interaction was recorded thus:

Gandhi greeting her said: “We are members of the same family”.

“I bring you the greetings of children” said Madam Montessori.

Gandhiji said: “If you have children I have children too. Friends in India ask me to imitate you. I say to them, no, I should not imitate you but should assimilate you and the fundamental truth underlying your method.”

Madam Montessori: “As I am asking my children to assimilate the heart of Gandhi. I know that feeling for me over there in your part of the world is deeper than here.”

Gandhiji: “Yes, you have the largest number of adherents in India outside Europe.”

On 28 October 1931 Gandhi gave a speech at the Montessori Training College in London wherein he traced his own Montessori journey.

Madam you have overwhelmed me with your words. [Madam Montessori had welcomed Gandhiji as “a soul rather than a man”.]

It was in 1915 when I reached India, that I first became acquainted with your activities. It was in a place called Amreli that I found there was a little school being conducted after the Montessori system. Your name had preceded that first acquaintance. I found no difficulty in finding out at once that this school was not carrying out the spirit of your teaching; the letter was there. But while there was an honest—more or less honest—effort being made, I saw too that there was a great deal of tinsel about it.

I came in touch, then with more such schools, and the more I came in touch, the more I began to understand that the foundation was good and splendid, if the children could be taught through the laws of nature—nature consistent with human dignity, not nature that governs the beast.

…I see the same thing here, and it was a matter of inexpressible joy to me that from childhood the children were brought to understand the virtue of silence. It and how in ,response to a whisper from their teacher, the children came forward one after another, in pin-drop silence. It gave me great joy to see all the beautiful rhythmic movements and as I was watching those movements of the children, my whole heart went out to the millions of the children of the semi-starved villages of India, and I asked myself as my heart went out even to those children, “Is it possible for me to give them these lessons and the training that are being given under your system, to those children?

It was this first meeting that inspired Mahatma Gandhi to visit Montessori schools in Rome on his way back. He declared there, his interest in promoting them in India. The two continued to be in touch. Just after the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 when Maria Montessori came to India, Gandhiji was one of the first to send her message of welcome. They met and corresponded during the nearly 10 years that Montessori lived and worked in India. After Italy’s entry into the World War, restrictions were imposed on Montessori as she was being considered as an enemy-alien. Gandhiji expressed sympathy, and regret even, though he was under restrictions himself.

In March 1940 when Madam Montessori was in Ahmedabad she inaugurated the Bal Mandir (kindergarten) in the Sabarmati Ashram campus. Thus the long friendship between two visionaries took concrete form.

As we mark Maria Montessori’s birth anniversary on 31 August, it is a good time to revisit the close links between her and the Mahatma. In these turbulent times, we urgently need to remember their strong belief that to have real peace, we must begin with the children.  

If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children. MK Gandhi

Averting war is the work of politicians; establishing peace is the work of education. Maria Montessori

–Mamata

Fighter for Many Freedoms: Hansa Mehta

This week as the Indian national flag flew proudly across the land, it was also a time when we were reminded of the fact that the right to fly this flag was won through a long struggle in which millions of people played their part, big or small.

Going back to the midnight session on 14 August 1947 which marked the birth of a free India. As the session was about to conclude, a lady member of the House came up to the podium in the Central Hall. She handed over the tricolour to the Chairman and announced “It is in the fitness of things that this first flag that will fly over this august House should be a gift from the women of India”.

This lady was Hansa Mehta who was not just a representative of the Indian women, but a champion for universal women’s rights, all her life.

Hansa was born on 3 July 1897 in an affluent and cultured family in Gujarat. Her father was a professor of philosophy at Baroda College and later served as the Dewan of the states of Baroda and Bikaner. Her grandfather Nandshankar Mehta was a social reformer and well known author.

As a student in Baroda Hansa was influenced by the progressive thoughts of the Maharaja of Baroda Sayajirao Gaekwad III, and the philosophy of Aurobindo Ghosh. After graduating with honours in philosophy from Baroda, she left for England to pursue further studies in sociology and philosophy. She also travelled to the United States as an exchange student, and was keenly interested in understanding how their educational system worked. While in England she got to know Sarojini Naidu and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur who planted in her the early seeds of nationalism.

The spark was truly ignited when after her return to India, it was once again Sarojini Naidu who introduced Hansa to Mahatma Gandhi. It was 1922, and Gandhi was locked in Sabarmati Jail in Ahmedabad. Hansa was, as she, recalled “visibly moved” by this meeting. This also proved to be the turning point that launched Hansa into the freedom struggle. She got actively involved in the Non-Cooperation and Swadeshi movements, organising protests, and boycotts of foreign goods, and courting arrest.

Her decision to marry Jivraj Mehta, the then Chief Medical Officer of Baroda, met with opposition from her family and community as the groom was from another community. But she received strong support from the Maharaja of Baroda Sayajirao Gaekwad III. The couple moved to Bombay where Hansa continued her active involvement with the freedom struggle.

On Bapu’s advice, on 1 May 1930, Hansa led the first batch of the Desh Sevika Sangh in a satyagraha which involved picketing foreign cloth and liquor shops. Her organisational skills led to her appointment as President of the Bombay Congress Committee. Hansa was arrested and sentenced to three months in prison. She was released along with the other political prisoners under the Gandhi-Irwin Pact signed on March 5, 1931. In 1932 Hansa and her husband, who was not actively engaged in political life, were once again arrested and detained.

Following her release, she got deeply involved in the political processes which would go on to define the future of Indian polity.

She contested and won the first provincial elections from the Bombay Legislative Council seat in 1937. This was significant because she refused to contest from a reserved seat and was elected as a general category candidate. She remained on the Council till 1949. With her entry into mainstream politics Hansa also began to get closely involved with the All India Women’s Conference, and became its President in 1946. Her progressive vision for women’s empowerment in all fields, starting from education, was reflected in all the work of this organisation.

She became President of the Conference in 1946. In this role she piloted the drafting of the Indian Women’s Charter of Rights and Duties—which became a manifesto for women’s equality. Embodying the spirit of progressive politics, the charter sought among other things equality with men in terms of pay, civil rights, access to health and education, distribution of property, and fair marriage laws.

The next significant milestone was Hansa’s election to India’s Constituent Assembly in 1946. She was one of fifteen women in the Assembly. Rubbing shoulders with other founding fathers, with the shared vision for a new India, Hansa infused the deliberations with her own passion, vision and championing of women’s rights and justice. While the world over suffragettes were fighting for women’s equality, Hansa Mehta was ensuring that India’s constitutional document ensured that women were equal partners. Even as she fought for her own countrywomen, Hansa got the opportunity to carry her mission to an international arena.

Hansa Mehta and Eleanor Roosevelt Source:www.un.org

Around this time Hansa was appointed as an Indian delegate to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. She found serving on the Commission as Vice-Chair to the Chair Eleanor Roosevelt, the first lady of the United States. During the discussion on the document that we know today as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it was suggested that the opening words of the first Article should read “All men are born free”. It was the Indian delegate Hansa Mehta who registered strong protest at the wording. Hansa argued that this could later be read to exclude women, and suggested that the word ‘men’ should be changed to ‘persons’ or ‘human beings’. The proposal was seconded by Eleanor Roosevelt. The suggestion was put to vote and was finally enshrined in the document thus: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Thus Hansa put her indelible mark on what is, even today, a milestone document in the history of human rights. Her legacy is not forgotten. In 2015, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon reminded that “The world can thank a daughter of India, Dr Hansa Mehta, for replacing the phrase in the UDHR”.

Hansa Mehta continued her advocacy of women’s education and rights, even as she herself went to attain many “firsts”. She became India’s first woman Vice Chancellor with her appointment at the SNDT University in Bombay. In 1949 she was appointed as the Vice Chancellor of the newly established Baroda University, the first woman to head a co-educational university. She was a prolific writer, and researched and published over twenty books, many focussing on women and children. She was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1959. She passed away in 1995.

‘Feminist’, ‘Activist’, ‘Reformist’—Hansa Mehta was all these well before the labels became fashionable. A woman ahead of her time, who spent her life fighting for many freedoms, for the cause of her fellow women.

–Mamata

‘Gandhi Budi’ Matangini Hazra

It is in this week, 80 years ago, that Gandhi’s call for Quit India reverberated through the length and breadth of the country, and struck a chord in the heart of old and young. People everywhere gave up their all to heed Gandhi’s call of “Do or Die” as they joined protests against the British government, boycott of foreign goods, and demonstrations in support of swadeshi goods. Last week we remembered a young girl Kanaklata Barua from Assam, who gave her life for the tricolour.

The movement was not confined to the young. People from every walk of life, and of every age threw themselves into the nationalist cause with fervour, undaunted by the challenges, and the risk to their own life. One of these was a poor, uneducated woman from Bengal who lived, and died, for a dream of a free India. This is the story of Matangini Hazra.

The first statue of a woman revolutionary put up in Kolkata in independent India was that of Matangini Hazra.

Matangini was born in 1870, a girl child in a very poor family in Hogla village near Tamluk in Midnapore district in what was then the Bengal Presidency. Her family could not afford to send the child to school, and she remained unlettered all her life. The family circumstances also led to her being married off early to a sixty-year old widower. The child bride became a widow herself by the time she was eighteen. Thereafter, Matangini returned to her parent’s village but chose to live separately. Over the next few years she spent most of her time helping people in her community.

The turn of the century also brought a turn in the life of the young widow. The nationalist movement was gaining momentum; the idea of engaging in a cause that transcended her own village and community attracted the interest and attention of Matangini. She began to participate in local events of protest. Even as she continued her work with local community, she was following the growing movement for independence across the country.

Years passed, as Matangini grew older, but still full of spirit and passion for the cause. On 19 December 1929, the Indian National Congress passed the historic ‘Purna Swaraj’ (total independence) resolution at its Lahore session. A public declaration was made on 26 January 1930 – a day which the Congress Party urged Indians to celebrate as ‘Purna Swaraj’ or ‘Total Independence’ Day.

The Purna Swaraj declaration was followed by the announcement of the Civil Disobedience movement which was led by Mahatma Gandhi. Protesting against the taxation on salt production, Mahatma Gandhi led his followers on a 26-day Dandi March which lasted from 12 March 1930 to 6 April 1930.

On 26 January 1932, the menfolk of Matangini’s village took out a procession to create awareness about the non-cooperation movement, and the political situation in the country. As they passed by her hut, Matangini felt herself being irresistibly drawn into the heart of the action. She joined the procession and marched with the young men, chanting slogans against the British. She was 62 years old, small, and frail in health, but strong in resolve; and she vowed to proactively fight the struggle for independence.

There was no looking back. She joined the nationwide Salt Satygraha. She walked long distances to attend various Congress meetings, and threw herself into all the protest activities. She was arrested for the first time when she took part in salt manufacturing at Alinan, her late husband’s village. After her arrest she was made to walk many miles before she was jailed. She was then released because she was a woman, and her advanced age.

She later participated in the movement for the abolition of the chowkidari tax, a tax collected from villagers to fund a small police force in their areas. This was not only unfair, but the police troops were also used as spies against the villagers by the British Government

During a march towards the court building, to protest against the Governor’s harsh decision to punish all agitators, Matangini was arrested again and made to serve a six-month prison term at Baharampur jail.

In 1933, the then Governor of Bengal Sir John Anderson came to Tamluk to address a gathering. There was tight security everywhere but Matangini managed to reach the dais and stage a black-flag demonstration. She was sentenced to six months rigorous imprisonment. While she was incarcerated, she came in contact with other political prisoners and used this opportunity to learn more about the movement and Gandhi. She was strongly drawn to Gandhi’s ideas and committed to following these in practise. After being released she became an active member of the local unit of the Indian National Congress. She took to regular spinning of khadi on her own charkha, even as her eyesight was failing and her health was deteriorating.

In an incident during the same period, the story goes, that one summer afternoon Matangini was part of a freedom march in the district capital. The marchers reached the residence of the Governor who was standing on his balcony and observing the demonstration while his soldiers cordoned off the immediate area. Matangini, who was leading the protesters managed to break the cordon, and holding aloft the freedom flag rushed ahead shouting Go Back. She was beaten up by British police for this daring act, and was severely injured.

Even as her age increased year by year, so did her rebellious acts. So closely did she associate with Gandhi and his movement that she began to be locally called Gandhi Budi or ‘old lady Gandhi’.

Her feisty spirit and commitment to the cause culminated with the tidal wave of Quit India that was sweeping India. On 29 September 1942, Gandhi Budi led a procession of about 6,000 protesters, mainly women, heading for the Tamluk police station. The plan was to take over the police station from British authorities, and establish home rule in the small town.

Just as the team reached the outskirts of the town, the British police arrived and ordered the marchers to disband, or else be penalised for violating Article 144 (Unlawful Assembly) of the Indian Penal Code. There was chaos. The police tried to stop the march by threatening to shoot at the advancing crowd. Matangini appealed to the police force to refrain from shooting at the protestors. But the police were in no mood to listen. Even after they started to fire, Matangini continued to advance alone, holding aloft the tricolour. The police bullets hit her three times. Injured on the forehead and both hands, Matangini continued to struggle onwards, uttering Vande Mataram and not letting the tricolour fall. She continued marching till she collapsed and died.

Matangini Hazra was 72 years old. She lived a life of dedication to service, and died a hero’s death in the service of the cause of freedom.

–Mamata

I

‘Birbala’ Kanaklata: Teenage Martyr for the Tricolour

Here is a mantra, a short one that I give to you. You may imprint it on your hearts and let every breath of yours give expression to it. The mantra is ‘Do or Die.’ We shall either free India or die in the attempt; we shall not live to see the perpetuation of our slavery. Every true Congressman or woman will join the struggle with inflexible determination not to remain alive to see the country in bondage and slavery.

These words spoken by Gandhi on 8 August 1942 launched the Quit India movement. Although Gandhi and many other leaders were arrested within hours of his speech, with the expectation that without their leadership the resistance movement would be rudderless, the effect was the opposite. Thousands of Indians, young and old, heeded this call and plunged into the movement, each contributing in their own way.

This mantra shared by Gandhiji at the Gowalia Tank Maidan Park in Bombay echoed across the country. Its reverberations reached the eastern corner of India, to Assam, and lit a spark in the heart and mind of a young girl named Kanaklata.

Kanaklata Barua was born on 22 December 1924 in Barangabari village of Gohpur, now in the Sonitpur district in Assam. Her mother died when Kanaklata was only five years old, and the young child developed a sense of responsibility much beyond her tender age. Her father remarried but he also died when she was thirteen. With added household responsibilities, and caring for her siblings, Kanaklata had to drop out of school and could not continue her studies after third standard.

Even as she was growing up in her village in Assam, the sparks of the nationwide freedom movement were spreading across the length and breadth of the country. The non-cooperation movement was gaining strength. The movement reached a climax with Gandhi’s call for “Do or Die”, and the wave of the Quit India Movement surged to new heights.

In Assam too there were widespread protests against British rule, and young and old joined in. Initially the protests were peaceful, but the British arrested all the Congress leaders of the state, and stepped up their brutal repression of the people. This only strengthened the opposition, and engendered underground conspiracies to fight the British. Among these was the setting up of a suicide squad which engaged in subversive activities like derailing and burning trains, attacking army outposts and snapping communication channels.

Seventeen-year-old Kanaklata was inspired and fired by the cause, and eager to contribute. Her dream was to join the Azad Hind Fauj, but as she was still a minor, she was not permitted to do so. Undeterred, she volunteered to join Mrityu Bahini–a suicide squad. For this too she was technically underage, but her determination and passion for the freedom movement was considered suitable for granting her membership. Subsequently she became the leader of the women’s cadre of the Mrityu Bahini.

The then president of the local Congress committee, Kushal Konwar was an ardent believer of non-violence proposed by Gandhi. He was falsely accused by the British for derailing a train which killed many British soldiers, and he was hanged. After the martyrdom of Kushal Konwar, the revolutionary camp of Gohpur division, under the leadership of Jyoti Prasad Agarwala, decided to mark their protest by removing the British flag and unfurling the National Flag at the local police station.

On 20 September 1942, Kanaklata led the procession of members of the Mrityu Bahini, walking proudly with the national flag in her hand, and with cries of Vande Mataram. The officer-in-charge of the police station was anticipating this. He warned the procession not to proceed further. He threatened that the police were duty-bound to start firing if the protesters advanced. Kanaklata responded by saying that he could do his duty while she carried on with her duty.

The procession carried on towards the police station; Kanaklata was leading, with the tricolour held aloft in her hands. As they neared, the police fired. Kanaklata fell to the bullet, with the flag still firmly held up. Before the flag could touch the ground it was taken by Mukunda Kakoti, another member from the group. He too was felled by a police bullet. Two young lives, snuffed out even before they attained adulthood. Kanaklata was not yet eighteen years old, and did not live to see the independent India of her dreams.

Their martyrdom did not go in vain. Even as their comrades were breathing their last, the others in the group did not let the tricolour down. They picked it up and with cries of Vande Mataram, the flag was eventually unfurled at the police station. One of the millions of small but significant gestures that added nail after nail to the coffin of the end of British rule in India.

While Kanaklata’s tale is not well known, it has at least been told. This month as we remember the many struggles and sacrifices that contributed to the unique non-violent movement that led India to become Independent, let us also pay tribute to the many unsung heroes and heroines who gave their all, even their life, for this cause.  

And as we swell with pride to see the Indian tricolour fly freely and fearlessly, let us not forget the brave young woman “Birbala” Kanaklata Barua who gave her life for it.

–Mamata

Paper Tigers

29 July is International Tiger Day. The day was first launched at the Saint Petersburg Tiger Summit in Russia in 2010 and is observed annually to remind the world about the decline of the global tiger population, and to encourage efforts for tiger conservation. On this day we will see many reports and statistics about tigers and their falling/growing population, and many conferences and seminars will be held on research and studies on tigers.

This is perhaps a good time to look at the tigers that roam not the forests, but that have also populated the pages of language and literature. The tiger has been a dominant character in folklore and mythology in many cultures.  

Perhaps China is the richest country in myths, representations, traditions, and legends related to tigers. Tigers have been a Chinese cultural symbol which has inspired story tellers, singers, poets, artists, and craftspeople for over 7000 years. In Chinese folklore, tigers are believed to be such powerful creatures that they are endowed with the ability to ward off the three main household disasters: fire, thieves and evil spirits. A painting of a tiger is often hung on a wall inside a building, facing the entrance, to ensure that demons would be too afraid to enter. Even in modern- day China, children wear tiger-headed caps, and shoes embroidered with tiger heads to ward off evil spirits; they are given tiger-shaped pillows to sleep on to make them robust. During the year of the Tiger, children have the character Wang painted on their foreheads in wine and mercury to promote vigour and health.

The tiger has equally captivated the people of the Indian subcontinent since time immemorial – feared and revered at the same time. These majestic beats and the lives of the people, especially those that live in close proximity to the tiger and its habitat, have long been intertwined, giving rise to several myths and legends surrounding them. Tiger lore has been interwoven with gods and legends, giving it a mythical status.

According to stories from Indian mythology, the tiger is believed to have powers to do everything from fighting demons, to creating rain, keeping children safe from nightmares, and healing. Humans are often attributed as having tiger characteristics. The consecration ceremony of a king in ancient times required the king to tread upon a tiger skin, signifying the King’s strength.

Songs, proverbs, and sayings in most Indian languages feature tigers as part of their treasury of folk lore and literature. Tigers appear in many stories in the Panchatantra.

A popular belief among many tribes in the Northeast of India is that the cosmic spirit, humans, and tigers are brothers. There are many folk tales based on this theme, with local variations. The belief that the tiger is a human’s brother has meant that the people of these tribes would rarely kill a tiger. There are traditional rituals performed even today to honour and worship the tiger.  

In more recent times, tigers were introduced to non-Asian audiences through the writings of Englishmen who had lived in colonial India by authors such as the famous hunter-turned-conservationist Jim Corbett. His books like The Man Eaters of Kumaon were perhaps some of the early depictions of human-tiger conflict.

In the culture of the West, where they are not found in the wild, tigers have nevertheless sparked the imaginations of writers, and have become popular fictional characters in stories, films, cartoons, songs, and even advertisements. Perhaps the best recreation of the fearsome tiger is Shere Khan of the Jungle Book fame.

Anthropomorphized tiger characters in children’s books have won their place in millions of hearts. There is boisterous and exuberant, Tigger, who is a one-of-a-kind friend in the world of Winnie the Pooh. He eagerly shares his enthusiasm with others—whether they want him to or not, and steals our heart.

Calvin and Hobbes

And we have the imaginary stuffed tiger Hobbes in the cartoon strip Calvin and Hobbes, who is very real to the irrepressible six-year-old Calvin—a faithful companion in all the capers, sometimes a comforting friend, sometimes a savage beast. The two friends have deep philosophical conversations, ruminating on how best to find meaning in their lives, the essence of which is what all of us are seeking.

Other than literature, tigers have permeated our language through numerous aphorisms, proverbs and sayings. Here are a few ‘tigerisms’.

Paper tiger: Someone who at first glance seems to be in charge but who, on closer examination, is completely powerless.

Tiger economy: A dynamic economy usually referring to of one of the smaller East Asian countries, especially that of Singapore, Taiwan, or South Korea.

Tiger mom: A particularly strict mother who makes her children work very hard in school to achieve success.

Catch a tiger by the tail: Try to control something that is very powerful; have a difficult problem to solve.

A tiger cannot change its stripes: You can’t change your true nature, even if you pretend or claim otherwise.

Eye of the tiger: Determined and focused

A new-born calf has no fear of tigers: A Chinese saying that means that the young are brave, but often due to inexperience.

As tigers in the wild continue to be threatened and pushed towards extinction, International Tiger Day is also an occasion to celebrate the power of words that keep the tiger alive and vibrant in the pages that they also inhabit.

Some beautiful words by Ruskin Bond capture this spirit.

Tigers Forever

May there always be tigers

In the jungles and tall grass

May the tiger’s roar be heard.

May his thunder

Be known in the land.

At the forest pool by moonlight

May he drink and raise his head

Scenting the night wind.

May he crouch low in the grass

When herdsmen pass.

And slumber in dark caverns

When the sun is high.

May there always be tigers

But not so many that one of them

Might be tempted to come into my room

In search of a meal!

Ruskin Bond

–Mamata

View From the Window

In a recent piece, my favourite nature columnist reminded us that while the Red Lists continue to add to the growing number of species that are endangered, threatened and even close to extinction, there are many small ‘disappearances’ that are happening all around us, ones that we do not obviously notice on a day-today basis. The author, a reputed bird watcher and note-keeper realised this when he looked back over his old records of birds around his house, and found that many of these were no longer to be seen. 

This led back to my own observations, jotted down over the years.

Circa 2000

Before the first rays of the sun painted the sky pink, the echoing call of the majestic Sarus crane would wake me from deep sleep. I knew that the pair would be flying off to an unknown destination for the day, to return after sunset.

The summer heat was compensated by the brilliant scarlet of the gulmohar at our front gate and the molten golden blooms of the laburnum at the back. The melodious tunes of the magpie robin filled the dawn, while the metronomic tuk tuk tuk of the coppersmith echoed from the top of the raintree. The morning haze was often streaked with the dazzling blue of a kingfisher in flight, while the green bee-eaters lined neatly on the wires, made swift graceful swoops in search of a breakfast-insect or two. Our little patch of grass and the surrounding hedge was lively with the orchestra of calls from tailorbirds, sunbirds, bulbuls, doves, mynas, and babblers that co-existed harmoniously, each finding their own pockets for food and shelter. The same space also saw the raucous coucal proclaiming its territory from the champa tree, and the occasional visits by the Shikra that immediately silenced the rest of the avian crowd

When the first rains came, so did the jacanas, with their mewling cries, almost like that of babies. They would make their floating nests on leaves in the vacant ground across from our house which turned into a wetland in the monsoon. Once the water dried they would disappear, as quickly as they had appeared. 

The stream of other seasonal guests to that water-filled depression in the ground across the road included buffaloes that spent the day wallowing in the mud, naktas or comb ducks that glided smoothly on the water, and an occasional water hen awkwardly crossing the road on its long yellow feet. As evening fell the air filled with the symphony of the frogs.  

The first nip of winter brought back the single Yellow wagtail to our small lawn. It came from far away to spend the winter soaking up the golden sunshine that seemed to glow on the patch on its breast. Another familiar visitor was the Hoopoe. We would see it walking back and forth on the dusty roadside, with its pickaxe head bobbing constantly.

And then there was the monitor lizard which seemed to put in an appearance only on weekends. And the shy mongooses that streaked across the gravel, disappearing soundlessly into the undergrowth. The little turtle that we found one day in our garden may have been washed in with the rain. It adopted us before we adopted it. We named it Tortolla and no matter how early we awoke, it was up before us, taking its morning walk from one end of the courtyard to the other. Not to forget the adventures of discovering snakes in the house—once coiled in a corner of the kitchen, and once neatly tucked under the dining table.

These were some notes that I made of the life around me—not from a cottage in a beautiful forest, but from my windows in the dusty city of Ahmedabad that I made my home. The house that we made was at the time, in a slowly developing area of the city, close to a natural talavdi or small lake. There were still open spaces around; and the trees and shrubs that we planted when we moved in provided homes and shelter to many other fellow living beings—winged and tailed, with two, four, a hundred, or even, no feet. As a newly-minted environmental educator this was my private lab for observing, noting, researching, and discovering the excitement of seeing the little things from my windows. Little then did I imagine that things could change so much.

Circa 2022 (Same window different view)

The wetland that once was a soothing symphony of sound and sight has metamorphosed. My days (and often nights) are filled with the sound of concrete mixers, trucks offloading mountains of gravel and bricks, the incessant hum of machinery, and the clatter-bang of steel and iron. The Sarus cranes, long flown, have been replaced by the huge construction cranes. These swing their gigantic metal arms as they lift and drop the raw material from which begin to sprout the concrete blocks that will grow into the new jungle of high rise apartments. Where the jacanas and water hens stepped daintily, now the humungous metal claws of the JCBs dig ruthlessly, scooping out mountains of soil, and creating abysses to be filled with cement. Now the rains only bring waterlogging, floating litter, and swarms of mosquitoes.

I haven’t heard the nightly frog chorus in so many years. I am beginning to forget the cries of the jacanas. My morning wake-up call is no longer that of the magpie robin. The permanent dust haze has suffocated the gulmohar and the raintree to an untimely demise, and deprived so many feathered friends of perches and abodes. The wagtail no longer visits, and I miss the comforting sight of the neatly-groomed hoopoe on its regular march. A rare flash of kingfisher blue, remains just that, as also the aerial antics of the bee eaters in pursuit of prey. The incessant din of the traffic has drowned out even the strident call of the koel, the twitter of the little birds, the soothing murmurs of the doves, and the soft babble of the bulbuls.

Day after day, the concrete jungle closes in relentlessly, we are engulfed by dread and despair. And now a single flower that blossomed, or a simple bird call can uplift our spirits.

–Mamata