Wordsmithery

A crossword clue led me to this by chance. The clue was ‘word was first coined in the book If I Ran a Zoo by Dr Seuss’. The answer was Nerd! This immediately caught If-i-ran-the-zoo-cover (1).jpgmy attention because Dr Seuss is one of my all-time favourite children’s writers. I adored his books when I was young and tried to pass on the love to my children by reading out his quirky verses night after night, twisting our tongues over his wonderful, wacky invented words.

But it is only now I discovered that the word Nerd is thought to have been coined by none other than Dr Seuss in his book If I Ran a Zoo published in 1950! The book is about a boy named Gerald McGrew who, when visiting a zoo, finds that the exotic animals are “not good enough”. He says that if he ran the zoo, he would let all of the current animals free and find new, more bizarre and exotic ones. Among these fantastical animals is a critter called a Nerd! To quote directly: “And then, just to show them, I’ll sail to Ka-Troo/And bring back an It-Kutch, a Preep and a Proo/ A Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker too!”

One year later, in 1951, Newsweek magazine included the word in an article using it to define someone who is a “drip” or a “square”. Today the word ‘nerdy’ is used to describe someone who is not attractive, and awkward or socially embarrassing; or someone who is extremely interested in one subject, especially computers, and knowing a lot of facts.

A ‘word-nerd’ would tell you that when we use Twitter, and Tweet away today, it would be worth remembering that the word was coined by Geoffrey Chaucer, known as the father of English poetry, who died 620 years ago, to describe the continuous chirping of a bird.

And that, well before a search engine was named Yahoo, the Yahoos appeared as legendary creatures in Gulliver’s Travels published in 1726.

Surprisingly a number of words that we tend to believe are so ‘trending’ and ‘21st century’ were coined well over a hundred years ago. These can be attributed to 19th century authors, many of whom were creative wordsmiths–inventing, importing, adapting, and generally messing about with language!

The revered Bard, Shakespeare was one of the first to print words like Obscene and Eventful, as well as much-used phrases such as Bated Breath and Love is Blind.

And for those of us who plodded through Charles Dickens it is he, himself who coined the word Boredom! Writing in the early 1800s Dickens also coined very not-boring words like Abuzz, Flummox, and Devil-May-Care!

And to think that bureaucratic red tape is an affliction of modern times, Wait! The word Red Tape comes from the English practice of using red or pink tape to tie official documents and,  as early as 1851 Dickens coined the apt term ‘red tape’ as slang for “the collection or sequence of forms and procedures required to gain bureaucratic approval for something, especially when oppressively complex and time-consuming.” Thus according to the OED, a Red Tape-worm’ is “a person who adheres excessively to official rules and formalities.” Sounds like a breed we all know too well!?

For those of us who describe our calling as ‘Freelance’ writers, we may be interested to learn that in 1820 author Sir Walter Scott used the term free-lance to describe a mercenary soldier, one whose lance (a long spear) was not exclusively in the service of a single master, but was hired out along with its owner to those to needed, and paid for, the service.

Today the lance has replaced by the pen (or its electronic version) but the nature of service remains the same!

–Mamata

 

The Lost Charm of Train Travel

A recent relatively short train journey was an unexpected eye opener. When we were young, travel meant long train journeys. This was a much-planned programme, and one of the highlights of a vacation whether it was the annual summer holiday at the family home, or a Diwali get-together at the home of a close relative.

It was a while since I had travelled by train. I was looking forward to re-experiencing the small things that had characterised those train journeys. One of these was the sampling of ‘speciality snacks’ of different stations. Almost every station traditionally had something sizzling—being deep fried in large cauldrons on the platform, and wrapped steaming hot in old newspaper or banana leaves, depending on the region. Between stations there was a constant stream of hawkers calling out their special wares—from masala peanuts to the fruit of the season to the ubiquitous “chai garam.” Another ritual while starting a journey was the buying of ‘filmy’ magazines and comics from the cluttered AH Wheeler stall—a treat that marked the mood of a textbook-free month.

Buoyed by these memories I embarked on my journey. The first disappointment was to not find a single newspaper vendor around. There was no AH Wheeler stall on our platform, and the one on the platform across was shut even though it was not so early in the morning. So no “time pass” magazines or newspapers. Disappointment two was the food scene. No sizzling pans and oily bhajiyas and puri bhaji. Every station had the same looking stalls with their array of packets of chips, chips, and chips and similar packaged snacks in the standard multiple ‘international’ flavours—ranging from schezwan to barbeque to French onion! Oh yes, they all had a small pile of cold stale bread pakodas and vada pao that no one seemed to want. What a homogenization of the rich, savoury and distinctive flavour of railway platform culture, and a sterile tribute to an age of rip, crunch, munch and throw-away culture.

In the train itself the story repeated itself. I think I learned a great deal of geography simply by looking the passing landscape, with my father pointing out to the different crops that were growing in the fields, the changing appearances of the people and the houses, flashes of birds, animals or trees as the train rushed by. This was supplemented by a railway timetable that listed the names of the stations en route, and comparing the arrival and departure time of our train with what was scheduled as per the time table. Even the names of different stations had their own stories and histories.  Till today, I can travel for days by road or rail happily gazing out of the window.

This time it was a bizarre sight to see every person in the compartment—old and young—glued to the small screens of mobile phones as the wonderful 70mm mega screen scenery flew by unnoticed. Children whined and complained of being “bored” when they tired of whatever it was they were watching on their phone, and were presented with yet another packet of chips or frooti drink; not one parent looked up to point to the window and say, “why don’t you look out?” I watched helpless and sad…What a sad waste of opportunities.

Perhaps the ultimate blow came when some of the passengers ordered food online, which was delivered at the notified station. One young woman stopped watching her third movie on her phone only long enough to alight at the next station to pick up her order of Domino’s pizza!

–Mamata

 

Tell Me Why

A reIMG_20190319_101149.jpgcent news item about a telephone helpline for children caught my attention. This was not the usual helpline for children in trouble or distress. Called First Question, this is an open line that children can call with questions related to science and nature, and their questions would be answered by real scientists. A novelty indeed in an age where increasingly Google is the ultimate guru that provides all answers.

This reminded me of the TELL ME WHY series. For myself and my children, these were among our favourite go-to books. These comfortingly solid volumes were not glossy nor profusely illustrated, but they were jammed with questions What, Why, How, Where, and answers to these.  From the bizarre ones like ‘Are armadillos edible?’ to the logical query ‘Where does water go when it dries up?’ to the dreamy ‘How did fairy tales originate,’ to the puzzled ‘Why don’t women have beards?’ every volume had over 300 questions, and short answers that were well researched and reliable.  While flipping through the pages in looking for an answer one would come across a dozen other questions that made one stop and read and wonder! A learning experience that was not compartmentalized into subjects and periods, and test papers; just an adventure in exploring and discovering.

Alas in the digital age, while the whole world’s information is at our fingertips, our children, and even we, seem to have lost the charm of wandering in search of answers, and chance discoveries. The TELL ME WHY series also seems to have gotten lost with the advent of media that are rapidly replacing physical books. However the innate curiosity of a child can never be quashed.

First Question, an initiative of the Kerala Forest Research Institute, seeks to bring back the humans in an age of AI. Launched as a response to the concern that our educational system that does not encourage children to ask questions, the Helpline, considered to be the first of its kind for children in India, is being managed by 20 research scholars from the Institute with help from around 50 subject matter experts and scientists across the state.

Students can call the helpline number 0487-2690222 from Monday to Friday between 9.30 am and 5.30 pm and ask their science-related questions in either English or Malayalam. Students from outside the state can also ask their questions in Hindi.

What a wonderful initiative, and what joy for a child to be able to talk to an adult who takes them, and their questions, seriously.

–Mamata

 

Beyond ME!

It’s Women’s Day, and as the media reminds us, a time to celebrate the ME! A time to indulge oneself, pamper oneself and assert oneself, with all the accompIMG_20190308_102230.jpganying gloss and glamour.

But is “all about me” really the formula for happiness? Consider this:

“Someone once asked me what I regarded as the three most important requirements for happiness.

My answer was: A feeling that you have been honest with yourself and those around you; a feeling that you have done the best you could have in your personal life and in your work; the ability to love others. Happiness is not a goal, it is a by-product. Paradoxically, the one sure way not to be happy is deliberately to map out a way of life in which one would please oneself completely and exclusively. After a short time, a very short time, there would be little that one really enjoyed. For what keeps our interest in life and makes us look forward to tomorrow is giving pleasure to other people.

It is easy to slip into self-absorption and it is equally fatal. When one becomes absorbed in himself, in his health, in his personal problems, or in the small details of daily living, he is, at the same time losing interest in other people; worse, he is losing his ties to life”.

Words of wisdom from Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt who was the President of the United States during the Great Depression and World War II. Eleanor was more than First Lady, she went on to play a leading role as a diplomat in the United Nations, and was one of the most loved and influential women of the 20th century. At the age of 76, she compiled her thoughts and experiences into a simple guide to living a fuller life based on her own philosophy on living, and informed by her personal experiences as a daughter, wife, parent, and diplomat. Titled You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life, this is a simple but powerful reminder of enduring common sense ideas and heartfelt values that resonate even 60 years after the book was first published.

A good day to share her words, and remind ourselves how enriching and invigorating it is to be able go beyond the ME! Let us celebrate the power of caring and sharing!

–Mamata

Caring and Sharing

The excitement began in the first week of March. What shall we do this year? Shall we have a theme? What about the lunch? Shall we order it or have a pIMG_20190302_112325.jpgot luck? Shall it be a particular cuisine or a celebration of diversity? And of course, it will be our Sari Day, but shall we have a colour code this year? Intercoms buzzed and Prepcoms were held.

It was the run up to Women’s Day at CEE! This was not the day to make a great political statement, nor a significant feminist event. It was simply a time to meet, eat, laugh and play together—a celebration of sisterhood.

For me this sisterhood was one of the many things that made CEE so special. What may have been the first link in the chain was a true “sense of belonging” to an organisation. But that was lengthened and strengthened by numerous bonds that brought the new and the old; the different tiers of formal designations, and the several generations that made up the ‘woman power’ of the institution.  It was the shared cups of tea and the lunch dabbas; it was the shared agonising over children, parents and in laws; it was the exchange of news and views, and the show-and-tell of things bought or made. This was a constant underground stream that flowed round the year, giving energy to our daily tasks at work. This seamless blending of many generations, and the mutual caring and sharing that made our lives so rich.

For us the Matriarchs, this sisterhood was the mainspring of our daily life. And we revelled in it as we scolded and moulded the fledglings; laughed and cried with our contemporaries; celebrated births and mourned the passings; bedecked ourselves for weddings, and planned office parties with much gusto. It was in many ways a time of innocence, a time when comfort and joy was derived from the feeling of going through life together. It was so much more than a coming together on a single day of the year.

“You are the sum total of everything you’ve ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot – it’s all there. Everything influences each of us, and because of that I try to make sure that my experiences are positive.” Maya Angelou

In this week, we look back and remember with gratitude and love all the wonderful women that we had the fortune to have met and worked with, and who have enriched us in so many ways.

–Mamata and Meena

 

Ant Man

The other day my grand-nephew, not quite nine months old and just starting to discover the world around him, was crawling towards a line of ants on the veranda. Immediately there was a chorus of calls from the vigilant adults around him. “Be careful, the ants will bite him”. “Be alert that he doesn’t put a few in his mouth!” “Mind the ants don’t get into his clothes.” The little boy was picked up and taken away many times, and just as many times he determinedly crawled right back to the tiny creatures that were neatly marching away on their own business.

The ants took me back to my early days as an environmental educator. One of the first publications of CEE was a simple 8-pager called Ant. I was fascinated at how much one could write about creatures that were either not noticed, or when noticed, decried as pests! Further down the line I ended up putting together an entire teaching-learning manual on Insects. Besides opening up a whole new world this also led me to EO Wilson whose writings became a great inspiration, not just for what he studied, but equally for how wonderfully he shared his thoughts.

Edward Osborne Wilson is not just the world’s foremost authority on the study of ants (a myrmecologist!) but one of the founding fathers of, and leading expert in, biodiversity. His autobiography titled Naturalist traces his evolution as a scientist. Young Wilson knew early that he wanted to be scientist. A childhood accident left him with weak eyesight and hearing, so instead of focussing on animals and birds he concentrated on studying the miniature creatures. Thus the dreamy child turned into the focused scientist. Naturalist also reveals how these steps from daydream to determined endeavour involved a mix of random encounter, enthusiasm and opportunism.

My little nephew’s first explorations reminded me of EO Wilson’s words. “Why do I tell you this little boy’s story of medusa rays, and sea monsters nearly sixty years after the fact? Because it illustrates, I think, how a naturalist is created. A child comes to the edge of deep water with a mind prepared for wonder. He is like a primitive adult of long ago, an acquisitive Homo arriving at the shore of Lake Malawi, say, or the Mozambique Channel….The child is ready to grasp this archetype, to explore and learn, but he has few words to describe his guiding emotions. Instead he is given a compelling image that will serve in later life as a talisman, transmitting a powerful energy that directs the growth of experience and knowledge. But the core image stays intact. When an adult he will find it curious, if he is at all reflective, that he has the urge to travel all day to fish or to watch sunsets on the ocean horizon.”

In the current age of over-protective parenting, and educational systems that feel that rote learning is the key to science, EO Wilson’s words hold truer than ever: “Hands-on experience at the critical time, not systematic knowledge is what counts in the making of a naturalist. Better to be an untutored savage for a while, not to know the names or anatomical detail. Better to spend long stretches of time just searching and dreaming.” 

–Mamata

 

Tiger! Tiger!

Gujarat is aIMG_20190221_103219.jpgll agog with the news that a Tiger has been spotted within its political boundaries. Papers are full of speculation about where it came from and where it went. In the meanwhile the state has quickly laid claim to be the only one in the country with three big cats—lion, leopard, and now tiger!

The news led me to relook at a book the Matriarchs had done for teachers over a decade ago. Called Tales of the Tiger it was an attempt to create awareness and excitement about the tiger through providing interesting information and activity ideas for students.

Compiling information for the book was in itself an exciting and educative safari. It was not just looking at this awe-inspiring cat from the zoological point of view, but seeing it as an integral part of the ecosystem, as well as the social and cultural environment.

Beyond the roar to the lore, as it were!  Sharing a few fascinating facts.

Tigers do not simply roar, growl and snarl. They have a wide variety of vocalisations such as chuffing, hissing, grunting, and mewling. A ‘chuff’ or ‘prusten’ is a friendly and non-threatening sound made when two tigers meet. The ‘pook’ sound is a sound similar to the alarm call of the sambar, a favourite prey animal of the tiger. It has been variously interpreted as a way of locating prey, a mating call, or to announce its presence to other tigers. A tigress uses moans to communicate with her cubs. Tigers also use body (especially tail) language to show aggression, affection and curiosity.

Beyond the jungles, tigers have long been a part of folklore and literature in every culture. The tiger is variously feared, respected, admired, and distrusted, depending on the context. 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. Tribal beliefs, arts and crafts often place the tiger as a central symbol of worship. For example the people of the Warli tribe offer a part of their harvest every season to the worship of the tiger. The people of the Bhil tribe believe that they have descended from tigers. Songs, proverbs and sayings in most Indian languages feature the tiger.

In India the earliest visual representations of the tiger are found on the seals and terracotta figurines on the Indus Valley Civilisation. A seal found at Mohenjo Daro, believed to date back about 5000 years shows a man sitting in a tree angrily addressing a tiger waiting below for him.

Even as scientists have studied and tracked tigers in an effort to understand them better, tigers all over the world are threatened and endangered. In India Project Tiger, launched in 1973, has been an important milestone in the history of tiger conservation in India. 

While the new sighting of the tiger may possibly turn into a contest of “Mine, Mine!” it may be wise to remember and respect that this magnificent cat knows no political boundaries. May it always walk in majesty, wherever it may roam.

–Mamata

 

 

The BBC Connect

I recently attended a thought-provoking talk by anthropologist and storyteller Gauri Raje on autobiographical storytelling and personal stories. Gauri, an old friend, now lives and works in the UK with refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. For several years  Gauri has worked, through biographical storytelling, with ‘displaced people’ from many parts of the world–refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, seeking to start a new life in England. Through workshops involving story telling and story making, these people, uprooted from all that was familiar, in a precarious situation regarding their future in a strange and alien culture, were encouraged to tell  personal stories that they have never told in public. Gauri shared some of her many heart-rending, heart touching exchanges with these fragile people. The stories they shared were tales of incredible grit and resilience.

One of the stories was of a young Sudanese man who entered England as a stowaway clinging to the undercarriage of the Chunnel train. When the young man reported to the local police station where he had stepped onto English soil, he found that he could not understand the English that the police spoke. In an interesting aside to his story, he was emphatic that this was not at all like the English that he had heard spoken over the BBC radio that he listened to when he was in his home country!

While this revelation had its own impact (and that is another story!), it reminded me of a book I read a few months ago which, curiously, was based on another BBC connection. This was the true story of an unlikely friendship between a journalist with the BBC World Service in London and a Professor of English in war-battered Baghdad.

It began in 2005 when Bee Rowlatt, the journalist emailed May Witwit an Iraqi woman to confirm and prepare for a telephone interview about day-to-day life in Baghdad, and about her thoughts on the forthcoming elections there. May’s detailed and frank responses prompted more curiosity and questions from Bee, and a friendship developed between the two women. The “official BBC e-mail” planted the seeds of a correspondence that spanned from 2005-2008, with the two women sharing their news and thoughts about their work, family and life—at some levels-the social and political-poles apart, and yet so close in terms of shared emotions—despondency, depression, laughter and love.

The correspondence developed into a project to get May out of the dangerous and unhappy life in Iraq to seek asylum in Britain. The e-mails traces the challenges and travails in this venture—to gain asylum status and enough money to start a new life in a new land. Interestingly, here also the e-mail correspondence turned out to be key to this – its publication in book form helped to raise funds so May could prove that she had the financial support to come with her husband, to study in Britain.

The book is titled Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad: the True Story of an Unlikely Friendship

 I am sure Gauri has facilitated many such stories to be told and shared from people in similar circumstances and I hope, some day, to hear some of these stories from her.

For now, it is for me just to share a coincidence of two stories that had a BBC Connect in their own special way.

–Mamata

 

The Coucals are Calling

 

The Coucals are calling at the break of day,P1020594.JPG

Wooing and courting, a-hooping away.

 

The starlings have arrived from far far away,

They chirp and they chatter in a chorus all day.

 

Sometimes balmy, often chilly, that capricious breeze,

Raising billows of dust, and rustling through the leaves.

 

The sun plays hide and seek with wispy clouds,

The koels stridently shriek out loud.

 

Fresh blossoms bloom on some trees

While leaves are shed from other trees.

 

It’s Spring!

Celebrating Basant Panchami

 

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–Mamata