Winning Words

Language is always evolving. While some words have a history that can be traced back over centuries, new terms and new uses for terms also continue to emerge, and over time find their place in dictionaries. Much of the new vocabulary in 21st century English reflects major social changes and events that have taken place in the real world. New editions of dictionaries have included expressions such as social media, congestion charge, designer baby, flash mob, toxic debt, WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) and wardrobe malfunction.

The major English language dictionaries have an elaborate process of keeping track of new words and their usage, and based on the studies and statistics, announce the winning word or words of the year.

This is the time of the year when Words of the Year are declared by the leading dictionaries. This is the outcome of a process that reviews the ‘usage evidence’ of certain words during the year. The selection of the word/words reflect, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains “the ethos, mood or preoccupations” of the preceding year, while also having “potential as a term of lasting cultural significance.”

It was thus no surprise that the words of the year 2020 were those that dominated the lives and pre-occupations of people around the world. These included Pandemic, Quarantine and Lockdown. These words moved beyond the English language and became part of a universal vocabulary.

A natural progression from these led to the word that has been declared as the Word of the Year 2021 by the Oxford English Dictionary. The winning word is Vax.

The word first appeared as a noun in the 1980s to mean either vaccine or vaccination. But it in this year, that the small but pithy word has been used in so many ways: to denote status—‘vaxed’ ‘double vaxed’ or not ‘vaxed’; attitude—‘vaxers’ vs ‘anti vaxers’, and events—vaxathons, and vaxxies (vaccination selfies!)

In keeping with the trend of abbreviations which pack a punch of meaning, the Merrian Webster dictionary has released its list of new words added to the dictionary in 2021 that reflects the use of language in the age of online communication. Among the words in this category are:

TBH: an abbreviation for “to be honest.” 

Amirite: slang used in writing for “am I right” to represent or imitate the use of this phrase as a tag question in informal speech. An example: “English spelling is consistently inconsistent, amirite?”

FTW: an abbreviation for “for the win” used especially to express approval or support. In social media, FTW is often used to acknowledge a clever or funny response to a question or meme.

And of course these words are the staple of the vocabulary of  the Digital Nomads—a term used to describe persons who perform their occupation entirely over the Internet while traveling; especially if such a person has no permanent fixed home address.

The acceptance of abbreviations as official words that find their place in dictionaries is not a new trend in the English language. In the late 1600s it was linguistically fashionable to shorten words. For example people said ‘pos’ or ‘pozz’ for positive, meaning ‘that’s certain’ or ‘incog’ for incognito in casual speech. Words which were reduced in size in this way were called ‘clippings’. Common examples of words where the ends were ‘clipped’ were ad, doc and prof. Among the words where the beginning was clipped were phone and burger; and words where both the beginning and the end were clipped included flu and fridge. What started as informal usage became the acceptable use, and the full forms were almost forgotten over time; think of fax, memo, exam, vet, pub and bus! And not to forget the Bots whose mechanical messages have all but replaced human voices.

Perhaps the ‘clipped’ word that has dominated the past few decades as much as the word ‘vax’ may do in this decade is ‘app’.

The idea of an ‘application’, a computer function designed to meet specific user requirement had been around since the 1960s. But it was in 1985 that a writer in a trade magazine used the abbreviation ‘apps’ to denote ‘for applications’. The short form immediately caught on. It was ‘phonetically appealing, a short, perky syllable, that seemed to suit the exciting quick fire developments in digital communication of the time.’

Following this came the idea of a ‘killer app’—a function which in the dreams of the multimedia industry, would be so appealing that people would not be able to do without it.

I am not sure if ‘app’ was ever voted the word of the year, but this is one word that has surpassed the boundaries of the English language; it continues to be on everyone’s lips, and fingertips! 


Spark a Match, Light a Lamp

A recent news item caught my eye. It said that the price of a matchbox is to go up after 14 years. And what is the price hike? A whole rupee more—from Rs 1/- to Rs 2/-! The last time the price was revised was in 2007 when the rate went up from 50 paise for a matchbox to Rs1/-. In a time when prices of foodstuff and fuel are in the ‘hundreds’ range, and spiralling every day, it is unbelievable that there is even an item in the market that costs as little as Rs 2/-

Yes, this is the ubiquitous, but not really noticed, little box that we need so many times a day, for so many uses—a matchbox.

The early history of the matchbox, as we know it, in India is not well documented. It appears that one of the early indigenous match manufacturers in India was the Gujarat Islam Match Factory founded in 1895 in Ahmedabad. However there was no commercially successful manufacture of matches in the country till 1921. In fact before World War 1 most of India’s matches were imported, mainly from Sweden, Austria and Japan. In the early 1900s, about half of the total imports of matches came from Japan. After World War I there was a struggle for supremacy in the Indian matchbox market between the Japanese and the Swedish who were represented by the Swedish Match Company

Around the same period some Japanese immigrants settled in Calcutta and began manufacturing matches. The locals also picked up the skills and small match factories came up in and around Calcutta. Following World War I, many manufacturers migrated to the state of Tamil Nadu where the climate was dry, labour was cheap, and raw materials were easily available. Starting as small family-based units, match-making continued as a mainly small-scale cottage industry, but over time, expanded into a booming industry. Today, the Match Kings of South India as they are called, supply the bulk of the country’s matchbox needs, employing around four lakh people, directly or indirectly, of which 90% are women. Sivakasi of the fireworks manufacturing fame is also the home of match production. Fourteen raw materials are needed to make matchsticks and matchboxes, including red phosphorus, potassium chlorate, and sulphur as well as wax, paper board, and splints.

In 1950 a matchbox cost 5 Paise, in 1980 it went up to 25 paise, in 1994 to 50 paise, and in 2008 to Rs 1/-. Considering that the cost of all the raw materials has increased manifold, the matchbox seems to have defied all laws of inflation!

While the economics of the industry is about numbers, the labels of the matchboxes reveal fascinating facets of history and culture. These are the aspects that fascinate matchbox collectors or phillumenists as they are called. It is from their collections that that many interesting stories emerge.

Some early matchbox labels which bore the sign Made in Sweden had pictures of Mughal emperors on the labels. It is believed that the royal family of Bhavnagar in Gujarat commissioned a special matchbox for their personal use during British rule.

During the freedom movement Swadeshi matchboxes appeared in the market, carrying slogans (in different Indian languages) extolling boycott of foreign goods and promoting swadeshi. These were often confiscated by the British. India’s independence was celebrated with matchbox labels carrying the tricolour, and pictures of people who had played a role in the struggle for independence. In the 1960s, popular matchbox labels included pictures of ‘matinee idols’ of the day—popular film stars, as well as a number of sports superstars. Matchbox labels have also carried pictures of brands like Pepsi, Fanta, Thums Up, Pan Parag, Frooti, Parle, Nescafe, Vat 69, Kitkat, Complan, Amul, Lux, as well as of TVs, cameras and computers (most likely not with permission from the companies, but definitely free publicity for them!) to name a few.

A souvenir of my phillumeny phase

Phillumeny or the hobby of collecting different match-related items: matchboxes, matchbox labels, matchbooks, match covers, etc. has its own band of aficionados, perhaps not as large as stamp or coin collectors. I went through a brief period of phillumeny in my college days. In the days when smoking in public places was not taboo, restaurants and hotels had interesting matchbooks, and for us these were great souvenirs of places visited, and memorable events!

Economics and commerce, history and culture–the matchbox has its little niche in many subjects. But perhaps the most innovative use of the matchbox has been in the teaching of basic science. In the words of Arvind Gupta one of India’s pioneering simple science educators who has used the matchbox in an amazing number of ways:  In the seventies a pioneering science programme in India attempted to revitalize the learning of science in village schools which had no science labs. The shift was from the chalk-and-talk method to hands-on, on making things with simple humble material available in the village. The hunt was on for low-cost, locally available very affordable things to do science.

The matchbox surprisingly emerged as a STAR. Being mass produced in a factory the matchbox confirmed to certain standard dimensions. The length of the matchbox is very close to 5-cm (2- inches) – a very good estimate of length. You could put six matchboxes back-to-back to make 30-cm (1-foot). The weight of the new matchbox was very close to 10-gms. Ten new matchsticks (not burnt) weight about 1-gm and the weight of a single matchstick is very close to 0.1-gm! Paint the matchbox drawer with some oil to make it water proof. Fill it with water and the drawer holds roughly 20-ml of water. Pour out 5 drawers of water in a bottle to make 100-ml. The humble matchbox becomes a good measure for volume. So, using a universally available matchbox, children could get a good feel of length, weight and volume – all very basic entities of any science curriculum!

How many things can you fit in a matchbox? 20…. 30…. 100? This exercise was given to children many years back. One child actually managed to pack in a whopping 250 things inside a matchbox! Just look around for small minute things – a mustard seed, hair, thread, cumin, moong dal etc. While doing this project children searched for the smallest artifacts in their vicinity and they came up with surprises which are difficult to imagine! They really had a good peep in the world of small things! Science is all about keeping our eyes open and looking at similarities, forms, patterns in the world around us. Science in short, is the discovery of order.


As our markets and homes get flooded with numerous new gadgets and geegaws, we tend to forget some of the simplest but most versatile household items. As we celebrate the festival of lights let us give thanks for the small things that make our life better and easier. Let us spark a match and light a lamp.

Happy Diwali!


Devil’s Tree

As we go for our walk nowadays, the early October mornings are filled with a heavy sweet fragrance. We look up to see the trees that look as if they have been sprinkled with an overnight flurry of snowflakes. The Saptaparni is in bloom!

The Saptaparni is one of the many names of the tree, but one that most literally describes it. It comes from two Sanskrit words—sapta meaning seven, and parni which refers to leaves. The tree is characterised by its pattern of (generally) seven leaves which grow in a whorl attached around a stem. In addition to Saptaparni which the tree is called in Sanskrit as well as in Gujarati, the tree is known by different names in different Indian languages: Marathi – Satvin, Hindi – Shaitanki Jhur, Chatwan, Chatian, Bengali – Chattim, Tamil – Palai, Elilaippala, Malayalam – Palai, Telugu – Edakulapala, and Kannada – Maddale.

One of the English names of the tree–Devil’s Tree–however refers to the beliefs associated with the tree. Folklore in many parts of India associates the tree as one on which the Devil resides. This association is reflected in the local names such as Shaitan, Chaitan, Chattim etc.

Another English name of the tree is Blackboard tree or Scholar tree. This is because in the past the wood of the tree was used to make slates and blackboards. This is also reflected in its botanical name Alstonia scholaris. The generic name Alstonia commemorates the distinguished botanist Professor Charles Alston of Edinburgh, while scholaris is a reference to its traditional use to make wooden slates for students. 

When leaves are plucked the tree yields a milky sap. The sap is toxic, and in large doses the bitter and astringent extract from its bark can be harmful. But the tree is also known to have a number of medicinal uses, especially in traditional medicine. The famous Ayurvedic physician Charaka used a paste of Saptaparna bark, known as Dita Bark, in ointments for chronic skin problems, and in prescriptions for urinary diseases. Another ancient physician and surgeon Sushruta prescribed the drug internally as well as externally in urinary diseases, poisoning, fever, malignant ulcers, leprosy and other virulent skin diseases and fistula. It is said to be useful in heart diseases, asthma, chronic diarrhoea, and to stop bleeding from wounds. The fresh bark juice with milk is said to be administered in leprosy and dyspepsia as well as to treat ulcers. The bark is also used in Homoeopathy for weak digestion, anaemia, low fever often with diarrhoea, dysentery and as a tonic after exhausting fever. The tree has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat headache, influenza, malaria, bronchitis and pneumonia.

However it may be named—by form, by folklore, or by use, this indigenous evergreen tree is found in most parts of India. It has a rough greyish bark, and the branches grow evenly around the trunk giving the tree a beautiful form. The whorled pattern of slightly rounded dark green leaves distinguishes it. The tree is transformed in the flowering season, which is between October and December. A night bloomer, the greenish-white flowers grow in ball-shaped clusters and exude a heady fragrance. Perhaps it is this phenomenon that has led to the belief in many tribal communities that the tree is where the devil resides; and thus people avoid sleeping under the tree, or even sitting under it. The belief could also be related to the fact that some people may be allergic to its pollen or fragrance, irritating eyes, or causing breathing problems. This may have led to the association that sleeping under a saptaparni tree could make a person ill.

This tree does not feature as prominently in art and literature as do some others. But the Soptoporni or Chatim (as it is called in Bengali), has an interesting link with Tagore’s Shantiniketan. The story goes that in 1862, Debendranath Tagore (the father of Ravindranath, and a leading figure in the Indian Renaissance) was on a boat journey. As he was passing the village of Bhubandanga, he saw lush green paddy fields bordered by rows of wild date palms and Chatim trees. He decided to step off the boat to rest; and sat in a glade of chatim trees for his evening prayers. He was filled with such a sense of peace and happiness that he bought 20 bighas of land there to set up a spiritual retreat which he named Shantiniketan (the abode of peace). The place with the grove of Chatim trees was named Chatimtala. Later Rabindranath expanded the retreat and its activities and it became the Vishwa Bharati University, but the Chatim trees became a symbol of the origin and spirit of the great institution. This was also demonstrated in the tradition that at the university’s convocation ceremony, every student was given, along with their degree, a whorl of saptaparni leaves. In recent years, supposedly to prevent excessive damage to environment, this presentation has been made symbolic–the vice chancellor of the University accepts one saptaparni leaf from the chancellor on behalf of all the students.

Going back to its other name—Devil’s Tree, there is a lovely folk tale from Madhya Pradesh.

Once upon a time there was shepherd boy who loved to play the flute. Every day as his goats grazed in the hills, the boy sat in the shade of a Chatian tree and played his flute. In the tree lived a fierce spirit or shaitan who scared away anyone who dared to sit in the shade of its tree. But when the spirit heard the boy playing his flute, he could not help being charmed by the melodious music. He would come down from the tree and dance joyfully to the lively tunes. The shaitan and the boy became good friends and passed the days with music and dance.

One day a prince was passing by and he heard the notes of the flute. He was entranced. He asked the boy to play for him every day. He promised that when he became king, he would make the boy his minister. After he left, the shiatan came down from the tree and warned the boy not to believe rich people who made false promises. But the young and innocent boy was taken in. The prince came every day and the boy entertained him with his music. The shaitan was upset and refused to come down from the tree anymore.

Time passed; the king died and the prince ascended the throne. The shepherd boy was excited; he went to the palace to meet his friend who was now the king. But young king refused to recognise his old friend and drove him away. Heartbroken, the boy returned to the hills and sat dejectedly under the Chatian tree, not even able to play his flute. The shaitan was concerned. He came down and the boy told him his sad saga. The Shaitan was enraged; he put a curse on the king which transformed him into an ugly monster. The palace announced a reward for whoever could break the spell. The shaitan was delighted that he had taught the king a lesson, but the kind hearted boy was very upset and said that he would not play the flute until the shaitan had taken away his spell. Finally the shaitan relented. He told the boy to go to the palace with a branch of the chatian tree, and wave it three times in front of the king, with the words “the spirit of the chatian tree release you from their magic”. This time the boy was allowed in, and he did as the shaitan had told him to. The king was restored to his original form. The king was overjoyed and asked the boy to stay in his palace and become his minister. But the boy was wiser this time. He said “I am only a shepherd, and all I know is to play the flute.” And he returned to his hills and his goats and his favourite chatian tree, to play his beloved flute. And the shaitan joined his friend to dance in joy every day. 

I love this story. We have a Devil’s Tree at our front gate. I would like to believe that the friendly spirit in the tree protects our home, and that it enjoys the music that we play!


Gandhi’s Women Warriors: Poornima Pakvasa

The women of India should have as much share in winning swaraj as men.  …I hope that women all over India will take up the challenge and organize themselves.”

It was in words such as these that the Mahatma appealed to the women of India to join the struggle for freedom.

Among the thousands of women across the country who responded to Gandhi’s call, and who continued to live and practise his message of satyagraha, self-reliance and dedicated service to the people right through their life, was a young woman from Gujarat—Poornima Pakvasa.

Poornima was born in Ranpur near Limdi in Saurashtra in a family of strong nationalistic beliefs. She first met Gandhi when she was eight years old, and this proved to be the defining moment in her life. By the time she was 18 years old she was an active participant in the Satyagraha movement.

Gandhi’s Dandi March in 1930 had ignited a nationwide fervour. Initially Gandhi had included no women in the Dandi March. But women everywhere protested this decision and insisted that they wanted to be full participants in the protest marches, demonstrations, boycotts, and even imprisonment. Kasturba Gandhi herself was equally adamant on this point. These women went from village to village and town to town, urging other women to come out of their homes and join the movement by picketing liquor shops, advocating the boycott of foreign cloth, and encouraging the spinning and weaving of khadi. Young Poornima was an impassioned crusader in the swadeshi movement and demonstrations of defiance to the British rule. It was during this period that she was arrested and put in prison in Rajkot. As it happened, she was incarcerated in the same cell as Kasturba Gandhi, Maniben Patel and Mridula Sarabhai who became her real-life inspirations and role models. While she was in prison Poornima spent her time teaching English reading and writing to the women inmates, including Kasturba. The two became close, with Kasturba nurturing the young girl, who in turn found in Kasturba the mother that she had lost. It is said that Gandhi was so pleased with Poornima’s efforts that he gave his blessings that she should continue on the path of education. And indeed, this is what was to become Poornima’s life mission.

In the meanwhile Poornima became more deeply involved in the politics of the freedom struggle. She participated in the 51st session of the Indian National Congress at Haripura in 1938. There was a massive turn out, estimated at more than half a million people, and Poornima proved her mettle as a volunteer in managing the crowds.

It was in the same year that Poornima got married to Arvind Pakvasa, the son of Mangaldas Pakvasa who was a close confidante of Gandhi, and who had left a successful practise as a solicitor to devote himself to the freedom struggle. He later became one of the first five governors of independent India. Thus Poornima moved into an active nationalistic family. But she herself took a break from political activism to devote time to her family, and bring up her three children. One daughter went on to  achieve fame as the danseuse Sonal Mansingh. Poornima herself was an accomplished Manipuri dancer, and singer.

Having been a part of India’s struggle for Swaraj, Poornima could not but be drawn back into active engagement with the issues that the Independent India was challenged with. In 1954 she started Stree Shakti Dal an organisation for the cultural, physical and spiritual education of women in Bombay. She encouraged women to become physically and mentally strong; girls were trained in using laathis, rifle shooting, and self defence. She also headed the Bhonsala Military School in Nasik for 25 years.

Through the years, Poornima had been deeply concerned about the condition of tribal girls, and was strongly driven by a passion to do something concrete about this. Poornima remembered how, when she was just a teenager, Kasturba had nurtured her with love and compassion, and also Gandhiji’s belief that she could contribute to the field of education. She pledged that she would live up to the faith of Kasturba and Gandhiji, and strived to give generously of herself to better the lives of young tribal girls.

Her vision and mission fructified with the establishment of the Ritambhara Vishwa Vidyapeeth in the Saputara region of the Dangs district of Gujarat in 1974. The early days were challenging, in a place (a remote hilly area) and time when education for tribal girls was unheard of. Poornima herself went from door to door to convince parents to send their daughters to school. The school started with only 15 girls. Poornima mentored the young girls and inculcated in them a love for education, and classical arts, as well as empowerment through physical fitness and vocational skills. 

Directed by Poornima’s vision and passion the Ritambhara Vishwa Vidyapeeth extended its activities to become a residential school and college for tribal girls of the area, where hundreds of tribal girls are provided free lodging and boarding facilities and education from 6th up to 12th standards. Over the years, thousands of tribal girls have emerged from the Rithambhara Vidyapeeth as self-confident and capable young women.

The Gramin Vikas Trust was set up to complement Poornima Pakvasa’s work in the educational field with overall developmental activities. Her trailblazing work and contribution to the nation was recognised by conferring on her the Padma Bhushan in 2004. But for the people of the Dangs, she was simply “Didi”– the big sister who was a mentor, a steady supporter, and an inspiration.

Poornima Pakvasa continued to live and work in Saputara until she passed away at the age of 102 on 25 April 2016. Her legacy lives on through the thousands of lives that she touched.


Gandhi’s Women Warriors: Perin Captain

This month as we remember the Father of the Nation Gandhi, it is also a good time to remember some of the many women warriors who played significant parts in the march for Indian independence. Among these was Perin Naoroji Captain.

Perin was the granddaughter of the ‘Grand Old Man of India’ Dadabhai Naoroji. She was born on 12 October 1888 in Mandvi in the Kutch district of Gujarat. Her father Ardeshir, Dadabhai Naoroji’s elder son was a medical doctor and her mother Virbai Dadina a home maker. Perin’s father died when she was only 5 years old. She did her schooling in Bombay and moved to Paris for higher studies where she did a degree in French language.

It was while she was a student at the Sorbonne in Paris that Perin met Madam Bhikaji Cama who was living there in self-exile. Bhikaji had gone to Europe, and then to London in1902, to rest and recover from the bubonic plague of 1896 which she had caught while volunteering to work with the victims in Bombay. Though she recovered, the disease left her in poor health. While she was in London Bhikaji met Dadabhai Naoroji who was a strong critic of the British economic policy and she began working for the Indian National Congress. She also was a close associate of Veer Savarkar. It was while she was in London that Bhikaji was informed that she would not be allowed to return to India unless she signed a statement that she would not take part in nationalist activities. Bhikaji Cama refused to do so, and remained in exile in Europe from where she continued to support the revolutionaries in every possible way.

At the time when Perin met Madam Cama, the latter was deeply involved in trying for the release of Savarkar who was imprisoned in London for defying the British. During her Paris student days Perin was actively involved in a number of ‘revolutionary’ causes including the conspiracy to get Savarkar out of jail, and working with Polish émigré organisations who were opposing the Tsarist rule in Russia. During these interactions, Perin and her sister Gosi also learned how to use firearms and assemble bombs.  

Perin returned to India in 1911. An opportunity to meet Gandhi transformed her ‘revolutionary’ zeal into a lifelong belief in the power of non-violent protest as an effective weapon. By 1919 she was fully committed to the Swadeshi movement and started wearing khadi. In 1920 she helped to establish the Rashtriya Stree Sabha, a women’s’ movement based on Gandhian ideals. She married the eminent lawyer DS Captain in 1925. The couple did not have children. 

The countrywide civil disobedience movement that Gandhi launched with the Salt March in 1930 marked the first time that women, en masse, became active  participants in the country’s struggle for freedom. Thousands of women, in cities and villages, demonstrated their support by joining the protest marches, picketing of foreign goods, and manufacturing and selling salt. In the first ten months of 1930 as many as 17,000 women were convicted for these activities.

 Perin Captain, along with other women leaders like Kamaldevi Chattopadhyay was on the forefront of the protests in Bombay. Every day they led groups of satyagrahis, singing national songs, to the seaside to bring sea water which was dried in cement pans. The salt was packed in small packets and the ladies went to different places to sell the packets. Sometimes the salt packets were auctioned and sold to the highest bidder (at one place the highest bid was two rupees). Perin and Kamaladevi addressed a number of public meetings encouraging people to show their solidarity and join the peaceful protests. This was all under the watchful eyes of the British police. The name of Perin Captain features frequently in the Daily Reports of the Police Commissioner of Bombay submitted to the Secretary to Government of Bombay Presidency. The police intelligence was keeping a close watch on the unfurling movement of civil disobedience, as well as its leaders.

As an active member of the Congress party Perin was also trusted by Gandhi to ensure that the protests remained scrupulously non-violent and passive. On 4 July 1930 Perin was arrested as she was setting out for the Congress office. As a newspaper reported “she cheerfully submitted to the officers who came to her home”. Once the news of her arrest spread, the Municipal Corporation of Bombay adjourned, the Sugar Merchants’ Association passed a unanimous resolution to boycott British refined sugar.

Perin Captain’s leadership qualities saw her playing an active role in many other areas, but the Civil Disobedience Movement was a defining episode in her public life.

Perin was a trusted and active member of the Congress party in the state. In 1932 she became the first woman president of the Bombay Provincial Congress Committee. In 1937 the Congress Party came to power in eleven provinces in the provincial elections. In order to prepare for the future responsibilities that such developments would lead to, the Indian National Congress formed a National Planning Committee with Jawaharlal Nehru as Chairman. The Committee was clear that in such a future, women would be on an equal footing with men, and any planning should be based on this premise. Perin was a member of the sub-committee on Women’s Role in a Planned Economy. This committee debated and planned policy for issues such as women’s social, economic and political status, education, marriage, maternity and succession.

Over time smaller Gandhian bodies were merged into what became the Gandhi Seva Sena. Perin became its Honorary General Secretary, a post she held until her death. The Gandhi Seva Sena promoted khadi by selling rural and khadi products from their stores.

Even after independence Perin continued to work actively in the field of social work and welfare.  Perin was appointed Chief Commissioner of Bharat Guides. She was honoured with the Padma Sri in 1954, the first batch of civil awards presented in independent India. She died in Jahangir Nursing Home, Pune in 1958.

Perin Naoroji Captain was not only the granddaughter of the Grand Old Man of India, she was a true daughter of India’s swadeshi movement who boldly carried the message of the Mahatma to thousands of her fellow sisters.


Gandhi’s Women Warriors: Usha Mehta

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.


Among the crowd that directly heard the words from Gandhi on that day was a 22 year-old woman who took on the onus of spreading his message far and wide through unconventional means—secret radio broadcasts. This was Usha Mehta.

Usha Mehta was truly a daughter of the freedom movement, growing up as Gandhi led India each step forward on the road to independence. She was born on 25 March 1920 in a village called Saras near Surat in Gujarat. She first saw Gandhiji when she visited his ashram as a five-year old. She was just eight years old when she took part in her first protest. This was against the Simon Commission, when the young girl joined in the shouts of “Simon Go Back”. She mobilised her young friends and organised prabhat feris (dawn marches with songs and slogans). As a teenager she responded to Gandhi’s call to defy the salt tax, and joined in the various acts of civil disobedience from picketing of British goods to spinning cotton. She also took the vow of wearing khadi, and continued to do so all through her life. 

Usha’s father was a judge in the British Raj and did not support his daughter’s nationalistic leanings and activities. In 1933 her father retired as a judge and moved to Bombay, where Usha continued her schooling. It was in 1942 when Usha was studying in Wilson College in Bombay that she heard Gandhiji speak at the historic meeting of the Congress party. Moved by Gandhi’s words, Mehta – with the help of a few other young independence activists – planned to set up an underground radio station which would share news about the real situation on the ground, and spread Gandhi’s message far and wide. In the face of many challenges, the group raised some resources, and for technical help they contacted a friend who was running classes in radio mechanics. The transmitter was ready by 13 August, and the first broadcast was on 14 August 1942 opening with the words: “This is the Congress Radio calling on 42.34 from somewhere in India.”

In a time when the press was supressed, and news censored, these radio broadcasts spread the message of Quit India to the remotest corners of the country, urging people to join the mass civil disobedience movement. The broadcasts carried all sorts of news, especially news that was censored or banned to be spread by the regular media, such as merchants refusing to export rice to arrests of leaders and civilians. The broadcasts reported on police atrocities, mass protests and strikes. Prominent leaders also gave radical speeches on the broadcasts. The team got news from messengers across India, as well as from the office of the All India Congress Committee.

In the beginning, the broadcasts were once a day, in Hindi and English; then they were increased to twice a day. Usha and her fellow broadcast conspirators (along with their transmitter) had to constantly evade the police who were on their trail. As Usha recalled in an interview many years later (Police) vans used to chase us regularly and very often it was merely a question of touch and go. It is believed that the team moved locations six to seven times in the three months that they broadcast.

The broadcasts on 42.34 became extremely popular with the people across the country. There were also specific programmes for different groups like students, women, workers and lawyers.  

On 12th November 1942, based on information leaked by one of the technicians, the police raided the hideout from where the radio station was operating in Bombay. Usha Mehta was in the building when the police came. She quickly took the broadcast material and rushed to the recording studio which was elsewhere, and with the help of some colleagues set up a new transmitter for a final broadcast. As Usha Mehta recalled that day: We played Hindustan Hamara, then we relayed some news bulletins and a speech. Just when we were at the end of the programme, playing ‘Vande Mataram’, we heard hard knocks on the door. The authorities broke down the door and entered. They ordered us to stop playing ‘Vande Mataram’. We did not oblige them.

The authorities seized all the equipment and photos and film footage of Congress party sessions. Usha along with four of her colleagues, was arrested, kept in solitary confinement, and intensely interrogated for almost six months, but she refused to betray her colleagues. Usha and three of her colleagues were sentenced to four years in jail. She was released in March 1946. As she said: I came back from jail a happy, and to an extent, a proud person because I had the satisfaction of carrying out Bapu’s message, ‘Do or die’, and of having contributed my humble might to the cause of freedom.

After India became independent the following year, Usha Mehta went back to her old Wilson College to pursue a doctorate in Gandhian thought; and spent the remaining years as an academic, teaching in her own college for the next 30 years, and continuing to spread the Gandhian ideals through her writing and talks. Like a true Gandhian, she led a spartan life, waking at 4 am every morning and working late into the evening. Her diet, dress and habits were simple and frugal.

Usha Mehta was honoured with Padma Vibhushan in 1998. She continued to spread the philosophy of Gandhi until she passed away in August 2000 at the age of 80.

Today, more than ever, we need to be reminded of such feisty women whose lives were driven by a passion for a cause, and who demonstrated their commitment with courage and conviction.



The Naming of the Mahatma

Mohandas and Kasturba Gandhi on return to India in 1915

On January 9 1915, SS Arabia, a mail boat from England docked at Bombay port. Among those who disembarked were Mohandas Gandhi and Kasturba Gandhi, returning to settle in India after 21 years in South Africa. Gandhi was already well known in India for his 20 years of work for justice and satyagraha in South Africa. But the South African human rights activist had not yet become the leader of the Indian freedom struggle. However it was in the first few weeks back on his native soil that Mohandas would be bestowed with the title that became an integral part of his name for the rest of his life, and much beyond—Mahatma.

There are different stories about how this came to be, including that it was Rabindranath Tagore who gave him this honorific title in March 1915. In fact, it was three months earlier that the word Mahatma was first used to address him.

Upon return to India, following a week of a series receptions and meetings in Bombay, Mohandas left for Ahmedabad, and then travelled to Kathiawar. On 21 January 1915, Gandhi came to Jetpur where he visited the home of the town’s leading citizen nagarsheth Nautamlal Bhagvanji Kamdar.

The links between Gandhi and Nautamlal’s family had an older, slightly indirect history. Nautamlal’s daughter Manjula (Maya) was married to the son of Dr PJ Mehta, one of Gandhi’s oldest and closest friends.  Pranjivan Mehta, a medical doctor, was one of the first Indians that Gandhi contacted when he landed in England in October 1888, as a young and naïve law student. Dr Mehta eased the shy Mohandas into the life and customs of the new country. The two became close friends, and the bonds lasted through their life. It was Dr Mehta who encouraged Gandhi to return to India in 1915 and supported him in every way as he found his feet on the road that would lead to India’s freedom. By then Dr Mehta had moved to Rangoon where he had a profitable jewellery business. The two friends continued to correspond, sharing ideas, issues and problems, and even visited each other. It was Dr Mehta’s financial support that enabled Gandhi to devote all his time and attention to the freedom movement. Dr Mehta even procured a plot of land in Ahmedabad for Gandhi to recreate the Phoenix Ashram experiment. This became known as Sabarmati Ashram. He also contributed funds for the setting up of Gujarat Vidyapith. Dr Mehta remained Gandhi’s pillar of strength until he passed away in 1932.

Thus the family of Nautamlal Kamdar also became close to Gandhi, and were also generous donors to the Sabarmati Ashram and the Gujarat Vidyapith. But even before these were established, the Kamdar family were among the first to welcome and support Gandhi as he embarked on the long march to freedom, right from the first week of his return to Indian soil.

On January 21, 1915 the family organised a felicitation meeting for Gandhi and Kasturba to be held at Kamri Bai School in Jetpur.  Here both Gandhi and Kasturba were honoured with the presentation of manpatras (citations). It is in the citation to Gandhi that the title of honour of Mahatma was first recorded.

The original manpatra was in Gujarati, but here is an English translation of the same as sourced from  

To Shriman Mahatma Mohandas Karmchand Gandhi. Barrister-at-law.

Gentleman, You have returned to your native land after leading a fight for many years for the right of Indians. We the residents of Jetpur, are honored and pleased to have you here. We have gathered here to commemorate this auspicious occasion and we heartily present this document of honor to you and to your wife.

You were born in an honorable family of Karmchand Gandhi in Kathiawad and acquired higher education and higher knowledge. You have set a direct example of duty to all the people by way of performing duties rightfully, and we are very proud of it. Your father had brought fame by enjoying an executive post in the states of Porbander, Wankaner, Rajkot, etc. In a similar manner as your father, you have enhanced your father’s fame by taking a leading part in the interest of the country and people as a top priority of your life.

For the people of Indian origin in South Africa, you fought, sacrificed and showed them a new light in their life, in order to fight for their rights, justice, and their dignity. The Indians all over the world know your dedication and your unbounded love for them in their hearts. You also stood against the mighty British Empire with the new weapon of Satyagraha. You have come out a winner in that. We feel very proud and happy about it. The way you handled the British government with skill, determination, will power, undergoing physical and family pains, and imprisonment are all the hardships that you underwent in order to fight for human rights, bring success and were able to change the laws. We Indians are very proud of you. No amount of words can express the deep gratitude we feel for the work you have done in South Africa and in India.

It would be a very long document if we enumerated all the achievements you accomplished in South Africa and in India. Even though you come from a noble family and earned a degree in law and have had biographies written about your achievements, we will not take up much of your time in enumerating them.

You discharged your duties without self-interest and sacrificed money matters. Your behavior is characterized by what is being told in Hindu religious scriptures about saints as to how they should behave and what religious practices they should follow. It is not an exaggeration to honor you with the title of “Mahan Yogi” (Mahatma), it is based upon your self-knowledge of the Mahan soul (atma).

We pray to the creator of world that you may continue the way in which you are trying for the well-being of Hind and that way obliging Hind, and you and your wife remain hail and healthy physically; and the almighty god may bestow upon you a long life; and that you may enjoy all happiness and peace, along with other members of your family.

Jetpur, 21-1-1915 (January 21.1915)                           

This week as we mark the birth anniversary of Gandhiji, it is interesting to discover how Mohandas became Mahatma Gandhi.


The Montessori Touch


What do a young Jewish girl and her diary; and a young man and his online encyclopaedia have in common? What is the link between the Google Guys, one of the richest men in the world, and a Nobel Prize winning writer?

It is the name Maria Montessori!

All these renowned names, spanning different periods of time, began their education in a Montessori pre-school. And all of them attribute a large part of who they are, and what they achieved, to the strong roots of the philosophy and practice of the Montessori system of education.

Anne Frank is synonymous with her Diary. The young Jewish girl who penned her experiences and thoughts of two years of hiding from the Nazis in an attic in Amsterdam, died in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945. She was only 15 years old. Her diary remains one of the most poignant pieces of literature from World War II. It is in this diary that Anne recorded how her early education began. I started right away at the Montessori nursery school. I stayed there until I was six, at which time I started 1st grade (Montessori elementary). …My parents never worry about report cards, good or bad. As long as I am healthy and happy and don’t talk back too much they are satisfied. (But) I do not want to be a bad student. …I was supposed to stay in the seventh grade at the Montessori School, but Jewish children were required to go to Jewish schools…”

As a child Anne was always asking questions, and her father felt that the Montessori approach would give enough room for her curious mind to blossom.  She attended the 6th Montessori School of Amsterdam from age 3 to 11. She then attended a year at the Montessori Lyceum (high school) until German authorities prohibited Jewish children from attending school with Christian children. Anne spent the rest of her short life in hiding, where the diary with the red checked cover that her father gave her, became her special secret. Maria Montessori once said: A child without a secret becomes and adult without a personality. Sadly Anne never attained adulthood, but her diary with her attention to detail, her observations and her honesty bears proof of her Montessori education.

What is the first place to check when one is looking for information? Wikipedia! The brain behind the online encyclopaedia is Jimmy Wales. Another curious child, Jimmy used to spend hours perusing the physical tomes of the Britannicas and World Book Encyclopaedias. This passion bloomed into Wikipedia. Jimmy credits his ability to think outside the box to the Montessori method that his school followed. Jimmy was a  true example of an Absorbent Mind that Maria Montessori wrote about in her book of the same title.

Julia Child is known as the woman who popularised French cooking in America with her famous cookbook and her funny TV cookery shows. Julia Child worked at diverse occupations from being a copywriter, to being a research assistant for Secret Intelligence, until she discovered her passion for cooking. 

Julia’s life and work was strongly influenced by her Montessori education. She always claimed that Montessori learning taught her to love working with her hands. Equally important was Montessori’s approach to making mistakes.  “[Maria] Montessori wanted kids to develop ‘a friendly relationship to error,’ – to understand that mistakes are a normal part of learning, and that to learn, you must be willing to make mistakes, and then to move forward.” 

Julia Child’s early Montessori experiences led her to endorse that involving children in the process of cooking did much more than teach them to cook. “Influenced, perhaps, by my early experience at a Montessori school, and surely by living in a clan full of carvers, painters, carpenters, and cooks of all ages, I am all for encouraging children to work productively with their hands. They learn to handle and care for equipment with respect… The small rituals, like the clean hands and clean apron before setting to work; the precision of gesture, like levelling off a cupful of flour; the charm of improvisation and making something new; the pride of mastery; and the gratification of offering something one has made — these have such value to a child. And where are they so easily to be obtained as in cooking?

If using her hands and learning from mistakes was Montessori’s lifelong lesson for Julia Child, it was the spirit of exploration that marked Montessori’s influence on Will Wright. Wright, one of the most famous video game designers in history, is best known for SimCity. His games rarely conclude with The End, rather they let the player tinker towards perfection, with each player defining that perfection.

Wright always claimed that his schooling until sixth grade in a Montessori school “was the high point of my education”. As he wrote “Montessori taught me the joy of discovery. It showed you can become interested in pretty complex theories, like Pythagorean theory, say, by playing with blocks. It’s all about learning on your terms, rather than a teacher explaining stuff to you. SimCity comes right out of Montessori — if you give people this model for building cities, they will abstract from it principles of urban design.”

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, best known for his book One Hundred Years of Solitude won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1982, “for his novels and short stories, in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent’s life and conflicts.”

As a child he struggled to read, but when he joined a Montessori school his language skills were transformed by the phonetic way of learning. Marquez credited many of his successes to the Montessori form of education. As he said “I do not believe there is a method better than Montessori for making children sensitive to the beauties of the world and awakening their curiosity regarding the secrets of life.”

Montessori acknowledged that the only valid impulse to learn is self-motivation itself. She believed that children possess a natural motivation to learn and absorb knowledge without effort if given the right kind of activities, at the right time of their development.

Perhaps the most famous examples of the success of this approach is the story of Larry Page and Sergei Brin the co-founders of Google. Both have attributed their Montessori education as the foundation of their future professional life. We both went to Montessori school, and I think it was part of that training of not following rules and orders, being self-motivated, questioning what’s going on in the world, and doing things a little bit different that contributed to our success. They specifically credit the curriculum of self-directed learning where students follow their interests and decide for themselves what they want to learn that inspires students to become life-long learners with a love of education.

And last, but certainly not the least, one of the world’s richest men, Jeff Bezos could leap into space from a strong Montessori launch pad. He remembers: I went to Montessori school [for] about a year and a half, starting probably at age 2 1/2. … I have these very clear visual images of tracing out letters on sandpaper. I remember having a little special board that you can use to practice tying your shoes.

His mother remembers: He would get so engrossed in his activities as a Montessori pre-schooler that his teachers would literally have to pick him up out of his chair to go to the next task.

Bezos who started his amazing journey from a Montessori pre-school has come full circle by launching a $2 billion project called Day 1 Families that aims to bring quality early education to those who may not otherwise have access to it through supporting Montessori pre-schools in minority and low-income communities in America.

31 August marks the 151st birth anniversary of Maria Montessori. A century and a half later, her path-breaking philosophy and approach to education remain as relevant, if not more. The Montessori legacy lives on through the generations who have experienced the Montessori touch.


Boring Buzzers: Carpenter Bees

Every few months when we step out onto our little sit-out deck in the morning, we find pockets of sawdust strewn on the floor. Initially we thought that it was termites that had started eating away at the old wooden pergolas over the deck. But a general check could not reveal any other tell-tale signs of termites. So we continued to be baffled about what was responsible for this.

One morning as we sat there we saw a large black bumble bee flying about the pergolas, and then quite mysteriously disappearing somewhere into the wooden beam. A closer examination revealed a hole in the wood, and it seemed to be the one into which the bee had vanished. So now we had a possible suspect, but as yet no confirmation of the link between the sawdust and the bee. The next time there was sawdust, we checked the wood just above it and sure enough we found a neat hole. The next step was to find out if a bumble bee could also be a boring bee!

Some preliminary research confirmed one suspicion—that the drilling in the wood was indeed the work of a bee. But it also refuted the supposition that this was a bumble bee. What we discovered was that this was a bee called the Carpenter Bee, and also many interesting facts. 

To start with, of course, the name. Carpenter bees are aptly named for their habits of drilling into wooden surfaces such as logs and tree branches, or in urban areas, wood used for construction. They drill a neat hole in the wood and tunnel into the wood in order to make their nest and lay their eggs. In a couple of hours the carpenter bee can drill a hole a few inches deep, leaving beneath the debris of sawdust.


Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa latipes) are one of the largest bees we have here in India. They are big and black with an intimidating appearance. Their wings shine in the sunlight with metallic blue, green and purple colours. The male and the female are more or less similar, but the male has hairier legs.   

Carpenter bees do indeed resemble bumblebees, but while bumblebees usually have a hairy abdomen with black and yellow stripes, carpenter bees typically have a shiny, hairless abdomen. The two bees also have different nesting habits–bumblebees nest in an existing cavity often underground (e.g., in abandoned rodent burrows), whereas carpenter bees tunnel into wood to lay their eggs.

Another distinguishing feature of Carpenter bees is that they are solitary bees, unlike most other honeybees and bumblebees that live in colonies and are known as social insects. The honeybees make hives, while carpenter bees excavate and make well structured tunnels in wood. They vibrate their bodies as they rasp their mandibles against the wood.

After boring a short distance, the bee makes a right angle turn and continues to make a tunnel extending about 30-45 centimetres, parallel to the wood surface. Inside the tunnel, five or six cells are constructed. Each cell houses a single egg, and each one is provided with a wad of pollen collected from flowers, which could serve as nourishment for the larva when the egg hatches. Each cell is then sealed with regurgitated wood pulp and saliva. The larvae feed on the high protein and calorie pollen beebread, and enter hibernation, before they turn into adult bees and emerge from the tunnel. Adult females can live up to three years and can produce two generations of offspring per year, though they never see their offspring!

What an amazing feat of insect architecture was going on, hidden from us, in the single beam of wood right over our head, as we sipped our morning tea!

Equally impressive is the contribution of these bees to the cycle of nature. Carpenter bees typically visit large open-faced flowers which have a lot of pollen as well as nectar. They use vibrations to release the pollen from the flower’s anthers, and are described as buzz pollinators. As they feed on nectar from many flowers, the pollen from the flowers sticks to the underside of the abdomen and the legs, which is transported from flower to flower as they flit and settle to feed, playing a vital role in pollination.

Curiously while I have seen the bee hovering around the wooden beams, I have yet to see one buzzing around the flowers. So the next step in my tracking the bee’s journey still remains incomplete. Even the drilling seems to happen after dusk, as the saw dust appears only in the morning, when the bee appears to be rather ominously hovering around, guarding the entrance to its nesting tunnel, and then flying off into the sunlight.

Interestingly, despite their intimidating appearance, it seems that the males are harmless and do not sting. Female carpenter bees can inflict a painful sting but will seldom do so — unless they are handled or bothered by people– another difference between these solitary bees and other bees and wasps that inflict dangerous stings.

While carpenter bees are have their own place in nature, when they start their drilling activities in wood in houses and gardens, they can become pests. As they hollow out the wood, this can lead to the deterioration or collapse of wooden structures. With our already old and weather-worn wooden beams starting to become favoured nesting sites for Carpenter bees, we had to look for ways to stop these boring buzzers. Research indicated that one option was to inject chemical insecticides or pesticides into the holes. We could not bring ourselves to do this.

We then read that these quiet-loving bees do not like vibration or noise around their nests, but seeing as they were happily drilling right next to our large and loud wind chime, this was obviously not bothering them.

Another thing that these bees are said to be very sensitive to is citrus scents near their nest, and spraying citrus oil into the holes was a recommended way to foist them off. We have arrived at our version of this by plugging the new holes with wedges of lemon. We think that this is playing some part in preventing their access, so one battle at a time is won. But this has certainly not deterred their efforts at drilling new holes; so if the hollowed-out beam collapses on our heads one fine morning, the bees would have won the war! 


‘Flagman’ Pingali Venkaiah

A young boy, very far from home, was fighting an alien war, on foreign land as part of an imperialist army. His name was Pingali Venkaiah. He was a soldier in the British Indian Army fighting for the British in the Anglo Boer war in South Africa, at the end of the 19th century. Around the same time, another young man in South Africa was starting his experiments with what was to become a lifelong crusade for truth, justice and freedom. His name was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

When the Boer War broke out in 1899, while Gandhi’s sympathies were with the indigenous Boers, but as a member of the British crown colony of Natal he felt that he needed to contribute to the British efforts. Gandhi set up an Ambulance Corps of 1100 volunteers, out of whom 300 were free Indians and the rest indentured labourers. Gandhi’s task was to instil in this motley group a spirit of service to those they regarded as their oppressors. Gandhi’s corps placed a significant role as stretcher bearers, carrying the wounded out from the battlefield.

At some time during this period, the 19-year-old Pingali met Gandhi, who had already become known for his mission for justice. He must have seen Gandhi as described by the Pretoria News: Gandhi was stoical in his bearing, cheerful and confident in his conversation and had a kindly eye. Pingali was deeply impressed and influenced, and a bond was formed between the two; a bond that would endure half a century.

Inspired by Gandhi, and the strong urge for freedom from colonial rule, Pingali, on his return from Africa, became a member of the secret revolutionary units fighting against the British Raj and spent time in Eluru. At the same time he began to seriously pursue his interest in agriculture, especially the farming of cotton. He spent a lot of time in experimenting with cotton cultivation. He imported Cambodian variety of cotton seeds from America and crossed them with Indian seeds to create an indigenous hybrid variety of cotton seeds. He acquired a piece of land in the nearby Chellapalli village and planted these seeds. The fine variety of cotton that grew from these, came to the notice of the local British officers during an agricultural exhibition in 1909. The Royal Agricultural Society of London offered him an honorary membership. He became locally famous as ‘Patti (cotton) Venkaiah’.

Along with agriculture Pingali continued to pursue his academic interests, especially in languages. This took him to Lahore to study Sanskrit, Urdu and Japanese in the Anglo Vedic School. He became fluent in all the languages, and in 1913, gave a full length speech in Japanese that earned him the moniker of ‘Japan Venkaiah’.

Pingali joined the railway services as a guard and was posted to Bangalore and Bellary. During those years, Madras was reeling under the plague epidemic. Seeing the plight of those suffering, he quit his job and went there to work for a short time as an inspector of the Plague Disease Eradication Organization.

Pingali continued his commitment to the freedom movement. He attended the sessions of the Indian National Congress. At the Calcutta session in 1906, Pingali’s patriotic sentiments were deeply hurt at seeing the English Union Jack being hoisted. He returned from the session with a new passion—a national flag for India. He started by researching the flags of different countries, even while pursuing his numerous other interests and occupations. In 1916 he published a book titled A National Flag for India which included thirty designs for the flag. From 1916 to 1921, at every session of the Indian National Congress, Pingali raised the issue of the need for a national flag. Gandhi liked the concept, but his vision was that of a flag that would “stir the nation to its depth”, a flag that “represents and reconciles all religions”.

It was in 1921, at the meeting of the Congress at Vijaywada that Pingali showed Gandhi his book with designs of the flags. Gandhi appreciated Pingali’s hard work and persistence. In an article in Young India titled Our National Flag he wrote: “We should be prepared to sacrifice our lives for the sake of our National Flag. Pingali Venkaiah who is working in Andhra National College Machilipatnam, has published a book, describing the flags of the countries and has designed many models for our own National Flag. I appreciate his hard struggle during the sessions of Indian National Congress for the approval of Indian National Flag. When I visited Vijaywada, I asked Mr Venkaiah to prepare a two coloured flag with red and green colours along with a Chakra symbol and obtained it within three hours from him. Later we had decided to include the white colour, also the colour that reminds of truth and non violence”.


Pingali worked overnight to make a fresh design that would reflect Gandhiji’s vision. The flag, as Pingali Venkaiah designed it, became the blueprint for what would, eventually, become the national tricolour of India. And earned its creator another title: ‘Jhanda Venkaiah’ or Flag Venkaiah.

In 1931, the flag was officially adopted by the Indian National Congress with some changes in design. Pingali Venkaiah’s nationalist mission was fulfilled, but he continued to be a part of Gandhiji’s mission for Swaraj until India gained her Independence on 15 August 1947, when India’s own flag was proudly hoisted, as the Union Jack came down.

After 1947, Pingali Vekaiah withdrew from active politics and settled down in Nellore. He had always had a keen interest in geology, and a sound knowledge of the precious and semi-precious stones in that region. He now seriously embarked on yet another area of study—gemology. He soon became an expert in the field, writing research articles, advising the Government of India and conducting field trips. Thereby adding another title to his repertoire—‘Diamond Venkaiah’.

A humble unassuming man of amazing versatile talents, Pingali Venkaiah lived his life following his inspiration Gandhiji’s motto of simple living, high thinking. So much so that his last days were spent in utter penury. While the young Republic proudly raised its tricolour as the symbol of its growing stature and strength, the man who had dreamed and designed this very symbol was increasingly forgotten.

But for Pingali Venkaiah this flag signified the highest fulfilment of his life. As he wrote in his will, his final wish was that his body be covered with the tricolour before he was put on the pyre, and then be removed and hung on a tree branch. Pingali Venkaiah died on 4 July 1963, and his wish was fulfilled.

This month all Indians have cheered as our tricolour was raised high by our young Olympians. This week we will hold our heads high as we salute our Nation. A good time to also remember the generation of Indians that fought and sacrificed so much to give us these proud moments. And to recall Gandhiji’s words: The national flag is the symbol of non-violence and national unity to be brought about by means strictly truthful and non-violent.