Doctor Without Borders: Jonathan Kaplan

Last week I wrote about a young doctor who chose to use his medical training to serve people in war situations. This was Dr Kotnis who worked with passion and dedication on the war front in China, almost a century ago. Every generation and every period of history has examples of such professionals who voluntarily choose to serve in some of the most difficult and dangerous situations.

Doctors without Borders

I recently read a fascinating account by such a doctor in our own times. This is Dr Jonathan Kaplan who began his medical career, as do all doctors, after long and intensive years of study. Dr Kaplan graduated from medical school in South Africa and spent the next ten years acquiring specialist qualifications and training as a general surgeon, and super-specialization in vascular surgery in hospitals in the UK and USA. This equipped him to move on to become a “consultant” with a comfortable and prosperous practice. In his own words:

Master of Surgery. The title had a ring of Zen about it, as though I was now a sage of some martial art, a mystic bladesman. I had trodden the path of professional dedication, served the necessary years at the required levels of experience and responsibility, paid all my dues to date. A consultant post—the reward for all this industry—lay ahead, with attendant success and security. But I found myself beset by an odd emptiness…

This sense of emptiness led Jonathan to choose otherwise. He became a “medical vagabond” as he describes himself. He spent many years as a volunteer surgeon in some of the world’s most dangerous war zones in the 1990s. He attended to the casualties of apartheid in Cape Town; worked on the front line treating Kurdish fighters during the uprising at the end of the Gulf War, and in a part of Burma’s Shan state under attack by the Burmese army; in Mozambique during the civil war, and in Eritrea at the time of the Ethiopian offensive in 2000.

Besides the blood, sweat and tears of the battlefield, the adventurous Jonathan Kaplan was always looking for new challenges. In his own words Working as a doctor in war zones was voluntary and unpaid. My hospital career looked increasingly uncertain—my curriculum vitae was a curious patchwork of jobs that shocked the sensibilities of staid consultants—and I was considering a full-time post in accident and emergency medicine where I hoped a varied resume might be less provocative to the interview committees.

But that was not to be. A variety of chance offers led to interesting stints where Dr Kaplan saw different sides to the realities of illness and emergency care. Among these was being an air ambulance doctor, and a resident doctor on a cruise liner. He also became deeply engaged in an investigation on the impacts of mercury poisoning in a part of Brazil.  

For most of his life Jonathan Kaplan worked tirelessly, and with minimal resources, amidst the most challenging conditions and heart-rending human tragedy, using every skill at his disposal to treat the wounded, and save lives. At the same time he also meticulously documented the politics, struggles, and universal human dilemmas. These have been published in a book titled The Dressing Station.

The book is a fascinating read, that vividly describes some of the most tragic and devastating impacts of war on human beings, alongside some highly technical details of surgery, and the contradictions of war-zone realities. But Jonathan is much more than a reporter. He also shares his angst and his internal struggles to maintain his humanity even under the most inhuman circumstances. He wonders about human life, and the role that doctors have to play in the human drama between birth and death. That is what makes his writing both eye-opening, as well as thought-provoking, not just for medical practitioners, but for every one of us who are on the other side of the ‘consulting table’.

As he shares: I have practised medicine in diverse fields: as a hospital surgeon, a flying doctor, a ship’s medical officer. I have operated on wounded straight off the battlefield, treated people with rich stains of tropical disease raging in their bloodstreams, and tried to help those affected by occupational illness from industrial toxins or work place stress. I have run research programmes funded by corporate finance—that met the needs of the shareholders before they benefitted any patients—and I’ve cared for children wasted by diseases of famine and war. Like most doctors I have seen my craft used and abused; been part of its successes and witnessed its failings. It is by the means of this unforgiving arena that we struggle to define ourselves.

He further ponders on his work and on life: No clinician can give an objective account of that work: the intersection between doctor and patient is mutual and intimate, and in the end comes down to something between us that is a fragile thing, as fragile as life. All we can do is the best we can in the war against death and against despair, including our own. For at its extreme the practice of medicine is a succession of front line, and each victory is only a temporary respite.

Dr Kaplan continues to take periodic assignments as a volunteer surgeon in conflict zones amidst UK hospital surgery, film-making, academic teaching, and working as a photographer, and as an advisor on medical TV dramas. He has also proposed, investigated, researched, produced and directed documentaries on health, development and environmental issues for several TV channels.

I picked up The Dressing Station by chance, not having earlier heard of Jonathan Kaplan. It was a gripping read. I look forward to reading his second book Contact Wounds.


A Doctor Abroad: Dr Kotnis

Much has been written in the past month about Indian medical students going to distant and relatively unfamiliar countries to pursue medical studies. Many of these young students have ambitions of making a successful and prosperous career after they obtain their degrees. Here is an unusual story about an Indian doctor who went abroad, over a century ago, not in the pursuit of name and money, but to use his education and skills in the service of those who needed them the most.  

Dwarakanath Shantaram Kotnis was born on 1 October 1910 in a middle-class family in Sholapur, Maharashtra. He grew up as one of seven children in the family, and his father had to take loans to support his children’s education. Dwarakanath moved to Bombay to pursue medical studies at the Seth GS Medical College. Possibly unlike his fellow students at that time, the young Dwarakanath’s ambition was to practise medicine in a different part of the world. And as destiny would have it, his dream took on an unexpected form.

Dwarakanath acquired his medical degree in 1938. The world was already in the throes of conflicts that would escalate into World War II. China had been invaded by in the early 1930s by the Japanese who were seeking raw materials for their growing industries. By 1937 Japan controlled large sections of China, and war crimes against the Chinese became commonplace. There were large scale massacres of civilians, and the Chinese resistance army suffered heavy casualties. At the same time there was an acute shortage of doctors who could attend to the injured and the dying.

It was at this time that General Zhu De, a Chinese revolutionary had written to Jawaharlal Nehru with a plea to send doctors to save the lives of the soldiers. India was in the midst of its own movement of freedom from British rule. The Indian National Congress under the leadership of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose decided to send a team of five doctors to China to show the solidarity of the people of India with the Chinese in their fight against the Japanese aggression.

There was a call for doctors to volunteer for this mission. Dwarakanath was one of those who volunteered. He was 28 years old; neither he nor his family knew much about China, but he felt an inner urge to venture beyond familiar territory to practice the subjects that he had studied, in challenging circumstances. This decision would prove to be a life-changing one.

Thus young Dr Kotnis joined the team of five Indian doctors headed for China. The other four members of the team were M Cholkar from Nagpur, BK Basu and Debesh Mukherjee from Calcutta, and M Atal from Allahabad.

Dr Kotnis in China Source:

The young doctors, the first medical team from another Asian country who had volunteered help, were personally received by Mao Zedong and General Zhu De. They were plunged straight into the war zone in Northern China where mobile medical units were treating wounded soldiers. The situation was very stressful, physically and mentally. About 800 injured soldiers had to be attended to every day which meant that the doctors often worked round the clock without rest or sleep. The young doctors stood up to the challenge, saving hundreds of lives and treating thousands of wounded.

As the battle in the North subsided, the Indian team was free to return home, and four members did so. But Dr Kotnis was reluctant to return. He wanted to spend more time in a country that he was beginning to know and love, and continue to contribute to the war effort. He joined Mao-led Eighth Route Army in 1939. He continued to work tirelessly, performing operations for up to 72 hours without a break, and treating hundreds of patients, day and night. He did not return home even when he heard about his father’s death.

Years later he was remembered by the ordinary people as a kind doctor who not only helped ease their pain and suffering, but was also concerned about their basic needs. He learned to read and write Mandarin Chinese and was able to communicate with the people in their language. He became one of them. They in turn adopted him and called him Kedihua dai fu (Kedihua was Kotnis’ Chinese name and dai fu meaning doctor).  He was also nicknamed “Dr Thoughtful” and “Old Ke”.

Around this time he also met Guo Qinglan who had volunteered as a nurse in the Eighth Route Army. The couple got married in December 1941.They had a son who they aptly named Yinhua; the Chinese character for Yin meant India and Hua meant China.

In 1941 Dr Kotnis was appointed as director of the Bethune International Peace Hospital in Shijiazhuang named after the famous Canadian surgeon Norman Bethune. Bethune was a Canadian physician and social activist who had also moved to China in 1938-39 during the Second Sino-Japanese and volunteered as a medical advisor to the 8th Route Army. He was a brilliant surgeon who not only worked on battlefields, but also helped in training medical personnel, and setting up medical programmes and hospitals to reform the health care system in China. He was deeply committed to the welfare of the poor. Dr Bethune died on the frontline, of blood poisoning in 1939, and became a national hero.

Dr Kotnis was a fit choice to carry forward the legacy of the revered Dr Bethune, who had had a similar professional path. Dr Kotnis continued to work with the same intensity and passion as he had done on the battlefield. He was also teaching medical students. As there were no textbooks he started compiling them himself. But the unrelenting stress had taken a toll on the young doctor’s health. Only three months after the birth of his son, Dr Kotnis was struck by a series of epileptic seizures that cut short his life. Even as he was writing his second surgery textbook, he collapsed, and following a seizure, died on 9 December 1942. He was just 32 years old.  He was buried in the Heroes Courtyard in Nanquan village in China among the people he made his own.

While the work of Dr Kotnis is not as well documented or known in India, the name and legacy of Ke Dihua as he was fondly called, are still remembered and revered in China. The Shijiazhuang Ke Dihua Medical Science Secondary Specialized School been named after him; from which over 45000 medical professionals have graduated. There are memorials and statues of him in several towns in China.

7 April is marked as World Health Day. A good time to remember a doctor who lived his short life with complete commitment and passion for the health of all people.


One-Bird Orchestra: Magpie Robin

The mellifluous notes fill the pre-dawn darkness. You wonder who these “earlier birds” are that have already got their orchestra going in full throttle, even before the other ‘early birds’ clear their throats and tune up for the day ahead. As you walk along you see a little bird on the ground under a tall tree. Dapper in its neat dress of black and white, its tail is held upright as it moves, just as the baton of the orchestra conductor. This is the Magpie Robin—the conductor and orchestra all rolled into one.  This one does not need a warm up. It bursts straight into a symphony.

The Oriental Magpie Robin is a member of the order Passeriformes which includes more than half of all the bird species. Passerines are perching birds which are distinguished by their toe pattern—three toes facing forward and one toe facing backward—which allows the bird to easily grasp, and cling to both horizontal and nearly vertical perches, including branches and tree trunks

Its scientific name is Copsychus saularis. In the early days there was confusion about this name as early scientists were misled by its Indian name dhaiyal which they believed referred to sundial and hence ‘solaris’. An Englishman Edward Blyth thought that this was inappropriate, and rather felt that the Hindi term saulary (meaning hundred songs) was more fitting. A specimen of the bird along with its Hindi name, was even sent from Madras to James Petiver, a London apothecary famous for his collections of specimens.  

Saularis or hundred songs aptly describes this handsome song bird. A black-and-white bird with a cocked tail and upright stance, it is about the size of a bulbul. The male has glossy blue-black upper parts, head and throat, with a white belly, and a broad white band on the wing and white edges on the tail. The female has similar markings, but with slate-grey upperparts and buff flanks.

Magpie Robins are commonly found hear human habitation, in gardens, parks and wooded areas. They can be seen singly or in pairs near shrubs and bushes. But for the most part of the year they are not conspicuous, as they are shy and quiet, only uttering a plaintive swee-ee and harsh chr-r, chr-r notes from time to time.  

It is during their breeding season from March till June that they attract our attention, not so much by their sighting but by their sound. This is when the male Magpie Robin pours his heart out in song to attract a mate, as well as to declare and guard his territory. He can be seen perched on a post, or unseen, high up on a leafless tree top, filling the air with his musical notes, punctuated with upward jerks of his tail.

The little fellow has an amazing repertoire of tunes, switching effortlessly from one to another. Besides his own calls, he is also adept at perfectly mimicking the calls of other birds. This ability he uses, not so much to charm his future mate, but to guard his territory. Sometimes, by pretending to be three different birds calling from different locations, the magpie robin male can fool potential intruders into believing that the large territory is already occupied, and unavailable for new lodgers. In case a bold outsider ventures within, the songster transforms into a pugnacious defender, raising his bill, fanning the tail, puffing up his feathers, and strutting aggressively.   Additionally, the bird also emits different types of calls, such as threat calls and distress calls, depending on the occasion.

Having finally won over his mate with song and macho displays, the Magpie Robin is ready to set up home. It is the female who takes on the task of the nest builder, making a pad of grass, rootlets and hair in a hollow cavity in a tree trunk, old bough or wall. She lays three to five pale blue green eggs with brownish specks; the eggs are oval in shape. She alone incubates the eggs for 8-14 days, and then feeds her fledglings. Her musical mate however shares some other domestic duties such as protecting the nest from intruders or damage.

Magpie Robins are largely insectivorous. Though chiefly arboreal, they pick crickets, grasshoppers, ants, caterpillars and other insects off the ground, as well as eating worms, snails, centipedes and small lizards. They also visit Silk Cotton and Coral tree blossoms to feed on the nectar.  

The Magpie Robin is known by many names in different parts of India. Dhaiyal or Dhaiyar in Hindi and Bengali; Daiyyad in Gujarati; Dominga in Marathi; Kali sooi chiria in Madhya Pradesh.

The bird is equally familiar and known in our neighbouring countries where it is viewed in different ways. In Sri Lanka this bird is called Polkichcha (coconut bird) as well as Pahan-Kichcha (Dawn bird); and it was traditionally believed to be a bird of ill-omen. Its singing is believed to announce bad news, and villagers usually chase it away from the neighbourhood of their dwellings.

On the other hand, in Bangladesh the Magpie Robin known as Doyel or Doel is so well known, and liked, that it has been recognized as the national bird of the country, It is a widely used symbol, even appearing on currency notes in Bangladesh; and a landmark in the capital Dhaka is called Doel Chattar (Doel Square).

Unfortunately it is the song of this bird that puts its own survival in danger. Magpie Robins are popular as caged song birds and there is a widespread illegal trade in these birds, which are sold as pet songbirds. They are smuggled out in large numbers especially from Malaysia, leading to an alarming decline in their populations. As with all species, these birds are also threatened by habitat destruction and climate change. Although the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List has listed the Oriental Magpie Robin as a species of Least Concern, the declining numbers are beginning to cause concern. In Singapore and Hong Kong, this species of birds is protected by law.

In these times when the senses are besieged 24/7 by sights and sounds of war and destruction, I feel blessed that I can start my day with the lilting music of the Magpie Robin. And I cannot but help wistfully thinking what the world would be like if we humans too could defend our territories with songs instead of guns and bombs.


Weather Woman Anna Mani

When she turned eight, Anna Modayil Mani was to be gifted a pair of diamond earrings, as per her family tradition. Young Anna requested instead a gift of Encyclopaedia Britannica! This was a bit of a shock for the Mani family in Travancore in Kerala. Anna, the seventh of eight siblings, grew up in a well-to-do but traditional family where sons were groomed for high level careers and daughters were trained to be mothers and housemakers in preparation for an early marriage. Anna however showed signs of breaking the mould from an early age when she spent her time devouring all the books in the house. Her lifelong love for nature was planted and nurtured by long walks in the forests around her father’s cardamom estates, and swimming in the backwaters and rivers. And her scientific mind was imprinted with her father’s teaching not to accept any statement unless it could be tested and verified.

Born in 1918, Anna was only seven years old when Mahatma Gandhi visited Travancore which was the epicentre of the Vaikom Satyagraha. Gandhi’s visit made such a deep impression on the young girl that she decided to wear only khadi. The spirit of nationalism that pervaded the period also instilled in young Anna the fierce spirit of freedom, including the freedom to make her own decisions. Thus, she chose to pursue higher education rather than marriage which her sisters had easily opted for.

Anna joined Presidency College in Madras from where she graduated with an honours degree in Physics in 1939. A year later she got a scholarship to undertake research at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore where she was accepted as a research scholar in CV Raman’s laboratory to work on the spectroscopy of diamonds and rubies. Thus Anna began to research the very stone that she had turned down in her childhood.

The experiments were challenging and laborious; Anna worked for long hours, often through the night. Between 1942 and 1945, she published five single-authored papers on luminescence of diamonds and ruby. In August 1945 she submitted her PhD dissertation to Madras University. The University, with a blend of bureaucracy and gender bias, denied granting her the degree on the basis that she did not have an MSc degree. This, despite the fact that she had won a scholarship for research at the Indian Institute of Science, and had worked with CV Raman.

Anna was not daunted by this. Around the same time, the Indian government had announced scholarships for internships abroad in various fields, and Anna applied. In 1945, just as WWII was ending, she boarded a troopship to England with the government scholarship to take up an internship in in meteorological instrumentation at the Imperial College in London. Although she had wanted to pursue further research in physics, this was the only internship available. And it is meteorology that was to become her life’s metier.

Anna Mani returned to an independent India in 1948, and joined the Indian Meteorological Department at Pune where a programme to design weather instruments was taking shape. Anna was put in charge of construction of radiation instrumentation. Despite a paucity of resources, she would not compromise on research or quality; she inspired the scientists under her to “Find a better way to do it!”

Anna Mani standardised the drawings for nearly 100 different weather instruments and started their production. She worked with members of the World Meteorological Organisation to rigorously compare measurements to verify the accuracy of Indian instruments, as she fiercely believed that “Wrong measurements are worse than no measurements at all.” She continued her link with academic research and published a number of papers on subjects ranging from atmospheric ozone, to the need for international instrument comparisons and national standardisation

During the International Geophysical Year (1957-58), she set up a network of stations in India to measure solar radiation. Her focus was on the instrumentation meant to measure solar radiation, taking into account its seasonal and regional variation across India.

By 1964, Anna Mani became involved in the ozone-monitoring efforts in India; this was well before the Ozone Hole became an international issue. India had stations to measure ozone since the 1940s, but it was Mani’s team that in 1967, developed the Indian ozonesonde, a balloon-borne instrument to measure ozone levels. They also updated ground-based equipment so that Indian scientists had a lot of data to work with. The scientist also published a number of papers on subjects ranging from atmospheric ozone to the need for international instrument comparisons and national standardisation. Anna Mani received a citation from the International Ozone Commission for her work on ozone-level measurements from 1960 to 1990.

In 1963, at the request of Vikram Sarabhai of she successfully set up a meteorological observatory and an instrumentation tower at the Thumba rocket launching facility.

Anna Mani’s work of three decades made a valuable contribution to Indian meteorological sciences, indigenously manufactured instruments, reliable data, scientific rigour and up-to-date methodology. It was Mani who spearheaded India’s efforts to manufacture its own weather observation equipment, such as barometers and wind gauges, dramatically bringing down their cost – at the same time, she ensured their reliability and precision.

Anna Mani retired as deputy director general of the Indian Meteorological Department in 1976. She returned to the Raman Research Institute as a visiting professor for three years. Later she set up a millimetre-wave telescope at Nandi Hills, Bangalore. She published two books, The Handbook for Solar Radiation Data for India (1980) and Solar Radiation over India (1981), which have become standard reference guides for solar tech engineers.

Mani did not marry, she spent her life in the pursuit of science, In 1994 she suffered a stroke which affected her mobility; and died in 2001.

Anna Mani was steeped in, and driven by her passion for work. As she once said “I should be most unhappy to wake up without the prospect of some work to do.” But she went on to say that when the work was done, she enjoyed listening to music, reading and enjoying nature, her childhood passions.

Her advice to young meteorologists was, “We have only one life. First equip yourself for the job, make full use of your talents and then love and enjoy the work, making the most of being out of doors and in contact with nature.”

23 March is marked as World Meteorological Day. This is a good time to celebrate Anna Mani and her significant contributions that made independent India self-reliant in measuring aspects of the weather, and helped lay the ground for harnessing solar and wind power as alternative sources of energy.



It is the season of colours. In Nature this is when blossoms and blooms announce the arrival of spring. The birds flaunt their plumage to attract their mates. It is colours that make this statement with an astounding variety of shades, from the flamboyant to the nuanced.

Colours are also significant in the world of humans. They express our moods, and our preferences. They indicate our race, nationality, or our sexuality. They inspire, as well as give form to our art, our textiles, and our cuisines. Each colour is unique in itself, but it is when colours come together that the real magic happens.

Sadly it is when colours begin to define race and politics that the magic turns murky. It is when national colours become the label of “friend” or “enemy”, and when the colour of the skin assumes pejorative tones that colours begin to create dangerous schisms and chasms. This when humans become so blinkered that colours begin to assume divisive identities; that colours increasingly create silos within which monochromatic sentiments fester until they explode in violence and war.

These ruminations were triggered by a poem that I came across. The words are simple, but the thoughts profound.


While walking into a toy store

The day before today

I came upon a crayon box

With many things to say.

“I don’t like Red!” said Orange.

And Green said “Nor do I”.

“And no one here likes Yellow.

But no one knows just why.”

“We are a box of crayons

That does not get along.”

Said Blue to all the others,

“Something here is wrong.”

Well I bought that box of crayons

And I took it home with me.

And I laid out all the crayons

So the crayons could all see.

They watched me as I coloured

With Red and Blue and Green.

And Black and White and Orange

And every colour in between.

They watched as Green became the grass

And Blue became the sky.

The yellow sun was shining bright

On white clouds drifting by.

Colours changing as they touched,

Becoming something new.

They watched me as I coloured

They watched till I was through.

And when I finally finished,

I began to walk away.

And as I did the crayon box.

Had something more to say.

“I do like Red” said Orange

And Green said “So do I!”

“And Blue, you were terrific.

So high up in the sky!”

“We are a box of crayons

Each of us unique.

But when we are together

The picture is complete.”

Today as we celebrate Holi, the festival of colours, let the colours unite us in our revelries, in their true spirit. Let colours become all-inclusive rather than exclusive. Let the many different shades and tints come together to weave a magnificent and rich multi-hued tapestry. Let us remember that within every colour lies a story, and stories are the binding agent of cultures.

Happy Holi!


Two Faces of War

As the world watches in despair at another meaningless war, amidst the dark and dismal narratives, it is the stories of hope and resilience that resonate the loudest. And unknown or forgotten connections are remembered anew.

For many of us, Ukraine was just another name on the map, and we imagined that it was far away geographically and personally. Until we read about the many many Indians who have been living, studying and working there. It got even closer with the media in Gujarat full of stories not only of the Gujarati students who were stranded there, but equally of the way other Gujaratis in neighbouring countries were offering overwhelming help and support to fellow countrymen in need. In Poland especially food and shelter is being given with open hearts and homes—helping to create a little India in a distant land.  

This link with Poland goes back many years, back to another war—World War II, and a reverse flow of displaced people. One of the heart-warming stories is about how the Maharaja of Jamnagar created a Little Poland in Gujarat.

In 1939 Poland was invaded by both Germany and Russia. There were mass arrests, massacres, grabbing of land and businesses, and large-scale deportations. Over two million Polish civilians were sent to camps in Siberia, and thousands died, even before they got there. Hundreds of Polish children were left orphaned or abandoned. In 1941 there was an international amnesty that allowed the destitute refugees to leave the Soviet Union. They undertook arduous and long journeys to distant lands that were offering them refuge.

India was at the time, still under British rule and the British government was not keen on accepting refugees. In the face of severe opposition by the British, Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji Jadeja or “Jam Saheb” as he was called, the Maharaja of Nawanagar, a princely state in Gujarat was the first to offer the orphaned children from Poland refuge. The 46 year old king had developed a special interest in Polish culture ever since his meeting with Ignacy Padrewski, a Polish pianist that he had met in Switzerland. He was moved by the plight of the Polish orphans. Despite the official British refusal to accept these refugees, as the head of a princely state the Maharaja had some level of autonomy. He was determined to use it and take in the homeless children. 

In early 1942 the first group of 170 children who reached Bombay, and travelled on to Balachadi a small seashore town close to the maharaja’s capital Jamnagar. The maharaja welcomed them with the words “You are no longer orphans. From now on you are Nawanagarians and I am Bapu, father of all Nawanagarians, so I’m your father as well”.

Bapu Jam Saheb and his Polish children at a Xmas show

Jam Saheb was true to his word. The children were initially put up in tented accommodation while the Balachadi camp was being built. The maharaja went to great lengths to ensure that Balachadi became a home away from home for these children who, at a young age, had experienced dislocation, loss of family and home, and the horrors of war. He built dormitories in which each child had a separate bed, and generously provided food, clothes and medical care. He converted the guest house of his Balachadi palace into a school, and even set up a special library with Polish books so that the children would not forget their mother tongue. He was concerned that they should not forget their own culture; he encouraged the children to put up shows including their songs and dances, and continued the country’s strong traditions of Scouts and the church. He encouraged children to play sports, and they were free to use his gardens, squash courts, and pool. He was concerned about their choice of food and would host special meals for the children. One of the children recalled, many years later, how the children did not like the way spinach was cooked and went on a ’spinach strike’. When the Jam Saheb heard about this he immediately ordered the cooks not to include spinach in the meals. 

Between 1942 and 1946 over 600 Polish children found a home in Little Poland thanks to the maharaja. When the war ended and the orphans had to return to Europe, both the children and the maharaja were heart-broken. The unusual bond that was formed remained strong, and played a crucial role in giving stability and hope to children who had lost everything.

The Maharaja died in 1966. His Polish “children” had spread across the world in countries where they started new lives after the end of the war. 76 years later, as a testimony to the enduring bonds, and to mark 100 years of Poland’s independence, in 2018, six of these “children” (now in their nineties) returned to Balachadi. They walked down memory lane, remembering the Bapu who not only gave them a home, but also their childhood.

Jam Saheb is remembered not only by his children, but is also considered a hero by the country that honours his generosity. He was posthumously awarded the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit. A city square in the heart of Warsaw is named Skwer Dobrego Maharadzy (The Square of the Good Maharaja). When he was alive the Maharaja had been asked how the Polish people could thank him for his generosity and he had replied that they could name a school after him. One of the city’s foremost private schools is named the Maharaja Jam Saheb Digvijaysinhji High School. A fitting tribute indeed.

Today, as another war rages, Poland is welcoming thousands of displaced women and children. Perhaps some of them will find refuge in the Square of the Good Maharaja, and history would have come full circle.


War and Peace

Once again the world is at war. Just as the images of the ravages in Afghanistan were beginning to fade, our senses are once again overwhelmed with the heart wrenching narratives of the unfolding tragedy of war in Ukraine. As the powers that be are flexing their muscles and showcasing their might, and statesman are spouting rhetoric, people like you and me have had their entire life turned upside down overnight. Behind the smoke and the rubble are thousands of human faces, each with their personal stories of loss and trauma, looking into an abyss of uncertainty.  

In all the din and despair, we all need some words of sanity and hope, but there are so few voices now that can bring some reason and solace. Sadly in the last few months the world lost two such voices who saw the senselessness of war and dedicated their life to peace. One was Archbishop Desmond Tutu who passed away in December 2021 and to whom we paid tribute in our piece Looking Ahead With Hope posted on 30 December 2021. The other was Thich Nhat Hanh who passed away in January this year at the age of 95.                        

Thich Nhat Hanh was a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who was a prolific author, poet, teacher and peace activist. He was born as Nguyen Dinh Lang in Hue in Central Vietnam on October 11, 1926. He joined a Zen monastery as a novice monk at the age of 16. Upon his ordination in 1949, he assumed the Dharma name Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich is an honorary family name used by Vietnamese monks and nuns. Later he was universally best known as Thay which means teacher.

Even as a young bhikshu (monk) in the early 1950s, Thich Nhat Hanh was actively engaged in the movement to renew Vietnamese Buddhism. He was one of the first bhikshus to study a secular subject at university in Saigon, and one of the first six monks to ride a bicycle.

When war came to Vietnam in the mid-1950s, monks and nuns were confronted with the question of whether to adhere to the contemplative life and stay meditating in the monasteries, or to help those around them suffering under the bombings and turmoil of war. Thich Nhat Hanh was one of those who chose to do both. Even as he was getting deeper into the spiritual realm of Buddhist beliefs, he was also actively engaged in the efforts at mitigating the devastating effects of the war on his people and country. In the early 1960s, Thich Nhat Hanh founded the School of Youth and Social Service, a grassroots relief organization of 10,000 volunteers including young monks. They went into the war affected areas to care for the wounded, to resettle the refugees by setting up new places for these people to live, to build schools and health centres. The youth did not see themselves as just social workers, but as practitioners of the Buddhist principles of non-violence and compassionate action.

In 1961 Thich Nhat Hanh travelled to the United States to teach Comparative Religion at Princeton University, and the following year went on to teach and research Buddhism at Columbia University. He returned to Vietnam in 1963 to join the growing Buddhist opposition to the U.S.-Vietnam War, which attracted global attention because of self-immolation by several monks as a gesture of protest. He travelled once more to the U.S. and Europe to make the case for peace and to call for an end to hostilities in Vietnam. Towards the height of the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s he met civil rights leader Martin Luther King, whom he persuaded to speak out against the conflict.

In 1964 Thich Nhat Hanh published a poem called Condemnation in a Buddhist weekly. It reads in part:

Whoever is listening, be my witness:
I cannot accept this war.
I never could I never will.
I must say this a thousand times before I am killed.
I am like the bird who dies for the sake of its mate,
dripping blood from its broken beak and crying out:
“Beware! Turn around and face your real enemies
— ambition, violence hatred and greed.”

The poem earned him the label “antiwar poet,” and he was denounced as a pro-Communist propagandist. As his voice began to be heard in America and Europe, and because he refused to support either North or South Vietnam in the conflict, both the communist and non-communist governments banned him from entering the countries, forcing Thich Nhat Hanh to live in exile for over 39 years. As he explained “I did not intend to come and to stay for a long time in the West. In fact, I was invited to deliver a series of talks and took the opportunity to speak about the war, the version that was not heard by people outside of Vietnam because the Buddhists in Vietnam, we represent the majority who do not side themselves with any warring parties. And what we wanted really is not a victory, but the end of the war. So what I told people over here at that time did not please any warring parties in Vietnam. That is why I was not allowed to go home.”

During this period of exile, Thich Nhat Hanh, who spoke seven languages, became a global advocate for peace and spoke and wrote widely against the cycle of war and violence. He also continued to teach, lecture and write on the art of mindfulness and ‘living peace,’ and in the early 1970s was a lecturer and researcher in Buddhism at the University of Sorbonne, Paris. In 1975 he established the Sweet Potato community near Paris, and in 1982, moved to a much larger site in the south west of France, known as Plum Village which grew into the West’s largest and most active Buddhist monastery, with over 200 resident monastics and up to 8,000 visitors every year, who come from around the world to learn “the art of mindful living.”

Thich Nhat Hanh was able return to Vietnam only in 2005, when the Communist government allowed him to teach, practice and travel throughout the country. His anti-war activism continued. In 2014, a month after his 88th birthday he suffered a severe stroke which left him largely paralyzed and unable to speak but he continued to spread his message through his serene presence. Thich Nhat Hanh passed away peacefully at his root temple, Tu Hieu, in Hue, Vietnam, on January 22, 2022 at the age of 95.

If his physical presence was here today, the gentle monk would have been anguished by yet another meaningless war and reminded the world that there is an alternative path of trust, compassion and fellowship.  Let us remember his words:

“We know very well that airplanes, guns and bombs cannot remove wrong perceptions. Only loving speech and compassionate listening can help people correct wrong perceptions. But our leaders are not trained in that discipline, and they rely only on the armed forces to remove terrorism.”

And most of all: “Hope is important, because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.”

With hope for a better tomorrow.


Ayahs Remembered

Recently I read the memoirs of a member of a wealthy and renowned family of Gujarat. The author describes how when she was a young girl, her family used travel to Europe, and even spend considerable time living in England. This was in the early 1900s when not many Indian families did so. She also recalled that when the family returned from England, they brought back with them two English nannies. She remembers that in addition to being instilled with all the polite and proper English manners, the regimented life that she and her siblings led under the nannies; there were even allocated times when they could meet their parents.

While ‘nannies’ have had a long and characteristic role in English literature, it was interesting to read an Indian experience of English nannies. 

Coincidentally, the same week I read a very interesting account of the Indian nannies or ayahs as they were called, in the colonial period. Ayahs were essentially nannies from colonial India and other parts of Asia who were charged with looking after the children of English families in India. The practise probably began with the large numbers of British who came to India to work in different capacities under the East India Company. While most of these came from ordinary families, and were not very highly paid, the cost of living in India was so low as compared to England, that here they could afford to live luxurious lives, supported by a retinue of servants. The ayah who provided round-the-clock child care was an important part of this support system.

When the families returned home, it was common for them to take back the ayahs, especially to continue their duties during the months-long sea voyage back. But these ayahs were most often taken without any kind of formal contract or understanding about their terms of employment. And as the history indicates, many of these ayahs were dismissed or simply abandoned by the English families once they reached England. The employers often did not even arrange or pay for their return passage home. Several were ill-treated and abused by their employers. The ayahs, many of them young girls themselves, were literally thrown out on the street, with no money, employment nor place to stay. There was often no record of these women, even on the ship’s manifest, they were not listed by name, but only as ‘nanny’ of the family.

At one stage in the mid-1800s there were a considerable number of such homeless and helpless ayahs (and Chinese amahs) in London causing concern, especially among Christian charities. This led to the founding of what was called the Ayahs’ Home in 1825. Set up by the London City Mission, the house provided a refuge for abandoned or ill-treated ayahs. The ayahs stayed there until they could find alternate work, or find their return passage home. There was an interesting arrangement whereby the family that brought the ayah from India would pay the cost of the return fare to the Home, and the same would be sold to a family returning to India who would take the ayah back. There was on average 100 ayahs living in the Home, for varying periods of time. 

The original Home moved to another location in 1900 and once again in 1921 to what remained its location at 4 King Edward Road in Hackney. The Ayahs’ Home became an important landmark. It was the only such institution in Britain with a named building. Over time its history began to be forgotten.

In 2018 Farhanah Mamoojee a young British woman of Indian descent discovered, by chance, some stories about ayahs, and tried to find out more. She was fascinated to discover that she lived not far from the building in Hackney that used to be the Ayahs’ Home, but there was no signage indicating this, nor information available about the site.  She made it her mission to draw attention and bring recognition to ayahs who were part of British history. She started the Ayahs’ Home Project through which she started collecting untold stories about the forgotten and often ‘nameless’ ayahs; and organising events with a spotlight on this little known group. She also started a campaign to petition for the building to be awarded a Blue Plaque. A Blue Plaque is a permanent sign installed in a public place in the United Kingdom to commemorate a link between that location and a famous person, event, or former building. Mamoojee felt that the Ayah’s Home needed to be commemorated as the Home symbolized the collective struggles of a group of unrecognised women, and their shared but nearly forgotten histories.

Mamoojee’s efforts have borne fruit. Recently there was news that this year the building will be honoured with a Blue Plaque.

Ayahs may have been part of colonial history, but even today there is a new stream of domestic helpers from India and South and South East Asia being taken abroad to work for rich employers. And every now and then one hears disturbing stories of them being ill-treated by the employers, and being helpless and stranded in a foreign land. Perhaps there is as much need for a safe refuge for these indispensable, but often callously treated women as there was two hundred years ago.


The One Who Rolls Up: Pangolin

Valentine’s Day has just passed with all its lovey-dovey messages. But love is not only about humans to humans. In 2017 the Google Doodle for the day featured a little love story about pangolins!

Pangolins one may ask? What are they, and why were the stars for the day?

Pangolins are curious creatures. With their long tail, long snout and a body covered with scales, they are often thought of as reptiles. Pangolins, also known as Scaly Ant eaters are actually mammals. They belong to the taxonomic order Pholidota, meaning ‘scaled animals’, a group of unusual mammals with tough, protective keratin scales. Pangolins are the only scaled mammals on earth.  It is believed that the scales evolved as a means of protection. When threatened by big carnivores like lions or tigers, the pangolin usually curls into a tight ball, tucking its face under its tail. The overlapping sharp scales act as an armour protecting it from the predators. It is this ability to curl up into a ball that gives it the name Pangolin which comes from the Malay word pengguling, meaning “the one who rolls up”.

Pangolins have short legs with sharp claws which are effective for burrowing for shelter, as well as to get into ant and termite mounds. These form their primary diet, and also give it the name of Scaly Anteater. They have no teeth, but an unusually long and sticky tongue (up to 16 inches long) helps them to probe deep into the ant tunnels and termite mounds to retrieve their prey. They have poor eyesight, but a well-developed sense of smell and hearing which guides them when they come out, mainly at night.

The strange appearance and secretive nocturnal habits of the pangolin gave it a somewhat mythical association in some indigenous cultures, as well as a part in folk tales and legends. In Chinese legend pangolins are said to travel all around the world underground, and in the Cantonese language the name for pangolin translates to “the animal that digs through the mountain,” or Chun-shua-cap, which translates to ‘scaly hill-borer’.

Many indigenous African cultures have diverse beliefs associated with pangolins. Here is a delightful tale from a tribe in South Africa that tells how the pangolin came to be what it is today. 

Long long ago the pangolin did not have scales, and the pangolin did not eat ants. It had a thick coat of beautiful fur, and its favourite food was honey! The pangolin’s thick fur protected it from the bee stings when it raided beehives for honey. But the pangolin had a competitor for the honey. That was the honey badger whose thick skin was not as effective in warding off the bees as the pangolin’s fur. The bees were so harassed by the constant attacks from both these creatures that they called upon the Creator to protect them from the two honey raiders.

The Creator decided that the two would have a competition, and the one who proved to be the most cunning at the game would retain the privilege of getting its favourite food. 

Pangolin had long strong legs and sharp claws with which to open the hives, and a long tongue to lap up the honey. But it was also skilful enough so as not to do too much damage. The honey badger was in a hurry, and also clumsy, as a result of which he made quite a mess. It was a close competition. The honey badger realised that the pangolin’s biggest asset was its fur, and in jealously it began to plot about defeating the pangolin by unfair means.

One night as the pangolin slept, the honey badger stealthily poured honey over its coat with a trail leading to the nest of the fierce red ants. The army of ants attacked the sleeping pangolin and penetrated deep into its fur to get the honey. The pangolin was in great pain from the ant bites. Desperate for relief, it ran and rolled in the embers of a nearby bush fire until its fur was burnt away, leaving only sore and exposed skin. The pangolin lost its protection and could no longer raid bee hives, and the honey badger continued to do so, even though it had won by deceit. The Creator felt sorry for the pangolin and gave it another form of protection, an armour of tough overlapping scales, and also a new diet instead of honey—ants and termites. And so as the elders narrate, the pangolin got his scales and became an ant eater.  

Ironically, the very scales that the pangolin was given to provide protection have today become the cause of the greatest threat to this animal. This shy curious creature is the most trafficked animal in the world. Pangolins are heavily poached for their meat and scales which are in high demand in countries like China and Vietnam. Their meat is considered a delicacy and pangolin scales are used in traditional medicine and folk remedies, leading to huge illegal trade in pangolin skin, scales, and meat, which poses a grave threat to their very survival.

There are eight species of pangolins. The four species native to Asia–The Chinese, Sunda, Indian, and Philippine pangolins are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as critically endangered. The other four species which are native to Africa– the Giant Ground, Ground, White-bellied, and Black-bellied pangolins are all listed as vulnerable. According to a study reported on by BBC an estimated 100,000 pangolins are illegally taken from the wild every year across Africa and Asia. One million pangolins are believed to have been trafficked between 2000 and 2013 alone.

World Pangolin Day is celebrated on the third Saturday in February every year as an international attempt to raise awareness about these unique animals, and the precarious state that they are in. It aims to bring together stakeholders to help protect this unique species from extinction.

This Saturday, let us join the world to celebrate ‘the one who rolls up’. 


Celebrating Pulses

They are an intrinsic part of every Indian’s meal. They are eaten as a staple or as a snack; they are part of something sweet and something savoury; they come in many forms, colours and flavours. They are pulses–the most sustainable, affordable, and versatile food items since time immemorial.

While we do not consciously think about them, we are making decisions regarding their use every day, for every meal—soak or saute, grind or roast, pressure cook or slow simmer, what spices go best with each one, and what accompaniments will make it a perfect meal?

Every Indian kitchen has a variety of pulses that go under the umbrella term of “dal”. Technically, pulses, also known as legumes, are the edible seeds of leguminous plants cultivated for food. Dried beans, lentils and peas are the most commonly known and consumed types of pulses.

Interestingly pulses do not include crops that are harvested green (e.g. green peas, green beans)—these are classified as vegetable crops. Also excluded are those crops used mainly for oil extraction (e.g. soybean and groundnuts), and leguminous crops that are used exclusively for sowing purposes (e.g. seeds of clover and alfalfa).

Pulses have formed an essential part of diets in many parts of the world for thousands of years and thus humans have cultivated this ancient food crop for centuries. Scientific studies of archaeological remains have suggested that people from modern-day Turkey grew chickpeas and lentils in 7000-8000 B.C. Evidence of lentil production has also been discovered from Egyptian pyramids, and dry peas were found in a Swiss village—dating back to the Stone Age. Experts have hypothesized that chickpeas production started to spread from the ancient Mediterranean region between Morocco in the west and the Himalayas in the east before 3000 BC. There are even mentions of certain pulses in the Vedas, which are widely believed to be at least 4000 years old.

From the Yajurveda onwards, Sanskrit literature has mention of the three Ms—mudga (green gram or mung), masura (pink gram or masoor) and masha (black gram or urad). The Buddha is said to have endorsed all three Ms for regular use. The three pulses continue to be widely used in all parts of India in different dishes and forms. It is believed that when Iranian scholar Abu Rayhan al-Biruni came to India 1,000 years ago, he discovered the daily meal of the average Indian, the porridge-like khichdi, a mixture of rice and lentils. Traditionally, the definition of a balanced meal in most parts of India always consisted of pulses, along with cereals, vegetables, fruits, and milk products.

Pulses are indeed what we call “superfoods”. The tiny seeds are loaded with nutrients, fibre, vitamins, and minerals. They are gluten-free and have high protein content, making them an ideal source of protein particularly in regions where meat and dairy are not culturally or economically accessible. Pulses are low in fat and rich in soluble fibre, which can lower cholesterol and help in the control of blood sugar. They are a great source of vitamins and minerals such as iron, zinc and magnesium.

Pulses are a rich source of fermentable fibre, which feeds intestinal bacteria and promotes the assimilation of nutrients, thus facilitating proper immune system functioning. Because of these qualities they are recommended by health organizations for the management of non-communicable diseases like diabetes and heart conditions. Pulses have also been shown to help combat obesity.

Pulses are important not just for human consumption, but also for the farmers who cultivate these. They are an important crop because they can both sell them and consume them, which helps farming families maintain food security. They provide economic stability as compared with perishable crops as they can be dried and stored for a long time.

 Pulses are farmer-friendly as well as friends of the environment. The nitrogen-fixing properties of pulses improve soil fertility, which increases and extends the productivity of the farmland. Using pulses for intercropping and cover crops can promote field biodiversity and improve soil microbiome, while keeping harmful pests and diseases at bay.

Pulses are highly drought and frost-resistant, which makes them suitable for a wide range of climatic conditions and environments. Pulses are also known to be climate-smart, which means they can easily adapt themselves to weather fluctuations. They have a low water footprint. As compared to others, pulses only require one-tenth of the amount of water to grow and therefore can be easily grown in semi-arid conditions.

Pulse crops have a lower carbon footprint than most foods because they require a small amount of fertilizer to grow, and they help to naturally introduce nitrogen in the soil. One of the advantages of biological nitrogen fixation is that it provides a natural slow-release form of crop nitrogen supply that matches crop needs. By reducing dependence on synthetic fertilizers which release greenhouse gases during both their manufacture and use, pulses contribute to climate change mitigation.

While pulses have always been integral to our daily diets, they are usually not seen from these other perspectives. Recognising their multi-dimensional value the United Nations proclaimed 2016 as the International Year of Pulses (IYP). The celebration of the year, led by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), was aimed to increase the public awareness of the nutritional and environmental benefits of pulses as part of sustainable food production.

In December 2018, the United Nations General Assembly designated February 10th to be marked as World Pulses Day every year, to recognise, and remind of, the important link of pulses to the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Today, as the world celebrates World Pulses Day, let’s take a look at our own meals and list the numerous forms of pulses on our menu for the day. And as we relish our dal baati-churma, sambar-idli, rajma-chaaval, cholar dal-luchi, or even the simple khichdi, let’s put our hands together for the pulses!