Whistle Away!

Imagine that your school timetable had three periods a week for ‘whistling class!’ What is probably every child’s fantasy is a fact for children who live on La Gomera. No this is not an imaginary land but a real island in the Canary Islands. The island is part of an archipelago in the Atlantic ocean, called The Canaries, located 100 km west of Morocco. The Canary Islands are part of the autonomous communities of Spain. They were originally inhabited by Berbers who were conquered and enslaved by Spanish invaders in the 15th and 16th centuries.  

What sets the island of La Gomera apart is its unique ‘whistling language’ called Silbo Gomero. This is a traditional language which was probably used by the original Berber inhabitants, and then by the indigenous herders for communication among themselves; it was later adopted by local communities who used it as a secret language when threatened by the Spanish invaders. Accounts of 15th century explorers include mention of indigenous people who communicated by whistling. It is believed that these people passed on the language to the first Spanish settlers in the 16th century. Over time the language began to transpose Spanish words from speech into whistling.

Whistling is a perfect way to communicate on the island which is made up of deep valleys and steep ravines, and where houses are located far from each other. When people cannot easily meet face to face, and where written communication is not used, whistling is a way to send the community invitations for feasts, inform of births and deaths, and warn of danger. With favourable wind conditions its sounds could travel up to 3 km. As one of the island’s old whistlers explained “The thing is that here, learning to whistle wasn’t a matter of pleasure. It was an obligation, a necessity. If you didn’t know how to do it, you would have to walk to give a message. And as the houses are far from each other, and there were no roads or phones, whistling was easier than walking.”

Thus evolved a whistling language, officially known as Silbo Gomero, which substitutes whistled sounds that vary by pitch and length for written letters. It is basically the Spanish language in which words are replaced by 2 whistled vowels and 4 consonants. The whistle goes high and low to distinguish one sound from another. The whistle can also be broken to indicate the end of a sentence. In order to amplify the volume as well as to create the necessary distinction the finger is placed in the mouth. Whistling veterans each had their own favoured way to use the finger in the mouth technique—some used only the tip of one or two fingers, some used a finger from each hand, some inserted one bent knuckle into the mouth. But they all knew the language which the whistles produced.

Interestingly Silbo Gomero was a commonly used language on the island until the 1950s. It was used at home and children grew up with it. As with many indigenous languages the use of the language began to decline as native speakers grew old and died, and younger generations began to emigrate; educational institutions gave precedence to the modern Spanish which became the lingua franca of the island. By the 1970s and 80s, there were only a few whistlers remaining. By the end of 1990 there were only about 50 island dwellers who were fluent whistlers, and one entire generation, educated in Spanish, had missed being familiarised of the language.

But linguists and scholars continued to be fascinated by this language. There are a few other whistling languages in the world, among which are the language on the Greek island of Evia, in the town of Kuskoy, eastern Turkey, and in a town of the French Pyrenees. But Silbo Gomera is the one that is still used by the largest community of speakers, and the first one that has been studied in depth.

At end of the 90s there was renewed interest in Silbo. One of the reasons was the initiative to introduce it as a subject at primary school. Since 1999, it has constituted a required subject in the primary and secondary school curriculum. Today children learn it as a second language, where once it may have been the first language they used at home. But the initiative is noteworthy for its attempt at keeping alive a unique  tradition, especially in an age when technology has transformed communication in unimaginable ways.

An important international recognition and step towards its conservation came in 2009, when the Silbo Gomero language was described by UNESCO as “the only whistled language in the world that is fully developed and practiced by a large community,” and added to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

For the few remaining guardians of Silbo Gomera, the whistling language is like the poetry of their island, even though it may not have as much practical use as it used to. They feel “like poetry, whistling does not need to be useful in order to be special and beautiful.”

The island’s initiative to include it in the curriculum is important in that it creates for children a living link to their heritage and history. As one school girl said “It is a way to honour the people that lived here in the past. And to remember where everything came from, that we didn’t start with technology, but from simple beginnings.”

For others it is the fun of learning a “secret” language through which they can communicate. In an age when mobile phones and electronic communication have reached even the remotest parts of the world, the young people of La Gomera are happily adapting to both kinds of communication—Tootle and Tweet!

–Mamata

Zizzer-zazzer-zuzz Dr Seuss

A small news item caught my eye yesterday because it had the name of one of my favourite children’s author–Dr Seuss; and it reminded me that 2 March is his birth anniversary. The news however was somewhat unsettling. It reported that after being in print for almost half a century, six Dr Seuss books will no longer be published because the estate of the deceased author consider that “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” 

In an age that it overly sensitive to the portrayal of different cultures and races, and in the effort to be “politically correct” or “woke” as it is now termed, this seems to be the latest item on the list of vetting children’s books for “appropriate content.”

Curiously, Dr Seuss books have always been more about vocabulary than content. Several generations of children have been introduced to words by being read aloud from his books. It was the simple rhymes and rhythm of his verses that opened up the fun of language, and the characteristic zany drawings that accompanied them that attracted young and old.

Theodor Seuss Geisel was born on March 2, 1904, in Springfield, Massachusetts to German immigrant parents. He left home at the age of 18 to attend Dartmouth College, where he became the editor-in-chief of its humour magazine. He was kicked off the magazine’s staff when he and his friends were caught drinking in their dorm, in violation of the Prohibition era laws. But he continued to contribute to the magazine under the pseudonym Seuss, which was his mother’s maiden name.

After graduating from Dartmouth, Theodor left for England in 1925 to study at the University of Oxford, with plans to become a Professor someday. But as his notebooks from the period indicate, while he diligently took lecture notes initially, soon the pages were filled only with doodles and drawings. In 1927, he dropped out of Oxford and gave up his idea of becoming an academic. Later when he began to make a name as a writer he added ‘Dr.’ to Seuss, as a sort of joke, because his father had always wanted him to get a doctorate and become a professor. And Dr Seuss he became and remained till the end of his days, and even today.

Theodor had always loved to play with words and it was with words and sketches that he began his professional life. On his return to the United States, Theodor worked for a number of years as a freelance magazine cartoonist, selling cartoons and humorous prose pieces to the major humour magazines of the 1920s and 1930s. One of his best known assignments was the humorous advertisements for the bug spray Flit. He went on to create advertising campaigns for several large companies including the Ford Motor Company.

His new avatar as a children’s writer was born with the publication of his first book in 1937. In 1936, Geisel and his wife were returning from an ocean voyage to Europe when the rhythm of the ship’s engines inspired the poem that became his first children’s book: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. But his manuscript was met with rejection from publisher after publisher.

After the 27th publisher rejected his manuscript, Theodor was dejectedly walking on Madison Avenue in New York when he bumped into an old friend from Dartmouth, Mike McClintock, who that very morning had started a job as an editor in the Vanguard Press children’s section. Within hours, the men signed a contract. In 1937 Vanguard Press published And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street. The book was an instant hit and Dr. Seuss began what was to be an extraordinary literary career.   

The outbreak of World War II forced Theodor to temporarily give up writing for children and to devote his talents to the war effort. Working with the Information and Education Division of the U.S. Army, he made documentary and animated films for American soldiers. He also illustrated political cartoons; but his heart was in children’s books.

After the war, Geisel and his wife moved to La Jolla California where he returned to writing children’s books, working hard for hours at juggling words and rhymes and colour palettes to create madcap characters and adventures. He also loved coining playful nonsensical words that were as zany as his characters: Yuzz-a-ma-tuzz, murky-mooshy, gluppity-glup, schloppity shlop—words that children would love to twist their tongue around! It was a few years before his best known book The Cat in the Hat would be written. And this has an interesting background.

In the early 1950s the most widely used early school primers were a series featuring a boy and girl named Dick and Jane who were too neat, clean, and well behaved to be true!. By the mid-fifties some educators began to debate how effective these were in laying the foundation for literacy, and encouraging and exciting early readers.

One of the people who were concerned, and were imagining alternatives was William Spaulding who was then director of the education division at the Houghton Miffin publishing house. In 1955 Spaulding invited Dr Seuss to create a book for six- and seven-year-olds who had already mastered the basic mechanics of reading. He reportedly challenged, “Write me a story that first-graders can’t put down!”

The additional challenge was that Theodor was given a limited list of 250 words that he could use for his story. Theodor decided to quash his frustration by deciding to pick the first two rhyming words that he found in the list and create a story based on those. The words were Cat and Hat! The next challenge was to write the story. It took Theodor nine months to complete The Cat in the Hat—a 236 rhyming word book which while doing its traditional job of a reading primer was also entertaining. It was the story of two children, bored and alone at home who were visited by a cat in a top hat and red bow tie, and their mad capers in one afternoon.

We looked

and we saw him

the cat in the hat!

and he said to us

‘why do you sit there like that?

i know it is wet

and the sun is not sunny

but we can have

lots of good fun that is funny!

When it was published in 1957, the book was met with immediate critical and commercial success. Reviewers saw it as an exciting alternative to traditional primers. Three years after its debut, the book had already sold over a million copies.

The enthusiastic reception of The Cat in the Hat led Geisel to found Beginner Books, a publishing company specializing in easy-to-read books for children.

If 236 words was a challenge he took on successfully, one of his most popular books, Green Eggs and Ham, was the result of a bet that he could not write a book using only 50 words. But he did!

Dr Seuss never began his stories with a moral in mind. He felt that this was the one thing that immediately put children off. He believed in talking to kids not at them. He also cautioned other writers not to patronize children. As he said, “They can smell a phony a mile away. They are the toughest audience to write for.”

However his writing was not just word play; all his stories have an inherent moral, subtly permeating the rollicking words and the insouciant illustrations. With their plot twists and rebellious heroes who do the unexpected, the books cover a wide range of social and environmental issues. The Lorax at one time became a much-quoted environmental fable. His art work had a unique style, generally devoid of straight lines, and characteristic droopy figures.

Dr Seuss became a household name. Between 1937 and 1991, when he died aged 87, he published more than 60 books, which have sold half a billion copies between them–more even than J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books! The books have been translated into many languages. Some of his books were also adapted and made into animated films, TV shows and theatre productions.

I have spent as many hours reading Dr Seuss to my children as they were growing, as I have spent in perusing his books again and again, even when the children had outgrown them. I am sure that similar members of the Seuss fan club have not been unduly tarnished by what today is being perceived as writing and images promoting racial stereotypes, or being culturally insensitive. With six Seuss classics, including his first book And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street ceasing publication and sale, it would be a pity if we were to return to the sanitized versions of children’s books like Dick and Jane.

You’ll come to a place where streets are not marked.

Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked.

A place where you could sprain both your elbow and chin!

Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in?

How much can you lose? How much can you win?

(Oh, the Places You’ll Go!)

–Mamata

The Pied Piper of Young Naturalists

Photo source: deshgujarat.com

It was the interview that was to start my journey as an environmental educator. I had walked in with no formal academic or professional credentials to support my application, except for a great love for trekking and a passion for education. Among the distinguished naturalists that made up the interview panel was an avuncular gentleman who probed gently with questions that were probably meant to test what made me tick. I have no recollection of the exact questions, nor my answers, but I must have passed muster because I did get the job!

That was my first encounter with Luvkumar Khachar as he was later introduced. In the few years that followed I had the privilege of having Luvbha as a senior colleague, mentor, and continuing inspiration. Over the years I realised that Luvbha was all this, and much more, to thousands of young people, leading them like the Pied Piper on a lifelong journey of becoming naturalists. 

Luvkumar Khachar was one of the architects of the nature conservation movement in India. A renowned naturalist and accomplished ornithologist, he was also a passionate nature educator who made it his mission to instil the love for the outdoors in every young person. He conceived and launched the massive Nature Club movement for WWF India, and guided the Bombay Natural History Society for decades, just as he did the Centre for Environment Education after that. His own nature camps—in the desert, in the mountains, and on islands– were legendary, and perhaps every ‘not so young’ renowned naturalist today would remember being at one of those camps.

Luvkumar was born in the erstwhile princely family of Jasdan in Gujarat on 24 February 1931. His early days were spent in the great open spaces in close touch with the natural environment, planting a lifelong love for the outdoors. He always bemoaned the lack of such opportunities for later generations of youngsters. This was one of the prime factors that motivated his Nature Camps mission in the early 1970s. As he recalled, “I contemplated the  apparent lack of excitement among our youth for going out into the great open spaces. Comparing their upbringing with mine, I realized that I had had the great good fortune of  having spent my childhood at Hingolgadh with its wide views of the Saurashtra countryside, across which played the seasons, responded to by plants and animals. A majority of children, especially in urban situations, seldom see a sunrise! What struck me was the immense gulf developing between a city child and a tribal child. Were we not creating a schizophrenic society? The thought was disturbing.”

Having himself had a stint as a teacher in a conventional school he was aware of, and distressed by the fact that schools were becoming fetters to free growth, rather than liberating experiences. “We like to believe that we are descended of a civilization which nurtured intellectual giants, but fail to realise that these thinkers were leading unfettered lives in a land that was largely wilderness, replete with the bounties of Nature. By contrast, today’s child attending the most sophisticated of school is cramped and provides a constricted vision. The child of yesteryears, while enjoying advantages of limitless horizons, enjoyed the benediction of gurus who encouraged questioning. Today’s child seems sentenced to ten years of a concentration camp governed by a syllabus as tyrannical and circumscribing as any prison code! The system instead of exciting the wonder of growing minds, supresses their flights as effectively as any efficient prison warden following the prison code.”

Such scathing words were a trademark of this life-long educator who was always forthright in expressing his strongly-held opinions. But they also represented a warrior who fought tirelessly and hard for his beliefs, even in the face of hostility.

Like most naturalists of his generation, Luvkumar meticulously recorded his observations. His writing was a rare combination of science, intellect and emotion, ably supported by his natural ability as a writer. When Sanctuary Asia, one of India’s leading and best-loved magazines for wildlife science and conservation, was being planned, he told the editor “If you are going to start a wildlife magazine, please don’t make it a dry-as-dust scientific journal to be read by just 30 colleagues. Make it a popular magazine that thousands will enjoy. Because we need larger numbers to protect our wildlife.”

Luvbha was “old-world” in that he demanded high standards of discipline, integrity, commitment, and work ethic; just as he commanded respect and awe. As his young colleagues we were always a little tense about living up to his expectations, and were often pulled up by him, but there was always a twinkle in his eyes and a gentle smile that told us that we had his support in our efforts. For a while we were also lunch companions when we shared work space in the leafy environs of CEE’s Sundarvan. One of the rituals that he introduced was that one of us was to go to his office every morning with a packet of milk, and set the curd that we would all share with lunch.

Luvbha was always chided me for not going on more camping trips. I do regret that I could not attend one of his nature camps. But I am grateful for having had the privilege of learning much from him that has guided my work in environmental education, as well as life-lessons that are now deeply entrenched in me. Luvbha passed away in 2015 at the age of 84. Remembering him with respect, and many warm memories.

–Mamata

Stargazer to Trailblazer

Photo source: en.wikipedia.org

As we continue to celebrate women and girls in science, here is an inspiring story that goes back two hundred years.

 The common belief in nineteenth-century American society was that too much intellectual education would damage a woman’s health, and that too much thought would fracture or destroy the weaker among them. Women were expected to spend their time in household chores and needlework, in their role as dutiful wives and mothers.

In 1818, a daughter was born to William and Lydia Mitchell. They named her Maria. The Mitchells lived on Nantucket Island, a community of seafarers. The family were Quakers, a community that had somewhat different beliefs and lifestyle than the mainstream population.  One of the tenets of Quaker religion was intellectual equality between the sexes. They valued education and believed that the same quality of education should be given to boys as well as girls. Maria, one of ten children, was encouraged from a young age to exercise the power of her mind.

Maria began attending private elementary schools at the age of four. When she was nine, Maria’s father, who was an amateur astronomer, established a free, private school that Maria joined. Her father was an unconventional teacher who believed in hands-on education and a learning-by-doing curriculum. Students learned about the natural world by being outdoors and direct observation and collection of natural objects. This approach to scientific study had a profound effect on Maria who, throughout her life inculcated the same process of exploration, investigation and persistence.

Maria’s father played an important role in the seafaring community of whalers and fishermen who relied entirely on the stars and the compass for nautical navigation; there were no sophisticated and accurate devices. William Mitchell with his amateur interest in astronomy and daily roof top observations and astronomical recording was the person they all consulted to check the accuracy of their charts, sextants, and chronometers.

From an early age Maria developed a love of astronomy and learnt much from her father’s instruction on astronomy, mathematics, surveying and navigation. When she was twelve years old, the family observed a solar eclipse over the island and Maria counted the seconds of the eclipse to pinpoint the longitude of their house. Two years later, whaling captains entrusted the fourteen-year-old Maria to rate their chronometers on her own. Maria continued to pursue what was becoming a passion, with basic equipment from the small attic of their home.

When her father’s school wound up, Maria joined Cyrus Pierce’s School for Young Ladies. Cyrus Pierce was one of the first people outside of Maria’s own family to recognize her sharp mind, facility for mathematics and self-discipline. He encouraged and supported Maria in her intellectual journey. Later she worked for Pierce as his teaching assistant before she opened her own school in 1835. In a bold step at a time when schools were still segregated she opened her school to non-white children. One year later, she was offered a job as the first librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum, where she worked for 20 years while continuing to pursue her astronomy studies.

On 1 October 1847, while the rest of the family was having a party, Maria was scanning the skies on the roof of the Bank where her father then worked. She spotted a blurry object that was not on any of the charts. She told her father that she had discovered a new comet. Her father was keen that the discovery be made public, but Maria was hesitant because she feared that the scientific community would not take seriously a discovery made by a woman. William was determined and wrote to the noted astronomers of the day, but was met with scepticism. Until he came to know that the Frederick VI the King of Denmark, himself an amateur astronomer was offering a gold medal to the first observer to spot a new telescopic comet. After a prolonged effort to get Maria’s discovery recognised, she was awarded the gold medal over a year later. The new comet was given the official name Comet 1847-VI, but commonly known as “Miss Mitchell’s Comet”.

Maria Mitchell’s discovery was recognised in a largely male-dominated field. In 1848 she was elected as the first female member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and one of the first women members of the American Philosophical Society. She also became one of the first women to work for the US Federal Government as part of the US Nautical Almanac. She continued her post as librarian even as she took on new roles and responsibilities in the world of science.

In 1856, she resigned her post at the Atheneum to travel to Europe as the chaperone of the daughter of a rich businessman. She took the opportunity to meet scientists and visit observatories, but also found that even in Europe biases against women scientists were well entrenched.  For example, she was not allowed to observe the stars through the Pope’s telescope because she was a woman.

In 1865, Mathew Vassar a wealthy and enlightened man started the Vassar College. This was the second women’s college in America, and was unusually progressive in many respects, including being the first to hire women as professors. Mathew Vassar saw Maria as a role model for intelligent and ambitious young women and hired her as the first professor to teach at Vassar, even as he faced a lot of opposition. Maria continued to teach at the college for 23 years. Though she was by far the most popular professor she was initially paid only one-third the salary of the male professors, and she was constantly subjected to the deep-rooted prejudice that women were unsuited to mathematical and scientific pursuits.

As a teacher Maria followed her father’s approach of hands-on learning, taking her students of study trips to observe and record. She infused her students with a sense of excitement, and a hunger for knowledge, while sowing the seeds of respect for the scientific method and temperament. She followed unconventional teaching practices; she slept in the same dormitory as her students and would often wake them to observe the night sky. Then she would invite them to her room to drink coffee and discuss astronomy.

On nights when the sky was too cloudy for observations, she would invite the students to the observatory for a social get together. As they entered, she would personally hand out a scroll to each student, with a poem that she had specially written for that student. Then they would go around the room reading each person’s poem in turn. This tradition of Dome Parties continues to this day at Vassar.

Thus Maria became more than a teacher for her students; she was guardian, mentor and surrogate mother. But she expected much from her students, especially a dedication to accuracy and scientific temper, just as she had been taught by her father. She treated her students as equals; as she told her class that “We are women studying together.” Above all she paved the way for women in science with the words to her first class of female astronomers at Vassar in 1876: “No woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be?” 

Maria Mitchell retired from her teaching post in 1888, after a long distinguished career as the first professional female astronomer in America, She died a year later in 1889.

Maria Mitchell was more than just a trailblazer in astronomy. She was deeply involved in the emerging movement for woman’s rights to vote, own property, and receive the same type of education and opportunities offered to men. She was one of the founders of the Association for the Advancement of Women in 1873. She proved to the world that women, especially nineteenth-century women, could do much more, than just embroider samplers or oversee the household help. As she wrote, “The eye that directs a needle in the delicate meshes of embroidery, will equally well bisect a star with the spider web of a micrometer.”

The trail that Maria laid continues to open further every day. Just a week ago, the European Space Agency has put the call out for new astronaut candidates, the first time in 11 years. The agency is strongly encouraging women to apply for a place on the new team. The sky is certainly not the limit!

–Mamata

The Year of the Ox

As we do in India, the Chinese too use the lunar calendar to designate festivals. The Chinese calendar follows a twelve-year cycle in which the years are identified by twelve animal signs. The animals follow one another in an established order, and are repeated every twelve years: Rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.

This week is the run up to the Chinese New Year which falls on 12 February this year. This day marks the start of the Year of the Ox. In Chinese element theory, each zodiac sign is associated with one of the five elements: Gold (Metal), Wood, Water, Fire, and Earth. Thus the zodiac sign also carries one of these elements. 2021 is the Year of the Metal Ox

There are several tales in Chinese folklore and mythology that relate how the order of the animals came to be decided. The best known one is story about the great race that the Jade Emperor called for, and how the order in which the animals reached the finale determined their rank in the zodiac. I had shared this story in my post The Year of the Rat on 26 January 2020.

To jump to the end of the story, of the twelve animals who competed in the race, the wily rat effortlessly covered most of the distance by riding on the back of the ox. The strong ox had steadily lumbered on, and crossed the river to the other side, ahead of all the other animals. It was almost at the finishing line when the rat jumped off its back and scurried across, thus being declared the winner. And so it was the Rat is the first sign in the Chinese zodiac, followed by the Ox as the second sign.

 Each animal has particular characteristics and people born in a certain year are believed to take on these characteristics. As per the twelve year cycle, the Ox Years are: 1901, 1913, 1925, 1937, 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009, 2021. As demonstrated by the ox in the story, people born in the year of the Ox are said to be strong, reliable and hardworking. They are also calm, patient, methodical, and trustworthy. Although they are not great talkers, they do have strong opinions, and could, on occasion, be stubborn.

In Chinese culture, the Ox is a valued animal not just for these characteristics but also because it plays an important role in agriculture. And there is another story that endorses this.

According to legend, in ancient times the ox was a servant of the Jade Emperor and acted as a messenger between heaven and earth. At that time the earth was barren, and the soil was bare. The people of earth asked the ox to convey a request to the Emperor to grant them some seeds with which to make the earth beautiful. The Jade Emperor agreed to send someone to earth to sow the seeds, but was wondering who to send on this mission. The loyal ox volunteered. The Emperor was not very sure if the ox was up to the task, but the ox assured him that it would faithfully carry out all instructions.

When it was time to go, the Emperor gave the ox seeds of many food grains, with instructions to sow one handful of seeds every three steps. The ox took the seeds and started off. By the time he reached earth, he was a little confused about what he had been told; but he diligently started sowing three handfuls of seeds with every step. As a result, the earth was so overgrown with weeds that the farmers were unable to harvest any crop.    

In despair they asked the Kitchen God to send word to the Jade Emperor about their plight. The Emperor summoned the ox who honestly admitted that he had mixed up the instructions and planted three times as much as he had been instructed to. The Emperor was very angry. He proclaimed that from then on, all oxen would have to work only for the farmers and eat only grass, so as to help keep the fields weed-free. And so the ox left the service of the Emperor and since then has always worked for farmers, and has never stopped eating grass. But the ox has borne its burden with dignity and steadfastly. And the farmers have valued the ox for its hard work and simple nature.

While seeds have always denoted fertility and abundance, fruits also have great significance in Chinese New Year traditions. Fruits are exchanged as gifts that are meant to bring good luck and happiness throughout the year. Different fruits are said to symbolize different things, especially in the Feng Shui tradition.

Apple: Symbolizes good health, peace, and harmony within the household.

Grapes: Symbolize prosperity, wealth, and success.

Orange: Its colour symbolizes gold, and its round shape is believed to bring prosperity and great fortune.

Pineapple: Indicates upcoming wealth, luck, and success in life.

Watermelon: Aside from bringing prosperity, it is also good for the body’s wealth.

Peach: Symbolizes long life, good health, happy relationship, and prosperity.

Mango: Symbolizes sweetness and strength within the family.

Pomelo: Is believed to attract luck and prosperity.

Papaya: Symbolizes prosperity and good health.

Banana: Symbolizes family unity and prosperity.

Pomegranate: Is believed to bring good health and prosperity within the family

Lemon: Symbolizes cleanliness, energy cleaning, and protection.

Coincidentally this is also the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables. So while we may or may not choose to follow the symbolic value of fruits, this is a good year to remind ourselves of the medically proven health benefits; and remember that health is indeed wealth for us and our families. Something that the just past Year of the Rat has demonstrated clearly.  

Here’s to the Year of the Ox! May it give every one of us the health and strength to face each day with fortitude, stamina, and success.   

–Mamata

Let’s-Read-a-Story Time

It was a special time of day. The time to shut out the entire day’s blur of activity and individual routines, and join the antics of old-familiar or just-introduced characters. The time to put behind lists of chores and responsibilities and indulge in carefree cavorting or fantastical adventures. The time to switch off from the mundane and monotonous, and switch on the magical and mythical.

It was “Let’s read a story time”.

This time was an important and inviolable part of our day—mine and my children’s for a large part of their early years. Reading aloud from a storybook as we were cosily tucked in bed was a special time indeed. A time to explore new words and worlds together, a time to share, and a time to bond. Many years later, for me those memories of reading stories are still strong and comforting, as they are, I hope, for my children.

I adopted the reading aloud ritual quite instinctively as a new mother. As one who loved to read, it was the most natural thing for me to introduce my children to the joy of books by sharing these with them from the time they were infants. Much before they learned how to read by themselves, they were encouraged to handle books, leaf through and look at the pictures, and tune their ears to the sound of words and spoken language; and much of this was achieved through our reading-aloud-together time. One generation later, I re-lived the magic once again when my grand-nephew and I tongue-twisted our way through the capers of Gajapati Kulapati and Snoring Shanmugan!

Today there is a lot of research and literature on the important role of reading aloud to children which endorses what was, for me, an intuitive and integral component of bringing up my children. Here are some key findings from different studies.

It is accepted that reading aloud is the single most important activity for reading success, and the foundation for literacy development. Several studies have found that reading aloud to children every day puts them almost a year ahead (academically) of children who do not receive daily read-aloud.

Reading aloud to children creates a lifetime interest in reading. Children learn to love the sound of language before they even notice the existence of printed words on a page. Hearing the flow of words helps them develop language and listening skills and prepares them to understand the written word. When the rhythm and melody of language become a part of a child’s life, learning to read will be as natural as learning to walk and talk.

Children who have been read to when they are young are much more likely to grow into a habit of reading. When they associate reading with happy memories, they are more likely to persist in learning to read, even when they run into occasional roadblocks in the process of learning to read.

Reading aloud to children aids in language development. By hearing the words as they are read out children pick up pronunciation, word usage and sentence structure, even as their vocabulary increases. One study found that children are exposed to a larger vocabulary from picture books read aloud than from conversations with adults. This is because we tend to speak with the same 5000 most popular words; while books–even picture books–are more likely to use words outside those that make up our daily vocabulary.  

Reading to young children extends their attention spans. While toddlers tend to flit from activity to activity, a story can hold their attention and keep them engaged for longer periods. Hearing a story read aloud involves some level of comprehension, and comprehension is dependent on paying attention, so the child gradually learns to listen and follow the thread of the story, as it is curious to know “what happens next”?

Reading aloud to young children helps to stimulate their imagination. By listening to the story while leafing through the pages and the illustrations, children can visualize and imagine events and situations that are outside of their own personal experiences. Even before they can read, their mental world is already enriched by multi-cultural and multi-dimensional characters and situations. They can picture life in other parts of the world and in other cultures, and more easily accept that the world is made up of all kinds of characters—naughty, quirky, good, bad, and more.

Children also love applying stories to their own lives. This feeling of identifying with situations can be very supportive in helping a child cope with different situations they encounter in their everyday experience, such as fear of dark places or doctors; apprehension about meeting new people or starting school; liking and disliking certain food, places or activities. The stories also engender empathy, a sense of community and the comfort of not “being the only one like that”.

And perhaps the most precious of all, read-aloud time is great bonding time for both readers and listeners. It is a wonderful opportunity to connect in essential ways with children, creating nurturing spaces for them, and ways to talk and think together.

In 2010 LitWorld, an organisation that believes in the incredible power of reading proposed that a special day should mark, and celebrate, the many connections that reading aloud can make. “Because when every child is read aloud to for 15 minutes every day from birth, it will change the face of education…”

Since then, 3 February is celebrated as World Read Aloud Day to remind us to celebrate the power of reading aloud, and the magic of sharing journeys of words together, not just for a day, but every day.

–Mamata

Another Word For…

Every writer knows well the sudden point in the flow of words where you struggle to find another/better/appropriate word. And where a dictionary will not serve the purpose. That is the time to turn to the trusted Thesaurus with its rich listing of synonyms.

The word thesaurus itself came to the English language in the late 16th century, via Latin, from the Greek word thēsauros meaning ‘storehouse or treasure’. It was used in the early 19th century by archaeologists to denote an ancient treasury, such as that of a temple. Soon after that, the word was metaphorically used to describe a book containing a “treasury” of words or information about a particular field.

In 1852, the English scholar Peter Mark Roget published a book in which he compiled lists of related words which were organised according to specific categories. The book was titled  Thesaurus of English Words, Classified and Arranged as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition. This led to the common acceptance of the term “thesaurus” to describe a book of words and their synonyms. In the years to come the word Roget itself became a synonym for Thesaurus.

One would have imagined that the Thesaurus was the magnum opus of its author Peter Roget who spent his life as a wordsmith. In fact, Roget was a multi-faceted individual who wore many hats in his lifetime.

Peter Mark Roget was born on 18 January 1779 in London. His father was a clergyman of Swiss origin, and his mother was the sister of a notable law reformer Sir Samuel Romilly. After the death of his father when Peter was only four years old, the family moved to Edinburgh. The young Peter was a brilliant student, graduating from medical school in Edinburgh at the age of 19. His ardent curiosity led him to research and experiment in numerous fields of knowledge. As a young doctor he published works on tuberculosis, and on the effects of nitrous oxide, known as ‘laughing gas’, then used as an anaesthetic. He then moved on to Bristol and Manchester where he worked as a private physician and also as a tutor.

In 1808 he moved to London, where he continued to pursue his diverse interests in medicine and science. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society, Britain’s national academy of science, and served as its secretary for 21 years. The government asked him to explore London’s water system.  He sought to improve sanitation and food preservation, even discussing the concept of a ‘frigidarium’. He helped to found Manchester Medical School and the University of London. He wrote numerous entries for various encyclopaedias. He invented a pocket chessboard, and a new type of slide rule. He was also interested in optics and wrote a paper on how the kaleidoscope could be improved.

While his professional life was marked by prodigious achievements, Peter Roget’s personal life was traumatic and tragic. He hardly knew his father who died when he was very young; his mother suffered from paranoia, and his sister experienced mental breakdowns. His wife died of cancer when she was only 36. And Sir Samuel, his favourite uncle and surrogate father slit his own throat, even as Roget tried to pull the blade from his hand.

Roget himself was afflicted with depression, and developed such a repugnance of dirt and disorder, that would today be diagnosed as OCD. Perhaps as a reaction to all this turmoil, he also became obsessed with numbers and lists. The obsession also worked as therapy.

From the time that he was a young boy, Peter made lists. The process of sorting and classifying provided a sense of order and logic. As early as 1805 when he was 26 years old, he had compiled, for his own personal use, a small indexed catalogue of words which he used to help his prolific writing. He continued with this exercise of classifying and cataloguing words even as he continued his distinguished career in medicine and science.

It is only when he retired from medical practice age the age of 60 that Roget devoted all his time and energy on the project that would, in later years, eclipse all his former achievements.  For four years he worked on the task of arranging ideas, meanings and concepts. The contents were not arranged alphabetically but put in an order where a given idea fitted into his own classification, within six classes: Abstract Relations, Space, Matter, Intellect, Volition, and Affections.

Whereas a conventional dictionary starts with words and provides their meanings, pronunciations, and etymology, Roget’s Thesaurus was the converse, namely, an idea was given alongside the word or words by which that idea could most aptly be expressed. Although philosophically orientated, the Thesaurus was a compendium of thematically arranged concepts, a classification of words by their meaning.

Roget’s Thesaurus was finally published in 1853, when Peter Roget was 74 years old. It had a print run of 1,000 copies. The 15,000 words it contained were arranged conceptually rather than alphabetically, incorporating 1002 concepts. But shortly before publication, he inserted an alphabetical index as an appendix, thus enabling its easier use.

The first American edition of the Thesaurus was published in 1854. In the introduction to this, Roget explained: “The present work is intended to supply, with respect to the English language, a desideratum hitherto unsupplied in any language; namely, a collection of the words it contains and of the idiomatic combinations peculiar to it, arranged, not in alphabetical order as they are in a dictionary, but according to the ideas which they express.” The Thesaurus initially did not do as well in America. It only became popular in the 1920s when the crossword craze swept the United States.

Roget continued to make changes until his death at the age of ninety, by which time there had been twenty-eight editions. His son, John Lewis Roget continued its revision. Roget’s Thesaurus has never been out of print and by its 150th anniversary in 2002 had sold thirty-two million copies. From his original six classes, by the time of the eighth edition in 2019 it included 1,075 word categories.

Today while the word Roget immediately brings to mind the word Thesaurus, its author’s illustrious career in medicine and science is not as well known. His birthday week is a good time to remember the many other words to describe Peter Roget: Physician, physiology expert, mathematician, inventor, investigator, writer, editor and chess whiz.

–Mamata

Fruit Salad

Last week someone gave us a fruit that was perfect in form and colour. We learnt that this was a persimmon.  I had read poems and descriptions of persimmons in Japanese literature, but had not seen nor tasted this ‘exotic’ fruit before.

This is one of the many exotic fruits that are now being seen and sold in India. Some children today are perhaps more familiar with the taste of fruits like kiwi and dragon fruit, than fruits like ber, custard apple, mango, guava, and the ubiquitous banana, that we grew up eating.

With a lot of the new fruits being introduced and cultivated in India, and several being imported from other countries, the lines between indigenous and exotic fruits are rapidly getting blurred. Along with this, and better storage systems, so is the concept of fruits that are associated with, and available in specific seasons.

Perhaps it is a good time to go back to the roots of the fruits, as I did, with the help of A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food. Here are some interesting facts.

In terms of food, fruit falls in the category of items called phala that refers to crops that are not cultivated using the plough, in contrast to food grains (cereals and pulses).

Fruits that are indigenous to India, or have been here since recorded history include ber, pomegranate, amla, sweet orange, lemon, lime, mango, sugarcane, jamun, and grapes; as well as coconut, banana and jackfruit. There is mention of these in texts as old as Vedic literature, and their use prescribed in ancient medical treatises.

Interestingly several of these have, today, gained international celebrity as Wonder Foods. Like the amla or gooseberry which is recognised as one of the richest natural sources of Vitamin C

Later arrivals were some forms of the apple, mulberry, peach, pear, plum and apricot. These were not originally of very high quality, but many of these were improved by grafting in Mughal times.

After 1500 AD there was a wave of immigrant fruits from South and Central America that included the papaya, sapota, guava, pineapple, custard apple, and avocado. But over time these began to be widely cultivated, and eventually became fruits of the native soil.

Ancient texts such as Sushruta Samhita, one of the most important surviving ancient treatises on medicine, prescribes fruits as the first item in a meal, beginning with a first round of fruits that could be chewed such as pomegranate, grape and ber; and a second round of fruit to be sucked, like sugarcane, dates, oranges and mangoes.

Fruit was traditionally preserved in India in the form of spicy pickles of mango, lime etc., or with the sweet sour flavouring of Gujarat.  With the Muslim Unani medical tradition came the murabba in which fruits were preserved in a thick sugar syrup, and flavoured with spices like ginger, cardamom, and cloves. The British took a liking to these “preserves” and started to export large quantities of these along with chutneys.

Sweet anticipation: Waiting for the papaya in the garden to ripen!

One of the major use of fruit was to ferment it to obtain alcoholic beverages. The Charaka Samhita, believed to be one of the oldest and the most important ancient authoritative writings on Ayurveda, has a long list of fruits used for this purpose which included sugarcane and its products like molasses and jaggery, grape, mango, wood apple, date, ber, banana, jackfruit and pomegranate.

While we certainly enjoy pickles and fruit wines in all seasons, it does feel a bit strange to be having a mango or watermelon in the winter. For me the anticipation of biting into the first mango in the searing heat of May, or seeing the first custard apples around the time of the Diwali festival, or picking the ripe purple jamuns that match the dark monsoon clouds is an integral part of the seasonal calendar. The pleasure of eating local and seasonal fruits is unmatched by the thrill of buying and trying exotic fruits like the dragon fruit and persimmon.

As we start 2021 which is the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables it is a good time to think about the fruits we eat, where they come from, how we buy them, and how we eat and enjoy them. After all the word fruit itself comes from the Latin fructus, whose root is frui, which means “to enjoy.”

–Mamata

Time on Pause

This week, as we think about, and even celebrate, microbes, it is all of 2020 that will be go down in history as the Year of the Microbe. Or the year when a microbe put the world on ‘pause’.

While scientists created microbe art in petri dishes, the pause created by the microbe led to the burgeoning of creativity in homes across the world. From home baking (yes using one of the friendly microbes!) to painting, embroidery, composing music, to innovative ways of virtual communication—this year was indeed one of activity amidst inactivity.

This is the time of year when much is being written about how people’s lives changed in this ‘year in pause’. The underlying point that comes through is that we all became much more aware about Time than we had probably done before.

We also learned to use time in ways that we had not done so earlier. While most of us were accustomed to thinking of time in the Fast Forward mode, the Pause mode made us also look back to reflect and reminisce, to unwrap long forgotten memories, and most importantly slowly sip, and savour the Present. In doing so we could explore our immediate surroundings and discover things which were ‘hidden in plain sight’ as it were. While not being obliged to be in a continual ‘planning ahead’ mode, we could stop and stare, and look around with new eyes.  

Picture courtesy Daksha Raval

As Rabindranath Tagore once put it:

I was tired and sleeping on my idle bed
and imagined all work had ceased.
In the morning I woke up
and found my garden full with wonders of flowers.

On the other hand it was a year when time seemed to slow down. When each day was counted in slowly ticking minutes and hours, as weeks telescoped into months… and here we are, at the end of a never-before year.

As Arik Fletcher, a poet, has succinctly summed up, it has been…

a time to cheer, a time to cry,
a time to live, a time to die,
a time to sleep, a time to wake,
a time for real, a time for fake,


a time for truth, a time to lie,
a time to laugh, a time to sigh,
a time to stand, a time to fall,
a time for one, a time for all,


a time for love, a time for hate,
a time to run, a time to wait,
a time to stay, a time to flee,
a time for you, a time for me.

And so here we go…
Bidding adieu

A year that crawled at the pace of a snail

Leaving behind indelible marks.

–Mamata

The Mathematician Priest

This week as we celebrated Dr AR Rao, a great teacher of mathematics, it is the right time to make it a double celebration. Coincidentally this teacher of mathematics was not only a contemporary of Dr AR Rao, but also made Ahmedabad his karmabhoomi, and the teaching of math his life’s mission.

He was Father Carlos Valles, a Spanish Jesuit priest whose contribution to mathematics education, as well as to the Gujarati language and literature left a significant mark in both fields. The life and work of Father Valles are inspiring, as well as humbling.

Carlos Valles was born in Spain on 4 September 1925. His father, a respected engineer died when Carlos was only 10. But he left a very strong impression on his young son, who through his life reiterated “My father trusted me. I would never let him down.” Soon after his father died, Carlos’ family lost everything in the civil war that broke out in Spain. His mother took refuge with a sister of hers in a city where the Jesuits had just opened a school, and Carlos and his brother got scholarships to study and board in the school. When he was 15 Carlos joined the Jesuit religious order as a novitiate. This was also when he wrote his first book The Art of Choosing, where he reflected on this turning point in his life—detaching from the family for Christ and a lifetime of service. His next ‘detachment’ was leaving the country of his birth. On his own request that he be “sent East”, he was asked to go to India. As it happened, his Jesuit order was planning to start a new St Xavier’s college in Ahmedabad, and the young priest was given the task of helping to set this up. And so, in 1949, Carlos Valles left his mother country for India, which became his home for the next many decades. As he later wrote “There I went in the fullness of my youth. My father had taught me never to do things by halves”.

He also wrote that right from the moment he arrived, he felt so at home in India, that his Indian friends were convinced that he had been an Indian in his previous reincarnation. It was here that he completed his education with a Mathematics honours degree from Madras University in 1953. For someone who knew only Spanish, the course led him to become proficient not only in math but also in English, the medium in which the course was taught.

Around the same time he was also became convinced that if he were to work and teach in Gujarat, then his teaching would need to be in the local language. As he wrote “English was enough to teach mathematics, but not to reach the heart. The heart is reached through the mother tongue”. He had already studied basic Gujarati but he realised that this was not enough. So he went on to hone his language skills at Vallabh Vidyanagar University in Gujarat, living in the hostel for one year with fellow Gujarati students, immersing himself in the language and culture, until he gained mastery over Gujarati.  This was followed by four years of theological studies in Pune, where he continued to practice writing in Gujarati for two hours every day. Carlos Valles was ordained to priesthood in 1958, in the presence of his mother who came to India for the first time.  

Finally it was in 1960, the year that Gujarat separated from Bombay and became a new state, that Father Valles started his mathematics teaching at St Xavier’s College in Ahmedabad. The story goes that on the train from Bombay, he could not get a seat, and so stood all the way, and when in the melee one of his slippers fell off the train, he also threw the other one out, saying that now there is a complete pair that someone can use.

And there started the transformation from being a student to a teacher who was eager to give his body and soul to his teaching. And Father Valles was not one to take the easy path with tried and tested teaching techniques. He not only devised innovative ways of communicating math concepts, but also took upon himself to coin appropriate Gujarati terms for the concepts. He was also convinced that it was his duty not only to reach the minds, but also the hearts of his students; through dialoguing with them on all aspects that affected their life beyond the classroom. He started by writing a small book in Gujarati. Many publishers rejected the manuscript as they felt that no one would read such a book. Eventually Father Valles published it himself with some money that his mother sent him. The book titled Sadachar went onto see twenty editions in three languages.

Thus began the double life of Father Valles—as a Mathematics teacher and as a writer—both in Gujarati. Father Valles soon became a regular columnist for Gujarati periodicals and newspapers. In his original Sunday column in Gujarat Samachar titled To the New Generation he wrote about a wide range of topics– youth, family, society, religion, psychology, morals and contemporary issues. He secretly hoped, as he wrote, that the old generation would read it first. His writings became hugely popular over the years and were compiled and published as books. He did not ignore his first subject either, and with his colleagues, he wrote a whole series of mathematical textbooks in Gujarati which were used and remembered by generations of students in Gujarat.

But it is not only through newspaper pages that Father Valles entered the hearts of Gujaratis. He was a familiar sight riding on his bicycle across the city with his cloth sling bag. To learn from close quarters about the lives, mentalities, attitudes to life, beliefs and traditions of the people of the city, he lived with families in the narrow pols of the old city. As he wrote, “…so I lived the whole day with them, sharing their two daily vegetarian meals, their floor space on a mat at night, and their family life in all its richness, blessings and problems for a few days till I knocked at the door of another family in a continuous pilgrimage. I cycled daily to and from the college for my classes, but for the rest I lived fully as a member of the family I lodged with for the time. I spent ten years in that happy way. Perhaps that is possible only in India”.

For 22 years, Father Valles carried out his mission with heart and soul, in a city that he thought would be his home for life. However as he wrote, “circumstances shaped new and unexpected paths for me.” His mother turned 90 and expressed a wish for her son’s company. Without a second thought, Father Valles moved to Madrid to be with her until she died at the age of 101. He continued to write, now in three languages—English, Gujarati and Spanish, and travel. In 1999, at the age of 74, with his undiminished passion for reaching out, he bought a computer and started a website in Spanish.

Father Valles continued to live in Madrid, but he could make a trip back to his beloved Ahmedabad in 2015. Ahmedabad had changed much since he had left, but his gentle presence reminded its citizens once again about his life’s mission of bringing harmony. As he once said “I would like the word Harmony to be the summary of my life.”

Father Valles passed away in Madrid on 9 November this year, 5 days after his 95th birthday.

Sadly I was not living in Ahmedabad in the years when he was here, but the heartfelt reception he got on this last visit, made me wish that I could have had the privilege of having met this innovative teacher, prolific multi-lingual writer, and above all, an incredible human being.

–Mamata