Welcome Tenants

birdTwo weeks ago that I looked up from the road, I saw a largish structure on my roof. Intrigued, I went up to try to figure out what this large mud structure was. I first thought it was the hive of some kind of wasp. But looking at the parapet below the nest, I noticed some bird droppings. And it did not take too much mental work from there on to figure out it was a bird’s nest.

But ‘which bird?’ was the next question. Using conventional bird books, it is not easy to go from nest to bird, I realized. And since I had not sighted the bird, I could not go through that route. I knew it was probably a swift or swallow, so I googled based on that. And kind of figured out it was a Red-rumped Swallow, but could not be quite sure till a bird-watcher friend looked at the nest and confirmed it.

I haven’t met my tenants yet, but bird books assure me that they will be 16-17 cms in length, with generous amounts of rufous-orange on their wings and underparts, and forked tails. They will feed almost entirely on flying insects, catching them on the wing, at a height of up to 100 metres or so.

The amazing ‘encroachment’ on my terrace must have been built by both adults who would have collected mud as pellets in their bills, and worked for 5-15 days to build the flask-shaped nest with a  tunnel-like entrance. They would have lined it with soft grass and feathers.

I suspect the nest was built in the last mating season—between April and September, and 4-5 eggs may have been laid. They would have incubated the eggs for about 2 weeks, and the chicks would have been ready to fly out of their secure home in 26 days.

I missed all that.

But my bird-watcher friend has assured me that these birds tend to re-use their nests for a few years, so I hope to see them this spring!


A Traffic Jam of Nobel Laureates

Harvard is on top of the pile of institutions when it comes to Nobel Laureates, with 56 currently on the faculty and 160 being associated with the University at some stage of their careers, either as students or faculty. Cambridge University comes second, with 120 Laureates being associated with it; University of California at Berkeley third with 107, followed by University of Chicago at fourth place with a round 100.

I imagine that at any of these places, the probability of bumping into a Nobel would be quite finite.

However, such a possibility is pretty remote in any city or town of India. Until last week, at Bangalore ….

January 3 saw Prof Steven Hell address the Indian National Science Congress held in the city. Prof. Hell is one of the directors of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany and received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2014 ‘for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy’. The next day saw Prof Ada Yonath address the same gathering. She is a protein crystallographer who was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Both of them stressed the need for scientists to be open minded and for scientific research to be independent.

54E03126-F55D-4DF3-8810-88E1D954EA78January 4 was also the day when Profs Abhijit Banerji and Esther Duflo were in conversation with Manish Sabarwal at the Bangalore International Center, and demystified RCTs, or Randomized Control Trials, the body of work which got them their newly minted Nobels. RCTs are an experimental method to do research on developmental issues like education and poverty, to find what can really be effective to solve the problems, and hence can help policy making.

January 7 saw the 1998 Economics Nobel, Prof Amartya Sen in the city,  felicitating the winners of the prestigious Infosys Prize. Speaking at the event, Prof Sen said ‘There are deep links between friendship and knowledge. Our intellectual horizons expand when we learn from each other.’

January 15 will see Prof Venki Ramakrishnan, who shared the 2009 Chemistry Nobel with Prof Ada Yonath (above) and Prof Thomas Steitz for research on the ‘structure and function of the ribosome’ speak on Science and Society, once again at the Bangalore International Center.

It doesn’t rain, it pours!

Lucky Bangalore, to hear all these messages. And what a great unity in the underlying messages…the importance of evidence-based research, of the need for research to be independent and unbiased, the crying need to base policy on research, and the importance of cooperation and a barrierless world.




2020 is here!

vision chartWell, years come and go, so what is so special about 2020?

Nothing really, except that it is the start of a new decade. And 20/20 is symbolic—understood in common parlance to stand for perfect vision! 2020, a few decades ago, also stood for some far-away date, by which the world would be perfect–a happily ever after year. No particular reason for this, that I can see. Maybe simply because it was an easy-on-the-tongue alliterative year? Or maybe because of the pharmacological implication?

But what is 20/20 vision?

Actually, it denotes clarity of vision—visual acuity, to state it in slightly more ‘ophthalmological’ terms! To explain in layman terms, 20/20 is simply your ability to read a particular line on the eye chart from a distance of 20 feet. The size of the letters on one of the smaller lines near the bottom of the eye chart (or Snellen chart, after the Dutch doctor who developed this system in 1862) is standardized to correspond to “normal” visual acuity — this is the “20/20” line. If the letters on this line are the smallest you can identify, you have normal (20/20) visual acuity. The increasingly larger letter sizes on the lines on the Snellen chart above the 20/20 line correspond to worse visual acuity (20/40, 20/60, etc.). If you can read lines with smaller letters below the 20/20 line, then you have better than 20/20 vision (e.g., 20/15, 20/12, 20/10). The single big “E” at the top of the eye chart corresponds to 20/200 visual acuity. Legal blindness is when this is the smallest letter size someone can read even with corrective lenses.

Vision is more than visual acuity or eyesight. In addition to clarity of sight, “vision” is all interactions between the eyes and the brain, and all neurological processes that take place in the brain to make the sense of vision possible.

Here are some of things we envisioned would happen by 2020:

VISION 2020 was a global initiative that aimed to eliminate avoidable blindness by the year 2020. It was launched in 1999 by the World Health Organization along with over 20 other international non-governmental organisations, I am not sure how well it has succeeded. (https://www.who.int/blindness/partnerships/vision2020/en/)

Closer home, India’s Vision 2020 was a document prepared by the Technology Information, Forecasting and Assessment Council (TIFAC) of India’s Department of Science and Technology under the chairmanship of Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam and a team of 500 experts, which set out a plan to change the country by 2020. In Dr. Kalam’s words the objective of the plan was “Transforming the nation into a developed country, ..based on India’s core competence, natural resources and talented manpower, for integrated action to double the growth rate of GDP and realize the Vision of Developed India”.

The reality is here for everyone to see—even those who don’t have 20/20 vision!

Well, be that it may, let us pray not only for 20/20 vision in 2020, but also that our reality is closer to our vision!

So that these are indeed visions, not dreams!








Happy 2020—To a Year of Peace, Prosperity and Plant Health!

farmerThe UN General Assembly has declared 2020 as the International year of Plant Health. The purpose of this is to ‘raise global awareness on how protecting plant health can help end hunger, reduce poverty, protect the environment, and boost economic development.’ (http://www.fao.org/plant-health-2020/en/)

Plants are the basis of all food chains—in that sense, all life on earth depends on plants for food. And as important—plants give us the oxygen we need to sustain life on earth. The role of plants and trees in regulating climate cannot be over-emphasized. So in very truth, plant health is fundamental to food security and environmental sustainability—the very basis of PEACE and PROSPERITY.

Yet, we don’t pay attention to keeping plants healthy. And that is why the UN has thought of declaring a special year for this.

As we step into the new year and are in the mood of making resolutions, here are a few related to plant health:

  • Ensure that the you minimize use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers in your gardens and lawns. This is essential for long-term health of soil and plants.
  • Avoid transporting plants and bio-products across borders while travelling, as these can become pests or lead to major pest attacks in alien ecosystems.
  • Grow local plants, and support locally grown and local vegetables, fruits and other produce.
  • Buy organically-grown produce.

And while we are on the subject, a tribute to one who worked in the area of plant health all his life.

Dr. HY Mohan Ram was one of India’s pre-eminent botanists. He taught Botany in Delhi University for over 40 years and guided over 35 doctoral students. He wrote textbooks, popularized science, was an eminent planner and science administrator. He recognized the importance of reaching out to young people in inculcating scientific temper. To quote: ‘A demanding but satisfying assignment taken up by me was as Chairman of the Committee for the preparation of biology textbooks for Classes XI and XII, sponsored by the NCERT.’ He mentions the goal of such an endeavour as inculcating in the student ‘a spirit of enquiry, creativity, objectivity, the courage to question, aesthetic sensibility and environmental awareness’. India owes him a huge debt–he was guru to generations of India’s botanists in one way or the other.

Another dedicated botanist-environmentalist is Seema Bhatt. And her message is for aspiring women field scientists: ‘I have often worked in situations where I have been the only woman—a fact that has never bothered me. I have never been made to feel any different. I mention this to emphasize the fact that being a woman should not deter anyone from choosing a career like this.’

May we make and keep many resolutions to contribute to a better world!


 Quotes from: ‘Walking the Wild Path’. CEE.


As the second year of our joint matriarchal venture winds down, it’s time to muse a bit. Living up to our original intent of using this space to share our thoughts on life and times we have vented, agonised, rejoiced and reminisced. We have tried to make some sense of the often mad and sad events that the world has experienced over the past year. We have shared stories of people and places that have inspired us. We have tried to pay our humble tributes to some mentors who have enriched our lives. We have tried to capture memories and moments. We have played with words, and reveled in the quirks of language and literature.

In some ways we have tried to chronicle the year through our own responses to events and experiences, drawing upon our own personal and professional lives, and resources collected over the years. In many ways we have taken this project as a personal exercise in journaling.  While we may not have a following of thousands, nor an ardent fan club, we have found a sense of accomplishment in not missing a single designated day of posting, through a seamless long-distance coordination of thoughts and words.

We are no doubt not the first or the last to have attempted this. In 1884 Leo Tolstoy decided to compile “a wise thought for every day of the year, from the greatest philosophers of all times and all people”. He spent the next seventeen years doing this. In 1902, nearing the end of his life, he compiled these into a book originally titled A Wise Thought for Every Day.  This was later published as A Calendar of Wisdom. Each quote is accompanied by Tolstoy’s own comments or thoughts on the subject. As he wrote “I know that it gives one great inner force, calmness, and happiness to communicate with such great thinkers. …They tell us about what is most important for humanity, about the meaning of life and about virtue.”

One of the quotes in the book from Jean Jacques Rousseau echoes this sentiment: “Real wisdom is not the knowledge of everything, but the knowledge of which things in life are necessary, which are less necessary, and which are completely unnecessary to know. Among the most necessary knowledge is the knowledge of how to live well, that is, how to produce the least possible evil and the greatest goodness in one’s life.

It is these sentiments that continue to propel us to keep sharing. While we cannot even come remotely close to joining the select club of great thinkers and writers, we humbly strive to chronicle our own life and times.

Thank you for bearing with us!

–Mamata and Meena

Year of Moderation—It Was Not!

‘Moderation’, says the dictionary, is the ‘avoidance of excess or extremes, especially in one’s behaviour or political opinions.’ Moderate behaviour is reasonable behaviour.  Synonyms for ‘moderate’ include : Self-restrained, tolerant, balanced, considerate, dispassionate, measured, judicious .

Why this sudden exploration of a vocabulary word? No, not quite a random exercise. Actually, as part of end-of-year exercise, I was checking what 2019 had been ‘Year Of’.  Two I knew about: Year of the Periodic Table, and Year of Indigenous Languages (both covered in the blog). But the third I knew nothing about—that 2019 was supposed to have been the International Year of Moderation. The UN Resolution to mark the Year was moved “to promote moderation as a tool to prevent the rise of extremism and terrorism” and “to promote the values of dialogue, tolerance, understanding and cooperation.” TE202BBC6-BEEB-4844-A799-B9896B8AD33Fhe Year of Moderation was declared in “an effort to amplify the voices of moderation through the promotion of dialogue, tolerance, understanding and cooperation.” The resolution did not pass without huge amount of discussion, debate and dissension. Even at the end, it was not passed unanimously. There were two votes against.

But was it even worth the battle to get the Resolution passed? To begin with, it was the most un-publicized Year ever! And more pertinently, 2019 was anything other than a (let alone ‘The’) Year of Moderation. It was in fact a year of extremes, of polarization, of violence—of thought, word and action. Across the world, governments became more autocratic, and across the world citizens reacted. The world only became more unsafe, less equal and more intolerant.

This was also the 150th Anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Another event which has gone by more or less un-observed even in India. The fact that both the anniversaries were ignored is all of a piece. Mahatma Gandhi accepted that people had different points of view and he believed in convincing people through dialogue and discussion. More than anything else, he believed in the fundamental goodness of people, which is the basis of moderation.

Sadly missed opportunities in 2019. Let us see what we make of 2020…

— Meena



The Dot that Went for a Walk: Translating a Book on Role Models

My friend Bharathi Kode recounts her experience of translating a book that aims to inspire the younger generation with a new set of role models: Meena

The dotEverything starts with a dot. On a mid-summer day, I got a call from Reema Gupta, who is the co-lead of the Women’s Leadership and Excellence Initiative at Indian School of Business, asking if I could translate the book she had co-authored along with her two friends. The book “The Dot that Went for a Walk” was written in English by Reema and her two friends Sarada Akkineni and Lakshmi Nambiar who have made it a mission to create social change and empower young girls through inspirational stories. Inspired by the quote of artist Paul Klee “A line is a Dot that went for a walk”, the book was titled “The dot that went for a walk”.  They wanted the book to be available in regional languages including Telugu.

She said they all were all first time writers and first time publishers. I said ‘And hence, you want a first time translator to do the translation?’ We laughed. And then I asked her how she how she had narrowed down to me as a potential translator. She said they had been searching for translators who are not only good at language but also somebody who shared their vision and would do the work with the same passion that they had. They approached a publishing house called Manchi Pustakam for suggestions, and the head of the publishing house had referred my name for this task. A dot connecting me to another dot J

The book features inspirational life stories of 51 Indian women. It starts with the story of Rani of Jhansi who fought the British, and ends with the story of Avani Chaturvedi, a MIG fighter pilot defending our country. Together they tell the story of the last 200 years of the country. The idea is that the young generation will connect with these role models, be inspired by them, think of career possibilities and fight harder against self-doubt.

I was excited and immediately said ‘yes’ without a second thought. In my area of work, I do interact with children and youth and I know how important it is to expose children to positive role models, especially in this digital age where children are exposed to lot of negative influences. I was not sure how much time and effort it would take for me to translate a book of about 150 pages. But still I committed, as I could see the influence that this book can have on the future of young children.

As a first time translator, it was quite exciting for me. I found translation as difficult as writing a book. At times I wanted to go beyond the ideas, thoughts and imagination of the author. But that was obviously not on. I found it also a great learning exercise. It improved my language skills in both English and Telugu. It helped me to get to know about some inspirational women whom I didn’t know about earlier. It took a lot of time, I had to put in so much effort. But it has been quite a satisfying journey.

The Telugu version was launched in November 2019 by the Missile Women of India Ms. Tessy Thomas, in Hyderabad.

The authors are going way beyond the printed word to get the message across effectively. They are organizing essay competitions, discussions around the book in the schools around Hyderabad to begin with. A content platform called ‘Dot Express’ is also being initiated where young generation can voice their opinions and interact with experts.

Even before it got published, sponsors came forward to distribute the book to 12000 children in govt. schools in Telangana. The journey of the dot has just begun. We have to see what patterns, masterpieces it will create in future.

Great job, Reema, Sarada, Lakshmi and Bharathi! We need many more books like this one! 


Have We Lost the Apostrophe?

When something needs a protection society, you can be sure it is well on its way to extinction. And so is the case with the apostrophe. But ironically, the Apostrophe Protection Society (APS) in Britain has declared itself dead and buried while the apostrophe it created itself to protect is still breathing—though barely.

The Society was founded in 2001 with “the specific aim of preserving the correct use of this currently much abused punctuation mark”. The Society’s founder Mr. John Richards, who has fought valiantly for two decades in the service of the apostrophe, is closing it down for two reasons. First is that he is cutting down on his commitments—given that he is 96, that is perfectly understandable. But surely, there may be, somewhere in the world, some younger champion of the post-office comma? (In some parts of India, the apostrophe is referred to as the post-office comma). The other is disillusionment with the state of punctuation—he feels that less and less people and organizations care about the proper use of the apostrophe.

What a tragedy! The apostrophe is an essential part of punctuation. Though misused, the mind boggles when one thinks of the confusion we would face without it. The Society laid down three key tenets in this regard: (1) use apostrophes to denote missing letters; (2) use them to indicate possession—except in the case of possessive adjectives like ‘its’. They also had a strict rule about when not to use them—never use them to indicate plurals.

At any rate, the announcement of the closing down of the APS has elicited so much interest that the website has not been able to take the traffic over the last few days, and is temporarily replaced with a message that the full site will be back soon. And the reassuring thing is that the site is not being closed down and will remain open for reference. (http://www.apostrophe.org.uk/)

RIP APS. But let us hope RIP Apostrophe is still some time away!

See also our older  post ‘Emma Watson’s ‘Eats Shoots and Leaves’ Moment’ https://wordpress.com/post/millennialmatriarchs.com/21


Jeeves at Hand

IMG_20190117_130529I hate when shops ask me to leave behind my handbag at the counter and give me a token in return. Apart from the general feeling of insecurity in being parted from my bag, there is the very real problem of juggling phone and purse as I shop. I certainly, however, will not be amenable to using ‘wallet parking’, though the service should be offered generously, as it is in a restaurant close to my office.

I quite sympathize with the confusion over valet and wallet. After all, since the 16th century, the word ‘valet’ has traditionally been pronounced as rhyming with pallet, though an alternative pronunciation, rhyming with chalet, as in French, is now more commonly used. The Oxford English Dictionary lists both pronunciations as valid.

Who is a valet? Well, the origin of the word is French. A valet or varlet is a male servant who serves as personal attendant to his employer and is responsible for the clothes and personal belongings of an employer, as well as making minor arrangements for his comfort. Taking guests’ horses or carriages to the stables were additional responsibilities. In English, the use of the term valet as “personal man-servant” is recorded since 1567. Famous fictional valets include of course Jeeves, familiar to readers of Wodehouse, and Alfred Pennyworth, valet to Bruce Wayne (Batman).

One supposes that the term for parking attendant must have evolved from the duty of the valet to ‘park’ horses in the stable.

Valet parking, as a professional service originated in the US, with Herb Citrin called the Father of Valet Parking. His father used to park cars in the ‘30s, and Herb joined him in this when he was about 16 years old. In 1946, he started a company, predictably enough, called Valet Parking Service, and professionalized the service including introducing the now-ubiquitous smart valet uniforms. Starting from restaurants, he went on to provide the service to office buildings, department stores, airports, and events like the Oscars and Emmys.

The service has evolved from being something availed by the affluent, to being available in even modest establishments. It is big business, with US estimating that in that country alone, there are 2,00,000 people employed to provide parking services.

Valet parking is still evolving.  From just parking cars, now valet services are being provided for other vehicles like bikes and boats. Bicycle parking especially is gaining traction, with the increasing use of bicycles and bicycle services in cities across the world.

A welcome development indeed.

But still. Wallet Parking? No thank you!


Photo credit: Sudha Priscilla

Close Encounters with Al-Seshan: Tribute to the Man Who made Elections Free and Fair

TN-seshan-_16e58b8495a_largeWe who worked at the Centre for Environment Education (CEE) were lucky. The list of luminaries with whom we had the opportunity to interact was beyond belief.

Mr. TN Seshan was one of them. During his stint as Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forests, he was on our Governing Board, as CEE was a Centre of Excellence under the Ministry. Apart from that, since CEE was part of Nehru Foundation for Development founded by Dr. Vikram Sarabhai (whom Mr. Seshan counted as a guru), he took interest in the institution beyond his term also.

When he was on the Board, he made it a point to visit CEE whenever he was in Ahmedabad. And review the programs. He could pick holes in any presentation in a matter of minutes, if not seconds, and ask the most unanswerable questions. And his questions were certainly not put gently! While it was traumatic, when we dried our tears and reflected back on the experience, what he pointed out were indeed basic shortcomings in the program design or implementation.

All of us at CEE used to get all primed in the weeks preceding The Visit. We tried to ensure that everything was in order, but sure enough his perfectionist eye would catch just that smallest detail that we had overlooked. And someone had better have had a convincing answer for that! As Mamata remembers: “My personal Encounter with Mr Seshan was when I had to present some parts of a compilation of what was, in future, to become a publication titled ‘Essential Learnings in Environmental Education’. As someone who was still very new and untutored in the subject, this was an absolute trial by fire. Mr Seshan ruthlessly ripped apart every sentence, and reduced me to tears in front of the entire gathering of CEE! In the many years that followed, the Day that Mr Seshan Made Mamata Cry, became one of the memorable milestones in the institutional, and my personal history! As I grew older, and perhaps a little bit wiser, and Mr Seshan became a national icon, every time he was in the news, I remembered with greatest respect how he ingrained in me the importance of working towards ‘excellence’ in whatever one did”.

During his tenure as Secretary Environment, he gave CEE the task of doing a review of the state of Environment Education in the country. And a ridiculous deadline. In those unimaginable days before internet and Google and emails, we set about physically gathering reports, syllabi, textbooks from each state and UT. Almost 30 people worked day and night for about 20 days trying to make sense of the mounds of material. And then the day of the first presentation was upon us! Our director, Kartikeya Sarabhai and a small team of us were to take the 8 a.m. flight to Delhi. We were in the office till 4.30 a.m. putting the report together. While we went home for a quick shower, a team continued work printing and photocopying the report. We and the reports just made it onto the flight!

The meeting was set for 11 or 11.30 in the morning. It was a large Board room where about a dozen officials and our team were gathered. We had about 3-4 copies of the report. We put one at the head of the table where Mr. Seshan would sit. And waited, with butterflies in our tummies. He walked in almost on time; gave us barely a look of acknowledgement, picked up the report and rifled through it. For exactly about 7 minutes. And then tore us and the report to shreds! He started with the shortcomings in the framework that we had created for the analysis, the data gaps, the facets we had not even tried to look at, etc. etc. The meeting lasted about 15 minutes. He spoke in a flow for the latter 8 minutes, tossed the report back on the table, and told his office to fix another date for the next presentation the following week.

It was a learning like no other! We had worked on the report for days, but he was able to get a better perspective in 7 minutes!

The story had a fairly happy ending in that we completely re-thought our approach, and worked on the report over the next month, with interim presentations. The report became a baseline for our work on Environmental Education, and definitely impacted subsequent policy directions.

I had the chance to interact with Mr. Seshan on many occasions, including teaching him how to use the new Apple Computers, a big novelty at that time! He would often call us home for meetings early in the mornings, and his gracious wife would give us wonderful coffee. After the official work, over the coffee, he was not averse to chatting about this and that, including Mamata Kulkarni and Shilpa Shetty!

It is indeed a privilege to have seen Mr. Seshan in action, and worked with him in a small way. When media referred to him as Al-Seshan, he would joke that Bulldog might be more appropriate than Alsatian! Well, from my memory of him, his bark and his bite were both scary. But they did set India’s democracy on a solid footing!