Look Around for the Butterflies!

September is observed as Butterfly Month in India. We have about 1400 species of butterflies–from the 190 mm wingspan Southern Birdwing, to the tiny Grass Jewel with a 15 mm wingspan. And we are yet to discover all the species there are—in the last few years, 77 species have been discovered in just the Matheran Hills near Mumbai.

Citizen-scientists who sight, record and report their findings are critical in any exercise of species monitoring. So here is a list of some popular guides to Indian butterflies which can get you started on your butterfly journey. Who knows, you may discover a new one, or help to expand the understanding of range or behavior! Good luck!

Common Rose Butterfly. Bangalore. August 2020. Photo credit V. Raghunathan
  1. Butterflies of India. Thomas Gay, Isaac Khemikar and JC Puneetha. WWF/Oxford University Press.
  2. A Naturalist’s Guide to the Butterflies of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan,  Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Peter Smetacek.
  3. Identification of Indian Butterflies. J.H. Evans. BNHS.
  4. Butterflies of the Indian Region. MA Wynter-Blyth. BNHS.
  5. Butterflies of India. Arun Pratap Singh. Om Books International.

There are several excellent region-specific guides too, including:

  1. Butterflies of the Western Ghats. H. Gaonkar.
  2. Butterflies of Peninsular India. K. Kunthe, G. Madhav.
  3. Butterflies of Sikkim. Meena Haribal. Nature Conservation Foundation.
  4. Butterflies of Delhi. Peter Smetack. Kalpavriksh.

(Unapologetically non-conforming to  APA or any other referencing  style!)

And a few tips to help butterflies along:

  1. Butterfly gardening is a great way to provide a hospitable environment. Butterflies need different plants for different stages of their life-cycles. So planting a garden with many different types of flowering plants (or having pots with different kinds of plants) is a good first step. On the whole, plants like hibiscus, shankpushpi, sunflower, chrysanthemum, marigold, mint etc. are among those preferred by butterflies.
  2. Wherever you live, see if you can have some small areas which are left wild, with local species of wild plants. This will help butterflies, as these are probably their preferred vegetation.
  3. Stop use of chemical pesticides in your garden. These can cause serious harm to the butterfly  at the various stages of its development.


Focus on a Nutrition Success Story

Nutrition Centers for Pregnant and Lactating Women

During this Nutrition Month, sharing a good practice..

The criticality of proper nutrition for pregnant and lactating women is undisputed. Equally undisputed is that their nutritional status in India is extremely worrisome. Of course the government through its Anganwadi program does supply day rations for this stage of life. But in the field, what we found was that these rations were taken home, added to the general pool of foodstuffs in the household, and consumed by all. So probably the men or the children ended up getting a little more food, but very little extra went to the target women. It was not considered at all OK for the daughter-in-law of the house to keep aside the rations that she had received for herself! So in reality, these pregnant women got very little supplementary nutrition.

Based on some state government experiences, we at GMR Varalakshmi Foundation decided to reverse the equation. Rather than the food going to homes, we thought it might work if the women came to the food. We set up small community-based Nutrition Centers which pregnant/lactating women could easily access. They had to come into the Centers at a certain fixed time every day for about half an hour. We worked out a menu of supplementary nutrition in discussion with an eminent national institution working on the subject. The menu was not a complete meal but a list of items worked out to plug the commonly found gaps in this group. Some criteria we had was that it should involve minimum cooking, and should to the extent possible, be based on seasonally available local foods. Women coming to the Centers continue to avail the Anganwaadi rations.

So women come to our centers every day and it is like a little kitty party. They eat the snack, chat together, share notes on their pregnancy.  There are organized activities—from a talk by a health worker on immunization and family spacing, to games related to food, nutrition and childcare, to screening of films on health, sanitation, etc. Records are kept of their weight, hemoglobin, and doctor advice. Special care is paid to vulnerable cases.

The Centers have been in operation for almost a decade now, and have almost 100% track record of institutional deliveries and of baby weight above 2.5 kg. And the cost? The snack costs Rs. 15 per woman per day. And the program is for 12 months for each member—from roughly 3rd month of pregnancy to 6th month after delivery, with home delivery of the food during the weeks when the mother is not able to come to the Center. That is a cost of about Rs. 5500 per woman for ensuring her health and to lay the foundation for a healthy life for a baby. Extremely scalable for organizations. Not difficult even for individuals to support.

There may be many, many other such simple ideas tried by innovative NGOs and others across the country. The key is to share, learn and multiply the good practices!


Feed Them Young

fruitsSeptember is observed as Nutrition Month in India. And God knows we need to do all we can, considering how poorly we are faring. Just to reiterate some of our national statistics:

  • Under-five prevalence of stunting (when a child has a low height for their age) is 37.9%, which is greater than the developing country average of 25%. Under-five wasting (low weight for a child’s height) prevalence of 20.8% –greater than the developing country average of 8.9%.
  • 40 per cent of adolescent girls and 18 per cent of boys are anaemic.
  • 4% of women of reproductive age have anaemia.

No questions about it, there have been tremendous efforts. India’s school mid-day meal programme is the largest feeding initiative in the world. Some states, apart from hot meals, also provide milk to the children. The Anganwadi role of providing supplementary nutrition and take-home rations for under-6 children and pregnant and lactating mothers is another crucial input. The efforts to strengthen the Public Distribution System are key. The opening of subsidized canteens in many states is something that has seen success too. Non-government actors too have played a role—Akshaya Patra’s mid-day meals are something which many school children look forward to, and indeed are often the reason why children want to go to school! Many other NGOs have innovative programmes too.

Proper nutrition for all age groups is important, but it takes on special importance in the case of infants and children, as this lays the foundation for healthy adolescence and adulthood.

it is not just what parents DO NOT feed the children that is important. It is equally important what they DO. Here is a sight one can often see. A daily-wager mother is on her way home. The child is hungry and crying. It may still take them half an hour to get home. Not only is the child demanding food, but a particular kind of food—a packet of chips or namkeen. The mother often succumbs, stretching her affordability to satisfy the child and the hunger. Other times, the scene is repeated with a slight variation—a small child walking home from school insists the mother buys a small packet of noodles to cook for the evening snack.

Not to say that every child and adult does not deserve to indulge once in a while on junk foods. But when it is a habit and a lifestyle, and when it comes at the cost of nutrition for a child, it takes on a serious dimension. Rs. 10 can easily buy an egg and a fruit. But the mother has only Rs. 10. And that that goes for the chips or namkeen, which at best does not contribute much nutritionally, and at worst is actually unhealthy. And the child does not get the egg and fruit.

One supposes that it is not right to hope that government will ban such small packs for unhealthy foods—after all, it is a free market and people have to make their choices. And what is more, we have been told that there are fortunes to be made at the bottom of the pyramid, and that it is indeed our duty to make these fortunes by adapting products and services to meet this demand! But can they be more informed choices? Can there be huge educational campaigns not only for what is good nutrition for a child, but what is not? Can schools step up their education about this? Can we reach parents? Can packs carry warnings?

And more proactively, can the Government Subsidized Canteens also sell items like boiled eggs, fruit by the piece, chikki made of groundnuts and jaggery? Can every village panchayat put up hand-carts with these items at certain times of the day? And if at all we are to have small packs of anything, can it be milk at Rs. 10?

COVID times have made all these issues more challenging—not only through disruptions to the official systems, but more seriously in the long term, due to loss of jobs and incomes. We have to go into mission mode and plan how we will overcome these. This is a problem that affects not just our today, but a whole generation.



Montessori–For All Our Children

August 31 marks the birth anniversary of Maria Montessori, whose name of course is synonymous with the education system all of us wish our children to undergo. But even if she had not pioneered this revolutionary system of education, Ms. Montessori would still be in annals of history as a path-breaker. In 1883-84, at the age of 13, she enrolled in classes at an all-boys technical school. Not only did she choose technical subjects, but she did it with the hope of becoming an engineer, an almost unheard of choice for a girl. By the time she graduated in 1890, she had changed her mind and decided to become a doctor instead. This was not an easier choice though! She was strongly discouraged from taking up medicine in the University of Rome. So she enrolled for a degree in natural sciences, earning her diploma di licenza in 1892. This along with her studies in Italian and Latin, qualified her for entrance into the medical program at the University in 1893. This was only the first step though.  She was met with hostility and harassment from students and professors. Her attending classes with men in the presence of a naked body was considered inappropriate, and she was required to perform her cadaver dissections alone, after college hours. Nothing deterred her, and she graduated from the University of Rome in 1896. The mores of the times also brought unhappiness in her personal life. She loved a colleague, Giuseppe Montesano, and even had a son with him. But she could not marry him because if she married, she would have to give up her professional work.

She specialized in pediatrics and was involved in the education of mentally challenged children. In 1906, she was invited to set up a childcare centre in San Lorenzo , a poor, inner-city district of Rome, working with the most disadvantaged children of the area, who had no previous exposure to school. She called the center the Casa dei Bambini—Italian for “Children’s House. It was a quality educational environment for youngsters whom many had thought were unable to learn. About 50-60 children were enrolled to being with, and the building porter’s daughter was the first teacher, under Dr. Montessori’s guidance.

BunnyThe school showed amazing results. Soon the children exhibited great interest in working with puzzles, learning to prepare meals and clean their environment, were calm, orderly, self-regulating, and engaging in hands-on learning experiences—essentially teaching themselves.

Montessori’s experiments began to be widely studied and replicated, not only in Italy but across the world, till today it is a household name. India too has a long history of Montessori education, going back to the 1920s.

This system of education is undoubtedly what is needed for our young children today. Every Anganwadi  and primary school should be a Montessori school. Considering that the whole experiment began with the aim of catering to under-privileged children who were first generation learners, and with a not very educated daughter of a building porter as the teacher, it is the most obvious model for adoption.

But alas somewhere, this system of education has become identified with exclusive schools for the children of the rich and famous. The fees are out of reach of even the middle class.

Is it that we have, in the pursuit of the letter of Montessori’s methods, completely missed the spirit, and have become inflexible and unable to adapt to make it workable at low cost?

At a time with the new National Education Policy has recognized the importance of education for ages below 5 for the first time, it is time for introspection, creativity and a re-think on how this pedagogy can be the basis of learning in every educational institution.



Re-defining the ‘Young’ in ‘Catch them Young’

“Early childhood care and education (ECCE) is more than preparation for primary school. It aims at the holistic development of a child’s social, emotional, cognitive and physical needs in order to build a solid and broad foundation for lifelong learning and wellbeing. ECCE has the possibility to nurture caring, capable and responsible future citizens.” UNESCO

ECCE—particularly among disadvantaged children—improves not only cognitive abilities, but also critical behavioral traits like sociability, motivation and self-esteem.

The National Education Policy 2020 that India has just approved is, like all other policies, very broad, very noble. And also of course, parts of it are controversial. But however comprehensive and noble, obviously, a policy is only as good as its implementation, and how exactly this is going to happen, including the structural reforms needed, will be seen in the coming years.

Leaving aside the debates, the most significant thrust that could make a fundamental difference to our children, is the recognition of the importance of Early Childhood Education and the statement that ‘the responsibility for ECCE curriculum and pedagogy will lie with MHRD’. Hitherto, the Anganwadi system, under the Ministry of Women and Child Development,  catered to children of this age, and there was no systemic coordination with the Ministry of Human Resource Development, and while education was on the charter, it was just one of the many responsibilities of the Anganwadies. There was no specific focus education, pedagogies or the continuity from Anganwadis to schools. The NEP takes children from age 3 upwards into the fold of education, and advocates coordination among various Ministries towards this.

ECCEBut I think this puts a greater and different responsibility on the Ministry of Women and Child Development—viz, the responsibility of educational inputs in the home environment for children below the age of 3. Ages 0-3 is when a baby’s brain grows to 80% of its adult size and is twice as active as adults. Research in developed countries has shown that at age 2, toddlers from low-income families are already 6 months behind in their language processing skills. Without greater investment in the first 3 years, many children will miss the opportunity to reach their full potential. And inputs and influences at this age come mainly from the home environment.

The Ministry of Women and Child Development would do well to educate young parents on how to create a stimulating, nurturing and learning home environment for their infants and toddlers. Intensive training and sensitization of parents-to-be and parents of these children, along with ongoing hand-holding and support would probably be the way. This would pave the way for the entry of the children into the educational phase at age 3. An imaginative system involving NGOs, educationists and community-based organizations needs to be created.

So NEP, thank you for taking the responsibility for the education of for 3+ers. Now powers-that-be, please do something about ages 0-3!


Shape-shifting Youth

Tomorrow, August 12, is marked as International Youth Day.

youth day pic

But the very definition of youth is pretty fluid! It is the time between childhood and adulthood. Biology is only one aspect of it. Youth is more to do with a socio-cultural context. One way to look at it is that youth have high levels of dependency on their family emotionally and economically.

There are different minimum limits of age at which some decisions or actions can be taken freely, independently or legally. These may be taken as the crossover age from childhood to youth. But these are socio-culturally determined, for example voting age or drinking age or driving age. While leaving behind childhood leads to certain rights, it may deprive a person of certain other  rights—maybe the right to free and compulsory education.

Though the UN declared the International Youth Day in 1999, it cannot be said to be absolutely clear on who youth are! The United Nations defines youth as persons between the ages of 15 and 24. But the UN itself recognizes that its various statutes and entities are somewhat confused on this issue—for instance, under this definition children are those under the age of 14, while under the 1979 Convention on the Rights of the Child, those under the age of 18 are regarded as children. The UN also recognizes that the definition varies from country to country.

In India, Youth are defined as those aged 15 to 29, as per the National Youth Policy (2014).

There are several rights which distinguish children from youth. Often even within a country, there is no uniformity across these. For instance, the Age of Consent in India is 18 years. The legal age of purchasing and consuming alcohol varies from state to state in India. In some states, the consumption of alcohol is totally prohibited and in some states, the legal age for consumption varies from 18 to 25. In terms of criminal justice, which became a major issue in the Nirbhaya case, children below 7 years are considered to be incapable of committing crime; between the ages of 7 to 12 there is a presumption of innocence given in favor of the child but if it is proved with evidence that the crime was committed by that child then he can be prosecuted as a juvenile; and those from 16 to 18 years, if liable for any heinous crime, can be tried as an adult after a general test that he/she has done the crime with his own knowledge and with adequate understanding about the crime and it’s consequences. And of course, the voting age is now 18 (down from 21 previously). With regard to legal working age, the Child and Adolescent Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, defines a “Child” as any person below the age of 14, and prohibits any employment for these, including as domestic help. Children between age of 14 and 18 are defined as “Adolescent” and the law allows them to be employed except in the listed hazardous occupation and processes which include mining, inflammable substance and explosives related work. and any other hazardous processes.

The important landmark rights which come on crossing childhood and could be taken as indicators of having attained youth are:

Voting age

The minimum age established by law that a person must attain to be eligible to vote in a public election. Typically, the age is set at 18 years; however, ages as low as 16 and as high as 21 exist.

Age of candidacy

This is the minimum age at which a person can legally qualify to hold certain elected government offices.

Age of consent

This refers to the age at which a person is considered legally competent to consent to sexual acts. A person below the minimum age is regarded as the victim, and their major sex partner as the offender.

Defense of infancy

This relates to the age of criminal responsibility and implies that children below this age lack the judgment that comes with age and experience to be held criminally responsible.

Legal working age

The legal working age is the minimum age required by law for a person to work.

Drinking age

The legal drinking age is the age at which a person can consume or purchase alcohol.

Driving age

This is the age at which a person can apply for a driver’s license.

Smoking age

The smoking age is the minimum age a person can buy tobacco, and/or smoke in public.

Even if all this has left us more confused than ever as to who youth are, let us take the spirit of the theme of IYD 2020, which is “Youth Engagement for Global Action”, and seek to promote it.

The COVID context has exacerbated the situation of youth, and hence it is even more important than ever to focus on them. For instance,

# The economic impact of COVID-19 is set to make the job market more challenging for youth.

# Recent estimates suggest that 600 million jobs would have to be created over the next 15 years to meet youth employment needs.

# The proportion of young people not in employment, education or training (the youth NEET rate) has remained stubbornly high over the past 15 years and now stands at 30% for young women and 13% for young men worldwide.

India prides itself on its demographic dividend, it huge youth population. Youth constitutes 27.5% of India’s population and in terms of numbers, we are the highest in the world. So more than any other nation, we have to be concerned about our youth. The noble vision of the Youth Policy “To empower youth of the country to achieve their full potential, and through them enable India to find its rightful place in the community of nations” has to move from rhetoric to action.



Craftily-challenged in COVID times

Lockdowns have seen people taking up a plethora of hobbies and
pastimes. Non-cooks have become chefs; non-housekeeping types are Mary
Kondoing; those who have never noticed a bird are becoming meticulous
bird watchers.

Here is my Lockdown craft saga:

Since school, I have, to put it politely, been craftily-challenged. My
needlework teacher systematically made me rip out my homework every
week and re-do it; when we had an assignment to crotchet a sweater in
Std. 8, I started by trying to make one for myself, but ultimately, it
was large enough to fit my pleasantly-plump mother; when we had to
make a tea-cosy (yes, such things were used and we had to make them,
in the days of yore!), it vaguely resembled a small cushion whose
shape did not have a geometrical name.

But my burning ambition has always to been to do fine-embroidery! Such
is the way of the heart, that it yearns for things unattainable!

So when everyone was doing creative things in Lockdown, I thought I
should do something vaguely connected with fabric and needles. I have
by now reached the age to know what I simply cannot do. So laying
aside my ambition, I decided to work on a concept level (a slightly
stronger suit than my craft skills).

The idea was to re-purpose things which I was not using. Clearing out
cupboards and drawers was definitely something all of us have been
doing in these times, and I had done my share. I found well over a
dozen dupattas which I hadn’t used in years. They were all very pretty
and in good condition. The dresses they went with had died long ago,
but when do we ever discards dupattas? We keep tucked away in some drawer,
sure we will be able to match them with another dress in the future.

33F6AB30-20A2-4A65-8402-62E7BFB31CBBSo I thought I would turn these into baby quilts. My interpretation of
quilting is to tack folds of materials together into something
resembling a rectangle. Tacking is the most low-down of stitches one
can do—simply put the needle in through the folds and draw it out at
an interval of 0.5 cm or whatever. Repeat.

And so I have turned a dozen dupattas into 6 baby quilts, because I
fold one into another, to make the quilts soft and warm. My tacking
wanders a little drunkenly across the quilts, and stiches are not of
uniform length (overall defining the word ‘tacky’). But they are going to serve the purpose (partly because the poor infants will have no say in what they are going to be draped in). Babies are not going to judge me for the quality of my
handiwork! I they will like soft coverlets made of pre-loved cloth.

I have run out of babies I know even remotely. My next step is going
to be to look for avenues for donating these—maybe through some NGO or

The exercise has definitely given me a good-feel on many counts.
Unused things are being turned into something useful. And some babies
will feel a bit warmer, thanks to my efforts. And there is nothing
like a physical, tangible product at the end of a few hours of effort.

If enough people take it up, it could become a movement for children who will need these in the coming colder months.

Any takers for the idea? If I can do it, anyone can!


Akashvani: Voice From the Sky

There are many significant dates associated with radio in India. July 23 is one of them. Broadcasting in India started in June 1923, when the Bombay Presidency Radio Club of India transmitted the first-ever broadcast.  But July 23 1927 is significant because it is the day on which the private Indian Broadcasting Company was authorized to operate two radio stations and started its Mumbai transmission. However, the company went into liquidation in three years and the government took over the facilities and the Indian State Broadcasting Service started operations on an experimental basis  in April 1930 (strangely under the Department of Industries and Labour). In June 1936, this became All India Radio. In the meantime, in September 1935, Akashvani Mysore, a private broadcasting station had been set up. (This is significant as the term ‘Akashvani’—literally meaning ‘Voice from the Sky’–was first used by Mr. MV Gopalaswamy who set up this station. All India Radio, India’s public radio broadcaster, adopted Akashvani as its on-air name in 1956.).

AIRToday, All India Radio is the largest radio network in the world, and one of the largest broadcasters i in terms of the number of languages broadcast (23 languages and 179 dialects!), and the range of audiences it serves. This is done through 420 stations located across the country, reaching nearly 92% of the country’s area and 99.19% of the population. AIR also operates close to 25 FM stations.

Though there is some amount of educational programming in India, the real power of radio to support formal education has probably never been fully tapped. In a country like Australia, for instance, radio has been used for direct teaching, whereby radio schools were used to connect children in secluded farmsteads in the outback together with a teacher sited many hundred miles away.

In the last few days, we have seen some data related to media access that is worrying. Reports based on latest National Sample Survey (NSS) data show that children in only 4% rural and 23% of urban households have access to computers. A survey in Karnataka has revealed that over 5.5 lakh school children in North Karnataka did not have access to TV.

In these COVID times—that is the foreseeable future—education has to depend heavily on such media. Yes, we must use the latest technology and leapfrog (as discussed in the previous blog). But it would be foolish indeed to ignore the good old medium of radio, which reaches 99+% of the population! It is time that AIR and educational authorities went into mission mode to ensure relevant, interesting educational radio programming, to support school children who will otherwise miss out on any educatoinal inputs. Education is not about exams, but about engaging the growing mind of the child, giving it food for thought, helping the imagination. We cannot leave lakhs of children without any educational inputs for months, maybe a whole year.

Radio surely has a part to play in this, especially in these times. May it truly be Bahujana Sukhaya Bahujana Hitaya( “For the happiness of many, for the welfare of many”),as the AIR motto goes!.


And Long Before E-Education, there was SITE…

In the education space, stakeholders in India ( at least private
schools and ’learning solution providers’) have moved to E-learning. An estimate is that overall, technology adoption has been accelerated by upto two decades,
thanks to COVID.

Two things stand out. We would not have done it, if we did not have to
do it! While online tutoring had caught on in a big way, educational
institutions were definitely not leveraging technology to the extent
it should have happened—till COVID. The other, more heartbreaking, is
that this is adding to the already stark inequity in educational
access. The point is not to deny access to some because it cannot be
universal. The point is rather to go on a mission to make it

In contrast—SITE (Satellite Instructional Television Experiment)
undertaken by India in 1975, was a proactive effort to use technology
for education and development communication for the most-unreached.
Imagine 1975, when TVs were hardly seen even in urban households. Here
was an unimaginably bold initiative to take TV to 2400 of India’s most
backward villages in 6 states.

There were questions even apart from our technical ability to do this—was such an experiment necessary for a country at our level of poverty and problems? Surely, there were more pressing problems and more immediate use for the scarce resources? But the conviction of a team led by Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, that technology-leapfrogging was critical to solve India’s development challenges,
ensured that the topmost decision makers saw the advantages and they
could make  it happen. (‘Technology-leapfrogging occurs when
decision-makers choose to adopt leading-edge technology, skipping one
or more technology generations’).

This was a NASA-ISRO partnership with the objective of using technology for the education of communities in the most deprived and unreached parts of the country . A NASA broadcasting satellite was used. In the first-ever Indo-US space collaboration, it was positioned over India for the
duration of the experiment (August 1, 1975 to July 1976). The
deeply-researched content on critical issues faced by the community,
from agriculture and health, to culture to short films promoting
scientific temper, the production was done mainly by All India Radio,
with social research and evaluation done by a special team from ISRO,
and with the involvement of experts from a range of the most
significant institutions of India-Tata Institute of Social Sciences, to NCERT. Apart from community programs, there was a rich variety of special educational programs for schools as also massive teacher training.

AA930C61-3377-476F-B4AC-6E6DE5EAB179The programs were broadcast for a few hours a day, and hundreds of
people would gather in the village community hall or wherever the
village had installed the TV. In villages which did not have
electricity, truck or car batteries were used to power the viewing.
People in remote Bihar were watching television while many in Delhi
had never seen one!

SITE was a resounding success in proving that technology had a huge
role to play in solving the real development challenges of the
country. It helped ISRO develop its capabilities in operational
satellite systems and contributed to a sound platform for the Indian
National Satellite System (INSAT). It helped us develop an
understanding of educational software programming, from social
research to production to evaluation. And it helped develop managerial
capacities. It was probably also the first time in India that a very
young group (mainly in their 20s) formed the core of the team taking
responsibility for such a complex task of national importance.

Well-known science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke called SITE ‘the
greatest communication experiment in history’.

So even as education (for some) moves online, here is a Hurrah for the vision of the
giants on whose shoulders we stand! Can that infuse us once again?

And a Hurrah from the Millennial Matriarchs for some of the amazing
people who were part of SITE, whom we have had a chance to interact
with—Prof. Yashpal, Kiran Karnik, BS Bhatia, Binod Agarwal,
Vishwanath, Mira Aghi—to name just a few. We are thankful to life for
giving us these opportunities.


Historical fiction? Fictional history?

I am game for anything historical—books, novels, movies, TV shows. I
have no education in history and so with all the books I read, the
past is a confused place for me, where I cannot begin to separate fact
from fantasy and fiction.

On the whole, I don’t have a problem with that. But last week, I
started reading a novel in the historical fiction genre, and maybe
because if was set in India, it jarred me terribly. And I now know
that I must be even more careful in what I think I know about the

I did some little research into the genre itself, so that I could
understand what the parameters were:

Historical fiction is a literary genre in which the plot takes place
in a setting located in the past. It can be used in the context of
various types of narrative– including theatre, opera, cinema, and
television, as well as video games and graphic novels.

The definition of the ‘past’ is that it is set 50 or more years before
the author wrote the piece. Basically, the author should not have
first-hand experience of the period, and should rely on research for
an understanding of the time and events. Such works may tell stories
about actual historical people and events—or not.

They are however supposed to ‘capture the details of the time period
as accurately as possible for authenticity, including social norms,
manners, customs, and traditions.’

It is generally agreed that there are over 10 subgenres of Historical
Fiction. But there is not quite the same level of agreement on what
these are! One categorization goes:

·         Traditional Historical Fiction, characterized by a historically accurate plot

·         Multi-Period Epics, Series, and Sagas

·         Historical Romantic Fiction

·         Historical Western Fiction

·         Mysteries, Thrillers, and Adventure Novels set in the past

·         Time-Travel

·         Alternate Histories

·         Fantasy

·         Literary and Christian Novels

Ok, so what is all this a lead-up to? Well, my latest library read— ‘The Last Queen of India’, by well-known author Michelle Moran. I have read a few other works by her—‘Madam Tussaud’ and ‘Cleopatra’s

This is NOT a review. It may even be a very unfair piece. Because I
stopped at page 50. It was really irritating. I know that Ms. Moran is
a conscientious writer, and moreover one who is married to a person of
Indian origin, and through that, does know India. And that the
publisher is a very reputed one. So it intrigues me more than ever why
the flavor just didn’t come out right.

Just a few things about the book about Rani Laxmibai, and hence
essentially set before 1857:

1.       A reference to yellow and orange carnations decking a local
temple: Very unlikely in MP of the mid-1800s. Maybe they meant

2.       A reference to a priest wearing a crown of neem leaves. I
have not met any priest ever wearing a crown of any leaves, and
definitely not neem leaves.

3.       A Kshatriya father runs a carpentry shop and does the
wood-working himself. Again, not sure how common that would be.

4.       The grandmother from a poor but seemingly once-upon-a-time
middle class family decides that they are very poor and
cannot afford to get the grand-daughter married. Her immediate
solution is to try to sell the girl to a temple to become a devadasi.
I don’t think that would have at all been the reaction!

5.       It would seem as if every little temple in every little town
had devadasis. The grandmother is bargaining with a temple priest of
an Annapoorna temple and says that if he does not agree to her terms,
she will take the girl down the street to another one which will offer
a better price.

6.       The price they agree on for the girl is Rs. 13,000. In today’s terms,
compounding at the rate of 4%, that would be Rs 1 crore. Does not
sound right (and yes, one of the things to be taken care of in
historical fiction is the time-value of money).

7.       The grandmother and the grand-daughters go to the mother’s
funeral pyre. I am pretty sure that it could not have been so. Up
until recently, women did not go to the ghats.

8.       The daughters, in mourning wore white for 13 days. I am not
aware of any such custom.

Quibbling? Nit-picking? Hair-splitting? When I should have focused on
the spirit of the book, the heroism of the principals, the writing,
the overall sense?

Maybe. But I find I cannot read if the little details intrude and
don’t ring true. And they didn’t!