Silver-tongued Orator of the British Empire

As a student, he corrected passages in JC Nesfield’s “English Grammar” (the standard grammar textbooks used in India in those days). He was often consulted over spellings and pronunciations by the English. His mastery over the English language was recognized by King George V, Churchill, Lady Lytton and Lord Balfour. Many rated him among the five best English-language orators of the century. He is the man of whom the Master of Balliol declared, ‘I never knew that the English Language was so beautiful till I heard Sastri speak it.’ He is the man who found 27 mistakes when Gandhiji sent him the first copy of his newspaper “Harijan” for review. He is the man to listen to whom the British Prime Minister Lloyd George postponed a cabinet meeting.  He is the man conferred with the title of ‘Silver-tongued Orator of the British Empire’.

This was Srinivasa Sastri, born to a poor priest in 1869 in the small village of Valangaiman in Tamilnadu. He was a brilliant student who did his education in Kumbakonam. He graduated in Sanskrit and English, and went on to become a teacher, and later the Principal of the Hindu High School, Triplicane, Madras.  Though he went on to be many things—freedom fighter, politician, diplomat, administrator—he probably remained at heart an educator.

His foray into public life began from academic roots—he founded the Madras Teachers’ Guild when he was Headmaster of the Triplicane School. He was also a pioneer of the co-operative movement in the country, and started India’s first co-operative society, the Triplicane Urban Co-operative Society (TUCS) in 1904.

He is said to have been so influenced by a pamphlet written by Gopala Krishna Gokhale that he gave up his job and joined the Servants of India Society, going on to become its President. He joined the Indian National Congress in 1908, and was nominated to the Madras Legislative Council in 1913. He was later also a member of the Privy Council.

He was a part of delegation which visited England in 1919, a delegate to the Imperial Conference and the Second session of the League of Nations in 1921. He played a key role in getting the Government of South Africa to drop legislation which would have led to the segregation of Indians there. In 1927 he was appointed India’s first Agent to South Africa.

Gandhiji and Sastri were lifelong friends, and respected each other deeply. The Mahatma always referred to him as ‘Anna’ , never letting him forget that he was 10 days older! However, Sastri’s views and stands were often controversial. He was seen as too accommodative of British actions. He opposed the Non-cooperation Movement on the grounds that it was subversive of the law and would set a wrong precedent. This and other similar stances brought him in conflict with Nehru and others in the Congress, and he resigned from the Party in 1922, and subsequently founded the Indian Liberal Party.

Late in life, he returned to his first love, academia, serving as Vice Chancellor of the Annamalai University, Chidambaram. He was a legendary teacher. Far ahead of his time, he believed that students were ‘comrades engaged in a common task and whom one should meet with a smiling face not only in the school room but on playfields ..’. He persuaded Mahadeva Iyengar, then Head of the Tamil Research Department of Annamalai, to translate Kalidasan’s epic poem Abhignana Sakuntalam in Tamil. His lectures at the Annamalai University packed the halls, with faculty competing with students for seats.

He headed a Committee set up in 1940 to frame a set of general principles for coining words for scientific and technical terms in vernacular languages. The report of this Committee was controversial, since it recommended the continuation of Sanskrit loan-words in Tamil technical language and this was violently opposed by Tamil adherents.

It was his tenure in Annamalai University that has special meaning for me. At this time, my grandfather Shri Anantavaidhyanathan was Head of the Dept. of Chemistry there, and the Right Honorable Srinivasa Sastri became a family friend, and mentor to my father A. Nagaratnam who was a student there.

Our family dictionary was a Cambridge Dictionary gifted by him to my father with the inscription ‘To Nagaratnam, with a grandfather’s blessings’, and signed. Alas, when my mother closed up her house, the dictionary (still in decent shape, if in two pieces, disappeared).

What a loss of a family heirloom! But still, I like to think that the pages my grubby childhood hands touched, had been touched by the legendary Silver-tongued Orator!

–Meena

He passed away on 17 April 1946. This week marks his death anniversary.

Get that Goat!

Last week, newspapers reported that when the Army Medical Corp Centre at Lucknow marked its Foundation Day, the marching band was led by Munna Havaldar. Mr. Munna is not a man but a goat, serving as a non-commissioned officer in the Regiment. And he is not the first! There has been a Munna Havildar in the regiment since 1951, the title handed down without break from one handsome Marwari goat to the next!

This is in keeping with the tradition of animal mascots that many army regiments, not only in India, but across the world have. Probably a tradition popularized by the British. Today, the British Army has nine animal mascots, from goats to ponies.

The Spanish Legion has its own goat mascot, ‘Odin’. The Bengal Tigress ‘Quintas Durga’, is the mascot for the 5th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment. ‘Chesty XV’ an English Bulldog is a mascot to the US Marine Corps.  The Sri Lankan Light Infantry mascot is an elephant. This is a tradition since 1961, and they are all named after the most famous elephant in Sri Lanken history, ‘Kandula’. ‘Brigadier Sir Nils Olav’ is a King Penguin who is the mascot of the Kings Guard of Norway. Toronto Zoo is home to the Canadian Army’s mascot, ‘Juno’, a female polar bear. ‘Bill the Goat’ is the mascot  of the United States Naval Academy.

Armies have both official and unofficial mascots or pets. Official mascots have a rank, and are maintained at the expense of the State. As with human soldiers, they too can even be promoted and demoted!

For some reason, goats are very popular mascots. In fact, they may be among the first-ever army animal mascots. The Royal Welsh Fusiliers have adopted goats as mascots since the 1770s, starting from the American War of Independence, during the famous Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775, when a wild goat entered the battlefield and led the Royal Fusiliers from the field.

Of course, goats are not very well-behaved or tractable. Lance Corporal William ‘Billy’ Windsor, mascot of 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh, earned a demotion in 2006 when he deviated from the parade he was leading in front of the Queen and tried to head-butt the drummers marching ahead of him.

Which reminds me of another goat which was a mascot not of a Unit in the Army, but of a road in Vastrapur, Ahmedabad. This strip of road (extremely narrow, bumpy and non-straight), lined with shops, parked vehicles, thelas and carts, temples and milling humanity, was a vital one connecting IIM, PRL, ISRO Colony etc. to the ‘other side’.

And it was ruled by a huge goat. He lay down in the middle of the road when he felt like, and all traffic had to flow around him. If he decided to take a walk and charge any pedestrian, they just had to may their way to safer ground. He was fed and pampered by all the shop keepers and denizens of the street. He had his pick of the choicest vegetables and fruits from the carts. If he felt like some sweets, he just had to make his way to one or the other sweet shop in the market. On festival days, he was festooned with garlands and daubed with paint. He was given to smoking, and the paan gallawallahs used to light beedies and put them in his mouth for him to puff at.

Sadly, the goat which gave the road so much character passed away of old age some years ago. Not being an Army Regimental Mascot, he was not replaced.

But thankfully, the road has been widened and smoothed!

–Meena

Multi-faceted Nation Builder: Remembering Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay

She persuaded Gandhiji to give a call for women to participate in the Salt Satyagraha.

She campaigned with Jawaharlal Nehru.

She argued with Sardar Patel, and convinced him.

She worked with the Kanchi Shankaracharya to defeat temple bureaucracies.

She complained against Indira Gandhi (and paid the price!).

She toured with her theatre company and mesmerized audiences.

She acted in the first Kannada silent movie.

She was the first woman to run for a legislative assembly seat in India

She pioneered thinking on legislation with regard to women in the workforce, and the safety of children.

She led international thinking on women’s Right to Health, and for the first time, brought to attention the economic value of women’s work in the house.

She revived Indian crafts and ensured their survival.

She founded institutions that are part of our national fabric even today.

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay whose birth anniversary we mark this week on 3 April, was a woman of her times and before her time. She accomplished in one lifetime what many will not dare to attempt in three!

Born in Mangalore in 1903, her parents were immersed in the nationalistic cause and were a major influence on her. Freedom fighters and thinkers like Mahadeva Ranade, Ramabai Ranade, Gopalakrishna Gokhale, Annie Besant were family friends and set the course of her life. While her father died early, her mother pushed, supported and moulded her into a redoubtable force.

She was married at 14 and widowed two years later. After this, she married Harindranath Chattopadhyay. After several years, they were divorced.

There were three distinct phases to her life’s work for the nation:

Her contribution to the Freedom Struggle: She heard of Gandhiji’s Non-cooperation movement in 1923 when she was in England, and promptly returned to India to join it. She joined the Seva Dal, was a founding member of the All India Women’s Conference, and helped organize the Salt Satyagraha movement in Bombay.

Her work with Refugees: Seeing the plight of the people coming in from Pakistan after the Partition, she became active in their cause. Convinced that self-help and cooperatives were the way forward, she set up the Indian Cooperative Union to work on resettlement and rehabilitation of refugees, and built the township of Faridabad on these lines, rehabilitating over 50,000 refugees from the North West Frontier, building not only homes but their livelihoods through training them in new skills.

Her work with Artists and Craftspeople: Passionately committed to arts and crafts in every form, she recognized how fundamental they were to India’s way of life and the livelihoods of crores of people. She understood that the mechanization route that India was taking would impact these negatively, to a point where they might disappear, and she took on the mission to revive, revitalize and conserve these crafts and livelihoods.

Among the institutions she played an active part in setting up were the Sangeet Natak Academy, Central Cottage Industries Emporia, the Crafts Council, All India Handicrafts Board, National School of Drama, and the India International Centre.

Kamaladevi was a prolific writer too, and her works, including her autobiography Inner Recesses, Outer Spaces: Memoirs may be the best way to learn more about her. A great starting point however is the lovingly written biography by Jasleen Dhamija’s Kamaladevi Chattopadyay. Brought out by the National Book Trust, it is a publication of less than 200 pages, which amazes you with how much can be packed into such a little book. And currently costing Rs. 100!

–Meena

Coffee, Bournvita, or Horlicks?

…asked my mother hospitably, when our friends Kiran and Jagdeep dropped in of an evening.

I could see the surprise on their faces. While in South India, it is perfectly normal to offer drinks like Bournvita, Horlicks or Ovaltine to guests, it is definitely unusual in the North. Nevertheless, they opted for Horlicks and enjoyed the beverage…they had not partaken of it for decades! In fact, so taken were they with the idea that they went out and bought a bottle for regular use at home!

These beverages were part and parcel of our growing-up years. So great was the belief in the abilities of these drinks to aid our growth, health and well-being that bottles of Horlicks and at least one of the other malted, cacao-flavoured drink were permanent fixtures in the larder. And partaken not just by the children, old and sick, but everyone in between as a change from coffee or tea. And of course, offered to guests in some parts of the country!

What are these drinks which are (were?) such an integral part of our lives?

Actually, India is as integral to Horlicks, as Horlicks is to India. We are the largest market for the drink in the world! The origins of the drink go back almost 150 years to 1873 when James Horlick, a pharmacist, along with his brother William, founded a company called J & W Horlicks in Chicago to manufacture a patented malted milk drink. Originally it was positioned as an infant and invalid food; then added old people and travelers in its target; and in the early 20th century was sold as a meal replacement drink. As far as the India story is concerned, it was brought back to India by our soldiers who were part of the British Indian Army returning from Europe after fighting in the First World War. People in the Punjab, Bengal and Madras presidencies quickly took to it, and it was a status symbol in the 1940s and ‘50s. While there was only one type of Horlicks for many decades, today we have not only a plethora of flavours—from elaichi to kesar baadam, we also have age and gender segmented products!

One distinctive characteristic of Horlicks was that it just would not dissolve! What a lot of stirring it took! The strategy was to spoon the powder into the glass, pour in a little super-hot water, and stir and stir. One interrupted the stirring with small breaks of trying to mash the lumps with the back of the spoon against the side of the glass. Only after about five minutes of all this would the glass be filled up with hot milk and/or water. And even with all this effort, there would be lumps left at the bottom when one finished!

This was not such a problem with the other popular drinks.

Compared to Horlicks, Bournvita is much more recent, having been developed in the late 1920s, and entering the Indian market only in 1948. This malted chocolate drink mix was invented by Cadbury and got its name from Bournville, the model village developed by the Cadbury factory. The original recipe included full-cream milk, fresh eggs, malt and chocolate  and was positioned as a health drink.

Ovaltine was developed in Switzerland, where it is known by its original name Ovomaltine (from ovum, Latin for “egg”, and malt).  It came to the UK in 1909, where a misspelling of the name on the trademark registration application led to the name being shortened to Ovaltine. And the name stuck in English-speaking markets. Originally advertised as consisting solely of “malt, milk, eggs, flavoured with cocoa”, it has changed the contents and formulation over the years. In India and the UK, it no longer contains eggs.

Complan, unlike the others, is made entirely of milk protein, and was developed in the UK in 1942, during the Second World War, as an easy-to-carry nutritious drink-mix for soldiers during battle where they take only very limited dry ration. It was launched in India in 1964.

Another lesser-known drink was Ragimalt, of which I can find no trace today. The violent orange drink was lapped by pre-teens but was way too sweet for anyone else.

Many of these drink mixes have stopped being sold in many countries—for instance, Bournvita was discontinued in the UK in 2008. With changing fads and tastes, with changing understanding of nutrition, with newer allergies which seem to prevent our children from eating and drinking what was basic a few decades ago, with trends like veganism, one wonders how long these drink-mixes will be around.

Maybe time to go out and buy a few bottles before it is too late?

–Meena

The Postman Does Not Knock Even Once

When is it that you last saw letters slipped under your door by the postman? For that matter, can you recall where your nearest postbox is?

The Indian postal system has a hoary history. The official website of India Post informs us that: ‘For more than 150 years, the Department of Posts (DoP) has been the backbone of the country’s communication and has played a crucial role in the country’s social economic development. It touches the lives of Indian citizens in many ways: delivering mails, accepting deposits under Small Savings Schemes, providing life insurance cover under Postal Life Insurance (PLI) and Rural Postal Life Insurance (RPLI) and providing retail services like bill collection, sale of forms, etc. The DoP also acts as an agent for Government of India in discharging other services for citizens such as Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) wage disbursement and old age pension payments. With more than 1,55,000 post offices, the DoP has the most widely distributed postal network in the world.’

True, every word. Except alas, it needs a high school grammar exercise to be truthful: ‘Transform the verbs in present continuous to the past tense’. So the truth will read: ‘For more than 150 years, the Department of Posts (DoP) was the backbone of the country’s communication and played a crucial role in the country’s social economic development. It touched the lives of Indian citizens in many ways.

The post office has sadly lost its relevance completely–at least in the urban context. One can understand the supplantion of some of the functions: Telegrams are not relevant now that we have emails and whatsapp and phones for instantly reaching out; the phone at the post office which was used in the pre-privatization era has obviously given way to mobile phones in every pocket; money orders which we looked forward to so eagerly in our hostel days have been efficiently replaced by money transfer apps galore.  But we are still sending documents, packages, invitations etc. physically from one point to another. But we never think of using the postal system do we? By default, we use the private courier.

Private couriers came in with the promise of overnight delivery. At most, if it was the other end of the country, it was 48 hours. And that did work, for the first few years. And they do come over and pick up and drop off things. The Postman will definitely not come home if you have a package, even for a charge. And so we all started shifting to couriers.

But today, for all the fancy tracking and tracing systems, except for a few premier and highly expensive couriers, they take a good 3-4 days. And whatever the level of service, they charge a huge multiple of the value of stamps I think I would have stuck on a good old letter or package.

I am sure the Postal Department has a huge workforce. We see occasional announcements as to additional functions they will take on. But in day to day life, one seldom sees this happening.

A sad example of the public sector’s presence and importance diminishing in a key vital sector. I don’t care if Govt. of India sells all its PSUs—it probably should. But are there not some core citizen services where its presence needs to be maintained? Should these not be the focus of modernization, revitalization and re-imagination? Are we, as a country not the losers if India Post is not able to live up to its Vision and Mission quoted below?

Vision​​​

India Post’s products and services will be the customer’s first choice.​

Mission​

  • To sustain its position as the largest postal network in the world touching the lives of every citizen in the country.
  • To provide mail parcel, money transfer, banking, insurance and retail services with speed and reliability.
  • To provide services to the customers on value-for-money basis.
  • To ensure that the employees are proud to be its main strength and serve its customers with a human touch.​
  • To continue to deliver social security services and to enable last mile connectivity as a Government of India platform

–Meena

A Wise Lady from the 12th Century Guides Education Even Today

The Aathichudi is the alphabet primer with which every child in Tamilnadu takes its first step in education. It begins with: ‘A is for ‘Aram chaiya virumbu’. The phrase means ‘Intend to do good’. And this is the first thing that a child is taught. There cannot be a better way to start the journey of life.

And so the Aathichudi goes through the A to Z of Tamil, 108 lines in all, with short moral and practical aphorisms. It spans a wide variety of exhortations from ‘Control your anger’, to ‘Never stop learning’ to ‘Care for your parents’ to ‘Do not forget charity’ to ‘Do not allow suffering’.

If we think the ‘quote a day’ approach is new, let’s think again. The Aathichudi is a pithy moral-science textbook cum self-help book which was penned by the legendary Avvaiyar in the 12th century.  

Actually, there was not just one poetess called Avvaiyar  (meaning ‘Wise and respected lady’). There were at least three—the first was way back in the Sangam period (BC); the second probably in the 10th century; and the third, the author of the alphabet primer (among many, many other works) lived in the 12th century.

All of them were wise. They talked with kings and walked with common people. They effortlessly defied convention–they did not marry, they traveled alone across the length and breadth of several kingdoms, they advised kings. wrote poetry, and shared their wisdom. They shunned worldly wealth and power. They not only provided a moral compass to people of the time, but most of what they wrote is timeless.

How influential and independent these women were in their times—they were writing, advising, travelling, teaching, judging the literary works of others, acting as negotiators between kings to stop wars. Their works don’t just endure to this day; they are living documents which every adult, youth and child in the state can quote.

A few gems from Konrai Venthan, another of her works:

Oadhalin nandre vethiyarkku ozhukkam:  For priests, morality is more important than chanting.

Kutdram paarkkil suttram illai: Finding fault results in loss of relationships.

Kaip porul thannil meip porul kalvi: Education is the real wealth, more than the one in your hands.

Neraa noonbu seer aagaathu: A job not done well is not a job to be proud of.

Valavan aayinum alavu arinthu azhiththu unn: Even the super-rich should spend within limits.

Apart from being known to every school child through the Alphabet Primer, in Tamilnadu, the mass memory of Avvaiyar is, predictably enough, based on a film–one starring KT Sundarambal which was released in 1953. There are many, many stories and myths about the Avvaiyaars—from verbally jousting with Subramania (son of Lord Shiva), to being transformed from an attractive young girl to an old lady in an instant. This last was a result of praying to Ganesha, since Avvaiyar wanted to avoid getting into a marriage and family responsibilities, so that she could focus on her scholarly pursuits. There are besides, several statues across the State, including an imposing one at Marina (though how we know how she looked is not clear to me!). There are many college and educational institutions named after her.

For a long time now, people of Tamilnadu have been remembering her through the Avvai Vizha, an annual festival celebrated around mid-March, which is a gathering of scholars of Tamil and other subjects. This has, in recent times been taken over by the State Government. Besides this, the TN Govt. has instituted the Avvaiyar Award, to be given to ‘one eminent woman who has rendered excellent service in any one field such as Social Reform, Women Development, Communal harmony, Service for Language, Service in various disciplines in Art, Science, Culture, Press, Administration, etc., on the International Women’s Day which is being celebrated on March 8th every year’.

Avvaiyar even has a crater on Venus named after her—Feature 512!

But probably if she is looking down on us, what will please her most is that her work is still being used to lay the basics of literacy and education for children! And though she does not seem to make any explicit references to women empowerment nor set herself up as a role model, she will surely be happy that she is an inspiration for women through the centuries!

On the occasion of International Women’s Day…

–Meena

‘millennialmatriarchs’ was launched on 8 March, 2018. So this piece marks our third anniversary. Our heartfelt thanks to all those who have supported and encouraged us, and most of all, our kind readers!
Mamata and Meena

Thinking About Science

A few days ago, on Feb 28, we marked National Science Day. This commemorates the discovery of the Raman Effect.

As we think about the state of Science in India, there are two historical documents I would like to quote as my contribution to this day, to remind ourselves of the vision of the early national leaders, as well as the scientific leaders of yore.

The first is India’s earliest policy statement on the subject, tilted “Scientific Policy Resolution’, brought out by the Govt. of India in March 1958:

‘1. The key to national prosperity, apart from the spirit of the people, lies, in the modern age, in the effective combination of three factors, technology, raw materials and capital, of which the first is perhaps the most important, since the creation and adoption of new scientific techniques can, in fact, make up for a deficiency in natural resources, and reduce the demands on capital. But technology can only grow out of the study of science and its applications.

2. The dominating feature of the contemporary world is the intense cultivation of science on a large scale, and its application to meet a country’s requirements.

3. It is only through the scientific approach and method and the use of scientific knowledge that reasonable material and cultural amenities and services can be provided for every member of the community, and it is out of a recognition of this possibility that the idea of a welfare state has grown.

4. The wealth and prosperity of a nation depend on the effective utilisation of its human and material resources through industrialisation. The use of human material for industrialization demands its education in science and training in technical skills.

5. Science and technology can make up for deficiencies in raw materials by providing substitutes, or, indeed, by providing skills which can be exported in return for raw materials. In industrialising a country, heavy price has to be paid in importing science and technology in the form of plant and machinery, highly paid personnel and technical consultants. An early and large scale development of science and technology in the country could therefore greatly reduce the drain on capital during the early and critical stages of industrialisation.

6.  It is an inherent obligation of a great country like India, with its traditions of scholarship and original thinking and its great cultural heritage, to participate fully in the march of science, which is probably mankind’s greatest enterprise today.

The Government of India have accordingly decided that the aims of their scientific policy will be

1. to foster, promote, and sustain, by all appropriate means, the cultivation of science, and scientific research in all its aspects – pure, applied, and educational;

2. to ensure an adequate supply, within the country, of research scientists of the highest quality, and to recognize their work as an important component of the strength of the nation;

3. to encourage, and initiate, with all possible speed, programmes for the training of scientific and technical personnel, on a scale adequate to fulfil the country’s needs in science and education, agriculture and industry, and defence;

4. to ensure that the creative talent of men and women is encouraged and finds full scope in scientific activity;

5. to encourage individual initiative for the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge, and for the discovery of new knowledge, in an atmosphere of academic freedom ;

6. and, in general, to secure for the people of the country all the benefits that can accrue from the acquisition and application of scientific knowledge.

The Government of India have decided to pursue and accomplish these aims by offering good conditions of service to scientists and according them an honoured position, by associating scientists with the formulation of policies, and by taking such other measures as may be deemed.’

The second quote is from an important document called ‘A Statement on Scientific Temper’, put out by the Nehru Centre, Mumbai, in 1980, which lays down what scientific temper is:

ATTRIBUTES OF SCIENTIFIC TEMPER

Spread of scientific temper in society is much more than the spread of science or technology. Scientific temper is neither a collection of knowledge or facts, although it promotes such knowledge; nor is it rationalism although it promotes rational thinking. It is something more. It is an attitude of mind which calls for a particular outlook and pattern of behaviour. It is of universal applicability and has to permeate through our society as the dominant value system powerfully influencing the way we think and approach our problems—political, social, economic, cultural and educational. 

Scientific temper involves the acceptance, amongst others, of the following premises:

  1. that the method of science provides a viable method of acquiring knowledge;
  2. that human problems can be understood and solved in terms of knowledge gained through the application of the method of science;
  3. that the fullest use of the method of science in everyday life and in every aspect of human endeavour—from ethics to politics and economics—is essential for ensuring human survival and progress; and
  4. that one should accept knowledge gained through the application of the method of science as the closest approximation to truth at that time, and question what is incompatible with such knowledge; and that one should from time to time re-examine the basic foundations of contemporary knowledge.’

There is no need to re-articulate anything. The path is clear. What needs to be done is to ask ourselves, why we are not there!

We can judge for ourselves whether the Science Policy articulated close to 65 years ago has achieved what it set out to. And agonize how to put the focus back on ‘scientific temper’ which is relegated to the archives as a quaint and old-fashioned term.

Definitely needed more today than ever before!

–Meena

The 4000-km Salt Hedge

Many people, both contemporaries of Gandhiji, as well as the generations coming after, have wondered why he picked on salt as the major focus of protest, and the Dandi March became a major milestone of the Freedom movement.

With his deep empathy for the life of the poor in India, and his masterly understanding of symbolism and communication, Gandhiji understood that salt was the common factor that touched the life of each and every person, and that the criminal level of taxes imposed on salt made life of poor Indians that much more difficult. And the protest worked.

But the contentious history of the British colonizers and salt goes back long before the Dandi March. It is one of the not-much-discussed atrocities, and almost unbelievable. I first learnt of it when I came across a book titled ‘The Great Hedge of India’ by Roy Moxham about 15 years ago.

The Great Indian Hedge or the Inland Customs Line was a green, growing impenetrable hedge about 8 ft tall, which at its peak traversed about 4000 km, from Punjab, through the middle of India, all the way to Orissa. About 14,000 people were employed at one stage in maintaining and patrolling it.

And no, it was not any English love for gardens and greenery that prompted this hedge. It was in fact a defense put up against the movement of salt across the country. To step back and explain: The East India Company took over Bengal and brought all salt manufacture under its control. And they raised the tax on salt over ten times in this territory. The quantity of salt involved and the revenue associated can be gauged from some estimates which say that in 1784-85, the revenue to the Company from just the salt tax was over Rs. 62 lakh (that is equivalent to thousands of crores today!) . On the other hand, ordinary people were paying about 2 months’ salary every year to buy salt.

Seeing the revenue that salt taxes brought in, as the East India Company took over more and more territories, it extended the salt tax to these areas also. The hardship and the health impacts on the ordinary Indian were immeasurable

This obviously resulted in attempts to smuggle salt into these areas from princely states which were outside of the dominion of the Company, apart from efforts to make salt and ‘steal’ it from Company warehouses. The biggest threat came from salt transported across the borders, and to prevent this, the Company set up Custom Houses. But obviously, these did not help much as they were scattered.

Which is when it struck someone to build a wall. The ‘wall’ took the form of a hedge. First it was a dry barrier–dry, thorny bushes were piled up along the borders. But these required a lot of maintenance. In the meantime, in some parts, the dry branches took root and started growing. And so the idea of a living hedge was born. A lot of effort went into building an impenetrable hedge–from bringing in fertile soil where the earth was not so supportive, to identifying water sources and ensuring the hedges were watered, to experimenting with different species which would serve the purpose in different terrains. Roads were built along the hedge to facilitate inspection, watering, etc. Obviously well worth it, for the amount of revenue salt resulted!

While one wonders whether a hedge can really be so effective in stopping smuggling, Allan Hume, at one time in charge of the hedge,  opined that where it was well maintained, the hedge was  ‘utterly impassable to man or beast’.

The hedge persisted even after the British Raj took over, and it was only in 1879 that it was abandoned. Not out of any great sympathy for those burdened by the salt tax, but through tax reformswhich increased salt taxes in other parts of the country, thus making smuggling uneconomical.

So way before someone wanted to build walls across national borders, the British in India had done it! So what if it was not brick and mortar, but plants and shrubs! The thinking was as diabolical, and the impacts as devastating!

–Meena

PS: Why have hedges been on my mind? Because my own hedge is looking so sparse and growing weaker by the day. Local cats don’t even have to try to find a hole through which to pass—the hedge is a series of holes. This is not a trivialization of the seriousness of the issues raised by the Inland Customs Line. Only an explanation of why I did this piece today.

Kamala Breaks Barriers: Marking World Radio Day

Kamala Harris made headlines in 2020 when she shattered glass ceilings, but way back in the 1940s and ‘50s, another Kamala was already doing this. After studying Engineering at Guindy Engineering College Chennai, she became the second woman-engineer to join All India Radio.

To mark two relevant days which just went by–World Radio Day (13 February ) and International Day of Women in Science and Technology (11 February)– here is an interview with Mrs. Kamala Subrahmanyan.

Me: When did you do Engineering? Were you the first woman in your college?

Mrs. S: I did my Engineering from 1949 to 1953. And no, I was not the first in my college. I was in fact the seventh—the first woman had started her engineering studies in 1943 and had already finished before I joined. There was one more girl in my batch, and that made things easy.

Me: At a time when engineering was not a normal option for girls, what made you choose it?

Mrs. S: My father was a Deputy Registrar and on his single salary, he supported a large family. I was always fired with the desire to help him. At that time, there were only three professional courses available to anyone—engineering, medicine and law. Well, one of my uncles was studying to be a doctor and I had seen him dissect frogs. I knew I could never do it. So engineering seemed the best option!

Me: What was the reaction of your family?

Mrs. S: My parents were very supportive. And my grandfather who was my role-model encouraged me. So with this kind of backing, I had no problems.

Me: Was there any negative reaction from anyone?

Mrs. S: One of my uncles did not approve. He thought girls should only take up teaching or nursing if they wanted to work. I don’t know about society at large. I did not interact much with anyone outside a small circle, and even if there were negative reactions, I never got to know. Anyway, since my family supported me, I did not really care about anyone else.

Me: How was it at college? The reaction and support or otherwise of classmates, faculty etc.?

Mrs. S: Things were very normal. When we first joined, boys would throw paper planes at us. And when our roll numbers were called for attendance, they would call out ‘Present Sir’ in squeaky voices. But even that stopped in a while. Things were very decent and polite in those days. We all worked together with little differentiation.

We neither asked for any special concessions nor got any. We did our practicals on the lathe or foundry or in surveys just like everyone else. And nor did we face any discrimination.

Me: Then you joined work?

Mrs. S: Yes. Jobs were not easy to come by in those days. As a Telecommunications Engineer, I attended an interview in the State Broadcasting Corporation of Madras Presidency and got my first job there at a salary of Rs. 175 per month. My basic job was to assemble radio sets to be given to community listening centres. There was one more girl with me; she was in the Scientific Stream, not engineering. But we worked together.

Then I got selected in All India Radio and that entailed a move to Delhi.

Me: That was quite a move! How was it?

Mrs. S: For me, it was work, that’s all. I got a place at the YMCA not too far from my office. I would walk up and down. My salary was Rs. 325 per month. I saved most of it to send home. Well, our wants were also very few in those days!

I was the second woman engineer in AIR. Apart from the two enginners, there was also a lady who was a scientist there and senior to me. I was a Technical Assistant and my work was to monitor and control the broadcasting consols. I was the only woman there for quite some time.

Then sadly, my father passed away and on my request, I was posted to Chennai.

Me: What were the various responsibilities you handled during your career?

Mrs. S: Quite a variety. From controlling consols, to going out physically with equipment to do recordings, to doing desk jobs, to looking after maintenance of equipment in various locations, to being in charge of ‘duplicating’ station,  to technical purchases.

Not all jobs are equally exciting, but it is up to us to give our best and make it so and find ways to peform well and help the team perform well. For instance, at the High Speed Duplicating centre Vividh Bharathi and the Studios at AIR Kolkatta, I had a large  number of staff under my control. I made it a habit to go around the places of work the whole day to check if everything was going smooth  Those who worked sincerely were also happy that their work was noticed and appreciated.

Me: What are some of the challenges you faced as a woman?

Mrs. S: Nothing very daunting. Some bosses would not initially give responsibility to a woman. But if one was proactive and looked out for what needed to be done and did it, they would gain confidence and do so. My experience is that you learn a lot from difficult bosses!

Some peers would make things a bit difficult at times specially if they saw me doing well. But such things are a part of life and work, and one just has to take it in the stride.

When I was in charge of Purchase, I faced the most difficult time. But not because I was a woman. I found that there were some problems—there was a nexus of people and some purchases were not being done at all properly. Old or second-quality equipment was coming in. I got very hands-on—from going to the markets myself to find out prices, to ensuring that Standard Operating Procedures were put in place for every aspect and adhered to, to ensuring process and transparency. Of course I did raise quite a few hackles and faced some slogans and threats. Someone even complained to the CBI, who came one day to my office and took away all my files. They kept them for six months, and returned them because they did not find any irregularity.

Me: Any exciting experiences you remember?

When I was in the Studio Design section of the Directorate, one of my duties  was to inspect studios under installation before they are commissioned  One was at Bhuj.  As advised, I took a train  from Delhi Main to Jaisalmer which took almost two days including many long halts.  From Jaisalmer I had to take a flight to Bhuj.  I reached the Airport and boarded the flight (my first experience).  There was another boy on the flight who was quite excited. Suddenly there was an announcement that the plane hae developed a defect and another plane has to come from Cochin for us.  Since there were no facilities for night landing  at Jaisalmer the flight would be available only the next day. I was in a fix as I had planned my trip to be away from home for the minimum period so as not to leave the children  alone. Other passengers in the departure lounge were equally disturbed. Some of them seemed to be discussing about taking a taxi.They appeared to be business men. I asked them if I could join them. They told  me that they were going to Gandhidham the then capital of Gujarat They told me that they can take me up to Gandhidham  and from there I could go to Bhuj. The taxi drove along the Rann of Kutch, a barren patch of land with just white sand. It was pitch dark and there was an eerie silence. On reaching Gandhidham, they took me to the house of one gentleman by name Aggarwal. I contacted the Station Engineer at Bhuj and requested him to send a car to fetch me. He told that he would send the car the next day as it was too late.  The Aggarwals served me dinner and gave me a place to sleep. I thanked them. But I feel so sorry that I had not taken their contacts (there were no cellphones those days). I left from Bhuj the next day and lost half a day.

Me: What about home?

My husband and children were most supportive. My husband and I used to adjust our schedules. For instance, I often had to go on shift duty at 6.30 a.m., or be in the shift till 10.30 p.m. My husband always made sure he was at home.

And also, the establishment was cooperative. If my husband who was in the Railways got transferred, I would request for a transfer to the same place, and they would usually make it happen.

Mrs.  Kamala Devi Subrahmanyan retired as Superintending Engineering, AIR. I went to school with her daughters Giti and Suki. She inspired awe in us even when we were in school—maybe the first woman engineer I ever met.

Wish her all health and cheer!

–Meena

International Day of Women and Girls in Science, 11 February

Gagandeep Kang: Virologist, Professor, Department of Gastrointestinal Sciences at Christian Medical College, Vellore, India.  First Indian woman to be elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society.  At the forefront of COVID science.

Kiran Majumdar Shaw: Chairman-MD of Biocon India Group known for its breakthroughs in clinical research. The first Indian company to export enzymes to the United States and Europe, the first Indian company to gain the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the manufacture of a cholesterol-lowering molecule.

Vijayalakshmi Ravindranath: Chairperson at Centre for Neuro Sciences at Indian Institute of Science, who leads research that will help us understand and cure Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Tessy Thomas: Expert in ‘solid propellants’, which fuel India’s Agni missiles developed by Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO). Called Agniputri by media, after the missiles she has helped develop.

Ms J Manjula:  DRDO Outstanding Scientist, and Director, Defence Avionics Research Establishment.

Minal Sampath, Systems Engineer working on India’s mission to Mars. Anuradha TK, senior-most women officer at ISRO. Nandini Harinath, Project Manager Mission Design, Deputy Operations Director, Mars Orbiter Mission, ISRO. And the many other Mars-Mission Women.

Inspirations, one and all. And they are not the only women-achievers in science and technology.

But still such a minuscule number!

Not just India, but the world and Asia too have this challenge of attracting and retaining women in these fields.

For instance, worldwide:

  • Only 35% of all higher education students enrolled in STEM-related fields are female.
  • Only 28% of all of the world’s researchers are women

Recently, UNESCO Bangkok brought out a report on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education for girls and women in Asia, 2020. The report points to a cycle which hinders girls for pursuing STEM education and hence careers in science.  It highlights the reality that right from a young age, girls receive messages that these subjects are not suitable for girls. One of the issues is that girls do not see any role models of successful women scientists around them. Even when girls do take up this stream of education, there are several barriers to success—from discrimination, to having to handle multiple responsibilities outside the job, to glass ceilings.

It is in recognition of these challenges that the United Nations in 2015, decided that ‘In order to achieve full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls, and further achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution A/RES/70/212 declaring 11 February as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science’.

The theme for this year is ‘Women Scientists at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19’. Indeed it is a matter of pride that so many women are indeed there—whether as researchers, as doctors, healthcare professionals or in manufacturing vaccines and medicines.

The journey has started, but there is such a long way to go. Leaving 50 per cent of humanity’s brainpower and entrepreneurial energies out of the search for fundamental scientific truths and putting these to the service of humanity, seems a sad waste indeed!

Make a resolution today to encourage a girl in science. Take her to visit a Science and Technology museum. Buy her a science kit. Take her on a visit to a Scientific Institution on its Open Day. Tell her stories of women-scientists. Gift her a book about science and scientists. In fact, gift a few boys some books about women scientists too!

Do anything, but do something…

–Meena

PS: Two books by women, to get the reading list started:

The Spark that Changed Everything. Veena Prasad. Hachette.

Fantastic Adventures in Science—Women Scientists of India. Nandita Jayaraj, Aashima Freidog. Puffin Books.