It Takes Guts!

‘Gut Ecology’ is the name of a book brought out by the St. Marks Academic Institute which is dedicated to ‘advancing scientific knowledge of colorectal disorders’. I think the book, which features topics like ‘The gut microflora: traditional and molecular identification techniques’, and ‘The ‘unculturables’’ deserves to be a bestseller. Not that I would understand the contents, but I have to admire the dedication and scientific spirit it takes to spend a lifetime researching and writing on such topics! Guts indeed!

But what exactly would the book be about? Let’s break it down. Ecology is the study of organisms and how they interact with the environment around them. An ecologist studies the relationship between living things and their habitats. ‘Gut’ is commonly used to refer to the stomach, entrails, parts or the whole of the digestive tract. So a ‘gut ecologist’ would study the insides of our digestive tract to understand the micro-organisms (collectively referred to as gut microbiota) that live there, and how they interact in our digestive system.

For very long, the presence and role of micro-organisms in our body was not known. It was in the 1670s and ‘80s when Antoine van Leeuwenhoek started using his newly developed handcrafted microscopes that scientists started studying them. Leeuwenhoek described and illustrated five different kinds of bacteria present in his own mouth and that of others, in a letter he wrote to the Royal Society of London in 1683. He later also compared his own oral and faecal microbiota, and proved that there are differences in micro-organisms in body sites. (See why I say it takes guts to be in this field!)

Gut bacteria
Gut bacteria

Now we know that the human gastrointestinal tract—from mouth to anus– is divided into sections, and each provides a different environment and different kinds of micro-organisms thrive in each section. In all, about 100 trillion micro-organisms (most of them bacteria, but also viruses, fungi, and protozoa) exist in the human gastrointestinal tract. In fact, the colon contains the highest microbial density recorded in any habitat on Earth, representing between 300 and 1000 different species. There are actually about as many bacterial cells in our bodies as there are human cells, and they contribute over a kilogram to our weight! So Stewart Brand, the American writer, environmentalist and editor of the highly influential Whole Earth Catalogue was right when he said, ‘If you don’t like bacteria, you’re on the wrong planet.’

These organisms are such an integral part of the functioning of the human body that they are sometimes called ‘the forgotten organ’.

A foetus has no bacteria at all in the system. Through the process of birth, it picks up a good number, and then in the first few years of its life, the child picks up a huge number of different bacteria from its environment. Fascinatingly, like fingerprints, a person’s gut microbiota composition is unique to each individual.

These micro-organisms influence our energy metabolism and many other areas of human health, from immunity and the progress of diseases, to appetite, to nutrition uptake, and even personality! They therefore greatly influence our health, well-being, weight etc.

External factors influence the composition of these micro-biota but by changing our diet or fasting can change the composition of these life-forms in our systems, in a matter of days or weeks, and this is why it is important to pay attention to what we eat. This is also the reason why medical science is increasing focus on  prebiotics and probiotics. If like me, you are confused about the two terms, here are simple definitions:

* Probiotics are foods or supplements that contain live microorganisms intended to maintain or improve the “good” bacteria (normal microflora) in the body.

* Prebiotics are foods (typically high-fiber foods) that act as food for human microflora. Prebiotics are used with the intention of improving the balance of these microorganisms.

Kudos to the scientists who work so hard to help us understand our bodies and their functioning, ready to spend their lives poring over microscopes to figure out how we can live healthier and better!


Zoos and the Sense of Wonder

Cheetahs at Oakland Zoo. Picture: Oakland Zoo site

Oakland Zoo is celebrating its annual Glowfari Festival through November, December and January. This year, the highlights include ‘a walkabout through the land down under with kangaroos and koalas, icons of the California coastline including whales, otters, and jellies, exotic animals of the tropical rainforest, and a trip to the past with a towering T-Rex and a megalodon shark tunnel!’ Ok, apart from the t-rex and megalodon shark, that’s not very usual for a zoo, right? Well, not till you learn that these are not real animals that the visitors will see but hundreds of huge hand-painted animal lanterns  placed throughout the zoo’s campus, making for a totally unique tour of the zoo by night. The spectacular lanterns are arranged throughout a mile-long pathway. They glow in the dark, turning the zoo into a fairyland. The tag line of the fest is ‘A Wildly Illuminating Lantern Festival’.

Sean Kenney’s Lego Butterfly

Some years ago, a New York based artist Sean Kenney toured several zoos and botanical gardens in the US with over 150 life size and larger-than-life size sculptures of animals and plants made with, hold your breath, Lego blocks! Lego blocks are this artist’s chosen medium. who turned his The largest sculptures took up to nine months to construct. The pieces are set in place as per a master-plan, and glued tother. A lion, for example, took 474 construction hours and Lego 48,248 bricks to build.

Brevard Zoo currently has an exhibition called ‘Life Beneath our Sea’ which displays a dozen giant sand sculptures hand-crafted by world-class artists using over 500 tonnes of sand, which is bringing the beauty of underwater scenes to the viewers.

These are just a few examples of innovative programmes being done by zoos to attract visitors, bring the beauty of wonder of nature to them, and educate them.

It is well recognized that experiences with animals and educational elements can increase zoo visitors’ motivation to take conservation action, and this is why zoos place so much emphasis on educational initiatives.

San Diego Zoo, probably the top-rated zoo in the world, has developed curricula on a number of topics that can be taught through a combination of classroom activities, along with activities to be done during a visit to the zoo. The topics range from the Panda curriculum to the Wildcats curriculum to Animal Adaptations to the Australian Outback curriculum. They also organize field trips with guides for schools, opportunities to get close to small animals, safari park guided field trips, special early morning trips and even sleepovers at the safari park!

The Singapore Zoo has specific programmes for various levels, from pre-school to primary school to secondary school. They also have professional development programmes for teachers. These are very structured experiences. For instance, one of the education programmes offered to secondary students ‘Fragile Forest’ helps them get a multi-dimensional experience of life in a rainforest ecosystem. It includes a walk amidst fascinating flora and coming face to face with lemurs, bats, butterflies, birds, tarantulas, snails, millipedes, etc. This tour also demonstrates the importance of rainforests to our lives, and ways individuals can help to save them.

And it is not just children that zoo education caters to. Many zoos like the Smithsonian offer internships for adults and senior students, and encourage volunteering.  

A number of zoos pivoted during COVID to offer virtual zoo experiences, including pre-recorded virtual Zoo tours, online classes allowing children to personally interact with Zoo educators and virtually meet several animal ambassadors up close. Some Zoos like the Taronga Zoo, run an educational TV channel, with new videos releasing every week. Other zoos offer virtual guided tours through the Zoo Commissary, Vet Hospital, and behind the scenes Aquarium.

Yet other zoos offer educational kits like exhibit design kits, , biological artefacts (i.e. skulls, feathers, shells, etc), and materials to conduct conservation learning games.

India too places emphasis on zoo education. The Central Zoo Authority got Centre for Environment Education to develop a Zoo Education Masterplan—a 330 page document which provides zoos in India a detailed way-forward on the why, what and how of education at such facilities.

Lets hope zoos across the world are able to effectively use education to support conservation.


Going to the Zoo

As a child in Delhi, one of the major highlights of the year was a visit to the Zoo. And if we were lucky enough to have guests from out of town with children, it was a bonanza year, because the zoo would be on the itinerary for the guests, and we could go along too. The birds visiting the wetlands which are a major part of Delhi Zoo; the lions, tigers, elephants, zebras; the mischievous monkeys, the exotic zebras and giraffes—these were our only encounters with creatures that we otherwise only saw in 2-d in books. And from such visits grew our wonder at the world of nature and our love for it.

And that indeed is one of the stated purposes of zoos—to introduce visitors to nature and to lay the foundation for a conservation ethic. As India’s Central Zoo Authority (CZA) sums up, the objectives of zoos are:

‘CONSERVATION: To be involved in programs which assist the survival of wild populations of animals. This is often done in partnership with other organisations.

EDUCATION: To increase the level of awareness, knowledge and understanding of visitors about animals, the environment and conservation, and to motivate behaviour change which will help the environment.

RESEARCH: To conduct and facilitate research on animals both in captivity and in the wild, with particular emphasis on threatened species.

RECREATION: To provide enjoyment and enrichment for visitors through close contact with living things.’

I spent two decades of my career as an environmental educator, and zoo education was something I was involved in at some stage. I still carried the deep impacts of my childhood zoo experiences and worked with a passion to make zoo visits more educational, striving to sow the seeds of love, respect and care for the environment, nature and animals.


But last week, I took a 4-year old to the Bannerghatta Zoo and Safari Park. She liked it. But I saw nothing like the excitement and wonder I remember feeling as a child. She was reasonably excited when she saw lions and tigers and bears close up during the safari. And then during the walk through the zoo, she did like the zebras and monkeys and giraffes, but I could see that she was disappointed that they were just standing there, not ‘doing’ anything. And then when we saw a herd of elephants, she could not see the baby-elephants clearly, which she was not happy about. And as she walked through the zoo, she was tired and hot and cranky. All in all, if my childhood zoo visits were an 11/10, hers was a 7/10.

I got to thinking why. And then I realized that she had the wildest and most remote of habitats and the most exotic of animals at her fingertips. She just had to switch channels in the comfort of home to see lion cubs playing with their mother’s tail; elephants mud-bathing; kingfishers swooping in for a fish catch; tigers chasing a deer. No wonder the physical sights were not so exciting.

I still believe that zoo-visits have a major role to play in nature education. But obviously, it cannot be business as usual. While zoos in India are making some efforts to make onsite education more exciting, there are international zoos which have taken this to new levels of innovation, immersion and interaction. Next week I will share some interesting and really cutting-edge programmes.

India has 145 recognized zoos in India as per CZA. Pre-Covid estimates indicate that zoos are one of the highest visited public spaces, with over 8 crore visitors every year. Zoos are still the most accessible way to see animals for real–national park and sanctuary visits are expensive and time-taking. We cannot lose this opportunity of zoo-visits to set off positive action for the environment.  And to do so effectively means we must understand the challenges that new media poses to traditional visit experience, as well as recognize the exciting opportunities it offers.


Kindness Day

Yes indeed, there is a World Day for Kindness! It is marked on 13 November, and the idea is to promote kindness. Initiated in 1998 by a group of NGOs, it ‘aims to promote kindness throughout the world and presents us with the opportunity to reflect upon one of the most important and unifying human principles. It is a day devoted to the positive potential of both large and small acts of kindness, trying to promote and diffuse this crucial quality that brings people of every kind together.’ 

Kindness Day
Kindness Day

Kindness is defined as ‘the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate’. Kindness is obviously not to be confined to one day. But this Day is designated to prompt us to think consciously about kindness, and to make resolutions to help us practice kindness every day

It sounds simplistic. Why on earth should anyone be reminded to be kind? But when we look around us, we find there is indeed need to do so. Why look ‘around us’? We will find the same thing when we look into ourselves. Did we say a smiling thank you to someone who was nice to us? When was the last time we did anything for anyone? Do we show basic courtesies in queues, on the roads, in public places?

In a world where people are growing increasingly disconnected, and it’s all about ME, ME, ME, it definitely seems that these behaviours we used to take for granted are disappearing. Never was the need for an initiative like Kindness Day greater.

A measurable proxy for kindness is an attribute called ‘Social Mindfulness’. This refers to being thoughtful of others and considering their needs before making decisions. Social mindfulness is related personality traits of honesty, humility, empathy, agreeableness and pro-social value orientation.

There have been international studies to understand social mindfulness and associated behaviours. One of the best known studies in recent times is the one by Neils Doesum and his associates, who carried out research across 31 countries to understand differences in social mindfulness among the countries. They studied most common, everyday acts of cooperation which require very little effort– for example, stepping to a side to let someone pass on a sidewalk.

Alas, India came up near the bottom of the pack! Japanese scored the highest—they made socially mindful decisions– decisions which kept the well-being of others in mind–72% of the time. Austrians and Mexicans were also towards the top of the list. People in Indonesia were at the bottom, making such co-operative, unselfish decisions only 46% of the time. But India at 50% was not much better.

So obviously, we Indians need to be more aware of this trait, and if at all there is an occasion to be marked with earnestness, it is World Kindness Day.

And remember, it is not about some earth-shaking decisions or major actions. It is about our everyday interactions with people around us—can we make their lives more better, less difficult, more pleasant?  The simplest way to start being more kind and socially mindful would probably be with the old adage ‘Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.’

Specific steps would include:

  • Being conscious of the needs, feelings and thoughts of others.
  • Taking these into consideration before making decisions.
  • Not restricting choices available to other people by being selfish.
  • Being grateful for the kindness of others, and expressing that gratitude.
  • Taking a moment to help someone in need, or to make someone’s life easier.
  • Making it a habit to do random acts of kindness, however small.
  • Resolving to bring a smile to someone’s face, everyday.

Let’s take the occasion of World Kindness Day 2022 to start the personal journey to a more kind, caring and socially mindful world.

Go on, make your resolutions today.


Elaben Bhatt: Simply Inspiring, Inspiringly Simple

Last week we lost Elaben Bhatt, Gandhian, founder of Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), co-founder of Women’s World Banking, Chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith, Trustee of Gandhi Ashram;  winner of national and international awards including the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the Right Livelihood award and the Padma Bhushan.

Ela Bhatt

As people who worked in the development sector in Ahmedabad, we have of course seen her, heard her and admired her. Her simplicity, her straight-forwardness and compete dedication to the cause of the economic empowerment of unorganized women, lifted our eyes and minds to a higher plane, and showed us the possibility of the difference one soft-voiced person could make.

Much has been written about her in the last few days, and maybe there is nothing startlingly new to add. But we still need to refresh our memories of this stalwart and pay our homage.

So here are some excerpts from a book called ‘Don’t Sprint the Marathon’* which can give us some insights on the early influences which shaped her. Elaben spoke to the author and the write-up is based on these conversations.

‘Ela never topped her school or the college. She might have been in the top 10 percentile, but was never unduly pushed into driving herself very hard. Her father would typically buy a variety of books during the summer vacations and expect her to read them to improve her language skills, which she largely did. Her overall value system was shaped not only by her highly principled father, but the entire nationalistic climate of the time. She was growing up in an India which was all set to break the shackles of British rule. Gandhi was a household name, his teachings the religion of the day, and his life and example to be emulated.

Ela, even as a child, seems to have had a highly developed sense of fairness as well as being highly sensitive to any form of exploitation of the under-privileged.

Her mother’s deep involvement in the women’s movement seems to have raised her hackles against the exploitation of women, who she saw were contributing more than their fair share to the economy of the country. But just because they weren’t paid for their ‘service’ and they were not organized in any manner, they seemed to be easy prey for all sorts of exploitation at the hands of the entire organized system. For example, even as a youngster, Ela was sensitive to the fact that while women did most of the agricultural work in the villages, apart from running the households, they did not qualify for any loans from the banking system.

It is awareness of inequities such as these which probably came through her parent’s work that shaped Ela’s perspective and future. Given her nature, she had to stand up for the underdog.’

Nothing can capture her humility and sensitivity like this para in the introduction to her book ‘We Are Poor, But So Many’: ‘In writing about the lives of poor self-employed women, I have been presumptuous. I have written about women who are unlikely to read what I have written about them. Moreover, my perception is unavoidably limited by the economic and social environment to which I belong. So in all honesty, I cannot claim to speak for the women I write about, I can only speak for myself.’ And this from the person who spent her entire working life working with these very women and among them!

May her soul rest in peace, and may she continue to inspire.


*V. Raghunathan. Don’t’ Sprint the Marathon. Harper Collins.

Two States are Born

November 1 is marks the birth of two states in the country—Karnataka and Haryana.

Karnataka State Emblem

Karnataka came into being on this date in 1956, after the passage of the States Reorganization Act. It is also called the Unification of Karnataka. During the British Raj, the area now called Karnataka was part of many administrative units. About one-third was part of the Mysore Princely State. The rest was divided among Nizam’s Hyderabad, the Bombay Presidency, the Madras Presidency, and the territory of Kodagu.  The Kannadigas were minorities in all these areas, and felt that their language as well as socio-economic development were not being given priority. Hence started the movement to unite all Kannada-speaking people into one state. The demand started way back in 1856 and got a fillip with the formation of the Karnataka Vidhyavardhaka Sangha in 1890. But it gathered momentum when Aluru Venkata Rao made an appeal in 1903 for the unification of the Kannada-speaking area of Madras and Bombay Presidencies with Mysore State. The movement grew stronger over the years, with a literary thrust and the formation of the Kannada Sahitya Parishad in 1915. The initiative developed in parallel with the Independence struggle, and also gained political strength. The growing strength led to the approval of the formation of the Karnataka Pradesh Congress in 1920.

The Nehru Report of 1928 which appealed for dominion status for India, a federal set up, joint electorates etc., also recommended a separate state for Kannada-speakers. Nothing much happened during the Raj though the Congress pushed for it and the idea had the support of the Maharaja of Mysore. This was probably due to the British not being quite sure how they would manage this. At Independence, the portions of Karnataka that were a part of Nizam’s Hyderabad did not become free along with the rest of India, because the Nizam did not accede. It was only on 17 Sept 1948 that they became part of free India after the Nizam was overthrown. But at this point, neither the Congress nor the Maharaja showed any urgency in the matter of creating the State of Karnataka. In fact, it was only after violent protests, strikes and fasts that the unification was approved in Parliament, and the State of Mysore came into being. It was renamed Karnataka on November 1, 1973.

November 1 is marked as Karnataka Rajyotsava, and is a holiday in the State.

Harayana State Emblem

Haryana too was formed on 1 November 1966, 10 years after the unification of Karnataka. It was formed by the partition of the former state of East Punjab into Punjabi-speaking Punjab, and Hindi-speaking Haryana. In fact, the original clubbing of Haryana with Punjab was arbitrary. The area had been ceded to the East India Company in 1803. It passed to the British, who made it part of the North-Western Provinces and then merged it with Punjab in 1858. But it was never a happy union. The people of both Punjab and Haryana wanted the separation, though the Punjab side was more vociferous. The movement for separation started early in the 1900s, led by stalwarts like Lala Lajpat Rai and Asaf Ali in the early days, and spearheaded by the Punjabi Suba continuing into the ‘60s. The Union Territory of Chandigarh serves as the capital of both the states. Which is a another story!

Celebrating the spirit of federalism, diversity, many languages and cultures!


Red is the Notice

In the last few weeks, we have seen Interpol in the news in Inida, what with the 90th General Assembly of the organization having concluded just last week in New Delhi. The GA is the supreme governing body of the Interpol, and is made up of delegates appointed by the governments of the member countries. It is the top decision-making body of the organziation.

But to take a step back, what is Interpol itself?

Well, Interpol is the International Criminal Police Organization. It is an inter-governmental organization with 195 member countries. The idea is to help police in all the countries work together. They do this by connecting all the member countries via a secure communications system called I-24/7. Members can use this network to contact each other, and the Interpol Secretariat. They can also access Interpol databases and services. The agency also coordinates networks of police and experts in different crime areas, and facilitates their coming together through working groups and at conferences to share experiences and ideas.

Most of us usually hear the term INTERPOL in connection with Red Notices. These are international requests for cooperation or alerts allowing police in member countries to share critical crime-related information. Though we most often hear about Red Notices, notices come in a rainbow of colours.

The best known Red Notice is about wanted people and is a request to seek the location and arrest of persons wanted for prosecution or to serve a sentence. These are by far the commonest and there are currently about 70,000 valid ones out. Within Red Notices, there is a specific type of criminal notice for fugitives wanted for environmental crimes put out on the occasion of World Environment Day. There are seven people in this list including people wanted for smuggling protected species and their derived products; illicitly dealing in wildlife trophies and organized criminal activity; and illegal logging in a protected forest.

Next in numbers but far behind are Blue Notices which seek to collect additional information about a person’s identity, location or activities in relation to a criminal investigation. There are about 15,000 such notices out currently.              

Yellow and Green Notices follow with about 12.500 currently valid ones in each category. Yellow Notices are about missing people and seek help to locate such persons, often minors, or to help identify persons who are unable to identify themselves. Green Notices are warnings and intelligence about a person’s criminal activities, where the person is considered to be a possible threat to public safety.

Black Notices seek information on unidentified bodies, while Purple Notices seek or provide information on modus operandi, objects, devices and concealment methods used by criminals. There are between 1000-2000 of each.

Orange Notices are the fewest in numbers, just a few hundreds. They are about imminent threat, and seek to warn of an event, a person, an object or a process representing a serious and imminent threat to public safety.

Apart from this, there is the INTERPOL–United Nations Security Council Special Notice which is issued for entities and individuals who are the targets of UN Security Council Sanctions Committees.

When I glanced through the list of most wanted Red Notices, what I found most disturbing was that many of the persons listed are under 30 years of age, with some as young as 19. The list also had a 74 year old woman. And in the quick browse, it seemed to me that most of the listed people were from South America. So do these countries resort to asking for Red Notices more often? Or do their requests get accepted faster?

Who knows? But for sure, when I see something in media about Interpol Notices, I will take more notice now!


Based on:

Scarecrows Forever

For as long as humans have cultivated crops, they have had to worry about keeping birds away from the fields. Not that birds don’t play a huge positive role in agriculture. They do—by pollinating some species, and by eating pests and rodents which destroy crops.

But the damage they do to crops is considerable too. A government of India report has identified 63 species of birds that are responsible for the bulk of this damage in India. Cereals seem particularly attractive to birds, with 52 bird species feasting on these crops. 14 bird species enjoy pulses, while 15 species like oilseeds. Fruit crops attract 23 species.

Traditionally in India, children or others who could not put in hard labour in the fields were deployed to guard crops with the help of slings. They took up a vantage highpoint among the crops and aimed at the birds—hopefully only scaring them and not injuring them. Scarecrows were also put up.

Across the world, maybe because there were not so many children or people to deploy, the use of scarecrows was more widespread. Scarecrows are decoys, usually made of straw or farm waste and fabric, made to look somewhat human and dressed in human clothes. They often have loose sleeves and pants, which move in the wind and scare the birds.

But the scarecrow is not really effective for too long. Once the birds get used to the scarecrow, they barely spare it a glance. In fact, they often use it as a perch!

So agriculturists have gotten innovative too, and come out with many ingenious ways to scare birds, including:

  1. Using shiny, reflective objects: Birds are bothered by the reflection of light from these and keep away. Farmers hang old CDs, aluminium cans, small mirrors or just plain metallic wrapping paper.
  2. Hanging balls: Round colourful garden balls are hung from trees, fences, etc.  Large eyes are often painted on them to mimic predatory birds. Birds get confused and try to avoid them.
  3. Balloons: Large floating balloons too, especially with eyes painted on them, work effectively.
  4. Predator images: Placing objects in the shape of birds’ natural predators– cats, owls, and larger birds of prey—does deter birds. But like with scarecrows, they will get used to these too. So these ‘predators’ need to be moved around frequently. Or they need to be hung from somewhere so that they move. One particular variation of this marketed in some countries is an owl than can be hung, which not only swings around in the wind, but also emits owl-like sounds every now and then.
  5. Sound-based repellents: Birds can hear in the 1-4 kHz range, a range human ears can’t hear too well. Electronic pest control devices take advantage of this by creating sound deterrent-devices that emit distress calls and predator growls in this range, which confuse birds and scare them away. 

Experts agree that no matter which the method deployed, the key is change. Birds quickly recognize that these objects don’t actually harm them, and are emboldened to flock to the fields. So the trick is to keep changing the position of the bird-scarers and add new ones frequently.

There are of course less kind ways to scare away birds.  The use of dogs and predatory birds which attack birds, drones which chase them, letting off cannons or fire crackers, firing plastic projectiles, and use of lasers are among these methods.

But of all these methods, the one that has been around the longest and plays a big part in our imaginations, stories, myths and films is the scarecrow. The most famous one of course is the Scarecrow in search of brains, who plays an important part in ‘Wizard of Oz’.  The Scarecrow is also one of the villains in the contemporary Batman trilogy.

Scenes from Scarecrow Festivals

Scarecrows also figure in myths and legends of old—for instance, there is a story about a scarecrow in ‘Kojiki’, the oldest surviving book in Japan, dating back to about 712 A.D. A scarecrow called Kuebiko figures in this. He is a god who cannot walk, but knows everything that is happening.  

Several villages and towns in England have Scarecrow festivals.US and Canada also have their share. Many of these are of fairly recent origin. Phillipines is the latest entrant, with the Province of Isabela starting a festival a few years ago.

So even as newer methods of scaring birds emerge—from electronic, to laser, to drone–the fascination with scarecrows continues!


Manchineel: Evil Queens Would Have Loved Them!

We all know from our childhood how Snow White’s wicked step-mother poisoned her with an apple. The step-mother apparently brewed a malodorous and poisonous potion, and dipped the apple in it so that it would absorb the toxins. And she had to take a lot of care because knowing that Snow White would be suspicious after many attacks on her, she had to leave half the apple free of poison so that she could eat it to allay the girl’s doubts and tempt her into eating the other half. The Queen must have gone through hoops to gather various obscure ingredients, brew the powerful potion, and soak one half of an uncut apple in it! And for all that, the poison was only strong enough to put Snow White to sleep, waiting for true love’s kiss!

If only the Queen had known about the Manchineel, a tree which bears apple-like fruits. The tree is one of the most toxic ones known, and is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s most dangerous tree. The sap of the tree is extremely poisonous, and every part of the tree, from the bark to the leaves to the fruit, is pervaded with the sap, and hence poisonous.  

The poisonous nature of the tree has been recognized for long. Its botanical names is Hippomane mancinella. Hippomane is derived from two Greek words: Hippo for horse, and mane a derivative of the word mania. The story goes that a Greek philosopher gave the tree its name after seeing horses go crazy after eating the apple-like fruits. One of the Spanish names of the tree, given by Christopher Columbus, is manzanilla de la muerte, meaning ‘little apple of death.’

Evil queens would not even had to go to the trouble of feeding the fruit to their victims. It is said that simply standing under the tree during rains will lead to dire consequences—serious blistering and blinding. In fact indigenous people of the Caribs where the tree is native, are known to have poisoned enemy water supplies with the leaves. They also dipped arrows in the sap to make effective poison-tipped weapons. Ship-wrecked sailors of yore who ate the fruits died horrific deaths with their mouths, throats and stomachs blistered. Even the smoke from a burning tree can cause blindness.

Fiction and films have used the toxicity of the tree to create dramatic situations—from enemies being given machineel leaves rolled into cigarettes to kill them, to villains tying their victims to the trees!

Manchineel trees are native to the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. They grow well in sandy soils and flourish among the mangroves. The trees grow up to a height of about 12 metres with a 60-cm thick trunk. The leaves are yellowish green in colour, and long-stalked, shiny, leathery, and elliptical. The fruits look like apples and are sweet smelling, and range in colour from yellow to red.


The tree is quite common in Florida. Many of the manchineels growing there are labelled with a warning sign, telling people not to eat the fruits or stand under the tree during the rains.

If only the evil queens of old had known of this tree! Of course, they would have had to figure out a way to grow these tropical trees in Europe where most of the stories are set. But they were ingenious enough to have found ways to do that. And how much more interesting fairy tales would have been!


Inspired by Gandhi: Lal Bahadur and Lalita Shastri

October 2 is the birth anniversary of two greats who contributed to the building of modern India—Mahatma Gandhi and Lal Bahadur Shastri. The celebration of the first has always overshadowed the second (though with each passing year, both are fading from memory).

To make up, here are some gleanings building on a biography of Shastri that I recently had the opportunity to read (Lal Bahadur Shastri: Politics and Beyond. Sandeep Shastri–not a relative by the way, only an ardent admirer).

Shastri’s father was a school teacher and later clerk in government service. Sadly, he died when Lal Bahadur was barely 18 months old. His mother, the daughter of a teacher, moved back to her maternal house where the children grew up.

Shastri’ family was not particularly active in the Freedom Movement, but he was highly influenced by a teacher, Nishkameshwar Prasad Mishra, who was passionately involved in the Movement. Inspired by his teacher, young Lal Bahadur started reading the works of national leaders, and after attending a meeting addressed by Gandhiji and Madan Mohan Malaviya, he dropped out of school just 3 months before his Std. 10 exams,  to join the independence struggle. He later graduated in Philosophy and Ethics from Kashi Vidyapith, where ‘Shastri’ was the degree given, which then became attached to his name!

As a member of the Servants of the People Society, he worked under the guidance of Gandhiji for the betterment of Harijans. Under the Mahatma’s influence, he also became a member of the Indian National Congress 1928, and went on to play a leadership role in the organization and during various phases of the struggle, including the Quit India movement.

After Independence, he went on to the Central Government after a short stint in UP. He went on to hold several portfolios, before becoming the Prime Minister in 1964.

A few snippets and facts which are not widely known:

Shastri is known for the slogan ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’. But his respect for business people was no less. Exhibiting a very modern understanding of the linkages between business and society, as far back as 1965 he said businessmen had ‘an even greater role than that of an economist and the politician. Too often the community views the businessman’s aims as selfish gain.. (That) impression can be removed only when business becomes fully alive to its social responsibilities.’

He was the one behind India’s White Revolution–the national campaign to increase the production and supply of milk. It was his political leadership that saw the Amul milk co-operative take shape, and the creation of the National Dairy Development Board.  

Lal Bahadur married Lalita Devi in 1927. She too was an ardent Gandhi follower and lived a very simple life. Her unstinting support to her husband enabled him to live a life of service to the nation.

This story is a beautiful illustration of Lalitaji’s high ideals and principles.

Once when Shastri was in jail, he learnt that Lalita was unwell. He wrote to her, asking her to take a glass of milk every day. The reality was that the household was very short of money, and she just could not afford a glass of milk for herself. But she did not want to trouble her husband by telling him this. So she found an ingenious way to do what her husband wished. She found a tiny glass, such as used to feed infants, and took milk in this every day. She wrote to her husband that she was doing as he wished. It was only much after his release that he learnt about this. He was amazed by how she stuck to the truth and still helped him stay him untroubled by the everyday problems so that he could focus on his work.

To such people of integrity and principles do we owe our freedom. Every day the thought should trouble us as to whether we are living up to their vision.