Ides to Ideas

Beware the Ides of March! Perhaps never in the living memory of humankind, has this dire and gloomy prophecy proved so true. It is in this month that the world has been brought to its knees by an invisible force that seems to have united all of humanity in facing a common enemy.

The world, and way of life as we know, have overnight, changed beyond our wildest imagination, and no soothsayer can foretell what lies ahead, in the near and distant future. From now on, the month of March will be marked as the month that changed the world.

But before all this began, March had been designated as the International Ideas Month.

Ideas–our brain is churning out ideas all the time; even though we may not consciously register these. From small ideas about routine matters, ideas.jpgto Eureka moments, ideas keep our little grey cells ticking away. Sometimes we let these slip away because we are preoccupied with what we feel are more serious or important matters, and sometimes because we feel that the ideas is too inane to pursue.

International Ideas Month is meant to celebrate the value of ideas. And an encouragement to get one’s ideas rolling—no matter how silly, or profound they may seem.

Ideas spring from imagination, and imagination is the single most useful tool mankind possesses. And yet in these times when even creativity is measured by its market price, or ideas that help make large profits; imagination is seen as the indulgence of children and dreamers, writers and painters.

In the words of American author Ursula K. Le Guin “Imagination is not a means of making money. It has no place in the vocabulary of profit-making. It is not a weapon, though all weapons originate from it, and their use, or non-use, depends on it, as with all tools and their uses. The imagination is an essential tool of the mind, a fundamental way of thinking, an indispensable means of becoming and remaining human. …Like any tool, the imagination requires that we first learn how to use it or, rather, that we unlearn how to squander it. Children have imagination to start with, but as we grow, we tend to put aside imagination as an indulgence. All human beings need exercises in imagination as they need exercise in all the basic skills of life, bodily and mental: for growth, for health, for competence, for joy. This need continues as long as the mind is alive.”

One way to nurture imagination is to give the time and space that ideas need to take root and grow. This garden cannot be meticulously planned, pruned and scheduled. Ideas turn up anytime, anywhere—on a morning walk, at the kitchen sink, in the shower, and in the middle of the night.

Because Ideas do not have a fixed time and place to appear, it is important not to let them slip away. Grab them, capture them on paper, take your time and mull over them, incubate them, or put them into practice right away!

The right time and space is now–when we are in a physical lockdown. While we cannot physically wander far and wide, when we seem to suddenly have time on our hands–What better time to unlock and unleash all those ideas that have been hibernating or aestivating in our minds.

Turn the Ides of March into the Ideas of March.

–Mamata

 

So Many Ways to Downtime!

A few days ago a friend said ‘What with everything closed for Corona, it is so dull and boring, wish we could just HIBERNATE.’ Probably a sensible thought, except that given the temperatures outside, it would be aestivation, rather than hibernation.

3-s2.0-B9780124095489111674-f11167-03-9780444637680AESTIVATION, lesser known cousin of hibernation, is ‘summer sleep’– a survival strategy used by many vertebrates and invertebrates to endure arid environmental conditions. Key features of aestivation, like hibernation (winter dormancy) include significant metabolic rate suppression, conservation of energy , altered nitrogen metabolism, and mechanisms to preserve and stabilize organs and cells over many weeks or months of dormancy. Even more than in hibernation, strategies to retain body water are important in aestivation, as dryness or aridity is the key trigger for the summer sleep.

A surprising number of animals aestivate—vertebrates such as lung fish, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, and certain invertebrates such as molluscs. Bees, snails, earthworms, salamanders, frogs, earthworms, crocodiles, tortoise, etc. are examples of the aestivating animals. The duration of aestivation varies among species–some enter this state for a few months, others for a longer period.

Well, there are other kinds of ‘downtimes’ we can choose from too.

There is BRUMATION, which is the equivalent of hibernation for reptiles. Mammals hibernate and reptiles brumate, but there are other differences too. During hibernation, a mammal is sleeping and does not have to eat or drink. But brumation is not true sleep and the reptile still needs to drink water. A brumating reptile may have days where it will wake, show some activity, drink water, and then go back to its dormant state.

Or we can take the option of TORPOR, which involves lower body temperature, breathing rate, heart rate, and metabolic rate. But unlike hibernation, torpor is an involuntary state that an animal enters into as the conditions dictate. Also unlike hibernation, torpor lasts for short periods of time – sometimes just through the night or day depending upon the feeding pattern of the animal. During their active period of the day, these animals maintain a normal body temperature and physiological rates. But while they are inactive, they enter into a deeper sleep that allows them to conserve energy and survive the winter.

Or there is DIAPUASE, a form of developmental arrest in insects that is much like hibernation in higher animals. It enables insects and related arthropods to circumvent adverse seasons. Winter is most commonly avoided in colder areas, but diapause is also used to avoid hot, dry summers and periods of food shortage in the tropics.

Now, which one do you prefer?

–Meena

 

 

 

 

 

 

Colour Me Blue

As we celebrate Holi, the Festival of Colours, here is a piece on the hues that brighten our lives.

And, in keeping with the mood of International Women’s Day, it references M.S. Subbulakshmi, doyenne of Carnatic music, and a path breaker.

Happy Holi, Happy IWD!

Last week I was reading an old-fashioned novel, where the hero’s sidekick was wearing a taupe coloured suit. Not being quite sure what ‘taupe’ was, I looked it up, and learnt that it is a dark brown colour between brown and grey and that the name originates from the French taupe meaning mole (the animal).  The name originally referred to the average colour of the French mole, but since the 1940s, its usage has expanded and blurred to mean anything greyish brown or brownish grey.

Names of many colours are derived from nature. Fuchsia was named for the colour of the flowers on the fuchsia plant, itself named for Leonard Fuchs, a 16th-century botanist. The word orange comes from the Old French orange, from the old term for the fruit pomme d’orange. The French word, in turn, comes from the Italian arancia, based on Arabic nāranj, derived from the Sanskrit nāraṅga. An inter-connected world indeed!!!!

Teal is a bluegreen colour whose name comes from that of a bird—the common teal (Anas crecca)—which presents a similarly coloured stripe on its head.

‘Puce’ is also one of the nature-colour names, but with a particularly yucky background. Puce is the French word for flea. The colour is said to be the colour of bloodstains on linen or bedsheets, even after being laundered, from a flea’s droppings, or after a flea has been crushed. Strangely it was one of Marie Antoinette’s favourite colours!

People too have lent their names to colours.

‘Mountbatten Pink’ is a naval camouflage colour close to greyish mauve. It was first used by Lord Mountbatten during World War II. When he noticed a liner ship of the colour seeming to disappear from view in the early morning light, he felt it was a good colour for naval ships to render them difficult to see at dusk and dawn, and so started applying them to his naval ships.

‘Alice Blue’ is a pale shade of azure blue, much liked by Alice Roosevelt daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, which sparked a fashion sensation in the United States.

MSBut for a South Indian like me, the most important person-colour association has of course to be ‘MS Blue’, said to be a favourite of legendary singer M.S. Subbalakshmi.  This colour became synonymous with her after she started wearing Kanchipuram silk saris of this shade at her concerts. These were specially made for her by Muthu Chettiar, a weaver from Madurai. The savvy businessman that he was, he carefully regulated supplies to ensure enduring demand from Madras high society ladies!  It has been clarified that MS Blue is not peacock blue but ‘mid-sea blue’.

Continuing on the theme of blue, the colour of 2020 (Yes, they announce a colour for every year! A good source of income for the interior design and fashion industries) is PANTONE 19-4052 Classic Blue whose properties include instilling ‘calm, confidence, and connection’. Additionally, it is claimed that ‘this enduring blue hue highlights our desire for a dependable and stable foundation on which to build as we cross the threshold into a new era’.

Another interesting fact I learnt was that research by several academics including linguists Brent Berlin and Paul Kay has revealed that if a language had only two terms for colours, they were always black and white; if there was a third, it was red; the fourth and fifth were always green and yellow (in either order); the sixth was blue; the seventh was brown; and so on.

–Meena

Swollen-headed

CBCA14C8-CCB2-4EE8-BE0A-E137CB978119At 11.11 by the clock, on the 11th of November every year (pretty palindromic, isn’t it?), at Mainz Germany, the Fools’ Constitution is proclaimed from the balcony of the Osteiner Hotel. This marks the start of the City’s Carnival, which is characterized by people wearing oversized papier-mache heads roaming around the crowds. It seems that this practice started about 80 years ago, but I could not find references as to why “schwellköpp” or ‘swollen-heads’ are an integral part of the festivities.

dolls 2

Equally mysterious to me is why shops these days have “schwellköpp” mannequins. I really can’t see why anyone would want to buy garments modelled by such weird looking dolls. I know it is all about attracting attention, but surely, there could be better ways to do this than having swollen-headed guys with multi-coloured hair? Fortunately, all the schwellkopp mannequins I have seen have been male. I fear female versions would be really too much.

The practice of using mannequins to model clothes goes back to 15th century France, but those were miniatures. The use of full size dummies started in the 18th century, and these were made of wicker. Later, mannequins were made of wire-work. In the mid-19th century,  papier-maiche dummies took over.  Today most of these figures are made of fibreglass or plastic.

Mannequins are also used by artists (lifeless figures hold a pose much longer than live models!). They have sundry other uses, for example in crash-testing and in testing defense equipment.

The use of these dolls in medical education dates back to the 17th century where ivory manikins were used by doctors as a teaching aids. Even today, medical simulation mannequins are used extensively in education and for teaching first aid.

I can only hope these mannequins are normal-headed. I would hate my doctor to have been trained on a schwellkopp!

–Meena

SLEEP OVER IT!

It’s the age of startups! Every day one hears of enterprising young 20-somethings making their first million with an innovative product or service that people today lap up with enthusiasm.

I recently read about a number of such ventures that are literally cashing in on sleep (or the lack thereof!) Online mattress brands! In these times when the millennials have too much stress, too little time, inability to get a good night’s sleep, but the ability to afford quick-fix solutions and products, there are smart operators who combine all this into successful commercial ventures. With inviting names like Wakefit, Wink and Nod, Sleepycat and Sunday Mattress, these offer “sleep solutions”. And attractive “offers” from free home delivery and installation, free trial and return, to “sleep internships”, and customised recommendations of the best fit based on an analysis of the customer’s age, height, weight and location!

ripImagine needing so much help to get a good night’s sleep! I have grown up in an age when mattresses had very different connotations. Mattresses were filled with cotton, and were usually of the same size and thickness. Often this cotton was carded by hand by itinerant carders who established camp at the house for a few days marked by the twang of their simple tools, and fluff-filled air. The cotton was filled in covers, stitched in with strong thread, and then beaten heartily with sticks to even out the lumps and bumps. All this done with dexterity and the long experience of a traditional occupation. With mechanisation, these occupations were replaced with neighbourhood shops where the same process was done by a simple machine. Now one took one’s old mattresses there to be opened and redone, with dire warnings that the cotton within was not to be mixed up with any other inferior variety!

This was an exercise carried out every few years. The annual exercise was the sunning of the mattresses. This was a traditional ritual, generally after the rainy season and before Diwali when the strong sun took away the dampness and made the cotton swell. The wonderful smell and feel of freshly-sunned mattresses was guaranteed to induce the cosiest slumber; without any ‘scientific’ testing to arrive at the perfect ergonomic formula.

Furthermore, in addition to supporting the large numbers of family members, most households had a stack of spare mattresses, and quilts. These were stored carefully; many traditional houses had a special space and arrangement for this. They were taken out when guests arrived, and when there were family gatherings like weddings. Over time, as families, and houses grew smaller, and people’s mobility increased, the stacks of mattresses decreased. Then the market began to offer ready-made mattresses, introducing other materials like foam and coir. It became easier to go to a shop and order the one best suited from the limited options available. The familiar childhood mattresses remained at the family home with the parents, to be slept on when visiting them. And as time moved on, and life got faster, the new breed of urban nomads had not the time nor space to go the shop to buy a mattress. Life became so stressed and so frenzied that sleep also became a sought-after commodity. And voila, the market was open for online sleep solutions!

I do appreciate the needs of the times, as well as admire the enterprise to meet the needs. But it also makes me grimace and smile! Belonging as I do to a generation of ‘home-made’ cotton mattresses, I have also inherited several of these. I try, in my own way, to follow some of the annual air-and-sun traditions. And I am grateful that I still get a good night’s sleep without any external help!

–Mamata

 

2020 is here!

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

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

But what is 20/20 vision?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So that these are indeed visions, not dreams!

-Meena

 

 

 

 

 

 

LOOKING AHEAD…

The last day of the year. The last day of a decade. A day that calls for stock-taking of the months and days gone by. And often, a day for feeling short-changed by life; the self-doubts of what did one achieve? Regrets for unscaled heights and unfulfilled aspirations. Guilt at the unfulfilled resolutions (oops! now where did I safely put that list?!)

In today’s existence which is defined by the measure of busyness and “achievements”; a life of what Hermann Hesse described as one of “aggressive haste”, we seem to be unable to get off the hamster-wheel—running faster while not getting anywhere. The fallout of this is reflected in the daily news of burn outs and breakdowns,or drowning further in hedonistic pleasures.

The dilemma is not peculiar to our times. More than a hundred years ago, Hermann Hesse lamented on the pursuit of as much as possible, as fast as possible: The high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy.

What really matters? What really counts? As Time, that wily old gypsy man, trundles through the minutes and hours that add up to one year, and then ten, does it really mean so much to try to catch Time, or run alongside the caravan, breathless and trailing behind? Something to think about!

As a new year dawns it will be the time for yet another list of resolutions. Before we reach midnight, here is a simple mantra to make our ride a little less bumpy, and the journey little more meaningful—Make some time to stop and stare!

Hermann Hesse’s 1905 essay titled ‘On Little Joys’ gently reminds of how the ability to cherish small everyday moments can open our hearts and lift our spirits. ”My advice to the person suffering from lack of time and from apathy is this: Seek out each day as many as possible of the small joys, and thriftily save up the larger, more demanding pleasures for holidays and appropriate hours. It is the small joys first of all that are granted us for recreation, for daily relief and disburdenment, not the great ones.These little joys are so inconspicuous and scattered so liberally throughout our daily lives that the dull minds of countless workers hardly notice them. They are not outstanding, they are not advertised, they cost no money”!

The play of light and shadow; the quite enjoyment of a favourite author with a cup of tea; the scent of wet earth after the first shower; the delight of meeting a friend; sharing a happy meal with loved ones…all it takes is to linger awhile with all senses newly tuned, and the switching off of the numerous demands and distractions of our daily grind.

While we can’t change all the big things, we can make the small ones matter. Looking ahead, what can be a better resolution than to make time for the little pleasures?

Here is to a year of savouring the simple joys!

–Mamata

LOOKING BACK…

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for bearing with us!

–Mamata and Meena

Year of Moderation—It Was Not!

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

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

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

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

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

— Meena

 

 

Timekeepers to the Nation

For most of us growing up in India in the 1970s and 80s thIMG_20191202_114741.jpge passage of time was marked by the HMT watch!  One’s first watch, the graduation watch, the watch that one was gifted, or gifted for a wedding—all these came in the form of an HMT watch.

It was the bond that was also marked by a sense of national pride in wearing something of world class quality that was totally indigenously manufactured. The news of the shutdown of the HMT factory in 2016 saddened many faithful users and supporters.

A recent visit to the HMT Heritage Centre and Museum in Bengaluru was like a travel back in time, reviving many memories. Set in the verdant grounds of the HMT Township, and housed in a lovely old two-storied bungalow that was once the residence of the Chairman, the exhibits trace the history of Hindustan Machine Tools Limited (HMT), the country’s first machine manufacturing company, set up by the Indian government in 1953. While HMT is usually synonymous with watches, it was a company manufacturing a number of other products including tractors, bulbs, machine parts, printing units and defence equipment. The museum includes exhibits of the great variety of these products, and traces their history, along with interesting facts and figures. For example it is interesting to note that there was a time when most of the factories in India had at least one HMT machine and every household had at least one HMT product.

The display starts with a pictorial chronology of the history of the company, and how it marked its presence in different parts of India. Then, of course, are the watches—over 2000 of them mounted on wooden blocks which are recycled from benches, windows and doors from the school and employee quarters that HMT once used to run in the vicinity. From the first watch presented to the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1962 till the 100 millionth watch manufactured and gifted in 2000 to the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee—the array boasts several other landmark models—Braille watches, India’s first Day-Date quartz and Ana-Digi watches, watches that were used as fashion accessories, and even the Nurse Watch that nurses who could pin upside down on their uniform for quick viewing. Models named Archana, Sujata, Abhishek, Kanchan, Sona and Lalit became part of millions of families across the country, as did Janata—the common man’s watch. Walking through this section one could nostalgically identify the models that one’s own family members wore.

The next section provides a peep inside the casings to reveal the cogs and wheels that made these time pieces go tick-tock; and the sequence of putting these different parts together. Magnifying glasses and microscopes help to look closely at some of these minute parts. One can only marvel at the meticulous care with these were assembled.

Moving on to the next large and well-lit space we see some of the other machines and printing equipment that was also manufactured by HMT. To get a real feel of walking onto a factory floor, is the time clock which the workers used to punch in their arrival by pushing down a lever. This is operational still, and one can punch and print the time of one’s visit on a card. The display of a variety of machines is impressive indeed. Imagine a company producing everything indigenously, from a part the size of a pin head to giant tractors!

The first-floor documents the range of machine tools manufactured by the company since its inception, along with a world map that indicates their collaborators from across the world. An AV room plays a video that shares HMT’s history, and its different units. The last section explains the origin and development of the HMT tractor, along with its functioning parts. There is also an operational tractor on which one can take a ride!

And while one is still lost in memories of the times that were, one walks out into the fresh air and greenery to a shop that sells some of the remaining pieces of HMT watches. A perfect souvenir of a legacy that we are all proud to be a part of.

–Mamata

https://www.hmtwatches.in/