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/

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jeeves at Hand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A welcome development indeed.

But still. Wallet Parking? No thank you!

–Meena

Photo credit: Sudha Priscilla

Mole of Memories, Table of Nostalgia

I saw in a dream a table where all elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper, only in one place did a correction later seem necessary. Mendeleev

An appropriate year and time of year to remind myself of my all-but-forgotten Chemistry roots! It takes quite an effort to remind myself of the time four decades ago, when I was a student of Chemistry at Delhi University.

But reading about the declaration by the UN, of 2019 as peridic table.jpgYear of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements, did bring back some memories.

Why is 2019 so marked? Well, because 1869 is considered as the year of the discovery of the Periodic system by Dmitri Mendeleev, the Russian physicist, and it commemorates 150 years of the Periodic Table.

The Periodic Table, if you can recall your school chemistry, is a table of the chemical elements arranged in the order of their atomic numbers, so that elements with similar atomic structure (and hence similar chemical properties) appear in vertical columns.

Chemistry is usually looked upon as a swot or ‘rattu’ subject. The introduction to the Periodic Table is the first time students get to understand the pattern and logic of chemistry. From being a random assortment of letters, elements and their properties being to make sense. It becomes possible to predict the types of chemical reactions that a particular element is likely to participate in. Without memorizing facts and figures about an element, students can, from looking at the position of an element in the table, understand about the reactivity of an element, whether it is likely to conduct electricity, whether it is hard or soft, and many other characteristics.

And hence a whole world opens up!

And coming to the Day. Oct 23 is Mole Day. Not MOLE as in the four-legged creature. But the MOLE that chemistry students struggle to understand. The definition of this mole, as the base unit of a substance having 6.02 x 1023 particles is really confusing to begin with. Exploring another definition– mass of a substance that contains 6.023 x 1023 particles of the substance—does not really help either. As a Masters’ student of Chemistry, I was expected to help younger kids in my colony with the subject. And how I struggled to explain this concept! (I shall not venture into such an attempt now, but I think those struggles helped me understand it better).

But at least Mole Day and Year of Periodic Table have reminded me of some claims I may make to be scientifically literate!

Happy double Chemistry Whammy!

–Meena

Going Back to the Roots

Last week a friend from France was visiting, and we had bhindi vegetable for lunch. The conversation turned to what this vegetable was called, and how it was eaten, in different parts of the world– from crisply fried Lady’s Fingers, to Okra soup.  This not particularly fancy nor exotic vegetable boasts of a long list of synonyms including gombo, gumbo, quingombo, okro, ochro, bamia, bamie, quiabo!

Fruits and vegetables are such an integral part of our daily diet, but most of us are not aware of their intriguing histories. Many vegetable names simply refer to their shape, colour and taste. In the case of Drumstick, this makes sense, but to imagine bhindi as Lady’s Fingers does take a leap of imagination!

The names of many vegetables and fruits in English have their origins in languages like Latin, Spanish, and French; and sometimes the original meanings lie hidden in their names.

Eggplant was given its name by Europeans in the middle of the eighteenth century because the variety they knew had fruits that were of a whitish or yellowish colour, and the shape and size of goose eggs. The purple variety that we are most familiar with, and call baingan or brinjal may have been derived from the Sanskrit vatimgana. This word travelled through Persian to the Arabic name al-badinjan, and further filtered through Portuguese and Catalan to become aubergine in Britain and Europe.

Cabbage gets its name from Middle French caboche which means ‘head’. It was derived as a diminutive from Latin caput which means head as it resembled the head of a person.

Orange, the fruit on the other hand, was not named for its colour, but the other way round.  The word is believed to have its origins from the Sanskrit naranga; which explains why, in several Indian languages, it is called narangi.

Pineapple seems to be a simple joining of two English words–pine and apple.  But surprisingly this word was originally used for what we call pine cone; although it is inexplicable why an inedible, hard piece of a tree should be called a pine ‘apple’. To confuse things further, melon is the Greek word for apple!

In a similar vein, Gooseberry has nothing to do with geese. It was originally gorseberry, derived from the ‘gorst’ which meant rough. This berry was so called because it grew on a rough and thorny shrub.

Raspberry comes from the German verb raspen which means to rub together or rub as with a file. The marks on the berry were thought to resemble file markings.

Strawberry is a corruption of ‘strayberry’ which was so named because of the way the runners from this plant stray all over the place!

Currants were so called because they first came from Corinth. Cherries got their name from the city of Cerasus. The term grape is the English equivalent of the Italian grappo, and the Dutch and the French grappe, all meaning bunch. Raisin is a French word that comes from the Latin racenus, a dried grape.

Kiwi however takes the cake! It is so called not because it originated in New Zealand—the home of the Kiwi bird. It is the Chinese missionaries who brought the fruit to this country, and they called them Chinese gooseberries because they were from China and similar in flavour to gooseberries. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when New Zealand began exporting the fruit, that people started calling it Kiwi fruit.

IMG_20191017_110116.jpg
Vegetable or Fruit?

And then there is the tomato. In culinary terms we consider it a vegetable; but this is actually a fruit in terms of its botanical characteristics—it is edible, contains a seed, is at least somewhat sweet, and grows on a plant.

16 October is celebrated every year as World Food Day. This marks the date of the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations.  Let each day be one of thanksgiving and celebration of the food we eat, by whatever name we may call it. After all, a mango by any other name will taste just as delicious!

–Mamata