Winter Is Coming….

Unlike the Starks, I don’t need to worry about endless nights and freezing cold; or White Walkers and scary creatures breaking through the Wall.

But I do have to worry about keeping my skin moisturized.

I am bewildered when I go into a shop these days, with the multiplicity of choices. When we were young, there was a default setting. It was cold cream—in fact, Ponds Cold Cream. It was used on face, on arms, legs or any other exposed parts of the body. For particularly recalcitrant dryness, there was Vaseline, also used on chapped lips. There was the weekly ‘oil bath’ in Tam households wherein til oil was mercilessness massaged into the skin till it saturated every pore, and then washed away with shikai powder or besan.

We were simple and naïve. We didn’t even know there were other types of creams and lotions and potions. There was one dream product though, that our hearts yearned for. But seldom did we get our hands on it. I am not sure why—was it very expensive? Or was it that it was a ‘frivolous’ beauty cream and not a ‘useful’ moisturizing cream? (I saw a recent article mentioning  Afghan Snow as a fairness cream, but I don’t have any memory of it being billed in those days as such). Whatever the reasons middle-class mothers of those days had, I do remember the longing of my young heart for Afghan Snow.

I am not sure if it is still available, but I do remember the light, sparkly, ethereal look of the cream. It came in a blue glass bottle and had a lovely gentle smell. It was the most exotic thing that we knew in terms of cosmetics.

Recently, trying to figure out a bit more about this, I unearthed the fascinating Atmanirbhar story behind this product.

Ebrahim Sultanali Patanwala, originally from Rajasthan, made his way to Mumbai in the early 20th century. He found work with a perfumer and quickly picked up the techniques of blending perfumes. Soon he branched out and set up as an entrepreneur. His first product was a hair oil called ’Otto Duniya’ which met with quite some success, enabling him to set up his own lab and offices.

Messrs. E.S.Patanwala was established in 1909. The company sold oils and perfumes—both those they made, and imported ones. He developed quite a clientele among the Britishers as well as Indian royalty. This did not content him and he took himself off to Europe to learn more. He knew little English, but his earnestness and desire to learn opened doors for him. He connected with Leon Givaudan of Switzerland, at that time the world’s biggest manufacturer of aromatic chemicals. With the training and mentorship he got in Europe, he developed the formula for what was to become one of India’s most popular cosmetics—a cream.

He came back to India and set up a factory in Byculla to make the cream itself, but imported the glass bottles from Germany and the labels from Japan. Around that time, King Zahir of Afghanistan was visiting India and wanted to meet some Indian entrepreneurs. Patanwala was one of them, and he presented the King a hamper of his products included the new, as-yet-unnamed cream. The King is supposed to have opened the bottle, been charmed by the look and perfume, and made the remark that it reminded him of the Snow of Afghanistan. The enterprising Patanwala immediately asked if he could name the cream as Afghan Snow, and the King agreed, and product was launched in 1919 (making it more than 100 years old!)

The product was extremely popular, but ran into some rough weather during the Swadeshi Movement. Because the bottle and labels looked (and were) imported, people thought it was an imported product and listed it as one of the items to be boycotted. Patanwala sent a letter to Mahatma Gandhi, telling him that the product was wholly indigenous and manufactured in Byculla. Mahatma Gandhi then wrote in his newspaper about Afghan Snow, saying that it was a mistake to boycott it, and that he was appreciative that such a good product was being made in India, and that he personally endorsed it.  

I yearn even more for the product now that I know the story! What I would not give for a dark blue glass bottle full of beautifully-perfumed, light frothy shiny white snow, promising to transport me into a fairy tale!

Even more, I yearn for biographies of these amazing people who broke so many barriers, who did so many pioneering things, and who made products whose name still evokes so many memories a hundred years down the road! How they succeeded and why they did or did not sustain.

–Meena

Monumental Tragedy

Thanks to COVID and the search for not-too-popular sights, we ended up visiting the Chikkajala Fort last weekend. On the way to Bangalore Airport and not too far from my home, we have been meaning to go for a long time.

‘Fort’ is a misnomer today—what stands is a temple with what once must have been a beautiful, deep temple-tank in front of it, and a few long corridor-like stone structures. The site of Chikkajala is a prehistoric one apparently. It is likely there was a ‘vassal fort’ but it no longer stands. The estimates of the age of the temple and extant structures range from 300 to 950 years!

Apart from the general ravages of time and the overall neglect, apparently some parts of the structures were demolished for road widening after the new airport came up.

Whatever the reasons, it was sad!  To see a construction which must have a thing of beauty, lying in rack and ruin. The structure just falling down as it stands. Carvings defaced. Trees growing on and through the buildings. Cows grazing and leaving behind generous piles of cow dung. The temple tank completely overgrown with vegetation.  Plastic water bottles and discarded chips packets.

It was particularly poignant because only last week, Karnataka announced its Tourism Policy for 2020-25. The State aims to be among the top two tourist destinations in the country. I confess I have not read the 104-page document completely, but what I have read leaves me completely confused! While it talks at length of developing tourism infrastructure, ‘products and services’, I am amazed that it says nothing about the core of tourism—the sights that tourists go to see. What is to be done to preserve and enhance the condition of the cultural artefacts and natural heritage. Agreed, this is in the purview of other departments, but does a tourism policy not have to be in sync with these other departments, and should the synergies not be laid out as a part of the Policy?

The strategic intervention as mentioned by the Policy, and which seem to me to sadly lack so many, many critical elements, are:

  • Position Karnataka as a preferred tourism destination at state ,national and international levels
  • Facilitate improvement of Infrastructure, Tourism Products and Services
  • Streamline processes for obtaining approvals and clearances
  • Prioritise Human Resources Development & Capacity Enhancement
  • Promote ICT based initiatives for providing timely and reliable information services to tourists
  • Create institutional structures for effective implementation of the Policy
  • Provide attractive concessions and investment subsidies for various tourism

Admittedly I know nothing about Tourism or Tourism policy. But I do know when an ancient monument next to my house is falling to bits. I do see that a monument right on the main road to the airport can attract a lot of footfalls. I can gauge that it is about some money, but  much more about caring.

A small piece of heritage in a country which has so much that we can’t be bothered about any of it? A tiny blip in a list of monumental tragedies?

–Meena

PS: A lovely spider sighted in the ruins. About 5 inches across, it had spun a web which was about 4 ft across. Maybe Nephila pylipis, but I am not quite sure.

Photo credits: V. Raghunathan

Gandhiji’s Wisdom on Education

As we approach Gandhi Jayanti with the New Education Policy (NEP) now a reality, it is an appropriate time to re-visit Gandhiji’s philosophy of education as encapsulated in his Nai Talim (New Education)—Basic Education for All.

The fundamental premise of Nai Talim is that basic education is a holistic process, where all aspects of the individual—intellectual, physical, social, and spiritual—are given opportunity for development.  The curriculum seeks to impart learning through hands-on skill-based work that prepares young people for the real world, rather than creating islands where education has nothing to do with the surrounding community. The centrality of skills aims to reinforce the dignity of labor, the value of self-sufficiency, and strengthen local culture. In this approach to education, craft-skill serves as the center of the holistic development of the student. Other skills such as literacy and mathematics are learned in the context of their craft, and subjects are taught in an interdisciplinary way and never separated from their practical application in the world.

Some other perspectives that under-pinned Gandhiji’s thinking on education were:

  • That education should include a “reverent study of all religions.”
  • Education meant lifelong learning
  • And a re-definition of the role of the teacher, which is summed up by him as : “A teacher who establishes rapport with the taught, becomes one with them, learns more from them than he teaches them. He who learns nothing from his disciples is, in my opinion, worthless. ..In this way, a true teacher regards himself as a student of his students.”

A national education conference held at Wardha on 22–23 October 1937 wherein Gandhiji shared his vision of education led to the setting up of two model schools at Wardha and nearby Segaon.  A few years ago, I was in Wardha and sadly, it did not seem that the school was doing too well, or that it was at the forefront of educational innovation. It would seem that it is not easy to implement the philosophy of Nai Talim in a way that is relevant to today’s world.

They say the NEP has some influences from Nai Talim. How far these elements are implementable or how seriously they will be implemented is yet to be seen. My feeling is that it will take very creative re-interpretation of the philosophy of Nai Talim, if we want the spirit of it to infuse our education system. And as of now, I am not aware of any exciting experiments in this direction.  

I often find myself returning to these two quotes from Gandhiji after discussions and debates on education. To me, they are the touchstone by which any educational initiative must be evaluated:

“By education I mean an all-round drawing out of the best in child and man–body, mind and spirit. Literacy is not the end of education nor even the beginning. It is only one of the means by which man and woman can be educated. Literacy in itself is no education.’

“The real difficulty is that people have no idea of what education truly is. We assess the value of education in the same manner as we assess the value of land or of shares in the stock-exchange market. We want to provide only such education as would enable the student to earn more. We hardly give any thought to the improvement of the character of the educated.’

 

–Meena

How (Not) to be Grandparents

With a Special Day for almost everyone and everything, how can we leave Grandparents behind! Yes, 13 September is marked as Grandparents Day. As with all Days it is the marketing hype that takes over. We are reminded that it is the time to show our love for our grandparents with cards and gifts. Having just recently come to know about this day, it got me thinking about grandparents.

I never really knew three out of my four grandparents. My mother’s father died much before I was born. My father’s father is a very hazy memory. My paternal grandmother is an image of a little old lady in white sitting in a large chair in the family home. The only one that I remember clearly is my mother’s mother—equally tiny, fastidious, and scolding; one whose sharp tongue we children were wary of. Not exactly grandparents like the ones we read about in storybooks–roly-poly grannies who cuddled, and baked cookies and cakes, and indulgent grandfathers who told awesome stories.

As years went by, we, the grandchildren grew up and, moving ahead, had our own children. Suddenly our own parents became grandparents. I wonder what memories our children have of their grandparents–Hazy, clear, happy, unhappy, or more complex. More years whizzed by, and now, our children have grown and married, and have children of their own. And believe it or not, we find ourselves being bestowed with the exalted title of Grandmother and Grandfather! How did that happen?

As one writer humorously put it: Except for the fact of our birth, grandparenthood is probably the only state of adult being that is thrust upon us without our permission or concurrence. We choose a husband, we decide on a child, we become a doctor, lawyer or Indian chief. Only on the grandparent level we are suddenly and arbitrarily informed of what has been done to us after there is no undoing it.

I must admit that I have not yet been officially conferred the title, although I am delighted to be an honorary Nani. But as my contemporaries take on this new role, I have been observing, and thinking about, changes in the role and function of grandparents. As a bystander I may have a different perspective on things, and I beg to be excused if I am way off the mark.

Most of my generation grew up to be career women. While we did not live in joint families, we did seek the comfort and succour of our parents or in-laws’ home when it was time for our babies to be born. Yes we did read our Benjamin Spock and had some notion of child rearing, but we more or less went with the wisdom and experience of our mother or mother-in-law, especially in matters of infant care. Today’s generation of young career parents have much more access to information, much wider exposure to a range of theories on child rearing, and definitely clearer ideas on the subject. At the same time our own generation is not quite the ‘waiting at home for the daughter’s confinement’ one. We are, ourselves, reaching almost the peak of our own careers, but gladly taking the time out for getting into our new roles, just as our daughters take time out from their rising careers to take on motherhood.

Interestingly this has created new challenges for all three generations—children, parents and grandparents. And along with How to be a Good Parent guidebooks, there were also numerous advisories on How to be (or not) a Good Grandparent! There are reminders to grandparents to NOT do just what their parents did, and hints on how to tiptoe gently around the protocols established by the parents!

The battle between the generations will go on as long as there are different generations. As will the special role that grandparents play in a family. The fact is that we all need each other. And children especially do need grandparents to care for them and comfort them, to provide role models and role alternatives for them, and to create a living link between the past and the present.

Margaret Mead, one of the most eminent cultural anthropologists of the twentieth century describes this important connection in a passage she wrote in 1966, and which rings just as true even today.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is grandparents.jpg
Margaret Mead Source Google

In a changing society, grandparents themselves change. Far from representing what is stubbornly old-fashioned, they are men and women who in the contemporary world have the greatest experience in incorporating new ways and ideas. Very often their daughter is mired down in a thousand details of baby care and housekeeping and their sons are struggling to establish themselves in the world but grandparents have the leisure to follow up what is most modern and new. And unlike their own parents who grew old early under physical stress, today’s grandparents generally have years of vigorous living ahead.

More often than we realise, grandparents who move away from the homes where they brought up their own children are not settling into ‘retirement’ but are instead into new activities. Some of them have—and more could have a very important role in their grandchildren’s lives. Because as adults they have lived through so much change—the first talkies and television, the first computers and satellites—they may well be the best people to teach children about change.

With a lifetime of experience of how far we have come and how fast, grandparents can give children a special sense of sureness about facing the unknown in the future. Having experienced so much that is new, they can keep a sense of wonder in their voices as they tell their grandchildren how something happened, what it was like the first time, and open their grandchildren’s eyes to the wonder of what is happening now and may happen soon. And as men and women who are making new beginnings, developing new interests they can demonstrate to children that growing up is only a stage in a lifetime of growth. As in the past they represent continuity. But now, in a changing society this continuity includes the future and the acceptance of the unknown.  Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views   June 1966

–Mamata

Feed Them Young

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Meena

 

Friendship Matters

In thepooh friends.png next few days the hype will build up. There will be a marketing blitz reminding us that Friendship Day nears, and that the best way to be friends is by buying and gifting for each other, and that the proof of friendship is the number of cards and presents that one gets.

Indeed the idea of this day has commercial origins. As far back as 1919 Hallmark cards in the United States came up with the idea of celebrating the first Sunday of August every year as Friendship Day. It was intended to be a day for people to celebrate their friendship by sending each other cards and thereby boost the sales. Even today many countries celebrated this day in August.

However 30 July marks what is called International Friendship Day. Interestingly both the origin and the intent of this Day have a non-commercial history.

It began over sixty years ago in Paraguay. Dr Ramon Artemio Bracho was a surgeon who had worked as a doctor in rural areas for many years before he became a military doctor for his national government. Dr Ramon strongly believed that friendship is central in overcoming people’s cultural, political and religious differences. As he recalled, the seed was sown one evening when he was invited by a worker’s union to a meeting to celebrate trees. The doctor was inspired. In his words, “I began to remember what had happened the night before and I told myself how interesting it is, the gesture of the man of having created the day of the tree.  In that same instant it came to my mind that friendship is something so important and does not have its day, so it seemed to me an extraordinary idea.” The very next evening, on 20 July 1958, over dinner with close friends in Puerto Pinasco, a town on the Paraguay river, he proposed the idea of a campaign designed to promote the value of friendship in order to foster a more peaceful society. Thus was born the Cruzada Mundial de la Amistad (World Friendship Crusade).Today the World Friendship Crusade is a Foundation that promotes friendship and fellowship among all human beings, regardless of race, colour or religion.

For many years the World Friendship Crusade lobbied the United Nations to recognize and declare an international day to mark the sentiments of the Foundation.

On 5 August 1997, Mrs. Nane Annan, wife of then United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, designated the much loved children’s book character Winnie the Pooh as “Ambassador of Friendship”. This was to encourage young people to learn what they could do to forge ties of friendship and understanding among different cultures to bring about peace and harmony around the world. The books by A A Milne featuring Pooh the little bear and his band of close friends are a beautiful celebration of the simple joys of companionship, loyalty and friendship.

It was on 27 July 2011 that the 65th Session of the United Nations General Assembly declared 30 July as the International Day of Friendship. The United Nations invites all Member States to observe this day in accordance with the culture and customs of their local, national and regional communities, including through education and public awareness-raising activities.

It is a reminder that we are often so caught up in seeing the “otherness” in people that we cannot look beneath, to recognise the “sameness”. A great deal of how we interpret another person’s behaviour and intentions is merely a manifestation of the picture our minds have constructed about them. We assume that we can be only friends with those who are like us, and those that are not, are the “other”. But otherness can also be the most beautiful ground for connection, for it is through the blending of the sameness and the otherness that the rich tapestry of friendship is woven. Openness in thought and deed is the glue of true friendship, not just between individuals but equally cultures, communities and countries.

Today more than ever before, in a topsy-turvy world, we need to remind ourselves of the original intent of Friendship Day as Dr Ramon described it: “I think it is a special day and that it helped or helps people to remember friends in a special way, to be able to cultivate and value more this beautiful feeling that one has towards others.”

While we may not be able to physically meet our friends, while we cannot celebrate with parties and shopping sprees, what enables us to carry on in our respective mental and physical spaces is the comfort of friends and friendship. What better time to be grateful for the gift of friendship that sustains us, and to celebrate the bonds that make our life so much richer?

A friend is one of the nicest things that you can have and one of the best things you can be. Winnie the Pooh

–Mamata

 

An Old-Fashioned Tribute to Diversity

C634E548-70B1-4F19-97D5-C821011F64A4The last telegram in India was sent at 11.45 p.m. on the 14th of July, 2013. The telegram service in the country started in 1850 on an experimental basis, and was made available to the public in 1854. It connected us across the vast country, the harbinger of joys and sorrows. The arrival of a telegram definitely did give rise to butterflies in the stomach and a rise in blood pressure.

But there was a class of telegrams called ‘Greetings Telegrams’, which brought only joy. The Postal Department had kindly put together greetings-phrases to cover many occasions, and one had to only choose the number and the message would be handed over to the recipient in a specially-designed happy format.

What struck me when I recently went through the list of greetings telegrams was a sense of India—all our celebrations and special occasions—religious and secular, national and personal. The list obviously does not cover the entire gamut. But one can see the effort for inclusivity—whether of religion or community or region. And also a sense of evolving sensitivity. Additions of Parushan, Ravidas Purnima, Bihu or Ugadi at later numbers do definitely indicate this evolving sensitivity to me.

The intriguing ones are of course the ones on elections!

No. 100 on the list was a condolence message, something often needed but only informally on the ‘Greetings’ list!

Today, this list and its evolving nature might be called political correctness at best (tokenism, appeasement or pseudo-secularism would also definitely be bandied),  but for me, it is my India! Here is the list:

 

  1. Heartiest Diwali Greetings (1)
  2. Id Mubarak (2)
  3. Heartiest Bijoya Greetings (3)
  4. A Happy New Year To You (4)
  5. Many Happy returns of the day (5)
  6. Hearty Congratulations on the new Arrival (6)
  7. Congratulations on the Distinction conferred on you (7)
  8. Best Wishes for a long and Happy married life (8)
  9. A Merry Christmas to you (9)
  10. Hearty Congratulations on your success in the Examination (10)
  11. Best Wishes for a safe and pleasant journey (11)
  12. Hearty Congratulations for your success in Election (12)
  13. Many Thanks for your good wishes which i/we Reciprocate Most Heartily (13)
  14. Congratulations (14)
  15. Loving Greetings (15)
  16. May Heaven’s Choicest Blessings be showered on the young couple (16)
  17. Wish you both a happy and prosperous wedded life (17)
  18. Kind Remembrances and all Good Wishes for the Independence Day (18)
  19. Sincere Greetings for the Republic Day Long Live the Republic (19)
  20. My Heartiest Holi Greetings to you (20)
  21. Wishing the function every success (21)
  22. Many thanks for your kind message of Greetings (22)
  23. Best Wishes for your successes in the examination (23)
  24. Best Wishes for your success in Elections
  25. Convey our blessings to the newly married couple (25)
  26. Heartiest Pongal Greetings (26)
  27. Heartiest Gur Purb Greetings (27)
  28. Greetings on the occasion of Parvushan-a day of universal forgiveness (28)
  29. Heartiest Onam Greetings (29)
  30. Best Wishes on your wedding anniversary (30)
  31. Wish you a happy retired life (31)
  32. Wish you a speedy recovery (32)
  33. Heartiest Ugadi Greetings (33)
  34. Congratulations on your victory (34)
  35. Wish you a Happy Bihu (35)
  36. A Happy Easter (36)
  37. Heartiest Greetings on Buddha Jayanti (37)
  38. Heartiest Congratulations on Greh Pravesh (38)
  39. Heartiest Guru Ravidas Purnima Greetings (39)
  40. Heartiest Greetings on Navroj
  41. Heartiest Greetings on the Occasion of Jhulelal Jayanti
  42. Healthiest Greetings on the Occasion of Makarsankranti
  43. Healthiest Greetings on the Occasion of Chatrapatimaharaja Shri Agrasen Jayanti

 

–Meena

 

 

 

 

Just Deserts

I love deserts. Of all the ecosystems and landscapes, I have always felt the closest affinity to the desert. While I have trekked among hills and mountains, and have enjoyed the sea and seashore, it is the desert that makes me feel at once ‘at home’ as it were.

My introduction to the desert dates back many decades.

IMG_20200618_110730
Illustration CEE’s NatureScope India  Discovering Deserts 

As a young trekker I was a member of a group called the Delhi Mountaineering Association. One year, the mountaineers decide to descend from the mountains and explore a new terrain and undertake something that was hitherto unexplored. The result was the Desert Expedition—the first-ever attempt (then) to cross the Thar desert in Rajasthan on foot. Eight strangers (5 men and 3 women, including yours truly), sharing a common urge to explore and discover, came together to embark on a two-week journey that touched each of us in so many different ways, and left behind indelible memories.

The walk commenced from the little village of Sam, about 44 km from Jaisalmer. This is where I had my first sight of the dunes rising from a sea of sand in the morning sunlight–a curious composite of the ripples of the ocean with the majesty of the mountains. And from here walked, our motley band of adventurers; day after sunny day, dusty winds, clinging bhurats (prickly thorns). From the sand, through the unending vista of flat arid miles stretching to the horizon, stopping to quench our parched throats with mathira the juicy wild melons, and communing with our accompanying camels. The utterly comforting feel of sleeping on the sand, under the canopy of the Milky Way, lulled by the unbroken sounds of silence. A unique bonding over seven days and 190 km (every inch traversed on blistered feet!), that left me deeply in love with the desert.

While I have not been able to go the desert as often as I would like to, serendipitously the desert has made its way into my life from time to time.

I am often reminded by my erstwhile boss that the only credentials that started me on my career as an environmental educator, was the fact that I had been on that desert expedition! My work in environment led me to study and understand (rather than only experience) the different ecosystems. When I had the opportunity to develop a teaching-learning manual on Deserts, I plumbed the depths of literature on the subject and was awestruck by the fascinating facets, incredible adaptations, and the innumerable strands that weave together create a vibrant ecosystem in a seemingly lifeless terrain. What was once intuitive was bolstered with intellect.

More serendipity! A collaborative project with Abu Dhabi, and an equally ardent desert lover transported me (after so many years) into a desert again—the Arabian Desert, also known as the Empty Quarter (Rub Al Khali in Arabic). Being amid the immense dunes and endless stretches of sand, was like homecoming. I would never have imagined this, all those years ago in the Thar.

And then, a trip to Ladakh to experience the cold desert—that I had only written about till then. So different–the starkness, the skies, the silence, and the sheer scale, and yet similar.  Nowhere but in the desert have I felt this with such intensity.

My heart lies in the desert. Sadly I may not be able to recreate these experiences if I tried now. The once remote sand dunes of Sam are now a tourist hot spot. The dunes and dune life of Rub al Khali are being decimated by the sport craze for off-road vehicles zooming across the sand. The fragile cold desert ecosystem of Ladakh is being snowed under with overtourism. Deserts are disappearing, and no ‘development’ scheme can ever recreate them.

–Mamata

Ironically while the real deserts are under threat, human activity is leading to transforming non-desert areas into arid lifeless regions through the process of desertification.  June 17 is observed as The World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought to promote public awareness of international efforts to combat desertification.

 

Prejudice and An Epic Production

D3962893-2848-4398-B173-3992ED5AACE1Over 30 years ago.

A stage adaptation of the Mahabharata opened in Paris. Directed by Peter Brook, it was the first-ever stage presentation of the entire epic, and ran to 9 hours. It had a multi-racial cast—21 actors from 16 countries. Mallika Sarabhai was the lone Indian on the cast, playing the central role of Draupadi.

While many art-forms tell stories from the epic, usually it is only parts or specific episodes from the Mahabharata which are staged. This was the first (and till now, the only) time, the whole epic was adapted for the theatre. First made in French, later there was an English version too.

It made history.

It toured the world.

It did not come to India.

Why? Because there were protests in India against people from Africa playing key roles and depicting the Pandavas and some of our other heroes and heroines. There were especially strong reactions to Mamadou Dioume of Senegalese origin playing Bhima. (There were no problems with an Italian playing Arjuna, or a Pole playing Yudhishtra though!)

Peter Brook saw the Mahabharata as a universal tale, transcending time and geography, exploring the human mind and motivations. The depths the human character could plumb, as well as the heights it could reach. He saw it as the story of the race of man. And in this context, the diverse cast made sense.

Alas, the protestors in India could not see this.

We do not often think of racism as one of the many isms that mar us.

But it is there!

Along with:

Communalism

Casteism

Sexism

Regionalism

And many others.

And I don’t think any one of us is free of some prejudice or the other.

It is the time to dig deep and surface our biases, recognize them, and then grapple with them.

Not easy, but as we are becoming increasingly aware, life is not easy!

–Meena

A Browser Laments

Browser

*a person who looks casually through publications or at goods for sale

*a software application used to locate, retrieve and display content on the World Wide Web, including web pages, images, video and other files

*an animal which feeds mainly on high-growing vegetation

I fall firmly in the first category. I am an old-fashioned browser of books. For me, the two pleasures greater than actually buying a book are the delicious anticipation of a visit to a bookstore or library, and the time spent there browsing the books on display before making a selection.

Fortunately, as I see it now, I grew up in a time when physical books, and places where books were kept were an integral part of life. Birthday and other presents for oneself and others were always books. Going to a bookstore was the most pleasurable pastime, initially accompanied by parents and later, with friends or by oneself. A library membership card was a precious possession. And having the time to spend just wandering around and looking through the books on the shelves was the ultimate indulgence.

This has remained true for me through all the phases of my life. The childhood summer vacation treat of visiting the small bookshop in our hometown to choose from the few English language books, or the hole-in-the-wall neighbourhood lending library which provided a selection of well-thumbed Mills and Boons. The membership of the Children’s Book Trust library with its colourful colours and cool interior where one discovered Shankar and Children’s World (that I later wrote for myself); and later that of the American Library where one was introduced to contemporary authors and literature. My years as a high school and college student in Delhi were highlighted by long stopovers at the legendary Galgotia and Sons in Connaught Place with its high ceilings, dusty tomes and old-fashioned shelves (replaced in the last decade by the brightly lit steel and glass façade of H&M). And later, by the just-must-go-to bookstores in Khan Market and South Extension which exuded a comforting familiarity even as stores on both sides became more and more glitzy.

One did not go walk in and out of these shops, or librarIMG_20200609_102020ies, just to pick up a book. One went to feast on the shelves lined with books, to run one’s eye across and up and down, pulling out a familiar name, or a new unfamiliar one; to peruse the blurbs on the cover to get a taste of what was within. One went in, sometimes with the certainty of coming out with a specific title, but equally the expectation of discovering new authors, or new works by familiar authors. It was the exploration that was the real fun, not so much the final selection.

And then, there were the book fairs and book sales. A veritable paradise for a bibliophile like me. The joys of wandering in Pragati Maidan in the mild winter sun, rubbing shoulders with hundreds of fellow book browsers created a sense of community like no other. Here the excitement of exploration and discovery was multiplied many times. Even today, in another time and place, I get the same frisson of excitement when I read of a bumper book sale. It is hard work, sorting through literally mounds of pre-owned books, sweating in the airless hall; but worth it all to stagger out with a sackful of bargain books. And the ultimate thrill of uncovering some classic authors and titles at a throwaway price. The right rewards of patient browsing.

Sadly over the last decade bookstores are closing everywhere. People now ‘browse’ the internet, and order books online. Why, they no longer need physical books as they can store a thousand on a slim Kindle. Now the last straw—social distancing. No crowds, no touch, no wander—no browse. Read what you get on your Smart phone. What a loss; what we are missing! What will a future without book browsing be like? What will it mean for humankind?

“And if anyone wants to try to enclose in a small space, in a single house or a single room, the history of the human spirit and to make it his own, he can only do this in the form of a collection of books.” Herman Hesse

–Mamata