Take the Time to Look at the Squirrels

I had the good fortune to work for two decades at Centre for Environment Education, Ahmedabad. Apart from the work and the work environment, the campus itself was a boon. 14 acres of both ‘groomed’ and ‘wild’ spaces. A variety of trees, undergrowth, lawns, water-body and the attendant birds, snakes, small mammals, rodents, butterflies, etc. etc.
IMG_20181217_114832We were an earnest and idealistic bunch. We had the benefit of mentoring by some of the wisest of people. One of them was Dr.PR Pisharoty, Father of Indian Meteorology and Remote Sensing. On one of his visits in the early days, he listened to all of us presenting our work and holding forth. With a gentle twinkle in his eyes, he told us: ‘You are all doing wonderful work. But I hope you don’t forget to take time off to look at the squirrels.’

We took that lesson to heart. Being immersed in nature at the workplace is a luxury few have today. But I think, looking back, that this made a difference to our work, our interactions and us as people and an organization. Being ‘distracted’ by a bird call in the middle of a meeting and the whole group rushing to look through the window or refer to ‘the Book’ (Salim Ali of course), broke up many a tension. Waiting for a monitor lizard to amble across the path as one rushed from one dept. to another was a good way to get a sense of ‘Nothing is that urgent. They have survived without rushing for millennia’. When ideas dried up, gazing out of the window at the squirrels chasing each other usually did the trick and the brain got unclogged. Feeding the fish at lunch brought people from unconnected work spaces together.

Did the campus make us more creative? More strongly bonded as teams? More lateral-thinking? More empathetic as people? I like to think so!

Business case for green campuses made! After all, today nothing can get approved without a business case! And by green campus, I don’t mean manicured lawns and potted plants. But a bit of wildness and a bit of wildlife!


Illustration credit: CEE

I Have Met God—He’s a Bureaucrat

My God is a bureaucrat

In the best traditions of Indian bureaucracy


I pray and plead

But He has no time

For petty, individual sorrows and requests

Because He is looking

At the bigger picture


I rant and rave

Against the unfairness of the order of things

But His look tells me

That He can only worry about

The overall order of things


If you and I and a little ant

Feel aggrieved

That is really our problem

For the macro-indicators

Are showing a positive trend.


I try to make sense of things

But when I ask Him to explain

He tells me that it is not for me to understand

All these things are decided ‘at a higher level’


I try to get in touch when I need him

But He never responds

Maybe because He is in meetings

Or on tour


And so I have learnt

To cope with my problems

My tragedies, my questions

Because though

Right to Information is now an Act

God won’t respond if he doesn’t want to

And usually, he doesn’t.



Naughty Nighty

A village in Andhra Pradesh has banned women from wearing nighties between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.! Women who breach this ban are threatened with a fine of Rs. 2000. And as if this display of patriarchy is not bad enough, women who ‘rat’ on other women committing this crime will get an award of Rs. 1000. So patriarchy also actively pushes women to spy on and report on each other.

When the police reached there to investigate, women refused to lodge a complaint, and some said that the ban was a good idea, and that in fact women themselves had mooted it. So the women in the village are either willing victims, or so intimidated by the environment that they dare not speak up.

Either way, scary.

But that got me to thinking as to why the ‘nighty’ is so popular. It is obviously fulfilling a huge felt need. I suspect (based on completely random, non-scientific observations!), that this is particularly more so in South India. In the North, the salwar-kameez is available as an option for practical working clothes. Maybe older women in the South find the ‘nighty’ closer to the sari and more acceptable than the ‘Punjabi’. The nighty is often worn with a dupatta or towel draped over the shoulders for modesty. Be that as it may, it does seem women want an option to the sari. So to sum up my observations and inferences, the looked-for attire should:

  1. Be full length
  2. Be flowy
  3. Not expose any skin
  4. Have a drape for the upper body
  5. Be comfortable enough to spend the whole day in
  6. Be convenient to work in.

Based on these observations, I do think that a designer who comes out with elegant designs that meet these criteria, would find any number of takers. Surely, with such a huge market waiting, someone can take up this challenge and make a killing! The dresses can be designed in a variety of fabrics and to fit various budgets. And then they would not be ‘nighties’ but perfectly comfortable and nice-looking ‘day-wear’. No question that no one has a right to dictate what women wear. But it is also an opportunity to design something that meets their needs and is not make-do.


PS: An appropriate protest might be for 90 or 900 or 9000 women to descend on the AP village in broad daylight, clad in Nighties.

It’s Getting Hot, Hot, Hot!

Chilies have been on my mind since my visit to the Agriculture Mela last week, where this picture was taken by my friend. And then, another friend who went trekking to the Northeast brought me back the super-hot special chilies from there. The blog today is more an excuse to share the picture, than anything else! But now that we are on the topic, here goes:


The chili is the fruit of a plant belonging to the genus capsicum of the family Solanaceae. Capsicum is aptly derived from the Greek word ‘Kapsimo’ meaning ‘to bite’. The plant originated in South America, probably in Peru, and was domesticated as early as 5000 B.C. Christopher Columbus carried chili seeds from South America to Spain in 1493, and from there they have spread across the world. They were introduced in South Asia in the late 15th/ early 16th century by the Portuguese, and today we cannot imagine any of our cuisines without them (except maybe Kerala!).

When we talk of the heat of chilies, a reference to the pungency is natural. But how is pungency measured? The Scoville scale is a measure of the pungency (spiciness/heat) of   spicy foods, as recorded in Scoville Heat Units (SHU). This is based on the concentration of capsaicin,  the alkaloid responsible for the ‘heat’.  The scale is named after its creator, American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville, whose 1912 method is known as the Scoville organoleptic test. Originally, the SHU rating was given based on this test, which got people to taste and rate. But obviously, this was quite subjective. Today, liquid chromatography is used. The unit of measurement remains SHU.

The hottest chili in the world is the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion from Trinidad and Tobago. This pepper is rated at a 2,009,231 SHU.

India’s hottest, and World Number Four, is the Bhut Jolokia (Ghost Pepper) from Nagaland. On the Scoville scale, this measures a whopping 1,041,427 SHU.

Some other special chilies of India:

Kashmiri Chili: Known more for its colour than its spice.

Guntur Chili: The Guntur Sannam S4 is the chili responsible for the spiciness of the famously spicy Andhra cuisine.

Birs’ Eye Chili Dhani: Grown in the Northeast, this tiny chili packs a very spicy punch.

Kanthari Chili: These chilies grow in Kerala and become white when mature.

Mundu Chili: Grown in Tamilnadu and Andhra, they are small and round, with a thin skin. The are not too spicy, but have a unique flavour.

Jwala Chili: Grown primarily in Gujarat.

Byadagi Chili: This chili grown in Karnataka are long and have a thin skin. When dried, they have a crinkly appearance.

Maybe next time you are at a restaurant and want to sound very well-informed, you can ask the waiter what the SHU level of a dish is!


PS: Thanks Anu, for the pic, and Sudha for the chilies.


Speaking of Statues

Towering statues are the flavour of the month, so it seems appropriate to talk of statues to one of India’s towering personalities. I am not sure if there is (or it is even possible to have), a census of statues that so generously dot India’s landscape. But if there were to be one, my feeling is that the place for top numbers would be close-run thing between Gandhiji and Dr. Ambedkar. In fact, the latter may win. (One cannot say if the position will be held for long though, because if we were to include gods, it seems to me, the number of Hanuman statues may soon overtake that of any human!)

But coming back to the topic. Dr B.R. Ambedkar, the tall leader who probably did more to change the social landscape of India than anyone else, is commemorated with statues across India—big ones, small ones; proportionate ones, ones completely out of proportion; well-made ones, not so well-made ones. But three common threads across almost all of them: (1) They are most often blue in colour, (2) Dr. Ambedkar is always be shown wearing a suit, and (3) they will depict Dr. Ambedkar in one of two poses.


Intrigued, I did a little surfing and found (mainly from journalistic sources), some interesting information:

Why Blue?

Dr. Ambedkar started a party known as Scheduled Caste Federation (whose name was later changed to Republican Party of India). The colour of the party was blue — Royal blue to be more specific. It is said that he choose blue as the Dalit colour, to set it apart from all other parties. With this strong association of the colour blue with Dr. Ambedkar, his clothes are always shown as blue (it seems even in real life, for the last 20-30 years of his life, he most often wore blue).

Why a Suit?

Dr. Ambedkar was a symbol of struggle and success of Dalits. His status as a teacher and his rise to the high level of Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee were unimaginable in those days and were empowering beyond measure. And Western clothing–the suit–was a part of this re-imagining of the possibilities. His wearing a suit had a huge impact on the marginalized and oppressed, a matter of pride. And hence, he is always shown wearing one in his statues.

The Poses

Sculptor Vinay Wagle explains in a magazine article (Outlook) that there are two main poses of Ambedkar statues: (1) the ‘lecture’ pose, wherein left hand is behind and the right hand raised with the finger pointing forward. This is supposed to symbolize his teacher status. (2) the ‘Parliament’ pose, where he has a book in his left hand, and his right hand is raised, symbolizing his position as the Father of our Constitution.

He was not only a lawyer, but he had Ph.D from Columbia University and another one from the London School of Economics. As well as two honorary one! He was Principal of the Govt. Law College Bombay and Chairman of the Governing Board of Ramjas College University of Delhi. Justifiable indeed, the ‘lecturer pose’!
He was called to the Bar at Gray’s Inn, was India’s first Law Minister and chaired the Constitution Drafting Committee. The Constitution drafted under his leadership has been called ‘first and foremost a social document’. ‘ The majority of India’s constitutional provisions are either directly aimed at furthering the aim of social revolution or attempt to foster this revolution by establishing conditions necessary for its achievement. Justifiable indeed, the ‘Parliament pose’!

Recently I have seen a huge, very well crafted statue of Dr. Ambedkar, sitting in a statue-making yard. But it is golden! My friends tell me they are also seeing more of these. They do look better than many a blue one, but I cannot help wondering about the spirit!


My Tribute to Mother India

‘Mother India’ considered one of Bollywood’s classics, was released 61 years ago today (Oct 25). It was India’s first entry for the Oscars.

I saw the film when I was in my twenties, probably on Doordarshan. I remember thinking it was over-dramatic, over-emotional, over-the-top. It just seemed too much–one woman facing one tragedy after the other; struggling every day, every month; everyone out to exploit her. And still holding nobly to her values.

30 years have taught me quite a few lessons. One of them is that there is a Mother India in every street, in every lane.

This was brought home to me poignantly only last week, when I had occasion to spend a lot of time with the lady who takes care of our office. At personal inconvenience, she was going out of her way to help me in my time of need. The time we spent together gave me insights into her life.

Born in a family of agricultural labourers, she dropped out of school at 10, to take care of younger siblings. At 12, she joined her mother in the fields. Her father died of cancer, and things got even worse. She did any work she could get—from labour on construction sites, to digging wells, to everything in between.

At about 17 or 18, she was married off. Her mother was told that the groom was on the verge of getting a permanent government job, and she would live a life of comfort. The husband was semi-handicapped, but more devastating to her, completely lazy and good-for-nothing. As a three-month bride, she started work as a domestic help.

Life went its usual course. A son came along, on whom she pinned all her hopes. The husband worked at casual jobs about 10 days a month. The other 20 days, he lazed around the house. She slaved from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day of the month, at multiple jobs, to put the son through a good school, and he got his polytechnic diploma.

She thought her troubles were almost over. The son, rather than find a job, announced he wanted to get into engineering through lateral entry. She was thrilled—an engineer in the family. She worked harder than ever, as the husband lazed, and the son bought himself a motor cycle and fancy phone in keeping with his status as an engineering student.

One year went by and then tragedy struck. She found that her son, not being able to cope with his studies, had quietly dropped out of college without even telling her; that he was using the money she was giving him for fees and expenses, on feeding his bike with petrol and hanging out with friends.

With the help of relatives, friends, and well-wishers all around, the son has been coaxed, cajoled, threatened and re-admitted into college. Several fingers are crossed. Who knows what he will do?

I have worked with the mother for four years now. It seems impossible to believe, but she has never taken a day off. She is there half an hour before us, and stays half an hour after the last of us leaves, to clean and close up. I have never known her not to smile. I have never known her to take any shortcuts. I have never known her to ask for money. I have never known her to not sympathize and offer a cup of tea if I complain of headache. I have never known her being backward in helping any of us. I have never known her to be less than dignified or gracious.

I have known this Mother India. Look around. I would wager that a woman you meet today will be a Mother India. The sheet anchor of her family and community. Acting with integrity and dignity in every situation. Holding up her bit of the sky with a smile, in the face of every hurdle life throws her way.

I salute the makers of ‘Mother India’. They say art is about capturing universal truths and presenting them in the idiom of the times. And now, when I have seen something of the world, I believe this is so, and that there is nothing over-blown about Mother India.

I salute the Mother India in every woman around me.


PS: I lost my mother last week. And I salute her cheerfulness, her courage, her love, her compassion, and the joy she spread around her through her long life.


Making India Safe for Women

Big names tumbling out of the closet and into disgrace and shame. Every morning and every evening, additions to MeToo.

But workplace sexual harassment is only one part of what women in India have to face. The fundamental issue is ‘Is India safe for women?’

And the answer sadly is ‘No’. It is highly unsafe and becoming increasingly so. What we euphemistically used to call ‘eve teasing’ has been with us for ages. My friends from Kerala recall with horror their college days and how afraid they were to walk alone, to even raise their eyes from the ground or stay late in college. In Delhi of course, it gets more physical with groping hands and lewd gestures.

But now, there are horror stories which one has never heard before. For instance, how many incidents of acid throwing are reported every month? And in most cases, it is because the girl has rejected the boy’s advances.

Mind-shattering reports of abuse of children. Why just children, even infants! Of incest and abuse by fathers and uncles and brothers. Were these always there or is something sick in us growing out of control?

Cell phone camera photos and video clips of girls taken with or without their knowledge or consent are another potent tool in the hands of miscreants. In an example of how technology can be misused, these are passed on through MMS or put up on the website. There are instances of young innocent schoolgirls who have been driven to the edge of insanity and suicide, thanks to some boys in their class taking photos and threatening to circulate them, and blackmailing them into all kinds of activities.

And of course, the classic Pre-natal Determination of Sex—scanning to ascertain the sex of a child, and killing the unwanted girl child. Do we need a better example of how India at once lives in several centuries—the atavistic boy child preference aided by high-tech? So what if such scanning is illegal?

The solution then is not to make an example of one rapist, to go after one high profile editor/film-maker/what have you who has tried to take advantage of girls working for him, or to bring in the moral police. Each incident looks like one deviant exception, but taken together, they form a frightening picture of a society where something is seriously wrong. Why is this happening? Where do we begin to set it right? Whose responsibility is it—the education system, the media, parents, the law makers, the law enforcers….? It is time to introspect and face unpleasant truths.

And then go on to act on the truths we discover.

Otherwise India will be unsafe for one half of its people.


What is Wild?

The first of week of October is marked as wildlife week in India. Wildlife safaris are advertised, with promises of sightings of lions and tigers and elephants.

How about a rethink on “What is Wild”?


Does it roar, does it growl? Is it beast, fish or fowl?

Inhabit rainforests or snowy peaks? Live in deserts, or the ocean deeps?

Does it have stripes, wear armour? Exotic feathers or thick fur?

Is it whiskered, huge and ferocious? Have claws on its paws, good gracious!

Does it grow wild in forests deep? Tangled in branches where monkeys leap?

That’s just where we all go wrong. Thinking wild is a lion or gorilla strong.

What’s wild can be large: a blue whale or an elephant.

But also teeny weeny: an amoeba, a mite or an ant.

Wildlife can be insect, reptile or bird. Living alone in a cave, or all in a herd.

It can be the trees in a jungle dark. It can be weeds in a garden or moss in a park.

It is the living things that we have not tamed; As pets in our house, or on farms retained.

That live on their own, as creatures free; In cracks in our homes, or up on a tree.

Lizards, spiders, weeds, rats and snails… Are wildlife as much as tigers or whales.

You don’t have to climb mountains or dive very deep. Plunge into dark jungles, or ride miles in a jeep.

There’s a wildlife safari you can take any day. Through home or garden or just along the way.

Just keep your eyes open and all your senses alert. Look out for these creatures, even in the dirt.

You’ll find the world around teeming with life. From tiny to enormous, you can call it all wildlife!IMG_20181001_091041103.jpg



All Alike

We live in a world, and in a time, of confrontation and conflict, a continuous battle for proving our might; so much energy poured into dividing rather than synergising.

At a time when “what makes us different” is more important than what binds us as human beings I remember a poem by one of my favourite poets that reminds us that we are really not different!

No Difference

Small as a peanut,

Big as a giant,

We’re all the same size

When we turn off the light.


Rich as a sultan,

Poor as a mite,

We’re all worth the same

When we turn off the light.


Red, black or orange,

Yellow or white,

We all look the same

When we turn off the light.


So maybe the way to

To make everything right

Is for God to just reach out

And turn off the light!

Shel Silverstein


If only something could make everything right!

Let’s take a minute to pause and ponder as the International Day of Peace is observed around the world on 21 September.


Business as Usual

 “Business history gave me the opportunity to look at the experiences of individuals. Individuals who built organizations; individuals who built companies, individuals who responded to situations and responded to change. Then I began to have some kind of understanding of what Indian society is like. What are the forces in the Indian society that egg people on to certain things” said Prof Dwijendra Tripathi, Kasturbhai Lalbhai professor of Business History at IIM Ahmedabad, and the founder of the discipline in India.

Like any historian, he believed that studying the past led to a better understanding of the present. Today, India wants to ‘Make in India’. It wants every graduate and school dropout to be an entrepreneur, a job creator rather than a job seeker. There cannot be a time when it is more critical to study Indian business history.

India was fortunate to have a pioneer like Prof Tripathi who laid the foundations of this discipline way back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But even today there are few Indian Business Schools which teach the subject. I wonder if there are any pure history departments which teach it at all!!!

His passing away on Sept 5 this year has led to a flurry of articles and pieces (including this one). Maybe it will also lead to serious debates on the place of the study of Business History for the development of Indian Business.

Some things change, some don’t! It is up to us to learn from the past to plan for the future.

‘Another disincentive to movement was a network of customs barriers. According to Moreland, these barriers–chowkies, as they were called-existed in 1600 and later. Most likely, they existed even earlier. As a result, the cost of transportation over a distance of 200 or 300 miles doubled the price of the commodity. The harassing and corrupt practices of the customs authorities added to the trials and tribulations of the situation’.

Indian Entrepreneurship in Historical Perspective: A Re-Interpretation Author(s): Dwijendra Tripathi Source: Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 6, No. 22 (May 29, 1971)


For me, Prof Tripathi was a gentle presence on the IIM-A campus, a ready smile for anyone he met.