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.

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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

 

Remembering the Post-age

World Post Day is celebrated on 9 October each year. This is the dpost box india.jpgate on which the Universal Postal Union was established in 1874, in Bern, Switzerland. It was declared as World Post Day at the UPU Congress held in Tokyo in 1969. In just 50 years technology has hugely changed our modes of written communication. Soon there will be an entire generation that has never handled pen, paper, envelopes and stamps, and will never know what the age of physical post was all about. I do feel sorry for them!

Here is my small way of celebrating World Post Day!

An Ode to Letters

The last time I wrote a letter? Why, just today!

I need it like therapy, at least once a day.

I do not twitter nor tweet, tho’ the world finds it so neat!

Instagram and Snapchat…What’s that?

I like my words to be spelt as they must, and sentences that don’t rust.

Alas, now I too must type my words and SEND an e-mail.

Oh for the days when they were penned, and were snail mail!

I so miss the prelude, the preparation and the process…

Choosing the paper and filling the pen (with an ink called Quink!)

Trying to capture the words as they tumbled and tangled and dangled,

Protestations and lamentations, explanations and vexations.

Reports to parents, and advice to sisters, news to share and opinions to air.

Musings with friends–from mundane to surreal,

Sweet nothings to that someone special!

Drafting and crafting late into the night,

Stashing the sheets in the envelope, before first light.

To the post office the following day, to weigh and decide

The stamps to be bought, and pasted on the top right side.

Then drop into the big red box with swish and a wish,

And the delicious anticipation of the letter in return… a month, a week, a fortnight,

Counting the days, awaiting the post, what a splendid way to spend days and nights!

I cannot think of anything better, than the sheer joy of penning a letter!

For the dinosaurs who lived through the age of pen and paper, and those who may only read about it in history books!

–Mamata

Dragonflies

The beginning of autumn

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Photo: Revati Pandya

decided by

the red dragonfly

Shirao

The September morning sky is dotted these days with dragonflies. It is an uplifting sight—to see them gliding gracefully, flitting, swirling and swooping like dancers against the canvas of blue sky and white clouds. I remember several Japanese Haiku that celebrate the dragonfly.

Dragonflies play an important part in Japanese life and culture. They are associated with autumn as well as spring, and are seen as harbingers of life and prosperity, birth, and renewal, happiness and strength.  Japanese art, literature, textiles, and design, as well as literature (especially haiku poetry) reflect this close association and respect. The red dragonfly is considered to be sacred. One of the popular traditional pastimes of Japanese children has been catching dragonflies.

The dragonfly is one of the oldest of the insect species, which has inhabited our planet for almost 300 million years. It is natural that these insects have become an integral part of folklore in many cultures which have developed their own beliefs associated with the form and life cycle of insect.

In China, people associate the dragonfly with prosperity, harmony and as a good luck charm. Amongst Native Americans, it is a sign of happiness, speed and purity.

In many parts of the world the dragonfly also symbolises adaptation, transformation and renewal. In Native American culture it was seen as a sign of resurrection after a hard struggle. This is probably associated with the metamorphosis that the insect undergoes in its life-cycle, from a drab larval stage in which it spends most of its life before it emerges as a graceful and colourful adult. Once it emerges, it has a very short time to live its adult life, but it seems as if it flies freely with no regrets. The Dragonfly’s scurrying flight across water represents an act of going beyond what’s on the surface and looking into the deeper implications and aspects of life. Thus it symbolises the virtue of living in the moment and living life to the fullest, while at the same time looking deeper.

Across cultures, the dragonfly has been associated with magical qualities and mysticism. This may be associated with the fact that they exhibit the phenomenon of iridescence, which means that the body of the dragonfly can reflect and refract white light to create beautiful colours that change depending on the angle of light or the angle from which you look at them. Thus they also symbolize illusion–making others see you the way you want them to see!

Dragonflies are respected by fishing communities. In some places it is believed that plenty of dragonflies over a particular spot meant there were plenty of fish around. If a dragonfly hovered near the fisherman, he took it as a good luck sign.

I had not realised what a deep and rich association the dragonfly has in so many cultures. However I have not found much about this association in Indian culture. We do tend to somewhat overlook, let alone write poems about, these flying insects as they neither catch our eye as butterflies do, nor intrude into our daily life as flies and mosquitoes do.

But I did come across something that makes immediate sense for me. Seeing swarms of dragonflies means that rain is on the way; and as our  monsoon still lingers this year, maybe they will bring more rain! And, more practically, that dragonflies are very useful in helping combat the mosquito and other pests that constitute their prey. I definitely consider having them around my house as a symbol of health and good luck!

See this dragonfly….IMG_20190924_084456_Bokeh__01.jpg

His face is

practically

nothing else but eyes.

Chisoku

–Mamata

 

 

How a German Town Became a Tamil Shrew

Well, not exactly a shrew, but a very sharp, savvy, aggressive woman!

emden

Ok, lets wind this story back!

In Tamil, ‘Emden’ (or ‘Yemden’, as pronounced in Tamil) is used to describe a person (usually female?) who gets things done, who brooks no interference or resistance or opposition.

‘Yemden’ is used in various different tonalities: If an old lady is using it to describe her favourite niece, it is in a tone of admiration for the go-getter whom no one can fool; if describing a not-favourite neighbour’s daughter, the tone is somewhat deprecatory—as in ‘what a badly-behaved girl’; if used for a much-disliked sister-in-law, the tone is definitely derogatory—as in ‘such an aggressive, uncouth person—bad addition to the family’.

When I was young, I thought it was a Tamil word, so casually was it used in conversations. It was much later that I learnt the etymology of the word. The origin of the term is convoluted:

On the night of September 22, 1914, in the early days of World War I, the German cruiser Emden entered the Madras Port. Harboured there were several oil tankers belonging to Burmah Oil Company (a British company). Capt. Karl von Muller who was in command of Emden, fired at them. Within minutes, five tankers went up in flames, destroying close to 3,50,000 gallons of fuel. 
And forever imprinting that night in the memories of the people of Madras and Tamilnadu, as a night of terror, of war, of aggression, of bombs, of fire. Capt. Muller was to later write: “I had this shelling in view simply as a demonstration to arouse interest among the Indian population, to disturb English commerce, to diminish English prestige.” He certainly succeeded in arousing interest, considering that more than a century later, the word ‘Emden’ continues to be a part of Tamil vocabulary!

Emden the town which lent its name to the ship is fairly non-descript. It is a seaport in the northwest of Germany, on the river Ems. In 2011, it had a total population of 51,528.

Emden the ship has a slightly more interesting (if bloody) history. SMS Emden [was a Dresden class light cruiser built for the Imperial German Navy, and armed with ten 10.5 cm guns and two torpedo tubes.

Emden spent most of her career in the German East Asia Squadron based in China. During World War I, Emden captured nearly two dozen ships. Apart from the attack on Chennai, Emden launched a surprise attack on Penang and in the resulting Battle of Penang, she sank a Russian cruiser and a French destroyer.

Capt. Müller then took Emden to the Cocos Islands, where he landed a bunch of sailors to destroy British facilities. There, Emden was attacked by an Australian cruiser  which inflicted serious damage and forced Müller to run his ship aground to prevent her from sinking. Out of a crew of 376, 133 were killed in the battle. Most of the survivors were taken prisoner. Emden‘s wreck was quickly destroyed by wave action, and was broken up for scrap in the 1950s.

–Meena

PS: I do sense a gender issue here, with a bias against strong women! Even the use of term ‘shrew’ is on the same lines–apologies!

PPS: Ironically, the city centre of Emden was almost completely wiped out as a result of Allied bombing in World War II, which destroyed nearly all historic buildings. The most severe bombing by the RAF took place on 6 September 1944, when roughly 80 percent of all houses in the city centre were destroyed. In the collective memory of the city, this date still plays an important role. 

PPPS: Wikipedia is the main source for information on the Emdens.

Ode to the Saree

It is the day of tributes and nationalistic fervour. The news is replete IMG_20190815_101428069.jpgwith people sharing thoughts and feelings about what India means to them. This is my small paean to what, for me, represents the essence of India. It is an ode to the saree!

I wore my first formal saree when I was 16 years old. I still remember it—a magenta-pink Venkatagiri brought by my friend’s mother from Chennai. And I fell in love with sarees. Not just the finished draped version but simply this seemingly endless flow of fabric, with its mind-blowing variety of textures, weaves, designs, and colours. It was the start of an enchanting journey of discovery—learning, over the years, about the unique features of sarees from every part of India. Luckily for me it was the period of rediscovery of the rich heritage of our textiles which manifested in national handloom exhibitions where weavers displayed their wondrous skills. Oh the excitement of adding, one by one, traditional sarees of different states—the stunning kanjeevarams; the intricate ikats; the rustling golden tussars; the vibrant bandhanis and patolas; the summery kotas, and the sturdy handlooms. With every piece was the attempt to know more about the place and people who wove the masterpieces, the dyes and the motifs, the warp and the weft. It was an exploration of my country—its geography and history, culture and tradition, and craft and craftsmanship.

I was already part of a committed saree-wearing cadre when I started my career as an environmental educator. To my delight, one of the early statements by my Director Kartikeya Sarabhai, beautifully summed up the very special features of the saree. “The saree is a designed piece of clothing worn all over India. Over the years very beautiful designs, patterns and textures have been printed and woven into the Indian saree and yet, several thousand years of Indian history has not tried to stitch the saree. It is worn in many ways and fits all sizes. It is equally good for working, dressing up or sleeping in. The final effect is the combined effort of the person who designs the cloth and the person who wears it—of the designer and the user. This is a very different concept from that of designing, say, a well-stitched dress. The garment either fits or doesn’t fit, and where it fits, leaves very little room for the wearer to be innovative in its use.”

I have worn a saree every day of my working life. I have looked forward to choosing the one for the day, and it has become the symbol of my identity. I have worn my saree at home and at work; while travelling and sleeping; rain and shine. I have experienced the joys of putting together my own collection of the multitude of woven flavours of this wonderful country, and revelling in the rich bequest that is ours to savour and share

I am saddened at the ebbing of the saree today. Appalled that it has been reduced to a hashtag; that sarees have become exclusive “designer outfits” with tips on outre ways of draping a saree or, even worse, the stitched saree! I am amused when people think I am an ‘amma from the days of yore’ when I am the only one in a large gathering wearing a saree.  I am disturbed that in our race for globalisation and international Brands, we seem to be losing a crucial common thread of identity.

For me the saree represents the essential spirit of my country—the heritage and the history; the multiplicity and the uniqueness; the weaving of warp and weft to create a strong resilient fabric. It represents a unique common identity which subsumes the incredible diversity of textures and motifs. It represents the magic of being a seamless length of fabric that takes on the individual character of its wearer.

I may not wear my patriotism on my sleeve, but every time I wear my saree I celebrate the wonder that is India!

–Mamata

Parenting an Instinct? Dangerous Assumption

Sanjeev 15 years old. Son of good friends. Committed suicide a few days before his Std 10 Board exams.

What would lead to a situation where a 15-year old is so defeated by life, or is in such despair that he takes his life?

Madhuri and Amar are wonderful people. They loved their two children and worked hard to give them the best of everything. Madhuri would get up at five every morning to cook breakfast and lunch, before coming to work. Amar would take them to the movies every alternate Sunday. They both worked hard to earn enough to give them the advantages they never got.

But were they good parents? I am not so sure.

Madhuri and Amar had married young—defying their parents to make a runaway match. Sanjeev came along before they knew what was happening. They coped with jobs, insufficient money, newly reconciled relatives, sleepless nights, and a fairly new marriage, as best they could. They couldn’t really draw upon any experienced parents, even if they wanted to.

But it was fairly obvious to many of us standing on the side and looking on, that though they were loving parents, they were not good parents.

Why do we assume that parenting comes naturally? That it is an instinct? That it requires no preparation, no conscious effort?

We have recognized the importance of telling young couples that the health of the mother and child are endangered if the mother is too young and her body too immature. But have we ever told them that the psychological and emotional well-being of the child are in danger if the parents are too immature to bring them up? Have we told the bride’s parents and the groom’s parents this?

We take the trouble to inform new parents what they must feed the child, what the symptoms of various illnesses are, when the infants must have their various shots, etc. But does anyone tell them how they must deal with their children? Give them a glimpse of child psychology and child behaviour?

Yes, my great-aunt had eight children, starting with her first one when she was 15. No. No one gave her lectures on child psychology. And all the children grew up quite well, thank you very much! Yes, true.

But surely the world today is a much more complex place than it was 75 years ago. Or 50 years ago. Or even 15 years ago. Were children then exposed to internet, Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok, and all kinds of things I am not even aware of? Did they live in a world where a percentage point in Std 12 marks made the difference between making it into medicine or not? Did they live in a world where violence and sex were daily fare? Where corruption and cynicism were the order? Where possession or non-possession of branded shoes and jeans, or Facebook pics of exotic holidays, decided whether you belonged or didn’t? Where the family was two young adults who left in the morning and came back late in the evening?

The answer is obvious. We talk of education to cope with change. Then why do we not see that education for parenting is a–maybe the–most crucial part of this education? We know that data analysts need training; carpenters need training; engineers need training…. But we seem to think that we can take on the most important job in life—that of taking responsibility for another human life—without any training or education or preparation or even thought.

The increasing number of cases like Sanjeev’s that one sees reference to in the media clearly indicate that we need such education. But who is provide it? Where? When? How? Indian society must answer these questions. It is no longer enough to say that our traditional structures and family values are so strong that these things will get taken care of. It is obvious that the family and social structures are not being able to cope.

Someone has to act! This kind of education or sensitization hast to reach each and every young person. Reach them at a time when it is needed. Reach them in a way that it makes a difference. Is the Public Health Centre the venue? The anganwadi? The school? The college? TV the medium? Radio? All of these?

Whatever the answer, let us at least ask ourselves the questions. Believe me, a Sanjeev you know may break your heart.

–Meena

 

Effortlessly Antique

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Raghu has a weakness for antiques and the house is a bit overboard on old bric-a-brac, carpets, furniture, etc., which he has been collecting for 30 years now.  He used to scour antique shops, flea markets, craft shops, furniture shops and what not, spending enormous amounts of time. And much more money than we could afford.

But a few days ago, I looked around and wondered why he even made the effort! Just by sheer living and reaching the age of 60ish, even our most mundane belongings are antique!

My wedding saris are over 35 years old.

My own jewellery is 40 years old. But my mother and grandmother both gave me pieces of their jewellery over time. So some of it is close to 65 years old. And a few pieces close to 85 years old.

Raghu has his first watch, which was a hand-me-down from his father–easily 70 years old. Also, his father’s fountain pen, probably of the same vintage.

My silver kodam (water pot), was given to my grandmother from her mother’s time and is probably a century old, give or take.

The idols in the puja cabinet may again be a 100 years old, since some of them belonged to great-grandparents.

We did go out of our way to buy some old pieces of furniture, but some of the most mundane pieces like the kitchen cabinet, by growing old with us, are close to four decades old.

My ever-silver (stainless steel for the non-South Indians) vessels come down from my mother-in-law’s treasured hoard, and may well be over 60 years old.

I have dessert bowls that my parents bought when they were in the UK in 1962.

I have a doll that was bought during the same visit.

Our photographs rest in albums dating back to the ‘50s.

So whether or not you know it, whether you want to be or not, you are an antique collector. And your house is a museum. Because life happens…

–Meena

Musings on the Moon

The moon is in the news! This week marks 50 years since the first man landed on the moon, and the papers are full of it, including reminiscences of that milestone year–1969. This took me back to my own association with the moon landing. It was my final school year, and we were told by all our teachers that this was a sure bet as a topic for the essay in our English and Hindi Board papers. So we read all that we could find, and mugged up the names and the dates, and the famous quote “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”—the first words by Neil Armstrong as he stepped onto the moon (20 July 1969), and wove them into our creative writing practice.

Those were simple times. Television had still not come to our home. The whole family would avidly listen to the All India Radio news read by familiar comforting voices as they conjured up word pictures of events at home and abroad (the highlight of which was the live broadcast of the Republic Day parade on 26 January). Newspapers in black and white print, and sometimes fuzzy photographs provided the visual support to the audio coverage. We first saw a colour picture of the moon landing in the Span magazine published by the American Cultural Centre.

Being a teenager in Delhi was more about innocent pleasures, than pressures and angst. We had real friends (not virtual) with whom we spent all our time, in school and at each other’s homes, plied with home-cooked food by the much-loved aunties. We had music playing on LPs—Beatles and Woodstock; and the occasional Beat Show, when one of the parents offered to pick us all up and ferry us home for a giggly night-spend together. But we also sated ourselves on the rich offering of music, theatre and art that was easily accessible in Delhi in the 1970s. Books were our BFFs, and sources varied, from the American Library to the hole-in-the-corner neighbourhood lending library.

We were one of the early (now reviled) Khan Market gangs, when ‘hanging out’ meant simply walking around Khan (then not so up-market), and treating ourselves to a coke! Choices were limited, and aspirations were achievable—to join the Administrative Services or become a college lecturer if you were an ‘arts type’, or to become a doctor or engineer. Cut-off marks in lists were in the 60s, and annual fees in the best colleges were still in three figures.

And yet we all got somewhere meaningful, in our own ways, even though by today’s standards we did not “arrive in style” as it were. And we are still there, doing our best to live by our values, in a very different age. It has, after all, been quite an age–half a century–since those days. Since then science and technology have indeed made a giant leap forward, We can be proud that very soon our own moon mission Chandrayaan-2 will be up and away on its way to land on the moon.

Even as we now have the ability to probe the crevices and craters of the distant moon, wonderfully, the moon has not lost its magic for the dreamers and the poets and painters. moon.jpg

We need the moon more than its needs us—look up at the full moon today, and you will know why!

–Mamata

 

UNDEAD

I think ‘undead’ means

The dead who will not die

 

What then is the term

For the living who do not live?

Who have no wish to live?

Who see no point in living?

For whom there is no joy in living?

 

Are they called the ‘unliving’?

–Meena

(Obviously suffering from GOT withdrawal symptoms!)

Hall of Rage

One of the things that completely fascinated me when I was told stories from the Ramayana by my grandmother was the concept of the ‘kopagraha’, made famous by Queen Kaikeyi.

KaikeyaKaikeyi, goaded by Mantra, decides that her son Bharata must be crowned King of Ayodhya, in place of Rama, the first-born. But convincing her husband the King, was not going to be easy. As the first step, she retreats to her kopagraha (literally, Hall of Rage). She flings off her jewels, unfastens her hair, puts off her silks and flings herself on the bed, before sending word to the King that he better come there post-haste, or else…

What ensues is well-known. The King has to bow to her pressure. He decides to crown Bharatha king, exiles Rama to the jungle, and later, succumbs to a heart attack or stroke. But that is the subject of the epic, not this blog.

The kopagraha is the crux here. What a concept! A whole hall or palace to retire to, signalling your rage! A whole building legitimizing tantrums and bad behaviour! I wonder if the kopagraha was a common resource. Could anyone from the royal family just walk in and occupy it? If so, what would happen if two or more people wanted to use it at the same time? Maybe there were systems for bookings like we have for meeting rooms in offices? Or did each important person have one exclusively? Maybe it could be a perk—corporates could allot kopagrahas along with corner offices!

I have often imagined how I would design a kopagraha if I had a chance to have one. I think it would be painted the deep grey of dark clouds, and a bright angry red. The furnishings would all be red. Glass vases and tea cups and china bric a brac would be handy to fling against walls. The acoustics would be designed to catch the shrillest notes of querulous voices and amplify them. Bows and arrows, along with targets to substitute for whoever was the enemy of the moment.

Alas, while punching bags and ‘anger rooms’ and such are a part of some anger management programs, we do not now have the luxury of a palace to indulge our rage.

Interestingly, as I was looking for references to kopagrahas, I learnt that boudoirs were originally on the lines.  ‘Boudoir’ apparently means sulking or pouting room. It is derived from the French ‘bouder’, which means to sulk or pout. In the 1700s, the boudoir was a room to withdraw to, and apparently to sulk in!

Happy tantruming!

–Meena