Cantonments: Serene Oases

I recently came across a fascinating 2017 publication titled ‘Cantonments: A Transition from Heritage to Modernity’. This coffee table book has been brought out by the Director General of Defence Estates, which has ‘the task of Cantonment Administration and Land Management of all the defence land in the country’.

The word cantonment is derived from the French word canton, which means corner or district. Originally, it referred to temporary arrangements made for armies to stay during campaigns or for the winter. However, with colonization, the colonial powers had to set up more permanent military stations, and in India and other parts of South Asia, such permanent military stations came to be referred to as cantonments. In the US too, a cantonment is essentially ‘a permanent residential section (ie., barracks) of a fort or other military installation’. In India, the very first cantonment was set up by the British at Barrackpore about 250 years ago (though Danapur in Bihar also makes a claim to be the first!), and they grew in numbers in the 18th century.

Coffee table book on Indian Cantonments
A Coffee table book on Indian Cantonments

There are 62 cantonments in India, classified into four categories, depending on their size and population. The total cantonment land in the country totals to over 2 lakh acres. Cantonments are mixed-use areas, with both military and civil populations, unlike Military Stations which are exclusively inhabited by the Armed Forces. Cantonments are governed by the Cantonments Act, 2006, and the ultimate decision-making body is the Cantonment Board, which has equal representation of elected and nominated/ex-officio members.

Coming back to the book I started the piece with, it is a fascinating display of visuals from cantonments, and a great showcase of the diversity that cantonments are home to.

I learnt a lot of things I was not aware of. For instance, that the site of the Kumbh Mela, the Sangam, is within the Fort Cantonment of Allahabad. During the Kumbhs, the state government takes over the management of the area. Or that the Agra Fort, to which all of us troop, to get a glimpse of the Taj as Shah Jehan did a few centuries ago, is within a cantonment. Or that the Allahabad Cantonment houses an Ashokan pillar with edicts. This pillar is unique in that apart from Ashoka’s inscriptions, it contains later inscriptions attributed to the Gupta emperor, Samudragupta of the 4th century (an early case of state-sponsored graffiti?). Forts at Ahmednagar, Belgaum, Cannanore etc., are also part of cantonments.

Dr. Ambedkar, the father of our Constitution, was born in Mhow Cantonment—his father Ramji Maloji Sakpal held the rank of Subedar in the British army. Mhow is in fact today officially called Dr. Ambedkar Nagar. The Cantonment houses the Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Smarak, a marble structure which has an exhibition on the life of the leader.

Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore spent considerable time at the Almora Cantonment Board and is said to have written a number of books, including parts of the Gitanjali, during his sojourn here. The building where he stayed is now called Tagore House.

Cantonments house excellent buildings—the Flag Staff House built in 1828 on the banks of the Hooghly is now the Barrackpore home of the Governor of Bengal. The Rashtrapathi Nilayam at Secunderabad is part of a cantonment.

Expectedly, many war memorials are also housed in various cantonments, including the Madras War Cemetery, the Kirkee War Cemetery, Delhi War Cemetery, etc.

These areas also have a number of old and revered places of worship, from churches to temples to masjids.

And of course these are biodiversity havens—especially the ones up in the hill reaches of Shillong, Ranikhet, Landsdowne etc. Migratory birds visit the Danapur Cantonment, and thousands of open-billed white storks breed here.

We have all seen/passed through/visited/lived in cantonments, and have to admit they feel like serene, clean, green, well-ordered oases.  But cantonments are not without their controversies. Not only are they criticized as Raj-era relics perpetuating colonial mindsets, but also, there have been several tussles between civilians and the Forces establishment—whether public access to roads that run through these areas, or the issues of civilians who live within them—they cannot for instance, access home loans or government housing schemes.

The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) has been rather scathing with regard to the management of lands under Defence Control. The Army itself at some stage has wondered if it can afford the money spent on the upkeep of these areas. In a major development, at the start of 2021, the PMO has asked for views on the abolition of all cantonments.

So it seems there is some kind of a push at the top levels to do away with them. But one wonders—is that throwing out the baby with the bathwater? Would it not be better to re-conceive them to give a fair say to all stakeholders, and make the management more inclusive and responsive? And learn lessons from them on how to run our urban settlements well?

–Meena

Motto: A Call to Action

A motto is a sentence, phrase, or word inscribed on something as appropriate to or indicative of its character or use’. It is a ‘short expression of a guiding principle’. A motto is official, like a logo or a statement, and an entity can have only one motto at a time (though they can and do change this over time).

Any entity can have a motto: a person, a country, a corporate, an educational institution, a non-profit.

Satyameva jayate
Satyameva jayate

India’s motto is Satayameva Jayata: Truth alone shall triumph. Some organs of the government have their own mottos too: The motto of our Supreme Court is: Yato Dharmastato Jayah. (Where there is righteousness (dharma), there is victory). The Indian Army: The safety,  honour and welfare of your country; Indian Air Force: Nabha sparsham Deeptam (Touch the sky with glory ); Indian Navy: Shaṁ No Varunah(May the Lord of Water be auspicious unto us).

Some interesting mottos of other countries are:

Truth prevails: Somewhat similar to India’s, this is the motto of the Czech Republic.

Janani Janmabhumishcha Swargadapi Gariyasi: Like India, Nepal’s motto is in Sanskrit, and means ‘Mother and motherland are greater than heaven’.

Rain: This is the motto of Botswana, and only one-word motto for a country. It pithily communicates the importance of rain for an agricultural county.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité: The motto of the French Revolution became the motto of two countries—France and Haiti.

In God we trust: This was taken as the motto of USA in 1956. Till then, the motto was ‘E pluribus unum’, meaning ‘Out of many, one’.

Some countries like the UK, China, Denmark, Bangladesh etc. have no official motto.

Business houses of course have mottoes too. Some are philosophical and conceptual, other very practical.

Tatas: Leadership with Trust.

Wipro: Applying thought

TCS: Experience certainty.

Reliance Industries: Growth is Life.

Non-profits convey their mission through the mottos:

Pratham: Every child in school and learning well.

Indian Red Cross Society: I Serve

Blind People’s Association: Touching People, Changing Lives

Adyar Cancer Institute: With Humanity and In Wisdom

Our educational institutions have profound mottoes too:

UGC: Gyan Vigyan Vimuktaye, meaning ‘knowledge liberates.’

IIM-A: Vidya Vinaygodhvikasah, meaning ‘development through the distribution or application of knowledge’.

IIT-B: Gyanam Marmam dhyatam, meaning ‘knowledge is the supreme goal.’

Delhi University: Nishta Drithiha Satyam: Dedication, steadfastness and truth.

Anna University: Progress through knowledge.

BITS Pilani: Gyanam Paramam Balam: Knowledge is the supreme power.

TISS: Re-imaging Futures.

There is not a motto of a country, an organization or institution which is not uplifting, elevating, noble. But sadly, I doubt if members of the entity even know or recall what their motto is. Maybe each organization needs to consciously set aside time on a regular basis to reflect, discuss and internalize how their motto should and can guide their day-to-day operations.  A motto can be an inspiration, a guide to action, something that conveys a mission, something that unites. It is a powerful way of bringing people together and inspiring them. But if they are left on paper, they are simply unreal statements of aspirational intent, rather than guiding principles.

–Meena

What Shall I Be?

In our experience of working with rural youth and those from smaller towns, we often found that when we asked them about their career aspirations, they would mention ‘engineer’, ‘teacher’, or ‘police’. With good reason, because these were among the few professionals they came across in their day to day lives. This gave us a good insight into the need for expanding horizons by introducing them to a variety of careers.  And it did make a difference. From forensic science to data science, from yoga teaching to wood-working, from optician to wildlife biologist—once the children knew about them, they were inspired to dream differently.

From Minva Aur Dumpua ke Karnaame, by V. Raghunathan, illustrated by Shilo Shiv Suleiman. Diamond Press

But never in my wildest dreams would I have thought to introduce some of the following careers to the young people. But maybe it’s time we get youth excited about some of them.

Given these COVID times, it would be good to inspire people to become aerobiologists–scientists who understand Aerobiology, the branch of biology which focusses on organic particles which are passively transported by the air, including bacterial viruses, fungal spores, pollen grains etc.! Or for that matter, to study Loimology, that is, gain knowledge of plagues and other pestilential diseases. Hygiology, the study of cleanliness could become big too

I would urge those interested in nature, wildlife or conservation to specialize in Caliology, or the study of bird’s nests– ‘calio’ comes from the Greek καλιά [kalia], a wooden dwelling, hut, or nest. Nidology means the same too, but the origin is from the Latin ‘nidus’ meaning nest. Or take up Myrmecology, the study of ants. Some could opt for Ophiology, the study of snakes.

Garbologists are going to become very important too—they study garbage, and hopefully will help to solve the world’s solid waste crisis. Given that our weather predictions are not too accurate with the monsoons more often missing than hitting on the given date, maybe more people should get into Anemology–the study of winds, and Brontology, the study of thunder. And we will always need people to take up Bromatology, the study of food. Bromotologists create new food products and also work to ensure food safety.

While I would urge young people to study Demology, that is, the study of human activities and social conditions, I would have to ensure they don’t confuse it with Demonology, the study of demons or beliefs about demons.

While not so disastrous a difference, I would still urge making the point that Mycology is the study of fungus, and Myology the study of muscles; Nephology the science of clouds, and Nephrology the study of kidneys; Pedology the study of soils, and Pedagogy the method and practice of teaching; Tribology the study of friction and wear between surfaces, and Trichology, the study of hair and its disorders.

And I would ask students to double check that they know what they are aspiring for when they decide to study Nosology—it is the study of diseases; or Trophology—it is the study of nutrition; Potamology the study of rivers; or Carpology the study fruits.

At any rate, no one can complain of lack of choices!

–Meena

Whatever you choose to be, whether a surgeon or a welder, make sure your skills are the best!

On the occasion of World Youth Skills Day, July 15.

ANGRY WORDS

“I was so mad, I thought I would explode!”

“I really blew my top when I heard about that!”

“If this goes on any longer I will blow a fuse!”

“He was so aggravating, I could have bitten his head off!”

Isn’t it interesting how pent up anger is vented through explosive vocabulary. 

Anger is one of the spectrum of universal human emotions. Different cultures have different names and different symbolism attached to the emotions. 

Although conventions regarding the display of emotion differ from culture to culture, our ability to recognize and produce associated facial expressions appears to be universal. In the 1970s, Paul Ekman conducted one of the first scientific studies of facial expression of emotions. He and his colleague Wallace Friesen devised a system to measure people’s facial muscle activity, called the Facial Action Coding System. Based on this system they analysed people’s facial expressions, across a range of cultures, and identified specific facial muscle configurations associated with specific emotions. They concluded that the most common, and commonly recognised, seven emotions are happiness, surprise, sadness, fright, disgust, contempt, and anger. They also concluded that these emotions are “universal” meaning that they operate independently of culture and language

In Indian culture the nava rasas or the nine emotions are said to depict the emotional state of mind. These are Shringara (love/beauty), Hasya (laughter), Karuna(sorrow), Raudra (anger), Veera (heroism/courage), Bhayanaka (terror/fear), Bibhatsa (disgust), Adbutha (surprise/wonder), Shantha (peace or tranquility).Classical dance forms, especially Bharata Natyam, have a wide repertoire of facial expressions that depict not just these emotions, but also the various things that cause that emotion. Raudram or anger is probably the most violent of the nava rasas

From the Nava Rasas series by Suresh Muthukulam

Our faces and bodies undoubtedly have a role not only in communicating but also in creating and maintaining our feelings. The facial expression is an arrangement of the face, which like a word in a language takes its meaning when seen in the larger context, that is, when attached to a particular body, that of the person who is saying and doing particular things in a particular context. Hence we sometimes feel that even though a person was smiling, their body language (closed fists, tense stance etc.) revealed not quite the same emotion.  

Other scientists who have studied how emotions are expressed in language have found that there is much greater variance in the linguistic use of words that express different emotions, and that there is a great deal of nuance in use of these words in different cultures. Some languages have a wide range of words that express not just the basic emotion but the finer sensitivities of that emotion. 

Take Anger. The English language itself has more than one word for anger-related emotions. In addition to ‘anger’, there are ‘ire’, ‘wrath’, ‘fury’, ‘vengeance’, ‘hatred’, ‘frustration’, ‘resentment’, ‘rage’, ‘bile’, ‘irritation’ and many more. Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary provided an interconnected web of definitions. ‘Fury’ was, first, ‘madness’, and secondly ‘Rage; passion of anger; tumult of mind approaching to madness’. In its turn ‘rage’ meant ‘violent anger, vehement fury’, while ‘anger’ was defined with a quotation from John Locke, as ‘uneasiness or discomposure of the mind, upon the receipt of any injury, with a present purpose of revenge’. Some authors in the eighteenth century, including the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid, used ‘resentment’ rather than ‘anger’ as their favoured term for a strong and vengeful frame of mind.

Anger seems to have become the predominant emotion of our times. The media leads us to believe that we live in ‘an age of anger’. The anger, in all the definitions, manifests at all levels, from national and international states of war, to civil and social unrest that flares up in violence, to anger at the way systems work (or don’t work), and anger within our closest circles of family and friends. We spend more of ourselves in this emotional state than any other. 

Interestingly, the English language also has a wide repertoire of idioms to help express the degree of anger that we feel. So much more fun that simply saying “I am so angry!”

Here is a sample to choose from:

Hot under the collar.

Up in arms.

Foaming at the mouth.

Steamed up.

Fit to be tied.

Bent out of shape.

Doing a slow burn.

Seeing red.

Ticked off.

Hit the roof.

Go up the wall.

Go off the deep end.

Fly off the handle.

He was angrier than a one armed paper hanger.

Blow one’s top.

Drive me up the wall.

That made my blood boil!

Blow a gasket.

Screaming bloody murder.

Go ballistic.

Would it not be even more interesting to compile anger words and idioms in all our Indian languages? 

“Anybody can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” Aristotle 

–Mamata

Of Logs and Constants…

I grew up believing that there were three pillars on which every middle-class household was built: a dictionary, an atlas, and the Clark’s table!

Our household dictionary was a Chambers with a hoary history (see https://millennialmatriarchs.com/2021/04/13/silver-tongued-orator-of-the-british-empire/). My father would often read out to us, and such occasions were always punctuated with me or my brother being asked to go and fetch the dictionary when we came across a difficult word. I am not sure why we did not bring the dictionary along with the story book, in the first place. It might have saved the interruptions. But I don’t recall we ever did that.

One of the tasks my father set us was to open the dictionary as close to the word being searched as possible. He maintained that one should be so familiar with the dictionary that we should have a good feel of where a word would be. For instance, if the word we wanted to look up was ‘signet’, at first go we were expected to open the book somewhere between ‘se..’ and ‘so..’. And as we progressed, within a few pages of the word.

The newspaper was generally the trigger for referring to the Atlas. I was a reluctant and late newspaper reader. And I think my father’s well-intentioned efforts to ask me to find obscure places and landmarks mentioned in the day’s news as part of the exercise only intimidated me and put me off newspapers even more. Political maps were a little more comprehensible than the physical maps, but neither was my comfort zone.

The Clarks Table was the third pillar. This was called for at frequent intervals when my father needed to look up any constant, any formula, any log. Being a small book, it had the tendency to get mislaid, unlike the dictionary or atlas which had their own set places. So as I recall, I spent more time looking for the Clarks Table, than into it. As we grew up and were doing our homework, if the Clarks Table was on the study table, it seemed to reassure our parents that we were seriously at work. It being the era before parents got too hands-on with regard to studies, it was a useful ploy!

Of the three, the Clarks Table was the least ubiquitous, probably confined to families who had serious science students. But my father would be sad when he came across any household which did not have all three. I have no idea what kind of conversations could possibly take place during social home-calls (frequent when we were young), which would veer around to the need for calling for the Clarks, but they did seem to happen. Because my father would often return from a friend’s house clearly saddened by the fact that there were households which did not have all these books. It was not that he was being judgmental, but he felt in his heart the disappointment that some people were being deprived of access to true knowledge!

And I let him down! Soon after we got married, my father visited us in Ahmedabad. He was there to present a paper at a scientific conference and was going over some calculations. At around 7 o’clock in the evening, he asked me for a Clark’s. And I did not have one! He was fairly taken aback, though he sought bravely to mask his disappointment. Not only had I let him down, but Raghu, a serious academic not caring to have the Tables in the house (never mind that Raghu was a professor of Finance, not math or science)!  We went out and bought one the very next day, but alas, we could never quite make up!

I am sadly not able to find out much about the history of the Clark’s Table. Apart from the fact that it is now published by Pearson, and edited by Tennent, and that it ‘..contains tables with information about topics like squares, square roots…, and all the necessary data for reference purpose for science students’.  I am not able to find any clue as to who the meticulous Mr. Clark was, and how the book was put together and when. And who is Mr. Tennent who has edited this? I am sure there must be lots of interesting stories about all this, but no information is available to the casual reader.

I would surmise from the fact that the older editions were brought out by a Scottish publishing firm called Oliver and Boyd, that Mr. Clark was Scottish. The firm was established in 1807 or 1808, and started by publishing books for young people, as well as abridged histories and songbooks. When the next generation took over from the founders, they established themselves very strongly in educational publishing, especially medical textbooks, and had a strong presence in British colonies. The firm wound up in 1990.

I suppose that in today’s world, we don’t need such reference books anymore. But being old-fashioned and with the conditioning I have, it remains a constant in my life that good education stands on the foundation of three books I can touch and feel!

–Meena

Living the Senior Life…

It starts with your mornings…

When you are in your teens and twenties, its all about lotions and potions.

Then, somewhere in your thirties you figure that you must have soaked almonds every morning. So there is one little bowl that makes its appearance on the kitchen platform–on the evenings you remember to soak them. And then of course, simultaneously you start warm water with lemon and a dash for honey. These two things before morning coffee become the routine.

But then the 40s and the 50s happen.

And you slowly add:

  • Maybe methi seeds
  • Maybe garlic
  • Maybe wheatgrass powder
  • Maybe chia or sabza seeds
  • Maybe karela juice
  • Maybe ghia juice
  • Maybe moringa powder
  • …….

Till your kitchen platform groans under the weight of all the little bowls of assorted items soaked every night.

And you set your alarm earlier and earlier, so you take each of these (which is supposed to be taken on an empty stomach), with at least 15 minute intervals.

And then you re-do your lighting..

Lighting in the house of course had to be yellow. How show-roomish and horrible were white tubes! A complete no-no.

And then comes a time, when room by room, socket by socket, you retro-fit with white tubes of the highest wattage you can get. Till only the drawing room and the dining room are left with their soft, subtle yellow lights.

And even then, you give up reading the comics page in the papers because you can’t make out the words for the smudges.

And when someone speaks of Graphic Novels, you quietly go and Google what on earth that is. And then, when you read rave reviews of one, debate within yourself if you should attempt to read it, and not fully convinced, still procure a copy. To find that even under the newly-installed white lights, you have to read the 374-page novel with a magnifying glass.  (I did it! The novel was ‘Persepolis’ by Marjane Satrapi. Well worth it, but I don’t think I can read another one unless they come out with a large-print edition!)

And then your exercise routines and paraphernalia change…

From worrying about the best cross-trainer and home gym equipment, you are looking for the best knee-braces and neck-collars.

And you set up a hunt for your grandkid’s discarded Montessori toys which helped them develop fine-motor skills at two years old, to keep your arthritic fingers limber at 60 years old.

When you start up an elaborate yoga and stretching routine—only to find that the asanas recommended for your weak knees, are contra-indicated for your cervical spondylosis.

And your routine adds on more and more exercises for newly emerging stiff joints and aches and pains, till it seems to take up almost half the day!

And you sadly realize

That from lotions and potions

It is now all about decoctions and concoctions.

And though you may have avoided Morning Sickness

There is no way you can avoid Morning Stiffness.

Such is the Senior Life!

–Meena

The Postman Does Not Knock Even Once

When is it that you last saw letters slipped under your door by the postman? For that matter, can you recall where your nearest postbox is?

The Indian postal system has a hoary history. The official website of India Post informs us that: ‘For more than 150 years, the Department of Posts (DoP) has been the backbone of the country’s communication and has played a crucial role in the country’s social economic development. It touches the lives of Indian citizens in many ways: delivering mails, accepting deposits under Small Savings Schemes, providing life insurance cover under Postal Life Insurance (PLI) and Rural Postal Life Insurance (RPLI) and providing retail services like bill collection, sale of forms, etc. The DoP also acts as an agent for Government of India in discharging other services for citizens such as Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) wage disbursement and old age pension payments. With more than 1,55,000 post offices, the DoP has the most widely distributed postal network in the world.’

True, every word. Except alas, it needs a high school grammar exercise to be truthful: ‘Transform the verbs in present continuous to the past tense’. So the truth will read: ‘For more than 150 years, the Department of Posts (DoP) was the backbone of the country’s communication and played a crucial role in the country’s social economic development. It touched the lives of Indian citizens in many ways.

The post office has sadly lost its relevance completely–at least in the urban context. One can understand the supplantion of some of the functions: Telegrams are not relevant now that we have emails and whatsapp and phones for instantly reaching out; the phone at the post office which was used in the pre-privatization era has obviously given way to mobile phones in every pocket; money orders which we looked forward to so eagerly in our hostel days have been efficiently replaced by money transfer apps galore.  But we are still sending documents, packages, invitations etc. physically from one point to another. But we never think of using the postal system do we? By default, we use the private courier.

Private couriers came in with the promise of overnight delivery. At most, if it was the other end of the country, it was 48 hours. And that did work, for the first few years. And they do come over and pick up and drop off things. The Postman will definitely not come home if you have a package, even for a charge. And so we all started shifting to couriers.

But today, for all the fancy tracking and tracing systems, except for a few premier and highly expensive couriers, they take a good 3-4 days. And whatever the level of service, they charge a huge multiple of the value of stamps I think I would have stuck on a good old letter or package.

I am sure the Postal Department has a huge workforce. We see occasional announcements as to additional functions they will take on. But in day to day life, one seldom sees this happening.

A sad example of the public sector’s presence and importance diminishing in a key vital sector. I don’t care if Govt. of India sells all its PSUs—it probably should. But are there not some core citizen services where its presence needs to be maintained? Should these not be the focus of modernization, revitalization and re-imagination? Are we, as a country not the losers if India Post is not able to live up to its Vision and Mission quoted below?

Vision​​​

India Post’s products and services will be the customer’s first choice.​

Mission​

  • To sustain its position as the largest postal network in the world touching the lives of every citizen in the country.
  • To provide mail parcel, money transfer, banking, insurance and retail services with speed and reliability.
  • To provide services to the customers on value-for-money basis.
  • To ensure that the employees are proud to be its main strength and serve its customers with a human touch.​
  • To continue to deliver social security services and to enable last mile connectivity as a Government of India platform

–Meena

Time on Pause

This week, as we think about, and even celebrate, microbes, it is all of 2020 that will be go down in history as the Year of the Microbe. Or the year when a microbe put the world on ‘pause’.

While scientists created microbe art in petri dishes, the pause created by the microbe led to the burgeoning of creativity in homes across the world. From home baking (yes using one of the friendly microbes!) to painting, embroidery, composing music, to innovative ways of virtual communication—this year was indeed one of activity amidst inactivity.

This is the time of year when much is being written about how people’s lives changed in this ‘year in pause’. The underlying point that comes through is that we all became much more aware about Time than we had probably done before.

We also learned to use time in ways that we had not done so earlier. While most of us were accustomed to thinking of time in the Fast Forward mode, the Pause mode made us also look back to reflect and reminisce, to unwrap long forgotten memories, and most importantly slowly sip, and savour the Present. In doing so we could explore our immediate surroundings and discover things which were ‘hidden in plain sight’ as it were. While not being obliged to be in a continual ‘planning ahead’ mode, we could stop and stare, and look around with new eyes.  

Picture courtesy Daksha Raval

As Rabindranath Tagore once put it:

I was tired and sleeping on my idle bed
and imagined all work had ceased.
In the morning I woke up
and found my garden full with wonders of flowers.

On the other hand it was a year when time seemed to slow down. When each day was counted in slowly ticking minutes and hours, as weeks telescoped into months… and here we are, at the end of a never-before year.

As Arik Fletcher, a poet, has succinctly summed up, it has been…

a time to cheer, a time to cry,
a time to live, a time to die,
a time to sleep, a time to wake,
a time for real, a time for fake,


a time for truth, a time to lie,
a time to laugh, a time to sigh,
a time to stand, a time to fall,
a time for one, a time for all,


a time for love, a time for hate,
a time to run, a time to wait,
a time to stay, a time to flee,
a time for you, a time for me.

And so here we go…
Bidding adieu

A year that crawled at the pace of a snail

Leaving behind indelible marks.

–Mamata

Totalitea

Many moons ago, my husband and I were on a short trek on the Annapurna Trail. Late one afternoon we reached a small village where we would spend the night. As we sat, enjoying the unmatched feeling of contentment after a beautiful day’s walk, we were joined by a young man. He bowed low, as only the Japanese do, and joined us in quiet contemplation. After a while, in broken English, he asked if we may be so kind as to join him in a small ceremony. We were happy to do so.

The young man led us to a large spreading tree around which was a built platform, and gestured to us to sit. From his backpack he took out a beautiful bowl and a brush, and with fluid movement cleaned the bowl. He then put in it some tea powder and hot water from his flask, and carefully stirred. With a low bow, he respectfully held the bowl in both hands and passed it to my husband, so that he may take a sip. He indicated that the bowl be passed on to me to do the same, and then he did the same when I passed it to him. All this was done in peaceful silence. When we had finished the bowl of tea, he explained, half in words and half by gestures that this was a traditional Japanese tea ceremony and that his guru in Japan had asked him to share it in a beautiful place with the right people. We were humbled that we had the privilege of this sharing amidst the breath-taking majesty of the mountains, the song of birds, and the crisp air. 

It was one of the most meaningful and beautiful moments of sharing that we have ever experienced. The memory is vivid even after so many years.

We later discovered that our host had meticulously followed both the form and spirit of the chado or Japanese tea ceremony, an experience that is centred on respect, beauty, and simplicity. As is the tradition, before the ceremony begins, the host and the guests prepare their mind and spirit for the experience by leaving worries behind, and focusing on harmony and tranquility. The rest of the ceremony gently unfolds just as our young friend had done.

The history of the tea ceremony is equally engaging. The tea plant was brought to Japan in the 9th century by a Buddhist monk named Eichū on his return from China, where tea had been in widespread use for centuries. Eichū served the drink to an emperor, and not long after, an imperial decree was issued to start cultivating tea plantations in Japan. Initially tea drinking was limited to the social elite and only later it spread to other levels of Japanese society. It would take another three centuries before tea ceremonies would become a spiritual practice.

In the 15th century, Murata Jukō a Buddhist introduced the four core values of the ceremony–kin, or reverence; kei, respect for food and drink; sei, purity in body and spirit; and ji, calmness and freedom from desire.

In the 16th century, another Buddhist, Sen no Rikyū incorporated the philosophy of Ichi-go ichi-e (‘one time, one meeting’), the idea that each individual encounter should be treasured as such a meeting may never happen again.

Our chance encounter with the Japanese tea ceremony and our host was literally and spiritually “one time, one meeting”.

Tea and rituals related to tea have an important role in Oriental cultures. In China, where tea is said to have originated, one of the first written accounts about the tea ceremonies dates as far back as 1200 years ago, during the Tang Dynasty. The serving of tea was also named cha dao which meant ‘the way of tea’.  Attention to tea preparation and serving became the preoccupations of the Chinese tea connoisseurs, which transformed the way tea was regarded by the Chinese.

The Chinese tea ceremony is a blend of the philosophies of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism and is based on the respect for nature and need for peace. The traditional tea ceremonies were described as he which translates as ‘peace’, jing which translates as ‘quiet’, yi which means ‘enjoyment’ and zhen meaning ‘truth’.

The tea ceremony remains one of the most significant traditions, even today, in Chinese weddings. The ceremony is conducted on the day of the wedding and sees the bride and groom respectfully serve tea to their parents, in-laws, and other family members. This symbolises the union of two families, the respect for the elders on both sides, and the elders’ acceptance of the marriage. In Chinese, the expression “drinking a daughter-in-law’s tea” is used to represent a wedding. What a simple but eloquent symbol tea can be.

While Japanese and Chinese poets have written lyrical odes to tea, the British approach to their cuppa is much more “stiff upper lip” and mundane! As William Gladstone said:

If you are cold, tea will warm you;
If you are too heated, it will cool you;
If you are depressed, it will cheer you;
If you are exhausted, it will calm you.

As for India, as with all other things there are myriad versions and preparations of the ubiquitous chai! Every home and every family has its own special brew, and chatting over chai is a national pastime.

In my home, the long morning tea session is an unbroken tradition, complete with a big teapot and numerous cups of ‘English tea.’ It is a time to sip, and savour our little garden while we each peruse the morning papers. It is a comforting and happy way to start a new day. And to remember the words of the Vietnamese spiritual leader, poet, and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh:

Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves—slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment. Only this moment is life.

What brought on these ramblings about tea? Every year, since 2005, tea-producing countries have been celebrating International Tea Day on December 15th. The day seeks to draw the attention of governments and citizens around the world to the impact that tea trade has on workers and growers. Last year it was proposed to expand this celebration to all countries around the world and to move the day to May 21st.

December or May, for tea drinkers every day is Tea Day.

–Mamata

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