The Biscuity Taste of Nostalgia

Last week, some friends knowing that we had spent several years at Hyderabad, brought us a box of Osmania biscuits. One of the specialities of Hyderabad, as per the box, the recipe for the biscuits wsa thought up on the demand of the last Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan, who wanted a snack that was a little sweet and a little salty. So teatime this week has been pretty good!

Which made me think about biscuits in general. What exactly is a ‘biscuit’?

The word biscuit came to English from French (bis-qui), which is from the Latin root panis biscotus, which roughly means ‘bread twice cooked’. The origin of biscuits goes way back maybe even to Neolithic times. But for sure the Romans had them. In Roman times, biscuits were basically bread which was re-baked so that it would last longer, and hence could be useful for marching armies or travellers. From the 14th century onwards, biscuits became popular in England and were an important part of naval food supplies, carried on ships which set out on long journeys. These naval biscuits were highly inedible, but still an important part of a ship’s provisions as they could last for very long!

As per the dictionary, a biscuit is ‘a small baked unleavened cake, typically crisp, flat, and sweet’. Which of course is inadequate, as biscuits are often salty, and as we shall see below, sometimes leavened (made with yeast or other raising agent).

Biscuits apparently fall into four broad categories. The categories are differentiated by their recipes (mainly the amount of fat, sweet and water), and the baking process. These are:

Crackers:This covers a wide range of products characterised by crispy, open texture and savoury flavours. They are leavened.

Hard sweet biscuits: They have low sugar and fat. They have an even colour and texture,  and good volume.

Short doughs (moulded biscuits): The doughs for these are ‘short’ (ie, have more fat and less water) compared to the dough for crackers of hard sweet biscuits.

Cookies (inlcuding filled cookies): These are made from very soft doughs which are put directly on to the oven band for baking.

India is a pretty big consumer of biscuits—another legacy of our colonial past, I suppose.  Per capita consumption of biscuits in India has been estimated at 2 kilos. The biscuit industry was valued at Rs. 37,000 crore before the pandemic. Lockdowns were good for biscuits, as people stocked up on these foods with long shelf-lives, and the industry saw sharp growth.  The top-selling brands domestically are: Parle-G, Marie Gold, Good Day, Unibic and Bourbon.

India is also an important producer of biscuits along with the US and China. Significant quantities are exported to Haiti, Ghana, Angola, the UAE and the US

My all-time favourites are from a bygone era. In Delhi, my mother would take tins of atta, ghee and sugar to a nearby bakery in the morning, and send one of us to collect the biscuits in the evening. It was difficult not to slyly ‘steal the cookie from the cookie jar’ on the way home. These atta biscuits had typical stripes running along the length. I don’t know if local bakeries even exist today or take such custom-orders. But those biscuits were delicious!

Another biscuit I miss are the Mangaram wafers, or cream biscuits as we used to call them. They came in yellow and pink. They were more expensive than the normal biscuits and so were a special treat for special occasions—birthdays or if one did exceptionally well in a test or exam! Apparently, the Mangharams were from Sukkur, Sindh and had a major factory there from 1937 onwards (as also factories in Delhi, Calcutta and Mumbai). The Sukkur factory was declared evacuee property and given to a Muhammad Yakoob. It was re-named the Yacood Factory. JB Mangharam, the patriarch of the family, settled in Gwalior when they came to India during Partition, and started a factory there. After the death of the founder, the company was restructured in 1969 and again in 1977. In 1983 it became a part of the Britannia Group. Somewhere along the way, the cream biscuits fell out of favour. Was it that the family was too caught up in internal squabbles to pay attention to its star product? Or could they not keep with external competition? Or was it that tastes changed? Whatever the reasons, old-timers like me will always miss those light, sweet, exotic biscuits.

–Meena

PS: Maybe modaks or ladoos would have been a more appropriate topic today. But somehow I feel Ganesha would be game to try something new—a plateful of sweet cookies for instance. Happy Ganesh Chaturthi!

Fruity Names

I have a guava tree which has just started fruiting this year. And with the enthusiasm of a newbie, it is overdoing the act. But I must marvel at its boldness—a thin, weak tree, it has literally 10s of fruits on each branch and is completely bowed down with the weight. Even after the birds and squirrels have done feasting on them, we are left with about 5-6 fruits every day. Which is a lot more than we can eat.

So I decided to check out some guava-based recipes. A visit to cooking sites threw up a few promising ones. But I got side-tracked. Browsing through the pages, I was reminded that guavas, apart from being called amrood, are also called peru. I was intrigued. Where did that name come from? A fairly straight forward explanation: Guava is believed to be a native of Peru in South America. Guavas came to India only around the 16th century, and probably because consignments were received from Peru, people in and around the port of Bombay started calling it that.  The fruit took well to Indian growing conditions and became popular here. Today peru or guava is the fifth-most widely grown fruit crop of India!

Guava
Guava, also called Peru

That got me thinking of the names of other fruits and vegetables which take their names from the names of places. Obviously, they are not called that in their place of origin, but when they travel, they take along the name. I doubt if anyone in the country of origin knows that the fruits are carrying the names of their countries far and wide, albeit in a strange context (how confusing it would be if people in Peru called a fruit ‘peru’!). And for sure, most people in the destination country after a passage of time, don’t link the name of the fruit to anything–a name is a name is a name and just is.

Here is a look at some more such fruit names

Peaches were called persicum—‘Persian apples’–by the Romans because they were traded by Persians. And a variation of the name stuck in English.

The name ‘currant’ is derived from the ancient Greek city of Corinth, which was known for its production of small dried grapes now known as currants.

Musk melons are sometimes called Cantaloupe. Though the fruit is not native to Italy, it was brought to the Cantus region of that country from Armenia and gained popularity there. As it slowly spread from there to other parts of the world, it carried the name of the Cantus region with it.

Oranges are indigenous to India and the origin of the name is from the Sanskrit naranaga. Most languages call oranges by some variation of this name. But in Greek, it is called portokali  because Portugese merchants traded in them.

Oranges spread far and wide, and variations developed. A type of blood orange which originated in the Mediterranean islands of Malta circled back to India and we call it the ‘Malta’. It is widely grown in Uttarakhand today. Tangerines are a variant which come from Tangier, Morocco.

Though the tamarind probably has its origins in tropical Africa, it has been cultivated in the Indian subcontinent for so long that it is universally known as Tamarind—the date of India!

Even apart from being named for the place of their origin, fruit and vegetable names are often prefixed with place names. The Devenahalli Pomelo for instance, is a special variety of the fruit which grows only in the Devenahalli area around Bangalore airport, and is tagged with Geographical Indicator (GI) status.  Another example is the Shimla Mirch. When the British brought capsicum to India, they first cultivated it in Shimla, so the name of the district is still used to refer to the now-ubiquitous vegetable.

The Nagpur orange, Lima beans, Brussels sprouts, are all named for places where they originated or where they grew abundantly. Ponni rice, so popular in the South, derives its name from the Cauvery, also called Ponni (meaning gold), since it grows in the deltas of this river.

Interestingly, the origin of the word ‘fruit’ itself can be traced back to the Latin word fructus, which comes from frui meaning ‘to enjoy’.

What could be more appropriate!

–Meena

PS: I found a few recipies for peru subzi and chutney, which shall be tried out in due course.

View From the Window

In a recent piece, my favourite nature columnist reminded us that while the Red Lists continue to add to the growing number of species that are endangered, threatened and even close to extinction, there are many small ‘disappearances’ that are happening all around us, ones that we do not obviously notice on a day-today basis. The author, a reputed bird watcher and note-keeper realised this when he looked back over his old records of birds around his house, and found that many of these were no longer to be seen. 

This led back to my own observations, jotted down over the years.

Circa 2000

Before the first rays of the sun painted the sky pink, the echoing call of the majestic Sarus crane would wake me from deep sleep. I knew that the pair would be flying off to an unknown destination for the day, to return after sunset.

The summer heat was compensated by the brilliant scarlet of the gulmohar at our front gate and the molten golden blooms of the laburnum at the back. The melodious tunes of the magpie robin filled the dawn, while the metronomic tuk tuk tuk of the coppersmith echoed from the top of the raintree. The morning haze was often streaked with the dazzling blue of a kingfisher in flight, while the green bee-eaters lined neatly on the wires, made swift graceful swoops in search of a breakfast-insect or two. Our little patch of grass and the surrounding hedge was lively with the orchestra of calls from tailorbirds, sunbirds, bulbuls, doves, mynas, and babblers that co-existed harmoniously, each finding their own pockets for food and shelter. The same space also saw the raucous coucal proclaiming its territory from the champa tree, and the occasional visits by the Shikra that immediately silenced the rest of the avian crowd

When the first rains came, so did the jacanas, with their mewling cries, almost like that of babies. They would make their floating nests on leaves in the vacant ground across from our house which turned into a wetland in the monsoon. Once the water dried they would disappear, as quickly as they had appeared. 

The stream of other seasonal guests to that water-filled depression in the ground across the road included buffaloes that spent the day wallowing in the mud, naktas or comb ducks that glided smoothly on the water, and an occasional water hen awkwardly crossing the road on its long yellow feet. As evening fell the air filled with the symphony of the frogs.  

The first nip of winter brought back the single Yellow wagtail to our small lawn. It came from far away to spend the winter soaking up the golden sunshine that seemed to glow on the patch on its breast. Another familiar visitor was the Hoopoe. We would see it walking back and forth on the dusty roadside, with its pickaxe head bobbing constantly.

And then there was the monitor lizard which seemed to put in an appearance only on weekends. And the shy mongooses that streaked across the gravel, disappearing soundlessly into the undergrowth. The little turtle that we found one day in our garden may have been washed in with the rain. It adopted us before we adopted it. We named it Tortolla and no matter how early we awoke, it was up before us, taking its morning walk from one end of the courtyard to the other. Not to forget the adventures of discovering snakes in the house—once coiled in a corner of the kitchen, and once neatly tucked under the dining table.

These were some notes that I made of the life around me—not from a cottage in a beautiful forest, but from my windows in the dusty city of Ahmedabad that I made my home. The house that we made was at the time, in a slowly developing area of the city, close to a natural talavdi or small lake. There were still open spaces around; and the trees and shrubs that we planted when we moved in provided homes and shelter to many other fellow living beings—winged and tailed, with two, four, a hundred, or even, no feet. As a newly-minted environmental educator this was my private lab for observing, noting, researching, and discovering the excitement of seeing the little things from my windows. Little then did I imagine that things could change so much.

Circa 2022 (Same window different view)

The wetland that once was a soothing symphony of sound and sight has metamorphosed. My days (and often nights) are filled with the sound of concrete mixers, trucks offloading mountains of gravel and bricks, the incessant hum of machinery, and the clatter-bang of steel and iron. The Sarus cranes, long flown, have been replaced by the huge construction cranes. These swing their gigantic metal arms as they lift and drop the raw material from which begin to sprout the concrete blocks that will grow into the new jungle of high rise apartments. Where the jacanas and water hens stepped daintily, now the humungous metal claws of the JCBs dig ruthlessly, scooping out mountains of soil, and creating abysses to be filled with cement. Now the rains only bring waterlogging, floating litter, and swarms of mosquitoes.

I haven’t heard the nightly frog chorus in so many years. I am beginning to forget the cries of the jacanas. My morning wake-up call is no longer that of the magpie robin. The permanent dust haze has suffocated the gulmohar and the raintree to an untimely demise, and deprived so many feathered friends of perches and abodes. The wagtail no longer visits, and I miss the comforting sight of the neatly-groomed hoopoe on its regular march. A rare flash of kingfisher blue, remains just that, as also the aerial antics of the bee eaters in pursuit of prey. The incessant din of the traffic has drowned out even the strident call of the koel, the twitter of the little birds, the soothing murmurs of the doves, and the soft babble of the bulbuls.

Day after day, the concrete jungle closes in relentlessly, we are engulfed by dread and despair. And now a single flower that blossomed, or a simple bird call can uplift our spirits.

–Mamata

Statues for Cities

Lock from collection of V. Raghunathan

The Manneken Pis or little pissing man, is arguably the most-visited public statue in the world. The symbol of Belgium and Brussels, this 2-foot bronze statue has, for some reason, caught the imagination of the world and is the center of attraction for the thousands of tourists who visit the ciy. The statue, which pisses into a fountain, has been stolen about seven times, often having to be restored at the end of such misadventures. What stands at the site which we visit– the junction of the Rue du Chêne/Eikstraat and Rue de l’Étuve/Stoofstraa– is not the original   by the sculptor Jérôme Duquesnoy the Elder and put in place in 1618 or 1619. The original (with all the restorations) is kept in the Brussels City Museum and the  statue we see is a replica which dates from 1965. The statue has around 1000 costumes, and his dress is changed very few days, according to a published schedule. There is no doubt the little boy adds a lot to the revenue of his host city!

There are several, several public sculptures across the world, which characterize the city they stand in, or give it character, including:

Fearless Girl probably the best known of contemporary public statues, this 4’2” little girl stands defiantly, arms akimbo, across from New York’s Stock Exchange Building. A fitting symbol of women empowerment, the chutzpah of the girl does not even need the slogan below which says ‘Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference.’ Her stance and expression say it all!

Singing Ringing Tree, a 10-foot-tall sculpture made of galvanized steel  pipes which resembles a tree and is placed in such a way that when the wind moves through it, a song is produced. Located in the Pennine hill range, England, the sculpture was designed by Mike Tonkin and Anna Liu.

Bridge Over Tree located in New York’s Brooklyn Bridge Park, is made up of a 91-foot-long bridge and a set of stairs at the sculpture’s midpoint. The stairs go over a small evergreen tree, and visitors are forced to interact and cooperate as they pass over it. It was designed by the artist Siah Armajani.

Ayrton Senna  in Barcelona, Spain commemorates  Formula-1 driver Ayrton Senna who was killed during a 1994 race in Italy. Created by Paul Oz, the statue was unveiled on May 8, 2019, the 25th anniversary of Senna’s death.

My city, Bangalore, has its share of public installations too. They run the gamut from whimsical to arty to cute to ghastly.

Lock 1
Lock from collection of V. Raghunathan

Here are a few:

On the perimeter of the Kotak Mahindra Bank’s main office overlooking MG Road stand seven bronze re-creations of ancient Indian locks, complete with their intricate carved details. An unusual subject for street art, it makes sense as locks and banks both stand for safety and security. With the metro line passing overhead and the heavy traffic, the visibility of these is also not as good as it could be. Maybe raising the height of the pedestals would give the commuters a pleasant sight.

Commissioned by Café Coffee Day and set up outside their outlet on Lavelle Road, this is an arrangement of five men and a small boy. One man holds and umbrella, a second carries and briefcase, a third holds a cup of coffee. There is a fountain too, which drenches the sculptures when it is on.  Very squat, it is not always visible to commuters on this busy road, but surely gives a lot of character to the square.

The recently commissioned installation of cars (appropriately dubbed ‘car-kebab’ by a friend) at Yelahanka is a stack of several colourful old cars. An small amphitheatre has been built opposite. Though one is not quite sure why this installation here, or whether there is a risk of rusting and bending if there are strong rains and winds , there is no doubt it adds a pop of colour.

But sadly, the statue put up by BBMP (Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike) at the prominent Windsor Manor Circle, which is part of a major beautification drive and supposed to symbolize ‘Make in India’, is not something that is going to put Bangalore on the map of cities with statues to boast about. It is a poorly executed lion which 22 feet in length, 10 feet in height and weighs 1,000 kg. It appears to be made of cogs and gears, and stands on a rotating elliptical platform (which some say is the Titanic!). Lights and water fountains play around it. If ever there was a piece of ugly municipal art, But unfortunately it is this.

But let us not lose hope! Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

–Meena

Of Collars and Colours

A collar is innocently defined as ‘.. a piece of clothing, usually sewn on and sometimes made of different material, that goes around the neck’. So when and why did the word become so loaded with connotations of class, occupation, gender, etc. etc.?

Collar

It seems to have started more than a hundred years back, in the early days of the 20th century. In a practice that started in about 1924, people involved in manual labour started to be referred to as blue-collar workers, as they wore sturdy, inexpensive clothing in colours like blue that didn’t show dirt easily. They were usually daily-wagers. The famous American writer Upton Sinclair is supposed to have coined the term ‘white-collar workers’ in the 1930s, for the white shirts that were popular with office workers at that time.  These are usually clerical, administrative and managerial workers who work on a regular salary.

And in the last few decades, as the nature of work changes, the number of collar colours has exploded.

Here is a look at some of these terms—some fairly common, and some pretty esoteric and niche. Nor is the meaning uniform across the world—a single colour can have many different connotations.

  • Gray collar jobs fall in confusing area, where it is not quite clear if the jobs are white collar or blue collar.  It sometimes denotes under-employed white collar workers.  Some use it as a term for people in the information technology sector. Yet others use it to denote older workers.
  • Red collar workers are those who work in government, supposedly because they draw their salaries from budget lines denoted in red ink. In some parts of the world, those in occupations in primary sectors like agriculture are called red collar workers.
  • Green collars work in environment related jobs and renewable energy jobs. This will hopefully see an explosion as we move towards carbon targets.
  • Black collar workers are those who are involved in manual work in sectors like mining or oil drilling. But sometimes it is used to denote those involved in illegal occupations.
  • Pink collar jobs used to denote job in domains traditionally staffed by women, but has now  fortunately expanded to stand for workers of all genders in the service sector.
  • Orange colour workers refers to prison labour.
  • Gold collar jobs refer to those occupations which need highly-skilled people, and people with specialized knowledge, such as doctors, lawyers, scientists.
  • New collar jobs are those which emphasize skills and capabilities rather than formal educational qualifications, such as the IT industry is moving towards.
  • No collar jobs are for the free spirits such as artists who pursue their passions, rather than money.
  • Popped colour jobs is a new emerging term for young people from rich families who take on 9-5 jobs for character building.
  • Virtual collar or Chrome collar jobs are used to denote robots performing automated, repetitive tasks.

So collar colours are alive and well! Never mind if many of the business icons of today as well as many workers wear collar-less shirts! Sadly, collar colours continue to stereotype people by their occupations, and make assumptions about their level of education, job responsibilities, working conditions, financial situation and even social class.

Well, the only lesson is ‘Don’t judge people by their collar colour’!

–Meena

Ode to the Sparrow

The last few days have seen many ‘DAYS’.

March 21 was World Poetry Day. It was adopted as such by UNESCO 21 March as World Poetry Day in 1999, at its 30th General Conference. The aim of Poetry Day is towards ‘supporting linguistic diversity through poetic expression and increasing the opportunity for endangered languages to be heard. World Poetry Day is the occasion to honour poets, revive oral traditions of poetry recitals, promote the reading, writing and teaching of poetry, foster the convergence between poetry and other arts such as theatre, dance, music and painting, and raise the visibility of poetry in the media.’ (UNESCO).

Sparrow

March 20 is celebrated as World Sparrow Day (WSD). The Day, celebrated for the first time in 2010, is meant to raise awareness about the house sparrow and the dangers it confronts. World Sparrow Day was established by Mohammed Dilawar who grew up in Nashik, Maharashtra. Birds were a big part of his childhood. As an academic, he came across a student-project about the decline of sparrows in UK, and that got him thinking about the same thing happening in India, and he decided to do something about it. He started Nature Forever Society (NFS) in 2005, and has been recognized as an Environmental Hero. WSD is one of his many initiatives to protect biodiversity.

Let’s bring the two ‘Days’ together with poems about….sparrows.

And interesting, I found two poems which also resonate with what we are going through today.

The first, a poem by the Tamil poet Mahakavi Bharatiyar, is about his yearning for India’s freedom.

Liberation – Little Sparrow: Subramania Bharathi

O May you escape all shackles

And revel in Liberty

Like this

Sprightly Sparrow!

Roam about in endless space,

Swim across the whirling air,

Drink the measureless wine of the light

That flows for ever from the azure sky!

Happily twittering and making love

Building a nest beyond danger’s reach

Guarding the fledgling, hatched from the egg

And giving it feed and a wholesome care.

From: https://tamilandvedas.com/tag/poem-on-sparrow/

The other, a poem is by Paul Laurence Dunbar who was born in 1872 to two formerly enslaved people from Kentucky and became one of the first influential Black poets in American literature. He sees the sparrow as a bird of peace and hope and love, whose calls our hearts are too deadened to listen to.

The Sparrow: Paul Laurence Dunbar

A little bird, with plumage brown,
Beside my window flutters down,
A moment chirps its little strain,
Ten taps upon my window–pane,
And chirps again, and hops along,
To call my notice to its song;
But I work on, nor heed its lay,
Till, in neglect, it flies away.

So birds of peace and hope and love
Come fluttering earthward from above,
To settle on life’s window–sills,
And ease our load of earthly ills;
But we, in traffic’s rush and din
Too deep engaged to let them in,
With deadened heart and sense plod on,
Nor know our loss till they are gone.

From: https://poets.org/poem/sparrow-0

Here is to a world where we make poetry, see sparrows, and importantly, listen to their call!

–Meena 

Colours

It is the season of colours. In Nature this is when blossoms and blooms announce the arrival of spring. The birds flaunt their plumage to attract their mates. It is colours that make this statement with an astounding variety of shades, from the flamboyant to the nuanced.

Colours are also significant in the world of humans. They express our moods, and our preferences. They indicate our race, nationality, or our sexuality. They inspire, as well as give form to our art, our textiles, and our cuisines. Each colour is unique in itself, but it is when colours come together that the real magic happens.

Sadly it is when colours begin to define race and politics that the magic turns murky. It is when national colours become the label of “friend” or “enemy”, and when the colour of the skin assumes pejorative tones that colours begin to create dangerous schisms and chasms. This when humans become so blinkered that colours begin to assume divisive identities; that colours increasingly create silos within which monochromatic sentiments fester until they explode in violence and war.

These ruminations were triggered by a poem that I came across. The words are simple, but the thoughts profound.

CRAYONS

While walking into a toy store

The day before today

I came upon a crayon box

With many things to say.

“I don’t like Red!” said Orange.

And Green said “Nor do I”.

“And no one here likes Yellow.

But no one knows just why.”

“We are a box of crayons

That does not get along.”

Said Blue to all the others,

“Something here is wrong.”

Well I bought that box of crayons

And I took it home with me.

And I laid out all the crayons

So the crayons could all see.

They watched me as I coloured

With Red and Blue and Green.

And Black and White and Orange

And every colour in between.

They watched as Green became the grass

And Blue became the sky.

The yellow sun was shining bright

On white clouds drifting by.

Colours changing as they touched,

Becoming something new.

They watched me as I coloured

They watched till I was through.

And when I finally finished,

I began to walk away.

And as I did the crayon box.

Had something more to say.

“I do like Red” said Orange

And Green said “So do I!”

“And Blue, you were terrific.

So high up in the sky!”

“We are a box of crayons

Each of us unique.

But when we are together

The picture is complete.”

Today as we celebrate Holi, the festival of colours, let the colours unite us in our revelries, in their true spirit. Let colours become all-inclusive rather than exclusive. Let the many different shades and tints come together to weave a magnificent and rich multi-hued tapestry. Let us remember that within every colour lies a story, and stories are the binding agent of cultures.

Happy Holi!

–Mamata

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.