My Lockdown Book Project Starring Ladybug, Mouse and Dog

Lockdowns saw all of us sitting for hours in front of our home- computers. And when I developed some kind of cervical spondylosis, I spent a lot of those hours with a neck brace on.

My Sunday with Deedu and Daadu
Deedu, the Ladybug

It was only when Barnalee my 2.5 year old foster grand-daughter put the neck brace on her stuffed ladybug toy, fitted my specs on to it, and called it ‘Deedu’ that I realized that for her, these two items were an essential part of me!

Her imagination was the inspiration for my lockdown children’s book. I started wondering if I could do a book based on her daily routine.

But children’s books need illustrations! They depend on that. I knew few illustrators who could help me. And the ones I knew were too busy or too expensive.

That is when I remembered that my neighbor, young Harini a communications student, was a talented photographer and very skilled designer. So we decided to work on this together and make it a photograph-based book.

The ladybug would of course star as Deedu (granny). Barnalee’s  first stuffed toy, the dog Sheru, would star as Daadu (grandpa). And a stuffed mouse, which was her favourite, would star as Barnalee.

My Sunday with Deedu and Daadu
Barnalee, the Mouse

The mouse is almost 30 years old. I clearly remember buying it in a shop in Colombo, probably the equivalent of our state emporia, on my first visit to Sri Lanka, to attend a workshop on the use of Television for the Environment. It started life as a car-hanger, which was its original purpose. Then, when the string broke, it spent several years in the cupboard, till it was fished out for Barnalee to play with.

We built the story around the baby’s favorite activities, and used her toys and playthings as props. And things which were not supposed to be her playthings, but she played with anyway! We did all the shooting in and around the house and garden. Since both Harini and I were at home, we could capture the light at any time of the day or night that was needed. And we could do trial runs, pre-shoots and re-shoots to our hearts’ content. Another friend, Vidya Chandy, who is a very good photographer visited on a rare non-lockdown day and gave us valuable tips.

We thought we would be done in a few days—after all it was a book of about 20 pages, with maybe a total of 150 words! But of course these things are never so easy, are they? I would want to change one activity for another, or the flow of the activities, or to fine-tune the words and text. Harini would want to take the shot from a few more angles, want the shadows just this way or that. And together we wanted to change the fonts, the size, the page layouts. And sometimes, the baby would insist she wanted to play with just the prop we needed for the shoot, leading to postponements!

And then the final design and layout. We found we had to switch from a landscape format to a square format, as most publishers want that format. Thanks to Harini’s skill on the software, she managed to do that in a few hours. Watching her at work on the layouts opened my eyes to how easily and quickly software can accomplish what in the old days used to take us days and nights—whether it was layouts, change of fonts, re-positioning of pictures and text, changing backgrounds, etc. etc. And also brought home to me how skilled these young people are at working it.

And then we published! After a long, long time, the satisfaction of holding one’s book in one’s hand!

My Sunday with Deedu and Daadu
The Book!

So all in all, a lovely lockdown project.

‘My Sunday with Deedu and Daadu’.  Now available on Amazon, Flipkart and Kindle.

–Meena

Biju Patnaik, the Daredevil Maverick

A chance occurrence can reveal the depths of one’s ignorance in a particular field. For me, the latest such was a linkedin post that I read about Shri Biju Patnaik. I realized that that I hardly knew anything about him. The extent of my knowledge could be more or less captured in the following bullets:  that he was a freedom fighter; that he had been CM of Orissa/Odisha for a few terms; that he opposed the Emergency; that he had done a lot for the development of his State; that the Bhubaneswar Airport is named after him, and there is a large, imposing statute of him outside the airport; and that his son has been the CM of the State for so long that I quite forget any other CM.

Appalled at my ignorance, I set out to find a good biography. There was hardly anything available. I finally ordered one called ‘Legendary Biju: The Man and Mission’. edited by Maj. KP Mohanty, which seemed the most promising of the slim pickings.

Biju Patnaik
Biju Patnaik

I won’t go into the merits of the book, except to say that I am grateful that Maj. Mohanty and other friends and admirers of the great man put this book together, so that someone like me can get glimpses of him.

Born in 1916 in a well-off family, Biju never followed the conventional route. Daredevilry and adventure were his defining characteristics. The highlight of his school days was when he cut school to go and see an aeroplane which had landed near his town. Just looking at the plane, a very unusual sight in those days, filled him with excitement and he determined to become a pilot. The fact that the guards posted around the plane chased him away and would not let him get near it, only strengthened his resolve.

When he grew older, he with three friends undertook to ride from Bhubaneshwar to Peshawar on cycles. He joined Ravenshaw College, only to drop out so that he could get trained as a pilot. And he became a flying ace.

There are several tales of his derring-do as a pilot which sound more the stuff of fiction and film than real life.

After qualifying as a pilot, he joined a private airline, but ‘somehow or the other sneaked into the Royal Airforce’. This was at the height of World War II. Stalingrad was surrounded by the Nazis, and Red Army did not have enough weapons to hold the city. The fall of Stalingrad would have meant that the Nazis would be able to march to Moscow, and things would get really serious for the Allies. It was Biju Patnaik to the rescue! He flew 27 sorties and dropped arms and ammunition into the besieged city, which helped the Red Army defend it, and force the Germans to retreat. This was an important milestone in WW II.

During the Quit India movement, Biju Babu continued to in the service of the British—in fact, he was pilot to Lord Wavel, the Viceroy of India, and most trusted by him. But all the time, he was pinching secret papers and files which he had access to, and passing them on the freedom fighters. He  dropped political leaflets to Indian soldiers fighting under British command in Burma. He flew several leaders of the Freedom Movement, including Aruna Asaf Ali the intrepid freedom fighter, clandestinely. He was finally caught and imprisoned by the British. A secret agent more daring than James Bond!

Post-Independence, there were many occasions when his courage and skill as a pilot were called to the service of the nation. India was supporting the Indonesian Freedom Movement, which was fighting the Dutch colonizers. At one stage, Nehru with whom Biju Patnaik was very close, wanted the Indonesian leaders to attend the first Inter-Asia conference, and present their case at the world stage and garner support for their cause. The colonial masters were not keen that the freedom movement leaders go out of the country, and stopped all air and sea routes. But Biju Babu flew a secret sortie, brought the leaders to address the conference, and then dropped them back.

When the Pakistan Army attacked Srinagar in late 1947, the situation for India was really bad. There were just not enough troops or weapons in J&K for the country to hold and defend it. The only way was to fly them in. But it was not clear whether the Airport was still in Indian hands or had been taken over by the attackers. The Indian Airforce expressed their inability to land under the circumstances. One again, Biju to the rescue! He landed in Srinagar Airport, took over the control tower, ensuring that our Airforce places could land. And that turned the tide of history.

He had a role to play in Nepal too. When there was struggle between the Ranas who were the rulers, and freedom fighters of Nepal, India supported the freedom fighters, but could formally do nothing to interfere in the internal affairs of a neighbor. But Biju Patnaik went ahead and dropped 15,000 guns into Nepal to aid the anti-royalists!

And these were just his exploits as a pilot. But he was so much more. Apart from being an industrialist, he was of course a politician on the national stage, the CM of Orissa, a man credited for many significant development projects there.  (Hopefully, I can briefly cover some of these in a subsequent blog).


‘Maverick’ and ‘Daredevil’ are two terms which recur through the book. And for sure he was both of those. ‘Controversial’ could be added too. In his time, he was accused of corruption, of mis-administration and of encouraging lawlessness by asking people to take law into their hands and beat up corrupt officials (when he himself was CM!).

There is a crying need for scholarly biography, one which is accessible to the intelligent reader. It is the least that India can do to honour and remember this remarkable individual. They don’t make them in this mould any more!

–Meena

Looking Ahead With Hope

2021. What a year it has been. A year of bewilderment and bereavement. A year of being confined, and yet feeling adrift. A year of feeling connected by a common enemy, and yet feeling utterly alone, and helpless.

A year when we looked for even the faintest glimmer of hope at the end of what seemed like an endless dark tunnel. And then, as that glimmer grew brighter, the world strained at the leash, eager to be out and about. A demonstration of human resilience and, above all, of hope.

Much has been written how this period led us to look within, to discover in our deep recesses the strength that we did not know we possessed, or the value of bonds that we were often too busy to nurture. It led humanity to introspect, and we turned to the thoughts of wise men who saw the larger picture much before we did.

Two of these wise men, passed away this week, both on 26 December–Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the age of 90, and EO Wilson who passed away at the age of 92. Two persons that have inspired me, and about whom I have written earlier in this space.

Both very different, one a spiritual leader who was also an activist for human rights, and the other a world renowned scientist who devoted his life to studying the natural world, but who was also an activist, inspiring others to care for the natural world, as he did.

Both sharing a very similar world view and vision for the future of humanity.

This is a good time to recall some words of wisdom from these visionaries.

Edward Osborne Wilson or EO as he was called was not just the world’s foremost authority on the study of ants (a myrmecologist) but one of the founding fathers of, and leading expert in socio-biology and biodiversity

Tributes to EO Wilson describe him as “a true visionary with a unique ability to inspire and galvanize. He articulated, perhaps better than anyone, what it means to be human”.

“His gift was a deep belief in people and our shared human resolve to save the natural world”.

“A relentless synthesizer of ideas, his courageous scientific focus and poetic voice transformed our way of understanding ourselves and our planet”.

Alongside a distinguished academic career EO Wilson was a passionate naturalist who continuously drew attention to the fragility of the biosphere and advocated for its protection and nurture. He saw hope in the youth as the stewards of our planet.

His mission and vision was beautifully articulated in a Commencement Address that he gave in 2011 at the University of North Carolina.

“This is the time that in order to do that so we will have to evolve a better world order than the one we have now, which I like to call our Star Wars Civilization. I mean we have stone-age emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology. In the case of emotions they evolved in pre-history over millions of years. In the case of our institutions, especially within religions and ideology, we are in constant conflict. And in the case of our technology, we are seeing things going almost beyond the control of our imagination. These three stanchions of current civilization explain why we are constantly in trouble. They are dangerous. They are very serious problems for the rest of life and, ultimately, with that ourselves. And today we are still (far) from even at the margin of solutions.

Ours is above beyond all an exponential world, changing faster than at any period of history before. We are now in the early period of an overwhelmingly techno-scientific civilization, connected literally person to person. The accumulated knowledge of the world is already at the zettabyte level — that’s a one followed by 21 zeroes of bytes. It is growing faster and faster by the digital revolution in communication, which is changing everything—all that we know, all that we need to quickly learn, all that we need to understand in order to survive as a species. The trajectory of history can only be dimly foreseen. It will consist of shocks and surprises. This country and the rest of the world needs university-trained young people prepared not only by knowledge itself but by the capacity to find new knowledge in order to respond quickly to unexpected needs and crises, challenging all the various professions, and in public affairs, and in simple, everyday life. And, with it all, to think upon and understand the meaning of humanity and yourselves and your lives. So, go forth. Think. Save the world.”

Today, EO Wilson’s words from a decade ago are resounding more true than ever before. And his call for humanity to see itself as part of a larger interconnected universe is even more urgent than it ever was. It echoes Archbishop Tutu’s constant reminder that “It does help quite a lot to see yourself as part of a greater whole.”

Desmond Tutu was an early member of The Elders an international non-governmental organisation of public figures including statesmen, peace activists and human rights advocates who were brought together by Nelson Mandela in 2007. The Elders offered to use their collective experience to work on solutions for seemingly insurmountable global issues and conflicts.

For Desmond Tutu the magic mantra that could guide these solutions was “Ubuntu”– a Zulu proverb that says: “I am a person through other people. My humanity is tied to yours.” Archbishop Tutu felt that Ubuntu was the essence of being human. “Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness … We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”

“You can think about others who are in a similar situation or perhaps even in a worse situation, but who have survived, even thrived. It does help quite a lot to see yourself as part of a greater whole.”

Desmond Tutu’s life was fraught with numerous challenges and hardships, but his resilience stemmed from his ability to find joy even in the grimmest of situations. But he also warned that Joy was never unadulterated. “Discovering more joy does not, I’m sorry to say, save us from the inevitability of hardships and heartbreaks. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.”

“Much depends on your attitude. If you are filled with negative judgment and anger, then you will feel separate from other people. You will feel lonely. But if you have an open heart and are filled with trust and friendship, even if you are physically alone, even living a hermit’s life, you will never feel lonely.”

When we see others as separate, they become a threat. When we see others as part of us, as connected, as interdependent, then there is no challenge we cannot face—together.”

We have lost two wise men who, both from their own perspective, saw the interconnectedness of everything, and had an unerring faith in the power of connections.

Let their words continue to light our way as we look ahead with hope, to the new year.

–Mamata

An Unusual Biography Brings a Colossus to Life: ‘Growing up Karanth’

Shivarama Karanth. A name that many of us have heard. One of those names many of us know we should hold in awe, maybe without quite knowing why.

He was a great writer, no?

He was involved with theatre, right?  

Wasn’t he an environmentalist?

He was into politics?

For many, it was his dramatic mane of hair that comes to mind on hearing the name.

Shivarama Karanth was all of the above, and much more. A Renaissance man, if ever there was one. A Jnanpith awardee, awardee of Sangeet Natak and Sahitya Adademy fellowships. A Padma Bhushan, who was bold enough to return the award as a protest against the Emergency. A man who came under the spell of Mahatma Gandhi and joined the Freedom Movement, but branched out from Gandhiji’s fold as he did not agree with his economic ideology. A doyen of Kannada literature. The reviver of Yakshagana in a modern format. A writer whom Ramachandra Guha has called ‘Rabindranath Tagore of Modern India’ and ‘one of the finest novelists-activists since independence’.

It is not in my place to even try to talk about his work and achievements. So I will confine myself to talking about a new biography of his that has come out. ‘Growing up Karnath’ (Westland), is a biography written by his three children: Ullas Karanth (an internationally-renowned environmentalist); Malavika Kapur (an academic who headed the Clinical Psychology Dept at NIMHANS) ; and Kshama Rau (a well-known Odissi dancer who runs her own dance school).

Shivarama Karanth
Biography of the legendary Shivarama Karanth

It is the format of the biography which makes it special. It has a few chapters by each of the authors, recalling their memories of their mother and father, and their relationship with their parents. And then a few chapters written jointly by the three of them, giving a perspective of their father after they had left the family-fold.

This gives space for a very intense, intimate and emotional story—from seeing the famous achiever as a father who spun magical and impromptu night-time tales on any topic that the child chose to give him; to one who made paper dolls and costumes; to one who was quite capable of losing his temper and scaring the wits out of a young boy—one gets an insider’s view.

At one level, it is a very sad story. The wonderful mother, Leela Karanth, independent beyond imagination for her times, who actually proposes to Shivarama Karanth, a man many years her senior, and marries him in spite of many obstacles, who sacrifices her many talents to support her husband’s achievements, who takes many bold steps to ensure her family’s well-being, succumbing to depression and mental illness which eat up the last two-and-a-half decades of her life. The amazing father, Shivarama Karanth, a man of a million talents who in his later years, cut himself off from his children and those close to him, under the influence of an outsider.

At another level, it is a story of joy. The joy of the wonderful relationship and the unusually-equal marriage of Leela and Shivarama Karanth; the father who let each of his children flower in whichever field they chose; the warm grandfather. The joy of the Renaissance Man to whom everything was a subject of enquiry, exploration and study; one who was as comfortable thinking about problems scientifically, as writing about them in verse; one to whom there was no boundary between one art form and another. The joy of creation, activism, and art. Of passionately-held ideologies and beliefs.

At yet another level, it is an expression of gratitude of the three authors. To their awesome parents of course, but also to the people who were part of their parents’ lives; who supported them at various stages, in various ways; who contributed in some measure to Shivarama Karanth becoming the giant he was. And that is a very touching aspect of the book.

The candour and the openness with which each of them writes is something that is amazing. It must have been an emotionally demanding experience, while at the same time a catharsis of sorts. We readers can only thank them for digging deep and throwing up their father and family to the public gaze, to help us understand the legendary Karanth as a man, with his amazing achievements and his very human failings.

However, I miss one thing in the book. While it gives a glimpse of Shivarama Karanth’s achievements, it still does not give me proper understanding of the depth and width of his work. There are of course references to some of his works and also a bibliography of his writing. But the magnitude of the work did not hit me hard enough to awe me to the extent it should: over 40 novels, half a dozen books on science, a dozen children’s books, biographies, travelogues, books on architecture, plays….. And his writing is only part of his work. His environmentalism, his revival of Yakshagana, his activism. Though one catches glimpses, one cannot get one’s teeth into any of it. But maybe this is an unfair comment. There are other biographies, and his own autobiographies to do that. The authors themselves make it clear in their foreword that ‘In large part, this book is our tribute to Tata (as they called their father) and Amma, celebrating the gifts they gave us while we were ‘growing up Karanath’. And this the book does in full measure.

And the other comment would be that there are naturally some overlaps because we have three authors, talking about the same people and the same incidents. But that is a minor issue.

Overall, a book worth the time you will spend on it, to get introduced to one of the Makers of Modern India.

–Meena

PS: Thanks Krithi Karanth for the book and the world it has opened to me!

Stories: The Magic Wand

This week saw children making the headlines. November 14 is celebrated as Children’s Day in India, to mark the birthday of India’s first Prime Minster Jawaharlal Nehru. The day is marked by events that engage children in activities dear to them—of which playing and stories remain all-time favourites.

This year the Gujarat government has recognised the immense value of stories for children and has declared that 15 November will be celebrated as Children’s Stories Day or Balvarta Din.

15 November marks the birth anniversary of Gijubhai Badheka, one of Gujarat’s best known children’s storytellers and educationists, who had been called the Brahma of Children’s Literature. In Gujarat his name is synonymous with a rich treasure of stories for children. Generations of children have grown up with these tales, told and retold by parents and grandparents.

Born in 1885 Gijubhai started his professional life as a Pleader in a district court. In the early 1920s he got deeply involved in the upbringing of his own son. Under the influence of the thinking of Madam Montessori he started experiments in child-centred education, when he joined the Dakshinamurti educational institutions in Bhavnagar. His vision and passion for experimenting in his field led to the setting up of the Dakshinamurti Balmandir—a pre-primary school in 1920. It is in the early says of his interactions with the children here that he realised the importance of stories for children as a means of learning. He started collecting stories for children, writing them, and telling them. He believed that stories were the magic wand that transformed children in many ways.

There was, at that time, not much literature in Gujarati which was specifically written for children. It was Gijubhai who established the child as an individual, and created a special space, and resources for the child, in literature.

As he wrote in his seminal work in Gujarati, on the art and craft of stories titled Vaarta nu Shastra: By calling a story a children’s story does not make it one. Children’s stories are those that children get a special type of enjoyment from. Children like short and simple stories. Reflections of what happens around them, behaviour of birds and animals, small rhymes that can be easily remembered and repeated—these are the characteristics of children’s stories.

But at the time there were no stories available that would fit this bill. Gijubhai delved   into the treasure chest of folk literature. He asked all the teachers and teacher trainees of Dakshinamurti to start collecting folk stories that were still being told in homes, in villages, and in fields, and pick those that would be suitable for children.

As he wrote in Vaarta nu Shastra “If you seek folk literature you will have to leave the city and go to the villages, and from villages, move into the forests and fields. When the toothless grandmother finishes her chores, and rubbing tobacco on her gums, starts to tell stories to the gaggle of children, there springs the magic of folk tales. You will find folk literature in every village chaupal; children will be spreading it freely from galli to galli, and grandmothers will be distributing the prasad in their homes.

Gijubhai and his colleagues went out as seekers of stories and returned with a rich repertoire of tales, songs, rhymes, riddles and sayings. He then retold these for children with his characteristic short sentences, word play, rhyme and dialogues.

And so every morning he told the children a story. In the afternoon the children would enact the stories. Soon they became so adept that they did not need to memorise the words; the rhymes flowed naturally and if they forgot in between, they made up the words as they went along. As he wrote: If you collect a group of children and tell them a story, they will tell you ten more.

Gijubhai’s search for folk tales crossed the boundaries of language and country. He explored and discovered gems in the literature of different countries, and found incredible variety, as well as similarities. He localised and transformed these stories so that they were steeped in the sounds and colours of Gujarat, and over time they became not only Gujarati but uniquely ‘Gijubhai’s stories’.

Gijubhai’s stories are simply told tales with a mixture of prose and rhyme. There is a lot of dialogue and reiteration. The repetition of rhymes makes for lively storytelling in  which listeners can also join in. Many stories follow a sequence of cause and effect, leading to a chain reaction which is reinforced in verse. Children love the repetitive rhymes. Several stories have improbable characters and plots. Children love the absurd, fanciful and nonsensical.

Gijubhai told delightful tales of familiar animals and birds. In many, the animals talk and act in human ways while also reflecting each animals typical characteristics. The stories reflect a deep symbiotic relationship between animals and people with the two often trying to outwit each other. With equal panache Gijubhai told stories of common folk with common trades (tailor, potter, barber, shopkeeper), as well as kings, queens and princesses.  The characters reflect basic human traits—greed, envy, proving physical or mental prowess. Many stories follow the classic fairy tale style, opening with ‘once upon a time’ and ending with ‘happily ever after’. They capture the rustic flavour and pace of the days when travel meant walking from one village to another, and long-distance meant a bullock cart journey; and many encounters and adventures happened en route.

Several generations and a hundred years later, children today may not relate as closely to the settings and the pace of the narrative, and yet, the quirks and foibles of the characters; the silly and the absurd, the funny and the fantastic still touch a cord in the child, and indeed in the child in every one of us.

The initiative to celebrate Gijubhai and his stories by designating a Children’s Stories Day is a welcome one. In a time when children are so hooked into the digital world, perhaps even adults need to be reminded of the simple joys of storytelling. In the words of Gijubhai:

To My Fellow Storytellers

Here are the stories. Tell these to your children. They will listen with ardour and joy, over and over again. Remember, tell these stories beautifully; tell them as stories should be told—tell them with involvement. Read them out if you like. Choose a story that will suit your children’s age and interest.

Don’t tell the stories to bestow knowledge; don’t tell the stories as an objective narrator. Immerse yourself in the stories and take your children with you into the total experience.

You will discover that stories are a magic wand. If you want to build a bond with your children, start with stories.

–Mamata

‘Things Indian’

…is a book by William Crooke, first published in 1906. It fully lives up to its sub-title ‘Being Discursive Notes on Various Subjects Connected with India.’

William Crooke served in the Bengal Civil Services. He spent 25 years in active service in India.

Aside from his duties in this service, his major contribution was in research and documentation as an ethologist and folk-lorist, deeply studying traditions, practices and stories of many parts of India. His contribution to the study and documentation of ethnology and folklore is acknowledged by scholars across the world.

 He published several academic papers and edited journals.

As well as this, he wrote books–a huge output including:

  • A Rural and Agricultural Glossary for the N.W. Provinces and Oudh.
  • An Ethnographic Handbook for the N.W.P. & Oudh. Allahabad.
  • An introduction to the popular religion and folklore of northern India.
  • An introduction to the popular religion and folklore of northern India, in 2 volumes
  • The tribes and castes of the North-western Provinces and Oudh, in 4 volumes.
  • The North-Western Provinces of India: their history, ethnology, and administration.
  • Things Indian: being discursive notes on various subjects connected with India
  • Natives of northern India. A Rural and Agricultural Glossary of the NW Provinces and Oudh.

I have not read any of his other works, but ‘Things Indian’ which has been on my bookshelf for many years, which I just picked up, is a testimony to his scholarship. And also, to a fairly (for the time) non-judgmental perspective on things Indian, written with understanding, empathy and appreciation.

The book covers topics as diverse as Agriculture and Bazaar, Camel and Curry, Polo and Precious stones, Wine and Wood carving.

He records such practices as: ‘When a widower marries again, his second wife wears an amulet, which she calls the ‘crown of the co-wife.’ Or the annual game of tug–of-war of the Khasis in Assam in which ‘..one side represents the village and the other a gang of demons…with the intention being that the evil spirits may lose and quit the neighbourhood.’ Or that ‘Opprobrious names are often given to a baby after its parents have lost elder children, in the belief that, when the child bears a ridiculous name, it is less liable to be attacked by the Evil Eye or other uncanny influence.’ (My grandmother suffered thus, named Picchamma (pichhai=begging in Tamil), following as she did two siblings who died at birth).

He refutes sanctioned colonial wisdom in many instances, for example when he says: ‘Much ill-informed criticism has been directed against the methods of the India farmer’, and goes on to counter many criticisms of farming methods by quoting the logic and reasons given by farmers which he agrees with. He pays respect to the weaving of India, saying ‘it is impossible to discuss the numberless products of the Indian loom’, and laments how the introduction of aniline dyes have brought down the quality of dyed products.

He notes with delight that in kathputli performances ‘..all well-known members of native society and, in particular, the Sahib and the English lady are freely satirized.’

By quoting a report on the contents of the stomach of a gharial shot at the time, which consisted of ‘About a dozen large bunches or pellets of hair, probably human; sixty-eight rounded pebbles; one large ankle-rink; twenty-four fragments of Churis or glass bangles; five bronze finger-rings; a sliver neck-charm; a gold bead; thirty small red coral beads’, he tries to dispose of the belief of the time that gharials did not prey on humans.

Eclectic in his choice of topics, the book is a delightful browse—with both solid documentation and gems of quaint information.  And a tribute to a curious and meticulous mind.

Sure, Crooke was part of the colonial machinery. But to make a distinction—there were those among them who contributed in various ways, going beyond the call of duty. He was one of them.

–Meena

An allied reading is ‘Beyond the Call of Duty’, V. Raghunathan. Harper-Collins.

“Politically Correct” Childhood

So yet another well-loved children’s author is under the microscope for historical sins of omission and commission. This time it is Enid Blyton whose books at least two generations of children have grown up with. The charges against her are that her books are racist and xenophobic. While this has been raised in England in the context of the Blue Plaque outside the house that she lived in, it is curious how many articles this news has generated in India—perhaps many more than in England itself. And it is interesting to note that most of these pieces are by possibly members of the generation read her books in the 1960s and 1970s. I am one of those, and the flurry that the news has created led me to also think about how different our childhood was as compared with that of children today.

It was a time when we as children were pretty much left to our devices when it came to free-time activities. This was in the ancient pre-digital era; the only audio visual diversion was a couple of hours of family television watching. Our main pastime was reading and reading and reading. And at a time when there was relatively little exclusive publishing for children, our choices were the colourful and well-illustrated Russian books, and the limited “western” authors and titles. Access to these books was through libraries, and the once or twice a year parental gifts, and gifts from friends on birthdays, plus a lot of borrowing and exchanging between friends.

While our parents did not scrutinize nor control our choice of books, they provided a supportive environment for learning about the world, not just through books, but by nurturing values of openness, tolerance of differences, and celebration of diversity. 

I do not remember what brought Enid Blyton into our home, but it was certainly not our parents. It must have been through our friends and classmates that at some point we were introduced to the seemingly endless selection of characters and adventures that changed, and grew, as did we. Growing up in middle class Indian families, even as we lived our (not very adventurous) day-to-day lives–going to school, playing simple but happy indoor and outdoor games, we devoured the stories of children named Georgina, Darrel, Alicia, Gwendoline and Belinda. These children had picnics with hampers full of goodies; they had midnight feasts of scones with clotted cream, eclairs, scotch eggs, and ginger beer; and they roamed the English countryside, visiting castles, having adventures, and solving mysteries through deciphering clues. Somehow we did not find all this “alien” in any way, nor did we yearn for macaroons and meringues. These were stories that we spent all our free time reading, but they were simply that–stories. And they did what all good stories do–they led us to imagine what life was like in places other than ours—different landscapes and climate, different food and clothes, different lifestyles and occupations. In many ways they opened up the world for us; led us to understand that the world was made up of different cultures and customs. At the same time the stories also struck a chord of familiarity and empathy. The names were not like ours, but the characters were like people that we knew—the good friend, the bully, the snitch, the attention-hogger, the teacher’s pet; the teacher we all loved, and the one that we certainly did not! The emotions that they experienced were like ours—uncertainty, nervousness, excitement, jealousy, fights between friends, a sense of adventure and achievement, and pure naughty fun.

And those responses are not time bound. A sixth class child who read a few Enid Blyton books as recently as five years ago, commented about the characters: “They do things. They don’t sit at home watching television and playing on the i-pad like we do.” She added that because the children met freely in the holidays, they didn’t have to rely on parents to co-ordinate classes or times and places to meet (play-dates)”. Indeed every child can relate to the simple joys of doing having unsupervised fun with friends,

Did we consciously notice that there was a black character in one of the books, or that a girl who was a “tomboy” was named George, or that the French teacher in another set of books was subtly pictured as being “not quite British?” Did this leave such a lasting impression on our young minds that we grew up to become racist, sexist, or xenophobic? Did all the strange, but delicious, sounding foreign foods lead us to turn up our noses at the familiar fare that was on our plates? I think that these elements were just part of what we knew was a story. We did sometimes wish that we could go to a boarding school, or spend our summer holidays travelling in a caravan and exploring coves and caves. But those fantasies livened up our imagination and, indeed, increased our vocabulary.

Much has changed in the decades since my generation were nourished (or malnourished, as is now assumed) on such books. My own children, growing up in the early 1990s had a wider menu of choices than I had. And as a parent who was keenly interested in children’s literature, while I facilitated their introduction to more authors that were starting to be available, I did not restrain them from exploring and tasting new flavours on their own. By the time they reached Harry Potter, I did not have the energy nor inclination to be carried away on its blockbuster popularity. But I did strive to give them an upbringing that encouraged opportunities to learn from both fact and fiction, theory as well as practise.

Times have changed so much now. There is the access, literally at one’s fingertips, to literature from around the world, along with a great jump in publishing books with an Indian context, real issues and credible characters. And there is the quantum leap from the print medium to the entire new digital universe with e-books and audio-visual experiences. Children are living so deeply in a virtual world, they have serious problems relating to the real world. At one level parents have become overly conscious about the books their children read (they must be class, caste, gender, profession etc. etc. sensitive). On the other hand they cannot entirely control the insidious reach and power of the virtual world with just as many stereotypes, glorification of violence, latent marketing of products, and blatant push for consumerism.

Children are not so sheltered nowadays that they are not aware of issues, inequalities and unfairness of life, and their attitude to all these is not simply the reflection of something that they have read in a storybook. It is here that parents, and not books, need to be responsible. Responsible not for playing censor, nor for pushing their children into every possible opportunity and exposure to all that they deem “good”, but for giving their children the time and space to learn about the world that they live in, and set examples of how to negotiate it.

It is not “politically correct” books that will automatically create more sensitive readers, but sensible and sensitive parents and teachers who can support and nurture children to be good human beings.

–Mamata

Carle’s Creatures

A very hungry caterpillar, loads of food, lots of colour, very few words (224 to be precise) and little holes to poke tiny fingers through—that’s the formula that made one of the most popular children’s books of all times. The book simply called The Very Hungry Caterpillar has sold more than 55 million copies around the world since it was first published in 1969, and has been translated into more than 70 languages.

This was one of the many books that author and artist Eric Carle created to delight generations of children (and parents like me) across the world.

Eric Carle died last week at the age of 91 leaving behind a legacy of colour and care for the generations to come.

Eric Carle Jr. was born on June 25, 1929, in Syracuse, New York, to German immigrants. When Eric was six years old, his parents moved back to Germany. With the start of World War II his father was drafted into the German army and soon became a prisoner of war in Russia. Eric, who was then 15, managed to avoid the draft but was conscripted by the Nazi government to dig trenches on the Siegfried line, a 400-mile defensive line in western Germany. The war left its ravages all around; his father returned home a broken man.

At the end of the war, Eric joined the State Academy of Fine Arts in his hometown Stuttgart to study typography and graphic art, from where he graduated in 1950. Eric always dreamed of returning to America, the land of his happiest childhood memories. In 1952, with only 40 dollars to his name, he decided to move to New York City, where he got a job in advertising, working as a graphic designer for The New York Times where he worked for nearly a decade. By then, he had had enough of the advertising profession, and was thinking of changing direction.

Inspired by what his art teacher had once told him—“start anew, move on, keep surprising”, Eric Carle embarked on a career as a freelance designer when he was almost 40 years old. He knew he wanted to make pictures but the thought of doing children’s books never crossed his mind. But as serendipity would have it, one of the pictures that he had created for an advertisement caught the attention of Bill Martin Jr, a respected educator and author, who asked Eric to illustrate a book for him. That opened up the new direction that he had been seeking. Soon he began writing and illustrating his own picture books.

Many of Eric Carle’s picture books are about small creatures like caterpillars, ladybugs, spiders, crickets and fireflies. These are a tribute to some of his happiest childhood memories of walks with his father. As he recounted “When I was a small boy, my father would take me on walks across meadows and through woods. He would lift a stone or peel back the bark of a tree and show me the living things that scurried about. He’d tell me about the life cycles of this or that small creature, and then he would carefully put the little creature back into its home. I think in my books I honour my father by writing about small living things,” he continued. “And in a way I recapture those happy times.”

Eric celebrates these little creatures and the world they inhabit with vibrant art work in his signature style of creating images by layering tissue paper painted with acrylic colours, and rubbing with his fingers, brushes or other objects to create different textures. His love for bright and intense colours was perhaps a subconscious rebellion against the colourless and grim palette of the Nazi Germany that he grew up in. Under the Nazis modern, expressionistic art was banned and all exterior facades were painted a dull grey or brown. As an illustrator Eric Carle not only used brilliant colours but often portrayed his creatures in unconventional colours to show his young readers that in art, there is no wrong colour.  

What makes the Caterpillar book so unique is its interactive element which is created with using a hole in the pages. Suddenly the book becomes a toy which little fingers can explore, and enjoy, just as they want to. The idea for that ‘something extra’ came to Eric as he was idly playing with a paper punch and saw the holes that he had punched in some papers.

These were the design elements that defined Eric’s work. But the content was equally rich and meaningful. Eric had an instinctive sense of what made children and childhood so special. He drew upon the child in himself to reveal the cherished thoughts and emotions of children, and treated then with understanding and respect. The confusions and insecurities of the little creatures in his books reflect those of the little children who face their first transitions like leaving the familiar security of home to enter the strange new world of school. As Eric Carle explained, The unknown often brings fear with it. In my books I try to counteract this fear, to replace it with a positive message. I believe that children are naturally creative and eager to learn. I want to show them that learning is really both fascinating and fun.”

Above all he believed that children needed hope and excitement for what the future holds; and nothing expresses that better than the hungry caterpillar that transforms itself into a beautiful butterfly!

The magic of Eric Carle’s books lies not just in their visual appeal but in the opportunity that they offer children to freely express their curiosity and creativity as they learn about the exciting world around them.

Every little child is like a hungry caterpillar, hungry for taking in the colours, sounds, and tastes of the world around. And just as the ravenous caterpillar ate its way through apples and pears, plums and strawberries, oranges, and piles of other goodies, through every day of the week, children have a voracious appetite for learning and imbibing new knowledge and new experiences. And unlike the caterpillar, they don’t get a stomach ache from being overstuffed with these! Let us strive to satiate these hungers by opening up the world for our children, by joining them in the adventure of exploring and discovering the world around them.

A good day to start is World Environment Day that is celebrated on 5 June.

–Mamata

Multi-faceted Nation Builder: Remembering Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay

She persuaded Gandhiji to give a call for women to participate in the Salt Satyagraha.

She campaigned with Jawaharlal Nehru.

She argued with Sardar Patel, and convinced him.

She worked with the Kanchi Shankaracharya to defeat temple bureaucracies.

She complained against Indira Gandhi (and paid the price!).

She toured with her theatre company and mesmerized audiences.

She acted in the first Kannada silent movie.

She was the first woman to run for a legislative assembly seat in India

She pioneered thinking on legislation with regard to women in the workforce, and the safety of children.

She led international thinking on women’s Right to Health, and for the first time, brought to attention the economic value of women’s work in the house.

She revived Indian crafts and ensured their survival.

She founded institutions that are part of our national fabric even today.

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay whose birth anniversary we mark this week on 3 April, was a woman of her times and before her time. She accomplished in one lifetime what many will not dare to attempt in three!

Born in Mangalore in 1903, her parents were immersed in the nationalistic cause and were a major influence on her. Freedom fighters and thinkers like Mahadeva Ranade, Ramabai Ranade, Gopalakrishna Gokhale, Annie Besant were family friends and set the course of her life. While her father died early, her mother pushed, supported and moulded her into a redoubtable force.

She was married at 14 and widowed two years later. After this, she married Harindranath Chattopadhyay. After several years, they were divorced.

There were three distinct phases to her life’s work for the nation:

Her contribution to the Freedom Struggle: She heard of Gandhiji’s Non-cooperation movement in 1923 when she was in England, and promptly returned to India to join it. She joined the Seva Dal, was a founding member of the All India Women’s Conference, and helped organize the Salt Satyagraha movement in Bombay.

Her work with Refugees: Seeing the plight of the people coming in from Pakistan after the Partition, she became active in their cause. Convinced that self-help and cooperatives were the way forward, she set up the Indian Cooperative Union to work on resettlement and rehabilitation of refugees, and built the township of Faridabad on these lines, rehabilitating over 50,000 refugees from the North West Frontier, building not only homes but their livelihoods through training them in new skills.

Her work with Artists and Craftspeople: Passionately committed to arts and crafts in every form, she recognized how fundamental they were to India’s way of life and the livelihoods of crores of people. She understood that the mechanization route that India was taking would impact these negatively, to a point where they might disappear, and she took on the mission to revive, revitalize and conserve these crafts and livelihoods.

Among the institutions she played an active part in setting up were the Sangeet Natak Academy, Central Cottage Industries Emporia, the Crafts Council, All India Handicrafts Board, National School of Drama, and the India International Centre.

Kamaladevi was a prolific writer too, and her works, including her autobiography Inner Recesses, Outer Spaces: Memoirs may be the best way to learn more about her. A great starting point however is the lovingly written biography by Jasleen Dhamija’s Kamaladevi Chattopadyay. Brought out by the National Book Trust, it is a publication of less than 200 pages, which amazes you with how much can be packed into such a little book. And currently costing Rs. 100!

–Meena

The 4000-km Salt Hedge

Many people, both contemporaries of Gandhiji, as well as the generations coming after, have wondered why he picked on salt as the major focus of protest, and the Dandi March became a major milestone of the Freedom movement.

With his deep empathy for the life of the poor in India, and his masterly understanding of symbolism and communication, Gandhiji understood that salt was the common factor that touched the life of each and every person, and that the criminal level of taxes imposed on salt made life of poor Indians that much more difficult. And the protest worked.

But the contentious history of the British colonizers and salt goes back long before the Dandi March. It is one of the not-much-discussed atrocities, and almost unbelievable. I first learnt of it when I came across a book titled ‘The Great Hedge of India’ by Roy Moxham about 15 years ago.

The Great Indian Hedge or the Inland Customs Line was a green, growing impenetrable hedge about 8 ft tall, which at its peak traversed about 4000 km, from Punjab, through the middle of India, all the way to Orissa. About 14,000 people were employed at one stage in maintaining and patrolling it.

And no, it was not any English love for gardens and greenery that prompted this hedge. It was in fact a defense put up against the movement of salt across the country. To step back and explain: The East India Company took over Bengal and brought all salt manufacture under its control. And they raised the tax on salt over ten times in this territory. The quantity of salt involved and the revenue associated can be gauged from some estimates which say that in 1784-85, the revenue to the Company from just the salt tax was over Rs. 62 lakh (that is equivalent to thousands of crores today!) . On the other hand, ordinary people were paying about 2 months’ salary every year to buy salt.

Seeing the revenue that salt taxes brought in, as the East India Company took over more and more territories, it extended the salt tax to these areas also. The hardship and the health impacts on the ordinary Indian were immeasurable

This obviously resulted in attempts to smuggle salt into these areas from princely states which were outside of the dominion of the Company, apart from efforts to make salt and ‘steal’ it from Company warehouses. The biggest threat came from salt transported across the borders, and to prevent this, the Company set up Custom Houses. But obviously, these did not help much as they were scattered.

Which is when it struck someone to build a wall. The ‘wall’ took the form of a hedge. First it was a dry barrier–dry, thorny bushes were piled up along the borders. But these required a lot of maintenance. In the meantime, in some parts, the dry branches took root and started growing. And so the idea of a living hedge was born. A lot of effort went into building an impenetrable hedge–from bringing in fertile soil where the earth was not so supportive, to identifying water sources and ensuring the hedges were watered, to experimenting with different species which would serve the purpose in different terrains. Roads were built along the hedge to facilitate inspection, watering, etc. Obviously well worth it, for the amount of revenue salt resulted!

While one wonders whether a hedge can really be so effective in stopping smuggling, Allan Hume, at one time in charge of the hedge,  opined that where it was well maintained, the hedge was  ‘utterly impassable to man or beast’.

The hedge persisted even after the British Raj took over, and it was only in 1879 that it was abandoned. Not out of any great sympathy for those burdened by the salt tax, but through tax reformswhich increased salt taxes in other parts of the country, thus making smuggling uneconomical.

So way before someone wanted to build walls across national borders, the British in India had done it! So what if it was not brick and mortar, but plants and shrubs! The thinking was as diabolical, and the impacts as devastating!

–Meena

PS: Why have hedges been on my mind? Because my own hedge is looking so sparse and growing weaker by the day. Local cats don’t even have to try to find a hole through which to pass—the hedge is a series of holes. This is not a trivialization of the seriousness of the issues raised by the Inland Customs Line. Only an explanation of why I did this piece today.