BOOKAROO!

What is more fun than a barrel of monkeys? A bunch of bubbly Bookaroons telling stories at the Baroda Bookaroo! No this isn’t a new tongue twister, nor the setting and characters from Dr Seuss. This describes the two-day Festival of Children’s Literature recently held at Vadodara in Gujarat.

Bookaroo, as the festival is called, is a celebration of the magic of books that brings together children and tellers and creators of stories (writers and illustrators). The Festival that focuses on Reading for Pleasure, began in 2008 with its first event in Delhi. In the decade since then, it had grown bigger, and also travelled to 13 cities in different parts of India.  Besides the main two-day event that brings children to a common venue, Bookaroo also reaches out to those children who cannot come to the festival for various reasons, with authors visiting schools for the underserved, and with special needs; hospitals, construction sites, orphanages and remedial homes. Another form of outreach has been storytelling and art activities in public spaces like parks, metro stations, monuments, museums and public libraries.

I was privileged to be a part of this wonderful festival held in IMG_20191114_104834.jpgthis past weekend. The venue itself was unique—the Art District in Alembic City with its sprawling lawns, old trees, and intriguing studio spaces housed in what was Alembic’s (remember those ubiquitous Yera glasses?) first factory, over a hundred years old! Imagine this coming alive with the colour, sound and movement of thousands of children—a vibrant tapestry seamlessly weaving the past, present and future.

The two days were packed with parallel events catering to children from ages 4 to 14. There was something for everyone—listening and reading, doodling and drawing, singing and crafting, meeting favourite authors in person, discovering new stories and books, and of course, making new friends. Gandhian Jyotibhai Desai, all of 93 years, with a twinkle in his eyes, answered children’s questions about Gandhi and his life, inspired each one to become a change-maker. Others carried children far and wide on the magic carpet of tales old and new.

The same excitement permeated the storyteller Bookaroons. The time that we spent together was bubbling with fun and laughter. A motley group from far and near, each of us passionate about telling tales in our own ways, all of us were immediately bound by our common love for words and passion to reach out to children. For those two dizzy days we Bookaroonas put aside our hats as mothers, daughters, mothers-in-law, daughters-in-law, and grandmothers, and donned our favourite kiddie-hats—giggling and teasing; chatting and chortling late into the night; sharing ice-cream rolls and shopping tips, and swapping ghost stories!

Bookaroo’s journey started in 2003 with the setting up of India’s first exclusive children’s bookstore Eureka–a place that children could call their own, choose books of their choice without parents or teachers dictating what a good book is. Bookaroo has travelled far since then, connecting children and books in so many ways. Bookaroo is a winner of the Literary Festival Award at the London Book Fair’s International Excellence Awards, 2017. It was the first time that an Indian children’s literature festival was recognised in the international arena.

For myself, who often agonises in this blog about the dying age of the printed word, and the joy of reading, it was exhilarating to see so many happy children with paint-smudged fingers clutching their new books, and looking for the authors to autograph them. Thank you Bookaroo for a wonderful reiteration and reassurance that all is not lost!

–Mamata

14 November is celebrated as Children’s Day in India. For Bookaroo, every day is Children’s Day!

 

Gandhi, in and on Newspapers

It is Gandhi week, and newspapers are full of articles and pieces aIMG_20191001_104301.jpgbout Gandhi, his thoughts and deeds. This year it is with renewed vigour as it marks the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. Being the prolific writer that he was, and the wide spectrum of subjects and areas on which he expressed his thoughts, every writer today can find some words of wisdom from Gandhi with respect to whatever they may choose to contribute for the ‘Gandhi special’ editions.

Gandhi himself was no exception to the pressure of meeting a newspaper deadline. Sometime in the second half on 1917 he wrote: I promised the Editor a contribution for the Diwali number of Hindustan. I find that I have no time to make good the promise, but thinking that I must write something, I place before the readers my views on newspapers. Under pressure of circumstances, I had to work in a newspaper office in South Africa and this gave me an opportunity to think on the subject. I have put in practice all the ideas that I venture to advance here.

Continuing, he went on to express his views on the business and ethics of newspapers of the day.

Newspapers are meant primarily to educate the people. They make the latter familiar with contemporary history. This is a work of no mean responsibility. It is a fact however, that the readers cannot always trust newspapers. Often the facts are found to be quite the opposite of what has been reported.  If newspapers realised that it was their duty to educate the people, they could not but wait to check a report before publishing it. It is true that often they have to work under difficult conditions. They have to sift the true from the false in but a short time, and can only guess at the truth. Even then I am of the opinion that it is better not to publish a report at all if it has not been found possible to verify it.

How interesting that the same debate about Fake news, and news used to provoke and promote dissension and distrust, continues to rage even today, albeit now, in the context not only of the print media, but all other media also.

Equally thought provoking and relevant are his concerns about the potentially dangerous role that newspapers can play.

It is often observed that newspapers publish any matter that they have, just to fill in space. This practice is almost universal. The reason is that most newspapers have their eye on profits. There is no doubt that newspapers have done great service. …But to my mind they have done no less harm. …many are full of prejudices, create or increase ill will among people. At times they produce bitterness and strife between different families and communities. …On the whole, it would seem that the existence of newspapers promotes good and evil in equal measure. 

He continues with his canny observations on how revenue from advertising tends to override other journalistic responsibilities. And this was over a hundred years ago!

It is now an established practice with newspapers to depend for revenues mainly on advertisements, rather than on subscriptions. The result has been deplorable. The very newspaper which writes against the drink-evil publishes advertisements in praise of drink. Medical advertisements are the largest source of revenue, though today they have done and are doing, incalculable harm to people.  I have been an eye witness to the harm done by them. Many people are lured into buying harmful medicines. …No matter at what cost or effort we must put an end to this undesirable practice or, at least, reform. It is the duty of every newspaper to exercise some restraint in the matter of advertisements.

Ironically my newspaper today has ten full-glossy pages creating aspirations of ”dream” lifestyles, and wooing consumers with advertisements of state-of-the art luxurious residences, gadgets, and holidays; and profligate indulgences in food, drink, clothes, cosmetics and more. The other ten pages has the kind of news that Gandhi had been so concerned about (violence, intolerance, discrimination and disparity), along with a sprinkling of pieces about the Gandhian tenets of simplicity, honesty and truthfulness, and introspection! Contradiction, or comfortable and convenient co-existence? Something to think about indeed!

Written by Gandhi sometime before 14 November 1917 (originally in Gujarati) Source: Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol.14. https://www.gandhiheritageportal.org

–Mamata

 

Ozone Story

September 16 was proclaimed as the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer by the United Nations General Assembly. It was on this day in 1987 that the Montreal Protocol to control production and consumption of Ozone Depleting Substances was signed by various countries at Montreal, Canada. Since then this day is used as an opportunity to bring to public attention the importance of the Ozone layer and the threats to it caused by human activities.

The theme for this year’s World Ozone Day is ‘32 Years and Healing’. This celebrates one of the few success stories in the gloom and doom of news about the environment. The healing is the outcome of three decades of international cooperation to protect the ozone layer and the climate.

On reading about this I felt a sense of satisfaction at having contributed in a teeny-tiny way to the healing effort. It was in 1997 that the Centre for Environment Education got engaged in a variety of projects to raise awareness about the issue to a wide range of audiences—from school children to policy makers. As part of this we developed educational material that could communicate the somewhat complex science in a simple way, as well as motivate people to take action to prevent what was then an ominously growing hole in the ozone layer.

Today both the science and the understanding has advanced greatly, but it is still useful to remember some ozone basics.

OOOzone: When it is alone, it is called an oxygen atom. When two oxygen atIMG_20190917_152811.jpgoms get together, it is called oxygen molecule or just oxygen. When three oxygen atoms get together, it is called an ozone molecule!

Where is Ozone? A thin invisible layer of ozone gas is found in the upper atmosphere 15-60 km above the earth. This is called the ozone layer.

How much Ozone? There are only one to ten units of ozone in every million units of gas or particles in the upper atmosphere. Instruments measure ozone in parts per million (ppm).

What does the ozone layer do for us? In the upper atmosphere, the ozone layer acts as a natural shield. It protects the earth and its inhabitants by absorbing the harmful part of the ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Too much ultraviolet radiation is dangerous for all living creatures—humans, animals and plants.

What kind of danger? In humans it may increase the rate of skin cancers, eye problems and cataracts; and also weaken the immune system. It can reduce crop yields as plants will have reduced leaf size and germination time. It could kill phytoplankton—the base of the food chain in water and disturb the entire aquatic food chain. It can also damage paints and fabrics, as well as plastic.

How is the ozone layer damaged? By the use of Ozone Depleting Substances (ODS) which include chemicals called CFCs and Halons, which are released through human activities, and which float into the upper atmosphere.

In the last thirty years since the awareness about the danger from these substances was recognised, there has been a consistent effort at national and global levels to phase out the ODS, through policies, international agreements, and R&D in industry to find better substitutes. The Montreal Protocol has led to the phase-out of 99 per cent of ozone-depleting chemicals in refrigerators, air-conditioners and many other products.

However there are still products in the market that could potentially be threats. As consumers we can all play a role in protecting the layer that protects us, through the choices we make. Here are some tips on what we can avoid. Avoid aerosols whether for pesticides or perfumes. Avoid Styrofoam glasses and plates; use reusable steel and glass vessels. Avoid foam mattresses and pillows, use traditional cotton or coir products.  We must also remain vigilant to tackle any illegal sources of ozone-depleting substances as they arise

While we can celebrate success this year, this day is also a reminder that we must keep up the momentum to ensure healthy people and a healthy planet.

–Mamata

 

Green Amber Red

Imagine that you are cruising along a highway; enjoying the smooth flow and passage of time and miles. On the other hand, imagine you are in a city, driving at the required speed, eagerly crossing the green lights, slowing at the amber, and every now and then, stopping at the red light. There is a sense in both the experiences; in both cases, a different kind of pace is set.

The act of writing could perhaps be compared to this. Every writer sets their own pace and rhythm of how the words flow. For some the long uninterrupted cruise is the mode of choice; others prefer the ordered structure of breaking the flow, sometimes with a pause and sometimes with a longer halt—from green to amber to red. It is the punctuation marks that represent these traffic lights.

Many writers have expressed their thoughts on these—essential parts of tImage result for image punctuation marks cartoonhe tools of their trade. Some have celebrated punctuation as the friendly spirits whose bodiless presence nourishes the body of language”,  while another believes that each writer has a lifetime quota of them, to be used judiciously. I myself have always enjoyed the mental exercise of fixing the appropriate place for the appropriate mark, and am always attracted by how authors perceive and practice the use of punctuation marks.

I recently read a delightful articulation of this in an article which had excerpts from an essay titled Notes on Punctuation by Lewis Thomas. Thomas was an American physician, poet, etymologist, essayist, administrator, educator, researcher and teacher. Amidst his serious research and writing, Thomas applied equal affectionate attention to the traffic signals, giving each one a distinct character and identity.

Sharing some in his own words.

, The commas are the most useful and usable of all the stops. It is highly important to put them in place as you go along. If you try to come back after doing a paragraph and stick them in the various spots that tempt you you will discover that they tend to swarm like minnows into all sorts of crevices whose existence you hadn’t realized and before you know it the whole long sentence becomes immobilized and lashed up squirming in commas. Better to use them sparingly, and with affection, precisely when the need for each one arises, nicely, by itself.

; I have grown fond of semicolons in recent years. The semicolon tells you that there is still some question about the preceding full sentence; something needs to be added; it reminds you sometimes of the Greek usage. It is almost always a greater pleasure to come across a semicolon than a period. The period tells you that that is that; if you didn’t get all the meaning you wanted or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out and now you have to move along. But with a semicolon there you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; read on; it will get clearer.

: Colons are a lot less attractive, for several reasons: firstly, they give you the feeling of being rather ordered around, or at least having your nose pointed in a direction you might not be inclined to take if left to yourself, and, secondly, you suspect you’re in for one of those sentences that will be labeling the points to be made: firstly, secondly and so forth, with the implication that you haven’t sense enough to keep track of a sequence of notions without having them numbered.

!!! Exclamation points are the most irritating of all. Look! they say, look at what I just said! How amazing is my thought! It is like being forced to watch someone else’s small child jumping up and down crazily in the center of the living room shouting to attract attention. If a sentence really has something of importance to say, something quite remarkable, it doesn’t need a mark to point it out. And if it is really, after all, a banal sentence needing more zing, the exclamation point simply emphasizes its banality!

As for me, I do so love the comma, and simply cannot resist the !!!

–Mamata

 

 

On Time

“Time you old gypsy man, will you not stay? Put up your caravan just for one day?

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Source: Google

These lines from a poem learnt by rote in school, still remembered. Time had a different connotation when one was just fifteen. It was more about the “present”, and something one needed to cram in all the activities of teenage life.  Today with several decades behind one, Time is more about looking back, while Time the old gypsy man seems to be flashing past at the speed of light.

Today we live “by the clock”. Not only are our daily activities monitored by the clock, we depend on Apps to remind us to get up, to drink water, and to call our friends. Interestingly, the regular linear time line, cut up into days and weeks, is barely two and a half centuries old. In ancient times, time-keeping was more of an art than a science. People in most old civilizations relied on natural events–the turn of the seasons, the waxing and waning of the moon as some ways to measure time.  Different cultures had their own ways of measuring time.

The concept of time has always been relative and contextual. An essay that I read explores these dimensions of time through different cultures and history. Titled Cartographies of Time, the two-part essay by authors Jonny Miller and Dorothy Sanders is fascinating reading. Sharing some excerpts.

In Madagascar if you asked how long something was going to take, you might be told it would be “the time of rice cooking (about half an hour) or “the frying of a locust” (a few minutes).

For monks in Burma there is no need for alarm clocks. They know when it is time to get up when “there is enough light to see the veins on their hand.”

The Andamanese, a tribe that lives on the Andaman Islands have constructed an annual calendar built around the sequence of dominant smells of trees and flowers in their environment. Instead of living by a calendar, this tribe “simply smell the odours outside their door.’

The Amondawa tribe that lives in the Amazon Rainforest have no specific word in their language for ‘time’ nor do they determine any discrete periods of time such as a month or a year. They only have divisions for night and day, and rainy and dry seasons. Even more intriguing is that nobody in the community has an age. Instead they change their names to reflect their stage of life and position within the community. What a wonderful way to go through life, rather than our obsession with the number of candles on a birthday cake!

The fact remains that time, at least the way we understand it today, is always passing. But what we make of it, is entirely up to us.

As the Dalai Lama has said: “Old friends pass away, new friends appear. It is just like the days. An old day passes, a new day arrives. The important thing is to make it meaningful: a meaningful friend, or a meaningful day.”

–Mamata

 

Where Did They Come From?

Back to my favourite topic—Words and their quaint origins!

CLUE: Comes from an old English word meaning a ball of thread that could help you find your way through a maze. This, is turn, refers to the Greek myth of Theseus who found his way out of the Cretan labyrinth by unravelling a ball of thread. And, from there evolved the use of the word “clue” which refers to hints that help to solve a mystery (or a crossword!).

QUIZ: An invented word. The story goes that in 1780 Richard Daly a Dublin theatre manager made a bet that he would introduce a new word into the language in 24 hours. He sent street urchins to write “Quiz” (a word that he made up) in chalk upon every wall and bare surface in the city, and in a few hours everyone was discussing it. Since no one knew what it meant everyone thought that it was some kind of a test. It came to be used to mean ‘enquiry’.

BLURB: A blurb on the cover of a book may give us a clue about what is in the book.  The word blurb was coined in 1907 by American humorist Gelett Burgess. The cover of his 1906 book Are You a Bromide?  had the picture of a fictitious Miss Belinda Blurb in the act of “blurbing”,  proclaiming “Yes, this is a blurb.”  From then on covers of books used to carry text “blurbs” without the picture. The word blurb entered standard English in the 1920s.

BLOCKBUSTER: This was the British name in World War II for a super-large high-explosive bomb capable of destroying large areas. Within a few years of its use in military terminology the word blockbuster was used to describe other powerful things such as sports teams and hail storms. In 1954 the expression block-buster was used to describe movies that grossed over two million dollars. Today blockbuster is generally used for super-hit movies, but also to describe something that is powerful, exciting, immense and successful.

Surprisingly today we say that a movie “bombed” at the box office to mean just the opposite!

CARTOON: This is the age of blockbuster ‘cartoon’ or animated movies. Interestingly the word derives from the Latin charta meaning paper via the Italian form cartone (a big piece of paper). It originally referred, in the Middle Ages, to a preparatory sketch for a tapestry or other artwork. The modern usage emerged in around 1843 when Punch magazine used satirised drawings of the new Victorian Houses of Parliament, and continued to use humorous illustrations in its issues. In the early 20th century, it began to be used to refer to animated films which resembled print cartoons.

IGNORAMUS: This used to be a favourite word of mine when I was in my teens—just liked the sound of it, and had fun using it to describe people! The word has its origins in legalese. Grand Juries in England wrote “ignoramus” on the back of rejected proposals for indictment to mean “we have no knowledge of it.” The implications that they did not wish to hear anything of it may have led to its later use to describe someone who knows nothing of anything.

The more I read about words, the more I discover what an ignoramus I am!

–Mamata

ignoramus.jpg
Source: Google

Something to Buzz About!

Today is World Bee Day, designated by none other than the United Nations!honey-311047__340.png

This would have gone unnoticed had I not been reading about Bees for a lesson I was writing for a textbook. Having discovered that there was an international day dedicated to this small creature made me dig deeper–and unearth some delightful nuggets of information.

How did this come about? This was proposed by Slovenia (find that on the map!) on the initiative of the Slovenian Bee Keepers Association, and supported by the Slovenian Government. Following three years of efforts at the international level, on 20 December 2017, the UN Member States unanimously approved Slovenia’s proposal, thus proclaiming 20 May as World Bee Day.

Why Slovenia? Slovenia has a long and rich tradition of beekeeping as a major agricultural activity. Known as a Nation of Beekeepers–one in 200 of its inhabitants is engaged in bee keeping, and there are many levels of Beekeepers Associations. It is known for its unique wooden painted beehive panels and traditional beehive architecture. Even today, most Slovenian beekeepers use a traditional beehive called the AŽ hive, which was created over one hundred years ago.

Why 20 May? This is the birth date of Anton Jansa (1734–1773), a Slovenian beekeeper, the pioneer of modern beekeeping and one of the greatest authorities on the subject of bees. Jansa wisely said “Amongst all God’s beings there are none so hard working and useful to man with so little attention needed for its keep as the bee.”

What’s so special about bees? For most of us it is ‘Think Bees Think Honey’. Besides honey, bees also produce high-quality food like royal jelly and pollen, as well as other products used in healthcare like beeswax and bee venom.

While bees are the only animals that produce food that is eaten by other animals, as well as humans, we do not realise that every third spoonful of all the food we eat depends on bees. It is bees and other pollinators that pollinate nearly three quarters of the plants that produce 90 per cent of the world’s food. When bees go, we lose much much more than a spoonful of honey.

Bees are vital for the preservation of ecological balance and biodiversity in nature. They also act as indicators of the state of the environment. Their presence, absence or quantity tells us when something is happening with the environment and that appropriate action is needed.

So why should we worry? The number of pollinators is in decline around the world. In some parts, this situation has become known as “the pollinator crisis”. New reports are raising the alarm about the rapid decline in bee species and numbers that will pose a direct threat to food production and food security. The time has come to heed the words of Albert Einstein “If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live.”

What can we do? For those of us bitten by the honey bug, we could take up beekeeping.

In India Government organisations like the National Bee Board under the Agriculture Department, and Central Bee Research and Training Institute IMG_20190516_115618.jpg(CBRTI) of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) provide training to not just farmers or those who wish to commercially supply honey, but also to anyone who is interested in beekeeping. They can be contacted at cbrti.pune@kvic.gov.in.

For the rest of us, we can do our bit by making bees welcome. We could provide fresh, pesticide-free drinking water; bees need to regularly drink water, especially in hot weather. We can also grow bee-friendly plants. Trees like gulmohar, champa and amaltas, and flowering plants like marigold, sunflower, rose, and hibiscus are ideal for attracting bees. Vegetable and fruit plants like ladies finger, onion, mustard, coriander, cauliflower, cabbage, carrot, brinjal, tomato, chilli, papaya, lemon, mango, guava and pomegranate are also good at attracting bees.

While we can’t all transform into a Slovenia, maybe it’s time that we saw that bee as more than just a passing buzz!

–Mamata

May 22 also marks the International Day for Biological Diversity. Let’s start the celebration with a Bee!

 

 

Wordsmithery

A crossword clue led me to this by chance. The clue was ‘word was first coined in the book If I Ran a Zoo by Dr Seuss’. The answer was Nerd! This immediately caught If-i-ran-the-zoo-cover (1).jpgmy attention because Dr Seuss is one of my all-time favourite children’s writers. I adored his books when I was young and tried to pass on the love to my children by reading out his quirky verses night after night, twisting our tongues over his wonderful, wacky invented words.

But it is only now I discovered that the word Nerd is thought to have been coined by none other than Dr Seuss in his book If I Ran a Zoo published in 1950! The book is about a boy named Gerald McGrew who, when visiting a zoo, finds that the exotic animals are “not good enough”. He says that if he ran the zoo, he would let all of the current animals free and find new, more bizarre and exotic ones. Among these fantastical animals is a critter called a Nerd! To quote directly: “And then, just to show them, I’ll sail to Ka-Troo/And bring back an It-Kutch, a Preep and a Proo/ A Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker too!”

One year later, in 1951, Newsweek magazine included the word in an article using it to define someone who is a “drip” or a “square”. Today the word ‘nerdy’ is used to describe someone who is not attractive, and awkward or socially embarrassing; or someone who is extremely interested in one subject, especially computers, and knowing a lot of facts.

A ‘word-nerd’ would tell you that when we use Twitter, and Tweet away today, it would be worth remembering that the word was coined by Geoffrey Chaucer, known as the father of English poetry, who died 620 years ago, to describe the continuous chirping of a bird.

And that, well before a search engine was named Yahoo, the Yahoos appeared as legendary creatures in Gulliver’s Travels published in 1726.

Surprisingly a number of words that we tend to believe are so ‘trending’ and ‘21st century’ were coined well over a hundred years ago. These can be attributed to 19th century authors, many of whom were creative wordsmiths–inventing, importing, adapting, and generally messing about with language!

The revered Bard, Shakespeare was one of the first to print words like Obscene and Eventful, as well as much-used phrases such as Bated Breath and Love is Blind.

And for those of us who plodded through Charles Dickens it is he, himself who coined the word Boredom! Writing in the early 1800s Dickens also coined very not-boring words like Abuzz, Flummox, and Devil-May-Care!

And to think that bureaucratic red tape is an affliction of modern times, Wait! The word Red Tape comes from the English practice of using red or pink tape to tie official documents and,  as early as 1851 Dickens coined the apt term ‘red tape’ as slang for “the collection or sequence of forms and procedures required to gain bureaucratic approval for something, especially when oppressively complex and time-consuming.” Thus according to the OED, a Red Tape-worm’ is “a person who adheres excessively to official rules and formalities.” Sounds like a breed we all know too well!?

For those of us who describe our calling as ‘Freelance’ writers, we may be interested to learn that in 1820 author Sir Walter Scott used the term free-lance to describe a mercenary soldier, one whose lance (a long spear) was not exclusively in the service of a single master, but was hired out along with its owner to those to needed, and paid for, the service.

Today the lance has replaced by the pen (or its electronic version) but the nature of service remains the same!

–Mamata

 

Ant Man

The other day my grand-nephew, not quite nine months old and just starting to discover the world around him, was crawling towards a line of ants on the veranda. Immediately there was a chorus of calls from the vigilant adults around him. “Be careful, the ants will bite him”. “Be alert that he doesn’t put a few in his mouth!” “Mind the ants don’t get into his clothes.” The little boy was picked up and taken away many times, and just as many times he determinedly crawled right back to the tiny creatures that were neatly marching away on their own business.

The ants took me back to my early days as an environmental educator. One of the first publications of CEE was a simple 8-pager called Ant. I was fascinated at how much one could write about creatures that were either not noticed, or when noticed, decried as pests! Further down the line I ended up putting together an entire teaching-learning manual on Insects. Besides opening up a whole new world this also led me to EO Wilson whose writings became a great inspiration, not just for what he studied, but equally for how wonderfully he shared his thoughts.

Edward Osborne Wilson is 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, biodiversity. His autobiography titled Naturalist traces his evolution as a scientist. Young Wilson knew early that he wanted to be scientist. A childhood accident left him with weak eyesight and hearing, so instead of focussing on animals and birds he concentrated on studying the miniature creatures. Thus the dreamy child turned into the focused scientist. Naturalist also reveals how these steps from daydream to determined endeavour involved a mix of random encounter, enthusiasm and opportunism.

My little nephew’s first explorations reminded me of EO Wilson’s words. “Why do I tell you this little boy’s story of medusa rays, and sea monsters nearly sixty years after the fact? Because it illustrates, I think, how a naturalist is created. A child comes to the edge of deep water with a mind prepared for wonder. He is like a primitive adult of long ago, an acquisitive Homo arriving at the shore of Lake Malawi, say, or the Mozambique Channel….The child is ready to grasp this archetype, to explore and learn, but he has few words to describe his guiding emotions. Instead he is given a compelling image that will serve in later life as a talisman, transmitting a powerful energy that directs the growth of experience and knowledge. But the core image stays intact. When an adult he will find it curious, if he is at all reflective, that he has the urge to travel all day to fish or to watch sunsets on the ocean horizon.”

In the current age of over-protective parenting, and educational systems that feel that rote learning is the key to science, EO Wilson’s words hold truer than ever: “Hands-on experience at the critical time, not systematic knowledge is what counts in the making of a naturalist. Better to be an untutored savage for a while, not to know the names or anatomical detail. Better to spend long stretches of time just searching and dreaming.” 

–Mamata

 

The BBC Connect

I recently attended a thought-provoking talk by anthropologist and storyteller Gauri Raje on autobiographical storytelling and personal stories. Gauri, an old friend, now lives and works in the UK with refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. For several years  Gauri has worked, through biographical storytelling, with ‘displaced people’ from many parts of the world–refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, seeking to start a new life in England. Through workshops involving story telling and story making, these people, uprooted from all that was familiar, in a precarious situation regarding their future in a strange and alien culture, were encouraged to tell  personal stories that they have never told in public. Gauri shared some of her many heart-rending, heart touching exchanges with these fragile people. The stories they shared were tales of incredible grit and resilience.

One of the stories was of a young Sudanese man who entered England as a stowaway clinging to the undercarriage of the Chunnel train. When the young man reported to the local police station where he had stepped onto English soil, he found that he could not understand the English that the police spoke. In an interesting aside to his story, he was emphatic that this was not at all like the English that he had heard spoken over the BBC radio that he listened to when he was in his home country!

While this revelation had its own impact (and that is another story!), it reminded me of a book I read a few months ago which, curiously, was based on another BBC connection. This was the true story of an unlikely friendship between a journalist with the BBC World Service in London and a Professor of English in war-battered Baghdad.

It began in 2005 when Bee Rowlatt, the journalist emailed May Witwit an Iraqi woman to confirm and prepare for a telephone interview about day-to-day life in Baghdad, and about her thoughts on the forthcoming elections there. May’s detailed and frank responses prompted more curiosity and questions from Bee, and a friendship developed between the two women. The “official BBC e-mail” planted the seeds of a correspondence that spanned from 2005-2008, with the two women sharing their news and thoughts about their work, family and life—at some levels-the social and political-poles apart, and yet so close in terms of shared emotions—despondency, depression, laughter and love.

The correspondence developed into a project to get May out of the dangerous and unhappy life in Iraq to seek asylum in Britain. The e-mails traces the challenges and travails in this venture—to gain asylum status and enough money to start a new life in a new land. Interestingly, here also the e-mail correspondence turned out to be key to this – its publication in book form helped to raise funds so May could prove that she had the financial support to come with her husband, to study in Britain.

The book is titled Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad: the True Story of an Unlikely Friendship

 I am sure Gauri has facilitated many such stories to be told and shared from people in similar circumstances and I hope, some day, to hear some of these stories from her.

For now, it is for me just to share a coincidence of two stories that had a BBC Connect in their own special way.

–Mamata