Home and Homeland

Despite having been a student as well a teacher of Political Science, I have never been able to grasp the complexities of the politics of the Middle East or West Asia. The convoluted conflict between Israel and Palestine has been going on for almost 75 years now, making headlines when there is an escalation or an extreme event, and smouldering in the background when another geo-political volcano erupts.

In the last two weeks two news related to this region made headlines. First was the horrific blast in Beirut that decimated a large part of the city and rendered tens of thousands homeless. The other was the announcement of an intention of a historic rapprochement between Israel and the UAE as a part of which Israel would give up its plan to annex the West Bank, the main territory of a state that the Palestinians want.

In other circumstances I would have noted, but not fully registered these two news items. However, quite coincidentally I have, in this same period, been reading a novel which is set in this region, and suddenly the context and the history took on a different dimension.IMG_20200819_105523

Mornings in Jenin is a poignant story of four generations of one family’s struggle and survival over sixty years of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The story which traverses from Jerusalem to Lebanon to America is told by Amal, a girl born to Arab parents in a refugee camp in Jenin; it traces the lives of her grandparents, herself, and her daughter.

As World War II raged in Europe in 1941, Amal’s  grandparents were living on their ancestral olive farm in the village of Ein Hod, not far from Bethlehem, in what was then Palestine. Their oldest son, Hasan, was best friends with a refugee Jewish boy, and the two were welcomed in each other’s homes. In May 1948, the Jewish state of Israel was proclaimed, and all the original inhabitants of the area were moved to the Jenin refugee camp. And this is where three subsequent generations lived, married, were born, and died.

The story follows Amal’s family as they live through a half century of violent history. It is not a political treatise, but the many interwoven stories, stretching backwards and forward in time, reveal what politics can do to ordinary people. It is a tale of hatred and fear, loss and pain, faith and hope. Above all is a saga of waiting—waiting to return to a lost home and homeland. Amidst the indignities and sufferings of these uprooted lives, there is also a tender celebration of family ties, the intensity of a mother’s love, sibling bonding, and enduring friendship.

It is also the story of Palestine from the time when it was a productive land of olive groves and proud self-sufficient inhabitants, through the 1948 War, the Occupation by Jews and conversion into the land of Israel, and the many Arab-Israeli wars from 1967, up to 2002.

Today we are so heavily bombarded with news (printed and audio visual) about conflict and displacement, all clubbed under the umbrella of ‘international humanitarian crises’ that we are either becoming inured, or choose to pretend that this does not concern us directly. For those of us who are fortunate and secure in our home and homeland we cannot imagine what it must be to be without a home nor homeland. As Amal describes “He [my brother] was denied, imprisoned, tortured, humiliated and exiled for the wish to possess himself and inherit the heritage bequeathed to him by history.” 

The novel is tagged as fiction, but the refugee camp of Jenin is real. The northernmost camp in the West Bank, it was set up in 1953 to house the displaced persons from the first Israeli takeover of territories in Jerusalem in 1948.  Over the years it was attacked several times by Israeli forces, and as lately as in 2002, it was the site of a terrible massacre. Even today Jenin camp has a population of about 14,000 residents cramped together in an area of 0.42 sq km.

Mornings in Jenin is written by Susan Abulhawa who was born in Kuwait to Palestinian refugees of the Six-Day-War of1967 war. She now lives in the USA. She is a human rights activist and founder of Playgrounds for Palestine, an NGO that advocates for Palestinian children’s right to play by building playgrounds in refugee camps in Lebanon. In 2002 she visited the refugee camp of Jenin and the book reflects real events.

While this book is “The story of one family, in an obscure village, visited one day by history that was not its own, and forever trapped by longing between roots and soil” it is a moving reminder that the faceless “humanitarian crisis” is made up of myriad individual human beings, each with their own personal life story, and common yearning for home and homeland.

–Mamata

 

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War and Peace

6 August 2020 marks 75 years since one of the most devastating events in the history of warfare took place. On this day, in 1945, an American bomber plane called Enola Gay dropped a 4000+ kilo uranium bomb named ‘Little Boy’ on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

It was as if the city was struck by a blinding flash; the bomb exploded, and a giant mushroom-shaped cloud rose to the sky. The blast flattened the city and killed nearly 100,000 people; tens of thousands were injured. Three days later, on 9 August, the Americans dropped another nuclear bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. On 15 August 1945 World War II ended.

But for the survivors of the nuclear blasts the battles had just begun. Within a month of Little Boy hitting Hiroshima, radiation exposure is thought to have caused the deaths of at least 6,000 people who survived the blast. And the long-term effects of radiation exposure, physical and psychological, continued to reveal themselves for the next decades. There was a documented rise in cancer, especially, in leukaemia cases. In the years following the attacks, the survivors became known as the hibakusha (the explosion-affected people) and were subjected to widespread discrimination as it was believed that they were carriers of a contagious disease. And for years the ugly spectre of the after-effects kept raising itself.

Amidst all this, there were still some stories of hope and resilience. One of the classic stories that beautifully captures this is that of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr. This is based on the life of a real little girl named Sadako who lived in Hiroshima from 1943 to 1955. Sadako Sasaki was a baby when the bomb devastated Hiroshima. Her grandmother died in the explosion. The story opens ten years later when Sadako is a lively girl who dreams of becoming a runner. One of the annual outings of Sadako and her family is on 6 August to what was called the Peace Park to commemorate those who lost their lives on that fateful day in 1945, and to pray for peace and good luck.

Sadako loves her family, her friends and her school. One day as she is practicing for a big race, she feels dizzy. Quickly, and without any obvious causes, the dizziness and weakness continue to worsen. After some tests at the Red Cross Hospital, the doctors’ worst fears are confirmed: Sadako has leukemia, the dreaded “atom bomb disease”. The cheerful little girl’s world is turned upside down.

Sadako needs to stay on in hospital. One day, Sadako’s best friend Chizuko comes to visit her in hospital. Chizuko has brought with her some golden paper, and she folds this to make a crane. She tells Sadako: Don’t you remember that old story about the crane? It’s supposed to live for a thousand years. If a sick person folds one thousand paper cranes, the gods will grant her wish and make her healthy again. She handed the crane to Sadako. “Here’s your first one”.

This gives Sadako hope and cheer. She spends the next few weeks folding as many orizuru or paper cranes as she can, even as she is getting weaker and sicker. Soon everyone becomes a part of the project. 

Everyone saved paper for Sadako’s good luck cranes. Chizuko brought colored paper from the bamboo class. Father saved every scrap from the barbershop. Even Nurse Yasunaga gave Sadako the wrappings from packages of medicine. And Masahiro hung every one of the birds, as he had promised. Sometimes he strung many on one thread. The biggest cranes flew alone. 

Sadako channels all her fast depleting energy into painstakingly folding paper crane after paper crane, making a wish with the completion of each one, and determined to reach the magic number of 1000 paper cranes.   

She never complained about the shots and almost constant pain. A bigger pain was growing deep inside of her. It was the fear of dying. She had to fight it as well as the disease. The golden crane helped. It reminded Sadako that there was always hope.

 Against all odds, Sadako manages to complete 644 cranes before she slowly sinks into a peaceful death.

She looked at her flock hanging from the ceiling. As she watched, a light autumn breeze made the birds rustle and sway. They seemed to be alive and flying out through the open window. How beautiful and free they were! Sadako sighed and closed her eyes. She never woke up.  

Sadako died on October 25, 1955. Her classmates folded the remaining 356 cranes, and all 1000 paper cranes were buried with her. Her classmates also collected her letters and journal and published them in a book. The book reached young people across Japan, and they all came to know the story of the courageous Sadako and her cranes.

Sadako’s classmates resolved to honour the memory of their friend in as many ways as possible. Their efforts sparked a children’s peace movement that swept through Japan, and then the world. This transformed the origami paper crane into an international symbol of peace. Their fundraising campaign led to the establishment of the Children’s Peace Monument in the centre of Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park. Here stands a statue of Sadako holding aloft a golden crane.

Today millions of paper cranes, reach here from all corners of the globe, symbolizing the universal value of peace and the preciousness of life. In Japan a popular tradition is to fold 1000 cranes and string these together, usually 25 strings of 40 cranes each, which are given as gifts called senbazuru which literally means, ‘one-thousand cranes’.

On 6 August every year, people still place folded paper cranes at Sadako’s statue, and reiterate the same wish that is engraved at the base of the statue:origami crane.jpg

This is our cry,

this is our prayer;

peace in the world. 

Today the long and complex history of the World War II is just that—history. But more than ever before, the unleashed peril of a nuclear explosion continues to keep the entire world on tenterhooks. Hiroshima is a reminder of the horrific legacy of nuclear warfare, but the Peace Memorial is a reminder that there can be another legacy—one of peace.

–Mamata

 

Tiger Tales

July 29 is celebrated as International Tiger Day as a way to

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Photo credit: Seema Bhatt 

raise awareness about the magnificent but endangered tiger. The day was founded in 2010 at the Saint Petersburg Tiger Summit, when the 13 tiger range countries came together to create Tx2—the goal to double the number of tigers in the wild by the year 2022. While this deadline is only two years away, it is reported that the current number still far from the goal. It is estimated that the total number of tigers in the wild in the world is 3900.

India is one country which has been showing a significant rise in its tiger population. Last year on International Tiger Day, the results of the Tiger Census 2018 were announced to reveal that the total population of the Royal Bengal Tiger in India is 2967, which is more than double that of 2006. India is also now officially one of the biggest and safest habitats of the Tiger.

As someone who is more comfortable with stories rather than statistics, all the tiger talk took me to the story of Jim Corbett—a teller of many a tiger tale.

James Edward Corbett was born on 25 July 1875 into a family of English ancestry in Nainital, in what is now Uttarakhand; he was one of twelve children. His father who was the postmaster of Nainital died when James was only four years old, leaving his widow to raise the large family on a meagre pension. The young James, or Jim as he was called, had to start earning at an early age to help out the family.

Jim was a wanderer from the time he could walk, and he spent his childhood exploring every nook and corner of the nearby forest, observing the plants, animals and birds. In those days, hunting was a part of everybody’s life. When he was just 5 years old Jim was taken by his brother on a hunting expedition. He was handed a gun and asked to report if he sighted a bear. Much later Jim wrote in one of his books, Jungle Lore, that that was the most frightening experience of his life. But this experience also laid the foundation of Jim’s life-long link with forests.

The fear of the jungle combined with the desire to know more about it led Jim to be observant but also careful. He learned to be silent, which places to avoid, and which to explore further. By the age of 7 he began to be totally absorbed in the natural world around him, appreciating it, trying to understand it, and even attempting to classify animals he saw by the functions they performed. For example, different kinds of birds. He wrote in his diary:

Bird’s that beautify nature’s garden: In this group I put minivets, orioles and sunbirds.

Birds that warn of danger: drongos, red jungle fowl and babblers.

Birds that perform the duty of scavengers: vultures, kites and crows.

Having sorted the jungle birds and animals according to his own classification, Corbett began to study them in detail, tracking them, understanding their calls and pugmarks, and learning to mimic their many sounds. In one of his books he shares this mystery and magic thus: “There is no universal language in the jungles; each species has its own language, and though the vocabulary of some is limited, as in the case of porcupines and vultures, the language of each species is understood by all the jungle-folk.”

Honing all his senses to recognise the signs and movements of wildlife, the observant and fleet-footed young Jim soon became a shikari in the true sense–a person who is one with the environment in which he hunts, and with the hunted. Shooting his first leopard at age eight, Corbett went on to become an excellent hunter, and gained fame for killing several dreaded man-eating tigers. But history has it that he has never killed any big cat without confirming that it had harmed a human.

Over the years, Jim’s love for animals translated into wildlife photography. Inspired by his friend, Frederick Walter Champion, he started to record tigers on film. In the mid 1920’s, when he was in his fifties, Corbett completely gave up shooting with a gun and turned to shooting with a camera. He felt that “far more pleasure was got from pressing the button of a camera than is ever got from pressing the trigger of a gun.”

Jim Corbett spent his remaining years in writing about his hunting adventures and jungle experiences, and promoting the cause of conservation. In November 1947, Corbett and his sister left for Kenya, where he lived till his death in 1955. Jim Corbett’s entire life was a testimony to his close connection to nature, and the joy it gave him. As he wrote: “The book of nature has no beginning, as it has no end. Open this book where you will, and at any period of your life, and if you have the desire to acquire knowledge you will find it of intense interest, and no matter how long or how intently you study the pages, your interest will not flag, for in nature there is no finality.”
But what makes Corbett so special is that he became one of the first champions of the conservation movement in India. Using his influence over then Provincial Government, Corbett played a key role in the establishment, in 1939, of Hailey National Park, India’s first national reserve for the endangered Bengal tiger. In 1957, the park was renamed Jim Corbett National Park in his honour. In 1968, one of the five remaining sub-species of tigers was named after him as Panthera Tigris Corbetti, or Corbett’s Tiger.

For us in India, tiger tales and Jim Corbett are closely linked. And today, his words are as true as they were when he wrote them in 1944:

“The tiger is a large-hearted gentleman with boundless courage and that when he is exterminated–as exterminated he will be unless public opinion rallies to his support–India will be the poorer, having lost the finest of her fauna.”

–Mamata

 

 

 

Much in Little

It is almost six months since the world as we knew it, changed. For many, this period of lockdown has also been one of unlocking some simple joys of life and living.

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A reprieve from the frenetic activities of modern life has given Nature a new lease of life. And humans, from behind their glass windows, are discovering the wonders of the world that we share with millions of other living beings. People are noticing plants, birds and insects in their immediate surroundings; they are hearing bird song and rain symphonies which had been drowned out by incessant urban cacophony and pollution. Locked inside, humans are rediscovering nature.

Humans are also rediscovering that it is possible, even satisfying, to live with what one has; that life can go on without 24/7 doings and happenings, extravagant shopping sprees, dining out, and other self-indulgences. That the quality of life is not dependent entirely on the quantum of material resources.

But this is not the first time in history. Almost 200 years ago Henry David Thoreau took a break from the often numbing routine of daily life which was driven by the need to earn a living. As he put it “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” He wondered, “Was it possible to lead a different kind of life?”

Thoreau spent two years, two months and two days living by himself in a basic wooden cabin that he built himself, on the shore of Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts in America. He wanted to answer for himself the question “how simple can a life be and still be a good one?”, and to illustrate his belief of “much in little.”

As he wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.”

Even while at Walden Pond, Thoreau did not live a life of seclusion. He had visitors, and walked to the nearby village often. His experiment was more to prove that one does not have to go far in any physical sense to “get away from it all.”

During this period in 1845-46, he observed, enjoyed and recorded his observations of the natural world around him. These were to be published as Walden, one of his best known works. It also earned him the moniker Father of Environmentalism.

Thoreau was however much more than a nature writer. He wore many hats–social reformer, naturalist, philosopher, transcendentalist, scientist, and conscientious objector.

Born on July 12, 1817 in New England, USA in a middle class family, he graduated from Harvard following which he spent some years teaching in school, and also working in his father’s pencil factory. The young Thoreau was greatly influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson who became his close friend and mentor. He began to publish essays that reflected his deeply-felt political views which were considered radical in those times. He was an outspoken abolitionist and was arrested (and jailed for one day) for resisting to pay poll tax to a government that supported slavery. This experience led him to write one of his best-known and most influential essays titled Civil Disobedience. He made a strong case for acting on one’s individual conscience and not blindly following laws and government policy. “The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right,” he wrote.

Thoreau’s non-violent approach to social and political resistance greatly influenced Mahatma Gandhi who adopted many of his thoughts while developing his concept of Satyagraha.

Following his Walden experiment Thoreau wrote extensively, although a lot of his writing was published and became well-known only after he died. He continued his daily afternoon walks in the Concord woods and kept a journal of his nature observations and ideas. He travelled and lectured, living on a modest income, till he died of tuberculosis in 1862, at the age of 45.

Thoreau, a man of simple tastes and high thinking, was indeed an original thinker of his times. The lesson he taught himself and that he tried to teach others, was summed up in the word “simplify”. That meant simplify the outer circumstances of your life, simplify your needs and your ambitions; learn to delight in simple pleasures which the world of nature affords. It meant also scorn public opinion, refuse to accept the common definition of success, refuse to be moved by the judgement of others. And unlike most who advocate such attitudes, he put them into practice.

A few years ago on a trip to the United States I had the opportunity to retrace Thoreau’s footsteps on a walk around Walden Pond, and see the modest shack where he penned his notes on nature. At that time I knew him mainly as an evocative nature writer. Today I find that his philosophy of life and living is more relevant than perhaps ever before. And Walden is so much more than a nature lover’s diary—it is an inspiring guide to changing the way we view ourselves and the life we want to live, especially in these times when we are feeling lost, and the times that will follow.

Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify. Henry David Thoreau

–Mamata

The Book of Joy

This week, 6 July, marked the 85th birthday of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Five years ago, in 2015, to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday, a unique meeting took place. The Dalai Lama’s close friend the Archbishop Desmond Tutu came to Dharamshala to visit his “kindred spirit”. Both great spiritual masters and moral leaders of our time, and Nobel Prize winners, the two spent a week together—sharing their thoughts and vision, exchanging memories, and reveling in the simple joys of being together, laughing, and teasing each other.

Interestingly, four years before this meeting, when Desmond Tutu turned 80, a similar meeting between the two had been planned in Cape Town, South Africa. But the Dalai Lama was denied a visa by the South African government, bowing to pressure from the Chinese government.IMG_20200709_102817_BURST1.jpg

The Dharamshala meeting was, thus, more than special, and its purpose even more so. They took this rare occasion as a chance to sit down together, and evaluate one of life’s most important questions: how do we find joy in the face of life’s inevitable suffering? The outcome was The Book of Joy.

As the facilitator of the dialogues, and editor of the book, Douglas Abrams explains, ‘From the beginning the book was envisioned as a three-layer birthday cake: their own stories and teachings about joy, the most recent findings in the science of deep happiness, and the daily practices that anchor their own emotional and spiritual lives.’

The book documents the interactions between the two great minds through daily dialogues  over seven days, starting with identifying the obstacles to joy: fear, stress, anxiety, anger, sadness, grief, loneliness, envy, suffering and adversity, illness and fear of death.

From there the dialogues move on to explore the paths to experiencing Joy. Both the great minds emphasise that joy and happiness are by-products that spring from one’s attitudes and actions, and the cultivation of certain qualities.

What are these positive qualities that allow us to experience more joy? Four are qualities of the mind: perspective, humility, humour and acceptance. Four are qualities of the heart: forgiveness, gratitude, compassion mind: and generosity. These are the eight pillars of Joy. Each of these is discussed at length in the book.

Five years ago, the two gurus talked about the untold horrors, tragedies and suffering that the world was facing, and how to find joy whilst accepting, and yet transcending these. Today, in addition to these, the world is facing an all-encompassing and overwhelming new challenge. More than ever before, their words of wisdom may be the one’s to guide humanity through the pandemic that has been the greatest equaliser of all.

Perhaps the key to coping with the immense stress, anxiety, frustration and anger that all of us are facing during this period is Perspective. I cannot help but share some excerpts which are so relevant today.

“Yes there are many things that can depress us. But there are also are very many things that are fantastic about our world. Unfortunately the media do not report on this because they are not seen as news. …When bad things happen they become news, and it is easy to feel that our basic human nature is to kill or rape, or to be corrupt. Then we can feel that there is no hope for the future. …No doubt there are very negative things, but at the same time there are many more positive things happening in our world. We must have a sense of proportion and a wider perspective. Then we will not feel despair when we see sad things.”

“For every event in life there are many different angles. When you look at the same event from a wider perspective, your sense of worry and anxiety reduces, and you have greater joy. …If you look from one angle, you feel, Oh how bad, how sad. But if you look from another angle at the same tragedy, that same event, you see it gives me new opportunities.”

“The wider perspective leads to serenity and equanimity. It does not mean that we do not have the strength to confront a problem, but we can confront it with creativity and compassion rather than reactivity and rigidity. We are able to recognise that we do not control all aspects of any situation. This leads to a greater sense of humility, humour and acceptance.”

“The way we see the world is the way we experience the world. Changing the way we see the world in turn changes the way we feel and the way we act, which changes the world itself. A healthy perspective is really the foundation of joy and happiness.”

The book records the thoughts of the two thinkers not just through their words but also by their body language—the mischievous tugging and patting of arms, the heartfelt clasping of fingers, the respectful folding of hands and bowing, and above all the twinkling of eyes and the easy laughter of two dear friends sharing jokes, and enjoying their pudding! No wonder they are they are also known for being among the most infectiously happy people on the planet!

I myself have felt engulfed in this childlike exuberance and humour both times that I have had the privilege of attending a talk by the Dalai Lama, even as one of an audience of hundreds.

The Book of Joy has been on my bookshelf the last couple of years, but I was not in the right frame of mind to start reading it.  It is only last week that I felt the urge to read it.  I intensely related to it, and it put a lot of things in perspective.  Every word in the book is thought-provoking and profound. I know that I will go back to these again and again. Perhaps there is a time and place for everything indeed.

But, there is always time and space for Joy.

–Mamata

 

 

 

Family Foibles

‘Family’ has been a keyword that has defined the last two months which have been unusual and unprecedented in so many ways. Everyone seems to have rediscovered the joys of family. Celebs have shared how they are spending quality time with ‘loved ones’. Noble thoughts have been expressed on the comfort and warmth of family. Wise sayings on the value of family have been mined and brought to light.

Coincidentally even two international days that celebrate family, both proclaimed by the UN General Assembly, have fallen within this period. May 15 was International Family Day, marked every year to stress the importance of family. 1 June is designated as the Global Day of Parents, to recognize that the family has the primary responsibility for the nurturing and protection of children and emphasizing the critical role of parents in the rearing of children.

As they say, you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family. Which means, whether you like it or not, you are stuck with them!  And truth be told, today families in close confinement and forced proximity are perhaps somewhat at the end of the tethers of togetherness.

As the lockdown across the world begin to ease, I can’t resist being a bit irreverent and sharing some random ‘alternate’ thoughts on family from some of my favourite authors.

Fifty years ago Erma Bombeck described what seems to be uncannily accurate today: “No one, not even a man and woman, can endure two weeks of complete togetherness—especially when they are married. Thus being confined with two or three children in an area no larger than a sandbox often has the appeal of being locked in a bus-station rest room over the weekend.”

And the fall out of family in lockdown can have many dimensions!

“Family is just accident…They don’t mean to get on your nerves. They don’t even mean to be your family, they just are”.  Marsha Norman

“A family is a unit composed not only of children but of men, women, an occasional animal, and the common cold”.  Ogden Nash

“Children aren’t happy without something to ignore, and that’s what parents were created for”. Ogden Nash

“Families are like fudge – mostly sweet, with a few nuts”.  Les Dawson

“The reason grandparents and grandchildren get along so well is that they have a common enemy.” Sam Levenson

“Mothers are the necessity of invention.” Bill Watterson

“When our relatives are at home, we have to think of all their good points or it would be impossible to endure them.” George Bernard Shaw

“The family. We are a strange little band of characters trudging through life sharing diseases and toothpaste, coveting one another’s deserts, hiding shampoo, borrowing money, locking each other out of our rooms, …and trying to figure out the common thread that bound us all together”. Erma Bombeck

Love them or hate them, we can’t do without them!

“Mma Ramotswe found it difficult to imagine what it would be like to have no people. There were, she knew, those who had no others in this life, who had no uncles, or aunts, or distant cousins of any degree; people who were just themselves. Many white people were like that, for some unfathomable reason; they did not seem to want to have people and were happy to be just themselves. How lonely they must be — like spacemen deep in space, floating in darkness, but without even that silver, unfurling cord that linked the astronauts to their little metal womb of oxygen and warmth”. Alexander McCall Smith

A family is like an orange, a ball composed of distinct segments, separable yet held together by some intangible but universal bonds.  Savour the flavour!

–Mamata

 

How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear*

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, ‘It is just as I feared!

Two Owls and a Hen
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard.

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Original illustration by Edward Lear Source: Google


No this is not 2020 Corona humour, although it pithily describes one of the fallouts of the lockdown! The verse was written by Edward Lear nearly 200 years ago. Lear is popularly associated with the Limerick, and best known for his
A Book of Nonsense, which he also illustrated, that was published 1846.

Limerick is a form of nonsense verse in which the first, second and final lines end with rhyming words, while the third and fourth shorter lines have their own rhyme. In Lear’s limericks the first and last lines usually end with the same word rather than rhyming. For the most part they are truly nonsensical and devoid of any punch line or point.

Interestingly, while he is best remembered for his absurd wit, Edward Lear was a popular and respected painter of his time. Born in London on 12 May 1812, one of 21 children, Lear was forced to start earning a living when he was just 15. This he did by selling his art and by teaching drawing. In 1832 he was employed by the London Zoological Society to illustrate birds, and later went on to work for the Earl of Derby who had a private menagerie on his estate. Lear stayed there until 1836.

Around this time Lear decided to devote himself exclusively to landscape painting (although he continued to write his nonsense verse.)  Between 1837 and 1847 he travelled extensively throughout Europe and Asia. After his return to England, Lear’s travel journals were published in several volumes as The Illustrated Travels of a Landscape Painter. Lear eventually settled, with his cat Foss, in Sanremo on the Mediterranean coast at a villa he named Villa Tennyson after Lord Tennyson whom he admired. He continued to paint seriously till the end of his life in 1888.

Edward Lear had a sickly childhood, and also suffered from epilepsy and depression. But in his verses he poked fun at everything, including himself. His irreverent humour, love for the ridiculous, and cooked-up nonsense words were like cocking a snook at the prissiness and orderliness of the Victorian society that he lived in.  Also different from the expected upright behaviour which was the norm of the period, the characters in his verses often indulge in absurd and outrageous antics.

His love for silly word play “a perpendicular, spicular, orbicular, quadrangular, circular depth of soft mud”;  his weird and wonderful creatures like Moppsikon Floppsikon bear and  “diaphanous doorscraper” (stuffed rhino); the characters with names like Quangle-Wangles, Pobbles, and Jumblies remind me of another favourite—Roald Dahl.

I have always loved the nonsense verse of Edward Lear. I remember memorising and reciting The Owl and the Pussycat, perhaps his most famous poem, when I was in school. The words seemed to frisk and gambol just like the characters.

They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

We all need a bit of silliness in our lives, especially in these strange days of uncertainty. Today as we celebrate Lear’s birthday as Limerick Day, also marked as Owl and Pussycat Day, here is my humble offering to the memory of Mr Lear!

There was a wicked virus from Wuhan

Who said its time to cause some mayhem

I’ll travel the world for a lark

And make sure they close every park

That villainous virus from Wuhan.

*How pleasant to know Mr. Lear is the title of Lear’s self-portrait in verse.

–Mamata

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Hail, Nightingales!

Two news items last week took me to my cache of ‘saved for a rainy (read lockdown) day’ books.

The first was that the tagline for this year’s World Health Day is ‘Support Nurses and Midwives’. April 7 is celebrated as World Health Day as it marks the anniversary of the World Health Organization which was founded in 1948.

The second news was that on April 3 Britain’s first emergency field hospital exclusively for coronavirus patients was inaugurated in the East End or docklands of London. More remarkable, that a large exhibition space, usually used for large events such concerts and conferences, was transformed into this 4000 bed hospital in just nine days. The hospital is fittingly called NHS Nightingale Hospital. Similar Nightingale hospitals are planned to be set up in different cities of UK, as emergency sites to treat coronavirus patients.

Calling these facilities Nightingale hospitals, is an apt and timely reminder of Florence Nightingale, who almost 200 years ago changed the face of nursing from a mostly untrained profession to a highly skilled and well-respected medical profession with very important responsibilities.

These stories took me to the book titled Called the Midwife by Jennifer Worth. The book is the memoir of the years that Jenny, this young nurse anIMG_20200407_111221.jpgd midwife spent in the poor slums of the East End of London. 23 years old and newly qualified she lived and trained as a midwife with a dedicated group of nuns St Raymond Nonnatus.

Though set in the 1950s, the conditions of the area, and the people who lived in these docklands were appalling in terms of health, hygiene and sanitation. The book recounts anecdotes that paint vignettes of the people, and the experiences as a midwife, delivering babies at home amidst challenging and often overwhelming circumstances. But where the narration could have been dark and depressing, Jenny’s description of her patients and their families brings out the touching humanity, and tough spirit that rises above the squalor. Whether it is the pen portraits of the nuns, each with a unique personality; the fellow trainees; and the soon-to-be or new mothers (from the first baby of a 14 year-old girl, to the 25th baby of a 45 year-old woman!), the book captures the power and spirit of the vocation. Rushing on their bicycles through the freezing smoggy streets with their simple delivery bags to attend a calling the middle of the night (almost 100 deliveries a month), to the daily routine of morning and evening home visits for pre and post-delivery check-ups, one cannot help but applaud the total dedication and role of the midwives.

Interestingly in India generations of children had been born at home under the hand of the local midwife or dai. Around the time when Jennifer Worth was a midwife in England, hospital deliveries started becoming more common in India. In the last fifty years, with advances in the world of medicine, and advancing technology, the traditional art and craft of midwifery was replaced with the science of sonography and Csections. Interestingly, in the last ten years or so, there seems to be a return to the traditional ways of childbirth. While at the one end of the spectrum, there are boutique clinics offering 5-star deliveries, other young women are opting to ’call the midwife’. And there is a new generation of Jennys who are undergoing the rigorous training of midwifery to qualify and practice as midwives.

It is fitting indeed that WHO has designated 2020 as the Year of the Nurse and Midwife, in honour of the 200th birth anniversary of Florence Nightingale who fought, against all odds, in the frontlines of the Crimean war. And once again, more than ever before, it is time to salute these brave and tireless soldiers who are at the frontline of the Corona war. Hail, to all these Nightingales! year of the nurse.jpg

–Mamata

Friends in Need

“They are friends waiting for us any time we want them, and they will always speak honestly to us about what really matters. They are the perfect cure for loneliness. They can be our very closest friends.” They are books, wrote Swiss-born British philosopher and essayist Alain de Botton, in a letter to children.

Today is the day to celebrate this timeless friendship. April 2 is International Children’s Book Day, a worldwide celebration to highlight children’s literature and encourage the love of reading among children. This date marks the birthdICBD.jpgay of Hans Christian Anderson one of the best known children’s writer who was born on 2 April 1805 in Denmark.

The celebration of this day began in 1967, initiated by the International Board on Books for Young People, or IBBY. Each year a different National Section of IBBY has the opportunity to be the international sponsor of ICBD. The hosting country picks the theme for the year and invites a prominent author from that country to write a message to the children of the world and a well-known illustrator to design a poster.

This year, IBBY Slovenia is hosting this day, and the theme is “A Hunger for Words.” Slovenian writer Peter Svetina has written the message for this theme. Sharing a few lines: “Words in poetry and in stories are food. Not food for the body, not food that can fill up your stomach. But food for the spirit and food for the soul.”

In the days of lockdowns when parents around the world are despairing, and desperate to “keep children occupied” why not open up a menu of books, to explore and discover, to taste and savour, and to assuage the hunger of a restless mind. This will plant the seeds of the magic of stories that will grow with them as friends, and sustain their spirit through the many unknowns that lie ahead.

Equally relevant, and perhaps one that presaged the year to come, was the theme for 2019 which was Books Help Slow Us Down. Lithuania was the host, and Kęstutis Kasparavičius the Lithuanian writer wrote this inspiring message.

“It seems that books have this wonderful quality – they help us slow down. As soon as you open a book and delve into its tranquil depths, you no longer fear that things will whizz by at a maddening speed while you see nothing. All of a sudden, you come to believe you don’t have to dash off like a bat out of hell to do some urgent work of little importance. In books, things happen quietly and in a precisely arranged order. Maybe because their pages are numbered, maybe because the pages rustle gently and soothingly as you leaf through them. In books, events of the past calmly meet events that are yet to come. …Someone who enjoys reading – be it a child or adult – is much more interesting than someone who doesn’t care for books, who is always racing against the clock, who never has time to sit down, who fails to notice much of what surrounds them. …Books help us not to rush, books teach us to notice things, and books invite us or even make us sit down for a while.”

Around the world, for perhaps the first time, we have been forced to slow down, to sit down for a while (and wonder what to do with ourselves). What better time to use this opportunity to revisit our old friends—books– that were part of our young and innocent days. And what could be more joyful than rediscovering these in the company of children? A beautiful way to celebrate this special day!

–Mamata

Once Upon a Time…

These four words open up windows to entire universes—unexplored, or familiar. This is how many a story begins. Stories are a life force that have imbued human life with that something extra, since the dawn of civilization. Stories are a way to convey history, culture, language, spirituality, and identity. One way to keep stories alive is storytelling. Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of communication.

20 March is celebrated as World Storytelling Day–a day to remember and remind ourselves of the magic and power of stories. What began in Sweden, on this date in 1991, as All Storytellers Day has now become a global celebration of the art of oral storytelling. On World Storytelling Day, as many people as possible tell and listen to stories in as many languages and at as many places as possible, during the same day and night.

On this day I celebrate a storyteller who collected, recreated, and created a timeless repertoire of stories. Generations of children have grown up with these tales, told and retold by parents and grandparents over the last one hundred years. This was my grandfather Gijubhai Badeka, one of Gujarat’s foremost educationists and storytellers.

In Gujarati, as in most Indian languages, the child reader had remained somewhat neglected till the middle of the nineteenth century. There was hardly any specific literature for children; only stories retold from classical Indian literature, or heroic stories from Western literature, in not very satisfactory translations. Gijubhai pioneered the creation of special literature for children that also contributed to preserving the oral tradition of literature through exploring and compiling the rich legacy of folk literature. His search for folk tales crossed the boundaries of language and country. This journey of exploration he described thus, in his seminal work titled Vaarta nu Shastra (The Art and Craft of Stories) published in 1925. “So many stories have travelled in foreign lands, so many stories have changed their religion and form; it is an adventure to trace their journeys. If we become wandering travellers with the stories, we will discover that we find one story in Tibet and will see the same story in Africa; we will discover the same story wrapped in snow at the North Pole, and yet if we wander in the Arabian desert, there it will be, but uncovered and bare…but still we recognise the story. Some stories adapt to their land, taking on the form and language of their adopted home, while others retain their origins wherever they may settle. Some stories follow the creed of universal brotherhood, they see the world as their home and go wherever they get a chance to serve and please. Some settle firmly in different countries and come to be recognised as belonging to that place. They are then only translated to reach other countries.”

Many of Gijubhai’s stories are members of this travelling band. Gijubjai transformed and localised these stories, so that they are steeped in the sounds and colours of Gujarat, and have today become not only Gujarati, but uniquely ‘Gijubhai’s’ stories. They are simply told tales characterised by a mixture of prose and rhyme. The repetition of rhymes makes for lively storytelling which listeners join in. Gijubhai retold delightful tales of ordinary people, and familiar birds and animals. With equal panache he churned out stories of common folk with common trades—tailors, potters, barbers, shopkeepers, but also kings, queens and princesses. The characters reflect basic human traits—greed, envy, fear, desire for one-upmanship. Animal tales reflect a close and symbiotic relationship between animals and people. Many open with “once upon a time”… and end “happily ever after.” A hundred years after they were written these stories still touch a cord in the child, and also the child in each of us.

Stories are older than us, they are smarter than us, they keep going, and they are a part of us even though we do not realise this. But stories need human beings to reproduce, much as we need food… we need things to keep ourselves alive.

Hungarian-born American polymath Thomas Sebeok said “…what we can do, I think, is try and create stories that are interesting enough and important enough that our grandchildren might want to tell those stories to their grandchildren — because that’s the purpose of stories, that’s what they’re for: They make live worth living and, sometimes, they keep us alive.

In my own small way, I try to carry forward the legacy of my grandfather by translating and retelling these timeless tales.

–Mamata