Animal Tales

Since the beginning of human history, people and animals have lived in close contact. Animals are an integral part of our lives. The relationships vary: animals may be domesticated for work; they may be loved as pets; they may be hunted as food; they may be admired and envied for their strength or other qualities; they may be. But even beyond these relationships, animals fascinate humans and so the numerous myths and stories, the worship of animals, and their symbolism.  

In last week’s post marking International Tiger Day, we saw a few myths, stories and legends about tigers. While there are many tiger-stories, it is not just tigers, but many, many animals and birds—real and imaginary who feature in these tales.

The book ‘Adbhut: Marvelous Creatures of Indian Myth and Folklore’ by Meena Arora Nayak, provides an overview of many of these. The book compiles 55 stories, drawing from all religious and cultural traditions.

The book is organized into different sections: Creatures of the Sky; Creatures of the Sea; Creatures of the Earth; Other Creatures of Air, Water and Land—Worms, Insects, Reptiles and Dragons; and Creature of Amalgam.

The last two are less familiar categories, so here are a few fascinating stories drawn from these sections of the book:

Bhramari the Beehive Goddess: Aruna was a daitya who had received a boon from Brahma, giving him immunity from death by war, weapons, man or woman, biped or quadruped or a combination thereof. To circumvent these conditions, Goddess Adi Shakti took the form of Bhramari, and her body became a beehive from which swarms of bees emerged. The bee swarms attacked and destroyed the daityas, who had no weapons against them. And at the end of the mission, all the bees merged into the Goddess’ form.

Shamir the Stone-cutting Worm: Shamir the worm was just the size of a grain of barley, but his gaze is so sharp that it could cut through stone, iron and even diamond. It is believed that the Shamir was used by Moses to engrave the names of the twelve tribes of Israel on the breastplate of a priest. After this, Shamir disappeared. It was with great difficulty that King Solomon found him and brought him to help build the First Temple in Jerusalem. The King did not want to use any tools to cut the stones because the use of such tools symbolized violence. He therefore used the shamir to cut the stones.

Nariphon the Plant Women: Both Hindu and Buddhist traditions talk about these. The mythical mountain of Meru stands in the midst of thick forests. The trees in this forest bear not fruits but beautiful young women. They emerge from the pods feet first, hanging from the trees on stems attached to their heads. They are about eight inches long. It is believed that in the last incarnation of Buddha before he was born as Siddhartha Gautama, he was so generous that his people banished him, his wife Maddi and children, to the jungle so the kingdom did not go bankrupt. Indra is said to have created Nariphon so that the eyes of itinerant sages would be drawn to these exquisite little creatures rather than to Maddi.

An interesting book which gives insights into the fascinating relationships of humans and animals, and reminds of the close bonds between humans and other animals. While not told in a story-telling style, it does indicate how our love, fears, imagination all come into play in the creation of myths and legends. The book lends itself to creative illustrations, and one wonders why only the back and front covers have them.

–Meena

Doctor Without Borders: Jonathan Kaplan

Last week I wrote about a young doctor who chose to use his medical training to serve people in war situations. This was Dr Kotnis who worked with passion and dedication on the war front in China, almost a century ago. Every generation and every period of history has examples of such professionals who voluntarily choose to serve in some of the most difficult and dangerous situations.

Doctors without Borders

I recently read a fascinating account by such a doctor in our own times. This is Dr Jonathan Kaplan who began his medical career, as do all doctors, after long and intensive years of study. Dr Kaplan graduated from medical school in South Africa and spent the next ten years acquiring specialist qualifications and training as a general surgeon, and super-specialization in vascular surgery in hospitals in the UK and USA. This equipped him to move on to become a “consultant” with a comfortable and prosperous practice. In his own words:

Master of Surgery. The title had a ring of Zen about it, as though I was now a sage of some martial art, a mystic bladesman. I had trodden the path of professional dedication, served the necessary years at the required levels of experience and responsibility, paid all my dues to date. A consultant post—the reward for all this industry—lay ahead, with attendant success and security. But I found myself beset by an odd emptiness…

This sense of emptiness led Jonathan to choose otherwise. He became a “medical vagabond” as he describes himself. He spent many years as a volunteer surgeon in some of the world’s most dangerous war zones in the 1990s. He attended to the casualties of apartheid in Cape Town; worked on the front line treating Kurdish fighters during the uprising at the end of the Gulf War, and in a part of Burma’s Shan state under attack by the Burmese army; in Mozambique during the civil war, and in Eritrea at the time of the Ethiopian offensive in 2000.

Besides the blood, sweat and tears of the battlefield, the adventurous Jonathan Kaplan was always looking for new challenges. In his own words Working as a doctor in war zones was voluntary and unpaid. My hospital career looked increasingly uncertain—my curriculum vitae was a curious patchwork of jobs that shocked the sensibilities of staid consultants—and I was considering a full-time post in accident and emergency medicine where I hoped a varied resume might be less provocative to the interview committees.

But that was not to be. A variety of chance offers led to interesting stints where Dr Kaplan saw different sides to the realities of illness and emergency care. Among these was being an air ambulance doctor, and a resident doctor on a cruise liner. He also became deeply engaged in an investigation on the impacts of mercury poisoning in a part of Brazil.  

For most of his life Jonathan Kaplan worked tirelessly, and with minimal resources, amidst the most challenging conditions and heart-rending human tragedy, using every skill at his disposal to treat the wounded, and save lives. At the same time he also meticulously documented the politics, struggles, and universal human dilemmas. These have been published in a book titled The Dressing Station.

The book is a fascinating read, that vividly describes some of the most tragic and devastating impacts of war on human beings, alongside some highly technical details of surgery, and the contradictions of war-zone realities. But Jonathan is much more than a reporter. He also shares his angst and his internal struggles to maintain his humanity even under the most inhuman circumstances. He wonders about human life, and the role that doctors have to play in the human drama between birth and death. That is what makes his writing both eye-opening, as well as thought-provoking, not just for medical practitioners, but for every one of us who are on the other side of the ‘consulting table’.

As he shares: I have practised medicine in diverse fields: as a hospital surgeon, a flying doctor, a ship’s medical officer. I have operated on wounded straight off the battlefield, treated people with rich stains of tropical disease raging in their bloodstreams, and tried to help those affected by occupational illness from industrial toxins or work place stress. I have run research programmes funded by corporate finance—that met the needs of the shareholders before they benefitted any patients—and I’ve cared for children wasted by diseases of famine and war. Like most doctors I have seen my craft used and abused; been part of its successes and witnessed its failings. It is by the means of this unforgiving arena that we struggle to define ourselves.

He further ponders on his work and on life: No clinician can give an objective account of that work: the intersection between doctor and patient is mutual and intimate, and in the end comes down to something between us that is a fragile thing, as fragile as life. All we can do is the best we can in the war against death and against despair, including our own. For at its extreme the practice of medicine is a succession of front line, and each victory is only a temporary respite.

Dr Kaplan continues to take periodic assignments as a volunteer surgeon in conflict zones amidst UK hospital surgery, film-making, academic teaching, and working as a photographer, and as an advisor on medical TV dramas. He has also proposed, investigated, researched, produced and directed documentaries on health, development and environmental issues for several TV channels.

I picked up The Dressing Station by chance, not having earlier heard of Jonathan Kaplan. It was a gripping read. I look forward to reading his second book Contact Wounds.

–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!

Veerappan: Re-visiting the Story of the Forest Brigand

In the ‘80s, ’90s and early into this century, Verappan was a name we often saw in newspaper headlines. As in:

India’s Most Wanted.

Outlaw of Jungle.

In the Lair of India’s Asthmatic Bandit King.

Veerappan Strikes Again.

Veerappan Kidnaps Rajkumar, Three Others.

A Ruthless and Daring Bandit.

And then, in October 2004, the headlines:

Veerppan walked into well-laid trap.

Veerappan shot dead.

Death of a Demon.

A ruthless killer, a sandalwood smuggler, a poacher who was responsible for the killing of elephants  in the four-figures; a kidnapper; a murderer; a hero to his gang and some poor communities; a man wanted and actively hunted by the security forces of two states and the BSF sent by the Centre, Veerappan was an elusive figure. A figure who fed news headlines, who kept security forces on their toes, and who with his dramatic moustache and daredevilry, excited the imaginations of many.

Why, 17 years after his death, have I suddenly been reminded about Veerappan? Well, I happened to stumble upon this book called BIRDS, BEASTS AND BANDITS: 14 DAYS WITH VEERAPPAN.

It is the true story of two wildlife-film maker-conservationists who were kidnapped by Veerappan and his gang under the mistaken impression that they were government officials who could be useful as bargaining chips for some of their demands. The gang captures a Bengali scientist visiting the forests as a tourist, as well as three forest guards as well, to add heft to their bargaining power. The seven hostages are marched across the forest for 14 days before they are released. The book is the account of these 14 days by the two main hostages, Krupakar and Senani.

They wrote their account for a Kannada weekly magazine ‘Sudha’ in 1998, a year after they were captured and released, and subsequently, as a book in Kannada. About 10 years after that, the book was translated and brought out in English by Penguin.

It is a light-hearted book, though it talks of an ordeal which must have taken a lot of guts to endure. And though light-hearted, it is not trivial. It touches upon many serious issues, from the injustice that Veerappan and others in his gang have faced, which may have driven them to become what they did. But it does not justify their actions. It mentions the unfair portrayal of his misdeeds in the press and by officialdom, in terms of chalking up a lot of crimes,  elephant-poachings and murders to his account, than he could have possibly committed.

Most importantly, it brings us glimpses of Veerappan as a person. His incredible abilities as well as his incredible instability; his naiveté and ignorance of the world, as well as his understanding of the jungles and the tribulations of the poor; his humour as well as his tantrums; his readiness to use the gun, as well as his gentleness in some situations.

As much as bringing Veerappan to us, the book brings us Krupakar and Senani. How they take the whole ordeal as pretty much routine—all in a day’s work, so to speak. Their equanimity, their fearlessness, their presence of mind, their strategic and thoughtful approach to communicating with their captors to move them towards the decision to release them—all these shine through. They don’t mention any of this explicitly, but as one reads, one is completely awed by this. The equanimity and stoicism of Dr. Maithi, an agricultural scientist from West Bengal who is another captive is unbelievable too! He spends his time meditating, indifferent to his situation, and in fact trying to teach the others meditation! And the incredible integrity of all the three, whether in their intentions that a peaceful resolution be brokered between Veerappan and the official machinery, or in their sympathy and empathy with the gang members, is touching.

There can be no sympathy with ruthless killers like these, but the book does portray their human side—their motivations, hopes and dreams.

The prize goes however to the following incident that Veerappan narrates to his prisoners, with whom the gang builds up a warm and emotional relationship. Veerappan tells them of how he had once kidnapped a government official and asked for a ransom of Rs. 3 crore for his release. A government emissary appears on bike, carrying a bag. Veerappan asks him to throw the money on the road to ensure that the bag does not have a bomb or something. He sees that the money is much less than promised (Rs. 3 lakh in fact). When angrily questioned, the emissary, a second-division clerk, is pretty fearless and says that this is what he was given. Disgusted, Veerappan tells him to go. But the man keeps standing there.  The story continues in Veerappan’s words as follows:

‘I was taken aback. People run the moment they see Verappan. But here I was telling this man to get lost, and he was still standing around.

‘What else?’ I asked loudly.

‘He bent forward, scratching his head with his left hand, and said ‘Nothing for me, sir?’

‘I gave him ten thousand, to rid myself of his wretched presence’.

Definitely a book for a weekend read!

–Meena

Cantonments: Serene Oases

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Meena

Srinivasa Ramanujan: A Book and A Movie

April 26th marked the 101st death anniversary of one of 20th century’s greatest mathematicians, Srinivasa Ramanujan. By coincidence, I was finishing ‘The Indian Clerk’ by David Leavitt at just about this time. And then went on to watch ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’.

When it comes to the book, even with its various digressions, the mystic mathematical genius of Ramanujan comes through. The trials and tribulations of lower-middle class lad from the deep South of India, steeped in religious tradition, totally unprepared for the England of the 1910s, are heart-rending. The mathematical genius is an uncomfortable social being–moody, vulnerable, lonely, awkward, under-confident. Never mind food for the heart and soul in terms of companionship and friendship, he does not have enough food to keep in good health. First his strict vegetarian regime and various taboos make it imperative to cook for himself. But more seriously, as the First World War breaks out, he does not even get basic rations, vegetables and fruits. This, coupled with the cold, had lasting impacts on his health, which not only led to serious bouts of illness and hospital stays, but his tragically untimely death at the age of 32.

Away from anything familiar, longing for his wife, and with only a few Indian friends, how lonely life must have been!

But whatever the body, the heart and the soul missed, the mind just went on! And in Prof Hardy who was instrumental in bringing him to Cambridge, England, he had an intellectual companion, albeit they did not always agree on ‘ways and means’. Ramanujan’s refusal to provide systematic proof for his intuitive mathematical assertions led to many an argument. His insistence that his mathematical claims and insights were written on his tongue by the Goddess Namagiri irritated and baffled Hardy.

Ramanujan’s legacy was in the form of 37 published papers, as well as three notebooks and a ‘lost’ notebook (discovered only in 1976) with approximately 4,000 mathematical claims, most without proofs. Almost all of these have now been proved, in the century and more after his death. They continue to inspire modern-day mathematics and expand its boundaries.

I got a sense of all this from the book.

Coming to the movie, starring Dev Patel as Ramanujan, I found it sadly unsatisfying. To begin with, I could not reconcile the tall, debonair and poised Patel with my image of the short, stout, badly dressed and awkward Ramanujan. However good the actor, there have to be some physical similarities. It cannot be that the first Indian at hand is cast in a movie with an Indian protagonist. Ben Kingsley’s looks were as important as his acting, in bringing the Mahatma to life.

And then, small trivial details about life and mores in Tamilnadu of a century ago. Just a little fact-checking could have made it so much better.

Though both are for a general audience and cannot by definition get into too much math, of course a book can deal a little better with math than a movie can. So there is that too.

Both play up the ‘saas-bahu’ drama between Ramanujan’s mother and wife to the hilt, the movie a little more sympathetic to the MIL than the book.

All in all, worth it for anyone to spend some time on. It will surely awaken a sense of wonder about the unimaginable achievements of a short life—not only blazing paths that no Indian had trod, but impacting the course of mathematics for times to come. And give a sense of genius which is beyond rational explanation.

‘Man Who Knew Infinity’ by Robert Kanigal, is a more serious, and hence somewhat heavier read. There is also a movie titled ‘Ramanujan’, which I have yet to see.

–Meena

Remember Surabhi?

Yes, the weekly culture-magazine that Doordarshan viewers so looked forward to in the 1990s! I was surfing the channels one afternoon, and came across something called DD Retro, where Surabhi was airing. I scrolled down to see other programmes scheduled for the day. They didn’t resonate, but I have started tuning in whenever possible to catch Surabhi.

It was path-breaking in many, many senses of the word. It ran 9 seasons and clocked an incredible 415 episodes (as compared to 236 of Friends!). It was India’s longest-running cultural programme, and had among the highest audiences ever for a TV show of that time (without any TRP fixing!).

Long before such information was literally at our fingertips, Surabhi brought the length and breadth of the country into our drawing rooms, and introduced us to wonders selected most eclectically–from the ‘classical’ arts to the ‘folk’ arts; architecture to sculpture to music, dance, etc. etc. ; museums and individual collections; natural wonders to manmade marvels. It introduced us to parts of the country which in that era are even-less known than they are now, especially the North East and the Andamans. It went deep into the nooks and corners of the country. It made us proud of our art and craft traditions, and even more, brought home the sense that these were living traditions, not some artefacts in the confines of a museum.

It terms of format, it was not a documentary as was the wont those days for giving serious, highbrow information on culture. It was a lively magazine format with short segments covering a wide variety, with no particular discernable theme for the day. Something for everyone and just enough information to whet the appetite.

The key to the success was probably the anchors: Siddharth Kak who brought a gravitas to the proceedings, and Renuka Sahane who lit up the screen with a million-volt smile. Both spoke with so much sincerity and were backed with good research. Never flippant or frivolous, the script was informative and in pretty high-level Hindi, but never seemed to intimidate. Probably because the excitement of the anchors on each new discovery and their genuine joy in sharing it were so palpable.

Audience participation was another key. Many of the items covered were suggested by viewers and after due research, the Surabhi team showcased them. And the competitions! Each episode ended with a question posed by the anchors to the audience. And what a response they used to get. According to the Limca Book of Records, they once got 14 lakh responses in a week! And it was not about clicking something on the screen. People had to make the effort to go to the Post Office, buy a postcard, write down their answers, go to a post box and post it. The Indian Postal service is said to have introduced a special ‘Competition Postcard’ costing Rs.2 (as opposed the normal 15 paise) thanks to Surabhi!. Week after week, how did they even go through all the responses? But they did, and then all the correct responses would be piled up in the room in a special segment, and children would come in to pick the lucky winners from among them.

The prizes for the competitions were bang on in keeping with the spirit of the programme. Usually sponsored by state government tourism corporations and Indian Airlines, they went from air tickets and a few days stay at beach, mountain and tourism resorts of the states, to gift coupons to be used at State Emporia; to gifts of Mysore crepe saris and Mysore sandal soaps!

My family’s close encounter with Surabhi was a lovely one. I wrote in to them describing Raghu’s unique collection of old Indian locks, and unlike today, when one can write 10 mails to ‘info@’ and not get a response, they responded in a few weeks. After seeking more information and sending a local team to take a look, a time for the final shoot was set up, and the team including Siddharth Kak were at home! The airing of the collection on Surabhi is definitely an integral part of the story of Raghu’s lock collection!

Re-watching Surabhi, I felt it was still as interesting today (albeit a few things will look quaint to today’s viewers). Would surely be worth showing at better times and creating more publicity around it? And if there could be an easy-to-find Youtube channel with all the programmes, that would be amazing!

–Meena

‘Down in the Dumps’ Day

No, let me hasten to clarify that there is no such Day. But there is indeed a World Toilet Day which is observed on 19th November every year, and ‘celebrates toilets and raises awareness of the 4.2 billion people living without access to safely managed sanitation’. The Day is about taking action to tackle the global sanitation crisis and achieve Sustainable Development Goal 6: Water and Sanitation for all by 2030.

Well, if we were to ‘celebrate toilets’ as urged in the mission, I would advocate for  a lovely little book called ‘Toilets of the World’ by Morna Gregory and Sian James, and published by Merrell Publishers.

The book begins with a very brief History of Toilets which is followed by a continent-wise round-up of interesting toilets. The beautiful colour plates are themselves an education of how creative photographers can make art out of not conventionally photogenic items!

Here are some interesting nuggets of information from the book.

  • The oldest known flush toilet is that of the palace of Knossos on the island of Crete, dating back to 1700 BC.
  • Solid waste generated by astronauts in space is compressed into round, flat discs and brought back to earth. NASA’s toilet engineers refer to them as ‘people patties’.
  • Toilets on board ships are referred to as ‘heads’.

And here are some toilets mentioned in the book which caught my attention for their ‘extreme’ qualities:

Public Toilet, Ephesus, Turkey. About 200 AD.

Keith Siding Road, Crandon Wisconcin: Someone as part of their garden decorations has put up an outhouse with the sign ‘Up North Rest Stop’. The door of the facility is open, and on the toilet sits a life-like lady in full view of the road, using the facilities!

Incahuasi Island, Bolivia: In the middle of 12000 sq. km. salt desert is a toilet carved from the trunk of dried cactus, with the needles removed to allow for comfortable seating.

30-Gold Store, Kowloon: This gold washroom put up in his shop by a Hong Kong jeweler is down in the Guinness Book of Records as the most expensive washroom. Fixtures, sinks, toilet brushes, toilet paper holders, all are made of gold.

Ancient Roman City, Ephesus, Turkey: Built around 200 AD, these communal pay-and-use marble latrines were for men only, and were a place for social gatherings and where many business deals were struck. Slaves used to come in early to literally warm the seats so that their masters did not feel the chill of the marble on their bottoms. There are many other yucky details, which I will refrain from sharing. (The picture is from an unforgettable family trip there.)

For more interesting information on toilets, the place to visit would of course be the unique Sulabh International Museum of Toilets at  New Delhi, which, to quote the museum website ‘has a rare collection of facts, pictures and objects detailing the historic evolution of toilets from 2500 BC to date. It provides a chronological account of developments relating to technology, toilet related social customs, toilet etiquettes, prevailing sanitary conditions and legislative efforts of different times. It has an extensive display of privies, chamber pots, toilet furniture, bidets and water closets in use from 1145 AD to the modern times. It also has a rare collection of beautiful poems related to toilet, their usage.’

In India, where close to half the population does not have a toilet at home, and where no ‘nudge’ or carrot or stick or government slogan seems to work towards reducing open defecation, every day has to be Toilet Day, and every person a Toilet Warrior!

Let’s get Vocal for Local Toilets!

–Meena

PS: I had borrowed this book from a dear friend David Foster and hope to meet him soon to return it.

PPS: Photo credit: Ashok Seshan

Reading ‘Judgmentally’

India has its fair share of Book Fests and Lit Fests. Some generic, some specific to a genre or a language. A well-known one among these is the Bangalore BizLitFest—as the name suggests, an event devoted to the Business Literature genre.

The 6th edition of this Fest, held online (of course) this year, concluded this weekend. While I have attended this Fest over the years, this time I had a special role—as one of the panel of judges to pick the best Business Book of the Year. This award was instituted in 2017, by the family of the universally-known academic Prof CK Prahalad (of ‘Bottom of Pyramid’ fame). The CK Prahalad Best Business Book Award is given to ‘the most original, impactful and thought-provoking business book written by an Indian author’.

It never ceases to amaze me how many contenders there are every year!  The competition process is a multistage one. Out of the business books published in the previous calendar year, a longlist of the top 25 is made based on ratings and reviews. Of these, the five which get the top ratings and number of reviews on Amazon, Goodreads and Flipkart in the first six months of the current  year are shortlisted. And a jury selects from among these, using two major criteria: Originality of theme, and second, Potential of the book as a game-changer, inspiration and influencer.

I was in the distinguished company of Prof Rishikesha Krishna (IIM-B), Manish Sabarwal (Teamlease), Narayan Ramachandran (formerly Morgan Stanley, writer, social entrepreneur) in the Jury Panel.

The five shortlisted books were:

Saying No to Jugaad: TN Hari, MS Subramanian

Bridgital Nation: N Chandrasekaran with Roopa Purushottaman

How I Almost Blew It: Sidharth Rao

The CEO Factory: Sudhir Sitapathy

Big Billion Startup: Mihir Dalal.

The unanimous winner was Mihir Dalal’s Big Billion Startup, the story of Flipkart.

For me, there were two levels of learning through the process:

Each book was a fascinating journey and provided enormous learning! Four of them were the story or stories of specific enterprises or entrepreneurs told so as to offer lessons to any manager or entrepreneur. Bridgital Nation was different in that it provided a broader framework of using IT to solve the nation’s problems.

At the second level, I realized that reading as a judge was a different ballgame from just reading. One has to read much more consciously, comparing and contrasting, articulating what works and what does not work. One has to be aware of content and style. Whether the ‘lessons’ are coming out clearly. And whether it will work for the audience it is meant for. While I have graded student essays and evaluated children’s fiction, judging business books was a new experience of reading ‘judgmentally’!

One comment I have on the books is that most mention dozens of names. While completely necessary to acknowledge and bring out the contribution (or otherwise) of all concerned in the making of the company, it is quite confusing for the reader who does not know any of these people. At times, I found myself going back and forth to figure out who a person was, more than even in a Russian novel!

All in all, a very interesting experience, and I thank BBLF for it.

Look forward to the next edition in Sept/Oct 2021!

–Meena

A-Rated History

I am living in 40 BC. Or the 13th, or 15th, or the 18th century. Really depends on which series I am watching at the moment. And my favourite ones are all set way, way back.

And boy, am I learning! Whether it is the Roman Empire, or the Mongols, or the Medicis, or South America, here is the most interesting way to get a feel of the time, the place, the world-changing events. Fully of course realizing that as per reviews (and my own shaky knowledge of history), these series range in accuracy from about 80% (Boilvar), to about 30% (Marco Polo). But I suppose it is up to me to read more authentic scholarly accounts and get my facts straight. I have started on Marco Polo: The Travels. But that, I suppose is not really very factual either. Marco Polo and his co-author have reports on the most fantastical things, whose authenticity is very much in doubt. But nevertheless the television series got me eager to read it.

The point I am coming around to is that this may be the best way to get young people interested in history. Just as David Attenborough and Jacques Cousteau used television and film to bring nature into the house, and thus awaken a whole generation to interest in the environment, here is an opportunity to do the same with history.

And there are several, several such popular serials which can lend themselves to this. My question is: why are they made such that the 13 and 14-year olds who I really feel would be inspired by them, cannot watch them? I understand the Romans had their orgies, the Mongols their harems, and all of them their bloody wars and brutality. But is there no way to bring them into the family room to be family watching? Surely, there can be a way to avoid so much frontal nudity, explicit sex and the level of gore that is shown. Creative film-making is about that!

This is not a plea for censorship. It is to only reiterate that more than soap-value, these topics have educational value. And as an educator, it saddens me when the opportunity is missed. Billions of dollars and so much creative talent spent. But no teacher dealing with these topics in classroom can prescribe these as required watching. Because of the nudity, sex, strong language, drug use and violence, they are not rated for this age group.

If producers feel that their core audience is not this age group, and only putting in a lot of this will bring in the audience and generate revenues, maybe expurgated student-friendly versions available in the daytime?

There MUST be a way around. Surely technology can find a fix!

–Meena