Celebrating the Teacher

September 5–Teacher’s Day in India is marked by awards, articles, and essays  remembering and honouring those who instruct and inspire.  Across the world, and across generations, there have been many who have left behind their legacy on the young minds and lives. Films and books have tried to capture some of this in their own small way.

A film that I saw recently was a new addition to this list of ‘must watch and must read’. Freedom Writers  tells the story of an idealistic young teacher confronted with the challenge of teaching ‘unteachable, at-risk’ students, and her non-conformist attempts at making meaningful connections.

The movie is based on the real experiences of Erin Gruwell that she documented in a book titled The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them. The book was published in 1999.

Erin was a 23-year-old white American when she stepped into her classroom of a motley group of African American and Latino teenagers coming from a world of broken homes, violence, and every form of social, cultural and economic discrimination. Instead of giving up, and simply labelling her charges as ‘unteachable’, Erin realised that these young people were deprived of exposure, attention and respect. One way to open up their vision and world was to introduce them to writings that shared similar histories of discrimination, beginning with The Diary of Anne Frank, and Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo, and including a visit to the Holocaust Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Despite initial resistance, the students began to see the parallels between these books and events in history, and their own lives; they realised that they were not alone in their struggles. Erin then moved on to encouraging every student to keep a journal in which they recorded their thoughts and feelings about their past, present and future.

The students were so inspired by Anne Frank’s story that they organised a “Read-a-thon for Tolerance” and collected funds to invite Miep Gies, the Dutch woman who sheltered Anne Frank’s family, to visit them in California during the 1994/1995 school year. Miep declared that Erin Gruwell’s students were “the real heroes”. As a testament to Erin’s dauntless efforts, all 150 Freedom Writers graduated from high school and many went on to attend college—a hitherto unachieved triumph.

The book The Freedom Writers Diary is a compilation of the journals kept by these students. Its title The Freedom Writers is a tribute to the name of the 1960s US civil rights group called Freedom Riders. Erin’s book was a huge success. She went on to set up The Freedom Writers Foundation, which functions to promote Erin’s successful teaching methods.

The film brought to mind another path-breaking movie To Sir, With Love. Released in 1967, this is also based on an autobiographical novel by E.R. Braithwaite which recounts his experiences as a teacher in London. In this case, it was the challenge of a teacher of colour teaching a class of white, economically and socially-deprived teenagers in a working-class area of London. Facing similar challenges of teaching a set curriculum to semi-literate and disinterested, hostile students, Braithwaite took on the challenge by switching to unconventional teaching methods including visits to museums, and allowing students to discuss what was meaningful to them, in the class. Like Erin, he broke through the barriers, and succeeded where others had thrown up their hands in despair.

Inspiring films both. Also a reminder that, in any time and place, a single individual can make a big difference. A tribute to every teacher, who in his or her own way, touches countless minds and hearts, and changes lives.

–Mamata

 

TEN DAYS IN NEPAL

May 29th is Nepal’s Republic Day. To mark this upcoming day, here is my friend Anuradha’s travelogue, which could help those planning a trip to this amazing country. Meena.

We planned a 10-day trip and booked air tickets much in advance by Nepal Air direct flight from Bangalore to Kathmandu @ Rs.14K /ticket for round trip. With Kathmandu as a base, we took a package @ Rs.1.3 lacs for 3 pax which included flight tickets from Pokhara to Jomsom round trip, a private car with driver, and accommodations in 4* plus hotels for 9 nights.

Day-1: We were off! Reached Kathmandu by evening.

Day-2 (Friday): Kathmandu local city sightseeing -Swyambhunath Stupa, Darbar squares of Kathmandu & Patan, Pashupathinath Temple.  The ‘Living Goddess’ of Darbar square, hand-made idols of brass and metals at Patan, ancient Pashupathinath Temple were the most memorable.

Day-3 (Saturday): Early morning drive to Chitwan—a distance of around 120 Kms. On the way, there is a popular cable car ride to Mano Kaamana temple. Saturday being a state holiday, there were long queue.  Though we spent half day on the whole process of cable car ride, it was worth it.  Reached Chitwan around 5.30 pm and checked in to Hotel Green Park. As it was already dark, no activity was scheduled. We hired an auto and went around Chitwan and nearby villages, spoke to local people, did some food shopping.  Annual Elephant festival was happening nearby and we dropped in. We enjoyed watching elephant racing and elChitwanephant Polo.

Day 4 (Sunday):  Chitwan National Park visit, Elephant safari, Boating, bird watching, visit to Elephant Breeding centre and cultural evening. Rhinoceros is a star of Chitwan. There are an estimated 600+ plus Rhinos here.  Elephant Safari of around 1.5 hours across a river and inside the jungle was an amazing new experience. We could see Rhinos, Deer, Crocodiles and rare birds.

RinoBird watching from a boat across River Budiramati was amazing.   Jungle walk with guide across National Park, viewing rare Himalayan medicinal plants, creepers, birds was truly educational. We were excited to see a just-born baby elephant in the breeding centre.

 

 

Day 5 (Monday): Drove to Pokhara from Chitwan.  Beautiful drive across rivers, valleys of Himalayan stretch.  View of Dhaulagiri, Nilgiri and Annapurna range of Himalayas, Matsyangadi, Sethi Gandaki and Gudi Gandaki Rivers.  Compared to Kathmandu, Pokhara looked more developed with better infrastructure.  Our hotel was right opposite the famous Fewa lake.   Visited couple of local places in Pokhara. As it was 31st Dec, entire city was decorated and Street Festival was going on.  We roamed around here and got to know about local Mela.    It was indeed a memorable great experience to be in Nepal’s happening Pokhara, on the New Year eve.

Jamsom flightDay 6 (Tuesday): Travelled from Pokhara to Jomsom by 7.50 hrs Tara Air flight.  Flight didn’t take off on scheduled time due to bad weather.  Till 10.45 am, we had no idea whether flight would take off.  Luckily weather cleared by 11 am and we were on the way.  It was a spine-chilling experience in a 12-seater charter flight, flying at a very low height of 30 mts among Himalayan glaciers.

Flight landed in a small place Jomsom, surrounded by mountains.  Temperature was minus (going down to -17o C). Stay was arranged in Om’s Home, a beautiful heritage hotel.  Understand Amitabh Bachchan stayed in this Hotel during shooting of his movie Khuda Gawah.  To our excitement, the same room was allocated to us.  We quickly freshened up for a local visit around Jomsom, to a lake which was frozen and a beautiful Morpha village.  Since it was off-season, not many tourists found and it was calm and heavenly.  The apple-growing Morpha village was very clean and neat with wooden houses.   Dining room at Hotel was kept warm by non-electrical boiler heater.  Internet connectivity was very good though it is a remote place.

Day 7 (Wednesday):  Mukthinath Darshan.  We started around 9 a.m. from Hotel by jeep towards Mukthinath.  There are no words to explain our experience of passing through the Himalayan valley. We filled our hearts and minds with the Himalayan view and took pics. We crossed Khinga, Jarkot, Kakbani villages, Kali Gandaki river and drove towards Mustang and arrived to Mukthinath base. After 30 mts trek, we reached the holy temple.  Our dream of seeing god Mukthinath has come true.  We bathed in icy cold holy water here.  We had a very good darshan as there were no crowds, thanks to the cold.

As we had read that ‘Saligrama’ is found at Kali Gandaki river, we requested our driver to take us to the river bank .  He was good enough to do so and after an hour of searching, we found a few.  On the way back we bought fresh Walnuts and dried apple.

Day 8 (Thursday): Departure from Jamsom by Tara Air and back to Pokhara around 9 a.m. Full day Pokhara local visit was planned.  We have covered Museum on Mountaineering-definitely worth a visit.  4.5 km boat ride in Fewa Lake was a wonderful experience.Peace Pagoda stupa at Pokhara was also interesting.

Day 9 (Friday): Sunrise view from Sarangkot is not to be missed.  The view of Davalgiri and Annapurna Himalayan ranges, sun rising on these mountain ranges can’t be explained but has to be experienced.  We were in no mood to leave the place and were there till 8.30 a.m. filling our eyes with mountain ranges and sun rise view. As next visit was to Nagrkot a long drive from Pokhara, we had to leave to continue the journey.

It was full-day awesome drive across river Trishooli, Sethu Gandaki. On the way, we visited an extremely old temple Changinarayan.  Wooden crafts and masks are famous here. We reached Nagarkot mountain peak around 8 p.m.  Our stay was arranged in Country Villa wherein each room is on a mountain edge and built in such a way that sunrise can be viewed from the room itself. The great Everest mountain ranges are visible from Nagarkot.  It is better to plan for more time at this beautiful place.

Day 10 (Saturday):  Morning, we checked out of the to drive towards Bhaktapur, a heritage city. Bhaktapur is famous for Thangka art and paintings.  City looked red–all brick buildings without paint. We visited Darbar square of Bhaktapur, saw beautiful sculptures and heard stories behind these.  We quickly finished our Bhaktapur visit so as to reach airport by 12 noon to catch our return flight.

Paintings

Reached Bangalore around 5 p.m. with amazing memories of Nepal, eyes filled with Himalayan glaciers, blessings of Lord Pashupathinath and Mukthinath.

Our observation of Nepal on our 10-day tour is that people of Nepal are very proud and concerned about the Himalayas and treat their land as God’s home.  Women are respected, they go all alone freely.  People are sincere and happy.   All the places we visited in Nepal were clean and well maintained. Rest rooms were hygienic. Garbage bins are available in most of the places and also getting cleared every now and then.  Nepal is truly a worth visiting destination.

–Anuradha Nagaraj

(Trip of Dec 2018-Jan 2019).

Promoting GI, Protecting Diversity

Last week, I happened to go to Goa (regretfully, not a holiday!). The airport, as many airports across the country, is full of shops.

Apart from the usual brand shops and the special Goa memorabilia shops, I came across a fascinating outlet here. It was a ‘GIs of India’ shop!

Oh, I have jumped the gun! GI could stand for any number of things. I am referring to Geographical Indication, which is “an indication which identifies goods such as agricultural goods, natural goods or manufactured goods as originating, or manufactured in the territory of a country, or a region or locality in that territory, where a given quality, reputation or other characteristic of such goods is essentially attributable to its geographical origin and in case where such goods are manufactured goods one of the activities of either the production or of processing or preparation of the goods concerned takes place in such territory, region or locality, as the case may be.”. GI is a type of intellectual property right, which certifies a product as having originated in a specific geographic location—for instance, that the Mysore silk you just bought is indeed produced in Mysore; or the Jaipur Blue Pottery is indeed from Jaipur.

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Madurai Sungudi is GI registered

India enacted the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act in 1999. The first GI product to be registered was Darjeeling Tea. Now there are 330 GI registered products—a fascinating range, from the usual suspects to the completely unexpected—from Kanpur Saddlery, to Beed Custard Apple; from Coimbatore Wet Grinder, to Varanasi Glass Beads!

The shop at the Goa Airport was very new, just being set up. But the staff were extremely enthusiastic and eager not just to sell their products, but also share information on the concept of GI shops. They said that a large chain of these was coming up across the country.

Indeed an exciting way to create a market for these amazing products, and preserve the diversity, both natural and cultural.

I’ll be on the lookout for these GI shops, for sure!

–Meena

Jodhpur: Ancient City, New Experiences

Jodhpur is an old city, going back to 1459. The magnificent Mehrangarh Fort, the slightly anachronistic Umaid Bhawan Palace, bazaars, the camels that still stride the streets, the food…an experience for all the senses.

One danger with going back to re-visit old haunts is that the present almost never lives up to past memories.

But as far as Jodhpur is concerned, I will not complain on this count! We’ve been going back every few years, and it just gets more interesting!

fort 4This year, the highlight of our trip was the Mehrangarh Fort. We go there every visit, but this year new areas seem to have been opened up. Shaded gardens, cobbled paths, open spaces from which to view the city–many of which I do not recall from dozens of visits. fort 2And the whole, immaculately maintained.

ziplineAnd the zipline running from the Fort! This has been in operation for about a year now, it seems. It has six segments, some offering dramatic views of the blue city; others of the ramparts of the fort; and yet others of the Padamsar lake. And most important, it looks safe and well-maintained, and the people running it come across as professional and competent.

I must not forget however the highlight of our trip. We went to catch a movie at the mall with our friends. And there, waiting with us was a lovely Rajput couple, with their little 6 month old son. He was bundled up in a green velvet teddy-bear like costume. After the usual cooing around the smiling baby, we asked what his name was. It was Rudra Pratap Singh! Wow! What a name for a gurgling little fellow dressed in green velvet! Will it put pressure on him? Or will he just grow into it? Who knows?

–Meena

PS: I did not zipline, scaredy me! Raghu did.

Moon Tiger

“On the bedside is a Moon Tiger. The Moon Tiger is a green coil IMG_20181211_082936 (1).jpgthat burns slowly all night, repelling mosquitoes, dropping away into lengths of green ash, its glowing red eye a companion of the hot insect-rasping darkness. She lies there thinking of nothing, simply being, her whole body content. Another inch of Moon Tiger feathers down into the saucer.”

When I read these words my eyes fell on the Good Knight coil by my bedside…and I looked at it with completely new eyes.  Imagine, this taken-for-granted necessity being described so eloquently. Even more interesting was the fact that this description refers to the period of the first World War II in Egypt when mosquito repellent coils were widely used and sold under the name of Moon Tiger. So much for my thinking that Good Knight was a very desi product of our times!

The revelation came as I was recently reading a book by the same name. Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively was published in 1987 and won the Booker Prize that year.

Moon Tiger is the tale told by Claudia Hampton, a beautiful, once-famous writer of history books, who lies dying in hospital. As she lies there she is conjuring in her mind ‘a history of the world … and in the process, my own’. Gradually she re-creates the rich mosaic of her life and times peopled with those near and dear to her. In doing so she confronts her own, personal history, unearthing the passions and pains that have defined her life.

The most poignant of these is her memories of her time in Egypt as a war correspondent and her brief affair with her one great love, both found and lost in wartime Egypt. The description of the Moon Tiger that burns all night, slowly dropping its coil into ash, forms both the central image of the story and its structure.

Penelope Lively, an acclaimed novelist and children’s writer was herself born in Cairo, Egypt, in 1933 and brought up there. In this novel she weaves an exquisite mesh of memories, flashbacks and shifting voices, in a haunting story of loss and desire. Moon Tiger is also about the ways in which we are connected to people, places, and history.

I have always enjoyed reading Penelope Lively, but this book soars above them all in terms of the language, the flow and the sensitive journey through the landscape of the mind.  The title itself is ‘a metaphor for the persistence of some experiences and the burning present-ness of some memories’.

Coincidentally I discovered this book this year—2018—the same year that the Golden Man Booker list, which chose one book for each of the five decades that the Booker Prize has been running, announced that Moon Tiger was the chosen book for the decade of the 1980s.

–Mamata

Festival of Farming

20181117_120113_resizedThe annual Krishi Mela is an event Bangaloreans look forward to. Organized in November every year, the 3-day Mela showcases the latest in agriculture and livestock related developments—from technologies, to equipment and tools, to new varieties of seeds, to green farming.

First a word about the Gandhi Krishi Vignana Kendra (GKVK), the venue of the mela. This amazing 1300+ acre campus has a hoary history. More than a century ago in 1899, Her Excellency Maharani Vani Vilasa, Regent of Mysore donated 30 acres of land for an Experimental Agricultural Station at Hebbal, which initiated research projects related to agriculture. In 1963, the Government of Mysore decided to establish University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS) along the lines of Land Grant College system of USA and passed the University of Agricultural Sciences Bill. It granted 1300 acres to the GKVK Campus.

UAS was inaugurated by Dr Zakir Hussain, then Vice President of India, on 21st Aug 1964. Speaking at the event, he set the institute a lofty mandate: “By bringing about significant improvement in every phase of rural life, by much needed change in methods of production, by influencing the whole outlook of the rural community and rural home, by giving them a new vision and new hope, this university will be able to make great contribution to national welfare”.

The Krishi Mela sees visitation in the lakhs—from farmers to students to urbanites interested in agriculture, it is a joyous (though somewhat hot and tiring) occasion.

For farmers, it is an opportunity to see the latest advancements in the field of agriculture; to interact with agro-business companies and see demonstrations of agricultural implements; to get advice from university researchers on best methods of farming for a particular crop; and be exposed to practices like biological control of insects, organic farming in polyhouses, setting up biogas plants and extracting biodiesel.

For a layperson like me, it is an occasion to buy seeds and gardening implements; get some advice on how to look after plants; get to know something about the complexities of farming; marvel at things like a 70 kg bunch of bananas and a magnificent Gir bull; and gawk at sights like a drone which can be used for spraying pesticides. Also to partake of a traditional lunch (Menu: ragi muddu, palya, rice-rasam, curd-rice and a sweet) at Rs.50!

For me, the best thing about bringing such a mela into the heart of a city like Bangalore is the value it has as a reminder to us of who feeds us, and the challenges they face to do so!

Food Spy

It is said that America is a country of immigrants. Over the centuries people from all continents made their way to the ‘promised land’ and made it their home. Interestingly, a lot of the food that is today so much a part of the American diet, is also part of another immigration story. Quinoa, kale, avocado, nectarines, soya beans; even pineapples, oranges and lemons—just about 150 years ago, these were unseen and unheard of in America. Many of these were introduced to the country by a single man, David Fairchild, who called himself an agricultural explorer.

David Fairchild grew up in Kansas at the end of the 19th century, a time when the diet of his countrymen was made up primarily of bland meat, potatoes and cheese, and excluded vegetables and fruit. Fairchild was no gourmet himself, but he loved plants, and he loved travel, and he found a way to combine both into a job for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At the age of 22, he created the Section of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction of the USDA, and for the next 37 years, he travelled the world, visiting every continent except Antarctica, in search of useful plants to bring back to America. When he started out in his new job, with little knowledge or knowhow, he began by stealing seeds, but over time he learnt other strategies like talking to the local people, visiting local markets and observing what people were growing and eating. This also earned him the sobriquet of Food Spy!

With a combination of strategies, and often at the risk of his own life, Fairchild managed to send back seeds or cuttings of over 200,000 kinds of fruits, vegetable and grains. His department, the Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction, researched these and distributed new crops to farmers around the states.

It was not an easy process, introducing new food crops. Farmers did not like to take risks, the general public was suspicious of new foods and fearful that the overseas immigrants would bring in tropical disease and insects. Even today there is a Quarantine Law which forbids anyone from bringing in agricultural material into the US. Uphill task though it was, Fairchild did succeed to a large extent, and managed to introduce mangoes, quinoa, dates, cotton, soybeans, bamboo, and even the flowering Japanese cherry trees that blossom all over Washington D.C. each spring.

In 1904 Fairchild was invited to speak at the National Geographic Society where he met the famous inventor Alexander Graham Bell who was the Society’s second president; years later Fairchild married Bell’s daughter.

Last week the National Geographic Society hosted a curated dinner where the menu featured some of the many foods—avocados, dates, and other that David Fairchild brought to the United States more than 100 years ago, thus changing the country’s culinary palate.

The story of this amazing food traveller is told in a book by Daniel Stone titled The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats.

 —Mamata

 

Women Who Inspire

‘It is necessary that no matter what section of society she belongs to, every woman has to know three things: one, she has to know her body, how it works, so that nobody can use it or tamper with it against her will. Two, every woman has to have a skill that can generate income for her. This is very important so that she is not dependent on anyone for her survival. And three, every woman should be broadly aware how the democratic structures and institutions of our country work—be it the gram panchayat, the state assembly, the national parliament, or our unions, cooperatives, federations and associations, so that she knows she belongs to them and can someday participate in them.’

mushroom farming

So says Ms. Ela Bhat, in her Introduction to Sudha Menon’s ‘Leading Ladies. Women Who Inspire India’. And when it comes from the wisdom, the gravitas and the experience of Ms. Bhat, we better take it seriously!

‘Leading Ladies’ is a compilation of the life stories of 15 eminent women-achievers. As the author herself says, many of them have been written about quite often—Amrita Patel, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Vinita Bali, etc. But every author and piece does throw some new light, does surface some new angle. And there are some lesser-written about heroines too. I was particularly taken with the stories of Lila Poonawala, Mallika Srinivasan and PT Usha. While the criteria of selection are not spelt out, I don’t think it is much of a point to quibble about–the women featured come from a variety of backgrounds—business, to non-profit work, to sports.

The author has been lucky enough to spend considerable time with each of the featured women, and hence, there is both detail and affection in the writing of the pieces.

Positive stories and stories of achievers are inspirational and important. Especially important are stories of women who fight the odds, break stereotypes, venture into new territories, and come out winners. The book is an easy read, in a story-telling kind of style.

Good weekend or in-flight reading. Read it yourself and gift it to young women you know. And especially, I wish colleges and educational institutions would buy this for their libraries.

–Meena

Leading Ladies. Women Who Inspire India. Sudha Menon. Fortytwo Bookz Galaxy. 2010.

A Life Too Short: A Tribute to Dr. Vikram Sarabhai

Today all of us as Indians, and the whole world in fact, see India as a technological power, a force to reckon with. It is easy for us to be confident of ourselves, our technical prowess, and our growing economic power. But in the ‘40s and ‘50s? We were a fledgling nation, and even food security was an issue. Many around the world wondered whether we would survive as a country, as a democracy. And at such a time, there were some people who had the daring, the vision and the confidence, to dream of being a country that would make a difference. One of them was Vikram Sarabhai.

‘Vikram Sarabhai—A Life’ by Amrita Shah tells this story well. It is a book which made me feel proud as an Indian; which said individuals can make a huge difference; which revealed glimpses of what it takes to build institutions of excellence; and which, most importantly said that it is possible to be a wonderful, warm, caring and very human person, and a high-achiever at the same time.

We look around us today—India is launching rockets for developed countries, it is accepted as a nuclear power, it is on the forefront of the IT revolution. But how did we get here? This book gives us some insights. I think this is an important role that a biography plays—being able to connect the present with the historical context, through the achievements and the legacy of one person.

And the book gives us glimpses of other very extraordinary individuals who played a part in Vikram’s life. The book helps one understand the impact that Ambalal Sarabhai or Kasturbhai Lalbhai or Bhabha had on Sarabhai’s work. But though we catch glimpses of the next generation–Dr Kalam, Mr Seshan, Kiran Karnik or Madhavan Nair—we don’t get an insight into how they, as people and professionals, were impacted by Sarabhai. But that’s probably another book!

The book chronicles well the span and breadth of Sarabhai’s achievements—from pure research to scientific administration; from running a pharmaceutical concern to laying the foundation for management education as we know it today; from market research to bringing in scientific approaches to looking at industrial operations; from space to atomic energy.  But what it does even better is to reveal that he set out on each of these diversified ventures with a clarity of purpose and a remarkably unified approach to seemingly very different issues. Sarabhai knew what he was doing. He was not a vain man, but definitely he had no doubts about his ability to take on the most impossible-seeming jobs—even when older and wiser heads thought otherwise. His charm and charisma, which probably helped him overcome many an obstacle, come through. But what also comes through is that his relationship with people was based on a real sense of caring. He did not set out to charm people for what he could get out of them, but probably ended up charming because he was a warm, caring and joyous person who believed in people and respected them.

Vikram the father, Vikram the husband, Vikram the boss, Vikram the son, Vikram the scientist, Vikram the manager—they are all there. Maybe not in depth but definitely outlined evocatively enough to give one a flavour of the person in his multiple roles.

The book is remarkably non-judgmental and matter-of-fact. Though Ms. Shah says that Vikram Sarabhai was a childhood hero and that is why she set about writing his biography, she seems to have been able to resist the temptation to fuzz not-so-pleasant realities. Whether it is his marriage, or his inability to really assert himself and take a firm stand vis a vis individuals in the Department of Atomic Energy, it is told like it was.

I would like to thank Amrita Shah for this biography. We cannot afford to forget our heroes—and Vikram Sarabhai was certainly one of them.

–Meena

Vikram Sarabhai, A Life by Amrita Shah was published in 2007. It is reviewed today to commemorate Dr. Sarabhai’s birthday which falls on 12 August.

The Millennial Matriarchs both count Ahmedabad as home and have worked in institutions which were part of Vikrambhai’s dream. I had the additional good fortune of living on the campus of IIM Ahmedabad as a faculty-spouse. In a large part, we owe what we are to him, albeit indirectly.

Keeping Tradition Alive

July is here. And along with it, the festival season. Pujas—a time for festivities, fun, enjoyment with the family. A time to get back in touch with our traditions. A time of solemnity and also gaiety.

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But also today, a time for stress! Who knows what the auspicious grass for Ganesh Chaturthi is? Or the prasadam to be made for Thiruvadarai? What is the rangoli to make for Rathasapthami?

And how to answer questions from the kids? Why is Naga Panchami celebrated? Who is Ekadashi? Why do we make sundal for Navaratri?

“Follow the Hindu Moon: A Guide to the Festivals of South India’, by Soumya Aravind Sitaraman, will answer all these questions and more. Brought out by Random House about 10 years ago, this magnum opus is in two volumes, totaling to over 800 pages. But don’t be put off by the weight and the bulk. The publication is erudite and comprehensive, but extremely easy to read and refer to. The text presentation is clearly organized and simple.

What really brings the book to life are the more than 400 colour plates. Beautiful, un-posed, real—they bring alive the beauty of our traditions. Whether it is the decoration of Varalakshmi or the photographs of the delicacies made for different pujas, you wish you could be there in the photo, living that moment. The photographer is Usha Kris, Soumya’s mother!

Volume 1 is called  ‘Celebrate’. It covers: “Puja Basics’—everything from aartis to vastram; ‘Embracing the Almighty’—a guide to pujas;   ‘ Getting organized’—pooja checklists to annual festival planner; and ‘Celebrate’—detailed walkthroughs for every festival of South India, including procedures, observances, rituals, sankalpams, stories, etc.

Volume 2 called ‘Understand’ has sections on everything from ‘Reading the Panchanga’ to shlokams, to naivedya recipes, and festival-specific rangoli designs.

The books work at several levels: as a ‘Do-it-yourself’ guide for novices; as a reference book on details for experienced mamis; and as a fascinating browse for anyone.

At first look, Rs. 3500 seems a bit of an investment. But this book is bringing to you almost those many years of tradition!

So whether you are an experienced puja veteran, or a student in the US who wants to celebrate festivals the traditional way, or an ‘armchair cook’ like me, you are going to enjoy this book. So buy it for yourself. Or share the joy of a festival and gift it to a loved one!

–Meena