Winning Words

Language is always evolving. While some words have a history that can be traced back over centuries, new terms and new uses for terms also continue to emerge, and over time find their place in dictionaries. Much of the new vocabulary in 21st century English reflects major social changes and events that have taken place in the real world. New editions of dictionaries have included expressions such as social media, congestion charge, designer baby, flash mob, toxic debt, WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) and wardrobe malfunction.

The major English language dictionaries have an elaborate process of keeping track of new words and their usage, and based on the studies and statistics, announce the winning word or words of the year.

This is the time of the year when Words of the Year are declared by the leading dictionaries. This is the outcome of a process that reviews the ‘usage evidence’ of certain words during the year. The selection of the word/words reflect, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains “the ethos, mood or preoccupations” of the preceding year, while also having “potential as a term of lasting cultural significance.”

It was thus no surprise that the words of the year 2020 were those that dominated the lives and pre-occupations of people around the world. These included Pandemic, Quarantine and Lockdown. These words moved beyond the English language and became part of a universal vocabulary.

A natural progression from these led to the word that has been declared as the Word of the Year 2021 by the Oxford English Dictionary. The winning word is Vax.

The word first appeared as a noun in the 1980s to mean either vaccine or vaccination. But it in this year, that the small but pithy word has been used in so many ways: to denote status—‘vaxed’ ‘double vaxed’ or not ‘vaxed’; attitude—‘vaxers’ vs ‘anti vaxers’, and events—vaxathons, and vaxxies (vaccination selfies!)

In keeping with the trend of abbreviations which pack a punch of meaning, the Merrian Webster dictionary has released its list of new words added to the dictionary in 2021 that reflects the use of language in the age of online communication. Among the words in this category are:

TBH: an abbreviation for “to be honest.” 

Amirite: slang used in writing for “am I right” to represent or imitate the use of this phrase as a tag question in informal speech. An example: “English spelling is consistently inconsistent, amirite?”

FTW: an abbreviation for “for the win” used especially to express approval or support. In social media, FTW is often used to acknowledge a clever or funny response to a question or meme.

And of course these words are the staple of the vocabulary of  the Digital Nomads—a term used to describe persons who perform their occupation entirely over the Internet while traveling; especially if such a person has no permanent fixed home address.

The acceptance of abbreviations as official words that find their place in dictionaries is not a new trend in the English language. In the late 1600s it was linguistically fashionable to shorten words. For example people said ‘pos’ or ‘pozz’ for positive, meaning ‘that’s certain’ or ‘incog’ for incognito in casual speech. Words which were reduced in size in this way were called ‘clippings’. Common examples of words where the ends were ‘clipped’ were ad, doc and prof. Among the words where the beginning was clipped were phone and burger; and words where both the beginning and the end were clipped included flu and fridge. What started as informal usage became the acceptable use, and the full forms were almost forgotten over time; think of fax, memo, exam, vet, pub and bus! And not to forget the Bots whose mechanical messages have all but replaced human voices.

Perhaps the ‘clipped’ word that has dominated the past few decades as much as the word ‘vax’ may do in this decade is ‘app’.

The idea of an ‘application’, a computer function designed to meet specific user requirement had been around since the 1960s. But it was in 1985 that a writer in a trade magazine used the abbreviation ‘apps’ to denote ‘for applications’. The short form immediately caught on. It was ‘phonetically appealing, a short, perky syllable, that seemed to suit the exciting quick fire developments in digital communication of the time.’

Following this came the idea of a ‘killer app’—a function which in the dreams of the multimedia industry, would be so appealing that people would not be able to do without it.

I am not sure if ‘app’ was ever voted the word of the year, but this is one word that has surpassed the boundaries of the English language; it continues to be on everyone’s lips, and fingertips! 

–Mamata

Blender-Composting for the Lazy Gardener

Compost as we all know, is decomposed organic matter. Rich in nutrients, it is also known as ‘black gold’ for the vigour and fortification it brings to soil. Compost is the end-result of the natural degradation of biomaterials like garden waste and kitchen waste. Everything in nature will degrade in the natural course. But left to itself, it may take years or even decades. Composting is a way to nudge the process along. Win-win, because it reduces the amount of green and brown waste entering the garbage management system, and because the end-product enriches soil.

During composting, microorganisms—bacteria, fungi etc.–decompose the bio-materials. Among these, bacteria play a large part—they secrete a variety of enzymes which chemically break down organic materials. Worms, bugs, nematodes, and other critters in the soil contribute by physically breaking down those materials, which makes it easier for the bacteria, fungi and others to do their work.

The resultant compost provides the soil nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, along with a host of micronutrients and trace minerals.

Fundamentally, there are two types of composting processes which can go to work. The first is aerobic composting, in which the kind of bacteria at work use air to help speed up the breakdown of materials. The other is anaerobic composting, where the bacteria do not need oxygen to carry out the process.

There are several types of composting methods which can be used, basically classified as:

* Hot Composting: This quickly turns organic material into usable compost, but requires a lot of time and effort. Hot composting involves keeping the temperature at the center of the compost pile elevated, ideally to somewhere between 43-60o Celsius. The pile needs to be kept turned once a week or so to move colder material from the outside of the pile to the inside where it is heated and so breaks down into rich humus more quickly

* Cold Composting: Cold composting essentially means creating a compost pile and leaving nature to do its job. It requires less input from the gardener, but does mean that useable compost can take up to a year to be ready.

* Vermicomposting: Here worms are added to hasten the process of composting.

Popular domestic composting methods include open air composting, bin composting, tumbler composting and vermi-composting.

On and off, I have tried my hand at composting my kitchen waste. But being both lazy and inept, it was a mess each time!

Then I came across a method called trench-composting, which basically involves digging up the area around your plants in a shallow ditch, spreading the cut-up kitchen waste in the ditch, and covering it back with soil. I liked this method. Kind of no-fuss, no-muss; possible even for the ten-thumbed like me; and can be done on a daily basis. But then I ran into a problem. This was possible in the kitchen patch or even in the flower-beds. But what about the lawn? I could obviously not dig trenches there.

Then an idea struck. Why not blend up the kitchen waste and just pour it on the lawn? I reasoned that it would return nutrients to the soil, and would also results in a huge reduction of the kitchen waste going out into the waste management system. I started doing this.

And also decided to check if this idea had struck anyone else. Well, yes. Looks it has! The internet has accounts of what is called Blender-Composting. Several gardeners use it, though I could find no scientific papers on it. As some of the participants in the debates point out, this is not composting at all, since one is only physically crushing the pieces. But since that is the starting point of the composting process, I suppose it will help the bacteria and other micro-organisms do their work faster. Gardening experts say that addition of reasonable amount of bio-waste in this form can only have positive effects on the soil, even though it is not clear how much. However, they do caution against adding too much of this, as the early stages of the composting process could deplete nitrogen from the soil.

I can vouch that there is no smell and the goop, properly diluted and spread, attracts no flies or other insects. But depending on what goes into it, the goop can sometimes be yucky-looking, in fact referred to by some as ‘dragon-vomit’. I can vouch for this also—the day the goop is papaya-based, I definitely have to hide it in the soil in the hedges and bushes!

I am sold—it is either trench composting or blender composting for me!

–Meena

Portrait of a Potato

I am an unabashed and unapologetic potato-worshipper. I was therefore thrilled to learn about a competition called the Potato Photographer of the Year. The inaugural edition of the competition was held in 2020, and the results of the 2021 competition were just announced. And I could see the love and appreciation for the vegetable in the superbly imaginative prize-winning entries. Poems for the eyes!

The Potato Photographer of the Year competition has an eminent panel of judges including photography-great Martin Parr. The prizes will not make your fortune, and come to about £2000 worth of stuff, including a lens kit, camera case, backpack, coveted (by photographers) subscriptions, and a photography workshop. But the good part, apart from celebrating the potato, is that all entry fees (£5 per single entry) are donated to the Trussell Trust, a food bank charity that aims to end food poverty in the UK.

Potato Photo Competition
One of the winners of the Potato Photo Competition 2021!

Prosaically, the potato (Solanum tuberosum) is a tuber. It is an annual plant of the nightshade family. It is native to the Peruvian-Bolivian Andes and is one of the world’s main food crops. It is a great source of Vit C, protein, thiamin, and niacin.

Potatoes were domesticated and cultivated in South America by the Incas as early as 1,800 years ago. Spaniards who invaded South America transported them and introduced them into Europe during the second half of the 16th century. By the end of the 17th century the plant was a major crop in Ireland, and by the end of the 18th century it was being grown in significant quantities in continental Europe, particularly Germany, and in the west of England. The Irish economy became dependent on the potato, and the disastrous failures of the Irish crops in the mid-19th century because of late blight, and the resulting Irish Potato Famine had huge impacts in terms of human life, the economy and demographics.

The potato reached India in the late 16th-early 17th centuries, most likely aboard Portuguese and Dutch ships. Today, India ranks as the world’s third largest potato producing nation—with about 4.9 crore tonnes grown here in 2017. Potato is not only a staple, but a cash crop that provides significant income for farmers, through domestic sales and exports.

Though the potato reached India through the Portuguese and Dutch, it initially remained confined to the Malabar cost. It was the British who were responsible for its spread. The East India Company wanted to replace local vegetables which they thought were of low quality, with superior vegetables, viz, potato—basically because they wanted to have a reliable source for this food which had become part of their staple. So they aggressively evangelized and promoted it in every which way, including giving out the seeds and plants to farmers for free. Apart from a source to supply their own tables, the British also pushed the potato as a panacea for several ills in India. The 1838 records of the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of India states that through growing European-introduced crops such as the potato, “happiness till now unknown in India, will be diffused abroad.” Similarly, the East India Company records that growing potatoes would help “alleviate the Miseries” in India caused by frequent failures of rice crops. So the potato is indeed part of our troubled colonial past.

But to imagine a present without potatoes, I do not want to do!

While the Potato Photographer of the Year celebrates visual depictions of the tuber, the vegetable does not seem to have found much favour from wordsmiths. Poems eulogizing the potato are few and far between. One that I liked was Potatoes by Lucy Adkins.

But names of Indian potatoes are pretty poetic! Kufri Jawahar, Kufri Chandramukhi, Kufri Sutlej, Kufri Bahar, Kufri Anand, Kufri Ashoka, Kufri Pukhraj, Kufri Sindhuri, Kufri Jyoti, Kufri Megha, Kufri Lauvkar and Kufri Swarna are a few. (Kufri, I think must come from the place in Himachal which is a major potato growing area, and the location of Research Station of the Central Potato Research Institute).

Long live the potato, and may we find ways for all our senses to celebrate it!

–Meena

Concerted Cultivation

Source:kidskintha.com

“Tiger moms’, ‘helicopter parenting’; ‘authoritative parenting or authoritarian parenting’; ‘permissive parenting’ or ‘uninvolved parenting’… In the last decade or more there has been a lot of discussion and debate around ‘parenting styles’. In nuclear families with both working parents, and one or two children, there seems to be a situation where parents are overly conscious about “parenting” in order to give the “best of everything possible” to their children. Paradoxically, this is now beginning to show somewhat alarming outcomes. 

I recently read a thought-provoking book titled The Coddling of the American Mind: How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure. The book’s primary intent is to understand the phenomenon of rising intolerance on college campuses in America. In order to do this the authors attempt to go back to the contemporary practices of child-raising that impact psyche and behaviour of these children as they reach adulthood. Although these premises are based on a study of trends and theories in the Unites States, it was surprising and disturbing that a lot of this applies also to some sections of parents in India.

One of the chapters in the book looks at the changes in parenting styles in America over the last five decades or so. Parents of children born in the nineteen fifties were strongly influenced by Dr Benjamin Spock who taught that “children should be permitted to develop at their own pace, not pushed to meet the schedules and rules of adult life.” Spock encouraged parents to relax and let children be children. Children growing up in the fifties, and through the sixties and seventies roamed freely around their neighbourhood and played without adult supervision. Unsupervised time had many positives in terms of child development—joy, independence, problem solving, and resilience.

But starting from the 1980s, and gaining strength in the 1990s, there was shift in thinking about child upbringing, moving away from Spock’s “permissive parenting” to a new model of “intensive parenting.” Which is what sociologist Annette Lareau describes as “concerted cultivation”. Parents using this style see their task as cultivating their children’s talents while stimulating the development of their cognitive and social skills. They fill their children’s calendars with adult-guided activities, lessons and experiences, and they closely monitor what happens in school. They talk with their children a great deal using reasoning and persuasion, and they hardly ever use physical force or physical punishment.

The main converts to this were educated middle class parents who were reading about new theories of ‘early stimulation’ (such as babies who listened to Mozart would become smarter) and who felt that they needed to give their children every possible advantage in the increasingly competitive race to get into a good college.

Cultivation of such conditions for children requires that parents make a concerted effort to plan their children’s time.  Children have after school activities like music lessons, team sports, tutoring and other structured and supervised activities. Younger children have ‘playdates’. Children are overscheduled, over parented and over monitored.

The race for getting the child into a good college begins even before the child starts school. A telling example of the change in expectations are two checklists of reference indicators for parents to check whether their child is ready for first grade.

Checklist in 1979

–Will your child be six years six months or older when he begins first grade and starts receiving reading instruction?

–Does your child have two to five permanent or second teeth?

–Can your child tell, in such a way that his speech is understood by a school crossing guard or policeman where he lives?

–Can he draw and colour and stay within the lines of the design being covered?

–Can he stand on one foot with eyes closed for five or ten seconds?

–Can he tell his left hand from his right?

–Can he travel alone in the neighbourhood (four to eight blocks) to store, playground, or to a friend’s home?

–Can he be away from you all day without being upset?

–Can he repeat a simple eight or ten word sentence, if you say it once?

–Can he count eight to ten pennies correctly?

–Does your child try to write or copy letters or numbers?

A Checklist from a school, circa 2015, had about thirty items on it, mainly academic standards. This included the expectation that the six-year-old child should be able to:

–Identify and write numbers to100.

–Count by 10’s to 100, 2’s to 20 and 5’s to 100.

–Interpret and fill in data on a graph.

–Read all kindergarten-level sight words.

–be able to read books with five to ten words per page.

–Form complete sentences on paper using phonetic spelling (i.e. journal and story writing).

Kindergarten in the 1970s was devoted mostly to social interaction and self-directed play with some instruction in art, music, numbers and the alphabet. Kindergarten today is much more structured and sedentary with children receiving direct instruction to academic subjects—known as ‘drill and skill’ method of instruction.

In recent years, in addition to over parenting, protective parenting has grown into ‘paranoid’ parenting. Parents want to keep their children ‘safe’ from anything that they perceive might harm them—food, activities, people, words…This is creating a cult of safetyism, where children grow up believing that the world is full of danger.

The authors believe that such parenting, has adverse, rather than supportive effects on children. Overprotected children are also shielded from the small but necessary challenges and risks that they need to face on their own. The children grow up with a sense of fear, anxiety and distrust. They are denied the necessary opportunities to develop important ‘life skills’ such as self-directed learning, cooperation, negotiation, compromise, dispute resolution, decision making, and perspective taking.

 Free outdoor play, a critical component of growing up that develops these skills is increasingly missing from children’s lives today.  Studies in America have found that compared to previous generations, children growing up in the second decade of the 21st century are spending hardly any time in outdoor activities, especially free play; they spend less free time with friends and more time interacting with parents, and much more time interacting with screens.

This is perhaps almost as true now for most other parts of the world. Indeed, much more so in the last year and a half of the pandemic lockdowns. Even while the current conditions deny children many vital experiences and opportunities, it would be important to remember that even well-intentioned over parenting can harm rather than help our children. Children are naturally ‘antifragile’, their brains require a wide range of inputs from their environment in order to configure themselves for these environments. Like the immune system they must be exposed to challenges and stressors (within limits and appropriate to their age) to build resilience as they grow. Overprotection makes them weaker and less resilient later on. Given that risks and stresses are unavoidable parts of life, we may indeed be preparing our children better to cope with these, not by over-protecting them, but by helping them to develop their innate abilities to grow and learn from challenging experiences. As the authors write, you cannot teach your child antifragility directly but you can give your child the gift of multiple experiences they need to become resilient, autonomous adults.

Prepare your child for the road. Not the road for the child.

–Mamata

Indicator Tea

Those who have gone through high school science will remember lab-experiments involving indicators. Adding a drop of phenolphthalein and noting that critical point at which the colourless liquid in the flask turned a bright pink. Or when the litmus paper turned red or blue. Remember how critical it was for our grades to observe these colour changes correctly? As a B.Sc Chemistry student, indicators played a pretty large part in my life!

Those colour changes are what my experiences with butterfly-pea tea took me back to. This tea has been much in vogue for some time now. But keeping in character, I am of course about two years behind the trend.

This in spite of having the creeper literally at my doorstep. Planted there to supply flowers for my mother’s puja– the shankpushpi flower is specially a favorite of Lord Shiva–it has proven itself a hardy survivor of my spurts of inept gardening. It grows and flowers and flourishes. The indigo-blue flowers are equally beautiful on the plant and in the puja.

Clitoria ternatea commonly known as Asian pigeonwings, bluebellvine, blue pea, butterfly pea or  Darwin pea, is known for its blue flowers, though there is a less common white variant. In India, it is called shankpusham, girikarnika or aprajita.

Here it is used mainly for worship and to some extent in Ayurveda, mainly for de-stressing, and to boost memory and brain function.

The use in Southeast Asia is more varied. It is an integral part of many Thai, Malaysian and Burmese recipes as an ingredient and as a colouring agent, and is very widely used in Chinese medicines.

Which brings me to the visually-stunning butterfly-pea tea, which is a wildly popular drink in those countries (and now the world). Made by steeping a handful of flowers (fresh or dry) in hot water, the resulting tea is a lovely blue. Squeeze a lemon into it, and it turns pink or even violet—taking you right back to your school lab! It is basically the same phenomenon—a change in pH resulting in a change in colour.

Research on the use of Butterfly Pea in managing Alzheimer’s has been ongoing for some time now. The latest is a research study from National Centre for Biological Sciences, India, published in Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, which takes forward the hypothesis that extracts from this plant ‘can help in neuroprotection and prevent progressions that cause the ailment’.

So go ahead and plant a shankpushi in your garden or a pot—only making sure that it gets enough sun. It is not at all difficult to grow—my creeper sheds seeds all around, and each week, I find tens of little plants wanting to curl around the nearest support and climb. It will do well in most soils, even enriching them, as it is leguminous and will fix nitrogen. Apart from watering it once in a while, you don’t need to do much.

And in return, it will add beauty to your garden, adorn your puja room, help you make conversation-piece teas, salad additions and coloured rice. And hopefully also boost your brain-power. A winning proposition all around!

–Meena

Smiling is Infectious

Among the many “pick-me-up” messages that are circulating these days is a poem that exalts the magical power of a smile. The poem is attributed to Spike Milligan, a British comic poet, actor, playwright and author. The son of a British military officer, Spike Milligan was born in Ahmednagar and spent his growing up years in India, and this is reflected in several of his poems.

I have always enjoyed his tongue-in-cheek poems, but I had not seen this one before.

Smiling is infectious

You catch it like the flu

When someone smiled at me today

I started smiling too

I walked around the corner

and someone saw me grin

When he smiled I realised I

I’d passed it onto to him.

I thought about the smile

And then realised its worth

A single smile like mine

Can travel across the earth.

So if you feel a smile begin

Don’t leave it undetected

Let’s start an epidemic quick

And get the world infected.

When I read this I thought that it was a bit ironic, and somewhat contra indicatory in these times when all our smiles are tucked away behind our masks.

So here are some alternate lines for the times, that I have penned.

Thanks to Spike Milligan (an old favourite) for the inspiration!

.

Sneezing is Infectious

Sneezing is infectious and coughing is contagious too,

It can spread the virus that is way wickeder than the flu.

When someone simply smiled at me today, even behind their mask,

I drew back in terror and turned my face; “Such rudeness?” let them ask!

I walked around the corner, and there before my eyes

I came upon an unmasked group of goodly size.

I had to other way but to pass them by, but I was filled with tension

What was floating through the air, and spreading the infection?  

I thought about the virus and how deadly it can be

And realised how fast it spreads and offers itself for free.

A conversation, a slogan, or a song can spread it far and wide

Crossing every boundary, and respecting no identity nor side.

So if you feel a sneeze begin don’t leave it undetected

Isolate, test, and quarantine; always stay protected.

Wash your hands like Lady Macbeth, and mask up like the Lone Ranger

Let’s restrain and refrain, so that we can live to smile again without danger.

Who would ever have imagined that there would come a day when we would not encourage people to “Be Positive” and instead wish that they “Stay Negative”!

Stay safe. Keep smiling–behind that mask!

–Mamata

High-tech Barriers to Heritage

In between the first COVID wave and the second ongoing one, we were tempted to get a little adventurous. We scouted around for sites which we could visit on day-trips.

It is in this process that we got to know about a beautiful Hoysala-style temple situated in Somanathapura, which lies about 130 kms from Bangalore. This is the Chennakeshava Temple built by the Hoysala commander, Somanatha, in 1268 A.D.

And we made our way there with some friends.

It is an astounding structure, made completely of sandstone, with the most intricate carvings, built at the peak of Hoysala architectural excellence.

Chennakeśava means ‘handsome Keshava’, and the temple is dedicated to three forms of Vishu—Keshava, Janardhana and Venugopala. The main temple is on a star-shaped platform with three garbagrahas, each dedicated to one on the three forms. Besides this, there are 64 corridor shrines, set in magnificent pillared corridors. The main temple is surrounded by a pradakshina patha, all along which are carvings from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagavata Purana etc., which unfold as one undertakes the pradakshina.  The ceilings are decorated with intricate sculptures depicting different stages of the unfolding of a lotus. The massive stone pillars supporting the inner shrine were turned in ancient animal-drawn lathes.

The temple took several decades to build, but was in worship for only 60-70 years before it was sacked by invaders. Since the statues and the structure were defaced and broken, worship could no longer take place there, as per tradition.

It is a wonder that such an old and disused structure still stands in such good shape today—it is nearly 700+ years after it stopped being an active temple. It is in the hands of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), and one must appreciate their efforts to have the site in such good shape, standing in such well-maintained grounds. Even the toilets are fairly functional and clean.

But….

And it is a big BUT.

It is plagued by some problems which many of our heritage sites suffer from. For instance, we did not see a single signage anywhere on the roads telling the passers-by of the existence of such an amazing monument close by. Or to direct those who were looking for it.

Within 25 kms of the structure—leave alone on or near the premises—there is not a decent restaurant or even a picnic ground for those who had their own food.

But for the first time we came across a tech-challenge in such a place!

When we reached the gates of the monument and looked around for a ticket window, there was none. Instead there were a few flex posters, informing us of the rates (Rs 20 for online tickets), and a barcode to scan and pay. There were about six groups of tourists, all desperately trying to scan but no one was successful. After about five minutes, the helpful security guard came up to us and told us that it was not working. He suggested we should try to log into the ASI site, pay online and get our tickets. We all tried dutifully. But the signal was at best patchy and the site slow. My friend could get in. The names of each one of the group had to be entered. And the Aadhar or PAN of the person doing the booking. When she tried to pay, it got into a loop which there was no coming out of. We looked around, and many other people were in the same soup. We asked the Guard if he could not just take the money and give us tickets, but he told us that was not allowed. By this time, one person from another group was successful in getting his ticket from the ASI site. So using typical Indian jugaad, we begged him not to exit, but to do our ticketing online, and that we would pay him the Rs. 20/head in cash. He obligingly did this for some of us.

The whole process took us about 20 minutes and was pretty stressful.

And then we went in to visit the monument. Which fortunately was amazing enough to make it all worth while.

But it left us wondering what the point was. Does anyone who wants to visit a heritage site HAVE to have a smartphone? In a country where literacy, let alone digital literacy, is not to be taken for granted, should lack of these prevent a person from such basic access (never mind that it is a barrier even to COVID vaccination!). Is there an inherent age-discrimination–many older people are uncomfortable with all these scan-and-pay modes.  If the wifi does not work at a site, are people to go back the 150 kms they came to visit the monument? And why is the name of every visitor needed for buying entry tickets? Why is Aadhar or PAN information needed? Where does this information go, and what becomes of it?

If the purpose of technology is to make life easier for citizens, then this is surely not the way! The system is good in that it provides a nudge for digital payment (if you scan and pay it is Rs. 20, and if you could buy a physical ticket it is Rs. 25 per ticket). Nudges are good for bringing about behavior change. But taking away options is discriminatory and against basic rights. As is seeking information which is not relevant to anything!

Why does something like a visit to our own heritage sites have to become a battleground about rights?

–Meena

Coffee, Bournvita, or Horlicks?

…asked my mother hospitably, when our friends Kiran and Jagdeep dropped in of an evening.

I could see the surprise on their faces. While in South India, it is perfectly normal to offer drinks like Bournvita, Horlicks or Ovaltine to guests, it is definitely unusual in the North. Nevertheless, they opted for Horlicks and enjoyed the beverage…they had not partaken of it for decades! In fact, so taken were they with the idea that they went out and bought a bottle for regular use at home!

These beverages were part and parcel of our growing-up years. So great was the belief in the abilities of these drinks to aid our growth, health and well-being that bottles of Horlicks and at least one of the other malted, cacao-flavoured drink were permanent fixtures in the larder. And partaken not just by the children, old and sick, but everyone in between as a change from coffee or tea. And of course, offered to guests in some parts of the country!

What are these drinks which are (were?) such an integral part of our lives?

Actually, India is as integral to Horlicks, as Horlicks is to India. We are the largest market for the drink in the world! The origins of the drink go back almost 150 years to 1873 when James Horlick, a pharmacist, along with his brother William, founded a company called J & W Horlicks in Chicago to manufacture a patented malted milk drink. Originally it was positioned as an infant and invalid food; then added old people and travelers in its target; and in the early 20th century was sold as a meal replacement drink. As far as the India story is concerned, it was brought back to India by our soldiers who were part of the British Indian Army returning from Europe after fighting in the First World War. People in the Punjab, Bengal and Madras presidencies quickly took to it, and it was a status symbol in the 1940s and ‘50s. While there was only one type of Horlicks for many decades, today we have not only a plethora of flavours—from elaichi to kesar baadam, we also have age and gender segmented products!

One distinctive characteristic of Horlicks was that it just would not dissolve! What a lot of stirring it took! The strategy was to spoon the powder into the glass, pour in a little super-hot water, and stir and stir. One interrupted the stirring with small breaks of trying to mash the lumps with the back of the spoon against the side of the glass. Only after about five minutes of all this would the glass be filled up with hot milk and/or water. And even with all this effort, there would be lumps left at the bottom when one finished!

This was not such a problem with the other popular drinks.

Compared to Horlicks, Bournvita is much more recent, having been developed in the late 1920s, and entering the Indian market only in 1948. This malted chocolate drink mix was invented by Cadbury and got its name from Bournville, the model village developed by the Cadbury factory. The original recipe included full-cream milk, fresh eggs, malt and chocolate  and was positioned as a health drink.

Ovaltine was developed in Switzerland, where it is known by its original name Ovomaltine (from ovum, Latin for “egg”, and malt).  It came to the UK in 1909, where a misspelling of the name on the trademark registration application led to the name being shortened to Ovaltine. And the name stuck in English-speaking markets. Originally advertised as consisting solely of “malt, milk, eggs, flavoured with cocoa”, it has changed the contents and formulation over the years. In India and the UK, it no longer contains eggs.

Complan, unlike the others, is made entirely of milk protein, and was developed in the UK in 1942, during the Second World War, as an easy-to-carry nutritious drink-mix for soldiers during battle where they take only very limited dry ration. It was launched in India in 1964.

Another lesser-known drink was Ragimalt, of which I can find no trace today. The violent orange drink was lapped by pre-teens but was way too sweet for anyone else.

Many of these drink mixes have stopped being sold in many countries—for instance, Bournvita was discontinued in the UK in 2008. With changing fads and tastes, with changing understanding of nutrition, with newer allergies which seem to prevent our children from eating and drinking what was basic a few decades ago, with trends like veganism, one wonders how long these drink-mixes will be around.

Maybe time to go out and buy a few bottles before it is too late?

–Meena

The Postman Does Not Knock Even Once

When is it that you last saw letters slipped under your door by the postman? For that matter, can you recall where your nearest postbox is?

The Indian postal system has a hoary history. The official website of India Post informs us that: ‘For more than 150 years, the Department of Posts (DoP) has been the backbone of the country’s communication and has played a crucial role in the country’s social economic development. It touches the lives of Indian citizens in many ways: delivering mails, accepting deposits under Small Savings Schemes, providing life insurance cover under Postal Life Insurance (PLI) and Rural Postal Life Insurance (RPLI) and providing retail services like bill collection, sale of forms, etc. The DoP also acts as an agent for Government of India in discharging other services for citizens such as Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) wage disbursement and old age pension payments. With more than 1,55,000 post offices, the DoP has the most widely distributed postal network in the world.’

True, every word. Except alas, it needs a high school grammar exercise to be truthful: ‘Transform the verbs in present continuous to the past tense’. So the truth will read: ‘For more than 150 years, the Department of Posts (DoP) was the backbone of the country’s communication and played a crucial role in the country’s social economic development. It touched the lives of Indian citizens in many ways.

The post office has sadly lost its relevance completely–at least in the urban context. One can understand the supplantion of some of the functions: Telegrams are not relevant now that we have emails and whatsapp and phones for instantly reaching out; the phone at the post office which was used in the pre-privatization era has obviously given way to mobile phones in every pocket; money orders which we looked forward to so eagerly in our hostel days have been efficiently replaced by money transfer apps galore.  But we are still sending documents, packages, invitations etc. physically from one point to another. But we never think of using the postal system do we? By default, we use the private courier.

Private couriers came in with the promise of overnight delivery. At most, if it was the other end of the country, it was 48 hours. And that did work, for the first few years. And they do come over and pick up and drop off things. The Postman will definitely not come home if you have a package, even for a charge. And so we all started shifting to couriers.

But today, for all the fancy tracking and tracing systems, except for a few premier and highly expensive couriers, they take a good 3-4 days. And whatever the level of service, they charge a huge multiple of the value of stamps I think I would have stuck on a good old letter or package.

I am sure the Postal Department has a huge workforce. We see occasional announcements as to additional functions they will take on. But in day to day life, one seldom sees this happening.

A sad example of the public sector’s presence and importance diminishing in a key vital sector. I don’t care if Govt. of India sells all its PSUs—it probably should. But are there not some core citizen services where its presence needs to be maintained? Should these not be the focus of modernization, revitalization and re-imagination? Are we, as a country not the losers if India Post is not able to live up to its Vision and Mission quoted below?

Vision​​​

India Post’s products and services will be the customer’s first choice.​

Mission​

  • To sustain its position as the largest postal network in the world touching the lives of every citizen in the country.
  • To provide mail parcel, money transfer, banking, insurance and retail services with speed and reliability.
  • To provide services to the customers on value-for-money basis.
  • To ensure that the employees are proud to be its main strength and serve its customers with a human touch.​
  • To continue to deliver social security services and to enable last mile connectivity as a Government of India platform

–Meena

Winter Is Coming….

Unlike the Starks, I don’t need to worry about endless nights and freezing cold; or White Walkers and scary creatures breaking through the Wall.

But I do have to worry about keeping my skin moisturized.

I am bewildered when I go into a shop these days, with the multiplicity of choices. When we were young, there was a default setting. It was cold cream—in fact, Ponds Cold Cream. It was used on face, on arms, legs or any other exposed parts of the body. For particularly recalcitrant dryness, there was Vaseline, also used on chapped lips. There was the weekly ‘oil bath’ in Tam households wherein til oil was mercilessness massaged into the skin till it saturated every pore, and then washed away with shikai powder or besan.

We were simple and naïve. We didn’t even know there were other types of creams and lotions and potions. There was one dream product though, that our hearts yearned for. But seldom did we get our hands on it. I am not sure why—was it very expensive? Or was it that it was a ‘frivolous’ beauty cream and not a ‘useful’ moisturizing cream? (I saw a recent article mentioning  Afghan Snow as a fairness cream, but I don’t have any memory of it being billed in those days as such). Whatever the reasons middle-class mothers of those days had, I do remember the longing of my young heart for Afghan Snow.

I am not sure if it is still available, but I do remember the light, sparkly, ethereal look of the cream. It came in a blue glass bottle and had a lovely gentle smell. It was the most exotic thing that we knew in terms of cosmetics.

Recently, trying to figure out a bit more about this, I unearthed the fascinating Atmanirbhar story behind this product.

Ebrahim Sultanali Patanwala, originally from Rajasthan, made his way to Mumbai in the early 20th century. He found work with a perfumer and quickly picked up the techniques of blending perfumes. Soon he branched out and set up as an entrepreneur. His first product was a hair oil called ’Otto Duniya’ which met with quite some success, enabling him to set up his own lab and offices.

Messrs. E.S.Patanwala was established in 1909. The company sold oils and perfumes—both those they made, and imported ones. He developed quite a clientele among the Britishers as well as Indian royalty. This did not content him and he took himself off to Europe to learn more. He knew little English, but his earnestness and desire to learn opened doors for him. He connected with Leon Givaudan of Switzerland, at that time the world’s biggest manufacturer of aromatic chemicals. With the training and mentorship he got in Europe, he developed the formula for what was to become one of India’s most popular cosmetics—a cream.

He came back to India and set up a factory in Byculla to make the cream itself, but imported the glass bottles from Germany and the labels from Japan. Around that time, King Zahir of Afghanistan was visiting India and wanted to meet some Indian entrepreneurs. Patanwala was one of them, and he presented the King a hamper of his products included the new, as-yet-unnamed cream. The King is supposed to have opened the bottle, been charmed by the look and perfume, and made the remark that it reminded him of the Snow of Afghanistan. The enterprising Patanwala immediately asked if he could name the cream as Afghan Snow, and the King agreed, and product was launched in 1919 (making it more than 100 years old!)

The product was extremely popular, but ran into some rough weather during the Swadeshi Movement. Because the bottle and labels looked (and were) imported, people thought it was an imported product and listed it as one of the items to be boycotted. Patanwala sent a letter to Mahatma Gandhi, telling him that the product was wholly indigenous and manufactured in Byculla. Mahatma Gandhi then wrote in his newspaper about Afghan Snow, saying that it was a mistake to boycott it, and that he was appreciative that such a good product was being made in India, and that he personally endorsed it.  

I yearn even more for the product now that I know the story! What I would not give for a dark blue glass bottle full of beautifully-perfumed, light frothy shiny white snow, promising to transport me into a fairy tale!

Even more, I yearn for biographies of these amazing people who broke so many barriers, who did so many pioneering things, and who made products whose name still evokes so many memories a hundred years down the road! How they succeeded and why they did or did not sustain.

–Meena