Word Builder

As summer holidays approach so do memories of vacation pastimes with family and friends. One favourite pastime for us was games of Scrabble—the word building game that made us focus, squabble and compete for points as we triumphantly built words with triple scoring letters, or bemoaned the fact that we were left with all vowels, or no vowels, to build our words.

Scrabble is one of the games that is universally known and popular across continents and languages.

The story of Scrabble is an interesting one. In 1924, a young man Alfred Mosher Butts graduated from University of Pennsylvania’s school of architecture. It was a time when New York’s skyline was rising upwards, and the young architect joined a prestigious New York firm where he was assigned to design elegant country homes for the rich. In just five years the bubble burst, and as the economy crashed, the United States was plunged into the Great Depression. Butts was among the millions who lost their jobs. He was just 32 years old, and his career path looked hazy.

Butts had always loved word games and games of strategy like crosswords and chess. Crossword puzzles were already a popular pastime in the United States in the 1920s. Alfred Butts noticed that a new game called Monopoly was becoming very popular, and was also commercially successful. He found that there was no word game in the market. Butt began toying with the idea of developing a word game that combined both skill and chance. He began by studying the front page of The New York Times to calculate how frequently each letter of the alphabet was used. He found that just 12 letters (E, T, A, O, I, N, S, H, R, D, L and U) accounted for 80% of the letters that are normally used.  Butt used his analysis and his free ‘unemployed’ time to develop a word game that involved knowledge, strategy and chance. He cut 100 wooden tiles by hand, each with a letter of the alphabet, and drew a grid of squares on a playing board. Each letter had points assigned. The players had to draw nine letter tiles, which were placed face down, at random, and arrange these to form words on the squares. The first players were Alfred Butts, his wife Nina and their friends. Nina, as it turned out, knew more words and had better spelling than her inventor husband, and always scored more than him. As Alfred admitted “she beat me at my own game,” literally.

Alfred could invent an interesting game, but just could not find the right name for it. He first called it Lexico, then changed the name to IT, then to Criss Cross and then Criss Cross Words, but none of them really clicked. He was equally unsuccessful in trying to register the trademark of his new game. In 1933 he approached all the major games manufacturers, but they rejected the game. Butts in the meanwhile, continued to innovate—he made a15x15 square board for the game, and added values to some of the squares to double and triple the score of the letter placed on them; he reduced the number of tiles to be picked at a time to 7. He even manufactured 200 sets himself, and offered them at $2 a set plus 25 cents for shipping. But the big games manufacturers were still not interested. By then Butts had been reemployed as an architect and could no longer spend as much time on further promoting his game. But the game continued to played by his friends.

One of these friends who had bought one of Butt’s handmade sets had a friend called James Brunot who was impressed by the game. Brunot offered to make and sell the game. In 1948 Butts sold the management of the game’s production to Bruno, but he retained the patent, and it was agreed that he would receive royalties on the sales. Bruno made modifications to the game, changing the colours on the board, and the scoring system. He also came up with the name SCRABBLE a word meaning ‘to scrape or grope around frantically with your hands’ from the Dutch ‘schrabben’ to scrape or scratch. Brunot trademarked Scrabble in December 1948.

Even under Brunot the game had a shaky start. Just as Butts had done more than a decade earlier, the first sets were hand produced, initially in Brunot’s own house and then in an abandoned schoolhouse by his wife and friends, laboriously stamping out one letter at a time on wooden tiles. Thus the production was slow; in 1949 they produced 2400 sets; and lost money, but the game was gaining in popularity. 

The breakthrough came in the early 1952 when, as the story goes, the chairman of Macy’s, one of New York’s biggest department stores saw the game being played when he was on vacation. On his return he was surprised to discover that Macy’s did not stock this game, and he immediately placed a large order. The game was an instant hit; within a year everyone ‘had to have one’, and Scrabble sets had to be were rationed in stores around the United States.

Meanwhile, the Brunots had to cope with the escalating demand by expanding their production facilities. The popularity and demand snowballed so rapidly that the production and marketing had to be taken to a different level of commerce, with different companies getting into the venture. In 1955 the game crossed the Atlantic and began to sell in the UK.

The rest as they say is history. It took over two decades for Butt’s Criss-Cross Words to make it big. Scrabble is now available in 31 languages and sold in 121 countries worldwide. Over one hundred and fifty million sets of Scrabble have been sold. The Scrabble craze spawned a number of other commercial enterprises—dictionaries, books on strategy, tournaments, and more.

Unlike the inventor of the safety pin, Butts did earn royalties on his invention, which it is believed were about three cents a set. Butt said ‘One-third went to taxes, I gave one-third away, and the other third enabled me to have an enjoyable life’ until he died at the age of 93 on 4 April 1993. Butt spent a creative life; he designed buildings, he was a painter, and a stamp collector. He also continued to invent board games, including one called Alfred’s Other Game, when he was in his eighties. But he is best remembered as the inventor of Scrabble. And his birthday on 13 April is celebrated in the USA as National Scrabble Day.

A good time to pull out that old Scrabble board and build some words!


Eradicating the Stigma

In 1894, while Gandhiji was in South Africa, he was addressing a gathering in Natal. He noticed that some people were standing well away from the crowd, but listening to him intently. He beckoned them to join the rest, but they did not do so. After his talk, as Gandhi started walking towards them, one of them called out “Gandhibhai, do not come near us, we are lepers.”  Gandhi was undeterred. When he went close  he saw that they were a sorry picture. Some had lost their fingers and toes, or hair, some had disfigured facial features. When he asked them whether they were being treated for their ailments he was shocked to hear that no one was willing to come near them, let alone treat them. They said that they were completely ostracized by all, and died a lonely death far away from all others. Gandhi invited this group to his camp, and personally cleaned their festering wounds, and bathed and fed them.

This incident was the start of Gandhi’s lifelong crusade to lift the stigma against leprosy. And the start of one his satyagrahas—the satyagraha to not just treat, but to eradicate the stigma against this other group of ‘untouchables’.

Gandhiji and Parchure Shastri
source: http://www.mkgandhi.org

Gandhi’s close friendship and solicitous care of the scholar Parchure Shastri who was a leprosy patient is well documented. They met while both were in confinement in Yerawada jail and Shastri was kept in isolation; the two developed close bonds, Later Gandhi invited Shastri to live in the Sevagram Ashram and personally supervised his care and treatment.  

Manohar Diwan, one of Gandhi’s followers became the first non-missionary Indian to work on leprosy. In 1936, under the guidance of Vinoba Bhave and Gandhiji, he started the Maharogi Seva Samiti, the first indigenous leprosy care centre in India at Duttapur, close to the Sevagram Ashran near Wardha; which is still running.  

Subsequently, the Gandhi Memorial Leprosy Foundation was started, led by Dr. Wardekar, who developed the Survey Education Treatment (SET) strategy to control leprosy, that became the national strategy.

In 1955, the Government of India started the National Leprosy Control Programme for surveillance, which was upgraded to National Leprosy Elimination Programme (NLEP) in 1983 bringing leprosy treatment on its agenda. In 1991, India contained 75 per cent of the world’s leprosy cases. On January 30, 2005, India announced that it had eliminated leprosy as a public health problem, i.e., less than 1 person in 10,000 infected with the disease. India still makes up 58.8 per cent of the world’s leprosy cases.

While statistically India has had a large number of leprosy patients, it would be wrong to assume that leprosy is a disease only of poor and perceived ‘backward’ countries. Most people would not believe it if they were told that just a hundred years ago, leprosy was as much of a stigma in the United States of America. Even today USA is not entirely leprosy free.

Although leprosy was never an epidemic in the United States, cases of leprosy had been reported in the southern state of Louisiana as early as the 18th century. It is believed that these might have been carried by the slaves from Africa. One of the major ports where the ships bringing these slaves docked was New Orleans. As cases of people with the dreadful disease were being reported, it was also clear that these patients were totally outcast, until they died a pitiful and lonely death.

 In 1896 four missionary sisters of The Catholic Daughters of St. Vincent de Paul came to this region. They set up a retreat in Carville, in South Louisiana, to serve the mission of caring for these patients who were totally outcast and ostracized. For the next 109 years a total of 116 sisters made it their life’s mission to work in the leprosarium.

Due to the social stigmas that surrounded leprosy, upon arriving at Carville, patients were encouraged to take on a new identity. As a result, many patients at Carville changed their names. Most patients had very limited contact with family members. Visitors were allowed, but the remote location made this difficult. Even the staff of the leprosarium seldom knew the patients’ real names or knew what town they came from. Most of those who came to the institution, lived there for the rest of their life, and died there.

In 1921 the federal government took over the hospital from the state of Louisiana and it became the National Leprosarium, the only leprosy hospital in the United States.

The Hospital’s treatment facility closed in 1999. The building was converted into the National Hansen’s Disease Museum the same year. This museum honours the leprosy patients—once quarantined on site—and the medical staff who cared for them and made medical history as they battled leprosy. The museum collects, preserves and interprets medical and cultural artefacts to inform and educate the public about Hansen’s disease (leprosy).

For hundreds of years leprosy remained a mysterious disease. It was even seen as the sign of a curse that slowly mutilated its victims. It was thought that anyone who came in contact with a victim would also get it. It was also believed that is was a hereditary disease. As a result leprosy patients became “lepers” in every sense of the term.   

It was Gerhard-Henrik Armauer Hansen, a Norwegian scientist, who discovered the slow-growing bacterium now known as Mycobacterium leprae as the cause of the illness.  This was at a time when the concept of contagion was still poorly understood, and no one had shown that bacteria could cause human diseases. Hansen’s thesis was received with scepticism by the medical fraternity. But his strong conviction in his discovery and unstinted devotion to a lifetime of research changed the way leprosy was approached as a disease. Today it is accepted that leprosy is not hereditary; it is difficult to catch, and it can take many years to develop symptoms of the disease following an infection. Also, people who catch the disease can be cured with antibiotics.

Leprosy was renamed Hansen’s disease in honour of the scientist who made these findings.

While medical advances in the understanding and treatment of leprosy have been progressing, a greater challenge is to change common perceptions and attitudes towards those who have been afflicted by this condition. A large effort towards this was initiated by another crusader, the French humanitarian and journalist Raoul Follereau. It is believed that he first encountered lepers while on a journalist assignment in South America in the mid 1920s. Just as Gandhi had reacted in South Africa, Follereau on seeing a group of people hiding in the bushes, asked his guide who they were. As he later recounted: “… To the guide I said: ‘Who are these men? ‘Lepers’ he answered. ‘…but wouldn’t they be better in the village? What have they done to be excluded?’ ‘They are lepers’, answered the taciturn and stubborn man. ‘At least they are being treated?’ Then my interlocutor shrug his shoulders and left me without anything say. … and it was on that day that I decided to plead one cause for all my life, that …of lepers.”

So began Follereau’s satyagraha. Along with his numerous duties as cultural ambassador for France, and journalist, he worked actively to support projects for care of leprosy patients, and spread awareness. In April 1943 the first conference on this subject was held. In 1953, a missionary Father Balez suggested to Raoul Follereau to create a world day of prayer for lepers. Raoul Follereau chose 30th January, the day that Gandhiji died as the date for this annual Day.

The first World Day of Lepers was celebrated on the last Sunday of January 1954. This day had two objectives: First to advocate that leprosy patients are cared for and treated like all other patients, while respecting their freedom and their human dignity. And second, “to cure the healthy” of the absurd and sometimes criminal fear they have of this disease and of those who are affected by it.

This year on World Leprosy Day let us remember the pioneers who led their own crusades against the stigma. Also re-educate ourselves about this often avoided topic, and join the fight to end the stigma.


Save Our Soil

Unless we are a farmer or a gardener, few of us consciously think about soil. And yet, it is soil that sustains life on earth. Scientists study biodiversity on land and in the water, but not as many look that closely at soil and what it harbours. Soil is home to more than 1/4 of our planet’s biodiversity, but we only know 1 per cent of this universe. 

December 5 is World Soil Day–an international day to celebrate Soil. This day was first recommended by the International Union of Soil Sciences (IUSS) in 2002; it was supported by the FAO and endorsed by the UN General Assembly in June 2013. The day means to raise global awareness about the importance of healthy soil and advocate for the sustainable management of soil resources. It is marked on December 5 was chosen because it corresponds with the official birthday of the late H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, King of Thailand, who was one of the main proponents of this initiative.

There are more living creatures in a single teaspoon of healthy soil than there are people on Earth.

This year’s World Soil Day theme is Keep Soil Alive, Protect Soil Biodiversity. Now, more than ever before, soil biodiversity is under pressure due to unsustainable soil management that affects life belowground. This theme focuses attention on the workers belowground–from tiny bacteria to agile millipedes and slimy earthworms–all of which contribute to processes that are indispensable to life on Earth.

It is a reminder that unless people around the world proactively engage in improving soil health, soon, the fertility of soil will continue to be adversely affected at an alarming rate, threatening global food supplies and food safety.

Here is my small contribution to this day.  Giving soil a voice!

The Soil’s Lament

I am soil. Ever thought about me?

Always underfoot, you think I’m here for free.

In your fields and gardens, roads and lawns

On mountains in deserts, in cities and towns.

I can be living, feeling, strong and healthy like you

But I can also get sick, and sometimes tired too.

Then I get weaker, unable to nurture life to grow.

How can that happen, would you like to know?

Year after year, season after season

You plant me with the same crops with the reason

That the more you put in, the more you will get.

But that’s just where you will lose the bet.

In such a hurry you are, to sow and reap

Have you ever thought that I’d like time to breathe?

Ever considered that I too need to recuperate

From trying to deliver at such an unnatural rate?

Give me a break, give me a rest. Be kind to me, I’ll give you my best.

The unending cycle will sap all my strength

Suck the minerals and nutrients out from my depth

One fine day I’ll just run out of steam

Then those bountiful harvests will be just a dream.

And then you will pump me with every artificial aid

Chemicals, fertilizers, all the tricks of the trade.

Hoping the fruit I then bear will be so fast and good.

But could you thrive on pills alone, and no natural food?

Give me a break, give me a rest. Be kind to me, I’ll give you my best.

Or will you drug me with pesticides and insecticides

To destroy the “enemies”– the aphids, thrips and mites.

You don’t realize that with every deadly dose

My allies too are dying, not just my foes.  

You strip me of my protective cover

Tear away trees, shrubs, grasses, every small flower

That keep me secure with a protective cloak

From the fury of rains and the winds that blow.

You leave me exposed, vulnerable, and bare

To be blown, swept and washed away, here and there.

Or you clad me in an armour of concrete and stone

So I can no longer breathe, nor give my friends a home.

Give me a break, give me a rest. Be kind to me, I’ll give you my best.

Cover me again with a mantle of green

Let my own special magic do the job you’re so keen

To assign to the factories, the labs and the vans

And potions from bottles and boxes, sprays and cans.

Let the humus, leaf litter and the biomass,

The lichen, the algae, the roots and grass,

The bugs, the beetles, the worms and snails

Do the job they’ve always done, and that never fails.

It’s these millions of dwellers that give me life

That in turn I bestow on all plant life.

Let my friends and foes do all they might

If I’m strong and healthy, it’ll be all right.

Give me a break, give me a rest. Be kind to me, I’ll give you my best.



When Meena and I joined CEE, both with non-natural-history backgrounds, we were often told to refer to “the book”. The Book of Indian Birds was our first introduction to birds, and more interestingly, to the Birdman of India, Salim Ali. Over the years as we developed environmental education material, “the book” was one of our trusted references. Some years later when we edited a book on stories of inspiring wild-lifers, it was a given that we would open with a piece on Salim Ali.

Born on 12 November 1896, Salim Ali lost his parents when he was very young. He grew up in a large loving family with uncles, aunts, cousins, relatives and friends in Khetvadi, which is now part of the overcrowded area around Charni Road in Mumbai. None of the relatives were very interested in birds, except as part of tasty meal. Favourite among the cousins’ pastimes was going out with an airgun to shoot small birds in the countryside around which they lived. This was still an era when hunting and shooting were considered a ‘manly’ sport.

When Salim Ali was nine his uncle presented him with an airgun, which became his prized possession. He became quite an expert at using it, and loved to show off his prowess. When they could not go out, the cousins practised shooting at house sparrows. It was during one of these domestic hunting prowls that Salim, then nine years old, began to observe a female sparrow that was nesting in a hole in one of the stables. He also noted down his observations of how every time he shot the male sparrow that came to the nesting female, another one took its place. Primarily, this was to keep a record of how many male sparrows he felled, rather than a note on the behaviour of the birds. But the observations were so mature, and the notings so meticulous, that 60 years later they were reproduced in The Newsletter for Birdwatchers, more or less as originally written.

During the summer vacations the family moved to Chembur, which was at that time surrounded by forests rich in flora and fauna. One memory of those vacations that Salim carried with him all his life was that of the dawn song of the Magpie Robin that he heard while still tucked in bed.

As a schoolboy in the early 1900s Salim was an average student, but he enjoyed outdoor sport, of which his favourite was sport shooting of birds. He dreamed of becoming a great explorer and hunter, and his reading consisted mainly of books on natural history, hunting expeditions and travel.

It was another family vacation hunting incident that led him to a new dimension of birds; and ignited his first scientific interest in birds that was to grow and develop into a lifetime passion.

The 10-year-old Salim felled a sparrow.  Just as the bird was going to be turned into a tasty morsel, he noticed that it had an unusual yellow patch on the throat, almost like a “curry stain” as he remembers it. Intrigued, he carried the dead bird back to show his uncle—the shikari of the family. Uncle agreed that the bird was somewhat unusual and felt that it might be interesting to find out more about it.

Now this uncle was also one of the earliest Indian members of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). He asked Salim to take it to the BNHS along with a letter of introduction to Mr Millard who was its Honorary Secretary. The young boy Salim was very nervous about having to meet a foreigner face-to-face. He fumbled with the dead sparrow wrapped in a paper packet as he walked through the rooms of the BNHS with showcases displaying a fascinating collection of natural objects.

He found that Mr Millard was a gentle man who not only identified his specimen as a yellow-throated sparrow but also showed him similar stuffed specimens from his collection. He also gave him some books which Salim was to read again and again over the next sixty years.

This was Salim Ali’s first contact with the BHNS—an institution that was to play such an important part is shaping his life and his career. The incident with the yellow-throated sparrow opened up a whole new world. Salim decided that he wanted to know everything he could about birds. But as he later wrote “I contracted the germs of ornithology at a time when the disease was practically unknown among Indians, and nature conservation was a phrase only rarely heard”.

After doing a BSc in zoology, Salim looked for employment that could use his education as well as support his passion. But in those early years, there were no jobs to be had for an aspiring naturalist in India. Facing unemployment, Salim went to Burma to work in the family timber and mining business. On return he tried for a job in the Zoological Survey of India, but found that his educational qualifications were not adequate. The best he could get was the job of a guide in Bombay’s Prince of Wales Museum. With no further prospects, he went to Germany where he trained under Professor Stresemann, an acknowledged ornithologist, whom Salim Ali considered his guru. However on return, he was still looking for suitable employment.

It was then that he hit upon an idea. He offered to the BNHS that he would carry out ornithological surveys in what were then the numerous princely states. These regions were rich in avifauna, but largely unexplored and undiscovered, and many of the princely rulers were eager to have this recorded. Salim Ali offered his services for free provided his travel and camping expenses were met. This arrangement suited all the parties. And so for the next two decades Salim Ali roamed every corner of the subcontinent, studying and recording birds in the field. The conditions were tough, the terrain often remote and difficult, but it was a dream come true for the avid bird watcher. Salim Ali recalls these decades as the best years of his career.  

In those days there were hardly any illustrated books on Indian birds that would help with identifying birds as well as providing accurate information about bird behaviour. Throughout his travels Salim Ali spent hours in observation of birds and making detailed notes on his observations. Many years later, these acute observations and meticulous notes grew into The Book of Indian Birds that would remain the bible for Indian birdwatcher for decades to come.

Salim Ali the sparrow-hunter became India’s most widely respected Birdman. When asked about what it takes to be a birdwatcher, he explained that bird watching by nature was a most peaceful pursuit. But the excitement lay in searching out clues, and following them up, step by step, to prove or disprove one’s hunch. As he wrote “with the richness and variety of bird life in India, exciting discoveries are awaiting to be made by any birdwatcher who has the requisite enthusiasm and perseverance”.

Salim Ali was not only a great ornithologist. His life and work in natural history have inspired a whole generation of Indians towards environmental conservation—including us matriarchs. 


Focus on a Nutrition Success Story

Nutrition Centers for Pregnant and Lactating Women

During this Nutrition Month, sharing a good practice..

The criticality of proper nutrition for pregnant and lactating women is undisputed. Equally undisputed is that their nutritional status in India is extremely worrisome. Of course the government through its Anganwadi program does supply day rations for this stage of life. But in the field, what we found was that these rations were taken home, added to the general pool of foodstuffs in the household, and consumed by all. So probably the men or the children ended up getting a little more food, but very little extra went to the target women. It was not considered at all OK for the daughter-in-law of the house to keep aside the rations that she had received for herself! So in reality, these pregnant women got very little supplementary nutrition.

Based on some state government experiences, we at GMR Varalakshmi Foundation decided to reverse the equation. Rather than the food going to homes, we thought it might work if the women came to the food. We set up small community-based Nutrition Centers which pregnant/lactating women could easily access. They had to come into the Centers at a certain fixed time every day for about half an hour. We worked out a menu of supplementary nutrition in discussion with an eminent national institution working on the subject. The menu was not a complete meal but a list of items worked out to plug the commonly found gaps in this group. Some criteria we had was that it should involve minimum cooking, and should to the extent possible, be based on seasonally available local foods. Women coming to the Centers continue to avail the Anganwaadi rations.

So women come to our centers every day and it is like a little kitty party. They eat the snack, chat together, share notes on their pregnancy.  There are organized activities—from a talk by a health worker on immunization and family spacing, to games related to food, nutrition and childcare, to screening of films on health, sanitation, etc. Records are kept of their weight, hemoglobin, and doctor advice. Special care is paid to vulnerable cases.

The Centers have been in operation for almost a decade now, and have almost 100% track record of institutional deliveries and of baby weight above 2.5 kg. And the cost? The snack costs Rs. 15 per woman per day. And the program is for 12 months for each member—from roughly 3rd month of pregnancy to 6th month after delivery, with home delivery of the food during the weeks when the mother is not able to come to the Center. That is a cost of about Rs. 5500 per woman for ensuring her health and to lay the foundation for a healthy life for a baby. Extremely scalable for organizations. Not difficult even for individuals to support.

There may be many, many other such simple ideas tried by innovative NGOs and others across the country. The key is to share, learn and multiply the good practices!


Teacher Teacher   

My father-in-law will be 96 years old this month. He trained as an artist, but spent his career teaching machine drawing in a government polytechnic. He has now been retired for more years than he taught a subject that he was not passionate about. But what he was passionate about was reaching out to his students, not driven by any great philosophy or mission, but his innately sociable and open personality.  Even today, he gets phone calls from his old (literally—some are 75 years and over!) students, just for them to say that they remember him fondly. Till a couple of years ago he clearly remembered names and attributes of so many of his students. It is that life force which continues to energize him even today.

The word Teacher itself is loaded with so much meaning. After all teachers were the key players in the long drama of one’s school (and college) life, with distinct characters, roles and parts. As a part of the student audience, and at times, minor characters in the crowd scenes, we spent a great deal of time and emotion on ‘adoring’, ‘hating’, ‘fearing’, ‘hero worshipping’,  ‘imitating’, or ‘buttering up’ our teachers.

Teachers were a necessary evil that dominated every ‘period’ of our school days.­­­­­­­­­­­ It is when we were older (and perhaps a wee bit wiser) that we could look back with nostalgia and remember those teachers. This was also when we realized the lasting impressions and influences that different teachers had left on us. Not all of these were related to the subject they taught. More often, it was how they taught, or what they said and did, or even what they wore, and how they behaved. We could now see these as individuals with distinct personalities and persuasions. For some of us, the older we get, the more sentimental we get. And Teachers Day, celebrated in India on 5 September, revives many such memories.

In the good old school days, the run up to T-Day was exciting. This was the day that the tables were turned, as it were. It was the one day when students turned into teachers! This was how Teachers Day was celebrated in many schools.

This year for the first time perhaps in memory, the Covid wave has meant that educational institutions across the world are closed. In just a few months, our age-old understanding of educational spaces, classroom transactions, and players has been turned on its head. The e-learning revolution is sweeping across the globe.

Children of all ages (starting from nursery and kindergarten) passively face a small screen which reflects other small faces and a bigger face. It is in this virtual classroom that lessons are communicated (rather than taught). The day is divided into sterile time slots, rather than a time table in which the best parts were the time-outs for rowdy recesses and roistering assemblies. The Teacher is just a talking head who pops up at a designated time. As the young eyes and ears strain to keep alert and awake, the other senses lie dormant. Missing are the smells from the tiffin boxes, the touch of the dog-eared books and scarred desks, the jostling camaraderie of classmates, the fights and the making-up, the shared secrets, and playful antics…and with it the range of emotions that mark the gamut of relationships among the students, and between the teacher and the taught.itscalledreading (1).gif

I must confess that I have no current and direct experience of e-learning, as a teacher, learner, or parent. But as Teacher’s Day approaches, I cannot help wondering and worrying about this new model of teachers and teaching. Yes, we have no alternative at this moment when safety and health is the priority. True that technology has enabled a safer and more widespread route to reaching out. Agreed that there are examples of inspiring innovations and models. But what will a child of the Age of Corona and Era of E-learning remember of her classroom, her classmates and above all, her teacher? What stories will he share with his children? Who will she remember with a smile or a grimace on another Teacher’s Day?

One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.   Carl Jung



Friendship Matters

In thepooh friends.png next few days the hype will build up. There will be a marketing blitz reminding us that Friendship Day nears, and that the best way to be friends is by buying and gifting for each other, and that the proof of friendship is the number of cards and presents that one gets.

Indeed the idea of this day has commercial origins. As far back as 1919 Hallmark cards in the United States came up with the idea of celebrating the first Sunday of August every year as Friendship Day. It was intended to be a day for people to celebrate their friendship by sending each other cards and thereby boost the sales. Even today many countries celebrated this day in August.

However 30 July marks what is called International Friendship Day. Interestingly both the origin and the intent of this Day have a non-commercial history.

It began over sixty years ago in Paraguay. Dr Ramon Artemio Bracho was a surgeon who had worked as a doctor in rural areas for many years before he became a military doctor for his national government. Dr Ramon strongly believed that friendship is central in overcoming people’s cultural, political and religious differences. As he recalled, the seed was sown one evening when he was invited by a worker’s union to a meeting to celebrate trees. The doctor was inspired. In his words, “I began to remember what had happened the night before and I told myself how interesting it is, the gesture of the man of having created the day of the tree.  In that same instant it came to my mind that friendship is something so important and does not have its day, so it seemed to me an extraordinary idea.” The very next evening, on 20 July 1958, over dinner with close friends in Puerto Pinasco, a town on the Paraguay river, he proposed the idea of a campaign designed to promote the value of friendship in order to foster a more peaceful society. Thus was born the Cruzada Mundial de la Amistad (World Friendship Crusade).Today the World Friendship Crusade is a Foundation that promotes friendship and fellowship among all human beings, regardless of race, colour or religion.

For many years the World Friendship Crusade lobbied the United Nations to recognize and declare an international day to mark the sentiments of the Foundation.

On 5 August 1997, Mrs. Nane Annan, wife of then United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, designated the much loved children’s book character Winnie the Pooh as “Ambassador of Friendship”. This was to encourage young people to learn what they could do to forge ties of friendship and understanding among different cultures to bring about peace and harmony around the world. The books by A A Milne featuring Pooh the little bear and his band of close friends are a beautiful celebration of the simple joys of companionship, loyalty and friendship.

It was on 27 July 2011 that the 65th Session of the United Nations General Assembly declared 30 July as the International Day of Friendship. The United Nations invites all Member States to observe this day in accordance with the culture and customs of their local, national and regional communities, including through education and public awareness-raising activities.

It is a reminder that we are often so caught up in seeing the “otherness” in people that we cannot look beneath, to recognise the “sameness”. A great deal of how we interpret another person’s behaviour and intentions is merely a manifestation of the picture our minds have constructed about them. We assume that we can be only friends with those who are like us, and those that are not, are the “other”. But otherness can also be the most beautiful ground for connection, for it is through the blending of the sameness and the otherness that the rich tapestry of friendship is woven. Openness in thought and deed is the glue of true friendship, not just between individuals but equally cultures, communities and countries.

Today more than ever before, in a topsy-turvy world, we need to remind ourselves of the original intent of Friendship Day as Dr Ramon described it: “I think it is a special day and that it helped or helps people to remember friends in a special way, to be able to cultivate and value more this beautiful feeling that one has towards others.”

While we may not be able to physically meet our friends, while we cannot celebrate with parties and shopping sprees, what enables us to carry on in our respective mental and physical spaces is the comfort of friends and friendship. What better time to be grateful for the gift of friendship that sustains us, and to celebrate the bonds that make our life so much richer?

A friend is one of the nicest things that you can have and one of the best things you can be. Winnie the Pooh



Prejudice and An Epic Production

D3962893-2848-4398-B173-3992ED5AACE1Over 30 years ago.

A stage adaptation of the Mahabharata opened in Paris. Directed by Peter Brook, it was the first-ever stage presentation of the entire epic, and ran to 9 hours. It had a multi-racial cast—21 actors from 16 countries. Mallika Sarabhai was the lone Indian on the cast, playing the central role of Draupadi.

While many art-forms tell stories from the epic, usually it is only parts or specific episodes from the Mahabharata which are staged. This was the first (and till now, the only) time, the whole epic was adapted for the theatre. First made in French, later there was an English version too.

It made history.

It toured the world.

It did not come to India.

Why? Because there were protests in India against people from Africa playing key roles and depicting the Pandavas and some of our other heroes and heroines. There were especially strong reactions to Mamadou Dioume of Senegalese origin playing Bhima. (There were no problems with an Italian playing Arjuna, or a Pole playing Yudhishtra though!)

Peter Brook saw the Mahabharata as a universal tale, transcending time and geography, exploring the human mind and motivations. The depths the human character could plumb, as well as the heights it could reach. He saw it as the story of the race of man. And in this context, the diverse cast made sense.

Alas, the protestors in India could not see this.

We do not often think of racism as one of the many isms that mar us.

But it is there!

Along with:





And many others.

And I don’t think any one of us is free of some prejudice or the other.

It is the time to dig deep and surface our biases, recognize them, and then grapple with them.

Not easy, but as we are becoming increasingly aware, life is not easy!



access 2Today, Dec 3, is observed as the International Day of Disabled Persons. The Day was proclaimed in 1992 by the United Nations General Assembly.

India signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and as part of compliance in this regard, enacted THE RIGHTS OF PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES ACT, 2016. Most importantly, the Act lays down Rights and Entitlements, which include:

Ensuring that the persons with disabilities enjoy the right to equality, life with dignity and respect for his or her integrity equally with others; that the capacity of persons with disabilities are utilized properly, by providing appropriate environment; that no person with disability shall be discriminated on the ground of disability; that no person is deprived of his or her personal liberty only on the ground of disability.

The Act is comprehensive in covering all aspects—from Rights to Education to Employment to Health.

In my on-ground experience though, the last-mile is still challenging. Many people with disabilities and their care-givers are not aware of their rights and entitlements. Even the first step of disability assessment and registration—which entiltes PWDs for a host of entitlements like pensions, bus and train passes etc.—is not easy, and involves ‘running’ from one office to another. Access to government and private buildings including educational and healthcare instiutions, registrar offices, post offices, banks, ATMs, cannot be taken for granted.

A long, long way to go. But to end on a note of hope, here is a story of how a small intervention can make a difference in one life.

Sajan (name changed) is a vibrant young man who lives in Delhi with his parents and a younger brother. He was born with orthopedic impairment. His parents always encouraged his ambitions. They bought him a manual tricycle to enable him to attend school.

Through hard work and perseverance, he was able to complete his secondary education. He dreamt of completing his graduation but was unable to find a suitable college nearby. His tricycle had also worn out and he was finding it harder to pedal to distant places. As a result, he chose to pursue his higher education through a distance learning programme.

Simultaneously, he also began preparing for competitive exams in order to get a government job, but found the long commute to the coaching centre tiring.

It was during this time, that his parents learnt of GMR Varalakshmi Foundation which was working in their area with differently-abled.

After a thorough assessment, staff members recognized that his trouble stemmed from using the old tricycle. The team organized an electric tricycle to him. This model of tricycle is much easier to ride, has an easy, low entry and exit, and very good back support.

Today, he rides 7 kms every day to a coaching centre of repute and is earnestly preparing for competitive exams. He is extremely happy that he can travel long distances without any discomfort.  He says, “The electric tricycle has provided wings to my dreams”.



It’s that time of year again…the start of the summer holidays and the flurry of planning how to spend the long lazy days ahead. I always recall this excIMG_20190404_102157.jpgitement of my student days. It was a time when vacations did not mean a hectic schedule of “constructive activity classes and camps” nor travels to exotic destinations. For most of us, the greatest joy was the anticipation of the uninterrupted and unmonitored hours of reading. The great fun was in planning how to get and read as many books as one could—buying (only a few as a summer treat), borrowing from family and friends, and going to libraries.

Books were the best gifts, the best companions and the best friends. Even today, for me books are just that!

Coincidentally, I just read a wonderful piece that beautifully articulates why books are BFF! A letter to children by Swiss-born British contemporary novelist, essayist, and philosopher Alain de Botton.

Dear Reader,

We wouldn’t need books quite so much if everyone around us understood us well. But they don’t. Even those who love us get us wrong. They tell us who we are but miss things out. They claim to know what we need, but forget to ask us properly first. They can’t understand what we feel — and sometimes, we’re unable to tell them, because we don’t really understand it ourselves. That’s where books come in. They explain us to ourselves and to others, and make us feel less strange, less isolated and less alone. We might have lots of good friends, but even with the best friends in the world, there are things that no one quite gets. That’s the moment to turn to books. They are friends waiting for us any time we want them, and they will always speak honestly to us about what really matters. They are the perfect cure for loneliness. They can be our very closest friends.

Yours,  Alain

 The letter is one of 121 letters in a recent publication titled A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Edited by Maria Popova, the book celebrates reading and books through letters by some of today’s most wonderful culture-makers—writers, artists, scientists, entrepreneurs, and philosophers whose character has been shaped by a life of reading. Each letter is accompanied by an illustration by a celebrated illustrator or graphic artist that presents that artist’s visual response to the text. All the pieces and artworks are donated, and the profits from sales are to go to New York Public Library. What a wonderful tribute by book lovers, for book lovers. I look forward to savouring the whole book.