Giving Thanks

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift
.

Mary Oliver Contemporary American poet

As we look back into the tunnel of darkness that we are cautiously tiptoeing out of, one step at a time, the overwhelming emotion that many of us are experiencing, is that of thankfulness. We are grateful to be fortunate enough to have come out of a very dark and difficult period to face a new day.

The last year-and-a-half has led most of us to re-evaluate our life and our priorities. It has humbled us to be grateful for what we have, rather than always aspiring for what  we do not have. It has opened our senses and sensibilities to the smaller joys of living, and simply, just to count our blessings.

Well before the unprecedented pandemic taught us how to look for, and appreciate, the small rays of light in dark skies, wise people had recognised the power of gratitude. In 1965, during a Thanksgiving gathering at the International East-West Center in Hawaii, Sri Chinmoy, a spiritual leader and meditation teacher, had suggested that a day be designatedwhen the entire world came together for the message of thanks. After the meeting in Hawaii, many attendees began marking Gratitude Day in their own countries on the autumnal equinox in September. In the following years, Gratitude Day became bigger and bigger, and in 1977 the United Nations Meditation Group requested a formal resolution to give recognition for World Gratitude Day to be celebrated every year on 21 September.

The ideal of World Gratitude Day is to give people the opportunity to offer personal gratitude, but also to remember that gratitude is an essential emotion that should be universally shared.

While we usually think of giving thanks to people for all the happy things, we also need to think of situations and experiences that may have seemed difficult or painful, but that have taught us something, and made us wiser and stronger. This is a gift that makes us realise that no one person is an island, and that we are all interconnected in one way or another. Gratefulness shapes how we relate to each other, and to our circumstances. It stems out of generosity, compassion, and respect…towards those things that nurture peace.

Feeling and expressing gratitude imbues both the giver and the receiver with a sense of peace. When the emotion transcends the personal to embrace the universal, it could be the first step towards a peaceful global order. Perhaps this is what prompted the United Nations to also designate 21 September as the International Day of Peace–a day devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace. In a time when so many parts of the world continue to be ravaged by so much violence, in all its explicit and implicit forms, the theme for the United Nations International Day of Peace this year is “Recovering better for an equitable and sustainable world”. This reminds us to be grateful for what we may be fortunate to have, as individuals and as communities and nations, and to join hands for a world that is more equitable, inclusive, sustainable and healthy.

Human memory is short. Even as we rapidly try to regain the “old normal” and the climb back onto our treadmills and into the rat races, this is a good week to remind ourselves to give thanks for the new day, and all that it may bring. 

As the Sufi poet Rumi beautifully puts it:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

–Mamata

Fire Cat

Source: en.wikipedia.org

I first got acquainted with the Red Panda not in the lush forests of North East India but in the hot and arid environs of Gujarat. In fact, I shared office space with it in Sundarvan, the small-animal park in Ahmedabad, as I embarked on a new journey as an environmental educator. How it reached all the way across the country to live a solitary life surrounded by humans is a story that I cannot clearly recollect. But the memory of starting the day by seeing the quiet furry creature with its bright curious eyes is as clear as if it was just yesterday.

For most of us, the word Panda immediately conjures up the image of the teddy bear-like black and white animal that bears little resemblance to this cat-like animal with reddish brown fur and a bushy tail. That is because the Red Panda is not a panda at all!

Scientists have determined that although they share a habitat (and a love for bamboo) with the Giant Panda, Red Pandas are genetically closer to skunks and raccoons. Their taxonomic position has long been a subject of scientific debate. For many years, Red Pandas were classified as part of the Procyonidae family, which includes raccoons and their relatives. But DNA studies show that Red Pandas represent a unique family that diverged from the rest of the Carnivore Order, and taxonomists place them in their own unique family: Ailuridae. Red Pandas are the only living member of the Ailuridae family. Ailurus fulgens fulgens, the scientific name of this rare and beautiful species literally means ‘fire-coloured cat’.

While the word Panda is a misnomer, the adjective Red is an apt description of this animal which has thick reddish brown fur. While its body is the size of a large cat, its bushy tail, marked with alternating red and buff rings, is almost as long as its body. Red Pandas have large, round heads and short snouts with big, pointed ears. Their faces are white with reddish-brown ‘tear’ marks that extend from the eyes to the corner of the mouth. Dense fur completely covers their feet which have five, widely separated toes and semi-retractable claws.

Their form is beautifully adapted for life in the mountain forests which are home to these animals. They spend most of their time on trees—sheltering, feeding, and sunbathing in winter. The structure of the feet and extremely flexible ankles which can rotate 180 degrees, help them in adeptly climbing headfirst down tree trunks. A  special thumb-like wrist bone helps them get an extra grip when climbing.

The russet coat provides perfect camouflage among the clumps of reddish-brown moss and white lichens that cover the branches of the fir trees in which they dwell. The top cover of long coarse hairs, and the soft dense woolly undercoat provide a double layer of warmth. The long bushy tails which they curl around their body provide protection from the harsh winter winds. The tails also provide support and traction to these nimble arboreal acrobats. If a red panda starts to lean in one direction, it can swing its tail the opposite way to steady itself.

While different from their namesake in form and family, the one characteristic that the Giant Panda and the Red Panda share is that they are both bamboo eaters. But while Giant Pandas feed on all parts of the bamboo plant, Red Pandas feed selectively on the most nutritious leaf tips, and when available, tender shoots. Both pandas have a pseudo thumb, a modified wrist bone which helps to grasp the bamboo while feeding. In fact the name Panda is said to come from the Nepali word ponya, which means bamboo or plant eating animal. Bamboo is not a great food source for energy, and is hard to digest. In fact, Red Pandas digest only about 24 per cent of the bamboo they eat; so they need to eat 20 to 30 per cent of their body weight each day—about 1 to 2 kilograms of bamboo shoots and leaves. In one study, female Red Pandas were found to eat approximately 20,000 bamboo leaves in a single day. While bamboo constitutes about 95 per cent of the Red Panda’s diet, they may also forage for roots, succulent grasses, fruits, insects and grubs, and are known to occasionally kill and eat birds and small mammals.

Red Pandas are usually active at dawn and dusk, sleeping during the hottest part of the day. They begin their “day” by licking the front paws and then cleaning the fur all over the body in a cat-like, sitting posture in the tree; and then “washing” their face with fore and hind paws

Red pandas are solitary except during the breeding season. They scent-mark their territories using anal glands and urine, as well as scent glands located between their footpads. The scent is odourless to humans, but the Red Panda tests odours using the underside of its tongue, which has a cone-like structure for collecting liquid and bringing it close to a gland inside its mouth.

Red Pandas are generally quiet, but subtle vocalizations—such as squeals, twitters and ‘wha’ sounds—can be heard at close proximity. They may also hiss or grunt, and young cubs use a whistle, or high-pitched bleat, to signal distress.

It is the “wha” cry of the Red Panda which was the key identifying feature of this creature when it was first introduced in the Western world.  In 1821, the English naturalist Major General Thomas Hardwicke made a presentation on the creature at the Linnean Society in London. In his presentation titled Description of a new Genus of the Class Mammalia, from the Himalaya Chain of Hills Between Nepaul and the Snowy Mountains, he described this hitherto unknown creature and suggestedthat the animal be called a “wha,” because as he explained It is frequently discovered by its loud cry or call, resembling the word ‘Wha’, often repeating the same: hence is derived one of the local names by which it is known. But Hardwicke’s paper was not published till 1827 by which time the French zoologist Frederic Cuvier published a description of the species along with a drawing. He claimed it was the most beautiful animal he had ever seen and named it Ailurus (from the Greek word ailouros, which means cat, and fulgens, meaning fire-colored or shining. Thus the species was named Ailurus fulgens fulgens. 

In its Himalayan habitat, the animal is still known by its local names.  In Nepal, it is called bhalu biralo while the Sherpas call it ye niglva ponva or wah donka.

Red pandas live in high-altitude, temperate forests with bamboo understories in the Himalayas, and other high mountains in Asia. They range from northern Myanmar (Burma) to the west Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces of China. They are also found in suitable habitat in Nepal, India and Tibet. Scientists have now identified two sub species: Ailurus fulgens fulgens which lives predominantly in Nepal and can also be found in India and Bhutan, and Ailurus fulgens styani (or Ailurus fulgens refulgens) which is primarily found in China’s Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.  

Today this unique animal is endangered. As with most species in the wild, its habitat is under threat, with destruction of its nesting trees and food plants. The animals are often killed as they get caught in traps meant for other animals such as wild pigs and deer. They are also poached for their distinctive pelts. Conservation organisations are working with local communities to create awareness, and take steps to reduce the human threats to the fragile habitat of the beautiful fire cat which has its own special part in the web of life. The Red Panda Network, an international organisation focusing on this, encourages local people to become forest guardians to keep an eye on these creatures, track poachers, and replant bamboo in the forest.

18 September is marked as International Red Panda Day. A good time to learn about this Panda that isn’t a Panda!

–Mamata

Queue-jumping

Last week, newspapers in Bangalore were full of reports of a man who jumped a queue at a super-market. Happens every day, everywhere, right? So why did this hit the news? Well, a determined lady ahead of him in the queue stopped him and asked him not to break the queue. In response, he abused and manhandled her. Other customers stopped him. A police complaint was lodged and he was arrested.

Cover illustration: Nilofer Suleman

A sad commentary on the casual rule-breaking and the casual violence that pervades our lives. It sent me back to ‘The Good Indian’s Guide to Queue-jumping’ by V. Raghunathan (Harper Collins), to refresh my understanding of the phenomenon of queue-jumping. A whole book that deals with the sociology, psychology, and several other ‘ologies of the phenomenon! Fortunately, it also helped me smile a bit, even though the issue itself is disturbing.

To share a few insights from the book gleaned from research:

  • Research shows that more than half the time, queue-jumpers get away scot-free.  In only about 54% of the cases does anyone protest, and it is only 10% of the times that queue-jumpers are thrown out of the queue.
  • In most cases, the person protesting is the person immediately behind where the queue is broken. People further back in the queue don’t react much.
  • If the first and the second person behind the point of the queue breach don’t protest, there is 95% chance that the queue-jumper will get away with the it.
  • When someone gives a reason, however absurd, people are ready to let him or her get ahead of them in the queue.
  • When a single person breaks a queue, there was not much opposition. But when groups break queues, there is more likely to be resistance.
  • Different nations have different propensities for queuing and queue-jumping. The devotion of the English to queues is legendary. In fact, a popular saying is that if there is one Englishman, he will form a queue. Sadly, India is among the nations with a great propensity for queue-breaking.

Physically muscling in is not the only way to break queues. Here are some other ingenious ways to do it:

  • Use professional queuers: Yes, that is a profession! It is essentially a person who takes a payment to stand in a queue in your place. Remember the old days when we used to queue up for railway tickets? We used to often pay someone to do it. In some countries, there are agencies which will send people for this. In a variation of this, when some US states brought in a regulation that car-poolers would get access to fast-lanes, there were professional companions who would ride the car with you so you could join the fast-lane—essentially a form of queue-jumping.
  • Become a VIP: In India of course, it is not at all difficult to break a queue. Every official and politician with a light on their car to speed through traffic is essentially a queue-breaker. The practice, curbed by law is less prevalent today, but has not disappeared. But it’s not just on the road. You go to a government office, and someone who is ‘someone’ will cut in front of you. When you go to the hospital, a person wearing the hospital-employee tag will escort someone to the head of the queue, even as those have booked appointments wait. You go to get a vaccine, you will face the same. But we experienced the most ironical situation of all once when we were waiting to cast our votes on election day. A politician tried to cut-in in front of us. He was a candidate in that very same constituency. Democratic elections based on universal adult franchise are founded on the premise that we are all equal. But the politician-VIP obviously did not believe in this!
  • Pay to get fast-tracked: There are several instances where one can pay to jump to the head of the queue. Temples for instance have free queues, Rs. 100 queues, Rs. 500 queues etc.
  • Fake it till you make it: From across the world there are reports that more and more people citing illness or old-age use wheelchairs at airports, thereby cutting queues and getting express entry. Only to walk away briskly once they clear all the obstructions!

While many of us would hesitate to physically jump a queue, hand-on-heart we cannot say we have not used any of these other ingenious ways. Often we even convince ourselves that these are not instances of queue-jumping at all. But in our heart of hearts, we know they are!

To end on a lighter note, here is a story about the English: ‘During the London riots in August 2011, I witnessed looters forming an orderly queue to squeeze, one at a time, through the smashed window of a shop they were looting. They even did the ‘paranoid pantomime’, deterring potential queue-jumpers with disapproving frowns, pointed coughs and raised eyebrows. And it worked. Nobody jumped the queue. Even amid rioting and mayhem – and while committing a blatant crime – the unwritten laws of queuing can be ‘enforced’ by a raised eyebrow.’ Kate Fox (Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour).

–Meena

A Teacher’s Reverie: Divaswapna

India marked Teacher’s Day on 5 September. It was once again a time to celebrate teachers, and also a time for articles and discussions on education. The dream of an ideal educational system has found expression in numerous forms—from fiction to inspiring real life stories; from policy documents, to pockets of practice. In all these the focus has been on the teacher as the key. In India this is once again reiterated in the New Education Policy 2020 which states that: The teacher must be at the centre of the fundamental reforms in the education system. The new education policy must help re-establish teachers, at all levels, as the most respected and essential members of our society, because they truly shape our next generation of citizens.  

The NEP 2020 also  adds that: A good education institution is one in which every student feels welcomed and cared for, where a safe and stimulating learning environment exists, where a wide range of learning experiences are offered, and where good physical infrastructure and appropriate resources conducive to learning are available to all students.

This vision is not new. Over years, and generations, educators have imagined such an educational system. It was the same vision that, a hundred years ago, drove a young teacher in Gujarat to become of the great educationists of our times.  This was Gijubhai Badheka.

As he experimented with new approaches and methods of eduaction, Gijubhai closely observed the responses of the children and noted these down. He also realised that his experiments with children would be effective only if teachers and parents were to understand and apply the same in their dealings with children.  All his experiments, observations, notings, and vision for a different kind of education culminated in the book titled Divaswapna (Daydream). First published in 1931, Divaswapna is a fictional story of a teacher Laxmishankar, which has close parallels with Gijubhai’s own experiments in education.

The story is set in a time when the British were ruling India. Education was bound by a prescribed curriculum, belief in corporal punishment, and supervised by white Education Officers.  But in every situation, there are a few outliers, and Laxmishankar was one of them. Divaswapna journals the young teacher’s experiences in his own words.

Laxmishankar a young and idealistic teacher with very different ideas about what good education can be, approaches the British Education Officer for an opportunity to teach in a school and put some of his theories into practise. 

The Education officer at first laughs at him, but then reluctantly gives him permission to teach class 4 for one year. But with the condition that at the end of the year the students would take the same examination as the rest, and show good results.

Laxmishankar takes up challenge. Armed with all his theories and academic reading he enters class 4. He is shocked to finds that it is like a fish market—with rowdy students screaming, running around and fighting. He realises that to make his daydream into a reality he would have to find different ways to reach the hearts of the students.

The next day he starts by telling them a story. The class becomes quiet and attentive. In fact they are reluctant to go home. The stories continue for the next ten days. When he is reprimanded for this, and for not following the curriculum he explains: I am teaching them orderly behaviour through story sessions. They are being motivated. I am exposing them to literature and linguistic skills.  

This initiation leads the students to want read, they begin to perform the stories, and share them with other students. Laxmishankar sets up a small class library. Students who have never read anything other than their textbook, are curious and interested.

Laxmishankar begins to use games as a way to instil the concept of rules, discipline and team work. 

His bigger challenge comes when he has to convince parents to send their children to school in clean clothes, with neat hair and clipped nails. Both educational authorities and parents deride him saying that personal hygiene was none of his business. But Laxmishankar felt that the first lesson to be learnt was neatness, cleanliness, and

Lakshmishankar is a teacher with passion, ideals and zeal to try something different. But he faces innumerable challenges from all quarters. All the while he has to face the derision and challenges from all quarters. Not just in handling the students and other teachers, but equally in meeting the expectations of the parents. “I had believed that giving a talk and a little explanation to parents would suffice. But the parents here know only one thing. “Teach the boys” they say. They don’t have time even to listen to anything else and they don’t understand either.”

His colleagues look upon him as a misguided individual. “My colleagues the teachers have no faith in me. They look down upon me as an out and out impractical person. Maybe I am rather. Besides I have no experience. But I have no faith in their beliefs and methods of teaching. They annoy me. …The other teachers say that I am spoiling the boys by overindulgence; they complain that I tell the boys stories only and don’t teach them, that I make them miss their classes by taking them out for games.

I am sure mine is the right approach. We shall see. These games and stories are, to my mind, half their education.I will have to bear in mind that my task is going to be difficult, and I should not lose sight of this.

The higher authorities want quick results. The Education Officer has now become rather impatient. He has his own problems. He has to contend with his superiors and opponents. He wants to share the glory and therefore want results but he wants them quickly.  He has his limitations in helping me.

Undaunted, Laxmishankar continues with these experiments for the first three months. In the third month, he starts looking at the prescribed syllabus. Knowing that the students would have to pass exams in all the subjects, Laxmishankar adopts innovative methods like dictation from storybooks to develop language skills; history through stories; spontaneous play-acting instead of rote learning and recitation; grammar through word games; language through riddles and puzzles; geography and nature study through field trips and outings.

As the year goes on, Laxmishankar continues to try new approaches to teaching different subjects. His students do well in the terminal exams. Some of the teachers too begin to see that changes are possible, but most of them are still sceptical. They feel that Laxmishankar can afford to do these experiments because he does not have to worry about money, and that he reads English books from where he gets his ideas, and that he has the time and leisure for such things. Laxmishankar refutes this. Experiments do not succeed merely because one knows English. That is a lame excuse one resorts to when one doesn’t want to work. The main thing is the intuition to innovate. And that comes from the yearning of ones soul for a cause.

At the end of the academic year the Education Officer sees the real change in the students of Class 4. Not just their academic performance but equally their appearance and behaviour. He recommended that the entire class be promoted. But Laxmishankar himself recommends otherwise in the case of a few students. He feels that these had not come up to the mark. It is not that they are unfit for the school. Rather this school is unfit for them. The school is unable to teach them what they have an aptitude for.

It was decided that instead the prize money of Rs 125 which every year was distributed among the students was instead to be used for starting a school library, and would be continued every year. 

At the Annual Day function the Education Officer concluded by saying: When this gentleman came to me last year with the request for permission to make an experiment in Class 4 of the primary school, I considered him to be an impractical fool. I had thought that he was just like many others of his kind and would run away at the first opportunity when put to the test.  So I gave him permission. I had no faith in him. But I must admit he has achieved success in his experiment. He has changed my ideas.

Divaswapna echoes the continuing quest for an educational system of our dreams, while it tells the story of a teacher who dared to do something to make the dream a reality.  Divaswapna the book is also considered to be one of the greatest contributions to pedagogy in the last century.  Originally published in 1931 in Gujarati, the book was later published by the National Book Trust in 11 Indian languages.

–Mamata

Beware the Kiboko: Hippo Alert!

My grandfather, Gijubhai Badheka went to East Africa as a young man in 1907. Recently I was reading some memoirs of his time in what was then truly an unknown continent. One of the pieces described how he and his friends were chased by a hippo. This led me back to my own stay in Kenya, almost 75 years later, and to remember some other hippo stories.

While in Kenya, we often went camping in the national Parks. In our early days there, whenever we were setting off on safari we were told “Beware of the kiboko!” In a big game park, one would assume that it was the simba or lion that we needed to keep a safe distance from. As it turned out, we were being warned about the hippopotamus!

Till then, the only time that I had seen a hippo was in a circus. I remembered, from years ago, a big ungainly creature lumbering into the ring and being made to open its mouth, revealing huge ugly teeth. Into this wide cavern, its keeper placed a cabbage, whereupon the hippo closed its mouth, turned around and lumbered out of the ring. End of hippo act!

To be told, that in the wild, the vegetarian hippo, if disturbed, could be more dangerous than the big carnivores was somewhat hard to believe. More interesting was to also discover many fascinating facts about this animal.

The word hippopotamus comes from Ancient Greek, and loosely translates as “river horse.” Indeed this creature spends most of its time in water in rivers or lakes, keeping its massive body cool under the hot African sun. Although a hippo can hold its breath for up to five minutes, it must also come up for air. Its eyes and nostrils are located high on the head allowing it to see and breathe as soon as its head rises above the water. Just as breathing and blinking are automatic actions for us humans, a hippo subconsciously, and regularly, surfaces for taking a breath even while staying fast asleep.

Although these mammals spend a considerable amount of time underwater, and even give birth underwater, hippos cannot really swim! Instead they simply walk or run along the riverbed, pushing up periodically through the water for air.

One of the main reasons hippos spend so much time submerged underwater is to prevent their skin from drying out and cracking under the hot sun. They also love wallow in the mud which provides a protective and cooling layer over their sensitive skin. They even secrete their own sun screen lotion, moisturizer and germicide—an acidic substance that turns red when exposed to the sun. This has given rise to the myth that hippos sweat blood.

Hippos are huge—among the largest land animals on the planet after the African elephant and rhino! Male hippos can weigh up to 3,200 kg and a baby hippo can weigh up to 50 kg at birth. And like the elephant and rhino hippos are vegetarian. Hippos feed mainly on grass; but considering their enormous size, a hippo’s food intake is relatively low—between 30 and 50 kg per night. For this, while they spend the day in water, they come on to land at sunset, walking up to 10 km a night as they graze on grass. 

Hippos and their habits play an important role in the ecosystem. On land, their grazing keeps the short grasses trimmed, and the swath cut by their huge bodies creates a trail that other animals also use. As they walk under water they stir up the mud, and as they defecate in water their dung provides microorganisms that are an important component of the aquatic food chain. 

Hippos are celebrated and revered in Africa, and feature prominently in African folklore. There are several folktales about why the hippo has its distinctive features. One of these is a delightful tale from South Africa that sums up all the characteristics of the Kiboko.

Long long ago in the dry and dusty plain Kiboko sat on the bank of the river under the blazing sun. Kiboko had never been in water before. Like the rest of his kind, he lived on land and ate grass. This was what the great mountain spirit Ngai had ordained. As he looked at the fish swimming in the cool water, he thought how wonderful it would be to like them. He thought, “Why don’t I ask the great spirit Ngai?” So Kiboko walked and waddled and lumbered and plodded all the way to meet the Great Spirit. At last he reached, and begged for a chance to live in rivers and streams.

The great Ngai was angry. “The river is no place for a huge fellow like you. You would eat all my little fishes!”

“No, no” promised Kiboko. I will continue to eat grass. And I will open my mouth wide whenever you ask, to show you that I have not eaten even a little fish. I will even stir up the water with my tail so that you can see that I have not hidden any fish bones.”

“Well” conceded Ngai, “you may live in the water, but…you must come out of the water every night so that you do not eat any fish at night, and you will eat only grass that grows on land”.

Kiboko agreed to all the conditions. He was so happy! He ran all the way back and jumped straight into the river with a mighty splash! But he forgot that he was not a fish; he could not swim! He sank straight to the bottom. He never learned to swim, but he learned to hold his breath, and to run along the bottom. This he does to this day. He also wags his little tail and stirs up the silt, to show that he has not hidden any fish bones. And every now and then he surfaces and opens his mouth wide as if to say “Look Ngai, no fishes!”

The seemingly benign hippo can be surprisingly aggressive, when its ‘safety zone’ is threatened. This may happen when humans visit rivers to collect water, wash clothes or bathe. With growing human encroachment into wilderness areas, this leads to human-hippo conflict which could lead to fatalities. But today hippos are under threat from Increasing human encroachment that is leading to their habitat loss; they are also hunted for their skin and teeth. The hippopotamus once ranged from the Nile Delta to the Cape, but now is mostly confined to protected areas. Currently, the species is listed as “Vulnerable” by the IUCN. As with all other species, the hippo too struggles for survival amidst the humans.

While Ogden Nash once captured the humour in the mutual perceptions, sadly today we look like the biggest threat to the hippo.

Behold the hippopotamus!
We laugh at how he looks to us.
And yet in moments dank and grim
I wonder how we look to him.

–Mamata

It’s All in the Stars

This is high summer season in most parts of the Northern hemisphere. And the last few weeks have seen unprecedented high temperatures in otherwise temperate regions. A time when it is difficult to imagine that one half of the world is in the throes of winter! And that some parts are heralding in a New Year in July!

Indeed the Maori people of New Zealand heralded in their new year last week, by waking up, amidst freeing polar winds, to gaze at the stars of Matariki before the crack of dawn. Behind this age-old ritual lies a rich legacy of lore and legend.

Matariki is the Maori name for a cluster of stars that is visible in their night sky at a particular time of year, usually in June-July. Better known as The Pleiades (as the ancient Greeks called them), these are part of what astronomers call an open star cluster, a group of stars all born around the same time. Telescopes have identified more than 800 stars in the region, though most humans can spot only about six or seven on a clear, dark night. Many cultures around the world refer to this cluster as the Seven Sisters and every culture has myths and ancient stories related to these stars.

The Maori call this cluster Matariki.  Matariki is an abbreviation of Ngā Mata o te Ariki Tāwhirimātea (The eyes of the god Tāwhirimātea). According to legend, Tāwhirimātea, the god of wind, was so angry when his siblings separated their parents Ranginui the sky father, and Papatuanuku the earth mother, that he tore out his eyes and threw them into the heavens. This was the creation of Matariki.

Like several indigenous cultures, the Maori follow the lunar calender. According to this, the appearance of Matariki brings the old lunar year to a close and marks the beginning of the New Year.

Traditionally, the rising of the Matariki star cluster was a marker of transition, and a time for families to be together to mourn and honour those who had passed away in the previous year. They believed that loved ones who leave the earth, transform into stars and shine down on them from the heavens. 

One of the popular legends has it that the star Matariki is the mother (whaea) who is surrounded by her six daughters: Tupu-ā-nuku, Tupu-ā-rangi, Waipuna-ā-Rangi, Waitī and Waitā, and Ururangi. Matariki and her daughters journey across the sky each year to visit their Earth mother.

During this visit each of the stars helps Earth mother to prepare for the year to come, using their unique qualities or gifts for her different environments.

Tupu-ā-nuku the eldest daughter spends her time tending to plants on earth making sure that they have everything to make them grow big and strong so that they can produce food, medicine and clothing.

The Maori believe that when we see her shining we are reminded that we all have our own special time and place, and to spend time growing our food, as well as that of our friends

Tupu-ā-rangi loves to sing. Earth mother takes her to the forests to sing for all the creatures that live there. Her beautiful voice fill the world with joy; it revives the forests and its inhabitants who, in turn, share their songs which she learns.

She reminds us of the importance of sharing our gifts with others, and appreciating those shared with us.

Waipuna-ā-Rangi accompanies her grandmother to the waters—the oceans, lakes and rivers. She prepares the children of the Sea God to feed the people. Earth mother teaches her how the water that spills down from the sky collects together to provide water for the people, animals and plants. She also watches how water is evaporated by the heat of the sun into clouds that cloak the sky, so that it may rain once again.

Waitī and Waitā are Matariki’s twins. They work as a team and care for the smallest of creatures—the ants and bees and all the insects that work tirelessly to keep the wheels of nature turning.

Ururangi is swift, and loves to race all her sisters to reach her grandmother Earth first, and settle in her lap to hear her favourite stories. The love and hugs that they share bring warmth and cheer in the cold dark winter.

And what about Matariki? She does what all good mothers do—she watches over and helps all her children on earth to do their best.

Other legends believe that nine stars are visible and each has a deep significance as seen from the Maori point of view.

Matariki is the star that signifies reflection, hope, our connection to the environment and the gathering of people. Matariki is also connected to the health and wellbeing of people.

Waitī is connected with all fresh water bodies and the food sources that are sustained by those waters.

Waitā is associated with the ocean, and food sources within it.

Waipuna-ā-Rangi is connected with the rain.

Tupuānuku is the star connected with everything that grows within the soil to be harvested or gathered for food.

Tupuārangi is connected with everything that grows up in the trees: fruits, berries and birds.

Ururangi is the star connected with the winds.

Pōhutukawa is the star connected to those that have passed on.

Hiwa-i-te-Rangi is the star connected with granting our wishes, and realising our aspirations for the coming year.

What beautiful connections between the firmament and all the elements of earth!

Traditionally, the sighting of the Matariki had great significance. The elders of the community would try to read what the stars foretold. They believed that when Matariki disappeared in April/May, it was time to preserve the crops for the coming winter season. When it reappeared in June/July they looked for signs. If the stars were hazy, it foretold a bleak winter and poor crops, but if they appeared to be crisp and bright it promised a warm and abundant winter.

This was the time of the year when the summer crops had been harvested and people had some leisure time. Matariki was celebrated with festivities that included the lighting of fires, the making of offerings and rituals to say farewell to those who had passed away, honouring the ancestors, and celebrate life with food, song and games. It was like saying hello and goodbye at the same time. It was, above all, a time for family (whanau) and friends to get together and cherish the bonds that sustain us all.

Matariki–A time of renewal, and a celebration of all that makes life possible, and meaningful.

–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

Bless You!

A few weeks ago I had shared a humourous poem about how sneezing was infectious in these days when the nasty Corona virus lurks in the air. Achoo is one of those little outbursts that in normal times do not elicit more than the auto response “Bless You”! But if one stopped to give it a second thought one would wonder why, of all things, would a person who sneezed need to be blessed?

Coincidentally, the history of how this practice began dates back to the time of another pandemic—the Plague. In fact the plague was not a one-time-in-history event. The deadly infectious disease swept across Europe several times, each wave wiping out huge numbers of people. Among the first symptoms of the plague were sneezing and coughing, which were soon followed by boils, fever, breathing trouble, vomiting blood, and necrosis of the skin tissue, causing the skin to turn black; and killing the patient within 7–10 days. Without any understanding of what caused this devastating condition, and with no proven cure, people relied on prayers, herbs and folk remedies.

It was during one of the plague pandemics in Europe, when the then Pope himself succumbed to the plague, that Pope Gregory I became the Pope. On February 16, 600 this Pope issued a papal edict ordering everyone within earshot of a sneeze to immediately recite a short, three-word prayer asking God for his blessing upon the unfortunate person. Pope Gregory hoped that if a sneezing person was bombarded with blessings, the collective prayers and good vibes would save the person from the full onset of the deadly disease. “God bless you” became a standard response to hearing a sneeze, and has remained so in many English speaking countries ever since.

Even before God Bless You was dictated as the response to a sneeze by a Papal Edict, the custom of invoking divine blessings after a sneeze predates this by several centuries. Most ancient cultures believed that sneezes were an omen or warning from God. Many believed that a sneeze sent a person’s soul hurling out of their body, and feared that in the brief period of being soulless, the sneezer’s mortal body was vulnerable to being invaded by the devil or evil spirits. Saying God Bless You was meant to keep away the evil spirits, and appealing to God to give the person their soul back. In later times it was believed that a person’s heart stops beating briefly when one sneezes and saying God Bless You helps it to get ticking again!

The Ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Romans believed that sneezing was a sign of the Gods revealing the future. A sneeze could be either a good omen or bad omen, bringing good luck or misfortune.

These were some of the predominant European beliefs about what was perceived as an unexplained physical outburst. But in all cultures around the world, there were, and continue to be, a variety of superstitions related to sneezing.  

In England and Scotland it was believed that a new born baby was under the spell of fairies until it sneezed. The Polynesian people also treated a child’s sneeze with similarly mystical significance; in Tonga a child’s sneeze meant bad fortune for the family; but the Maori believed that a young child’s sneeze signified the prospects of a visit or a piece of interesting news.

Sailors also believed that a sneeze could foretell what the voyage would be like. If a sailor sneezed on the starboard side of the ship as the vessel departed, it would be a lucky voyage, but a port side sneeze meant that the ship would encounter bad weather.

In Polish culture, sneezing is believed to be an inauspicious sign. The belief is that when a person sneezes, their mother-in-law is talking ill of them. If the person who sneezes is unmarried, they may have a bad relationship with their mother-in-law once married. This superstition continues to be become a popular belief even today. But in Italian culture, it is considered lucky if a cat sneezes. If a bride hears a cat sneeze on her wedding day, it means she will have a happy marriage. But if a cat sneezes three times, the whole family will come down with a cold!

In some East Asian countries it is believed that if a person is being talked about behind their back, it causes them to sneeze loudly; the number of sneezes indicating what is being said about them (one sneeze good things, two sneezes bad things); three sneezes in a row is a sign that someone is in love with you or you may fall in love soon. Four or more sneezes mean a calamity will come upon the person or their family.

In China, folklore regarding sneezing has been passed on through generations. A book describing the rites and customs of the royal family during the Tang Dynasty records that the officials would shout “wan sui” (long live) whenever the Emperor’s mother sneezed. Today people in some parts of China still use that form of blessing.

Also, there is another, less common version that’s based on what time of the day you sneeze: from 1 to 3 am, indicates that you are missed; from 3-5 am, means you will receive an invitation for dinner from a member of the opposite sex; 5-7 am, you will soon make a fortune; 11am-1pm, you will have a friend visiting from afar. Quite a sneeze schedule to keep track of!

Some other cultures too have superstitions about timing: In some, it is considered good luck when a person sneezes between noon and midnight, while in certain cultures the same is considered a bad omen. Some believe that when two individuals sneeze at the same time, it is believed the Gods are happy and will bless people with good health. While some believe that when two or more people are having a conversation and one of them sneezes, it reveals truth in what was being said.

In most parts of India it is considered inauspicious to sneeze just before stepping out of the house for any work. It is customary to pause when you sneeze and drink a little water to break the jinx and avoid misfortune.

While the most common response to Achoo in the English language is “Bless You” most languages have their own responses which broadly have the similar sense of invoking blessings or good health. The ancient Romans had a word, salve, which meant “good health to you,” while the ancient Greeks used “long life” as their sneeze response. The Hebrew laBri’ut, the German gesundheit, the Spanish salud, the Irish slainte, the Russian bud’ zdorov, and the Arabic saha all translate to “health.” In many Indian languages also the response is equivalent to “live long”. In Islamic culture it is customary for the person that sneezes to say Al-hamdu- Lillah (“Praise be to God”), and his/her companions should utter the words Yarhamuk-Allaha (“May God have mercy on you”) to which the sneezer should respond with Yahdeekum Allah Wa Yuslihu Baalakum”(“May Allah guide you”).

That’s about responses to Achoo. But equally interesting is the word Achoo itself. In the English language it is an example of onomatopoeia which is a word that is formed from the sound associated with it. The first syllable mimics the quick intake of breath, while the second is the sound made the convulsive expulsion of air through the nose and mouth. This is the case in many languages: a sneeze sound in Russian can be Apchkhi; in Korean, Achee; in France, Achoum; in Japan, Hakashun; in Germany, Hatschi; in Turkey, Hapsu; in Portugal, Atchim, and in different Indian languages, varying from Hachhee to Aachee.

Today we know that physiologically a sneeze is described as a spasmodic, involuntary response due to the presence of foreign particles, an allergy, or cold. But at another level, an Achoo still involuntarily elicits the same response as it has done over the centuries–“Bless You!”

–Mamata

The Men of the Trees

Last week the cyclone that battered the western coast of India left thousands of trees, old and young, uprooted. It also saw the demise of the venerable tree man of India Sundarlal Bahuguna to whom we paid tribute earlier this week.

Many of us (then) young environmental educators cut our teeth on the legend of Chipko and its inspiring leaders. But behind these movements and leaders were earlier pioneers who paved their thinking and the way. One of these was a man who Sundarlal Bahuguna called his Guru, and who in turn considered Bahuguna as his kindred soul

This was Richard St. Barbe Baker, an English biologist and botanist, environmental activist and author who is known as the pioneer of a worldwide movement to plant trees, and remembered simply as the Man of the Trees. 

Richard was born in 1889 in Hampshire in England in a family descended from lines of farmers, parsons and evangelists. Growing up in a home that was surrounded by woods young Richard spent hours wandering among the trees and getting to know and love them. He also spent a lot of time gardening, and developed a lifelong belief in the value of manual work. After school Richard travelled to Canada in search of adventure while he did some missionary work. There he saw how the prairie was being destroyed and the soil being degraded by unsound agricultural practices. Young Richard was shocked and shaken; he felt that he was seeing Mother Earth being stripped alive. Richard had the head of a scientist but the heart of a humanitarian which could not bear to see the forest cover being torn from the earth. He returned to England to study forestry at Cambridge. After suspending his studies to serve in World War I, he graduated, and went to Kenya as a colonial forester in the early 1920s.

In Kenya Richard witnessed the environmental devastation that resulted from a combination of the traditional slash-and-burn farming methods of the region, overgrazing by goats, and from the colonial farmers’ introduction of crops and methods requiring enormous acreage. He developed a plan to restore the land by planting food crops between rows of young trees. But he faced tremendous resistance from the indigenous Kikuyu people who believed that planting new trees was “God’s business”.

Quite different from the ‘White Man’s’ attitude to native populations, Richard felt that he needed to gain their trust. As he later wrote: To be in a better position to help them I studied their language, their folklore and tribal customs, and was initiated into their secret society, an ancient institution which safeguarded the history of the past which was handed down by word of mouth through its members.

Soon I came to understand and love these people and wanted to be of service to them. They called me 
“Bwana M‘Kubwa,” meaning “Big Master,” but I said, “I am your M‘tumwe” (slave).

Richard looked to one of their long-held traditional practices—holding dances to commemorate significant moments as an opportunity to also promote an awareness of the significance of tree planting and conservation.  From this integration of cultural values and environmental stewardship was born the Dance of the Trees. His work of healing the land in partnership with the Kikuyus led to his becoming the first white person inducted into the secret society of Kikuyu Elders. He was given the name Watu wa Miti, The Man of the Trees, an appellation that became the name of an international organization that began as his first reforestation project in 1922.

In 1924 Richard embraced the Baha’i Faith and his deep belief was expressed in a love for all forms of life and in his lifelong dedication to the natural environment. His personal mission of spreading the message of the importance of trees and forests in sustaining life was carried through his organisation originally called Men of the Trees which grew into The International Tree Foundation, the first international non-governmental organization working with the environment. This is just one of many organizations he established in his lifetime.

St. Barbe’s formal work as a forester and his personal mission took him to many countries in Africa as well as other parts of the world including New Zealand. He looked upon the world as his garden

Perhaps among the places and people that touched him the most was India.  In 1959 Baker came to India, where he assisted Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in instituting a tree-planting program to address the Indian desert problem and to raise the water table. He made similar efforts in Pakistan, Australia, and other countries affected by encroaching deserts.

In 1977 Richard came to India to participate in the International Vegetarian Congress. This is where he met Sundarlal Bahuguna who had come down from the hills especially to meet him. In an article written in 1979 Sundarlal recalled how “Two months earlier I had written a letter to him at his Sussex address through the Ecologist, offering my services for his mission, while giving a brief account of the ‘Chipko movement’ which we had launched to save trees in the Himalaya. I had made a request to him to devote some time for the Himalaya on his arrival in India. He never received my letter, but as what I had read about him inspired in me a profound veneration for him, I had come all the way from the hills to Delhi as if on a pilgrimage to have his ‘darshan’. When I touched his feet, he kept his hand on my head and gave me an affectionate pat. He does not shake hands but acknowledges greetings with folded hands. I felt as if I was in the presence of a heavenly soul.

In July 1989 on the occasion of St. Barbe Baker’s birth centenary, Sundarlal spoke at the International Conference of ‘The Men of The Trees, Trees are Life’ at Reading University, England. He shared how St Barbe Baker got engaged with the Chipko movement.

As soon as he heard about the Chipko Movement in the Himalaya he left the conference hall (of the Vegetarian Conference) and decided to go there. In those, days I was regarded as an undesirable person, because we were fighting against the so-called scientific felling of trees. The important people in Delhi did not want him to go to the Himalaya. To persuade him they said. “You are an old man (he was then 88) and in view of your failing health you should not take the risk of travelling through the rugged mountains”. He replied, “At the most it will mean my death. I am already living on bonus. I live only for a day and if I die for the cause of the Himalaya, that will be the most glorious event of my life. I will go straight to heaven.” When they saw his determination, they asked, “Since when do you know this man with whom you are going?” He instantly replied “What do you mean, since when have we been knowing each other–for many lives!” We were together for eleven days. I took him to Vinoba Bhave, the walking saint of India, the disciple of Mahatma Gandhi. When the moment of our departure came, I was very sad. I asked, “When shall we meet again?” He cheered me up by saying, “We shall be meeting each other during our prayers and while working to save trees.”

St Barbe Baker died at the age of 91 on 9 June 1982 during a visit to Saskatoon, Canada, only a few days after planting his last tree. Sundarlal Bahuguna died on 21 May 2021 at age 94. Both inspirational figures whose lives were a unique blend of environmental awareness, spiritual activism, and total dedication to their cause. Their life was indeed their message.

–Mamata

Hope in a Time of Despair

April has been the “cruelest month” as TS Eliot wrote in The Waste Land.  As we are swept and tossed in the tsunami of the pandemic; as numbers take on names and faces; as we find ourselves struggling to take each step in the dark tunnel which seems no have no light at its end, we are engulfed by despair.

Now more than ever before we feel the need to reach out, to connect, to be reassured that we are not alone. A time when we seek words that offer solace and hope.

While we feel alone and helpless in these grim times, may we get some comfort from these wise words.

They were written by Muriel Rukeyser, an American poet, playwright, biographer, children’s book author, and political activist. For Rukeyser, poetry was the strand that encompassed both science and history, that of the past and of the present. In the introduction to her 1949 book of essays The Life of Poetry she writes:

In times of crisis, we summon up our strength.

Then, if we are lucky, we are able to call every resource, every forgotten image that can leap to our quickening, every memory that can make us know our power. And this luck is more than it seems to be: it depends on the long preparation of the self to be used.

In time of the crises of the spirit, we are aware of all our need, our need for each other and our need for our selves. We call up, with all the strength of summoning we have, our fullness. And then we turn; for it is a turning that we have prepared; and act. The time of the turning may be very long. It may hardly exist.

In this moment when we face horizons and conflicts wider than ever before, we want our resources, the ways of strength. We look again to the human wish, its faiths, the means by which the imagination leads us to surpass ourselves.

If there is a feeling that something has been lost, it may be because much has not yet been used, much is still to be found and begun.

Now, when it is hard to hold for a moment the giant clusters of event and meaning that every day appear, it is time to remember [poetry], which has forever been a way of reaching complexes of emotion and relationship, the attitude that is like the attitude of science and the other arts today, but with significant and beautiful distinctness from these — the attitude that perhaps might equip our imaginations to deal with our lives — the attitude of poetry.

However confused the scene of our life appears, however torn we may be who now do face that scene, it can be faced, and we can go on to be whole.

With these words, remembering two dear friends with whom one had exchanged, over many years, so many words of joy and sorrow; comfort and excitement; wonder and wisdom, and much more. You will be sorely missed.

–Mamata