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.


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!


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!”


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.


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.


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

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!