Neem Chameli-Indian Cork Tree

The last two months were suffused with the heavy scent of the Saptaparni flowers that hung in the early morning air. With the monsoon finally receding, this month there is a change in the atmosphere, and the scents in the air. The crisp dawns are now fragrant with a delicate scent. Following ones nose and looking up one sees some trees laden with clusters of white flowers. In the pre-dawn light, one may think that the Saptaparni is blooming again. But no, it is the turn of another night bloomer with white flowers—the Indian Cork Tree or Tree Jasmine.

This ornamental tree which grows in most parts of India is locally known as Akash Neem, Neem Chameli, Betati Neem, Mini Chameli, Karkku, Malli, Kavud, Machmach, and Buch in different Indian languages.

Native to South Asia and South East Asia, the Indian Cork tree is the sole species in the genus Millingtonia. Its botanical name is Millingtonia hortensisMillingtonia is named after Sir Thomas Millington, an English botanist who was an inspiration to Carl Linnaeus who first described this genus. The word hortensis comes from the Latin word hortensis which means ‘related to gardens’. The tree is commonly planted in gardens and along roadsides.

The Indian Cork tree is a versatile evergreen tree that can grow in various soil types and climate conditions. It grows, generally tall and straight, to a height of between 18 and 25 metres; it has relatively few branches spreading out 7 to 11 metres. It reaches maturity between 6 and 8 years of age and lives for up to 40 years.

This is a hardy tree in terms of climatic adaptation, but the wood is soft and brittle and can snap in strong winds. It has a yellowish grey bark which is cracked and furrowed. Beneath the bark is a kind of cork, which is inferior to true cork, but which nevertheless gives it the name of Indian Cork Tree. The wood can be used for furniture and ornamental work, and the cork is used as a substitute for real cork. This use is reflected in its Gujarati name Buch, which literally means ‘cork stopper’. The leaves are divided into small oval leaflets arranged in pairs along the main rib. They resemble neem leaves, giving it another local name Akash Neem, in some Indian languages.

It is the flowers that attract attention when they blossom in snowy white masses at the end of branchlets. Each flower with four waxy white petals is like a slender tube sitting in a bell-shaped calyx. The flowers open at night and are short lived, showering down to carpet the ground beneath the tree. The fruit is a long slender pod, flattened and pointed at both ends and containing flat seeds. Birds feed on the seeds and help in their dispersal.

As with almost all plants, the different parts of the tree are used for medicinal purposes. Extract of its leaves is said to have good anti-microbial properties, and dried flowers are believed to be effective as bronchodilators.

And as with many trees in India, there are myths and folk tales associated with this tree also. I found a really appealing folk tale about the Neem Chameli.

I call it a Cinderella Story.

Once upon a time there lived six brothers who had one sister; her name was Chameli. Chameli was as beautiful and delicate as the flower that she was named for. Her brothers doted on her and showered her with love and care. The wives of the brothers were always jealous of this, but they could only watch in silence. Until one day, the brothers had to go away for work. Before they left they told their wives “We are leaving our beloved sister in your care. Treat her with as much care and love as we do.”

No sooner were the brothers out of sight, than the wives showed their true colours. They took away all of Chameli’s pretty clothes and belongings, and told her, “From now you will do all the housework, and obey all our orders”. The sisters-in-law were cruel and heartless, and the young girl toiled from morning till night, clad in rags and on a hungry stomach, day after day. The delicate Chameli grew frail and ill, until one day, she died.

The wives were frightened; what would their husbands do when they found out? Under the cover of darkness, they quietly buried her in the corner of the garden. When the brothers returned they were shocked to hear from their wives about how their sister who could not bear being separated from her brothers, had fallen very ill, and passed away. The brothers wept and mourned.

In the corner of the garden where Chameli was buried, grew a beautiful tree, which had fragrant blooms. Every morning the ground beneath the tree was strewn with a carpet of delicate white flowers. The brothers loved this tree, and nurtured it with care; the flowers reminded them of their beloved sister. Their wives however were always afraid that someday the truth would come out. They nagged and nagged their husbands to cut down the tree, until finally they agreed. As the axe was about to strike, they heard a soft gentle voice “Oh brothers, do not strike me; I am your sister Chameli”.

The brothers were taken aback. Eventually the truth about their sister came out. The brothers embraced the tree and promised to care for it as long as they lived. And that how, it is believed, this tree was named Neem Chameli.

As I collect the fallen flowers and breathe in the gentle fragrance of the Neem Chameli tree, I celebrate the many seasonal gifts that Nature bestows upon us.


Veerappan: Re-visiting the Story of the Forest Brigand

In the ‘80s, ’90s and early into this century, Verappan was a name we often saw in newspaper headlines. As in:

India’s Most Wanted.

Outlaw of Jungle.

In the Lair of India’s Asthmatic Bandit King.

Veerappan Strikes Again.

Veerappan Kidnaps Rajkumar, Three Others.

A Ruthless and Daring Bandit.

And then, in October 2004, the headlines:

Veerppan walked into well-laid trap.

Veerappan shot dead.

Death of a Demon.

A ruthless killer, a sandalwood smuggler, a poacher who was responsible for the killing of elephants  in the four-figures; a kidnapper; a murderer; a hero to his gang and some poor communities; a man wanted and actively hunted by the security forces of two states and the BSF sent by the Centre, Veerappan was an elusive figure. A figure who fed news headlines, who kept security forces on their toes, and who with his dramatic moustache and daredevilry, excited the imaginations of many.

Why, 17 years after his death, have I suddenly been reminded about Veerappan? Well, I happened to stumble upon this book called BIRDS, BEASTS AND BANDITS: 14 DAYS WITH VEERAPPAN.

It is the true story of two wildlife-film maker-conservationists who were kidnapped by Veerappan and his gang under the mistaken impression that they were government officials who could be useful as bargaining chips for some of their demands. The gang captures a Bengali scientist visiting the forests as a tourist, as well as three forest guards as well, to add heft to their bargaining power. The seven hostages are marched across the forest for 14 days before they are released. The book is the account of these 14 days by the two main hostages, Krupakar and Senani.

They wrote their account for a Kannada weekly magazine ‘Sudha’ in 1998, a year after they were captured and released, and subsequently, as a book in Kannada. About 10 years after that, the book was translated and brought out in English by Penguin.

It is a light-hearted book, though it talks of an ordeal which must have taken a lot of guts to endure. And though light-hearted, it is not trivial. It touches upon many serious issues, from the injustice that Veerappan and others in his gang have faced, which may have driven them to become what they did. But it does not justify their actions. It mentions the unfair portrayal of his misdeeds in the press and by officialdom, in terms of chalking up a lot of crimes,  elephant-poachings and murders to his account, than he could have possibly committed.

Most importantly, it brings us glimpses of Veerappan as a person. His incredible abilities as well as his incredible instability; his naiveté and ignorance of the world, as well as his understanding of the jungles and the tribulations of the poor; his humour as well as his tantrums; his readiness to use the gun, as well as his gentleness in some situations.

As much as bringing Veerappan to us, the book brings us Krupakar and Senani. How they take the whole ordeal as pretty much routine—all in a day’s work, so to speak. Their equanimity, their fearlessness, their presence of mind, their strategic and thoughtful approach to communicating with their captors to move them towards the decision to release them—all these shine through. They don’t mention any of this explicitly, but as one reads, one is completely awed by this. The equanimity and stoicism of Dr. Maithi, an agricultural scientist from West Bengal who is another captive is unbelievable too! He spends his time meditating, indifferent to his situation, and in fact trying to teach the others meditation! And the incredible integrity of all the three, whether in their intentions that a peaceful resolution be brokered between Veerappan and the official machinery, or in their sympathy and empathy with the gang members, is touching.

There can be no sympathy with ruthless killers like these, but the book does portray their human side—their motivations, hopes and dreams.

The prize goes however to the following incident that Veerappan narrates to his prisoners, with whom the gang builds up a warm and emotional relationship. Veerappan tells them of how he had once kidnapped a government official and asked for a ransom of Rs. 3 crore for his release. A government emissary appears on bike, carrying a bag. Veerappan asks him to throw the money on the road to ensure that the bag does not have a bomb or something. He sees that the money is much less than promised (Rs. 3 lakh in fact). When angrily questioned, the emissary, a second-division clerk, is pretty fearless and says that this is what he was given. Disgusted, Veerappan tells him to go. But the man keeps standing there.  The story continues in Veerappan’s words as follows:

‘I was taken aback. People run the moment they see Verappan. But here I was telling this man to get lost, and he was still standing around.

‘What else?’ I asked loudly.

‘He bent forward, scratching his head with his left hand, and said ‘Nothing for me, sir?’

‘I gave him ten thousand, to rid myself of his wretched presence’.

Definitely a book for a weekend read!


Ada Lovelace: STEM Pioneer

Every Wednesday my newspaper carries a special page about Tech news which has stories about young techies, and especially about women who have made a mark in the field of computer technology. In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion about encouraging girls to engage with STEM, and inspiring stories about women in the 20th and 21st century who have excelled in these fields.

Not many can imagine that one of the pioneers of computing science was born over two hundred years earlier, and that she was a woman! This was Ada Lovelace, a computing visionary who recognised the immense potential of computers. Augusta Ada Byron was born in London on 10 December1815. She was the only child of George Gordon or Lord Byron, the brilliant but eccentric English poet, and Annabella Milbanke, a highly intelligent and educated woman with a flair for mathematics. 

The marriage between the poet Bryon and the “princess of parallelograms” as he called his wife, was tempestuous and short. A month after Ada’s birth, Annabella Byron moved their daughter out of their London house, and away from Lord Byron’s influence. Annabella was afraid that Ada would inherit her father’s ‘poetic’ temperament and erratic traits, and kept her daughter away from the “imaginative” arts, bringing her up in a strict regimen of science, logic and mathematics, as well as music.

Ada’s father Lord Byron himself left Britain forever when Ada was a baby, and he died in Greece when Ada was eight years old. Ada never knew him. Ada herself was largely brought up by her maternal grandmother and servants, and educated by private tutors. She suffered long spells of bad health right from childhood, and through her life.

Ada was fascinated with machines from an early age and devoured the scientific magazines of that time. But she was equally imbued with her father’s imagination. When she was twelve years old, Ada wanted to fly. But she did not stop at dreaming; she methodically studied birds and feathers and experimented with different materials that could serve as wings, and even wrote an illustrated guide recording her research, called ‘Flyology’. She was reprimanded by her mother who saw this as a fanciful project.

In 1833 Ada, as a debutante to London’s high society, attended a party where she was introduced to Charles Babbage who was a renowned mathematician. Babbage spoke to her about his new invention–a tower of numbered wheels that could make reliable calculations with the turn of a handle. He called this the “Difference Machine”. A few days later, Lady Byron took Ada to his home to see him demonstrate the device in his drawing room. Ada was very intrigued by the incomplete prototype. She initiated a correspondence with Babbage about its potential, and her own mathematical studies. This was the beginning of a close and lifelong friendship. Babbage was then a 40-year-old widower and Ada a young debutante, both with very divergent personalities, but the two corresponded and exchanged ideas for many years. Babbage recognised, and encouraged, her potential; in 1839 he wrote to her “I think your taste for mathematics is so decided that it ought not to be checked”.

Babbage spoke highly of Ada’s mathematical powers, and of her peculiar capability, which he described as being higher than that of any one he knew. On one occasion he called her “The Enchantress of Numbers”.

At the age of 19 Ada was married to an aristocrat, William King; and they had three children. In 1838 William King was made Earl of Lovelace, and his wife Ada became Lady Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. But she became generally known as Ada Lovelace.

Along with being a wife and mother Ada continued her independent pursuit of mathematical knowledge. She became friends with one of the finest female mathematicians of her time, Mary Somerville, who discussed modern mathematics with her, set her higher-level mathematics problems, and talked in detail about Charles Babbage’s difference engine. In 1841 she was given advanced work by Professor Augustus De Morgan of University College London. She also continued to learn advanced mathematics through correspondence with Mary Somerville. All the time, she kept Babbage’s difference engine in mind.

Babbage began a new project that he called the “Analytical Engine’. He envisaged this as large heavy machine with thousands of cogwheels that could perform more functions with greater accuracy. Ada Lovelace served as the key interpreter of the project. On a trip to Turin to promote his work, which required considerable financial support, Babbage met a mathematician named Luigi Federico Menabrea, who agreed to write a paper on the machine. It was published in a Swiss academic journal in October, 1842. Ada translated the paper from the French, but also added her own copious and detailed notes, addressing difficult and abstract questions that the paper threw up. While the original paper was about 8000 words, Ada’s annotated English version came to twenty thousand words.

In her paper she clearly described how Babbage’s device would work, with references and illustrations from the silk-weaving Jacquard loom which wove patterns using a set of punched cards which issued instructions to the machine. As she wrote “We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves”.

She explained how Babbage’s machine could perform a similar function using as sequence of punched cards, or what could be called “machine code”. In her paper, she included the world’s first published computer program, or algorithm – this was the Bernoulli number algorithm, and thereby became what may be considered as the first computer programmer.

Ada Lovelace broke new ground in computing, identifying an entirely new concept. She realized that an analytical engine could go beyond numbers. This was the first ever perception of a modern computer – not just a calculator – but a machine that could go beyond the field of mathematics and contribute to other areas of human endeavour, for example composing music.

Ada’s translation, along with her notes, was published in 1843 with the title “Sketch of the Analytical Engine, with Notes from the Translator”.

Ada Lovelace died of cancer at 36, in 1852. It was more than a hundred years before her notes were discovered, The “Analytical Engine” remained a vision, until Lovelace’s notes became one of the critical documents to inspire Alan Turing’s work on the first modern computers in the 1940s. In 1979, the U.S. Department of Defense named a new computer language “Ada” in her honour.

Today as many more young women enter the field of computer science and technology, it is time to remember Ada Lovelace, a pioneer and path breaker of her time. And to celebrate the power of Imagination. In 1841 she wrote: Imagination is two things: The Combining Faculty which seizes points in common, between subjects having no apparent connection and The Discovering Faculty which penetrates into unseen worlds around us, the worlds of Science.


Changi Quilt

What on earth is that? A fancy quilt bought at some duty-free store at Changi Airport?

No! Changi is an old area of Singapore, and its name is derived from either a tree or creeper which was common there. Changi has two major landmarks– the Airport, which is among the world’s best; and the Changi Prison. The Quilts are associated with the latter.

On Feb 15 1942, Singapore fell to the Japanese and the Allied troops surrendered. Civilians including over 400 women and children were marched to the Changi Prison and interned there. These were women and children who had either not been able to get berths on ships to leave the island before the surrender, or who had consciously chosen not to leave. While the majority of the women were English, there were also women from Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Canada, and the United States. The group included doctors, nurses, secretaries, teachers, as well as home-makers.

The Changi Prison building was designed to hold about 600 inmates, but with this influx, was accommodating about 2,400. The women and children occupied one wing of the building, while the men were put in the other. There was no communication between the two wings, and separated families had no way of knowing if members had survived, how they were, etc.

While some schooling did happen, some of the women were concerned that the children lacked a structure to their lives, and normal activities that would have been a part of their daily schedules outside prison. Elizabeth Ennis, an Army Nurse, along with a young Dutch girl, Trude van Roode, decided to do something about it. They made a group of about 30 girls between the ages of 8 and 13, and started a Girl Guides unit. The activity gave a focus and provided the girls with a purpose and discipline. The girls obviously thought the world of Elizabeth Ennis. On learning of her birthday, they decided to undertake a group-project of making a quilt for her. Each girl contributed to the making of a beautiful quilt, scrounging out fabric, thread and needles—precious commodities—to make hexagonal patches. Each child also embroidered her own name on to it. They put all the patches together and presented the quilt to Elizabeth.

This inspired a Canadian internee, Mrs Ethel Mulvany, a Red Cross representative in Singapore and chosen to be the camp Red Cross representative for the Changi women, with the idea of getting the women to make quilts for the Red Cross. The idea behind this move was ostensibly to alleviate boredom and to boost morale, and to give blankets to the wounded in hospitals. But it was also a means of passing information to men in other camps that the women and children were alive. 

Three quilts were made—one each for the British Red Cross, Australian Red Cross and the Japanese Red Cross. Each quilt had 66 squares.

Changi Quilt
Changi Quilt

Every woman who volunteered to make a square for the quilt was given a piece of plain white cotton– from various sources including flour bags and bed sheets–and was asked to put “something of herself” into the square, and also embroider her name on it. The squares varied in many ways—from the skill levels of the embroiderers, to the designs. While flowers were of course a common theme, there were animals, national symbols, and cartoon characters like Snow White and Pinocchio. Some were very poignant–Trudie von Roode’s square, for instance, shows a waiter and a table laid with lots of food and elegant cutlery, alongside the words ‘It was only a dream’. There were also messages, some which were very personal and understood only by the families concerned. For instance, one woman portrayed a baby rabbit wearing a blue ribbon—probably to inform the husband that a baby boy had been born. There was a level of censorship here too—for instance, the word ‘prison’ had to be unpicked before the quilts could go out.


The quilts survived the War. The Australian quilt was given to the Australian Red Cross and is on permanent loan to Australia’s War Memorial. The Japanese quilt too is with this War Memorial. The British Quilt is at the British Red Cross UK office.

And thus did some personal histories get recorded and preserved.


Pen Friends Through the Years

It has been some years now since I used what we called a Fountain pen. All through my schooldays, from the time that we reached the class where we graduated from pencils to pens, the fountain pen was an essential part of our compass box. The pens had a number of accoutrements—ink bottles (think Quink!), plastic ink fillers, rags of cloth to mop up spills, and sometimes even extra nibs. The ritual of filling (and spilling) the ink was as much a part of the evening routine as packing the schoolbags. The fountain pen was an integral part of life, and being gifted a Parker pen or a Waterman pen by someone who came from abroad was a highlight of that life!

I was surprised to learn recently that until the late 1950s India did not manufacture pens; all pens were imported, as also was ink. It was only after Independence, due to the thrust by the government to encourage domestic production that Indian pen manufacturing companies were set up. By the mid-1960s there were 12 Indian manufacturers of which Ratnam and Sons, based in Rajamundry were the most famous. It is believed that the Ratnam pen was the first truly ‘swadeshi’ pen. The story goes that when Gandhi had just launched the Swadeshi movement, he met KV Ratnam in 1921, and advised him to make a product using solely Indian components. When Ratnam asked him what he should make Gandhi said that he could make anything, from a pin to a pen. And Ratnam chose the pen! After studying the intricacies of a fountain pen, Ratnam set about meeting Gandhi’s mandate to make a truly ‘Indian’ pen. After several years of experimenting with local materials and technology, he finally developed one in 1933 and sent it to Gandhiji. Gandhiji was not fully convinced. He sent one of his secretaries to the Ratnam factory to confirm that no imported element was used in the product. It was in 1935 that Gandhiji was satisfied, and he started using the Ratnam pen, which he continued to do till his death in 1948.

For years ink-stained fingertips were the sign of a prolific writer, or a leaky pen! It was to address the issue of leaking ink that in other parts of the world, the path to the invention of what came to be called the ballpoint pen were already underway. The international history of the transition from the fountain pen to the ball pen is interesting.

The first patent for this kind of pen was obtained by an American lawyer John J Loud in 1888. Loud wanted an ink pen which would be able to write on rougher materials such as wood and leather, as well as paper. He experimented with, and developed a pen with a revolving steel ball, which was held in place by a socket—literally a pen with a ball point. Loud’s pen was indeed able to write on leather and wood, but it was too rough for paper. The device was deemed to have no commercial value and the patent eventually lapsed. But inventors continued to experiment with variations on the ball point.

One of these was a Hungarian-Argentinian journalist named László Biro who was frustrated with the leaky pens that he had to use in large numbers. László had realised that the ink used in fountain pens was too slow to dry; what was needed was something more like the quick-drying ink used on newspapers. In his quest for a more suitable ink he turned to his brother, Győrgy, a dentist who was also a talented chemist. Győrgy came up with a viscous ink which spread easily but dried quickly. After a number of trials, the brothers filed a patent, in 1943, for the ballpoint pen. Their pen was originally called a ‘Birome’ but became popularly known as a biro (an example of an eponym!) The pen became an instant hit. The Biro brothers sold their patent to Bic. And Bic pens are known all over the world even today. The ballpoint pen revolutionized the act of writing. Where the fountain pen needed a fixed place for writing where the accompaniments like the inkpot could be kept, the ballpoint pen led to great mobility and flexibility; it could be carried and used anywhere and anytime..

By the time I graduated from school to college, the trend in India had also moved from fountain pens to what we then called ballpoint pens, that later became the ubiquitous ball pens. At the time relatives coming from abroad used to bring Bic pens as gifts, although Milton Reynolds an American entrepreneur had introduced ballpoint pens in India in 1947. While Rajamundari was the cradle of the indigenous fountain pen, it was in Rajkot in Gujarat that the first Indian ballpoint inks and pens were manufactured. It was only in 1962 that Dhirajlal Joshi, after a lot of struggle, got approval to make ballpoint pen ink in India. There were hiccups in terms of quality of ink, nibs etc. but by the 1970s these had been smoothened and many pen manufacturing partnerships were set up, including with countries like Japan and Germany.

From Ratnam pen to Space pen–I value them all!

In the last two decades the market has been flooded with a great variety of pens, transitioning from pens with refills, to use-and-throw gel pens. There is even a Space Pen that is able to write in zero gravity and works upside down, under water, over grease and in extreme temperatures. Today fountain pens have become collector’s items or status symbols. Ink fillers, ink bottles and ink stained rags may soon be seen only in museums. Even refills for ball point pens are not easily available at my local stationary shop, as I painfully steel myself to throw away gel pens when they run out. These are perhaps manifestations of a time, which is almost upon us, when pens themselves, in any form, become redundant in an age of digital technology.

I have, all my life, loved writing by hand, and pens have been an integral part of that process of writing; each transition in the type of pen that I have used, marking also a different phase in my life. Pens gifted with love, pens picked up as souvenirs, pens handed out at meetings and conferences, and pens chosen and bought from stationary shops, and more…I have kept them all. These are my valued pen friends even today.  


Low-tech Barriers to Tourism

Some months ago, I wrote a piece called High-tech Barriers to Heritage, describing how we had to have smartphones to buy tickets to get into a monument.

But my trip last week to Mysuru as a tourist reminded me that there were low-tech barriers aplenty too in our country.

To begin with, both in the Mysuru Palace (about half of which is closed to visitors due to renovation), and in the Jaganmohan Palace Art Gallery, it is necessary for visitors to take off footwear.  The reason is that in the Palace, there are sacred shaligrams which are worshipped. But the shaligrams are behind thick silver doors, and anyway not in the view of, or within shoe-shod feet of visitors. In the Jaganmohan Palace, the reason is that there is a large Ganesha idol as part of the exhibits. It would not be too difficult to move the beautiful idol to a secluded room so that visitors interested in seeing it could take off their shoes just outside that room. Both of these are largish museums and are spread over various floors. Tourists are on the road all day. It is neither comfortable, nor hygienic to go around with dirty feet. If footwear must not enter, then can cloth covers for feet be provided, which can be collected back at the exit, washed, sanitized and re-used? Or any other solution? Raghu who hates walking barefoot, and is also seriously diabetic and hence paranoid about getting his feet hurt, sat out both the visits while the rest of us went in. Sad, because he would have enjoyed seeing the exhibits, including the large collection of Ravi Varmas at the Jaganmohan Palace.

The visit to Brindavan Gardens was traumatic in a different way. We went in fairly late and were eager to catch a glimpse of the gardens before dark. We saw an electric buggy just as we entered, but the decrepit vehicle had just gathered its full load and took off for its round. We looked around for an Information Desk to check when the next buggy trip was scheduled. But there wasn’t a desk or kiosk. Nor even a schedule of buggy departures. We asked around in the shops which cluster and mess up the entrance, but no two answers coincided. We decided to have a coffee and wait for the next ride. We ordered the coffees, but didn’t get them because the electricity went off in between. We looked for loos, but as there was no Information Desk or signage, it took us quite some wandering around before we found them. At the end of 45 minutes, there was no sign of a buggy, it was quite dark, and we decided to leave.

The next day was a Tuesday. We wanted to visit the Rail Museum. But when we reached there, it was closed. So we decided to visit the Zoo, which is counted among the best in the country. But Tuesday was off for this site too!

Not that the Mysuru trip was a total disaster. The city itself is beautiful, green and stately, and driving around was a pleasure. We (some of us) did see the Palace and the Museum. We savoured the crispest dosas, the fluffiest idlies, the most flavourful of sambhars, the tangiest of chutneys—all in clean, modest, reasonably priced places.

And the highlight of the trip: the illuminations at the Palace in the evening. Lit up by 99,000 bulbs, it was a scene out of a fairytale or a dream. Apparently the Palace is lit up on Sundays and public holidays. We might have missed if we had not been told about by our Palace tour guide, for there were no signboards informing us that this was one of the evenings when the lighting was on.

It is not news that India is home to rich treasures. Indians now have the means, the time and desire to travel and see them. Can we not make life just a little easier for our tourists? Can we not treat them with respect and dignity? Can we not make the travel experience easy, pleasant, memorable, and an opportunity for learning?

To begin with, can we take a few simple steps?

  • Have information desks not only at the sites, but also prominent places in tourist cities, with helpful people who really want tourists to see and enjoy the sights?
  • Have basic informational and directional signs, as well as imaginatively conceived informational signage?
  • Not force people to trail through miles of corridor barefoot, inviting germs. If we are particular about keeping out shoes, can we come out with dignified alternatives?
  • Have some system of universally-accepted holidays for public places? After my experience, I did a bit of Google research and this is what I found:
Delhi ZooFriday
Hyderabad ZooMonday
Mysuru ZooTuesday
Chennai ZooTuesday
National Museum, DelhiMonday
Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, MumbaiWednesday
Kelkar Museum, PuneNo off-day
National Gallery of Modern Art, DelhiMonday
Visveswaraya Science Museum, BangaloreNo off-day
Science City, KolkattaNo off-day
National Science Centre, DelhiSaturday and Sunday

               Surely there is a case for rationalization!

Let’s celebrate Amazing India! But powers-that-be, could you just make it a little more convenient for the public?


Eponyms: When People Become Things

As I wrote last week the evolution of language involves multiple inputs and processes. ‘Clipped’ words often overtake their original abbreviations to take on their own identities. At times, the process goes the other way and words become elongated by being ‘topped’ and ‘tailed’ by other words to gain new meaning and identity.

Place names become words. So when you laugh at a ‘limerick’, drive a ‘limousine’, have a pet ‘alsatian’ or ‘labrador’, play ‘badminton’ or ‘rugby’ or run a ‘marathon’, you are in fact invoking the name of a place that has become synonymous with the object or activity.

Place names may also become easily identifiable product names; as in drinks—Martini, Cognac, Bourbon; or food as in Hamburgers and Frankfurters. 

It is not just names of places but also names of people that have become words in their own right. Today when we use the words, we immediately visualize the object, without having the faintest idea that there was a person that originally gave his or her  name to the thing.

For example the cardigan was named after James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, a British Army major general who led the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. The woollen garment is modelled after the close-fitting knitted wool waistcoat that British officers supposedly wore during the war. The macintosh (or the Englishman’s ubiquitous waterproof coat) was named for Charles Macintosh who invented the waterproofing process that was used in the material for these raincoats. The sandwich is named for an 18th century English aristocrat, the 4th Earl of Sandwich who, as the story goes, ordered his valet to bring him a piece of meat tucked between two slices of bread, so that he would not have to get up from the gambling table for a formal meal.

Perhaps the more commonly known eponyms are the botanical names of plants, many being named after their discoverers. An interesting double link is to be found in the word Nicotine which is named after the tobacco plant Nicotiana tabacum. The botanical name of the plant is derived from the name of the French ambassador Jean Nicot de Villemain, who when visiting Portugal, sent tobacco and seeds to Paris in 1560, presented it to the French King, as something that had medicinal value and protected against illness.

We may not be aware that many other terms in science and technology also reflect the names of their inventors. .

The diesel that powers our vehicles and machines is named after its German inventor-engineer Rudolph Diesel. The ampere is named for French physicist and mathematician André-Marie Ampère (1775–1836), who studied electromagnetism and laid the foundation of electrodynamics. Celsius is named after Swedish astronomer Anders Celsius who first proposed the centigrade scale in 1742, and Fahrenheit is named for the physicist Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit. The ohm (symbol: Ω) is the SI derived unit of electrical resistance, is named after its discoverer German physicist Georg Ohm. And the more familiar term watt, a unit of electrical power, is named after the Scottish engineer and inventor James Watt.

Similarly in medicine a condition originally named after the doctor who first described it, becomes over time, a noun for the condition. Alzheimer’s disease is named after Dr Alois Alzheimer a German psychiatrist and neurologist who first analysed the brain of a woman who had an unusual mental condition and studied the changes in the brain that caused the issues. Similarly Parkinson’s disease is named after Dr James Parkinson who described the condition in 1817. Today it is commonplace to describe a patient suffering from these diseases as simply having Alzheimers or Parkinsons.

All these are examples of eponyms. An eponym is a person, place, or thing after whom or which someone or something is, or is believed to be, named.

There is one other form of eponym. These are words that were initially the name of a particular brand but now are used to reference entire categories of things. One of the most popular eponyms is a band-aid. While band-aid is the name of the brand that makes adhesive bandages, most people use the term to refer to any adhesive bandage, regardless of who makes it. In India at one time Cadbury was the eponym for any chocolate!

And then there is the world of high fashion where people wear Dior, spray Chanel, carry Prada, and travel with Louis Vuitton! Bata is eponymous in India with sturdy, reasonably priced footwear, and generally thought of as a truly India brand. It is interesting that, in fact, the brand was named after Tomas Bat’a who along with his brothers started a family owned business in Czechoslovakia in 1894 to produce sturdy and affordable shoes.. However, I have not met anyone who proudly says “I am the proud owner of a Bata!”


Valuing Toilets

As the World Toilet Day site says: ‘Life without a toilet is dirty, dangerous and undignified. Public health depends on toilets. Toilets also drive improvements in gender equality, education, economics and the environment. There will be no sustainable future without toilets.’

3.6 billion people across the world still lack access to safe sanitation.

World Toilet Day is observed on 19 Nov every year as a way to remind ourselves of this situation. This year, the theme as declared by the UN is Valuing Toilets. World Toilet Day is an occasion to remind ourselves of a goal the world is committed to, viz, Sustainable Development Goal  6, which is about Clean Water and Sanitation. Specifically under this Goal, the sub-goals related to sanitation are:

6.1 By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all

6.2 By 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations

6.A By 2030, expand international cooperation and capacity-building support to developing countries in water- and sanitation-related activities and programmes, including water harvesting, desalination, water efficiency, wastewater treatment, recycling and reuse technologies

6.B Support and strengthen the participation of local communities in improving water and sanitation management

India has made some progress, but there is still a long way to go. Creating infrastructure is the easier part. Bringing about behaviour change to get people to use toilets; to ensure water supply; to ensure maintenance and functionality—these are the bigger challenges that we still have to tackle.

This is where innovations are needed. And are happening. A very interesting publication ‘ 10 Innovative Approaches To Improve The Urban Wa-S-H Sector In India’ brought out by the  USAID and the National Institute of Urban Affairs documents some of these. Here are some of the most interesting:

Creation Of A Urine Bank and Collection by A Special Vehicle and Its Utilization as Fertilizer: Society for Community Organization and People’s Education (SCOPE), a Trichy based NGO, has tried this experiment in Musiri, Tamilnadu. Basically, they separated urine and faeces at the household/institution level through the use of ECOSAN toilets. About 400 litres of urine, which is good fertilizer, were collected with the help of a special van, suitably treated, diluted and put into use in agriculture. The application increased yields and was found to be cost-effective.

Waterless Urinals to Conserve Fresh Water, Save Energy and Reduce Maintenance Costs: This IIT-Delhi incubated innovation is for urinals in public spaces. It avoids the use of water for flushing. This is a considerable amount of water saved, for each flush uses from 4 to as much as 15 litres of water. The odour control mechanism like the sealant liquid, membrane trap and biological blocks are used to substitute for flushing.

I have personally had some experience of this innovation, having installed it in one of the public toilets we built and maintained in Hyderabad, and it worked pretty well.

Vandal Proof, Easy to Maintain and Durable Toilets: Anyone, like me, who has experience of managing public toilets, knows that vandalism, breakage, and irresponsible usage of the facilities are an inevitable and unpleasant part of a difficult job. This is one reason why the recurring costs of running such toilets is high. GARV toilets, an innovation tried in Faridabad, use stainless steel for the superstructure of the toilet pan and wash basin, rather than the less durable china clay or porcelain. This not only increases the life of various utilities in, but also reduces maintenance cost and water needed for cleaning. This innovation was apparently born out of the desire of a manufacturer who wanted to use the steel lying around in his factory. If you think through it, it is the approach used by the Indian Railways for maybe over a century now, and if it can work in our trains, it can work anywhere!

The publication is over five years old, and the innovations discussed go back even a decade. Some, like waterless urinals, have found wide application. Hopefully, the others have been also diffused far and wide, picked up and improved further.

The need to scale up and innovate in the sanitation sector is urgent. There is no better way to put it than to sum it up than in Gandhiji’s words: ‘A lavatory must be as clean as a drawing-room ‘.


Stories: The Magic Wand

This week saw children making the headlines. November 14 is celebrated as Children’s Day in India, to mark the birthday of India’s first Prime Minster Jawaharlal Nehru. The day is marked by events that engage children in activities dear to them—of which playing and stories remain all-time favourites.

This year the Gujarat government has recognised the immense value of stories for children and has declared that 15 November will be celebrated as Children’s Stories Day or Balvarta Din.

15 November marks the birth anniversary of Gijubhai Badheka, one of Gujarat’s best known children’s storytellers and educationists, who had been called the Brahma of Children’s Literature. In Gujarat his name is synonymous with a rich treasure of stories for children. Generations of children have grown up with these tales, told and retold by parents and grandparents.

Born in 1885 Gijubhai started his professional life as a Pleader in a district court. In the early 1920s he got deeply involved in the upbringing of his own son. Under the influence of the thinking of Madam Montessori he started experiments in child-centred education, when he joined the Dakshinamurti educational institutions in Bhavnagar. His vision and passion for experimenting in his field led to the setting up of the Dakshinamurti Balmandir—a pre-primary school in 1920. It is in the early says of his interactions with the children here that he realised the importance of stories for children as a means of learning. He started collecting stories for children, writing them, and telling them. He believed that stories were the magic wand that transformed children in many ways.

There was, at that time, not much literature in Gujarati which was specifically written for children. It was Gijubhai who established the child as an individual, and created a special space, and resources for the child, in literature.

As he wrote in his seminal work in Gujarati, on the art and craft of stories titled Vaarta nu Shastra: By calling a story a children’s story does not make it one. Children’s stories are those that children get a special type of enjoyment from. Children like short and simple stories. Reflections of what happens around them, behaviour of birds and animals, small rhymes that can be easily remembered and repeated—these are the characteristics of children’s stories.

But at the time there were no stories available that would fit this bill. Gijubhai delved   into the treasure chest of folk literature. He asked all the teachers and teacher trainees of Dakshinamurti to start collecting folk stories that were still being told in homes, in villages, and in fields, and pick those that would be suitable for children.

As he wrote in Vaarta nu Shastra “If you seek folk literature you will have to leave the city and go to the villages, and from villages, move into the forests and fields. When the toothless grandmother finishes her chores, and rubbing tobacco on her gums, starts to tell stories to the gaggle of children, there springs the magic of folk tales. You will find folk literature in every village chaupal; children will be spreading it freely from galli to galli, and grandmothers will be distributing the prasad in their homes.

Gijubhai and his colleagues went out as seekers of stories and returned with a rich repertoire of tales, songs, rhymes, riddles and sayings. He then retold these for children with his characteristic short sentences, word play, rhyme and dialogues.

And so every morning he told the children a story. In the afternoon the children would enact the stories. Soon they became so adept that they did not need to memorise the words; the rhymes flowed naturally and if they forgot in between, they made up the words as they went along. As he wrote: If you collect a group of children and tell them a story, they will tell you ten more.

Gijubhai’s search for folk tales crossed the boundaries of language and country. He explored and discovered gems in the literature of different countries, and found incredible variety, as well as similarities. He localised and transformed these stories so that they were steeped in the sounds and colours of Gujarat, and over time they became not only Gujarati but uniquely ‘Gijubhai’s stories’.

Gijubhai’s stories are simply told tales with a mixture of prose and rhyme. There is a lot of dialogue and reiteration. The repetition of rhymes makes for lively storytelling in  which listeners can also join in. Many stories follow a sequence of cause and effect, leading to a chain reaction which is reinforced in verse. Children love the repetitive rhymes. Several stories have improbable characters and plots. Children love the absurd, fanciful and nonsensical.

Gijubhai told delightful tales of familiar animals and birds. In many, the animals talk and act in human ways while also reflecting each animals typical characteristics. The stories reflect a deep symbiotic relationship between animals and people with the two often trying to outwit each other. With equal panache Gijubhai told stories of common folk with common trades (tailor, potter, barber, shopkeeper), as well as kings, queens and princesses.  The characters reflect basic human traits—greed, envy, proving physical or mental prowess. Many stories follow the classic fairy tale style, opening with ‘once upon a time’ and ending with ‘happily ever after’. They capture the rustic flavour and pace of the days when travel meant walking from one village to another, and long-distance meant a bullock cart journey; and many encounters and adventures happened en route.

Several generations and a hundred years later, children today may not relate as closely to the settings and the pace of the narrative, and yet, the quirks and foibles of the characters; the silly and the absurd, the funny and the fantastic still touch a cord in the child, and indeed in the child in every one of us.

The initiative to celebrate Gijubhai and his stories by designating a Children’s Stories Day is a welcome one. In a time when children are so hooked into the digital world, perhaps even adults need to be reminded of the simple joys of storytelling. In the words of Gijubhai:

To My Fellow Storytellers

Here are the stories. Tell these to your children. They will listen with ardour and joy, over and over again. Remember, tell these stories beautifully; tell them as stories should be told—tell them with involvement. Read them out if you like. Choose a story that will suit your children’s age and interest.

Don’t tell the stories to bestow knowledge; don’t tell the stories as an objective narrator. Immerse yourself in the stories and take your children with you into the total experience.

You will discover that stories are a magic wand. If you want to build a bond with your children, start with stories.


Winning Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TBH: an abbreviation for “to be honest.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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