The Postman Does Not Knock Even Once

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vision​​​

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

Mission​

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

–Meena

Whistle Away!

Imagine that your school timetable had three periods a week for ‘whistling class!’ What is probably every child’s fantasy is a fact for children who live on La Gomera. No this is not an imaginary land but a real island in the Canary Islands. The island is part of an archipelago in the Atlantic ocean, called The Canaries, located 100 km west of Morocco. The Canary Islands are part of the autonomous communities of Spain. They were originally inhabited by Berbers who were conquered and enslaved by Spanish invaders in the 15th and 16th centuries.  

What sets the island of La Gomera apart is its unique ‘whistling language’ called Silbo Gomero. This is a traditional language which was probably used by the original Berber inhabitants, and then by the indigenous herders for communication among themselves; it was later adopted by local communities who used it as a secret language when threatened by the Spanish invaders. Accounts of 15th century explorers include mention of indigenous people who communicated by whistling. It is believed that these people passed on the language to the first Spanish settlers in the 16th century. Over time the language began to transpose Spanish words from speech into whistling.

Whistling is a perfect way to communicate on the island which is made up of deep valleys and steep ravines, and where houses are located far from each other. When people cannot easily meet face to face, and where written communication is not used, whistling is a way to send the community invitations for feasts, inform of births and deaths, and warn of danger. With favourable wind conditions its sounds could travel up to 3 km. As one of the island’s old whistlers explained “The thing is that here, learning to whistle wasn’t a matter of pleasure. It was an obligation, a necessity. If you didn’t know how to do it, you would have to walk to give a message. And as the houses are far from each other, and there were no roads or phones, whistling was easier than walking.”

Thus evolved a whistling language, officially known as Silbo Gomero, which substitutes whistled sounds that vary by pitch and length for written letters. It is basically the Spanish language in which words are replaced by 2 whistled vowels and 4 consonants. The whistle goes high and low to distinguish one sound from another. The whistle can also be broken to indicate the end of a sentence. In order to amplify the volume as well as to create the necessary distinction the finger is placed in the mouth. Whistling veterans each had their own favoured way to use the finger in the mouth technique—some used only the tip of one or two fingers, some used a finger from each hand, some inserted one bent knuckle into the mouth. But they all knew the language which the whistles produced.

Interestingly Silbo Gomero was a commonly used language on the island until the 1950s. It was used at home and children grew up with it. As with many indigenous languages the use of the language began to decline as native speakers grew old and died, and younger generations began to emigrate; educational institutions gave precedence to the modern Spanish which became the lingua franca of the island. By the 1970s and 80s, there were only a few whistlers remaining. By the end of 1990 there were only about 50 island dwellers who were fluent whistlers, and one entire generation, educated in Spanish, had missed being familiarised of the language.

But linguists and scholars continued to be fascinated by this language. There are a few other whistling languages in the world, among which are the language on the Greek island of Evia, in the town of Kuskoy, eastern Turkey, and in a town of the French Pyrenees. But Silbo Gomera is the one that is still used by the largest community of speakers, and the first one that has been studied in depth.

At end of the 90s there was renewed interest in Silbo. One of the reasons was the initiative to introduce it as a subject at primary school. Since 1999, it has constituted a required subject in the primary and secondary school curriculum. Today children learn it as a second language, where once it may have been the first language they used at home. But the initiative is noteworthy for its attempt at keeping alive a unique  tradition, especially in an age when technology has transformed communication in unimaginable ways.

An important international recognition and step towards its conservation came in 2009, when the Silbo Gomero language was described by UNESCO as “the only whistled language in the world that is fully developed and practiced by a large community,” and added to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

For the few remaining guardians of Silbo Gomera, the whistling language is like the poetry of their island, even though it may not have as much practical use as it used to. They feel “like poetry, whistling does not need to be useful in order to be special and beautiful.”

The island’s initiative to include it in the curriculum is important in that it creates for children a living link to their heritage and history. As one school girl said “It is a way to honour the people that lived here in the past. And to remember where everything came from, that we didn’t start with technology, but from simple beginnings.”

For others it is the fun of learning a “secret” language through which they can communicate. In an age when mobile phones and electronic communication have reached even the remotest parts of the world, the young people of La Gomera are happily adapting to both kinds of communication—Tootle and Tweet!

–Mamata

A Wise Lady from the 12th Century Guides Education Even Today

The Aathichudi is the alphabet primer with which every child in Tamilnadu takes its first step in education. It begins with: ‘A is for ‘Aram chaiya virumbu’. The phrase means ‘Intend to do good’. And this is the first thing that a child is taught. There cannot be a better way to start the journey of life.

And so the Aathichudi goes through the A to Z of Tamil, 108 lines in all, with short moral and practical aphorisms. It spans a wide variety of exhortations from ‘Control your anger’, to ‘Never stop learning’ to ‘Care for your parents’ to ‘Do not forget charity’ to ‘Do not allow suffering’.

If we think the ‘quote a day’ approach is new, let’s think again. The Aathichudi is a pithy moral-science textbook cum self-help book which was penned by the legendary Avvaiyar in the 12th century.  

Actually, there was not just one poetess called Avvaiyar  (meaning ‘Wise and respected lady’). There were at least three—the first was way back in the Sangam period (BC); the second probably in the 10th century; and the third, the author of the alphabet primer (among many, many other works) lived in the 12th century.

All of them were wise. They talked with kings and walked with common people. They effortlessly defied convention–they did not marry, they traveled alone across the length and breadth of several kingdoms, they advised kings. wrote poetry, and shared their wisdom. They shunned worldly wealth and power. They not only provided a moral compass to people of the time, but most of what they wrote is timeless.

How influential and independent these women were in their times—they were writing, advising, travelling, teaching, judging the literary works of others, acting as negotiators between kings to stop wars. Their works don’t just endure to this day; they are living documents which every adult, youth and child in the state can quote.

A few gems from Konrai Venthan, another of her works:

Oadhalin nandre vethiyarkku ozhukkam:  For priests, morality is more important than chanting.

Kutdram paarkkil suttram illai: Finding fault results in loss of relationships.

Kaip porul thannil meip porul kalvi: Education is the real wealth, more than the one in your hands.

Neraa noonbu seer aagaathu: A job not done well is not a job to be proud of.

Valavan aayinum alavu arinthu azhiththu unn: Even the super-rich should spend within limits.

Apart from being known to every school child through the Alphabet Primer, in Tamilnadu, the mass memory of Avvaiyar is, predictably enough, based on a film–one starring KT Sundarambal which was released in 1953. There are many, many stories and myths about the Avvaiyaars—from verbally jousting with Subramania (son of Lord Shiva), to being transformed from an attractive young girl to an old lady in an instant. This last was a result of praying to Ganesha, since Avvaiyar wanted to avoid getting into a marriage and family responsibilities, so that she could focus on her scholarly pursuits. There are besides, several statues across the State, including an imposing one at Marina (though how we know how she looked is not clear to me!). There are many college and educational institutions named after her.

For a long time now, people of Tamilnadu have been remembering her through the Avvai Vizha, an annual festival celebrated around mid-March, which is a gathering of scholars of Tamil and other subjects. This has, in recent times been taken over by the State Government. Besides this, the TN Govt. has instituted the Avvaiyar Award, to be given to ‘one eminent woman who has rendered excellent service in any one field such as Social Reform, Women Development, Communal harmony, Service for Language, Service in various disciplines in Art, Science, Culture, Press, Administration, etc., on the International Women’s Day which is being celebrated on March 8th every year’.

Avvaiyar even has a crater on Venus named after her—Feature 512!

But probably if she is looking down on us, what will please her most is that her work is still being used to lay the basics of literacy and education for children! And though she does not seem to make any explicit references to women empowerment nor set herself up as a role model, she will surely be happy that she is an inspiration for women through the centuries!

On the occasion of International Women’s Day…

–Meena

‘millennialmatriarchs’ was launched on 8 March, 2018. So this piece marks our third anniversary. Our heartfelt thanks to all those who have supported and encouraged us, and most of all, our kind readers!
Mamata and Meena

Zizzer-zazzer-zuzz Dr Seuss

A small news item caught my eye yesterday because it had the name of one of my favourite children’s author–Dr Seuss; and it reminded me that 2 March is his birth anniversary. The news however was somewhat unsettling. It reported that after being in print for almost half a century, six Dr Seuss books will no longer be published because the estate of the deceased author consider that “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” 

In an age that it overly sensitive to the portrayal of different cultures and races, and in the effort to be “politically correct” or “woke” as it is now termed, this seems to be the latest item on the list of vetting children’s books for “appropriate content.”

Curiously, Dr Seuss books have always been more about vocabulary than content. Several generations of children have been introduced to words by being read aloud from his books. It was the simple rhymes and rhythm of his verses that opened up the fun of language, and the characteristic zany drawings that accompanied them that attracted young and old.

Theodor Seuss Geisel was born on March 2, 1904, in Springfield, Massachusetts to German immigrant parents. He left home at the age of 18 to attend Dartmouth College, where he became the editor-in-chief of its humour magazine. He was kicked off the magazine’s staff when he and his friends were caught drinking in their dorm, in violation of the Prohibition era laws. But he continued to contribute to the magazine under the pseudonym Seuss, which was his mother’s maiden name.

After graduating from Dartmouth, Theodor left for England in 1925 to study at the University of Oxford, with plans to become a Professor someday. But as his notebooks from the period indicate, while he diligently took lecture notes initially, soon the pages were filled only with doodles and drawings. In 1927, he dropped out of Oxford and gave up his idea of becoming an academic. Later when he began to make a name as a writer he added ‘Dr.’ to Seuss, as a sort of joke, because his father had always wanted him to get a doctorate and become a professor. And Dr Seuss he became and remained till the end of his days, and even today.

Theodor had always loved to play with words and it was with words and sketches that he began his professional life. On his return to the United States, Theodor worked for a number of years as a freelance magazine cartoonist, selling cartoons and humorous prose pieces to the major humour magazines of the 1920s and 1930s. One of his best known assignments was the humorous advertisements for the bug spray Flit. He went on to create advertising campaigns for several large companies including the Ford Motor Company.

His new avatar as a children’s writer was born with the publication of his first book in 1937. In 1936, Geisel and his wife were returning from an ocean voyage to Europe when the rhythm of the ship’s engines inspired the poem that became his first children’s book: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. But his manuscript was met with rejection from publisher after publisher.

After the 27th publisher rejected his manuscript, Theodor was dejectedly walking on Madison Avenue in New York when he bumped into an old friend from Dartmouth, Mike McClintock, who that very morning had started a job as an editor in the Vanguard Press children’s section. Within hours, the men signed a contract. In 1937 Vanguard Press published And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street. The book was an instant hit and Dr. Seuss began what was to be an extraordinary literary career.   

The outbreak of World War II forced Theodor to temporarily give up writing for children and to devote his talents to the war effort. Working with the Information and Education Division of the U.S. Army, he made documentary and animated films for American soldiers. He also illustrated political cartoons; but his heart was in children’s books.

After the war, Geisel and his wife moved to La Jolla California where he returned to writing children’s books, working hard for hours at juggling words and rhymes and colour palettes to create madcap characters and adventures. He also loved coining playful nonsensical words that were as zany as his characters: Yuzz-a-ma-tuzz, murky-mooshy, gluppity-glup, schloppity shlop—words that children would love to twist their tongue around! It was a few years before his best known book The Cat in the Hat would be written. And this has an interesting background.

In the early 1950s the most widely used early school primers were a series featuring a boy and girl named Dick and Jane who were too neat, clean, and well behaved to be true!. By the mid-fifties some educators began to debate how effective these were in laying the foundation for literacy, and encouraging and exciting early readers.

One of the people who were concerned, and were imagining alternatives was William Spaulding who was then director of the education division at the Houghton Miffin publishing house. In 1955 Spaulding invited Dr Seuss to create a book for six- and seven-year-olds who had already mastered the basic mechanics of reading. He reportedly challenged, “Write me a story that first-graders can’t put down!”

The additional challenge was that Theodor was given a limited list of 250 words that he could use for his story. Theodor decided to quash his frustration by deciding to pick the first two rhyming words that he found in the list and create a story based on those. The words were Cat and Hat! The next challenge was to write the story. It took Theodor nine months to complete The Cat in the Hat—a 236 rhyming word book which while doing its traditional job of a reading primer was also entertaining. It was the story of two children, bored and alone at home who were visited by a cat in a top hat and red bow tie, and their mad capers in one afternoon.

We looked

and we saw him

the cat in the hat!

and he said to us

‘why do you sit there like that?

i know it is wet

and the sun is not sunny

but we can have

lots of good fun that is funny!

When it was published in 1957, the book was met with immediate critical and commercial success. Reviewers saw it as an exciting alternative to traditional primers. Three years after its debut, the book had already sold over a million copies.

The enthusiastic reception of The Cat in the Hat led Geisel to found Beginner Books, a publishing company specializing in easy-to-read books for children.

If 236 words was a challenge he took on successfully, one of his most popular books, Green Eggs and Ham, was the result of a bet that he could not write a book using only 50 words. But he did!

Dr Seuss never began his stories with a moral in mind. He felt that this was the one thing that immediately put children off. He believed in talking to kids not at them. He also cautioned other writers not to patronize children. As he said, “They can smell a phony a mile away. They are the toughest audience to write for.”

However his writing was not just word play; all his stories have an inherent moral, subtly permeating the rollicking words and the insouciant illustrations. With their plot twists and rebellious heroes who do the unexpected, the books cover a wide range of social and environmental issues. The Lorax at one time became a much-quoted environmental fable. His art work had a unique style, generally devoid of straight lines, and characteristic droopy figures.

Dr Seuss became a household name. Between 1937 and 1991, when he died aged 87, he published more than 60 books, which have sold half a billion copies between them–more even than J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books! The books have been translated into many languages. Some of his books were also adapted and made into animated films, TV shows and theatre productions.

I have spent as many hours reading Dr Seuss to my children as they were growing, as I have spent in perusing his books again and again, even when the children had outgrown them. I am sure that similar members of the Seuss fan club have not been unduly tarnished by what today is being perceived as writing and images promoting racial stereotypes, or being culturally insensitive. With six Seuss classics, including his first book And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street ceasing publication and sale, it would be a pity if we were to return to the sanitized versions of children’s books like Dick and Jane.

You’ll come to a place where streets are not marked.

Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked.

A place where you could sprain both your elbow and chin!

Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in?

How much can you lose? How much can you win?

(Oh, the Places You’ll Go!)

–Mamata

Thinking About Science

A few days ago, on Feb 28, we marked National Science Day. This commemorates the discovery of the Raman Effect.

As we think about the state of Science in India, there are two historical documents I would like to quote as my contribution to this day, to remind ourselves of the vision of the early national leaders, as well as the scientific leaders of yore.

The first is India’s earliest policy statement on the subject, tilted “Scientific Policy Resolution’, brought out by the Govt. of India in March 1958:

‘1. The key to national prosperity, apart from the spirit of the people, lies, in the modern age, in the effective combination of three factors, technology, raw materials and capital, of which the first is perhaps the most important, since the creation and adoption of new scientific techniques can, in fact, make up for a deficiency in natural resources, and reduce the demands on capital. But technology can only grow out of the study of science and its applications.

2. The dominating feature of the contemporary world is the intense cultivation of science on a large scale, and its application to meet a country’s requirements.

3. It is only through the scientific approach and method and the use of scientific knowledge that reasonable material and cultural amenities and services can be provided for every member of the community, and it is out of a recognition of this possibility that the idea of a welfare state has grown.

4. The wealth and prosperity of a nation depend on the effective utilisation of its human and material resources through industrialisation. The use of human material for industrialization demands its education in science and training in technical skills.

5. Science and technology can make up for deficiencies in raw materials by providing substitutes, or, indeed, by providing skills which can be exported in return for raw materials. In industrialising a country, heavy price has to be paid in importing science and technology in the form of plant and machinery, highly paid personnel and technical consultants. An early and large scale development of science and technology in the country could therefore greatly reduce the drain on capital during the early and critical stages of industrialisation.

6.  It is an inherent obligation of a great country like India, with its traditions of scholarship and original thinking and its great cultural heritage, to participate fully in the march of science, which is probably mankind’s greatest enterprise today.

The Government of India have accordingly decided that the aims of their scientific policy will be

1. to foster, promote, and sustain, by all appropriate means, the cultivation of science, and scientific research in all its aspects – pure, applied, and educational;

2. to ensure an adequate supply, within the country, of research scientists of the highest quality, and to recognize their work as an important component of the strength of the nation;

3. to encourage, and initiate, with all possible speed, programmes for the training of scientific and technical personnel, on a scale adequate to fulfil the country’s needs in science and education, agriculture and industry, and defence;

4. to ensure that the creative talent of men and women is encouraged and finds full scope in scientific activity;

5. to encourage individual initiative for the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge, and for the discovery of new knowledge, in an atmosphere of academic freedom ;

6. and, in general, to secure for the people of the country all the benefits that can accrue from the acquisition and application of scientific knowledge.

The Government of India have decided to pursue and accomplish these aims by offering good conditions of service to scientists and according them an honoured position, by associating scientists with the formulation of policies, and by taking such other measures as may be deemed.’

The second quote is from an important document called ‘A Statement on Scientific Temper’, put out by the Nehru Centre, Mumbai, in 1980, which lays down what scientific temper is:

ATTRIBUTES OF SCIENTIFIC TEMPER

Spread of scientific temper in society is much more than the spread of science or technology. Scientific temper is neither a collection of knowledge or facts, although it promotes such knowledge; nor is it rationalism although it promotes rational thinking. It is something more. It is an attitude of mind which calls for a particular outlook and pattern of behaviour. It is of universal applicability and has to permeate through our society as the dominant value system powerfully influencing the way we think and approach our problems—political, social, economic, cultural and educational. 

Scientific temper involves the acceptance, amongst others, of the following premises:

  1. that the method of science provides a viable method of acquiring knowledge;
  2. that human problems can be understood and solved in terms of knowledge gained through the application of the method of science;
  3. that the fullest use of the method of science in everyday life and in every aspect of human endeavour—from ethics to politics and economics—is essential for ensuring human survival and progress; and
  4. that one should accept knowledge gained through the application of the method of science as the closest approximation to truth at that time, and question what is incompatible with such knowledge; and that one should from time to time re-examine the basic foundations of contemporary knowledge.’

There is no need to re-articulate anything. The path is clear. What needs to be done is to ask ourselves, why we are not there!

We can judge for ourselves whether the Science Policy articulated close to 65 years ago has achieved what it set out to. And agonize how to put the focus back on ‘scientific temper’ which is relegated to the archives as a quaint and old-fashioned term.

Definitely needed more today than ever before!

–Meena

The Pied Piper of Young Naturalists

Photo source: deshgujarat.com

It was the interview that was to start my journey as an environmental educator. I had walked in with no formal academic or professional credentials to support my application, except for a great love for trekking and a passion for education. Among the distinguished naturalists that made up the interview panel was an avuncular gentleman who probed gently with questions that were probably meant to test what made me tick. I have no recollection of the exact questions, nor my answers, but I must have passed muster because I did get the job!

That was my first encounter with Luvkumar Khachar as he was later introduced. In the few years that followed I had the privilege of having Luvbha as a senior colleague, mentor, and continuing inspiration. Over the years I realised that Luvbha was all this, and much more, to thousands of young people, leading them like the Pied Piper on a lifelong journey of becoming naturalists. 

Luvkumar Khachar was one of the architects of the nature conservation movement in India. A renowned naturalist and accomplished ornithologist, he was also a passionate nature educator who made it his mission to instil the love for the outdoors in every young person. He conceived and launched the massive Nature Club movement for WWF India, and guided the Bombay Natural History Society for decades, just as he did the Centre for Environment Education after that. His own nature camps—in the desert, in the mountains, and on islands– were legendary, and perhaps every ‘not so young’ renowned naturalist today would remember being at one of those camps.

Luvkumar was born in the erstwhile princely family of Jasdan in Gujarat on 24 February 1931. His early days were spent in the great open spaces in close touch with the natural environment, planting a lifelong love for the outdoors. He always bemoaned the lack of such opportunities for later generations of youngsters. This was one of the prime factors that motivated his Nature Camps mission in the early 1970s. As he recalled, “I contemplated the  apparent lack of excitement among our youth for going out into the great open spaces. Comparing their upbringing with mine, I realized that I had had the great good fortune of  having spent my childhood at Hingolgadh with its wide views of the Saurashtra countryside, across which played the seasons, responded to by plants and animals. A majority of children, especially in urban situations, seldom see a sunrise! What struck me was the immense gulf developing between a city child and a tribal child. Were we not creating a schizophrenic society? The thought was disturbing.”

Having himself had a stint as a teacher in a conventional school he was aware of, and distressed by the fact that schools were becoming fetters to free growth, rather than liberating experiences. “We like to believe that we are descended of a civilization which nurtured intellectual giants, but fail to realise that these thinkers were leading unfettered lives in a land that was largely wilderness, replete with the bounties of Nature. By contrast, today’s child attending the most sophisticated of school is cramped and provides a constricted vision. The child of yesteryears, while enjoying advantages of limitless horizons, enjoyed the benediction of gurus who encouraged questioning. Today’s child seems sentenced to ten years of a concentration camp governed by a syllabus as tyrannical and circumscribing as any prison code! The system instead of exciting the wonder of growing minds, supresses their flights as effectively as any efficient prison warden following the prison code.”

Such scathing words were a trademark of this life-long educator who was always forthright in expressing his strongly-held opinions. But they also represented a warrior who fought tirelessly and hard for his beliefs, even in the face of hostility.

Like most naturalists of his generation, Luvkumar meticulously recorded his observations. His writing was a rare combination of science, intellect and emotion, ably supported by his natural ability as a writer. When Sanctuary Asia, one of India’s leading and best-loved magazines for wildlife science and conservation, was being planned, he told the editor “If you are going to start a wildlife magazine, please don’t make it a dry-as-dust scientific journal to be read by just 30 colleagues. Make it a popular magazine that thousands will enjoy. Because we need larger numbers to protect our wildlife.”

Luvbha was “old-world” in that he demanded high standards of discipline, integrity, commitment, and work ethic; just as he commanded respect and awe. As his young colleagues we were always a little tense about living up to his expectations, and were often pulled up by him, but there was always a twinkle in his eyes and a gentle smile that told us that we had his support in our efforts. For a while we were also lunch companions when we shared work space in the leafy environs of CEE’s Sundarvan. One of the rituals that he introduced was that one of us was to go to his office every morning with a packet of milk, and set the curd that we would all share with lunch.

Luvbha was always chided me for not going on more camping trips. I do regret that I could not attend one of his nature camps. But I am grateful for having had the privilege of learning much from him that has guided my work in environmental education, as well as life-lessons that are now deeply entrenched in me. Luvbha passed away in 2015 at the age of 84. Remembering him with respect, and many warm memories.

–Mamata

The 4000-km Salt Hedge

Many people, both contemporaries of Gandhiji, as well as the generations coming after, have wondered why he picked on salt as the major focus of protest, and the Dandi March became a major milestone of the Freedom movement.

With his deep empathy for the life of the poor in India, and his masterly understanding of symbolism and communication, Gandhiji understood that salt was the common factor that touched the life of each and every person, and that the criminal level of taxes imposed on salt made life of poor Indians that much more difficult. And the protest worked.

But the contentious history of the British colonizers and salt goes back long before the Dandi March. It is one of the not-much-discussed atrocities, and almost unbelievable. I first learnt of it when I came across a book titled ‘The Great Hedge of India’ by Roy Moxham about 15 years ago.

The Great Indian Hedge or the Inland Customs Line was a green, growing impenetrable hedge about 8 ft tall, which at its peak traversed about 4000 km, from Punjab, through the middle of India, all the way to Orissa. About 14,000 people were employed at one stage in maintaining and patrolling it.

And no, it was not any English love for gardens and greenery that prompted this hedge. It was in fact a defense put up against the movement of salt across the country. To step back and explain: The East India Company took over Bengal and brought all salt manufacture under its control. And they raised the tax on salt over ten times in this territory. The quantity of salt involved and the revenue associated can be gauged from some estimates which say that in 1784-85, the revenue to the Company from just the salt tax was over Rs. 62 lakh (that is equivalent to thousands of crores today!) . On the other hand, ordinary people were paying about 2 months’ salary every year to buy salt.

Seeing the revenue that salt taxes brought in, as the East India Company took over more and more territories, it extended the salt tax to these areas also. The hardship and the health impacts on the ordinary Indian were immeasurable

This obviously resulted in attempts to smuggle salt into these areas from princely states which were outside of the dominion of the Company, apart from efforts to make salt and ‘steal’ it from Company warehouses. The biggest threat came from salt transported across the borders, and to prevent this, the Company set up Custom Houses. But obviously, these did not help much as they were scattered.

Which is when it struck someone to build a wall. The ‘wall’ took the form of a hedge. First it was a dry barrier–dry, thorny bushes were piled up along the borders. But these required a lot of maintenance. In the meantime, in some parts, the dry branches took root and started growing. And so the idea of a living hedge was born. A lot of effort went into building an impenetrable hedge–from bringing in fertile soil where the earth was not so supportive, to identifying water sources and ensuring the hedges were watered, to experimenting with different species which would serve the purpose in different terrains. Roads were built along the hedge to facilitate inspection, watering, etc. Obviously well worth it, for the amount of revenue salt resulted!

While one wonders whether a hedge can really be so effective in stopping smuggling, Allan Hume, at one time in charge of the hedge,  opined that where it was well maintained, the hedge was  ‘utterly impassable to man or beast’.

The hedge persisted even after the British Raj took over, and it was only in 1879 that it was abandoned. Not out of any great sympathy for those burdened by the salt tax, but through tax reformswhich increased salt taxes in other parts of the country, thus making smuggling uneconomical.

So way before someone wanted to build walls across national borders, the British in India had done it! So what if it was not brick and mortar, but plants and shrubs! The thinking was as diabolical, and the impacts as devastating!

–Meena

PS: Why have hedges been on my mind? Because my own hedge is looking so sparse and growing weaker by the day. Local cats don’t even have to try to find a hole through which to pass—the hedge is a series of holes. This is not a trivialization of the seriousness of the issues raised by the Inland Customs Line. Only an explanation of why I did this piece today.

Stargazer to Trailblazer

Photo source: en.wikipedia.org

As we continue to celebrate women and girls in science, here is an inspiring story that goes back two hundred years.

 The common belief in nineteenth-century American society was that too much intellectual education would damage a woman’s health, and that too much thought would fracture or destroy the weaker among them. Women were expected to spend their time in household chores and needlework, in their role as dutiful wives and mothers.

In 1818, a daughter was born to William and Lydia Mitchell. They named her Maria. The Mitchells lived on Nantucket Island, a community of seafarers. The family were Quakers, a community that had somewhat different beliefs and lifestyle than the mainstream population.  One of the tenets of Quaker religion was intellectual equality between the sexes. They valued education and believed that the same quality of education should be given to boys as well as girls. Maria, one of ten children, was encouraged from a young age to exercise the power of her mind.

Maria began attending private elementary schools at the age of four. When she was nine, Maria’s father, who was an amateur astronomer, established a free, private school that Maria joined. Her father was an unconventional teacher who believed in hands-on education and a learning-by-doing curriculum. Students learned about the natural world by being outdoors and direct observation and collection of natural objects. This approach to scientific study had a profound effect on Maria who, throughout her life inculcated the same process of exploration, investigation and persistence.

Maria’s father played an important role in the seafaring community of whalers and fishermen who relied entirely on the stars and the compass for nautical navigation; there were no sophisticated and accurate devices. William Mitchell with his amateur interest in astronomy and daily roof top observations and astronomical recording was the person they all consulted to check the accuracy of their charts, sextants, and chronometers.

From an early age Maria developed a love of astronomy and learnt much from her father’s instruction on astronomy, mathematics, surveying and navigation. When she was twelve years old, the family observed a solar eclipse over the island and Maria counted the seconds of the eclipse to pinpoint the longitude of their house. Two years later, whaling captains entrusted the fourteen-year-old Maria to rate their chronometers on her own. Maria continued to pursue what was becoming a passion, with basic equipment from the small attic of their home.

When her father’s school wound up, Maria joined Cyrus Pierce’s School for Young Ladies. Cyrus Pierce was one of the first people outside of Maria’s own family to recognize her sharp mind, facility for mathematics and self-discipline. He encouraged and supported Maria in her intellectual journey. Later she worked for Pierce as his teaching assistant before she opened her own school in 1835. In a bold step at a time when schools were still segregated she opened her school to non-white children. One year later, she was offered a job as the first librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum, where she worked for 20 years while continuing to pursue her astronomy studies.

On 1 October 1847, while the rest of the family was having a party, Maria was scanning the skies on the roof of the Bank where her father then worked. She spotted a blurry object that was not on any of the charts. She told her father that she had discovered a new comet. Her father was keen that the discovery be made public, but Maria was hesitant because she feared that the scientific community would not take seriously a discovery made by a woman. William was determined and wrote to the noted astronomers of the day, but was met with scepticism. Until he came to know that the Frederick VI the King of Denmark, himself an amateur astronomer was offering a gold medal to the first observer to spot a new telescopic comet. After a prolonged effort to get Maria’s discovery recognised, she was awarded the gold medal over a year later. The new comet was given the official name Comet 1847-VI, but commonly known as “Miss Mitchell’s Comet”.

Maria Mitchell’s discovery was recognised in a largely male-dominated field. In 1848 she was elected as the first female member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and one of the first women members of the American Philosophical Society. She also became one of the first women to work for the US Federal Government as part of the US Nautical Almanac. She continued her post as librarian even as she took on new roles and responsibilities in the world of science.

In 1856, she resigned her post at the Atheneum to travel to Europe as the chaperone of the daughter of a rich businessman. She took the opportunity to meet scientists and visit observatories, but also found that even in Europe biases against women scientists were well entrenched.  For example, she was not allowed to observe the stars through the Pope’s telescope because she was a woman.

In 1865, Mathew Vassar a wealthy and enlightened man started the Vassar College. This was the second women’s college in America, and was unusually progressive in many respects, including being the first to hire women as professors. Mathew Vassar saw Maria as a role model for intelligent and ambitious young women and hired her as the first professor to teach at Vassar, even as he faced a lot of opposition. Maria continued to teach at the college for 23 years. Though she was by far the most popular professor she was initially paid only one-third the salary of the male professors, and she was constantly subjected to the deep-rooted prejudice that women were unsuited to mathematical and scientific pursuits.

As a teacher Maria followed her father’s approach of hands-on learning, taking her students of study trips to observe and record. She infused her students with a sense of excitement, and a hunger for knowledge, while sowing the seeds of respect for the scientific method and temperament. She followed unconventional teaching practices; she slept in the same dormitory as her students and would often wake them to observe the night sky. Then she would invite them to her room to drink coffee and discuss astronomy.

On nights when the sky was too cloudy for observations, she would invite the students to the observatory for a social get together. As they entered, she would personally hand out a scroll to each student, with a poem that she had specially written for that student. Then they would go around the room reading each person’s poem in turn. This tradition of Dome Parties continues to this day at Vassar.

Thus Maria became more than a teacher for her students; she was guardian, mentor and surrogate mother. But she expected much from her students, especially a dedication to accuracy and scientific temper, just as she had been taught by her father. She treated her students as equals; as she told her class that “We are women studying together.” Above all she paved the way for women in science with the words to her first class of female astronomers at Vassar in 1876: “No woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be?” 

Maria Mitchell retired from her teaching post in 1888, after a long distinguished career as the first professional female astronomer in America, She died a year later in 1889.

Maria Mitchell was more than just a trailblazer in astronomy. She was deeply involved in the emerging movement for woman’s rights to vote, own property, and receive the same type of education and opportunities offered to men. She was one of the founders of the Association for the Advancement of Women in 1873. She proved to the world that women, especially nineteenth-century women, could do much more, than just embroider samplers or oversee the household help. As she wrote, “The eye that directs a needle in the delicate meshes of embroidery, will equally well bisect a star with the spider web of a micrometer.”

The trail that Maria laid continues to open further every day. Just a week ago, the European Space Agency has put the call out for new astronaut candidates, the first time in 11 years. The agency is strongly encouraging women to apply for a place on the new team. The sky is certainly not the limit!

–Mamata

Kamala Breaks Barriers: Marking World Radio Day

Kamala Harris made headlines in 2020 when she shattered glass ceilings, but way back in the 1940s and ‘50s, another Kamala was already doing this. After studying Engineering at Guindy Engineering College Chennai, she became the second woman-engineer to join All India Radio.

To mark two relevant days which just went by–World Radio Day (13 February ) and International Day of Women in Science and Technology (11 February)– here is an interview with Mrs. Kamala Subrahmanyan.

Me: When did you do Engineering? Were you the first woman in your college?

Mrs. S: I did my Engineering from 1949 to 1953. And no, I was not the first in my college. I was in fact the seventh—the first woman had started her engineering studies in 1943 and had already finished before I joined. There was one more girl in my batch, and that made things easy.

Me: At a time when engineering was not a normal option for girls, what made you choose it?

Mrs. S: My father was a Deputy Registrar and on his single salary, he supported a large family. I was always fired with the desire to help him. At that time, there were only three professional courses available to anyone—engineering, medicine and law. Well, one of my uncles was studying to be a doctor and I had seen him dissect frogs. I knew I could never do it. So engineering seemed the best option!

Me: What was the reaction of your family?

Mrs. S: My parents were very supportive. And my grandfather who was my role-model encouraged me. So with this kind of backing, I had no problems.

Me: Was there any negative reaction from anyone?

Mrs. S: One of my uncles did not approve. He thought girls should only take up teaching or nursing if they wanted to work. I don’t know about society at large. I did not interact much with anyone outside a small circle, and even if there were negative reactions, I never got to know. Anyway, since my family supported me, I did not really care about anyone else.

Me: How was it at college? The reaction and support or otherwise of classmates, faculty etc.?

Mrs. S: Things were very normal. When we first joined, boys would throw paper planes at us. And when our roll numbers were called for attendance, they would call out ‘Present Sir’ in squeaky voices. But even that stopped in a while. Things were very decent and polite in those days. We all worked together with little differentiation.

We neither asked for any special concessions nor got any. We did our practicals on the lathe or foundry or in surveys just like everyone else. And nor did we face any discrimination.

Me: Then you joined work?

Mrs. S: Yes. Jobs were not easy to come by in those days. As a Telecommunications Engineer, I attended an interview in the State Broadcasting Corporation of Madras Presidency and got my first job there at a salary of Rs. 175 per month. My basic job was to assemble radio sets to be given to community listening centres. There was one more girl with me; she was in the Scientific Stream, not engineering. But we worked together.

Then I got selected in All India Radio and that entailed a move to Delhi.

Me: That was quite a move! How was it?

Mrs. S: For me, it was work, that’s all. I got a place at the YMCA not too far from my office. I would walk up and down. My salary was Rs. 325 per month. I saved most of it to send home. Well, our wants were also very few in those days!

I was the second woman engineer in AIR. Apart from the two enginners, there was also a lady who was a scientist there and senior to me. I was a Technical Assistant and my work was to monitor and control the broadcasting consols. I was the only woman there for quite some time.

Then sadly, my father passed away and on my request, I was posted to Chennai.

Me: What were the various responsibilities you handled during your career?

Mrs. S: Quite a variety. From controlling consols, to going out physically with equipment to do recordings, to doing desk jobs, to looking after maintenance of equipment in various locations, to being in charge of ‘duplicating’ station,  to technical purchases.

Not all jobs are equally exciting, but it is up to us to give our best and make it so and find ways to peform well and help the team perform well. For instance, at the High Speed Duplicating centre Vividh Bharathi and the Studios at AIR Kolkatta, I had a large  number of staff under my control. I made it a habit to go around the places of work the whole day to check if everything was going smooth  Those who worked sincerely were also happy that their work was noticed and appreciated.

Me: What are some of the challenges you faced as a woman?

Mrs. S: Nothing very daunting. Some bosses would not initially give responsibility to a woman. But if one was proactive and looked out for what needed to be done and did it, they would gain confidence and do so. My experience is that you learn a lot from difficult bosses!

Some peers would make things a bit difficult at times specially if they saw me doing well. But such things are a part of life and work, and one just has to take it in the stride.

When I was in charge of Purchase, I faced the most difficult time. But not because I was a woman. I found that there were some problems—there was a nexus of people and some purchases were not being done at all properly. Old or second-quality equipment was coming in. I got very hands-on—from going to the markets myself to find out prices, to ensuring that Standard Operating Procedures were put in place for every aspect and adhered to, to ensuring process and transparency. Of course I did raise quite a few hackles and faced some slogans and threats. Someone even complained to the CBI, who came one day to my office and took away all my files. They kept them for six months, and returned them because they did not find any irregularity.

Me: Any exciting experiences you remember?

When I was in the Studio Design section of the Directorate, one of my duties  was to inspect studios under installation before they are commissioned  One was at Bhuj.  As advised, I took a train  from Delhi Main to Jaisalmer which took almost two days including many long halts.  From Jaisalmer I had to take a flight to Bhuj.  I reached the Airport and boarded the flight (my first experience).  There was another boy on the flight who was quite excited. Suddenly there was an announcement that the plane hae developed a defect and another plane has to come from Cochin for us.  Since there were no facilities for night landing  at Jaisalmer the flight would be available only the next day. I was in a fix as I had planned my trip to be away from home for the minimum period so as not to leave the children  alone. Other passengers in the departure lounge were equally disturbed. Some of them seemed to be discussing about taking a taxi.They appeared to be business men. I asked them if I could join them. They told  me that they were going to Gandhidham the then capital of Gujarat They told me that they can take me up to Gandhidham  and from there I could go to Bhuj. The taxi drove along the Rann of Kutch, a barren patch of land with just white sand. It was pitch dark and there was an eerie silence. On reaching Gandhidham, they took me to the house of one gentleman by name Aggarwal. I contacted the Station Engineer at Bhuj and requested him to send a car to fetch me. He told that he would send the car the next day as it was too late.  The Aggarwals served me dinner and gave me a place to sleep. I thanked them. But I feel so sorry that I had not taken their contacts (there were no cellphones those days). I left from Bhuj the next day and lost half a day.

Me: What about home?

My husband and children were most supportive. My husband and I used to adjust our schedules. For instance, I often had to go on shift duty at 6.30 a.m., or be in the shift till 10.30 p.m. My husband always made sure he was at home.

And also, the establishment was cooperative. If my husband who was in the Railways got transferred, I would request for a transfer to the same place, and they would usually make it happen.

Mrs.  Kamala Devi Subrahmanyan retired as Superintending Engineering, AIR. I went to school with her daughters Giti and Suki. She inspired awe in us even when we were in school—maybe the first woman engineer I ever met.

Wish her all health and cheer!

–Meena

International Day of Women and Girls in Science, 11 February

Gagandeep Kang: Virologist, Professor, Department of Gastrointestinal Sciences at Christian Medical College, Vellore, India.  First Indian woman to be elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society.  At the forefront of COVID science.

Kiran Majumdar Shaw: Chairman-MD of Biocon India Group known for its breakthroughs in clinical research. The first Indian company to export enzymes to the United States and Europe, the first Indian company to gain the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the manufacture of a cholesterol-lowering molecule.

Vijayalakshmi Ravindranath: Chairperson at Centre for Neuro Sciences at Indian Institute of Science, who leads research that will help us understand and cure Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Tessy Thomas: Expert in ‘solid propellants’, which fuel India’s Agni missiles developed by Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO). Called Agniputri by media, after the missiles she has helped develop.

Ms J Manjula:  DRDO Outstanding Scientist, and Director, Defence Avionics Research Establishment.

Minal Sampath, Systems Engineer working on India’s mission to Mars. Anuradha TK, senior-most women officer at ISRO. Nandini Harinath, Project Manager Mission Design, Deputy Operations Director, Mars Orbiter Mission, ISRO. And the many other Mars-Mission Women.

Inspirations, one and all. And they are not the only women-achievers in science and technology.

But still such a minuscule number!

Not just India, but the world and Asia too have this challenge of attracting and retaining women in these fields.

For instance, worldwide:

  • Only 35% of all higher education students enrolled in STEM-related fields are female.
  • Only 28% of all of the world’s researchers are women

Recently, UNESCO Bangkok brought out a report on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education for girls and women in Asia, 2020. The report points to a cycle which hinders girls for pursuing STEM education and hence careers in science.  It highlights the reality that right from a young age, girls receive messages that these subjects are not suitable for girls. One of the issues is that girls do not see any role models of successful women scientists around them. Even when girls do take up this stream of education, there are several barriers to success—from discrimination, to having to handle multiple responsibilities outside the job, to glass ceilings.

It is in recognition of these challenges that the United Nations in 2015, decided that ‘In order to achieve full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls, and further achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution A/RES/70/212 declaring 11 February as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science’.

The theme for this year is ‘Women Scientists at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19’. Indeed it is a matter of pride that so many women are indeed there—whether as researchers, as doctors, healthcare professionals or in manufacturing vaccines and medicines.

The journey has started, but there is such a long way to go. Leaving 50 per cent of humanity’s brainpower and entrepreneurial energies out of the search for fundamental scientific truths and putting these to the service of humanity, seems a sad waste indeed!

Make a resolution today to encourage a girl in science. Take her to visit a Science and Technology museum. Buy her a science kit. Take her on a visit to a Scientific Institution on its Open Day. Tell her stories of women-scientists. Gift her a book about science and scientists. In fact, gift a few boys some books about women scientists too!

Do anything, but do something…

–Meena

PS: Two books by women, to get the reading list started:

The Spark that Changed Everything. Veena Prasad. Hachette.

Fantastic Adventures in Science—Women Scientists of India. Nandita Jayaraj, Aashima Freidog. Puffin Books.