Harvest Season

This is thanksgiving week in many parts of India. A week of festivals marked with celebration and gratitude for nature’s bounty that feeds and sustains us. With the winter season drawing to a close, it is time to reap the harvest of the long months of labour and prayers. Lohri in north India, Pongal in south India, Makar Sankranti in the west, and Magh Bihu in the northeast of the country celebrate the harvest with joy, festivities, and food.

Interestingly, in many other parts of the world, it is autumn, before the winter sets in, that is the season of harvests.  In America Thanksgiving weekend is marked by families joining hands in gratitude over sumptuous meals; in Japan generations of poets and painters have tried to capture the spirit of the annual cycle of seasons in Haikus and brush strokes. Other parts of the world have their traditional ways of marking the cycle of sowing and reaping. Increasingly, as more of the world’s population moves from direct links with the soil to urban life, we seem to revel more in the food and festivities related to these festivals, often forgetting these very elements of nature—sunlight, air, water and soil–that make all life possible.

This week also marks the start of a new calendar year, and the start of the period when the sun begins its northward journey. A good time to give thanks for what has made all this possible, and a reminder to value and cherish every new morning.

This poem by Mary Oliver captures the sentiment beautifully.

 Why I Wake Early

Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and the crotchety –

best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light –
good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.

Mary Oliver was an acclaimed and award-winning American poet whose work reflects a deep communion with the natural world in an age of excesses of modern civilization. She died, almost exactly a year ago, on 17 January 2019, at the age of 83.

–Mamata

A Traffic Jam of Nobel Laureates

Harvard is on top of the pile of institutions when it comes to Nobel Laureates, with 56 currently on the faculty and 160 being associated with the University at some stage of their careers, either as students or faculty. Cambridge University comes second, with 120 Laureates being associated with it; University of California at Berkeley third with 107, followed by University of Chicago at fourth place with a round 100.

I imagine that at any of these places, the probability of bumping into a Nobel would be quite finite.

However, such a possibility is pretty remote in any city or town of India. Until last week, at Bangalore ….

January 3 saw Prof Steven Hell address the Indian National Science Congress held in the city. Prof. Hell is one of the directors of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany and received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2014 ‘for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy’. The next day saw Prof Ada Yonath address the same gathering. She is a protein crystallographer who was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Both of them stressed the need for scientists to be open minded and for scientific research to be independent.

54E03126-F55D-4DF3-8810-88E1D954EA78January 4 was also the day when Profs Abhijit Banerji and Esther Duflo were in conversation with Manish Sabarwal at the Bangalore International Center, and demystified RCTs, or Randomized Control Trials, the body of work which got them their newly minted Nobels. RCTs are an experimental method to do research on developmental issues like education and poverty, to find what can really be effective to solve the problems, and hence can help policy making.

January 7 saw the 1998 Economics Nobel, Prof Amartya Sen in the city,  felicitating the winners of the prestigious Infosys Prize. Speaking at the event, Prof Sen said ‘There are deep links between friendship and knowledge. Our intellectual horizons expand when we learn from each other.’

January 15 will see Prof Venki Ramakrishnan, who shared the 2009 Chemistry Nobel with Prof Ada Yonath (above) and Prof Thomas Steitz for research on the ‘structure and function of the ribosome’ speak on Science and Society, once again at the Bangalore International Center.

It doesn’t rain, it pours!

Lucky Bangalore, to hear all these messages. And what a great unity in the underlying messages…the importance of evidence-based research, of the need for research to be independent and unbiased, the crying need to base policy on research, and the importance of cooperation and a barrierless world.

—Meena

 

 

SLEEP OVER IT!

It’s the age of startups! Every day one hears of enterprising young 20-somethings making their first million with an innovative product or service that people today lap up with enthusiasm.

I recently read about a number of such ventures that are literally cashing in on sleep (or the lack thereof!) Online mattress brands! In these times when the millennials have too much stress, too little time, inability to get a good night’s sleep, but the ability to afford quick-fix solutions and products, there are smart operators who combine all this into successful commercial ventures. With inviting names like Wakefit, Wink and Nod, Sleepycat and Sunday Mattress, these offer “sleep solutions”. And attractive “offers” from free home delivery and installation, free trial and return, to “sleep internships”, and customised recommendations of the best fit based on an analysis of the customer’s age, height, weight and location!

ripImagine needing so much help to get a good night’s sleep! I have grown up in an age when mattresses had very different connotations. Mattresses were filled with cotton, and were usually of the same size and thickness. Often this cotton was carded by hand by itinerant carders who established camp at the house for a few days marked by the twang of their simple tools, and fluff-filled air. The cotton was filled in covers, stitched in with strong thread, and then beaten heartily with sticks to even out the lumps and bumps. All this done with dexterity and the long experience of a traditional occupation. With mechanisation, these occupations were replaced with neighbourhood shops where the same process was done by a simple machine. Now one took one’s old mattresses there to be opened and redone, with dire warnings that the cotton within was not to be mixed up with any other inferior variety!

This was an exercise carried out every few years. The annual exercise was the sunning of the mattresses. This was a traditional ritual, generally after the rainy season and before Diwali when the strong sun took away the dampness and made the cotton swell. The wonderful smell and feel of freshly-sunned mattresses was guaranteed to induce the cosiest slumber; without any ‘scientific’ testing to arrive at the perfect ergonomic formula.

Furthermore, in addition to supporting the large numbers of family members, most households had a stack of spare mattresses, and quilts. These were stored carefully; many traditional houses had a special space and arrangement for this. They were taken out when guests arrived, and when there were family gatherings like weddings. Over time, as families, and houses grew smaller, and people’s mobility increased, the stacks of mattresses decreased. Then the market began to offer ready-made mattresses, introducing other materials like foam and coir. It became easier to go to a shop and order the one best suited from the limited options available. The familiar childhood mattresses remained at the family home with the parents, to be slept on when visiting them. And as time moved on, and life got faster, the new breed of urban nomads had not the time nor space to go the shop to buy a mattress. Life became so stressed and so frenzied that sleep also became a sought-after commodity. And voila, the market was open for online sleep solutions!

I do appreciate the needs of the times, as well as admire the enterprise to meet the needs. But it also makes me grimace and smile! Belonging as I do to a generation of ‘home-made’ cotton mattresses, I have also inherited several of these. I try, in my own way, to follow some of the annual air-and-sun traditions. And I am grateful that I still get a good night’s sleep without any external help!

–Mamata

 

2020 is here!

vision chartWell, years come and go, so what is so special about 2020?

Nothing really, except that it is the start of a new decade. And 20/20 is symbolic—understood in common parlance to stand for perfect vision! 2020, a few decades ago, also stood for some far-away date, by which the world would be perfect–a happily ever after year. No particular reason for this, that I can see. Maybe simply because it was an easy-on-the-tongue alliterative year? Or maybe because of the pharmacological implication?

But what is 20/20 vision?

Actually, it denotes clarity of vision—visual acuity, to state it in slightly more ‘ophthalmological’ terms! To explain in layman terms, 20/20 is simply your ability to read a particular line on the eye chart from a distance of 20 feet. The size of the letters on one of the smaller lines near the bottom of the eye chart (or Snellen chart, after the Dutch doctor who developed this system in 1862) is standardized to correspond to “normal” visual acuity — this is the “20/20” line. If the letters on this line are the smallest you can identify, you have normal (20/20) visual acuity. The increasingly larger letter sizes on the lines on the Snellen chart above the 20/20 line correspond to worse visual acuity (20/40, 20/60, etc.). If you can read lines with smaller letters below the 20/20 line, then you have better than 20/20 vision (e.g., 20/15, 20/12, 20/10). The single big “E” at the top of the eye chart corresponds to 20/200 visual acuity. Legal blindness is when this is the smallest letter size someone can read even with corrective lenses.

Vision is more than visual acuity or eyesight. In addition to clarity of sight, “vision” is all interactions between the eyes and the brain, and all neurological processes that take place in the brain to make the sense of vision possible.

Here are some of things we envisioned would happen by 2020:

VISION 2020 was a global initiative that aimed to eliminate avoidable blindness by the year 2020. It was launched in 1999 by the World Health Organization along with over 20 other international non-governmental organisations, I am not sure how well it has succeeded. (https://www.who.int/blindness/partnerships/vision2020/en/)

Closer home, India’s Vision 2020 was a document prepared by the Technology Information, Forecasting and Assessment Council (TIFAC) of India’s Department of Science and Technology under the chairmanship of Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam and a team of 500 experts, which set out a plan to change the country by 2020. In Dr. Kalam’s words the objective of the plan was “Transforming the nation into a developed country, ..based on India’s core competence, natural resources and talented manpower, for integrated action to double the growth rate of GDP and realize the Vision of Developed India”.

The reality is here for everyone to see—even those who don’t have 20/20 vision!

Well, be that it may, let us pray not only for 20/20 vision in 2020, but also that our reality is closer to our vision!

So that these are indeed visions, not dreams!

-Meena

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy 2020—To a Year of Peace, Prosperity and Plant Health!

farmerThe UN General Assembly has declared 2020 as the International year of Plant Health. The purpose of this is to ‘raise global awareness on how protecting plant health can help end hunger, reduce poverty, protect the environment, and boost economic development.’ (http://www.fao.org/plant-health-2020/en/)

Plants are the basis of all food chains—in that sense, all life on earth depends on plants for food. And as important—plants give us the oxygen we need to sustain life on earth. The role of plants and trees in regulating climate cannot be over-emphasized. So in very truth, plant health is fundamental to food security and environmental sustainability—the very basis of PEACE and PROSPERITY.

Yet, we don’t pay attention to keeping plants healthy. And that is why the UN has thought of declaring a special year for this.

As we step into the new year and are in the mood of making resolutions, here are a few related to plant health:

  • Ensure that the you minimize use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers in your gardens and lawns. This is essential for long-term health of soil and plants.
  • Avoid transporting plants and bio-products across borders while travelling, as these can become pests or lead to major pest attacks in alien ecosystems.
  • Grow local plants, and support locally grown and local vegetables, fruits and other produce.
  • Buy organically-grown produce.

And while we are on the subject, a tribute to one who worked in the area of plant health all his life.

Dr. HY Mohan Ram was one of India’s pre-eminent botanists. He taught Botany in Delhi University for over 40 years and guided over 35 doctoral students. He wrote textbooks, popularized science, was an eminent planner and science administrator. He recognized the importance of reaching out to young people in inculcating scientific temper. To quote: ‘A demanding but satisfying assignment taken up by me was as Chairman of the Committee for the preparation of biology textbooks for Classes XI and XII, sponsored by the NCERT.’ He mentions the goal of such an endeavour as inculcating in the student ‘a spirit of enquiry, creativity, objectivity, the courage to question, aesthetic sensibility and environmental awareness’. India owes him a huge debt–he was guru to generations of India’s botanists in one way or the other.

Another dedicated botanist-environmentalist is Seema Bhatt. And her message is for aspiring women field scientists: ‘I have often worked in situations where I have been the only woman—a fact that has never bothered me. I have never been made to feel any different. I mention this to emphasize the fact that being a woman should not deter anyone from choosing a career like this.’

May we make and keep many resolutions to contribute to a better world!

–Meena

 Quotes from: ‘Walking the Wild Path’. CEE.

LOOKING AHEAD…

The last day of the year. The last day of a decade. A day that calls for stock-taking of the months and days gone by. And often, a day for feeling short-changed by life; the self-doubts of what did one achieve? Regrets for unscaled heights and unfulfilled aspirations. Guilt at the unfulfilled resolutions (oops! now where did I safely put that list?!)

In today’s existence which is defined by the measure of busyness and “achievements”; a life of what Hermann Hesse described as one of “aggressive haste”, we seem to be unable to get off the hamster-wheel—running faster while not getting anywhere. The fallout of this is reflected in the daily news of burn outs and breakdowns,or drowning further in hedonistic pleasures.

The dilemma is not peculiar to our times. More than a hundred years ago, Hermann Hesse lamented on the pursuit of as much as possible, as fast as possible: The high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy.

What really matters? What really counts? As Time, that wily old gypsy man, trundles through the minutes and hours that add up to one year, and then ten, does it really mean so much to try to catch Time, or run alongside the caravan, breathless and trailing behind? Something to think about!

As a new year dawns it will be the time for yet another list of resolutions. Before we reach midnight, here is a simple mantra to make our ride a little less bumpy, and the journey little more meaningful—Make some time to stop and stare!

Hermann Hesse’s 1905 essay titled ‘On Little Joys’ gently reminds of how the ability to cherish small everyday moments can open our hearts and lift our spirits. ”My advice to the person suffering from lack of time and from apathy is this: Seek out each day as many as possible of the small joys, and thriftily save up the larger, more demanding pleasures for holidays and appropriate hours. It is the small joys first of all that are granted us for recreation, for daily relief and disburdenment, not the great ones.These little joys are so inconspicuous and scattered so liberally throughout our daily lives that the dull minds of countless workers hardly notice them. They are not outstanding, they are not advertised, they cost no money”!

The play of light and shadow; the quite enjoyment of a favourite author with a cup of tea; the scent of wet earth after the first shower; the delight of meeting a friend; sharing a happy meal with loved ones…all it takes is to linger awhile with all senses newly tuned, and the switching off of the numerous demands and distractions of our daily grind.

While we can’t change all the big things, we can make the small ones matter. Looking ahead, what can be a better resolution than to make time for the little pleasures?

Here is to a year of savouring the simple joys!

–Mamata

LOOKING BACK…

As the second year of our joint matriarchal venture winds down, it’s time to muse a bit. Living up to our original intent of using this space to share our thoughts on life and times we have vented, agonised, rejoiced and reminisced. We have tried to make some sense of the often mad and sad events that the world has experienced over the past year. We have shared stories of people and places that have inspired us. We have tried to pay our humble tributes to some mentors who have enriched our lives. We have tried to capture memories and moments. We have played with words, and reveled in the quirks of language and literature.

In some ways we have tried to chronicle the year through our own responses to events and experiences, drawing upon our own personal and professional lives, and resources collected over the years. In many ways we have taken this project as a personal exercise in journaling.  While we may not have a following of thousands, nor an ardent fan club, we have found a sense of accomplishment in not missing a single designated day of posting, through a seamless long-distance coordination of thoughts and words.

We are no doubt not the first or the last to have attempted this. In 1884 Leo Tolstoy decided to compile “a wise thought for every day of the year, from the greatest philosophers of all times and all people”. He spent the next seventeen years doing this. In 1902, nearing the end of his life, he compiled these into a book originally titled A Wise Thought for Every Day.  This was later published as A Calendar of Wisdom. Each quote is accompanied by Tolstoy’s own comments or thoughts on the subject. As he wrote “I know that it gives one great inner force, calmness, and happiness to communicate with such great thinkers. …They tell us about what is most important for humanity, about the meaning of life and about virtue.”

One of the quotes in the book from Jean Jacques Rousseau echoes this sentiment: “Real wisdom is not the knowledge of everything, but the knowledge of which things in life are necessary, which are less necessary, and which are completely unnecessary to know. Among the most necessary knowledge is the knowledge of how to live well, that is, how to produce the least possible evil and the greatest goodness in one’s life.

It is these sentiments that continue to propel us to keep sharing. While we cannot even come remotely close to joining the select club of great thinkers and writers, we humbly strive to chronicle our own life and times.

Thank you for bearing with us!

–Mamata and Meena

Year of Moderation—It Was Not!

‘Moderation’, says the dictionary, is the ‘avoidance of excess or extremes, especially in one’s behaviour or political opinions.’ Moderate behaviour is reasonable behaviour.  Synonyms for ‘moderate’ include : Self-restrained, tolerant, balanced, considerate, dispassionate, measured, judicious .

Why this sudden exploration of a vocabulary word? No, not quite a random exercise. Actually, as part of end-of-year exercise, I was checking what 2019 had been ‘Year Of’.  Two I knew about: Year of the Periodic Table, and Year of Indigenous Languages (both covered in the blog). But the third I knew nothing about—that 2019 was supposed to have been the International Year of Moderation. The UN Resolution to mark the Year was moved “to promote moderation as a tool to prevent the rise of extremism and terrorism” and “to promote the values of dialogue, tolerance, understanding and cooperation.” TE202BBC6-BEEB-4844-A799-B9896B8AD33Fhe Year of Moderation was declared in “an effort to amplify the voices of moderation through the promotion of dialogue, tolerance, understanding and cooperation.” The resolution did not pass without huge amount of discussion, debate and dissension. Even at the end, it was not passed unanimously. There were two votes against.

But was it even worth the battle to get the Resolution passed? To begin with, it was the most un-publicized Year ever! And more pertinently, 2019 was anything other than a (let alone ‘The’) Year of Moderation. It was in fact a year of extremes, of polarization, of violence—of thought, word and action. Across the world, governments became more autocratic, and across the world citizens reacted. The world only became more unsafe, less equal and more intolerant.

This was also the 150th Anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Another event which has gone by more or less un-observed even in India. The fact that both the anniversaries were ignored is all of a piece. Mahatma Gandhi accepted that people had different points of view and he believed in convincing people through dialogue and discussion. More than anything else, he believed in the fundamental goodness of people, which is the basis of moderation.

Sadly missed opportunities in 2019. Let us see what we make of 2020…

— Meena

 

 

The Shortest Day

The days grow shorter, and darkness is longer than light. It is winter in the Northern hemisphere, and nearing the time when the year takes its final bow with the Winter Solstice. The date is 21/22 December, the day when the path of the sun in the sky is farthest south in the Northern Hemisphere and the Sun travels the shortest path through the sky marking the twenty four hour period with the fewest daylight hours of the year. That is why it is known as the shortest day or longest night of the year. Though the winter solstice itself lasts only a moment in time, it is also popularly used to refer to the day on which it takes place.

Today, we know that the solstice is an astronomical event, caused by Earth’s tilt on its axis and its motion in orbit around the sun. Because Earth doesn’t orbit upright, but is instead tilted on its axis by 23 1/2 degrees, Earth’s Northern and Southern Hemispheres trade places in receiving the sun’s light and warmth most directly. The tilt of the Earth – not our distance from the sun – is what causes winter and summer. At the December solstice, the Northern Hemisphere is leaning most away from the sun for the year.

While 21 December marks the winter solstice for the northern hemisphere, the southern hemisphere marks the same day in the year as its summer solstice, and sees its longest day and shortest night.

The word Solstice itself is rooted in sol, the Latin word for ‘sun’. The ancients added  stit (meaning ‘standing’) to sol and came up with solstitium. Middle English speakers shortened solstitium to solstice in the 13th century. Translated literally it indicated the ‘standing still of the sun’ which was so perceived because at the solstices, the Sun’s declination appears to “stand still”; that is, the seasonal movement of the Sun’s daily path (as seen from Earth) stops at a northern or southern limit before reversing direction

But centuries before the science was explained, cultures around the world lived and marked time by the movement of the sun and the moon. Time was governed by the patterns of light and darkness, warmth and cold. For the ancient people living in the northern part of the northern hemisphere, the period of the seeming death of light, and harsh conditions of the long winter months which made survival a challenge, the winter solstice was a significant event signalling the start of the change of seasons; and symbolising the transition from the cold and dark to the renewal of light. This regeneration of the source of light and life was marked by rites and celebrations to welcome back the light, and celebrate the rebirth of life.

“So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.”  (Susan Cooper The Shortest Day)

Today this day is marked on calenders, largely without rituals and celebrations, as an astronomical event. But as we roll towards the end of yet anotsolstice.jpgher revolution of the earth around the sun, it may be a good time to use the longest night of the year to reflect on the year that was, and give thanks for the warmth and light that we have begun to take for granted. In the dark and chilling times that we live in (literally and metaphorically) it may be wise to remember the ancient reverence, and celebration, of the renewal of light, hope and faith.

“As never before, our world needs warmth in its cold, metallic heart, warmth to go on and face what has been made of human life, warmth to remain humane and kind.” Henry Beston

–Mamata

The Dot that Went for a Walk: Translating a Book on Role Models

My friend Bharathi Kode recounts her experience of translating a book that aims to inspire the younger generation with a new set of role models: Meena

The dotEverything starts with a dot. On a mid-summer day, I got a call from Reema Gupta, who is the co-lead of the Women’s Leadership and Excellence Initiative at Indian School of Business, asking if I could translate the book she had co-authored along with her two friends. The book “The Dot that Went for a Walk” was written in English by Reema and her two friends Sarada Akkineni and Lakshmi Nambiar who have made it a mission to create social change and empower young girls through inspirational stories. Inspired by the quote of artist Paul Klee “A line is a Dot that went for a walk”, the book was titled “The dot that went for a walk”.  They wanted the book to be available in regional languages including Telugu.

She said they all were all first time writers and first time publishers. I said ‘And hence, you want a first time translator to do the translation?’ We laughed. And then I asked her how she how she had narrowed down to me as a potential translator. She said they had been searching for translators who are not only good at language but also somebody who shared their vision and would do the work with the same passion that they had. They approached a publishing house called Manchi Pustakam for suggestions, and the head of the publishing house had referred my name for this task. A dot connecting me to another dot J

The book features inspirational life stories of 51 Indian women. It starts with the story of Rani of Jhansi who fought the British, and ends with the story of Avani Chaturvedi, a MIG fighter pilot defending our country. Together they tell the story of the last 200 years of the country. The idea is that the young generation will connect with these role models, be inspired by them, think of career possibilities and fight harder against self-doubt.

I was excited and immediately said ‘yes’ without a second thought. In my area of work, I do interact with children and youth and I know how important it is to expose children to positive role models, especially in this digital age where children are exposed to lot of negative influences. I was not sure how much time and effort it would take for me to translate a book of about 150 pages. But still I committed, as I could see the influence that this book can have on the future of young children.

As a first time translator, it was quite exciting for me. I found translation as difficult as writing a book. At times I wanted to go beyond the ideas, thoughts and imagination of the author. But that was obviously not on. I found it also a great learning exercise. It improved my language skills in both English and Telugu. It helped me to get to know about some inspirational women whom I didn’t know about earlier. It took a lot of time, I had to put in so much effort. But it has been quite a satisfying journey.

The Telugu version was launched in November 2019 by the Missile Women of India Ms. Tessy Thomas, in Hyderabad.

The authors are going way beyond the printed word to get the message across effectively. They are organizing essay competitions, discussions around the book in the schools around Hyderabad to begin with. A content platform called ‘Dot Express’ is also being initiated where young generation can voice their opinions and interact with experts.

Even before it got published, sponsors came forward to distribute the book to 12000 children in govt. schools in Telangana. The journey of the dot has just begun. We have to see what patterns, masterpieces it will create in future.

Great job, Reema, Sarada, Lakshmi and Bharathi! We need many more books like this one!