Much in Little

It is almost six months since the world as we knew it, changed. For many, this period of lockdown has also been one of unlocking some simple joys of life and living.

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A reprieve from the frenetic activities of modern life has given Nature a new lease of life. And humans, from behind their glass windows, are discovering the wonders of the world that we share with millions of other living beings. People are noticing plants, birds and insects in their immediate surroundings; they are hearing bird song and rain symphonies which had been drowned out by incessant urban cacophony and pollution. Locked inside, humans are rediscovering nature.

Humans are also rediscovering that it is possible, even satisfying, to live with what one has; that life can go on without 24/7 doings and happenings, extravagant shopping sprees, dining out, and other self-indulgences. That the quality of life is not dependent entirely on the quantum of material resources.

But this is not the first time in history. Almost 200 years ago Henry David Thoreau took a break from the often numbing routine of daily life which was driven by the need to earn a living. As he put it “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” He wondered, “Was it possible to lead a different kind of life?”

Thoreau spent two years, two months and two days living by himself in a basic wooden cabin that he built himself, on the shore of Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts in America. He wanted to answer for himself the question “how simple can a life be and still be a good one?”, and to illustrate his belief of “much in little.”

As he wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.”

Even while at Walden Pond, Thoreau did not live a life of seclusion. He had visitors, and walked to the nearby village often. His experiment was more to prove that one does not have to go far in any physical sense to “get away from it all.”

During this period in 1845-46, he observed, enjoyed and recorded his observations of the natural world around him. These were to be published as Walden, one of his best known works. It also earned him the moniker Father of Environmentalism.

Thoreau was however much more than a nature writer. He wore many hats–social reformer, naturalist, philosopher, transcendentalist, scientist, and conscientious objector.

Born on July 12, 1817 in New England, USA in a middle class family, he graduated from Harvard following which he spent some years teaching in school, and also working in his father’s pencil factory. The young Thoreau was greatly influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson who became his close friend and mentor. He began to publish essays that reflected his deeply-felt political views which were considered radical in those times. He was an outspoken abolitionist and was arrested (and jailed for one day) for resisting to pay poll tax to a government that supported slavery. This experience led him to write one of his best-known and most influential essays titled Civil Disobedience. He made a strong case for acting on one’s individual conscience and not blindly following laws and government policy. “The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right,” he wrote.

Thoreau’s non-violent approach to social and political resistance greatly influenced Mahatma Gandhi who adopted many of his thoughts while developing his concept of Satyagraha.

Following his Walden experiment Thoreau wrote extensively, although a lot of his writing was published and became well-known only after he died. He continued his daily afternoon walks in the Concord woods and kept a journal of his nature observations and ideas. He travelled and lectured, living on a modest income, till he died of tuberculosis in 1862, at the age of 45.

Thoreau, a man of simple tastes and high thinking, was indeed an original thinker of his times. The lesson he taught himself and that he tried to teach others, was summed up in the word “simplify”. That meant simplify the outer circumstances of your life, simplify your needs and your ambitions; learn to delight in simple pleasures which the world of nature affords. It meant also scorn public opinion, refuse to accept the common definition of success, refuse to be moved by the judgement of others. And unlike most who advocate such attitudes, he put them into practice.

A few years ago on a trip to the United States I had the opportunity to retrace Thoreau’s footsteps on a walk around Walden Pond, and see the modest shack where he penned his notes on nature. At that time I knew him mainly as an evocative nature writer. Today I find that his philosophy of life and living is more relevant than perhaps ever before. And Walden is so much more than a nature lover’s diary—it is an inspiring guide to changing the way we view ourselves and the life we want to live, especially in these times when we are feeling lost, and the times that will follow.

Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify. Henry David Thoreau

–Mamata

Historical fiction? Fictional history?

I am game for anything historical—books, novels, movies, TV shows. I
have no education in history and so with all the books I read, the
past is a confused place for me, where I cannot begin to separate fact
from fantasy and fiction.

On the whole, I don’t have a problem with that. But last week, I
started reading a novel in the historical fiction genre, and maybe
because if was set in India, it jarred me terribly. And I now know
that I must be even more careful in what I think I know about the
past!

I did some little research into the genre itself, so that I could
understand what the parameters were:

Historical fiction is a literary genre in which the plot takes place
in a setting located in the past. It can be used in the context of
various types of narrative– including theatre, opera, cinema, and
television, as well as video games and graphic novels.

The definition of the ‘past’ is that it is set 50 or more years before
the author wrote the piece. Basically, the author should not have
first-hand experience of the period, and should rely on research for
an understanding of the time and events. Such works may tell stories
about actual historical people and events—or not.

They are however supposed to ‘capture the details of the time period
as accurately as possible for authenticity, including social norms,
manners, customs, and traditions.’

It is generally agreed that there are over 10 subgenres of Historical
Fiction. But there is not quite the same level of agreement on what
these are! One categorization goes:

·         Traditional Historical Fiction, characterized by a historically accurate plot

·         Multi-Period Epics, Series, and Sagas

·         Historical Romantic Fiction

·         Historical Western Fiction

·         Mysteries, Thrillers, and Adventure Novels set in the past

·         Time-Travel

·         Alternate Histories

·         Fantasy

·         Literary and Christian Novels
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Ok, so what is all this a lead-up to? Well, my latest library read— ‘The Last Queen of India’, by well-known author Michelle Moran. I have read a few other works by her—‘Madam Tussaud’ and ‘Cleopatra’s
Daughter’.

This is NOT a review. It may even be a very unfair piece. Because I
stopped at page 50. It was really irritating. I know that Ms. Moran is
a conscientious writer, and moreover one who is married to a person of
Indian origin, and through that, does know India. And that the
publisher is a very reputed one. So it intrigues me more than ever why
the flavor just didn’t come out right.

Just a few things about the book about Rani Laxmibai, and hence
essentially set before 1857:

1.       A reference to yellow and orange carnations decking a local
temple: Very unlikely in MP of the mid-1800s. Maybe they meant
marigolds?

2.       A reference to a priest wearing a crown of neem leaves. I
have not met any priest ever wearing a crown of any leaves, and
definitely not neem leaves.

3.       A Kshatriya father runs a carpentry shop and does the
wood-working himself. Again, not sure how common that would be.

4.       The grandmother from a poor but seemingly once-upon-a-time
middle class family decides that they are very poor and
cannot afford to get the grand-daughter married. Her immediate
solution is to try to sell the girl to a temple to become a devadasi.
I don’t think that would have at all been the reaction!

5.       It would seem as if every little temple in every little town
had devadasis. The grandmother is bargaining with a temple priest of
an Annapoorna temple and says that if he does not agree to her terms,
she will take the girl down the street to another one which will offer
a better price.

6.       The price they agree on for the girl is Rs. 13,000. In today’s terms,
compounding at the rate of 4%, that would be Rs 1 crore. Does not
sound right (and yes, one of the things to be taken care of in
historical fiction is the time-value of money).

7.       The grandmother and the grand-daughters go to the mother’s
funeral pyre. I am pretty sure that it could not have been so. Up
until recently, women did not go to the ghats.

8.       The daughters, in mourning wore white for 13 days. I am not
aware of any such custom.

Quibbling? Nit-picking? Hair-splitting? When I should have focused on
the spirit of the book, the heroism of the principals, the writing,
the overall sense?

Maybe. But I find I cannot read if the little details intrude and
don’t ring true. And they didn’t!

–Meena

The Book of Joy

This week, 6 July, marked the 85th birthday of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Five years ago, in 2015, to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday, a unique meeting took place. The Dalai Lama’s close friend the Archbishop Desmond Tutu came to Dharamshala to visit his “kindred spirit”. Both great spiritual masters and moral leaders of our time, and Nobel Prize winners, the two spent a week together—sharing their thoughts and vision, exchanging memories, and reveling in the simple joys of being together, laughing, and teasing each other.

Interestingly, four years before this meeting, when Desmond Tutu turned 80, a similar meeting between the two had been planned in Cape Town, South Africa. But the Dalai Lama was denied a visa by the South African government, bowing to pressure from the Chinese government.IMG_20200709_102817_BURST1.jpg

The Dharamshala meeting was, thus, more than special, and its purpose even more so. They took this rare occasion as a chance to sit down together, and evaluate one of life’s most important questions: how do we find joy in the face of life’s inevitable suffering? The outcome was The Book of Joy.

As the facilitator of the dialogues, and editor of the book, Douglas Abrams explains, ‘From the beginning the book was envisioned as a three-layer birthday cake: their own stories and teachings about joy, the most recent findings in the science of deep happiness, and the daily practices that anchor their own emotional and spiritual lives.’

The book documents the interactions between the two great minds through daily dialogues  over seven days, starting with identifying the obstacles to joy: fear, stress, anxiety, anger, sadness, grief, loneliness, envy, suffering and adversity, illness and fear of death.

From there the dialogues move on to explore the paths to experiencing Joy. Both the great minds emphasise that joy and happiness are by-products that spring from one’s attitudes and actions, and the cultivation of certain qualities.

What are these positive qualities that allow us to experience more joy? Four are qualities of the mind: perspective, humility, humour and acceptance. Four are qualities of the heart: forgiveness, gratitude, compassion mind: and generosity. These are the eight pillars of Joy. Each of these is discussed at length in the book.

Five years ago, the two gurus talked about the untold horrors, tragedies and suffering that the world was facing, and how to find joy whilst accepting, and yet transcending these. Today, in addition to these, the world is facing an all-encompassing and overwhelming new challenge. More than ever before, their words of wisdom may be the one’s to guide humanity through the pandemic that has been the greatest equaliser of all.

Perhaps the key to coping with the immense stress, anxiety, frustration and anger that all of us are facing during this period is Perspective. I cannot help but share some excerpts which are so relevant today.

“Yes there are many things that can depress us. But there are also are very many things that are fantastic about our world. Unfortunately the media do not report on this because they are not seen as news. …When bad things happen they become news, and it is easy to feel that our basic human nature is to kill or rape, or to be corrupt. Then we can feel that there is no hope for the future. …No doubt there are very negative things, but at the same time there are many more positive things happening in our world. We must have a sense of proportion and a wider perspective. Then we will not feel despair when we see sad things.”

“For every event in life there are many different angles. When you look at the same event from a wider perspective, your sense of worry and anxiety reduces, and you have greater joy. …If you look from one angle, you feel, Oh how bad, how sad. But if you look from another angle at the same tragedy, that same event, you see it gives me new opportunities.”

“The wider perspective leads to serenity and equanimity. It does not mean that we do not have the strength to confront a problem, but we can confront it with creativity and compassion rather than reactivity and rigidity. We are able to recognise that we do not control all aspects of any situation. This leads to a greater sense of humility, humour and acceptance.”

“The way we see the world is the way we experience the world. Changing the way we see the world in turn changes the way we feel and the way we act, which changes the world itself. A healthy perspective is really the foundation of joy and happiness.”

The book records the thoughts of the two thinkers not just through their words but also by their body language—the mischievous tugging and patting of arms, the heartfelt clasping of fingers, the respectful folding of hands and bowing, and above all the twinkling of eyes and the easy laughter of two dear friends sharing jokes, and enjoying their pudding! No wonder they are they are also known for being among the most infectiously happy people on the planet!

I myself have felt engulfed in this childlike exuberance and humour both times that I have had the privilege of attending a talk by the Dalai Lama, even as one of an audience of hundreds.

The Book of Joy has been on my bookshelf the last couple of years, but I was not in the right frame of mind to start reading it.  It is only last week that I felt the urge to read it.  I intensely related to it, and it put a lot of things in perspective.  Every word in the book is thought-provoking and profound. I know that I will go back to these again and again. Perhaps there is a time and place for everything indeed.

But, there is always time and space for Joy.

–Mamata

 

 

 

Day of Star-Crossed Lovers

The 7th day of the 7th month is marked in Japan as Tanabata, the only day of the year when star-crossed lovers, Orihime and Hikoboshi,  who are separated by the Milky Way, can meet. Legend has it that Orihime was a weaver of wondrous cloth. Her father Tentei was very proud of this skill of his daughter’s.  Orihime met and married Hikoboshi, a cowherd. Once married, the much-in-love couple were so lost in each other that she would no longer weave cloth and he allowed his cows to stray all over Heaven. In anger, Tentei separated the two lovers and only after a lot of pleading did he allow them to meet on this one day—the 7th of July. (The lovers are represented by the stars Vega and Altair).

So Tanabata is in a way the Day of Star-crossed lovers.

Speaking of such lovers, my favourite pair has to be Ambikapati-Amaravathi. Lesser known that Laila-Manju or Sohni-Mahiwal (no surprise there, the story is from South India!), I think it is beautiful and tragic and poetical in equal measure.

The story goes back to the early 12th century and to the court of King Kulothunga Chola I. The king had a beautiful, intelligent, talented daughter by the name of Amaravathi.  Kambar, the revered Tamil poet graced the court of this Chola king. The King asked Kambar to teach his daughter poetry, which he used to do.

Once, when Kambar had to travel, he deputed his young, handsome and very talented poet-son to teach the Princess in his stead.

And of course the inevitable happened, and they fell in love.

Which of course was not approved by the King.

And which of course became fodder for a number of court conspiracies and intrigues to discredit Kambar by discrediting his son. One way used to discredit Ambikapathy was to cast a slur on his abilities as a poet, saying he could only write odes to the beauty of women (aka Amaravathi), and not to the glory of God.

To cut a long and complex story short, the King wanted to punish the young poet. But the daughter refused to let him punish Ambikapathy alone for a misdeed in which she insisted she had an equal part to play.

So the King set Ambikapathy a challenge. He declared that if Ambikapathy could compose 100 verses to God and sing them in court, he would allow the couple to marry.

Ambikapathy and Amaravathi were very confident that this was an easy task. However, Ambikapathy told Amaravathi not to appear before him before he had completed singing the 100 verses, as her beauty would distract him, and he would start singing about her instead. Amaravathi agreed.

95779731-CD38-4586-A91A-2CBB675F7A0BOn the day of the challenge, Amaravathi positioned herself behind a curtain, out of sight of her lover. She had at her side two baskets. One was empty and the other had a hundred beautiful blossoms (I visualize them to be jasmine). The idea was that as Ambikapathy finished a verse, she would transfer one flower from the filled basket to the empty one. When the basket was empty, she would know that he had finished his 100 verses and she could appear before him.

And so it happened. Amaravathi opened the curtain when all the 100 flowers from one basket were transferred to the other. And he sang to her beauty.

Alas, Amaravathi had made a mistake. She had counted the traditional invocation to Goddess Sarawathi, the Goddess of Learning and Knowledge and Poetry, sung at the start any such event, as the first of Ambikapathy’s verses. So when she appeared before him, he had completed only 99, not 100 verses.

The unrelenting King had Ambikapathi killed. And Amaravathi died soon after of grief.

Alas, there is no 7th of July for Ambikapathy and Amaravathi!

Totally my favourite star-crossed lovers story!

–Meena

 

A Requiem for Lost Libraries

Right through the last three months of lockdown the one ‘unlocking’ that I was looking forward to, was that of my local British library. The once-a-month visit to the library was an outing that I enjoyed, with its comfortable ritual of collecting the books to return; the short trip to reach the library; the leisurely browsing of shelves to select the next batch to issue, and the spending of some quiet time among fellow readers perusing the newspapers and magazines.

A couple of weeks ago I got a mail that this library was shutting down it physical space and transactions, and turning completely digital. Among the many changes that the world is seeing, and will see, in the age of Corona, this was one of the most upsetting changes for me.

As I have often shared in these columns (lately A Browser Laments) libraries and bookshops have sustained the bibliophile in me all through my life. These have been integral parts of my learning and becoming, and much more than a collection of books. As E B White, described much more eloquently than I can:

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“A library is many things. It’s a place to go, to get in out of the rain. It’s a place to go if you want to sit and think. But particularly it is a place where books live, and where you can get in touch with other people, and other thoughts, through books… A library is a good place to go when you feel bewildered or undecided, for there, in a book, you may have your questions answered. Books are good company, in sad times and happy times, for books are people — people who have managed to stay alive by hiding between the covers of a book.”

A library is not only a sanctuary, it is also an invitation to explorations that lead to serendipitous discoveries of new authors and titles. It is a place where the solid physicality of books creates the intellectual space to freely roam across historical ages, geographical boundaries, and labels of colour, language and identity.

The library has been the mainstay, the beacon, the support, and the sustenance for readers through history. Yet today, libraries themselves are in danger of becoming history. We are told that the library is being reinvented in the face of budget cuts, new technology, and changing needs. The age of internet has brought unimagined sources of information and knowledge at our fingertips. There is an increasing transformation to digital libraries.  To ‘browse’ has taken on an entirely new connotation.  The voyage of discovery is now marked by keywords–we reach for what we know to reach for. More than anything else this has transformed the library experience which was marked by a special sense of community into an individual and isolated exercise.

I mourn for these losses, as I apprehensively search for replacements.

–Mamata

An Old-Fashioned Tribute to Diversity

C634E548-70B1-4F19-97D5-C821011F64A4The last telegram in India was sent at 11.45 p.m. on the 14th of July, 2013. The telegram service in the country started in 1850 on an experimental basis, and was made available to the public in 1854. It connected us across the vast country, the harbinger of joys and sorrows. The arrival of a telegram definitely did give rise to butterflies in the stomach and a rise in blood pressure.

But there was a class of telegrams called ‘Greetings Telegrams’, which brought only joy. The Postal Department had kindly put together greetings-phrases to cover many occasions, and one had to only choose the number and the message would be handed over to the recipient in a specially-designed happy format.

What struck me when I recently went through the list of greetings telegrams was a sense of India—all our celebrations and special occasions—religious and secular, national and personal. The list obviously does not cover the entire gamut. But one can see the effort for inclusivity—whether of religion or community or region. And also a sense of evolving sensitivity. Additions of Parushan, Ravidas Purnima, Bihu or Ugadi at later numbers do definitely indicate this evolving sensitivity to me.

The intriguing ones are of course the ones on elections!

No. 100 on the list was a condolence message, something often needed but only informally on the ‘Greetings’ list!

Today, this list and its evolving nature might be called political correctness at best (tokenism, appeasement or pseudo-secularism would also definitely be bandied),  but for me, it is my India! Here is the list:

 

  1. Heartiest Diwali Greetings (1)
  2. Id Mubarak (2)
  3. Heartiest Bijoya Greetings (3)
  4. A Happy New Year To You (4)
  5. Many Happy returns of the day (5)
  6. Hearty Congratulations on the new Arrival (6)
  7. Congratulations on the Distinction conferred on you (7)
  8. Best Wishes for a long and Happy married life (8)
  9. A Merry Christmas to you (9)
  10. Hearty Congratulations on your success in the Examination (10)
  11. Best Wishes for a safe and pleasant journey (11)
  12. Hearty Congratulations for your success in Election (12)
  13. Many Thanks for your good wishes which i/we Reciprocate Most Heartily (13)
  14. Congratulations (14)
  15. Loving Greetings (15)
  16. May Heaven’s Choicest Blessings be showered on the young couple (16)
  17. Wish you both a happy and prosperous wedded life (17)
  18. Kind Remembrances and all Good Wishes for the Independence Day (18)
  19. Sincere Greetings for the Republic Day Long Live the Republic (19)
  20. My Heartiest Holi Greetings to you (20)
  21. Wishing the function every success (21)
  22. Many thanks for your kind message of Greetings (22)
  23. Best Wishes for your successes in the examination (23)
  24. Best Wishes for your success in Elections
  25. Convey our blessings to the newly married couple (25)
  26. Heartiest Pongal Greetings (26)
  27. Heartiest Gur Purb Greetings (27)
  28. Greetings on the occasion of Parvushan-a day of universal forgiveness (28)
  29. Heartiest Onam Greetings (29)
  30. Best Wishes on your wedding anniversary (30)
  31. Wish you a happy retired life (31)
  32. Wish you a speedy recovery (32)
  33. Heartiest Ugadi Greetings (33)
  34. Congratulations on your victory (34)
  35. Wish you a Happy Bihu (35)
  36. A Happy Easter (36)
  37. Heartiest Greetings on Buddha Jayanti (37)
  38. Heartiest Congratulations on Greh Pravesh (38)
  39. Heartiest Guru Ravidas Purnima Greetings (39)
  40. Heartiest Greetings on Navroj
  41. Heartiest Greetings on the Occasion of Jhulelal Jayanti
  42. Healthiest Greetings on the Occasion of Makarsankranti
  43. Healthiest Greetings on the Occasion of Chatrapatimaharaja Shri Agrasen Jayanti

 

–Meena

 

 

 

 

How to be a Parent

The last three months of lockdowns across the world have, among other things, put the spotlight on parenting. With children and parents in continuous and close confinement, both have been tearing their hair out in frustration. The challenge of keeping children ‘occupied’; the careful negotiation of time and space that respects personal and physical boundaries; the sharing of responsibilities amidst the constantly looming uncertainty of when and where the virus could strike, has put everyone on tenterhooks.

This has led to a proliferation of Advice Columns. From counsellors to therapists, psychologists to agony aunts, there seems to be an overdose on ‘good parenting’ tips. In our zeal to do the best for our children we sometimes tend to forget the most basic and simple guidelines that are based on the fundamental premise of mutual respect.

These were offered almost a hundred years ago by Gijubhai Badheka one of the pioneers of the Montessori system of education in India, lifelong advocate of children and their rights, and creator of some of the best loved and popular children’s literature in Gujarati.  Gijubhai believed that every child has its own distinct personality. We as adults need to recognise and respect this. He urged parents to convert to the faith of trust, respect, freedom and love for children. Starting with these five fundamental tenets.

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If you would like to do just one thing for children…

What could you do?

Do not hit children.

 

If you would like to do two things; what could you do?

Do not scold children

Do not insult them.

 

If you would like to do three things; what could you do?

Do not scare children

Do not bribe them to do something

Do not overindulge them.

 

If you would like to do four things for children; what would these be?

Do not preach to children

Do not blow hot and cold

Do not keep finding fault

Do not exercise authority all the time.

 

If you are keen to do five things; what will you do?

Do not do whatever the child demands; teach it to do for itself.

Let the child do what it desires to do.

Do not take a child’s work lightly.

Do not interfere into a child’s work.

Do not take away a child’s work.

In a world that has changed dramatically in the last 100 years, these timeless tenets remain as, if not more, true today.

Gijubhai Badheka passed away on 23 June in 1939, at the early age of 54 years leaving behind a prodigious legacy of writing for children, parents and teachers.

Gijubhai was my grandfather. In my small way, I try to carry forward his legacy by sharing and translating his works from the original Gujarati into English.

–Mamata

 

 

 

 

 

 

LEGISLATING GENDER QUOTAS

In our work with communities, the term SP is common. It stands for Sarpanch Pati—the husband who is the de facto Sarpanch, though his wife is the elected representative in the woman-reserved constituency. A few weeks ago, there was a news item about some state government prohibiting SPs from taking decisions!

Women not able to act in spite of legislative provisions—if we think it is a rural phenomenon, it would be a mistake.

Gender quota challenges play out in corporate India too—only differently.

The New Companies Act 2013 mandated that all listed companies and large public companies should have at least one woman on their Boards.  I decided to take a look at the representation of women in Boards in large companies in India to get a feel of this.

A quick examination of the top 30 BSE companies threw up these interesting facts:

  • Yes, all of them have complied with the law and had at least one woman directors.
  • But taking into account the total number of directors in these 30 companies, less than 15% of them are women.
  • Only one of the 30 companies had a woman in the Chair.
  • There was no company which have women as a majority on the Board or even half the directors as women. Most companies have between 11 and 20 percent women directors.
  • Every company has four mandatory committees (sub-committees of the Board). In the 30 companies studied, there are therefore, 120 mandatory committees. Of these, women were represented in less than half.  Only 15 Committees were chaired by women
  • ‘3’ is a magic number as far as women representation on Boards goes. Many researchers have averred that this is the minimum threshold which ensures that women directors are able to bring into play their strengths and contribute meaningfully to board processes, and hence corporate governance and management. It is found to be the minimum required number for women board members to make a difference and bring into play their value-addition. Only 10 percent of the companies studied had three or more women on the board.
  • A very small proportion of directors are internal women directors, especially those holding the position of Executive Director.

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Large companies in India are seen to be fully compliant with the law, and none of them has missed out on appointing one woman director to the Board. Some have gone beyond, and have appointed two. But very few have facilitated the condition which would really make women representation effective—viz, having three women on the board. Hence it seems that much more has to be done in terms of making the participation of women directors effective. Apart from absolute numbers, it would seem that proportion of women on the boards could also do with enhancement.

The serious under-representation of women in the position of Board Chairs is a matter of concern.

Equally the fact that very few women directors are internal. Such internal representation of women in top management positions is a strong signal for the women employees of the possibilities of career progression.

 

Also, the representation of women on mandatory committees, and their leadership of these is another area that corporates may need to focus efforts. Board Committees are where a significant amount of detailed work happens, and Committees have the scope to delve deep into the important issues facing the corporation, and setting the tone for governance. Poor representation and low leadership of mandatory Board Committees by women is hence another missed opportunity.

While it seems that we comply in name, it does not seem that we are really interested in complying with the spirit of the legislations or the underlying inequities which they are trying to correct.

–Meena

Just Deserts

I love deserts. Of all the ecosystems and landscapes, I have always felt the closest affinity to the desert. While I have trekked among hills and mountains, and have enjoyed the sea and seashore, it is the desert that makes me feel at once ‘at home’ as it were.

My introduction to the desert dates back many decades.

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Illustration CEE’s NatureScope India  Discovering Deserts 

As a young trekker I was a member of a group called the Delhi Mountaineering Association. One year, the mountaineers decide to descend from the mountains and explore a new terrain and undertake something that was hitherto unexplored. The result was the Desert Expedition—the first-ever attempt (then) to cross the Thar desert in Rajasthan on foot. Eight strangers (5 men and 3 women, including yours truly), sharing a common urge to explore and discover, came together to embark on a two-week journey that touched each of us in so many different ways, and left behind indelible memories.

The walk commenced from the little village of Sam, about 44 km from Jaisalmer. This is where I had my first sight of the dunes rising from a sea of sand in the morning sunlight–a curious composite of the ripples of the ocean with the majesty of the mountains. And from here walked, our motley band of adventurers; day after sunny day, dusty winds, clinging bhurats (prickly thorns). From the sand, through the unending vista of flat arid miles stretching to the horizon, stopping to quench our parched throats with mathira the juicy wild melons, and communing with our accompanying camels. The utterly comforting feel of sleeping on the sand, under the canopy of the Milky Way, lulled by the unbroken sounds of silence. A unique bonding over seven days and 190 km (every inch traversed on blistered feet!), that left me deeply in love with the desert.

While I have not been able to go the desert as often as I would like to, serendipitously the desert has made its way into my life from time to time.

I am often reminded by my erstwhile boss that the only credentials that started me on my career as an environmental educator, was the fact that I had been on that desert expedition! My work in environment led me to study and understand (rather than only experience) the different ecosystems. When I had the opportunity to develop a teaching-learning manual on Deserts, I plumbed the depths of literature on the subject and was awestruck by the fascinating facets, incredible adaptations, and the innumerable strands that weave together create a vibrant ecosystem in a seemingly lifeless terrain. What was once intuitive was bolstered with intellect.

More serendipity! A collaborative project with Abu Dhabi, and an equally ardent desert lover transported me (after so many years) into a desert again—the Arabian Desert, also known as the Empty Quarter (Rub Al Khali in Arabic). Being amid the immense dunes and endless stretches of sand, was like homecoming. I would never have imagined this, all those years ago in the Thar.

And then, a trip to Ladakh to experience the cold desert—that I had only written about till then. So different–the starkness, the skies, the silence, and the sheer scale, and yet similar.  Nowhere but in the desert have I felt this with such intensity.

My heart lies in the desert. Sadly I may not be able to recreate these experiences if I tried now. The once remote sand dunes of Sam are now a tourist hot spot. The dunes and dune life of Rub al Khali are being decimated by the sport craze for off-road vehicles zooming across the sand. The fragile cold desert ecosystem of Ladakh is being snowed under with overtourism. Deserts are disappearing, and no ‘development’ scheme can ever recreate them.

–Mamata

Ironically while the real deserts are under threat, human activity is leading to transforming non-desert areas into arid lifeless regions through the process of desertification.  June 17 is observed as The World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought to promote public awareness of international efforts to combat desertification.

 

Prejudice and An Epic Production

D3962893-2848-4398-B173-3992ED5AACE1Over 30 years ago.

A stage adaptation of the Mahabharata opened in Paris. Directed by Peter Brook, it was the first-ever stage presentation of the entire epic, and ran to 9 hours. It had a multi-racial cast—21 actors from 16 countries. Mallika Sarabhai was the lone Indian on the cast, playing the central role of Draupadi.

While many art-forms tell stories from the epic, usually it is only parts or specific episodes from the Mahabharata which are staged. This was the first (and till now, the only) time, the whole epic was adapted for the theatre. First made in French, later there was an English version too.

It made history.

It toured the world.

It did not come to India.

Why? Because there were protests in India against people from Africa playing key roles and depicting the Pandavas and some of our other heroes and heroines. There were especially strong reactions to Mamadou Dioume of Senegalese origin playing Bhima. (There were no problems with an Italian playing Arjuna, or a Pole playing Yudhishtra though!)

Peter Brook saw the Mahabharata as a universal tale, transcending time and geography, exploring the human mind and motivations. The depths the human character could plumb, as well as the heights it could reach. He saw it as the story of the race of man. And in this context, the diverse cast made sense.

Alas, the protestors in India could not see this.

We do not often think of racism as one of the many isms that mar us.

But it is there!

Along with:

Communalism

Casteism

Sexism

Regionalism

And many others.

And I don’t think any one of us is free of some prejudice or the other.

It is the time to dig deep and surface our biases, recognize them, and then grapple with them.

Not easy, but as we are becoming increasingly aware, life is not easy!

–Meena