A-Rated History

I am living in 40 BC. Or the 13th, or 15th, or the 18th century. Really depends on which series I am watching at the moment. And my favourite ones are all set way, way back.

And boy, am I learning! Whether it is the Roman Empire, or the Mongols, or the Medicis, or South America, here is the most interesting way to get a feel of the time, the place, the world-changing events. Fully of course realizing that as per reviews (and my own shaky knowledge of history), these series range in accuracy from about 80% (Boilvar), to about 30% (Marco Polo). But I suppose it is up to me to read more authentic scholarly accounts and get my facts straight. I have started on Marco Polo: The Travels. But that, I suppose is not really very factual either. Marco Polo and his co-author have reports on the most fantastical things, whose authenticity is very much in doubt. But nevertheless the television series got me eager to read it.

The point I am coming around to is that this may be the best way to get young people interested in history. Just as David Attenborough and Jacques Cousteau used television and film to bring nature into the house, and thus awaken a whole generation to interest in the environment, here is an opportunity to do the same with history.

And there are several, several such popular serials which can lend themselves to this. My question is: why are they made such that the 13 and 14-year olds who I really feel would be inspired by them, cannot watch them? I understand the Romans had their orgies, the Mongols their harems, and all of them their bloody wars and brutality. But is there no way to bring them into the family room to be family watching? Surely, there can be a way to avoid so much frontal nudity, explicit sex and the level of gore that is shown. Creative film-making is about that!

This is not a plea for censorship. It is to only reiterate that more than soap-value, these topics have educational value. And as an educator, it saddens me when the opportunity is missed. Billions of dollars and so much creative talent spent. But no teacher dealing with these topics in classroom can prescribe these as required watching. Because of the nudity, sex, strong language, drug use and violence, they are not rated for this age group.

If producers feel that their core audience is not this age group, and only putting in a lot of this will bring in the audience and generate revenues, maybe expurgated student-friendly versions available in the daytime?

There MUST be a way around. Surely technology can find a fix!

–Meena

Timekeepers to the Nation

For most of us growing up in India in the 1970s and 80s thIMG_20191202_114741.jpge passage of time was marked by the HMT watch!  One’s first watch, the graduation watch, the watch that one was gifted, or gifted for a wedding—all these came in the form of an HMT watch.

It was the bond that was also marked by a sense of national pride in wearing something of world class quality that was totally indigenously manufactured. The news of the shutdown of the HMT factory in 2016 saddened many faithful users and supporters.

A recent visit to the HMT Heritage Centre and Museum in Bengaluru was like a travel back in time, reviving many memories. Set in the verdant grounds of the HMT Township, and housed in a lovely old two-storied bungalow that was once the residence of the Chairman, the exhibits trace the history of Hindustan Machine Tools Limited (HMT), the country’s first machine manufacturing company, set up by the Indian government in 1953. While HMT is usually synonymous with watches, it was a company manufacturing a number of other products including tractors, bulbs, machine parts, printing units and defence equipment. The museum includes exhibits of the great variety of these products, and traces their history, along with interesting facts and figures. For example it is interesting to note that there was a time when most of the factories in India had at least one HMT machine and every household had at least one HMT product.

The display starts with a pictorial chronology of the history of the company, and how it marked its presence in different parts of India. Then, of course, are the watches—over 2000 of them mounted on wooden blocks which are recycled from benches, windows and doors from the school and employee quarters that HMT once used to run in the vicinity. From the first watch presented to the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1962 till the 100 millionth watch manufactured and gifted in 2000 to the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee—the array boasts several other landmark models—Braille watches, India’s first Day-Date quartz and Ana-Digi watches, watches that were used as fashion accessories, and even the Nurse Watch that nurses who could pin upside down on their uniform for quick viewing. Models named Archana, Sujata, Abhishek, Kanchan, Sona and Lalit became part of millions of families across the country, as did Janata—the common man’s watch. Walking through this section one could nostalgically identify the models that one’s own family members wore.

The next section provides a peep inside the casings to reveal the cogs and wheels that made these time pieces go tick-tock; and the sequence of putting these different parts together. Magnifying glasses and microscopes help to look closely at some of these minute parts. One can only marvel at the meticulous care with these were assembled.

Moving on to the next large and well-lit space we see some of the other machines and printing equipment that was also manufactured by HMT. To get a real feel of walking onto a factory floor, is the time clock which the workers used to punch in their arrival by pushing down a lever. This is operational still, and one can punch and print the time of one’s visit on a card. The display of a variety of machines is impressive indeed. Imagine a company producing everything indigenously, from a part the size of a pin head to giant tractors!

The first-floor documents the range of machine tools manufactured by the company since its inception, along with a world map that indicates their collaborators from across the world. An AV room plays a video that shares HMT’s history, and its different units. The last section explains the origin and development of the HMT tractor, along with its functioning parts. There is also an operational tractor on which one can take a ride!

And while one is still lost in memories of the times that were, one walks out into the fresh air and greenery to a shop that sells some of the remaining pieces of HMT watches. A perfect souvenir of a legacy that we are all proud to be a part of.

–Mamata

https://www.hmtwatches.in/

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our Life Our Story

The wonderful tradition of keeping diaries and journals is ages old. The exercise of recording one’s thoughts, memorable moments, and pouring out teen-age angst was pretty much a part of our growing up years. And now, many years down history as it were, revisiting these is a wonderful trip down memory lane. Sadly in this an age of instant communication (often only in limited characters) and fleeting memory, there seems to be no time to spend on recording what will, some day, be history—our own and that of the world we live in.

The recent engagement of the Matriarchs in developing textbooks for young children has brought us again and again to the challenge of ‘how do we instil in children a sense of history?’ Not history in terms of dates and names and events, but the idea that where each of us is today, is one point in the continuum of time and generations. In this age of small nuclear (and often single-child) families, the tradition of oral histories passed on through generations seems to be getting lost. Children need to know “where do we come from, what is our family like, what have we learnt from our family experiences and history?”

Well here is someone who is trying to address similar concerns in a new way through History Hive, the brainchild of Moon Moon Jetley, a historian and researcher, who looks beyond academia.

Moon Moon and I worked together on a project last year, and bonded over many shared interests, and love for cold coffee and French fries! I was excited when she told me about her project-in-making for trying to connect people with history in an innovative way.

This is now up and running as History Hive, with its first product My History Kit. The inspiration behind the kit is personal history and the necessity to record it. This is a hands-on creative history experience that helps its users to connect with, and record their personal history with family stories, experiences and milestones. The kit contains a journal, a map, a dice and a puzzle. The Journal is a space to write your own story, the dice is a writing prompt, the puzzle a fun element, and My History Map is a space to creatively recreate your story, not only in words but by sticking mementos of the moments—pictures, souvenirs and anything associated with the experience.

The kit can be used by a wide age group (15-95 years) and people from diverse professions–doctors, writers, lawyers, home makers, teachers, travellers, entrepreneurs, start up owners, actors, and just about anyone who wants to tell, and keep their own stories.

Make your own history! Check out https://www.historyhive.in/

–Mamata

 

Food Spy

It is said that America is a country of immigrants. Over the centuries people from all continents made their way to the ‘promised land’ and made it their home. Interestingly, a lot of the food that is today so much a part of the American diet, is also part of another immigration story. Quinoa, kale, avocado, nectarines, soya beans; even pineapples, oranges and lemons—just about 150 years ago, these were unseen and unheard of in America. Many of these were introduced to the country by a single man, David Fairchild, who called himself an agricultural explorer.

David Fairchild grew up in Kansas at the end of the 19th century, a time when the diet of his countrymen was made up primarily of bland meat, potatoes and cheese, and excluded vegetables and fruit. Fairchild was no gourmet himself, but he loved plants, and he loved travel, and he found a way to combine both into a job for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At the age of 22, he created the Section of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction of the USDA, and for the next 37 years, he travelled the world, visiting every continent except Antarctica, in search of useful plants to bring back to America. When he started out in his new job, with little knowledge or knowhow, he began by stealing seeds, but over time he learnt other strategies like talking to the local people, visiting local markets and observing what people were growing and eating. This also earned him the sobriquet of Food Spy!

With a combination of strategies, and often at the risk of his own life, Fairchild managed to send back seeds or cuttings of over 200,000 kinds of fruits, vegetable and grains. His department, the Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction, researched these and distributed new crops to farmers around the states.

It was not an easy process, introducing new food crops. Farmers did not like to take risks, the general public was suspicious of new foods and fearful that the overseas immigrants would bring in tropical disease and insects. Even today there is a Quarantine Law which forbids anyone from bringing in agricultural material into the US. Uphill task though it was, Fairchild did succeed to a large extent, and managed to introduce mangoes, quinoa, dates, cotton, soybeans, bamboo, and even the flowering Japanese cherry trees that blossom all over Washington D.C. each spring.

In 1904 Fairchild was invited to speak at the National Geographic Society where he met the famous inventor Alexander Graham Bell who was the Society’s second president; years later Fairchild married Bell’s daughter.

Last week the National Geographic Society hosted a curated dinner where the menu featured some of the many foods—avocados, dates, and other that David Fairchild brought to the United States more than 100 years ago, thus changing the country’s culinary palate.

The story of this amazing food traveller is told in a book by Daniel Stone titled The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats.

 —Mamata

 

Women in War

Every year in the run up to India’s Independence Day we are reminded of the events and people who played a significant role in taking India to freedom from the rule of the British Raj. We remember our history lessons about how women played an active role in the movement to boycott British goods and pave the way for Swadeshi.

In the past month, quite by chance I read four books which described what England and women in England were going through during almost the same period—the first half of the 1940s. It was something that perhaps most of us are not so familiar with, and made me want to know more.

In the 1930s, social roles were clearly defined in English society. A woman’s place was in the home, a man’s place was out at work. It was acceptable for women to work outside the home if they had no family to look after, but they were paid less than men were — even when doing the same jobs, and most would have expected to leave as soon as they married, or when they had their first child.

With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, and in the following years, men in England joined up for military service and there was a big vacuum in the labour force in essential services. This was filled by women. Unmarried women between 20 and 30 were called up to join a variety of services from working in factories manufacturing armaments, to those on the fringes of the war front. Among these was the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) that recruited female volunteers for driving, clerical and general duties including anti-aircraft searchlights. The Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) that maintained ships of the Royal Navy and were involved in some of the most secret planning for D-Day. The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) that was used for maintaining and flying barrage balloons, and the London Auxiliary Ambulance Service which was on duty through the German bombing “blitzkrieg” (lightning war) of 1940-1941.

Many of these were dangerous jobs, which carried the very real risk of death or serious injury and many at first thought that the jobs were not only unsuitable for women but that they did not possess the physical strength needed to carry out the tasks which were being asked of them. This was to be proven wrong time and again. And there are many tales that tell of heroic feats of these women.

The books tell stories from the point of view of ordinary women who had never stepped out of their home, and how their new roles were the leveller of the very-English class distinctions. Working class girls who worked as domestic help in mansions, now worked shoulder-to-shoulder with genteel middle class girls as ambulance drivers and munition factory workers. Ladies with large estates took in evacuees from all backgrounds, and turned their manicured gardens into food-growing plots, while lawns were dug up to make Anderson shelters in which to stay during air raids. Timid girls from villages who were skilled in living frugally were appointed by the Food Ministry as Home Front Economists and Kitchen Economists to give talks and demonstrations to women’s groups on how to conserve food rations and fuel.

Cargo ships carrying vital supplies imported from the colonies were being bombed on high seas. It was a time of shortages, rationing, hoarding, and black-marketing, it was also a time for austerity—managing with less. There were coupons for food, for petrol, and clothes. Fashion was dictated not by French designers but by the Board of Trade; hemlines were decreed to be shorter to save cloth, and there were a limited number of basic, no-extra-frills styles, with Utility Labels which could be bought using coupons. Various schemes gave advice on recycling or making clothes last longer, two of these were the Make Do and Mend, and Sew and Save, schemes for which women were called upon to share ideas and experiences.

The stories tell of lasting friendships in a fragile time… Knitting together while waiting for an emergency call out; driving through darkness of curfew and blackout, through rubble of collapsed buildings, pulling out people from the debris, bonding by the uncertainty that they never knew if they would come back after a call; sharing picket duty during the hours of darkness to stop anyone from pilfering petrol.

The stories also reveal how the new roles raised the self-esteem of the women by allowing them to become an integral part of the overall war effort in every way. Gone were the housewives of the 1920’s and 30’s and in their place were an army of skilled and resilient workers, farmers, builders, and defenders—women with gumption and spirit. Women whose tales need to be shared.

Coincidentally, one of the last living female pilots of World War 2, Mary Ellis died on 24 July this year at the age of 101. She was a pilot of the Air Transport Auxiliary service, and delivered Spitfires and bombers to the front line during the war. Having flown about 1000 planes during her service, she once again flew a Spitfire for 15 minutes at the age of 100! Way to go!

–Mamata