Dodo, Dragon, Dinosaur Dis-apparitions

We just got back from the Inyo Forests nestled in the Sierra Nevada mountains. This time, the mountains were explored by the children with a friend who was just the right companion for both of them. He is aged smack in between the daughter’s age and the toddler’s age, and is an amiable, interesting fellow, thereby providing ample company to both of them. The toddler son thought him a hero and the daughter found in him another quirky little brother. He was obviously pleased with this state of things, and settled down to the hero-slash-honorary-little-brother role with aplomb.

It was quiet, and the darkness in the mountains was unreal. We could see Venus glowing brightly like a torch up in the sky. Inside the car,  it was toasty and warm, and the game of Twenty Questions was thriving: it is a sophisticated game in which you think of an animal and everyone can ask questions to guess the animal you thought of.  Animals were chosen and guessed at with hilarity.

“Amma! This little bobbicles knows nothing about his animal and expects us to guess it. How can you not know whether it is a carnivore or not?” The toddler said something like, maybe it likes to eat meat, but maybe it doesn’t, I don’t know. He then laughed raucously at his sister’s disbelief. He seemed to think that these trivial things should not stop a zoo-linguist-to-be from guessing the animal. (That reminds me that I have to get down to writing a blog on how the toddler plays games.)

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His friend-slash-hero agreed and took the car for a spin with mythical creatures from shows we had never seen. As the going got tough, the rules got tougher – “Hey! Mythical creatures only restricted to Greek mythology or Harry Potter or till level 10 of Pokemon Go!”. The hero-slash-lil-bro was something of a Pokemon expert and went on about zilletoes and monekchoes or things that sounded like them, with glee.

“How about Hanuman?” asked the toddler in a matter-of-fact tone.

Before Spiderman and Batman were added to the mix, the husband and I swooped in with some impressive peacekeeping efforts that folks in the United Nations could learn from.

After several minutes of quiet, the conversation started up again with the daughter asking a question: If you could bring one animal back from extinction, which one would it be and why?

As the conversation gathered fervor, the surrounding Inyo Forests resounded with the spirits of animals long gone. Sabre tooth tigers romped along side mammoths, T-rexes chased Brontosauruses. A short pause later, dragons and phoenixes joined them too. If the conversation were being animated real-time, I’d have liked to see the reactions of the various spirits as they made their mystical apparitions from the dead.

“You do know that phoenixes and dragons are mythical creatures right? They aren’t exactly extinct because we don’t know whether they really existed, “, said the daughter laughing to split.

“Okay – then Pidgeot”

“No! pidgies and pidgeottos! Before you ask, chargats don’t count either. Pokemon Go is not the real world you know?”

I could hear the gears spinning in the boys’ brains. This was one tough game, they thought.

After an intense argument that examined the merit of mythical creatures in the extinct category, and the virtual creatures in the ethereal category, the conversation slowed down again and landed softly near the dawdling dodo birds. We waddled by them, and the daughter explained that she felt the dodo birds deserved to be back because those poor creatures were extinct purely because of man’s greed.  The children smiled as though her goodwill towards the dodo could truly summon it back from the extinct category.

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“Anyway, which animal would you bring back?”, asked the daughter.

“I want to bring back the Titanis bird.”  said the hero-slash-hon-b.

We exchanged glances. It was difficult to figure out whether there really was a bird  called Titanis which was extinct, or one that appeared in the fellow’s video games.

“Really, there is a bird called Titanis. They are so beautiful. I want to bring them back. “ He sounded so sincere that the daughter’s heart melted. It often happens this way. The daughter is a softie underneath the bossy exterior and coo-ed.

“Oh! That is so sweet. Why do you want them back?”

“So, I can take a gun and shoot them! “, said the h-s-h-b.

I wonder whether you have played ping-pong. Just when you think the ball went, back it comes to you again. Right at your face. It was a bit like that. Just when you got the sweet daughter version, an outraged cry left her lips. The sweet dodo apparitions were gone. The dragons poof-ed themselves out, and titanis was gone too.

“Oh! How could you? “ she cried, the animal activist in her flaring up.

“Why? They have beautiful feathers. “

“Exactly! So admire the birds with their feathers!”

“But if we shoot them, we can collect their feathers.”

“Why bring them back if you want to shoot them?”

“How else will we get those beautiful feathers?”

The three of them played in our car till the toddler son fell asleep in the gathering darkness as we drove up to our destination.

I am not sure whether the dodo or the titanis will want to come back if it means holding a conversation with the specimens in our car.  Maybe we should give them a choice, what do you think?

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The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind

Every now and then, there arrives a book that is designed to knock the sails out of your windpipe. William Kamkwamba’s journey to build a windmill and uplift his community is one such. It is the true story of a poor boy in Malawi.

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I bought the book a while ago, and it lay languishing on my tsundoku pile. Maybe, there was a purpose to the book. The book needed to be read at a time when I most wanted to reassure myself on human potential if only we choose to apply it for good.

The only son, among eight children, of a poor Malawian farmer in Wimbe near Kasungu, Malawi, this is a true story of William Kamkwamba.

The book started off slowly talking about tales of magic, witchcraft and sorcery in Africa. As you read about William and his journey, you cannot help getting absorbed into the life around him with good natured understanding. You like his dog, Khambe, and his friends, Geoffrey and Gilbert, who show themselves to be the kind of stalwart friends you wish your children will grow up to be. Kind hearted, supportive, fun and ready to lend a hand, always.

When, famine hits Malawi, William Kamkwamba is forced to drop out of school, it is crushing to read how his father felt and I wish no parent should have to face that in their life.He writes about how his family struggled for months with nothing but a few nsima cakes between them to eat everyday. Everything we tell our children about starving children in Africa is true.

During those long hours of working in the fields to do their best to see if they can fortify themselves against another famine, it is William’s dream to build a windmill that keeps him going. William had seen pictures of a windmill, and given that his little village is always blessed with wind, he wants to build one, so that water and electricity can mitigate another famine. He is called misala (crazy) for haunting the trash piles to find something reusable to build his windmill.

After months, of scouring trash piles and junkyards, using tools that would not pass any safety standards laid out in the West, it is a proud moment indeed when finally he connects his rickety windmill to a tiny light bulb.

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The windmill is noticed by a school official who notifies a professor and a blogger. From there to TED Fellow in 2007 is a remarkable journey for a boy who had never set foot outside his little village in Wimbe.

When William is finally called upon to talk at the TED conference, he is justifiably nervous. His English is poor among other things, and to make it easier for him, his host on stage, Chris, prefers to ask him a few questions that he can answer instead:

My heart beat fast like a mganga drum as I climbed the steps to face the audience, which totaled 450: inventors, scientists and doctors who’d stood on that stage in the previous days.

Five years ago, you had an idea”, Chris said, “What was that?”
“I want to made a windmill”. Wrong again. Chris smiled.
“So what did you, how did you realize that?”
I took a deep breath and gave it my best. “After I drop out of school, I went to library…and I get information about windmill…”
Keep going, keep going…”And I try and, I made it.”

The problem with reading a book like The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind on public transport is that it is takes phenomenal effort to keep from tearing up. You can manage a silent tear that just needs to come out, and one that you can unobtrusively wipe away as if some dirt got in there. But if the book goes on to make you want to weep not out of despair or sadness, but out of pride, joy and the eternal good-ness of mankind despite everything, that is hard to do.

Some pictures from the book: The image of his prototypes, his big windmill and one of his parents after he was able to harness the energy generated from the windmill to provide clean drinking water and electricity in his village.

Unfortunately, for every William who is outstanding in perseverance, grit and intelligence, there are thousands of williams who flounder in the stormy tempests of life. Every time I am caressed by the wind during this Thanksgiving break, I will know what to give thanks for. Thanks to William Kamkwamba.

I try, and I made it.

Please watch the TED talks, even if you are unable to get to the book:

TED Fellow William Kamkwamba

Oh Snap!

I attended a conference last week, a vast sprawling area brimming with people having an analytical bent of mind, or at least that is what they do for a living.

It was wonderful, for many reasons: It not only provided a good change of pace for me, but it also helped me cope with the post election disbelief by observing vast numbers of people from different parts of the country.

Before one of our trainings, our instructor put up a hashtag on the screen and requested everybody to tweet with that hash tag, so we could analyze the data coming in for that hashtag for the exercise.

For our convenience, he was also streaming the tweets as his code picked them up. For a hall containing at least 200 people, the tweets were trickling in. 5 and then 10 and then a plateau. After some time, another few.

The instructor then showed us how he was going to analyze this data and when he tried to pull up the dashboard he had created for the purpose of the training, the server went down. As it turns out, the instructor was embarrassed, obviously, that his carefully prepared presentation ran into a glitch in this uncharacteristic manner, but he had a Plan B, and going by the way he conducted his training, probably had Plan C, and D. Competence and Determination. He took a derogatory stab at himself, got a laugh, and moved on. He chose instead to recreate the dashboard from scratch, so we all get to see how it is done, instead of showing us the finished product.

The person right next to me, pulled out his phone though, and tweeted the hashtag almost instantly saying “#Hashtag Demo not working. Not Cool.” I was sitting right next to him , so I could see his tweet. I also remembered that he had not tweeted when the instructor asked us all to tweet so that he could get a dataset, but when it came to calling someone’s failures out, he was more than willing to do so.

That is human nature. We all suffer from it. So, I am not blaming this person by any chance, but rather hoping to use this as a call to introspection. Are we so quick to judge that we are losing our ability to empathize just because we now have the power to quickly voice our opinions? That could have been us fumbling when the server went down unexpectedly, couldn’t it?

I was reading an article in which President Obama warned us in a similar manner about snap judgments that social media enables us to make:

Obama, without directly naming Trump, appeared critical of the political discourse in the United States, saying social media has made it easier “to make negative attacks and simplistic slogans than it is to communicate complex policies.”

Obama-Merkel issue joint rebuttal to the coming era of Donald Trump

Every tool has its place, but if we attempt to mow the lawn with a kitchen knife, it will not work. I cannot help thinking of our gardeners, who in my mind have magical abilities, get things done quickly and efficiently, while I blubber and fly rudderless because I do not use the right tools for the job. (Divine Intervention of the Gardening Gods)

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Now is the time for all of us to tap the critical thinkers in us, to read extensively, to seek the truth and take up the job of providing a voice of reason. All of us know how distorted our consumption of information can be. Sites like Snopes.com have their work cut out for them in the age of social media.

Snopes.com Check Facts!

P.S: I loved Angela Merkel’s measured response to Trump’s victory:

Angela Merkel in her note to Trump offered cooperation reiterating that cooperation should be based on “a common platform of democracy, freedom, advocacy for human rights all over the world and championing the open and liberal world order.”

After all, we all may have to pack up and go to different planet soon (in which case we are all in the same boat regardless of race, creed or gender.)
Stephen Hawking’s prediction that humans have at best 1000 years in which to find another planet to inhibit

The Sun Shall Rise Again

I wish I could have captured the toddler son’s reaction to the election results. He burst out crying and sobbed that he did not want President Obama to go. “He has been the President my whole life!” he sobbed. That is true. The little fellow has since picked up a book on Barack Obama from the library and has had it read to him every night.

“Amma – stop over-reacting. Why are you so sad? It is fine.”, said the daughter, seeing me mope around with drooping shoulders. I was reading a Children’s book called ‘Night World’ by Mordicai Geistein, and my mood matched the illustrations in the book.

I am not able to shrug it off in my usual manner, because this time it feels personal.

What I am about to tell you happened all of 20 years ago. I was selected to become the first female General Secretary of the Department in my college in my final year. It was not exactly an earth shattering position, but enough to cause a stir in the conservative community.

I took my responsibilities seriously and went out of my way to find someone note worthy in the industry to come and give us a talk for kicking off the year. I myself prepared a speech simply dripping with quotations and positivity, exhorting us all to Dream Big, Achieve High, Reach For Stars and so on. Einstein jostled with Jawaharlal Nehru, Ramanujan and C V Raman.

Some stalwart friends (both boys and girls) helped me with the various tasks associated with this event. A large auditorium was booked, flowers procured for chief guests and professors, some of the folks with the best singing voices were to ring in the August Assembly and wrap up with a hearty chorus of the National Anthem. It seemed to me that it was going to be a function fit enough to ring in a new year of hard work, and success.

What I neglected to do was order sufficient food for the gathering, and here I accept full responsibility. The truth is that I had simply under-estimated teenage appetites. I assumed everyone will be content with half a biscuit and a whiff of tea. But that apart, time and venue were printed out and sufficiently publicized in the college, professors reminded their students in the classes and smiled at me when they told me that they had told their respective classes to attend, and how they themselves will be there with their bells and whistles on. The Principal himself came out for the event. All very noteworthy.

I must say everything went well except for one glitch: Not a single boy turned up for the event. Minutes before the Chief Guest was to arrive, a boy in the first year came and told me that he had been told to inform me that all boys were boycotting the event because they were biffed that the ‘prestigious’ position of General Secretary of the Association had gone to me, a girl.

My crest fallen face evoked sympathy from the poor fellow and he left looking miserable and determined. That boy went on to become a friend in time, but then I could not bear his looks of sympathy. Tears stung my eyes. I turned away from him. I told myself that I must brace myself and got on stage. Great leaders instead of romping on stage with their inspirational quotes simply waddled up there like dispirited ducks on sewage water.

When the Chief Guest was speech-ing away about Networks and Protocols, a few of the more decent fellows made an appearance and lurked at the back entrance so it would look like they came but also would not look like they had overtly supported me. Obviously, that boy must have told the other boys how crushed I looked.

Twenty years on, the humiliation still rankles. What I wanted to do most was to take off the next day, week or month, and possibly burrow myself in a hole. But of course, I knew I had to face this problem head on. So, I made my way to college the next day determined to find out what the problem was. Had I done something to upset all the boys? Were all the boys upset with all the girls? Or just me?

The previous year, I had been the first Associate Secretary, and that time there did not seem to be dissent of any kind. So, this was truly baffling. Had I done something wrong? When I holed some fellows in my class, who were decent enough to look abashed the next day for staying away, and then making a half hearted appearance, they told me, that the Boys did not really mind me being the Associate Secretary because that involves a lot of work, and not much recognition. But the General Secretary was quite something else, I was told. There was recognition here, and that was what they could not bear. They felt recognition should not go to a girl.

Who could not bear? I asked. But all I got out of them was that ‘They’ felt that way.

I pushed on. Can you not bear?

‘No no’, – they quickly assured me. ‘We like you, but we were told by Them not to go. You understand? ‘

I told them I didn’t.

Twenty years later, America has done the same thing to Hillary Clinton, and I still do not understand it. The pain is raw. The wound still stings. I am sure there are plenty of women out there who have things in their past that hurts the same way, and for those people I offer solidarity.

I sighed a bit and continued reading. I turned the book over to the last page, and like President Obama said, The Sun Did Rise Again. In the book at least.

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If

We had been to the East coast to gulp in the beauty of the fall colors before the trees were stripped bare for the Winter. I marveled at the beautiful tapestry that nature had laid out for us. The greens, golds, yellows, rusts, oranges, reds and browns blended together beautifully to please the eye. The same patch of forest looked beautiful in the different lights of day. The color of the skies above, the intensity of the sunlight, the shadows of the scudding clouds above, all painted marvelous pictures and nature soothed in a way that it has always done.

A forest is beautiful to look at. A forest in fall colors is brilliant to look at. The diversity in colors is mind boggling, and it all pieces together beautifully in a marvelous tapestry. It is the differences in color that make it glorious.

An artist’s palette is made more vibrant with different shades.

As much as we all like everyone to be like us, it is the fact that we are different that makes the world a beautiful place. It is the disappointments that should propel us forward.

I am distraught at the person America has chosen as its President elect. I am trying to find solace in the words of Carl Sagan on Earth:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

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Now, more than ever before, is the time for all of us to come together and become heroes in our own ways. I felt this was the right time to read Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’ to the children.

If you can keep your head when all about you   
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;   
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;   
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,   
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

 

When the materialistic society around us automatically glorifies money, we can use the moment to say that money does not equal dignity, money does not beget culture, money may earn you servitude, but not loyalty.

And point to the example in The White House.

The Yin & Yang of Diwali & Halloween

This post was also published in India Currents magazine dated 3rd Nov 2016

Wrinkled brows, scorching cuts and decisive strokes greeted me as I went upstairs a few days before Diwali. We have to get started on our Halloween decorations, said the daughter cutting out a spider. The toddler son was lying on his stomach on the floor, helping his sister by coloring the ghost she had cut out from white paper, white. A cozy, merry scene with the sunlight streaming in from the windows.

When bees create their colonies, I am sure they don’t care about a little mess. Neither did my bee-lings. I navigated the crayons strewn on the floor and walked past the strands of paper littering my path to peek at the objects of art.

A morose sort of skeleton was being drawn and I shuddered at the image. I hated to take a pail of cold water and swamp their enthusiasm with it, but then I did. Sorry guys. That weekend is Diwali and I won’t have skeletons and cobwebs hanging off the front door on Diwali. (This year, Diwali fell on a week-end and Halloween the day after, on a Monday.)

A mutinous roar went up. Amma – Diwali is the opposite of Halloween. It is the festival of lights. You’ll put up those little diyas everywhere and light everything up and then you’ll make everyone dress up beautifully – it is the complete opposite of Halloween.

I disagreed. They may be celebrated differently, but they are both meant to fight evil. Ward off evil – whatever. The concept is to banish your demons. Even the inner demons. So, Diwali and Halloween are like that Yin-Yang thing. Black and white together. Both are there in us and in the world around us.

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I felt like a teapot spouting philosophy from my long snout to a couple of trouts in the stream. I sometimes think children must feel we played tag with Confucius and hide-and-seek with Buddha. I tried desperately to gain ground again.

You can always find light in the darkest of places if only you remember to turn on the lights. Remember who said that?

Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Azkaban

Albus Dumbledore! sighed the daughter. Dementors – yes! Maybe we will do dementors also this time.

Also Voldemort – we can draw Voldemort and hang him outside, piped the toddler son. He has no fear of He-who-must-not-be-named, and his sister beamed with pride at her little Gryffindor brother.

Guys! Guys! I won’t have Voldemort hanging on my front porch on Diwali either. Does Halloween have to be gory? Think of some themes and see if you can come up with decor that does not drip blood. Something positive, a call to action and also save our souls. How about that? I said.

When the daughter said, Fine!, I left them to their own devices and pottered around the house.

I must say that I was mighty impressed with the resulting effort.

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We picked your favorite theme, Nature, amma. So, you can put up some of this stuff for Diwali too. Then after Diwali, the next day, we can quickly put up bats and pumpkins all around and we are set, she said.

I agreed.

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On the Diwali rangoli, we placed a large pumpkin surrounded by little lamps. The rain helpfully washed away the rangoli that very night leaving a damp, morose spot for the Pumpkin the next day. All very satisfying.

Happy Diwali and Happy Halloween. May we learn to take care of our World, the living beings we share it with, and balance our yin and yang for a beautiful whole.

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