Do Not Hate In The Plural

I was reading a short story by P.G.Wodehouse on the train. These are the times when I most mistaken for a lunatic. My seat shudders with unconcealed mirth. I giggle, laugh and sometimes wipe away tears of laughter, while the world is going about the stern business of earning a living. He is one of my favorite authors, and after every few books that makes me mope around the world pondering on the wretchedness and seriousness of life, I turn to a P.G.W book to remind myself that tomfoolery is a virtue to be exalted and celebrated. His turn of phrase, his romping joy, is enough to set me straight.

When I read his autobiography ‘Over Seventy’ a few years ago, I could see that the septuagenarian viewed his own life pretty much the same way he came across in his writing: Sunny and delightful. In his own words, he simply lacked the life required for a gripping autobiography because one needs some level of suffering to bung into the thing. “My father was plain as rice pudding and everyone in school understood me perfectly.” he wrote.

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So, it must have been particularly jarring to the man when he was treated as a pariah in his own country.

P.G.Wodehouse had his head in books and led a sheltered life. Whether it was Blandings Castle, or Jeeves rescuing his young master, his thoughts were almost always occupied with love and the stirrings of the idiotic. P.G.Wodehouse, known as ‘Plum’ to his friends, had a villa in the South of France where he and his wife Ethel often stayed. Plum and his wife were unfortunately there, when German troops stormed France, and he was taken prisoner at the beginning of the Second World War.

The Germans released him after 42 weeks, when he was nearing 60 as they seldom kept foreign internees beyond the age of 60. Through an old Hollywood friend of his, they sought to use him to make humorous broadcasts about his internment, and he naively did so. His was a trusting nature completely devoid of malice of any kind, and incapable of seeing political propaganda. Though he suffered immensely during his internment – he lost around 60 pounds, and ‘looked like something the carrion crow had brought in’, he did not quite realize the extent of evil and genocide that was happening inside War-time Germany. He simply intended to let his readers know that he was alive and well.

That back-fired, however, and the author went from beloved to pariah in his native United Kingdom. People were looking for a scape-goat and he fitted the bill perfectly. He sadly became his own Bertie Wooster with no Jeeves to help.

Sometime after the Second World War ended, P.G.W was goaded by a journalist asking him whether he hated the Germans for what they put him through. To which the author supposedly replied, elegantly smoking his pipe, ‘I do not hate in the plural’.

A truly astounding statement. It was this statement of ‘not hating in the plural‘ that I sought out to find when I read the books below, but I could find no reference to the actual statement.

What I found instead was a man who was not only the world’s funniest author, but also the most hard-working, shy, kind and gentle person, who so magnanimously shared the gift of his sunny mind with the world.

I read all five of his broadcasts in entirety and to my equally naive mind, there is nothing in there that can be seen as treason. It shows how war, and malice can take any inane thing and wring it out of shape and proportion. What is real and what is fake when power is involved?

The piece written by George Orwell defending P.G.W’s innocence is well worth reading:
Quote :
The article and the broadcasts dealt mainly with Wodehouse’s experiences in internment, but they did include a very few comments on the war. The following are fair samples:
“I never was interested in politics. I’m quite unable to work up any kind of belligerent feeling. Just as I’m about to feel belligerent about some country I meet a decent sort of chap. We go out together and lose any fighting thoughts or feelings.”

P.G.Wodehouse was finally knighted by the British Government in January 1975. He died the following month on 14th February 1975, aged 93.

I am immensely grateful to the dear author, even if that means the Prims & Propers of the world lift their eyebrows and look away uncomfortably when I laugh. I cannot say it better than Stephen Fry does on the personal influence of P.G.Wodehouse:
He taught me something about good nature. It is enough to be benign, to be gentle, to be funny, to be kind.

 

The Mountain of Greed

Hiking through the rolling hills one day, I noticed one hill that had the touch of our greed all over it. It was probably a quarry. Set against a state park, this stark mountain made me wince. It was visible from many points in the park, and I moved my eyes away from it as though it was a raw, open, visceral wound. I noticed later in the dozens of pictures I had taken that day, I had deliberately cut this mountain out from my lens. Like my cutting out a mountain from the frame will remove it from my conscience. But it didn’t. I can still see its jagged unnatural edges in my mind’s eye – edges that have been scraped by metal against rock abruptly, not shaped by wind and water over time.

A sight like that got me started on the book called Biomimicry by Janine Benyus, for we have devised a way of life that is not sustainable.

 

 

Our corporations, keen on profitability, raced each other to figure out the best ways in which to make us consume more and more. But we have taken the race too far. It is time we stepped away from the treadmill.

As I gurgled on in this vein, I could not help noticing that there was a spring gurgling nearby. I stopped chattering like a monkey and quietened down, and as I did so, I felt a queer feeling seep into me and fill my being. Could it be happiness or gratitude? Whatever it was, I liked it. When birds, butterflies, rabbits, pinecones, free flowing water, trees and mountains jostle in friendly ambience in the early morning sunshine the way that Gaia intended it to be, it is refreshing.

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Please read this marvelous article on The Sound of Silence – Brain Pickings

I looked at the vegetation around me, and I found I did not quite know the type of trees or the plants around me. Gone were the days when I could tell you which berries were good, which ones made you itchy, and which flowers you could sip to get a wisp of nectar. How do animals know instinctively what works and what doesn’t, while we do not? I thought of the chimps in Gombe Stream National Park, the most studied species in the planet thanks to Jane Goodall’s work.

Quote From Biomimicry by Janine Benyus: Observing a chimp in Gombe Stream National Park, anthropologist Richard Wrangham, says: A chimp I was observing had woken up sick and instead of rolling over for more sleep, she got up and made a beeline. Twenty minutes later she stopped at an Aspilia plant [a cousin of the sunflower that grows as high as 6 feet] She suckered up her face and swallowed a dozen leaves before she moved back to her troop. It was obvious from her grimace that this was not a taste treat. Though chemical analysis of the ingested leaves showed no conclusive proof of medicine, he saw that a spike in leaf swallowing behavior coincided with the months of host tapeworm infection.

We too had this kind of instinctive knowledge with us, and instead of adding to its repertoire, we have accidentally followed another path.

Most frightening of all reports is that one in four wild species(including all taxonomic categories) will be facing extinction by the year 2025.

All this huffing up hills takes a toll on amateur knoll-climbers, and on the pretext of admiring a giant pine cone, I stopped to regain my breath. The pine cone was beautiful: It’s tough exterior, perfect symmetry and overall shape made me look at it and wonder why we cannot build jam jars like that pine cone.

It is hardly the first nor the last time I will come across a Mountain of Greed. We have made extraordinary progress in areas pertaining to the skies, the seas, connectivity etc, but seem to grapple with the simple fact that we have one finite resource on which to live. There are no garages to be built for Earth. No extra closets. This is it.

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I sound extraordinarily sententious in this post, so maybe what we need is a reward system for eco-sustenance, so each of us can tap into the Naturalist nestled in us.

To see a world in a grain of sand
To see a heaven in a wild flower
– William Blake

 

The Magic of Biomimicry

I recently read a book called Biomimicry by Janine Benyus. A book, whose underlying concept appealed to the very core of my being, for it outlined how little we know of the world around us, and how much more there is to learn from Nature’s processes.

How do we become harmonious citizens of a planet that houses, apart from 7 billion of us, billions of plant and animal forms? It is a question that floats into my mind every so often. How beautifully a bee arranges its hive, how marvelously a dandelion reproduces, how trees take in water, how they produce energy. All of these things make me wonder and marvel at Nature the Tinkerer.

I am afraid I made rather a pest of myself with friends and family. I cornered parents-in-law while they were taking a rest and spoke to them of Do-Nothing farming, I got a children’s book on the subject and read tantalizing bits of information out to the children. I bored friends with it. I could see the scramble-and-run-before-it-is-too-late look on everyone’s faces when I stopped to admire the squirrel prudently checking whether the fruits are ripe before digging in.

‘Why is it wet winter or hot summer, some grasslands thrive?’, I’d ask, only to find that tasks of monumental importance spring up requiring immediate attention for my audience.

Did that stop me? No. If anything, I am going to go and do on the blog what I have been physically doing to those around me.

The book is arranged into the following sections:

Echoing Nature
 Why Biomimicry now?
How will we feed ourselves?
 Farming to fit the land: Growing food like a prairie
How will we harness energy?
 Light into life: Gathering energy like a leaf
How will we make things?
 Fitting form to function: Weaving fibers like a spider
How will we heal ourselves?
 Experts in our midst: Finding cures like a chimp
How will we store what we learn?
 Dances with Molecules: Computing like a cell
How will we conduct business?
 Closing the loops in commerce: Running a business like a redwood forest
Where will we go from here?
 May wonders never cease: Toward a biomimetic future

Higher education in Science has arranged itself along silo-ed areas of expertise. Biologists rarely study Computer Science. Mechanical Engineers rarely take up Zoology.

The author writes of her interactions with various scientists who have successfully transcended narrow areas of study to walk the line between disciplines to see where we can benefit from nature.
1) The materials science engineer who combines fibre optics and biology to study the beauty and resilience of spider silk

2) The agriculturist who, over decades, has perfected the technique of do-nothing farming, conscientiously chipping away at unnecessary practices while studying natural prairies and grasslands to see how plants grow in the wilderness, thereby coming up with the highest yield of natural grain per acre.

3) The anthropologist who studies chimps and how they cure themselves to see how we can identify cures for common problems.

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In exploring life’s know-how, we are reaching back to some very old roots, satisfying an urge to affiliate with life that is embossed on our genes. For the 99% of time we’ve been on Earth, we were hunter and gatherers, our lives dependent on knowing the fine, small details of our world. Deep inside, we have a leaning to be reconnected with the nature that shaped our imagination, our language, our song and dance, our sense of the divine.

This about sums up our position on Earth.
“In reality we haven’t escaped the gravity of life at all. We are still beholden to ecological laws, the same as any other life form.”

Now is the time for us to take our place as one species among billions in the ecological vote bank, and make wise choices.

P.S: Please see the TED talk on Biomimicry

Frog & Toad’s Wisdom

Dinner was done, the kitchen was clean enough, and the children were smelling delightful after a hot bath (They looked and smelled like mops after playing all evening just an hour ago). The kindergartner and I had read a children’s book. After a few minutes, I thought I heard the rhythmic breathing that meant he fell asleep and, I started fiddling about with the phone. I had started with the intention of checking my email, and had gone all over the place, finally grazing my Facebook feed.

Every now and then, an article pops up in my feed exhorting me to rise to greater heights and tell me in 10 easy ways how to become a Better Person. Over the past decade, the nature of these articles has changed. At first, it said great things like Manage Priorities in your list and how best to Stick to Plan and all that.

Now, things have been taken down a couple of notches. We will get you effective to the point of Making Lists. Then, you are on your own. Go back to your phone if you like. If you want to stick to the lists, you must already be efficient enough, the articles say and throw up their hands.

This one told me how to Be Productive in the age of notifications.

‘It has been a long time since we read Frog & Toad’, said a sleepy child’s voice by my side. I looked up and the pair of us started laughing.
‘You didn’t sleep yet!’
‘No!’ he chuckled.
I gladly set aside my phone – pesky little thing telling me how to be Effective and Efficient. Like I wanted that. Pssk Tssk and Zsssk.

’Let’s read it then!’, I said. ‘Yeah!’, he said, and we settled down together. I love those books. I am drawn to the simple problems, the bonds of friendship that endures between them and the humor in them.

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Frog & Toad Eat Cookies

Frog & Toad sat at the tables eating cookies out of a jar. Frog had made the cookies and the friends could not stop eating them.

Hmmm….the brain said, and I glanced at the phone buzzing and blinking with a notification.

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Frog and Toad ate many cookies, one after another. “You know, Toad,” said Frog, with his mouth full, “I think we should stop eating. We will soon be sick.”

The friends try closing the jar each time after taking a cookie.
But they find they can open the jar every time.

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They then try closing the jar, and putting it on a high shelf where you have to mount a ladder.
They find that they can climb a ladder, open the jar, and eat the cookies.

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My mind could not help drawing parallels to the article I had just been reading. The article told me that the way to stop the habit of grazing your favorite apps was to move the oft-used icons to a different, hard to find area in the phone. I had done that, but found myself, swiping a few screens, opening a folder with the apps, and going after them anyway.

I was Frog getting on a ladder and opening the jar of cookies.

Frog & Toad now figure they are going to get a stomach ache soon, and are desperate to stop eating the cookies. So, they decide that as long as they know the cookies are there, they cannot stop. The best path forward would be to share the cookies with the birds and the cookies are done, they agree, and take the cookie tin out into the Spring evening to share with the birds.

Like the wise friends above, it might be a better thing to do, to just ‘share the cookies with the birds’ and be done with it. I pushed the phone away from me resolutely, and we took to discussing cookies. ‘Yummy- I love cookies. Let’s bake them one day.’, said the little fellow. I agreed, and content with that promise, he settled down and fell asleep almost instantaneously.

I lay musing. It is a good reminder for us to read how our brains respond to the demands of technology (we know the effects of Dopamine, we know how companies gain by making us spend more time, but yet…)

Tristan Harris is a Design Ethicist who has taken it upon himself to make us aware of the challenges we face:

Quote from article

“Never before in history have a handful of technology designers working at three tech companies … influenced how a billion people spend their attention.”

https://ww2.kqed.org/futureofyou/2017/05/25/tristan-harris-brain-hacking/

Well….

Not all wisdom is new, nor is all folly out of date. – Bertrand Russell

 

Swimming With Dolphins

The daughter and I were lazing around one night a few months ago: she, reading me snippets from her Harry Potter book and gushing about Patronus charms, and self, reading out snippets from mine, The Cosmic Connection By Carl Sagan.

I was reading the fascinating piece on Elvar the Dolphin. The daughter’s favorite animal is a Dolphin. She has drawings of mermaids with Dolphins everywhere. The sea fascinates her in ways that amuse us. Dolphins, mermaids and narwhals enchant her mind, and her endeavor is to become one if possible.

So, obviously, I read the whole piece out to her.

wind-in-the-reef.jpgElvar had the brilliant scientist stumped after a brief interaction. Elvar-the-dolphin and Sagan-the-human, on being introduced, started playing a game initiated by Elvar wherein he swam to Sagan, and thumped his tail completely drenching Sagan. When after the fourth splashing, Sagan refused, the dolphin swam up to him and said ‘More’. Completely flustered with this turn of events, Carl Sagan ran to his fellow neuroscientist friend and said he might have heard the Dolphin say the word, ‘More’. To which the neuroscientist said that Elvar the Dolphin knew upto 50 words in English, and could use them in context.

It is of interest to note that while some dolphins are reported to have learned English — up to fifty words used in correct context — no human being has been reported to have learned dolphinese. – Carl Sagan

A marvelous essay that only serves to remind us about the virtues of humility. We can barely understand other languages that fellow humans speak, and are quick to erect barriers between ourselves, but here was a dolphin willing to pick up English in order to engage with human-beings.

“You know Amma? Dolphins are so lovely right?”

I nodded. I did love the little flubberty gibbets.

“I think I know what my patronus is – My patronus must be a dolphin. I love them amma. They are so magical and real too.”, she said her eyes gaining that dreamy quality that often accompanies magic.

So, imagine how we felt when on our recent vacation to Mexico, the husband had booked a ride with Dolphins.

We were first introduced to a pair of dolphins – a charming male and female, called Manta and Sole. We hugged, patted and kissed them. I have never in my life touched something that soft, warm, and plush pulsing with the robust health of life. I coo-ed with that tone of voice I use around babies, and the daughter tried her best to distance herself from me in embarrassment, unlike the dolphins, who seemed to enjoy the attention.

‘Would you like to ride with them?’, asked the instructor, and I got to tell you that I was apprehensive. I mean – weigh the facts. Dolphins can swim at the stupendous rate of 20 miles per hour. I swim, if you can call it that, at the rate of 2 strokes a minute, stopping to gulp water in between, spluttering a bit, gasping, coughing and rasping, then regaining my breath before taking another deep gulp to sustain myself for 2 strokes.

Would a Dolphin for the first time experience condescension? I had to find out.

It took me what felt like 20 minutes to swim a couple of hundred meters out to where the dolphins could meet me. I huffed and puffed, and flawlessly executed the gulped-water, sputter and choke routine before I felt able to say I was ready. The moment I nodded, she gave them the signal.

In under a second, I felt the dolphins streak toward me under water, and they were there wiggling their fins under my arm and assuring me in their playful way that all was well. Their faces looked like they were smiling which I suppose is a gift they are born with. Their demeanor indicated none of that condescension or judgment that I was dreading, but simply an amused curiosity.

In another second or two, they had deposited me on the shallow end. The pictures reveal an ecstatic look on our faces as we were carried gently ashore by the dear creatures. My heart was bursting with joy. Maybe my patronus changed to a Dolphin too.

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If we truly were smarter than Dolphins, we would be totally giving you the works in Dolphinese. What I can do is to dance like they did for us.

I only hope their interaction with us was a happy one too. Boink – Thank-You in Dolphinese.

From Dostoevsky to Dr Seuss

uOne evening, I arrived a tad grumpier than I’d like on a spring evening. That day on the train, there was some commotion ahead of me, and I heard a person rudely shout and say, ‘What are you all doing here? Go back.’ His pugnacious intent scared people. He stared at me and shouted. I was unnerved, Then he looked at another one and shouted at her too. In the peak hour rush, he lay there sprawled across two seats and shouted down at everybody. Another one of those people who was spewing hatred post-election. It was a sad sight, and my senses were more alert than usual.

Hate is a virulent organism that thrives on people’s inclination to adopt it. In fact, if you do not put up an active resistance towards it, it will consume you.

A few weeks ago I read, Dr Seuss and Mr Geisel, the biography of the beloved author, Theodore Seuss Geisel or more famously Dr Seuss.

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In the early chapters, one realizes how bigotry and hatred are vicious poisons that can affect people more deeply than we realize. Ted was a school going child in Springtown, Massachusetts, when the first world war started. The Geisel’s were first generation German Americans and though they were citizens at the time of war, it turns out the world around them did not treat them kindly. It is disheartening to read that young Ted Geisel was persecuted for his lineage. He never really got over the nickname he was given as a child, The Hun.

Outings grew rare as Germany became the common enemy and nativist prejudices arose; German Americans sought whatever anonymity they could. Ted and his sister, Marnie, grew even closer, sharing advice on how to cope with taunts on playgrounds and sidewalks.

This boy went on to write books that are loved and adored by children of all races, religions, nationalities and backgrounds. His books only asked for an open mind whether it was imagining an elephant gingerly climbing up a tree to hatch an egg, or a rajah taking a walk down Mulberry Street.

To think that a century later, we are still labeling entire swaths of humanity with these broad labels is deeply concerning. To parrot a divisive slogan is easy, but true growth comes when we question what is being parroted to us.

Our narratives matter, for they become history, and history then forms the basis of our myths. In this beautiful essay by Fyodor Dostoevsky (Dostoyevsky on Good Fellows – Brain Pickings), he says :
It is our responsibility as human beings, to peer past the surface insecurities that drive people to lash out and look for the deeper longings, holding up a mirror to one another’s highest ideals rather than pointing the self-righteous finger at each other’s lowest faults.

Why was that poor man shouting at people on the train? And how can we resist succumbing to this fate?

Dostoevsky:

Judge [the people] not by those villainies which they frequently perpetrate, but by those great and holy things for which they long amidst the very villainy.

Coming up next: We cannot and must not hate in the plural. A lesson taught by one of my favorite authors, P.G.Wodehouse.

P.S: Also listen to this commentary on German-Americans on the centenary of American entering the First World War: http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=523044253

If Mimosa Pudica Met Humpty Dumpty

The children ask me interesting stories about my childhood every now and then. They seem to think I lived in a fairy tale and maybe I did. I find my reminiscences are often seen through the endearing lens of time ignoring the trials and strife of living in a wet, rainy, cold place. My stories often feature panthers, wild boars, and tigers. Occasionally, just to spice things up, I tell them about the different berries, clovers and exotic plants that were native to the Nilgiri Hills and they marvel at the wonders in this world and how on earth I am alive and kicking today when I seem to have used such loose food control mechanisms as picking berries to plop into my mouth. Today, when I attempt to pluck a wild berry and put it in my mouth, I am met with aghast looks and stopped with pleas appealing to my remaining sanity.

I remember being enamored over touch-me-nots too. Have you played with touch-me-not plants? If not, I suggest taking the term and tucking it firmly in the back of your brain and keep looking out for the curious species. The scientific name is Mimosa Pudica.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mimosa_pudica

The fascinating little plants react to external threats by closing up their leaves as if in tune to a rhythmic heartbeat. There is something deeply soothing about watching them close their leaves to one’s touch and then open them again. To the immense delight of the children, we found clusters of touch-me-nots on our last trip to the Nilgiris and they spent an entire morning playing with them.

In the Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben cites a piece of research showing that plants learn and indeed have memories. What the researchers did was take the shy mimosa plant into the laboratory. The mimosa plant closes itself up on external stimuli. So, to see whether the plant can learn, researchers set up the plant under a steady trickle of water.

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Dr Monica Gagliano designed an experiment where individual drops of water fell on the plants’ foliage at regular intervals. At first, the anxious leaves closed immediately but after a while, the little plants learned there was no danger of damage from the water droplets. After that, the leaves remained open despite the drops. Even more surprising was the fact that the mimosas could remember and apply their lesson weeks later.

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It is a good lesson for us to learn in these times of constant interruptions, distractions, news and fake news. These are steady drips and we the mimosas can learn and adapt.

Like the mimosa plant, it may be a worthwhile skill to find methods to rise and react when required rather than when Mr Donald Trump wants to divert attention onto something other than what he wants us looking at.

http://nextdraft.com/archives/n20170320/tweet-grinder/

The last time President Trump faced an uncomfortable moment, he tweeted the Obama-phone-hack claim, and all the kings horses and all kings men went chasing after the latest tweet leaving the egg he wanted to crash to do so unattended.

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If Mimosa plants met Humpty Dumpty regularly, what would they do? It is a great philosophical question to ask oneself.