The Role of Journalism in History

In his section on Opium in the book, This is Your Mind on Plants, the author Michael Pollan writes about how his first story that was to appear in the leading newspapers in the 1990s was redacted and cut after a legal review. (The entire essay is printed in the book that was published 20 years later). This essay seems to precede the opioid crises in America that was to surface just a decade later. But it was apparent that the undercurrent was already at play. The world just had no idea how it would pan out. 

This is your mind on plants – Michael Pollan

His sentence on journalism and its bearing on History resonated on so many levels, that I noted it down then and there. 

“There’s a parable here somewhere, about the difference between journalism and history. What might appear to be “the story” in the present moment may actually be a distraction from it, a shiny object preventing us from seeing the truth of what is really going on beneath the surface of our attention, what will most deeply affect people’s lives in time.”

Michael Pollan – Our Mind on Plants

Later in the book, when he is talking about caffeine, he mentions this piece of Asian history that emerged from the tea-drinking habit of the British. By the 1800’s tea drinking had become a normal routine of English life. Jane Austen refers to tea in her books published in the early 1880s. In the book, Alice in Wonderland, published in 1865, tea parties are galore. 

“Yes, that’s it! “, said the Hatter

with a sigh, “it’s always tea time.”

Lewis Carroll – Alice in Wonderland
Alice in Wonderland

Here is the excerpt of the section on the British East India Company’s tea trade with China.

Since the company had to pay for tea in Sterling, and China had little interest in English goods, England began running a ruinous trade deficit with China. The East India Company came up with two clever strategies to improve its balance and payments position: it turned to India, a country it controlled that had no history of large-scale tea production, and transformed it into a leading producer of tea – and opium. The tea was exported to England and the opium, over the strenuous objections of the Chinese government, was smuggled into China, in what would quickly become a ruinous and unconscionable flood.

By 1828, the opium trade represented 16% of the company’s revenues, and within 5 years, the East India company was sending more than 5 million pounds of Indian opium to China per year. This helped close the trade deficit but millions of Chinese became addicted. After the Chinese emperor ordered the seizure of all stores of opium in 1839, Britain declared war to keep the opium flowing. Owing to the Royal Navy’s vastly superior firepower, the British quickly prevailed, forcing open 5 “treaty ports” and taking possession of Hong King in a crushing blow to China’s sovereignty and economy,.

So here was another moral cost of caffeine: in order for the English mind to be sharpened with tea, the Chinese mind had to be clouded with opium.”

Michael Pollan – This is your mind on Plants

The adage ‘History is written by the victor’ does ring true in most cases. How many perspectives of every narrative are there? How does one classify a good side or a bad side? The perspective of time lends a helpful lens. For instance, when Madeleine Albright, the first woman senator met Vladimir Putin in the 1990’s, she was asked of her opinion of him. She recognized him as a despot in the making, and one who was preternaturally occupied with the idea of a United Sovereign States of Russia (USSR before it disintegrated into Russia + all the other smaller countries). I suppose this is an example of a seed taking root in one’s mind and growing and festering with time. The war on Ukraine is but a step in that direction.

More importantly though, what is current journalism missing for the larger picture today? Whether it is in the reporting of Covid, the Ukraine crisis, or the larger commodity of people’s attention spans. Our future generations would point to this day and age of our shrinking attention spans in an attempt to capture our attentions, and see the arc from some place that humanity had reached. Would it be a virtual reality universe designed to give us more options to escape from life, or will life itself change? Nobody knows. But in order to see how it pans out, we need our critical faculties about us. 

‘But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ said Alice.

‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the cat. ‘We’re all mad here.’

Lewis Carroll

What’s your 2021 WotY (Word of the Year) Choice?

2020 escapes adjectives and mere words cannot quite capture the irony of the year. Ironically, last year when we selecting a word for the year in the nourish-n-cherish household, the teenager vehemently voted for the word, ‘Ironic’ (after I shot down ‘Sarcastic’ as an entry of course). I had been inspired by a colleague who regularly answered ‘How are you?” with the word “Terrific!” (In meetings through the year).

One time, I asked him whether he always said that, since it was a shot of positivity in the middle of the humdrum, and he said that it was a family tradition for them. Their family sat together and decided on a word to use through the upcoming year to answer the question ‘How are you?’. The logophile in me sat up and took notice. I got the gleam that the children have identified, and scram when they detect it. It is what gets them into walking miles in the wilderness, or fun read-a-thons.

Where was I? Yes – the word thing. When I came home with this heart warming suggestion, I expected in my naïveté, to be taken up on the word-building, and lists filling up with words such as : Fantastic, Fun, Awesome, or even a word that is only used in our home, Imaginate. But of course that is not what happened.

The words put forth by the teenager were not going to be my words of the year by any stretch. So, given chaotic, neurotic (Really! This child expects me to answer ‘How are you?’ with ‘Neurotic’!) , dystopian, terrible, quixotic, and another few like this, we decided on Ironic. Luckily, we did not use this word to answer every ‘How do you do?” question during the year. Last night when I mentioned the word-of-the-year-greeting-exercise again, the children said, “Come to think of it, our word choice was not bad huh?! Ironic how that worked out! Get it? Get it?”

It was my turn to moan, but also think. Maybe there is something to the whole thought->actions->universe themes that we hear about all the time.

“Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.” – Lao Tzu

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It was a year in which ‘Ironic’ could be used with ease. Ironic how people react to pandemics, ironic how markets and stock market indices react to global pandemics, ironic how we are able to find pockets of quiet in the hectic world thanks to the very pandemic that is causing so much pain and suffering. Ironic how we determine leadership responses or lack thereof in our electoral choices, ironic that the very science naysayers will be benefited by a vaccine developed within a year of the genome mapping thanks to Science. Ironic how humans the social beings reacted to social distancing, and ironic too, how the themes of nationalism, chauvinism, racism, sexism were all rendered meaningless by a virus (too tiny to be rendered in colors by electron microscopes, but large enough to unite us all in the act of being human). If you are human, you are susceptible to the virus. 

  • 2020 word of the year turned out to be (no surprise here): Pandemic. 

Quote from BBC article:

This year has seen so many seismic events that Oxford Dictionaries has expanded its word of the year to encompass several "Words of an Unprecedented Year".

Its words are chosen to reflect 2020's "ethos, mood, or preoccupations".

They include bushfires, Covid-19, WFH, lockdown, circuit-breaker, support bubbles, keyworkers, furlough, Black Lives Matter and moonshot.

Use of the word pandemic has increased by more than 57,000% this year.

"It's both unprecedented and a little ironic - in a year that left us speechless, 2020 has been filled with new words unlike any other."
  • 2019 was the inclusive gender neutral pronoun, They
  • 2018 went for Justice
  • 2017 for Feminism
  • 2016 was Surreal (truly!)

I wonder what 2021 holds in store for us. 

2020 also embodied a lot of good words such as Shinrin Yoku (forest bathing) Komerabi (the beautiful word denoting sun rays piercing through the leaves).

I’d like to hear some of the words you can think of for the coming year. I am thinking of ones that made the children say ‘Meh!”. Whatever else 2020 taught us, it is that we can make it through together if we can retain our sense of humor (the floods of WhatsApp forwards come to mind), and to delight in the ordinary. So I pump for the more humdrum ones: Life, Hope, Joy, Peace, Happiness.

What about you? I wonder what frabjous words Dr Seuss or Lewis Carroll would pick.

Imaginating on unbirthdays

There’s a little something that we have been treasuring in our home. It isn’t so much a secret as a quirk really. But it is something that our hearts have grown fond over, an idea that we share with close friends with a stab of joy, pride and a laugh that acknowledges the un-normal-ness of it all. But by doing so, we have invited you into our little circle of joy and keeping our spirits up. 

So, why do I share this now, here on the blog. My answer to it is, “I feel it will help us all cope in these times of uncertainty. ” Practiced over small doses, it can be comfortable or not depending on how much you have used this part of your personality before. But it is possible. I know it. For on the sternest of days, when life seems to be boxed into a little screen, and the slings and arrows of fortune come by taking straight swings at us, and the mind struggles for an outlet, this tiny act of will works its way into a part of the brain that senses wonder and magic. It seeps in.

I will need to take you back into our world for a bit. So, please come on over.

I was trying not to fall asleep one afternoon.  The leaves were rustling outside in the soft afternoon breeze, our stomachs were full with a week-end meal, and I had retired for a space to read a book. I had only just managed to let the book slide out of my hands as a wave of sleep crashed over me, when I heard  sounds of battle from within the home.

Bwoooshhh! Swoosh…aahh…guhgh, brwooosh!

This sizzling sound effect was followed by dull thumps, and a moan. A moan not of defeat, but of acknowledging a hard task that needs to be  done. If ever a moan was cloaked in determination and strategy, this was it.

“What are you doing?” I hollered. 

“Just imaginating!”, the reply came from the young son, and the samurai, dragon, ninja, or jedi warrior went about his business of setting his world to rights. Sometimes, electrons and quarks swoop in to change the nature of the opponent.

I smiled sleepily trying to figure out the latest battle he was fighting.

The dragons were slowly gaining ground and judging from the throaty cries, and the swift roll-ups being performed by the other side, lightsabers were running out of energy and quickly needed recharging, if anything were to be done about the dragon menace. They were taking over the mountainsides , gaining speed and traction even worse than the  wildfires that raged in the area just a few days ago. Weather monsters are only one kind of monster.

Imaginating

In our home, the act of pure imagination has been given a verb-form all on its own. Imaginating, we call it, and go about our business of imagination without batting an eyelid. 

When the son came up with the word as a toddler, I was amused. Here is a word that documents insist on underlining in squiggly red as unrecognized, and yet, this word feels right. It feels like a word that belongs. 

Imaginating evokes the act of imagination sure, but it is an imagination with power and force. Imaginating in the face of tyranny, imaginating in the throes of uncertainty, and imaginating in the relentless negativity of news cycles, seems to be just the panacea to set our world to rights. It is an act of our will, and to quote L M Montgomery from Anne of Green Gables,

“Because when you are imagining, you might as well imagine something worthwhile.” 

Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

Our song could be:
We shall imaginate.
When tyranny comes my way, I shall imaginate.
When hopelessness clouds my day, I shall imaginate,
Just like the tree that imaginates itself to be a bird. I shall imaginate!
 

Lewis Carroll, a man known for inventing words, would love to hear the word from the son, were he alive. So, here is the secret of imaginating and I am sure it is a necessary one in a world in which we are all mad.( To quote the Cheshire Cat in Alice by way of explaining Wonderland to her, “We are all mad here.”)

So why not have fun imaginating with it, and reserve them for special occasions such as our unbirthdays. (Lewis Carroll’s word for every special day that isn’t a birthday, which means we all get to have 364 of them every year).

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P.S: The story has been put to rights by the hero of the imaginating sequence. That afternoon, it was pirates he was fighting off, and not dragons. So, they weren’t gaining ground, but they were gaining water.  What else did I think those squishes and swooshes were? It was obviously the sounds of water splashing against the stern of the ships as he bravely fought off them pirates. Moreover, he wasn’t on an intergalactic space adventure to use his lightsaber, he was simply using his dark matter sword. Duh! 

 

Time in the Garden

Regular readers know how much I enjoy nature and gardens. It is one of life’s ironies that my plants only thrive despite my loving care, and  many is the time I have made bloomers in the little patch I tend to. However, never one to shy away from blooming from the bloomers, I picked up this book, Life in the Garden, By Penelope Lively. 

life_garden

Lively begins by examining the gardens in Literature starting with the Garden of Eden, and working  her way through other fantastical gardens in the books, The Secret Garden, Alice in Wonderland and the beloved gardens of dear, absent-minded Lord Emsworth’s at Blandings castle. 

She examines the writing and finds out which of the writers are gardeners themselves and which of them have merely picked up the scenery from a gardening catalog. She teases the co-ordination of colors, the seasonality of the plants themselves in the landscapes and has given me an entirely different appreciation of gardens. 

Some passages are especially endearing and made me want to read them again. Especially her meditations on time, the gardener and the garden itself. 

I quote from her book: 

“To garden is to elide past, present and future; it is a defiance of time. You garden today for tomorrow; the garden mutates from season to season, always the same, but always different. … In autumn, I plant up a pot of “Tete-a-Tete” daffodils, seeing in the minds eye what they will look like in February. We are always gardening for a future we are supposing, assuming, a future. I am doing that at eighty-three; the hydrangea paniculata “Limelight” I have just put in will outlast me, in all probability, but I am requiring it to perform while I can still enjoy it.”

“The great defiance of time is our capacity to remember – the power of memory. Time streams away behind us, and beyond, but individual memory shapes for each of us, a known place. We own a particular piece of time; I was there then, I did this, saw tear, felt thus.”

She goes on to say, 

“A garden is never just now; it suggests yesterday, and tomorrow; it does not allow time its steady progress. “

Certainly, for me, part of the appeal of gardening is this ambivalent relationship with time; the garden performs in cycles, it reflects the seasons, but it also remembers and anticipates, and in so doing takes the gardener with it.”

As I look out the window at my clover-filled backyard with some foxgloves looking happy amidst the narcissi blossoms and the newly sprouted cherry leaves after their spectacular show of cherry blossoms, and the rose buds ready to burst forth in a few weeks,I cannot help feel the lessons nature is teaching us. Be forward looking – always, nurture what is important, and enjoy the passage of time. One moment at a time. Every flower has its chance to bloom and fade.

do-nothing-garden_1

Gardens are enduring lessons in hope. I cannot tell you the number of times, I have planted something in October and been surprised when they bloom in April, or the number of times, I have been pleasantly surprised that something  thrived  at all. 

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all – 

Emily Dickinson – Hope

I am lackadaisical at best with my gardening and it shows. I have a minuscule patch that seriously  has more air-time on the blog than the square feet it occupies. Yet, it gives me immense pleasure, peace and calm. Spurred on by the book, I went outside to take a more active role in the tending of my plants. I have been admiring the sweet peas plants that have sprouted in the garden. Some time ago, I got a packet of sweet  pea seeds from our local library. Thrilled at finding them, I scattered them by the apricot tree and forgot about them. The plants are thriving now, quite tall, and seem to be sagging. So, I went – “Coming dears! Here I am to take care  of you!”, I said, in my best nurturing voice and tried to prop up the plants as best as I could, in the process, breaking off one of the plants’ main stems.

If the plants in my patch could talk, they would’ve chorused – “Go inside – we know you  love us, just let us thrive! Breaking off our stems indeed!”

Life is a Circus

This article was published in The Hindu Open Page dated 19th August 2018, with an excellent cartoon by cartoonist Surendra  . I love the illustration of the mother (me) sitting like a circus elephant on a stool and looking fondly at the clown in the tent!

When life is a circus, can a circus tent, be far behind?

That’s what I tell myself everyday as I walk into the home. It helps me cope. You see as soon as I walk into our modest home, apart from a heavily used sofa set (on which I seldom find place to sit when I want to, because it is overrun with books, stationary, toys, papers and coats: relax! It is summer – Chill!), and a dining table (which has not an inch of real estate to spare, what with the pater claiming it as his office on which his laptop and assorted junk sits and the mater using it for her sewing machine and her sewing needs), one also finds a red circus tent with a clown inside.

clown

It was meant to be a fortress – a haven of peace and quiet in a noisy world.

It all started with a sales pitch one evening. The son was trying to sell me a fort. The little fellow was going the salesman on me. I suppose it is frustrating if a customer does not bite. The evening sun shone on his eager face and his voice chirruped louder than the birds. Folks stopped by to see what the furore was about, and wondered why I was being unreasonable about buying a fort. 

Before one runs off with the idea that I buy forts and palaces in my spare time, I must assure you that the fort was going to be engineered with paper, and tape borrowed from, that’s right, from me. I poked holes at the plan dubiously, and tried telling him the obvious answer, “I don’t need a fort!”

“You said you did not need that sheet set, but you bought it, and now you like it. Like that, once you buy the fort, you will like it.” he said.

Fair point, but I got to tell you, a sheet set and a fort are not quite the same things.

“But I am quite happy in our house, why would I need a fort?” I asked. 

“It is your own place to sit, and relax and do stuff Amma. “ Painted that way, the fort did seem appealing. I mean I do crave for a little quiet every now and then. A fort that is my own in the middle of all the everyday drama sounded marvelous.

Sweet are the thoughts that savour of content;
The quiet mind is richer than a crown. – Robert Greene

“But where will you build the fort?”

“Inside the house of course!” said the architect and I quailed. The house is barely big enough for our needs, and when folks come, I land up frantically shoving things into closets and hope no one opens them to have stuff tumble out on them. I certainly don’t have the kind of spare real estate required for building forts in them. 

But the little beaver would not back down. “It will upgrade our house. Remember you gave that man money for putting tiles in the bathroom? He upgraded the bathroom right? (Subject for another blog post) Like that, I will build you a fort and upgrade the house, and you pay me money.”  

This discussion went on for a bit, and things reached an impasse. I hoped the passage of time would make him forget and so on, but I should have known better. When fate socks me, it socks me with a big red flapping hand.

A couple of days later, the son and I were enjoying some down time together while the rest of the family went to Ikea for some shopping.

Imagine my chagrin when they trooped home with a surprise for the beaver. “Your very own tent – ta da da da! “ proclaimed his protective sister, and the fellow hugged her as hard as he could every chance he got for the rest of the day. He invited us into his tent, and it was soon forgotten that the tent was supposed to be made for me.  

circus_tent

So, now there he sits at every opportunity he gets. Last night, I found a pillow I’d been looking for in the tent: he took it in there to lie down and read a book. 

Interior designers may shudder at the aesthetics of it, but the clown inside is immensely happy.

Solitude by Lewis Carroll

I’d give all wealth that years have piled,
The slow result of Life’s decay,
To be once more a little child
For one bright summer-day.

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See also:

The Land of Crumpled Cardboards

 

Zephyr Tales

A few days before our trip to Iceland, I was reading a beautiful book on Lewis Carroll, One Fun Day with Lewis Carroll – A celebration of wordplay and a girl called Alice, and how the world was gifted with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The book had exceptional illustrations and I found myself looking longingly at the pages multiple times over. Written and illustrated by Kathleen Krull & Julia Sarda, the book lets us peek into the journey of Lewis Caroll, and his particular penchant for finding words when the English language fell short.

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What was fabulous and joyous at the same time? Why ‘Frabjous’ of course.

I thought of this book while running down a mountain in Iceland. I was in a magical place and everything around me felt surreal. I was also reveling in the spurts of fresh air, reminding me every now and then that I was not in a dream. So, I suppose I could not really be Alice scuttling after a rabbit, though….I was running behind a friend whose physical fitness is legend in our little circle, and before I could say “Ho!”, he had loped easily ahead of me like a rabbit in a waistcoat. I was lost in the beauty and strangeness of the world around me, and kept on.

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Just as a sample of the brilliant art work in the book, please check it out.

Uphill, it was torture. I was wearing multiple layers of clothing, and huffing and puffing like puffins in a marathon. I plucked at my scarf, petulantly tugged at my jacket, and tied it around my stomach, and kept running. The marvelous scenery around me was ever so slightly befuddled by the mambo drums in the heart.

Downhill however, it was marvelous. I could feel the cool breeze on my face. Knowing that I had a gushing waterfall on the right, and a huge glacier to the left helped. The weather had become cooler, and the clouds that ordinarily I would have found beautiful were now stunningly beautiful.

 

 

Isn’t there a beautiful word that describes the heady feeling of feeling the cool air against your face as you run downhill? Zephyr was the closest word I could think of.  Could horses have something that captures this particular joy? Maybe in the timber of their neighs.

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Exultant, I kept running. There is nothing in the world that can take that feeling from you, I thought, and smoothly tripped on a pebble, and did a routine that could be incorporated in to the next vaudeville act.

In a place where the winds are ubiquitous, there must be many words for describing the wind. I looked up words for wind in Icelandic and I was not disappointed to see 56 distinct words. (Counting Icelandic Words for Wind (JóB))

The search for this particular word led me to other beautiful ones though. Psithurism, for instance. Describing the sound of the wind rustling through the trees, I often stop and listen for this marvel during walks. Some others here:

A Nemophilist’s Orchestra

In the cathedral of the trees,
The bells of the wind
Like perfect music sounds
Accompany our montivagant joys.

Maybe we do need to follow Lewis Carroll’s wisdom and come up with a new word for the wind beneath your wings or the wind on your face.

P.S:
Nemophilist – a haunter of woods, one who loves the forest for its beauty and solitude
Psithurism – describing the sound of the wind rustling through the trees.
Montivagant – wandering over hills and mountains

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