Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Food Aid, Trade and WTO

It is a strange world.

There is enough farmland producing more than enough surplus food to feed each and every child and adult in every country in the world, year after year. And yet, what is actually happening is that many countries that produce surpluses actively seek to undermine local farming systems, and to turn entire countries dependent on hand-outs.

It is called the Law of Comparative Advantage. On the face of it this law, based on a theory David Ricardo published in 1817, makes perfect sense. However, in the real world of natural and man-made disasters, it plays out rather differently. Consider these cases -

  • Malawi: In the early 2000s, Malawi faced severe food shortages. Enthusiastic food aid donors over-reacted to a projected 600,000-tonne food deficit, and sent close to 600,000 tonnes of food in aid. However, commercial and informal importers brought in an additional 350,000–500,000 tonnes. Malawi was flooded and had very large carry-over stocks. Maize prices dropped from $250 per tonne to $100 per tonne in the course of a year. Local production of maize, cassava, and rice fell markedly, and in a larger disaster that played out subsequently, estimated losses to the Malawian economy were approximately $15m.
  • The Philippines: US PL 480 food aid was used to finance the purchase of US exports. Ten years later, the Philippines was the largest market for US high-protein soybean meal, with US exporters accounting for 90 per cent of total imports.
  • India: In India the same PL480 scheme resulted in the creation of one of its finest engineering schools. India was required to pay for the food aid in Rupees (plus 50% of ocean freight cost) which was deposited to the account of the US Technical Cooperation Mission in India. These funds were to be spent on programmes approved by Government of India. One of these schemes, guided by PK Kelkar, was used to obtain US expertise in building IIT Kanpur.

According to a study by the OECD, shipping food from donor countries is 33 per cent more expensive than buying it from a third-party country (usually closer to the destination) and 46 per cent more expensive than buying it locally in the destination country. And yet this is exactly what happens on a fairly regular basis.

The WTO has been trying to do its bit but the opposition is formidable. The Doha Round negotiations took this up in light of evidence that the USA sometimes uses food aid to dump agricultural surpluses and to attempt to create new markets for its exports. Nothing came of it - successful  manoeuvring ensured the removal of the clause prohibiting surplus disposal via food aid.

While food aid continues to save millions of people in Sudan, Syria and Afghanistan from starvation, preventing such aid from destroying local production systems, and creating dependencies continues to be a challenge..


* Narayanan (1960): India-US Food Agreement and State Trading in Food Grains, EPW -https://www.epw.in/system/files/pdf/1960_12/39/indous_food_agreementand_state_trading_in_foodgrains.pdf

* The Kanpur Indi-American Program (1962-72) - https://www.iitk.ac.in/doaa/convocation/data/KIAP_Report.pdf

Saturday, October 26, 2019


A bee or not a bee?

For the past two weeks I have been intrigued by this bright yellow coloured 'bee' seen here diving deep into a rose. Unlike a regular bee however it did not limit itself to flowers. 

They could be seen just about everywhere in Kabul - perched on Thuja leaves, hovering over lawn grass, and even locked in a mortal combat with a black ant!

Turns out that this is not a bee at all. According to Wiki, this is a species of social wasps called the Yellowjackets - "They can be identified by their distinctive markings, their occurrence only in colonies, and a characteristic, rapid, side-to-side flight pattern prior to landing."

Wonder why they outnumber the regular honeybees...



Friday, October 25, 2019

Farsi Friday

It's Friday today - the weekly holiday - and Farsi is on my mind.

Here is Afghanistan two languages dominate the sound-scape: Dari and Pashto. Last year, when I first landed at Kabul airport, I was amazed to hear the driver who came to pick me up, ask somebody, "Kujo ast?" - and I understood the meaning perfectly!

Then at my workplace, I heard a colleague asking for a "Kainchi" and I knew without looking up that he wanted a pair of scissors. As days went by the list of familiar words got longer and longer - Charkhi (rotate), Hal (solve), Kharid (buy), Khwaab (dream), Daan (gift), Giriftaar (arrest), Pasand (like), Mushkil (difficult), Khushi (joy)... Just about all the words I assumed to be Urdu actually belonged to Farsi!

It turns out that Dari is the same as Farsi, the language of Iran and much of the former Persian Empire which included not only Afghanistan but also Iraq, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, and parts of southern Russia. It is spoken by no less than 110 million people! Countries that belonged to the former USSR stopped using the Farsi script and adopted the Russian script.

Now if the words sounded so familiar, how long would it take to make sense of the written Farsi script? The curls, dots and squiggles on banners, shops and books looked completely different from the 32 letters a friend wrote down for me. A search of lessons on YouTube followed, and I gradually learnt that the letters when written together take on completely different shapes.

I continue to be confused by letters that sound similar:
"A" can be آ or ع
"Ta" - ط  or  ت
"Se" - س or  ث
"He" - ح or ه
"Za" - 4 options (!) - ظ ض ز ذ
"Ga" - غ or  ق

It may take a while to get a hang of the written and spoken language but until then, we have music! Here is a sample of some amazing Farsi instrumentals by Mehdi Aminian -

Thursday, October 10, 2019

A Banana in Afghanistan

I was stunned today - by a banana!

Just after I had finished my breakfast in Kabul, I went across to the fruit counter and found three options - mandarins, apples and bananas. Of the options available the banana seemed the most 'user-friendly' - easier carry in your bag, to peel and eat.

Surprisingly, this particular variety looked perfectly ripe, but was not so easy to peel. Curious to know the variety I turned it around to find a sticker on one side. It said "Sabastiano Premium Eduador"!

Let that sink in. Here in Kabul, Afghanistan, I was holding in my hand one of the great wonders of global supply chain logistics. Here was a fruit grown by farmers on the opposite side of the globe in South America, transported across the seas and mountains, covering a distance of more than 15,000 km before it reached its destination - a DFAC dining hall.

While writing a blog in 2014, I had learnt that three companies - Chiquita, Dole and Del Monte - controlled more than 60 percent of global banana exports. 

In  tropical South Asia which is home to dozens of varieties of bananas available at much cheaper rates, it is a wonder how commercial logic enables agricultural products to travel insane distances!


* Banana production in Ecuador - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banana_production_in_Ecuador

* DW (Jan., 2018) - https://www.dw.com/en/world-in-progress-toxic-banana-production-in-ecuador/av-42098343

* Sharbatly Fruit - http://www.sharbatlyfruit.com/

Monday, September 09, 2019

Annals of Cruelty

This post is about one article and one book, both of which dwell on cruelty, and the mind boggling capacity of people to inflict pain and suffering on others.

Both are more than a decade old -- the article "Invaders - Destroying Baghdad", by Ian Frazier is from the Annals of History series in the New Yorker magazine (April, 2005), describes the Mongol invasion of Iraq in 1257 CE, while the book, "King Leopold's Ghost" by Adam Hochschild (1998) is a detailed account of how one Belgian king became the 'owner' of a country that was more than 60 times the size of his own tiny European nation. 

Even though both these apocalyptic events are separated by about 500 years they have a lot in common. Firstly they are both painstakingly recreated records of how men of fairly unremarkable origins transform into leaders with a single minded determination to rule and conquer, totally unmindful of the costs involved. 

Hulagu was the grandson of Genghis Khan whose domains had been divided amongst four brothers - 
"Mongke, who outmaneuvered rivals to become khan in 1251, and who died of dysentery; Kubilai, arguably the most powerful khan ever, who occupied Peking and founded a Chinese dynasty that lasted almost a hundred years; Hulagu, an il-khan, or subsidiary khan, whose domains were in Persia and the west; and Arigh-boke, who rebelled against Kubilai and held out for years until Kubilai defeated him."
When Hulagu's horde reached the gates of Baghdad, then one of the greatest cities of the world, its leader, Caliph Mustasim, refused to surrender. Thanks to help from the Shiites whom Mustasim had insulted (eg. by tossing a poem into the Tigri river!) the mongols managed to breach the city's defences and then set out to destroy the city and slaughter most of its residents (200,000 to a million!) 
"So many books from Baghdad’s libraries were flung into the Tigris that a horse could walk across on them. The river ran black with scholars’ ink and red with the blood of martyrs."
The Europeans did the same things differently.

King Leopold started off in the guise of a philanthropist. He had no hordes at his command, and much of the known world had already been colonised by entrenched powers of the day - Spain, Portugal, France and Britain. So he started off by courting explorers like HM Stanley who was roped in to survey central Africa after he had managed to find Dr. David Livingstone.

Surveys turned to road building and proselytising and then to the collection and export of ivory. Then came the discovery something everybody needed desperately - rubber.  While the rest of Europe was wondering how to grow the South American rubber tree commercially, Leopold found that the next best source of rubber was a vine of the Landolphia genus which was growing wild in the vast forests of Congo.

Africans were now set against each other to fill Leopold's treasury. Men armed with the latest firearms from Europe raided villages to force them to collect the resin. Entire villages were burnt down, women and children kept as hostages until the men returned with the resin weeks later. Punishment for not meeting 'targets' were swift - hands and legs of men, women and children were hacked off as standard punishment. Soldiers had to account for each bullet spent with a severed hand to serve as proof.  It is estimated that Congo lost 10 million people as a direct consequence of Belgian rule.

We can draw the lessons we want from history but you cannot help wondering about massacres which may have been far worse, of all the accounts that still await a storyteller.



Monday, July 22, 2019

Facets of a Diamond

Jared Diamond in the BBCs "Desert Island Disks" is one of my favourite recordings.

About eight years ago, when I read Diamonds's acclaimed book, "Guns, Germs and Steel - The Fates of Human Societies" , I remember being amazed at the the breadth of his scholarship. What I did not know at that point was that writing non-fiction was just one of his many talents. Apart from being a professor at University of California, he is also a musician, a linguist, an ornithologist  and evolutionary biologist!

According to him, "The more things you're interested in, and the more you learn, the richer the framework into which you can fit any new thing!".

Into this framework Diamond also fits in the imperatives of geographic determinism. For those who extoll the power of the "human spirit", he has a suggestion - "Try standing on the North Pole in a T-shirt and see where the Human Spirit can get you".

This is one Desert Island Disk you should not miss -  https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0006dlz

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Lighting up a Blind Spot in the East

Most South Indian middle-class families have a Burma connection. One that goes back a gneration of two when the country was an attractive destination for young men seeking employment, and for traders trying to make their fortunes.

Perhaps the first time I heard about the country was at the home of a family friend in Hyderabad in the mid 1970s. This gentleman had a large, framed picture of the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda in his drawing room, as well as intricately woven baskets made of bamboo, mementos from his frequent visits to Rangoon.

Then there were books that told you about the country's past - Amitav Ghosh's "The Glass Palace" and the Ibis Trilogy. Short stories by George Orwell, references to the World War in books by Japanese authors, Michio Takeyama and Haruki Murakami.

What about Burma after it became Mynamar? The whole country seems to have slipped into some kind of blind-spot with hardly any news coming in directly. Nothing much except for the occasional news-stories from Western magazines about of Aung Sang Suu Kyi,  and the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis. It was a big blind spot waiting to be filled and I was pleased to get hold of a book by Burmese born author and diplomat, Thant Myint-U.

Myint-U's book "Where China Meets India" is bit like walking across the street to visit a reticent neighbour, and realising that you own house looks so different from the other side! You are reminded that parts of your own house belonged to them not so long ago, and vice versa. The Burmans once ruled over the Assam valley, and kings of tiny Manipur once invaded and subjugated the rulers of Mandalay.

China too looks like a completely different country when viewed through the eyes of a neighbour.  I learnt, for instance, that Yunnan, the Chinese province bordering Myanmar is as ethnically diverse, with a per-capital GDP which is among the lowest in China. Over the past few decades, China's Western Development Strategy seeks to remedy this disparity by connecting its poorest, land-locked provinces to the sea, through Myanmar.

Getting all the local tribes and communities - most of them mutually hostile - was certainly not easy. The process of assimilating non-Han Chinese has been a work-in-progress for the past 1000 years or more. The Yao were brought to heel in the 1450s in a war in which the Chinese killed 7300 and took as many, or more, PoWs; The Miao lost out in the Battle of Mount Leigong in 1726 where more than 10,000 Miao had their heads chopped off  and 400,000 starved to death; Ditto for the Buyu in 1797. And then there are groups like the Naxi who owe their musical skills to a band left behind by the Mongol invader, Kublai Khan. Another community which has managed to keep its traditions is the Musuo people living north of Lijiang. Among the matrilineal Musuo,  women are strong and dominant, engaging in 'walking marriages', very similar to the "Sambandham" system practiced by Nairs of Kerala.

A lot of water has flowed down the Irrawaddy since then. Burma is now Myanmar, its capital has moved from Mandalay and Rangoon to a newly purpose-built capital city of Naypyidaw. After years of international sanctions trade is on the upswing, and the country is trying to lower its dependence on China.

Perhaps the day is not far off when we too can drive across from Guwahati to Mandalay, or just take a ferry from Kolkata to Yangon/Rangoon.


* Myint-U, Thant (2011): WHERE CHINA MEETS INDIA - Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, Faber and Faber, 2012 URL - https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/12151572-where-china-meets-india

* Literature - Japanese connection - https://www.mmtimes.com/news/literary-sun-rising-over-golden-land.html

* Wiki - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myanmar


* Myint-U, Thant (2011): WHERE CHINA MEETS INDIA - Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, Faber and Faber, 2012


Saturday, July 13, 2019

GEF - Does it Really Work?

The Global Environment Facility (GEF) sees itself as "an international partnership of 183 countries, international institutions, civil society organisations and the private sector that addresses global environmental issues".

For those who are familiar with the nuts and bolts of International Development, GEF is an important source of funding. Since its establishment in 1991-92, the organisation has provided over $18.1 billion in grants and mobilised an additional $94.2 billion in co-financing for more than 4500 projects in 170 countries.

India is one of the 170 countries that has been implementing GEF projects. How effective has it been here?

Relative to the global figures, India's share seems to be rather modest - 102 projects worth USD 0.732  billion in GEF grants and USD 7.7 b in 'additional co-financing', which is mostly from the country's own resources.

The range of projects is quite impressive though. 73 national projects, 27 regional ones and two under the 'Special Climate Change Fund' (SCCF). Take a loser look and you get the impression that the actual output and impact of many projects is vague and nebulous.

Take for instance one of the earliest GEF projects implemented in India - Biomass Energy for Rural India (BERI) implemented during 2000 - 2012. The project was supposed to build 60 x 20kW biomass gasifier units to supply electricity for 2,500 households in 28 villages of Tumkur district in Karnataka. It was expected to replace so many million tons of carbon di-oxide equivalent (CO2e). However, after 12 years of effort, the cost of producing electricity from biomass (INR 7.8/kWh) was so high - more than double the cost of regular supply from the state grid (INR 2.85/kWh) - that the project ended up like a damp squib.

One of the most visible changes in India in terms of energy efficiency, has been the replacement of incandescent bulbs with CFLs, and then LEDs. We have now reached a stage where most shops don't even stock the cheaper, inefficient bulbs. LEDs have become the first preference for the whole spectrum of users - street vendors have switched from kerosine fired lanterns to LEDs, town municipalities have switched streetlights en masse from sodium-vapour to LEDs.

Did GEF have any role to play in this sweeping change? Or was this initiative led completely by the local governments?

One of the 73 projects seems to have had an important role in this transformation - the GEF-ADB project for supporting Energy Efficiency Services Ltd (EESL). This agency was instrumental in aggregating demand, and promoting bulk production of LED bulbs which led to a sharp reduction in the cost of energy efficient bulbs. LED bulbs now command a 75% share of the lighting market in India.

Over 300 million LED bulbs and 6.35 million LED streetlights have been distributed and installed through EESLs initiatives across India. This one intervention is estimated to have reduced India's carbon footprint by no less than 60 million CO2e - a part of the country's commitment to reduce its footprint by 33-35% from its 2005 levels, by 2030.

Not all projects may work as expected, but the gains from the ones that do certainly seems to make GEF's interventions worthwhile.


- GEF Projects - https://www.thegef.org/projects

- Climate Change FAQs - https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/apr/27/co2e-global-warming-potential

- LEDs powers India's dtive for household energy efficiency - https://www.thegef.org/news/seeing-light-leds-power-india-s-drive-household-energy-efficiency

- Video - From Small to Big Impact - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2SXP63nGYmI

- BERI Project 2000 - https://www.thegef.org/project/biomass-energy-rural-india

- BERI Terminal Report (2013). - https://www.thegef.org/sites/default/files/project_documents/10_UNDP_TE_Biomass_Final_Evaluation_report_2013_0.pdf


Aukaat (Hindi / Urdu)
Worth : اوقات - قدر : (noun) the quality that renders something desirable or valuable or useful.

Aukaat is a word you hear quite often in North India. A dictionary might tell you that the word simply means 'worth', but it is much more than that. It encompasses 'standing', 'repute', 'value' and is most often used to remind people of where they stand in the social hierarchy. Now add the caste dimension to social hierarchy and you begin to understand how this word is used to insult, intimidate, bully and to 'put people in their place'.

The recently released film "Article 15" is all about Aukaat.

A young idealistic police officer is posted to a remote district of Uttar Pradesh, and on his very first day confronts the sight of two teenaged girls dangling from a gnarled old tree. His police station is staffed by mostly upper caste Hindu's who claim that this is a case of 'honour killing' - rebellious lower-caste girls killed by their own families.

Gradually the real story emerges. The girls had been working at a tannery for a daily wage of INR 24. Since this hardly amounts to anything they had asked for a raise of INR 3. The upper caste factory owner takes this as impertinence and decides to show them their aukaat. To make an example of them so that their community never ever dares to raise their voice again. The girls are abducted, raped for three days by upper caste men, and then hanged from a tree on a village crossing.


Etymology - https://urdu.wordinn.com/aukat-in-english 
With usage examples -  https://glosbe.com/hi/en/%E0%A4%94%E0%A4%95%E0%A4%BE%E0%A4%A4

Wiki on the movie Article 15 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Article_15_(film)

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

A Moth Reappears

"What a lovely butterfly!" said our neighbour Goel-ji, pointing to this large moth sitting on the park wall.

Set against red-sandstone chips in the early morning sunlight, this was indeed a stunningly beautiful creature. Two pairs of translucent 'eyes' set in iridescent yellow, underlined in red and white, stared back at you blankly. No wonder it caught the attention of Goel-ji who knows everything there is to know about the sugar-trade and Hindustani Classical Music, but usually cared little for the difference between butterflies and moths. Yet the sight moved him enough to insist that I take a photo and share it with him on WhatsApp - "This is the first time I am noticing something like this in our park!"

As I continued my way, I wondered what is this moth called. It looked vary familiar but I could not recall its name. Was it the Atlas Moth? Or was it a new entrant into our monsoon-soaked neighbourhood?

Later, I kicked myself for not remembering. No, it was not the Atlas Moth but a species that had been attracted to the Arjuna trees (Terminalia arjuna) in hordes three years ago. It was the Tussar Silk Moth!

Three years ago the caterpillars of this moth (Antheraea mylitta) had made a dramatic appearance on the young Arjuna trees. Hundreds of them had suddenly appeared on the trees, clinging to every available branch, leaving them almost bereft of leaves, and then growing into enormous creatures built like bright green trailer trucks fitted with psychedelic lights.

A few days later many of them had fallen off the crowded trees, and lay helplessly on the grass - too large to crawl, and too numerous - or too distasteful -  to be eaten by birds and cats. The ones that remained on the trees soon turned into lovely oval cocoons and hung there like thousands of fruit, swaying in the breeze. We had seen only a few moths that emerged from these cocoons. Some were larger, and looked haggard after getting drenched in the monsoon rains but none of them had a bright golden sheen like this one.

The Arjuna trees are now 20 feet higher and far less vulnerable than they were three years ago. How may eggs are these Tussar Moths going to lay this year?  How many caterpillars are going to fall off the swaying branches?  Let's see.


Paper - Checklist of Moths in Delhi (2017) - https://www.journalcra.com/sites/default/files/issue-pdf/24350.pdf

Tussar Silk - Utsavpedia - https://www.utsavpedia.com/textiles/tussar-silk-the-story-of-wild-silk/

Tussar Silk Moth -  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antheraea_mylitta

Life-cycle - http://www.notesonzoology.com/sericulture/life-cycle-of-various-silk-moths/323

What's that bug? -  https://www.whatsthatbug.com/2007/10/10/antheraea-yamamai-from-india-or-perhaps-antheraea-mylitta/

Flikr - Moths of India - https://www.flickr.com/groups/mothsofindia/

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

History - Fitting in the Genes

How old are we Indians?

This might be a silly question to ask in the age of light-speed internet. However, once you start thinking about it, you begin to realise that the question is not so silly after all. It is important precisely because half-baked analysis does indeed travel at light-speed, colouring the way we differentiate ourselves from 'others'. It becomes the basis for identity-based politics on the basis of which political power is being consolidated in our times.

Tony Joseph's book "EARLY INDIANS - The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From" (Juggernaut 2018) is a bit like a probing needle that seeks to burst some of these inflated balloons of identity-based politics. Tony is a journalist makes no pretence of being a neutral observer and reporter. Scroll down his tweets (@tjoseph0010) and you realise that he has his axe to grind against the 'Hindutva Brigade' of India's right wing. But fact is that he is also a good story teller.

One generation ago, school history books told us that Radio Carbon Dating was one of the scientific tools used to unravel the story of human origins and migrations. From what we can see, despite all the scientific progress that has been made over the past 30 years, the narrative in text-books remains unchanged. Tony gathers up all the latest available scientific data, not only from RCDating but also genetics, linguistics, geology and biochemistry to tell us the story of our origins.

The main protagonists in his story are -

  • mtDNA - Mitochondrial DNA which remains outsider the nucleus, and is inherited exclusively from the mother. "If you go back 10 generations you will have 1024 people who you can call your ancestor, but your mtDNA  or Y-chromosome would have any connection with only 10 of them"
  • Y-chromosome / Y-DNA - inherited exclusively from the father.  Oldest branches in Y-chromosome are 0 A, B, CT and D
  • Gene Mutations - to create genetic family trees, and to work out the approximate time that has passed since two branches of a tree diverged
  • Haplogroups (Gk Haplo=single) - branches of the mtDNA and Y-DNa family trees -- parent branch is called 'macro-haplogroup', sub-haplogroups or "clades" refer to sub-branches. Oldest branches in mtDNA are haplogroups L0, L1, L2 and M7

The story that emerges from this wide range of sources is that even though the earliest evidence of humans habitation in India dates back to 1.5 million years, from Palaeolithic tools found at Attirampakkam in Tamil Nadu (69km from Chennai), modern humans (Homo sapiens) came in much, much later.

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA from females) haplogroup M2 is the most ancient one in the Indian subcontinent. This group arose around 60,200 years ago and is rarely found outside South Asia.  70-90% of mtDNA haplogroups in India can trace their origins to the First Indians who arrived in India around 65,000 years ago, while only 10-30% of remaining mtDNA lineages is from later migrations. However when it comes to paternal ancestry the tables turn. Only 10-40% of Y-chromosome haplogroups is from the First Indians while the remaining 60% came from males coming in later migrations.

Connect the dots with archeological evidence and the following timeline merges -

  • 300,000 years - remains of the modern human - Homo aspens - found in a cave in Jebel Irhoud, 50km from the city of Safi in Morocco
  • 180,000 yrs - Rock shelter in Misliya north Israel - first human fossil outside Africa
  • 70,000 yrs - Geneticists calculate Out of Africa (OoA) migration
  • 7000 BCE - Mehrgarh, agricultural settlement found at the foothills of the Bolan hills in Baluchistan
  • 7000 BCE - evidence of rice harvesting at Lahuradewa in the Sant Kabir Nagar dish of Uttar Pradesh in the Upper Ganga plain
  • 5500 - 2600 BCE - the Early Harappan era
  • 2600 - 1900 BCE - the Mature Harappan period
  • 2300-1700 BCE - the Bactria-Margiana Archaelogical Complex (BMAC) centred on the Oxus river (Amu Darya)
  • 2100 BCE - a southward migration of pastoralists from the Kazakh Steppe towards the central Asian regions...and then to South Asia

It is amazing to think that at the time of the earliest Harappan settlements in 5500 BCE, the Indian subcontinent modern humans who had been living across the country for over 60,000 years. Not only did these early settlers spread across the peninsula (at least in coastal areas), but also migrated all the way across South East Asia to Australia!

In other words, long before the Vedic Aryans migrated to India from the steppes of Central Asia, with their horses and numerous Gods, this region had been home to people who had their own unique languages and belief systems. It is the blending of all these diverse streams that makes India what it is today.

On the whole Tony Joseph's narrative is interesting but not quite convincing. It is not clear if adequate samples of mtDNA and Y-DNA were collected during the studies citied in the book. One also wonders why a book citing research papers in 2018 fails to mention the recent finding of an ancient chariot in Sanauli (Uttar Pradesh) from the Bronze-Copper Age, dating back to 2000 BCE - 1800 BCE.

How do we reconcile the absence of horse-drawn vehicles in Indus Valley civilization with their presence in the Gangetic Plains? I hope to see many more books like 'Early Indians' that unravel the mysteries in this part of the world.


Book - Joseph, Tony (2018): EARLY INDIANS - The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From, Juggernaut, New Delhi 2018

The Sanauli Charriot -  https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/indians-used-chariots-4-000-years-ago-asi-unearths-evidence-in-up-1251650-2018-06-06

Friday, June 21, 2019

That Hing Thing

Asafoetida (Hing) - resin chips and powder

If you want to make popadoms you need asafoetida, aka Hing.

This bit of trivia caught my attention while watching an edition of National Geographic's "Food Factory" featuring the famous women's cooperative - Sri Mahila Grih Udyog - makers of the iconic popadom brand, Lijjat Papad. You might say that this is nothing noteworthy. After all no Indian kitchen would be complete without a tiny plastic bottle containing what is perhaps the most pungent powder conceivable. In South India perhaps the most popular brand is LG - not the Korean conglomerate but a staid company started by Laljee Goshoo in Mumbai. You just cannot make Sambaar curry, or Rasam, or Dal, without a pinch of asafoetida.

A popular Indian brand

The interesting point is that all the asafoetida sold and consumed in India is imported! Lijjat Papad uses Hing (asafoetida) imported from Afghanistan. Other companies like LG import the product in raw form, mix it with gum arabic, and rice-powder / maida and sell it as "compounded asafoetida" which contains less than 50 percent of the actual stuff. Even in this adulterated form it is an expensive spice - 50g packet sells for INR 75 which comes to about INR 1500 (USD 22) for a kilogram.

Another curious thing is that asafoetida is not officially considered a "spice". For some reason it does not even figure on the Indian Spice Board's list of spices imported into India. The Ministry of Commerce lists it under the category "resins and gums" (ExIm HS code 1301-9013). Most of the asafoetida in the Indian market is imported from Afghanistan and Iran. There are two main varieties of asafoetida ie. Hing Kabuli Sufaid (Milky white asafoetida) and Hing Lal (Red asafoetida). Tajikistan too is now emerging as an important supplier of quality asafoetida.

The earliest know reference to asafoetida comes from an ancient Sumeran medical recipe dating back to 2100 BCE. So it hardly surprising that this resin figures prominently in the Ayurveda treatise - Charaka Samhita - compiled in circa 300 BCE.  According to this source, the Bhagavata Purana compiled in the 10the century, notes that the Hing plant grows in the abode of Shiva. Considering that the plant grows in cold mountainous regions of Iran and the Western Himalayas, it is surprising how a steady supply of this resin has been reaching all corners of India over the past three millennia..

Asafoetida is extracted from the Ferula plants (esp. Ferula asfoetida) which have large taproots, 12.5-15 cm in diameter at the crown when they are 4-5 years old. Just before the plants flower, in March-April, the upper part of the living rhizome root is laid bare and the stem cut off close to the crown. The white sap that extrudes from the exposed stem-base is then collected, dried and sold to traders. The plant grows only in arid, cold areas and efforts to cultivate them in Himachal, Ladakh and Kashmir are yet to succeed.

Farmers in these states would certainly be pleased to see the efforts succeed. After all, there are only a few plants that grow with little care and yield such high prices in the market.

Exports from Afghanistan

For some reason, the FAO-UN does not list asafoetida as a noteworthy export from Afghanistan, but independent research suggests that this is indeed a significant export item from Afghanistan. In 2014-15, the country exported red asafoetida worth USD 21,940,223 (312.281 tons) and white asafoetida worth USD 12,259,302 (218 tons).

Is USD 33 million worth of exports insignificant? Certainly not if you consider the fact that the top export item from Afghanistan is raisins (red, black, big, abjosh) and its total value is just a bit more at ~ USD 36 million. Other famous dry-fruit or spice exports - Almonds and Cumin is worth just USD 26 million and USD 1.6 million respectively!

So why is it that asafoetida fails to get mentioned in the trade charts?

I don't know. Yet.


> https://in.finance.yahoo.com/news/amazing-lijjat-papad-story-rs-80-rs-800-crore-130350826.html
> WIPO article - https://www.wipo.int/ipadvantage/en/details.jsp?id=3619
> Lijjat Papad -  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shri_Mahila_Griha_Udyog_Lijjat_Papad
> https://www.thedollarbusiness.com/magazine/from-afghanistan-with-love/46065
. India imports 25% of the world's asafoetida
> http://gernot-katzers-spice-pages.com/engl/Feru_ass.html
> https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3459456/
> https://www.indianetzone.com/1/asafoetida.htm
> Plants mentioned in the Bhagavata Purana (600-1000AD) -  https://shodhganga.inflibnet.ac.in/bitstream/10603/118519/21/21_glossary%20of%20plants%20found%20in%20the%20text.pdf
> Afghanistan - Commodity Exports - http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#rankings/commodities_by_country_exports
- Hing does not figure in the top-5 exports by value -- the only spice that figures here is "Anise, radian, fennel, coriander" -- USD 26million (2016)
- Top export item by value was Raisins - 19T for USD 56million
> Spices Board -  http://www.indianspices.com/sites/default/files/Major%20Item%20wise%20Import-2016.pdf
> Import Policy - ExIm HS code 1301 90 13 --  http://dgftcom.nic.in/exim/2000/itchs2017/chap13.pdf
> Afghanistan Exports - https://atlas.media.mit.edu/en/profile/country/afg/
> (2015) Paper - India-Afghanistan - Overview of Economic Relations - http://www.renupublishers.com/images/article/1461872860AEV2N2d.pdf

* Oldest Medical Document - Sumeria 2100 BCE - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC200079/pdf/mlab00211-0009.pdf
* Shah NC and Amir Zare (2014): Asafoetida (Heeng): The Well Known Medicinal Condiment of India & Iran -  http://www.thescitech.com/admin/includes/abstractpdf/2014-10-0453469a75d73f8.pdf

Saturday, June 08, 2019

Chalo Khajuraho!

Travelling means different things to different people. To me, one of the most interesting things about travelling is the clash between expectations and ground realities.

Long before you arrive your destination you have a picture in your mind, an image built out of words and views of folks who have been there before. In the new world of digital media the gap between expectation and reality is bridged the moment you scan through some Google searches, a few YouTube videos and articles. In most journeys you re-live the experiences of others.

Not so for Khajuraho.

Nothing prepared me for the scope and scale of artistry, human ingenuity and effort that has gone into the Khajuraho temples. I had expected to see a small town built around a couple of temples, its walls packed with erotic sculptures, a backdrop for an annual dance festival where classical dancers perform for the tourists. What I found instead was an orderly municipality built on the site of an ancient, abandoned city packed with scores of temples of astounding beauty, set in a landscape that was just as bleak and arid, a mere shadow of what it must have been a thousand years ago.

The temples are proof that an oasis of prosperity existed amidst the badlands of Bundelkhand long before it came to be known by that name. It was a city without walls, protected by the swift waters of the Karnavati river, enriched by the precious gems extracted from the Panna Mines and ruled by a dynasty that controlled the lucrative trade routes between the northern Gangetic plains and southern India.

At Khajuraho you enter time-space warp. The Karnavati river is now called Ken - an anglicised abbreviated version of a river that is a dribble of what it used to be. You look at the scorched, barren, red soil and wonder how it could have been thickly forested once, or the rich agricultural land that fed the healthy, rugged warriors and lovers that adorn the walls of all the temples here.

The site was also significant in Hindu cosmology. Just as in the case of holy city of Varanasi, here too a major river  flows northwards, towards the sacred Himalayas before it turned again towards the seas. For some reason this was also a centre for yogic austerities, a hub for Jain monks, tantric Shaivite worshipers, as well as a range of unusual deities such as Brahma, Varaha (the boar avatar of Vishnu), and Vamana (another avatar of a pudgy, dwarf mendicant).

Folklore has it that the area around Khajuraho, which was known in ancient times as Jejahoti, was home to 85 temples and 85 lakes. Only 25 temples remain now. As for the lakes, they are now mere ponds filled with murky green water and a few buffalos. Historical records indicate that the city and its temples were abandoned after the Chandela Kingdom with its capital at Kalinjar Fort 85km away, was raided by Mahmud of Ghazni  in 1022 CE. As was the norm, the survivers may have been enslaved and taken away by other invaders , including Qutub-ud-din-Aibak who defeated the Chandelas again, two centuries later.

The abandoned temples then drifted into oblivion and got covered by forests that protected it from the zeal of later invaders until they were 'rediscovered' by an Englishman travelling from Sagar to Calcutta.

Since this 'rediscovery' almost all the temples of Khajuraho have been under government control. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) now restores and maintains most of these abandoned temples within manicured lawns and and fenced compounds. Only two sets of temples falls outside this control - the set of Eastern Jain Temples and one temple dedicated to Matangeshwara (Shiva) just outside the fenced perimeter of the Western Group of Temples.

ASI does a fine job of preserving these heritage monuments. Each temple has been assigned a care-taker, each of whom ensures that visitors do not deface or vandalise the sculptures. We were particularly impressed with three young men - Anurag Pathak at the Chaturbhuj temple, Saurav Singh Rajput at the Vamana temple and Parasuram at the Vishvanath temple - each of them took care to ensure that the temples were safe.

While inside the Vishwanath temple a large group of village women could be heard singing songs and going from one temple to the other. In their own sing-song way they walked into the sanctum of each temple and paid their respects to the gods that once occupied them. According to the caretaker, Parasuram, many of the pilgrims who throng the Mantangeshwar temple also drop by into the fenced, ticketed ASI complex to reaffirm their ancient ties to these great temples.

Researchers have tracked available records to recreate the sequence of temple building in Khajuraho. It follows an intriguing pattern. The earliest temples built in Khajuraho were the Brahma shrine next to the lake and the Chausath (64) Yogini temple. Both are bare and austere, made out of rough hewn granite. The Matangeshwar temple came up next around 900 CE. This active temple has such a large Shiva Linga that you barely have any space to move inside.

The Laxmana temple was perhaps the first 'grand' temple built in generous proportions with a large Varaha (boar) shrine facing it. On the same line, the Vishwanath temple was built next, paired with a Nandi shrine. Among the large temples here, the Kandaria Mahadev which came up next is considered the acme of Chandela temple architecture. From here on all the temple building went downhill, both in scale and exuberance.

Prudes and others who are embarrassed about the erotic sculptures here will tell you that only 10 percent of carvings here are 'gross'. Don't believe them. Fact is that uninhibited display of sex is exactly what the temple builders wanted to highlight. At all the three major temples (Laxman, Vishwanath, Kandaria Mahadev) the northern and southern walls are packed with 3+ feet high sculptures of uninhibited lovemaking. These are like large banner headlines that turn all the remaining sculptures into footnotes.

Amazingly, while all the Hindu shrines reserve lovemaking scenes for the outer walls, within the Jain shrines it seems to be the opposite. Here you have tangled couples on the doorway to the sanctum showing the great "Digambara" (sky-clad) Jaina saints in all their naked glory!

At the end of the day one simple fact stands out. We know very, very little about our own people who built these amazing temples. We see them through a prism coloured by the Abrahamic armies that conquered us and colonised our minds for a thousand years.


Looking Around

Since the main set of temples - the Western Group - was walking distance from our hotel we decided to use a taxi to visit the temples that were away from the town.  First we visited the Chausath Yogini Temple, then the Eastern Group of Temples (Jain Complex - Adinath, Parasvnath, and Shanti Nath), the Southern Group of Temples (Duladeo, Chaturbhuj and Bijamandala), then back to the eastern zone to visit the temples that our driver 'forgot' to mention - the ones around the lake - Brahma, Hanuman, Javari and Vamana. The rest of the time was dedicated to the main Western Group of Temples (Laxmana, Kandariya Mahadev, Jagadamba, Chitragupta and Vishvanath).


Travelling during the off-season has its perks. We stayed at the Lalit hotel which was so short of guests that it upgraded our booking to a suite which turned out to be as big as an apartment - two bedrooms with attached bath, a large hall with an attached kitchen, bright French windows opening into the lawns and overlooking bright bougainvillea bushes overhanging the walls!

The location is excellent - just 750m from the Western Temples, and right next to the ASI museum, the Festival Grounds, eateries and short walk from the Tribal Museum which is worth visiting.

Travel Tips
  • Travel during the off-season (April - September). Apart from being spared the crowds you get better deals at the hotels, restaurants and with the taxi-wallah.
  • Use the Indian Railways. The Sampark Kranti Express is perfectly timed for weekend getaways from Delhi.
  • Cameras: For some strange reason, ASI does not allow tripods into the temple complex. You need to have a letter granting permission from their office in New Delhi / Bhopal (!)
  • Don't expect much from the Archaeological Museum in Khajuraho. Despite having a sprawling complex ASI displays are poorly labelled, manned only by security guards who just keep intoning the rules ("no selfies with the displays"...)
  • Guide - Satendra Kumar Dwivedi (Sachin) - Mobile: +91 9753 954 343 - Email: dsachine@rediffmail.com
  • Driver - Lakhan Singh, Old village ward no.14, Near Jawari Temple - Mobile: +91 7223 053 448, 7049 844 467


* The Chandela - Chola Connection: The Chandela dynaty ruled Bundelhand from ~900 to 1100 CE while the Chola's of South India were also at their peak during the same period. Rajaraja-I (985-1016 CE) and his son Rajendra-I (1012-44 CE) stretched the boundaries of their kingdom not only across the seas to South East Asia but also northwards, all the way into the Gangetic plains. In fact Rajendra-I also earned the sobriquet "Gangaikondachola".
Rajendra-I could not have reached the Ganga river without crossing Bundelkhand. Was there a link between the massive stone temples erected by the Cholas and the ones built by the Chandela's in Khajuraho?

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Velu Pillai's Mesopotamia

Me-so-po-ta-mia. A country that almost sounded like the notes of a song. It had a certain ring to it.

As a schoolboy from Hyderabad visiting his grandparents in Kerala during the summer holidays, one got to hear about a number of countries. Across the paddy fields there lived a grand-aunt who had spent much of her life in Malaysia. Many in the neighbourhood were working in the Gulf states - Saudi, Dubai, or Oman. Our chavadi - the airiest hall in the ancestral home -  had large almirah's stuffed with musty, moth-eaten National Geographic's and Readers Digest's from USA, and old textbooks published in Great Britain.

In the western room (Kizhakke-muri) an old, sepia tinted photo adorned one of the walls. It was of a bespectacled man in uniform with a medal pinned to his chest. "That is your valiya-appoopan (great-grandfather)", I was told, "He served the British Indian Army in Mesopotamia during the first World War".

Mesopotamia. In my imagination a country with such a name had to be a grand place. Yet there were no books from Mesopotamia. The country no longer existed in the school atlas either - it was now called Iraq.

I learnt later that the man in the sepia print was my grandmother's father, Velu Pillai. Details of his life were sketchy. He had served in the Army Postal Corps. My grandmother was four years old when her parents left her with relatives in Kerala and went to Mesopotamia. They had returned to India in 1927 with an infant who was born in Baghdad. This little boy would grow up to fight the next World War, serve in the swampy airfields of Burma and retire as a Wing Commander in independent India.

I had always wondered about the life and times of Velu Pillai. How did he travel with his young wife, Karthiyayani Amma across the Arabian Sea to that ancient land between two great rivers? What did he think of the people from other foreign lands to fight somebody else's war. Did he see himself as a cat's paw?

Last week I came across a book that gave me a glimpse of India's role in the First World War: George Morton-Jack's "THE INDIAN EMPIRE AT WAR - from Jihad to Victory - the Untold Story of the Indian Army in the First World War".

The big picture turned out to be quite dismal. Countless Indians had suffered for the white man's greed, his squabble for colonies across the world. 1.5 million Indian servicemen had served in the war - a number equivalent of the empire's military forces from Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, South Africa, the Caribbean, Canada, Hong Kong and Singapore put together -- a sixth of all the empire's servicemen. No less than 34,000 of them died in some of the most brutal battles of the western front, Gallipoli, East Africa, Iraq and Palestine.

Velu Pillai would have been a part of the Indian Expeditionary Force D which faced the Ottomans in Mesopotamia. They had seized Basra in Nov-1914 and started pushing up the Euphrates and Tigris where they had  repulsed attack by 7000 Turks in Apr-1915 leaving 3000 of them dead in Shu'ayba, some 15 miles west of Basra.

Then the tables had turned. Pushed hard by an ambitious, and stingy, governor-general of India who wanted to retire as the 'Pasha of Baghdad', Force D found itself short of food and ammunition at Kut, by the banks of the Tigris. The besieged 6th Indian Division at Kut dug 30 miles of trenches, suffered 2200 casualties in keeping the Turks out, until they surrendered on 29 April 1916.

Whatever remained of Force D's 6th Division - 10,500 Indian and 2600 British prisoners-of-war - were then sent on a 600-mile death march from Kut through the Iraqi desert, to labour camps in Ottoman Syria outside Aleppo and in the nearby Amanus and Taurus mountain ranges. Only a few had survived the ordeal.

Revenge and retribution came a year later. From mid-December 1916 to March 1917, a completely revamped Force D was let loose by London to avenge the fall of Kut and to steamroll the Turkish Army for 200 miles up the Tigris to Baghdad. Another year of fighting in Europe and the war was over, on terms that were so humiliating for the vanquished that it took another horrific war 26 years later before things settled down.

What happened to the million Indians who returned home after the war? What we do know for certain is that the British continued to play one ethnic group against another most of whom remained loyal foot-soldiers for the British colonial apparatus:
  • In 1919, men of the 54th Sikh, 59th Scinde Rifles and 9th Gurkhas carried out the massacre at Amritsar's Jallianwala Bagh on 13 April. 1650 bullets were fired in 10 minutes to kill some 500 Punjabis and wound 1200 more...some of the casualties were their own colleagues - Indian Army veterans, Sikhs and Hindu Jats who had themselves served the British Indian Army in France and Iraq.
  • India's Commander-in-Chief Charles Monro massed 340,000 men on the Indo-Afghan border for the Third Afghan War, initiated as a jihad by the new Emir Amanullah following the assassination of this father Habibullah, and ending in his swift defeat.
  • In 1921-22 seven Indian battalions with artillery and armoured cars 'suppressed' the rural Moplah Rebellion by Muslim villagers armed with swords; they killed 2400 Moplahs and wounded 1650.
What did Velu Pillai think of all this? How did his experiences change him after he returned home, to serve the maharaja of Travancore as a Dy.Tehsildar? Unfortunately none of his notes or letters survived in the damp and humidity of the chavadi with fungus and termites for company.


* The book - https://www.amazon.in/Indian-Empire-At-War-Victory/dp/1408707705

* Kipling's poem "Mesopotamia" - https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/57430/mesopotamia-56d23af3008a7

* Word War I Records - https://livesofthefirstworldwar.org/

* Etymology - Mesopotamia - "Land between rivers" - aka Do-ab!

Monday, April 29, 2019

Pralayam - Kerala after the Deluge

Houseboats waiting to go at 11:30AM

Last year the monsoons were disastrous for Kerala. For the first time since 1924 the state saw all its rivers in spate, most of its agricultural land submerged and thousands huddled in relief camps across the state. 

There had been talk of how it would take years to rebuild and recover from the "Pralayam" - not a mere flooding ("vellapokkam") but a calamity of epic proportions for which a more potent word had been drawn from Sanskrit epics.

Seven months after the floods there is little trace of the disaster that killed over 400 people, displaced 5 million and caused economic losses of over USD 5 billion.

At Kainakary the houseboat business is booming again. These boats are usually allowed into the backwaters only after 11:30 when the fishermen have returned with their catch. Only the larger, double-deck boats have to wait longer because the quays could not be dredged last year due to a funds crunch. The locals are upbeat - this year there has been no shortage of tourists either at the Ayurvedic spas that line the Vembanad lagoon, or the toddy shops or ice-cream vendors on boats.

Not far from the banks of the Pamba river at Othera, recovery is said to have taken place within weeks of the water receding. In the words of a resident relative, "Our house, along with about 200 others, was an island for 10 days. No electricity, no tele-connectivity, or access to supply of clean water. Helicopters hovered around dropping provisions which were piled up at local shrines...and often distributed amongst those who were less than deserving."

I had expected many of the houses to be in bad shape. While on a morning walk along some of the worst affected areas, from Othera to the railway bridge over the Pamba I came across only one houses that had not been repaired. Interestingly, the low-lying areas that had been home to the erstwhile low caste agricultural labourers is now populated by groups of migrant labourers from Bihar, Bengal, Odisha and Assam. Tiny old houses along Parayanthodukuzhi with its fallow paddies and broken boundary walls is now alive with the costumes and languages of the Gangetic plains.

An irrigation project too is underway to bring 33,000 KL of Pamba water, pumped across the undulating terrain, through canals and aqueducts to the fields of Pathanamthitta district.

Will the politics of flood relief have an impact on the ongoing Lok Sabha elections? Quite unlikely say the locals. 

However, one thing is for sure - it is a great time to be in the hardware and paints and waterproofing business in Kerala! 

Toddy Shop at Kainakary duly endorsed by an aspiring MP

Preparing the paddies at Kuttanad


Monday, April 15, 2019

Out of Africa - into Europe

This was an eye-opener, and a reminder about how little I know about Africa.

Having studied with a group of Africans I also find it surprising that even as a part of academic discussions at Tsukuba University on this very topic, there were no fiery discussions on the three key events mentioned by Dr. Arikana:

  • Berlin conference of 1884-85 for amicable division of Africa into European colonies - a meeting of 14 colonial powers for drawing of arbitrary boundaries, creation of countries that exist today.
  • The French government arm twisting its colonies to sign, during 1958-61,  a pact for the Continuation of Colonisation - "The Colonial Debt
  • 1963 - Addis Ababa conference that lead to the creation of Organisation of African Unity (OAU) by just seven states - Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

Some of the numbers presented are truly cringe-worthy. As a repayment for "civilising" the Africans, for teaching them how to 'eat with fork and spoon', 14 French colonies were were required to deposit 80% (now down to 60%) of their bank reserves with the French Ministry of Finance. This self-serving arrangement enables France to extract no less than USD 500 billion from these 14 countries every year!

Since these 'Francophone' depended almost entirely on their former colonial master for marketing their minerals (first right of refusal), their military hardware, for their printed currencies, and for the education of their elite, the dependencies are almost hardwired. Countries that try to come out of the Colonial Debt are rewarded with coups (no less than 60 so far), assassinations and 'engineered chaos'.

On the 100th anniversary of the Jallianwalla Massacre, it does seem like a miracle that we Indians managed to get independence with just the partition of the subcontinent!


* The French African Connection - https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/specialseries/2013/08/201387113131914906.html
* The Berlin Conference of 1884 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berlin_Conference

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Cactus Combos

A yellow blob of thorny fractals?

This eye-catching cactus caught my attention at an IFFCO Kisan outlet selling indoor plants. It sat on a shelf with other succulents but combination seemed rather unusual. The lower green part looked as though it had been shorn of its thorns while the bright yellow or pink portion did not look as though it had emerged from a flower.

Sure enough it turns out that this is grafted combo of two different species of cactus - the yellow portion belongs to  Gymnocalycium mihanovichii while the lower, green one belongs Hylocerus, a family better known for producing edible pitayas, aka "Dragon-fruit".

The interesting bit is that Gymnocalycium completely lacks chlorophyll. It was originally found in Paraguay growing under bushes with little exposure to sunlight. Somewhere along along the way it got to grafted to other cactus species that does have chlorophyll creating a novel variety which is now being marketed as 'Moon Cactus'!


IFFCO Kisan Urban Garden - https://www.ikug.in/indoor-plants





Saturday, February 16, 2019

Ribosomes - Making Sense of Blobology

This is not a book I would ever pick on an impulse. The cover itself  is quite intimidating - a confusing, colorful blob of tangled ribbons. On first glance it looks like a tome for the lab nerds, for those seeped in structural biology, the followers of specialized science journals, and certainly not the general reader.

I picked this book only because on the dark cover, I noticed blurps from three writers I admire - Siddharth Mukherjee, Richard Dawkins and Bill Bryson. The stock comment ' I could not put this book down' from one of them pointed towards the possibility the book could be read - and understood - by folks like me, those who are not specialists but merely curious.

I was not at all disappointed.  The author,Venki Ramakrishnan is the 2009 winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and his book, "Gene Machine" is a personal story of a physicist turned biologist who helped decipher the secrets of the Ribosome.  Even if the topic sounds esoteric, the book is a down-to-earth narrative of a boy from Baroda who made it big.

Yet it is not the typical story of a south Indian vegetarian in USA. You get the impression of a adventurous, outgoing guy riding a series of lucky breaks. Perhaps the first of these came through a HoD at Baroda-U who got a letter from Ohio University seeking prospective students. Nineteen year old Venki is then offered a graduate scholarship without the usual GRE scores. He lands up in the America in the midst of the anti-war protests of 1971, and immediately after graduation, gets married to Vera Rosenberry, a talented illustrator of children's books, and a single mother.

In the initial chapters, Venki has a nice way of explaining his work with analogies. In the late 70s everybody knew that the ribosomes were responsible for protein synthesis, but nobody knew how -

"Imagine you are a Martian peering at the earth from above. You observe tiny objects on the surface that move mainly in straight lines, ocassionally turning at right angles...you could tell tht they consume hydrocarbons and emit carbon dioxide along with some pollutants and some heat. But you have absolutely no idea what these objects are, let alone how they work. Only by knowing the detailed construction of the object would you be able to see that it is made of hundreds of components that work together and that it has an engine connected to a crankshaft that make the wheels turn..."

Venki's search takes him from the university to his first job with the Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee and then to Brookhaven on the East Coast. Along the way, X-ray crystallography becomes the main tool for deciphering the structure of the various complicated components of the ribosome at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge, UK.

The book also helps you catch a glimpse into the petty politics of those engaged in cutting edge science, of the walled garden that is open only to those from 'elite' institutions, and the manner in which the race for a Nobel Prize brings out the worst in many scientists.



Good Reads - Gene Machine - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/39088590-gene-machine

Tuesday, February 12, 2019


This is an old print advertisement from the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). On the bottom corner of this haunting image of people reacing out to the last crumbs on the plate, the fine print simply says, "A little from you can mean a lot. Make a contribution."

I do not know if people actually noticed the illustrations on the rim of this plate, or if the message got them to make a contribution, but I was reminded of this last sunday.

One of our neighbors had set up a shamiana to celebrate Basant Panchami and Saraswati Puja, a festival that marks the arrival of spring. As is the norm, a community kitchen was set up and hot food (puri's, kichri, curries and chutney) was being served as "prasaad", a holy offering.

I had just finished eating the food on my plate when I noticed a Jain neighbor sitting next to me. He was carefully picking out each an every crumb from his plate, leaving it absolutely clean.

Feeling a bit ashamed I started cleaning up my plate too, and asked him what prompted him to eat so carefully. He laughed at the very idea that I found it unusual and said, "According to Jain tradition, wastage of food is considered one of the worst sins...so for us, the first rule is to take only the quantity of food we really need, and then to remember that the holiest prasaad is the last sprinking of water used to clean-up our used plates...even the water used to clean a plate is not be wasted"!

Now that is something to think about...which are the other cultural habits or religious traditions that encourage people from wasting food?

A little from each of us can certainly mean a lot.


Why to Jains have strict food habits? -- http://www.jainism.com/blog/why-do-jains-have-strict-food-habits

Jainism - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jainism

Saturday, February 09, 2019

Prime Lens - Back to Basics

A kit lens makes you lazy. This is the first thing you learn when you step out of your comfort zone in photography.

I have been photographing with an 18-105mm lens for more than 10 years now and thanks to the convenience of zooming in and out, I had all but forgotten the basics of photography. I knew I needed to get back to the basics, to detox, to relearn, and a fixed-focus 'prime lens' seemed the best way forward.

The ones I could afford were shortlisted to the Nikkor 50mm 1.8 lenses which came in two types 'D' and 'G'.  The 'D' was a older version without an inbuilt focusing motor, and it came for less than half the price of the 'G'. Since I was using a camera body that already had a motor the former seemed better value for money - especially when it came at an an extra discount during the recent Amazon Sale.

So last month, I set aside my kit lens for the first time, and twisted into its place a brand new 50mm 1.8D. The Nikon D90 now felt like a strange new animal - lighter, faster and sharper than ever before, and yet completely unfamiliar. Despite clocking nearly 50,000 'shutter actuations' on the D90, I realised that  knew very little about the nuts and bolts, the basics of photography: focal lengths, F-stops and apertures.

They say the 50mm lens shows you the world the way your eyes see it, by "rendering images that closely match the true perspective of the human eye". Sounds nice... but when you look through the 50mm lens for the first time you feel like a horse with blinkers plodding through a tunnel. The world shrinks. Instead of just zooming you now need to use your feet and composition becomes a bit of a struggle.

The 50mm lens is also a bit puzzling with all its numbers and dials packed into a tiny ring. So here is a collection of links that has helped me re-learn photography -

Understanding Exposure and F-Stops:

And just in case you too are weighing the pros and cons of a prime lens, these might help -