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Budhini Mejhan – ‘The woman who persevered’

The story of  Budhini Mejhan is a nexus of several socio-political strcutures. She was ostrasized by her village and lost her job for an innocent gesture, which was seen as a violation of Santhal traditions. Through Sangeetha Srinivasan’s beautiful translation, Sarah Joseph’s literary sketch of Budhini Mejhan is vivacious, hopeful and endearing. Here is an excerpt:

~

Let us begin with the woman who persevered. Not how she recaptured the dancing ground, but how she ran incessantly without knowing whose land to set foot in. Waking up in the fourth phase of the night, she lit her stove and boiled some water. If she had a pinch of tea leaves or rice, she would have made some tea or gruel.

Front Cover of Budhini
Budhini || Sarah Joseph, Sangeetha Sreenivasan (Translator)

‘Oye, Ratni, wake up! We have to be there straight away. Please don’t wake your baba. The moment he’s up he will start whining, “Why toil over something in vain, Ratni’s ma? You have been running for a long time now, haven’t you? Will your complaints reach their ears? Better get back to sleep than wear off the soles of your feet.” But, Ratni, it doesn’t work like that; we should barge in and vex them as often as not. In the end, they will be forced to make a decision. Your baba is depressed, but could we endure more than this! Put your blankets over those boys, Ratni. Poor kids, they have been cold all night. Here, take this hot water. It’s not likely that Jauna Marandi will wait for us. His tongue has no bones. And if we don’t make it on time, he will go on grumbling about it till we get there.’

Languorous but still on her feet, Ratni staggered out of the house. Could this shack covered with asbestos sheets, tattered burlaps and rags, sandwiched between the walls of two multi-storeyed buildings, be called a home? Shoving the ragged fabric covering the back of the house aside, the child squatted on the ground and peed. From the mud kanda on the ground, she diligently filled water in a coconut shell and rinsed her mouth and face. She shuddered because of the cold.

‘Ratni Mei!’ Hearing her mother call out in a hushed voice, she went inside without delay. A little black dog followed her into the room, squeezed itself to make space between the sleeping boys and then curled up on the floor. Looking into her eyes, it wagged its tail in concern.

…‘We are very late, Ratni Mei. It seems Jauna Marandi has already left.’ Ratni’s mother was dejected. Loosening the knot at the end of her pallu, she took out some coins and counted. ‘Jauna had promised to take us for free. What should we do now! I saved these coins to buy medicine for your baba, but now we will have to spend them on bus tickets. But if you can walk, Ratni, there is a shorter route through the forest.’

Ratni didn’t say whether she could walk or not. Her teeth chattered, thanks to the cold.

While life saunters, the sun might as well rise in the west one day, marking the end of order. Then daybreak will turn into the hour of darkness. Like time suspended, nothing will be understood. Not everyone will overcome the bewilderment that is yet to come.

As Jauna’s jeep climbed up the road from Asansol to Dhanbad, an arm adorned with thick silver bangles suddenly appeared right in front of his vehicle. A strong arm! Nothing else was visible in the fog. Jauna forced his weight down on the brake pedal.

‘Get in,’ he bawled.

The DVC workers noticed the woman and child get into the jeep through the impenetrable fog. The woman wore a mud- coloured sari with a green border and the girl a crimson sweater. The child carried a bundle of clothes which she hugged close in a bid to protect herself from the insufferable cold. She looked not more than seven or eight. The woman had a grey shaded shawl wrapped around her and a lengthy red fabric bag on her shoulder. There was no seat. They hunkered down on the floor.

It was only the next day that Jauna Marandi realized, much to his shock, that the woman and child had boarded his jeep and alighted at the gates of the DVC to commit suicide.

~

Budhini is an exploration not only of the social laws of identity through the story of Budhini Mejhan but also the imbalanced burden that modernization and urbanization places on communities reliant on ecological methods of sustenance.

 

 

Preparing for a pandemic

Author’s Note: We didn’t write a generalist guide for the future imagining a once in a lifetime pandemic. This is not the moment of celebration we would have chosen for the book. There’s so much else that needs your love and attention right now. Now that we’re here, we hope the book can offer some comfort and optimism about humanity making it through difficult times, and things getting better. 

Now That We’re Here by Akshat Tyagi and Akshay Tyagi is a generalist guide about navigating the future in times of a pandemic. A playful mix of social science and technology, the essays on Data, Design, AI, Behavioural Economics and other important themes provide a peep into what’s coming. The following excerpt is from the chapter Viral Economics, written as the pandemic was unfolding.

Even though the collapse of economic prosperity is terrifying, the mourning of its fall should not turn into an endorsement for its previous design. Our economic growth has been highly inequitable, especially so over the last few decades. When your income drops from INR 70,000 a month to INR 40,000, it pinches hard. But even before the crisis, the average monthly income in India was below INR 12,000. We are still an extremely poor country, and we keep forgetting that fact until the next flood, drought or recession arrives.

Our public education hasn’t prepared us to understand the urgency of a pandemic. What you read in this book on data, complexity, economy and technology should be considered basic education. We were so busy bickering over Tipu Sultan’s mention in our history textbooks that we forgot to learn about the history of the Spanish flu and why there wasn’t anything particularly Spanish about the 1918 influenza pandemic.

It is important to maintain civil order by converting a difficult fight against the virus into a temporary celebration of essential workers. But in a different world, our government would be able to explain to us a virus’s non-linear growth graph, and we would pay our workers far better than we do. Making people bang pots and pans is okay only if we understand what we’re dealing with and how long it’s going to last. Otherwise, we are all at the mercy of our beloved leader and his wisdom.

With his utterances about injecting disinfectants and recommending unproven medical cures, Donald Trump may have made daily briefings look like a bad exercise in democracy. But they at least showed us how competent he was as a leader in handling emergencies, helping Americans divert him to other interesting things in the next election. To not show oneself at all during a moment of national crisis or conflict is a signature feature of tyrants. Stalin and Hitler were absent from public appearances for much of the war.

A country of 1.3 billion people with very high linguistic diversity, no universal access to devices for listening to a live broadcast, an unstable electricity supply and a two-hour difference in mean solar times between its easternmost and westernmost points shouldn’t be reliant on a charismatic head of state’s address to the nation. No leader can appeal to the sensibilities and convenience of such a diverse population in an hour’s time.

Front cover of Now That We're Here
Now That We’re Here || Akshat Tyagi, Akshay Tyagi

 

Our Internet penetration is at the highest-ever point in our history, our data rates are the cheapest in the world and journalism is bleeding to death because of its open access—so why then were we still busy rioting as late as February 2020! Arundhati Roy called the madness of communal sickness our version of the coronavirus before we officially got sick with Covid-19.

A pandemic lays bare our structural injustices. Just like with any other disease, the poor are at a disadvantage here too. Pre-existing medical conditions and weak immune systems both increase vulnerability and are, not so surprisingly, correlated in part to one’s economic standing. Little access to nutrition, poor hygiene, few resources shared by more members in the family and safety hazards at repugnant jobs are all risks that Dalits and Muslims have faced for all of our developmental history.

When Ebola spread in a slum in Liberia, the area was sealed off with the help of armed forces. At the rioting of residents, indiscriminate fire helped restore the desired calm. You never heard about this because it didn’t happen in a gated community of rich citizens in a politically significant country.

There is no bright side to a pandemic. In fact, ignorant optimism hurts more when the threat is a respiratory virus. Leaders who tell false stories to trick people into staying calm destroy public trust in leadership and create greater chaos. A pandemic is also the time when more and more of us grow comfortable with the idea of compromising our liberty to let the government act. Naomi Klein, a strong advocate against neoliberalism’s worst, has been warning for a decade that emergencies should not be allowed to worsen inequalities and decrease political transparency.

We cannot buy our way out of this virus, but as we wait for medical solutions to arrive we should remain vigilant about the ad hoc measures offered by our governments.

A pandemic is the worst time to stop holding your government responsible.

**

 

The book explores how our friendships, jobs, health and democracies are changing, and why we must prepare for this new unpredictable world. There aren’t any easy answers, but Now That We’re Here let’s be vigilant and kind.

The quest for an egalitarian society

It all began in the late-nineteenth-century Kerala, with a Dalit man flamboyantly riding a bullock cart along a road. What might sound mundane was actually a defiant form of protest, as riding animal-pulled vehicles was a privilege reserved for the upper castes.

Featuring several such inspiring accounts from the lives of individuals who tirelessly battled divisive forces all their lives, Makers of Modern Dalit History seeks to enhance the present-day Indian’s understanding of the Dalit community.

Backed with thorough research on historical and contemporary figures such as B.R. Ambedkar, Babu Jagjivan Ram, Gurram Jashuva, K.R. Narayanan, Ayyankali, Soyarabai and Rani Jhalkaribai, among many others, this book promises to be a significant addition to the Dalit discourse. It opens a path to initiating an overdue discussion centred around Dalit identity, history and politics.

~

Makers of Modern Dalit History cover
Makers of Modern Dalit History||Sudarshan Ramabadran, Guru Prakash

Bhagwan Das, author of In Pursuit of Ambedkar, says:

 

The newspaper used to publish a lot of things about Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Azad, Subhas Chandra Bose and Jinnah but hardly a thing about the untouchable communities. I used to wonder, ‘Who is our leader?’ I asked Abba this, and he replied,

‘Umeedkar, the one who brings hope,’

which is how Abba saw Babasaheb Ambedkar.1

 

Original thinker, scholar, jurist, legislator, economist, public policy leader, development practitioner and chief architect of the Indian Constitution, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was all this and more.

His thoughts were crisp, his views precise and clear, and words unabashed and unapologetic on every platform he spoke from. The more one reads about Ambedkar, the more one admires his unique intellect and understands his significance, the circumstances under which he jolted the status quo and truly sought disruption in calling for complete annihilation of the caste system.

Ambedkar saw society like no one else from the prism of brute force and caste-based discrimination. Thus, he stood for the cause of all-round empowerment of the socially disadvantaged till his very last breath. Even when he was on his way to England for the first roundtable conference in 1930, it is recorded that he wrote in a letter to ‘Dadasaheb’ Bhaurao Gaikwad how the people there were sympathetic towards him and that he was happy to see them inclined to favour the demands of the untouchables.2

As a child, Ambedkar, a Mahar, was made to sit separately in primary school because of his caste.3 When someone served him water, it was from a height to avoid physical contact with him; he was even denied a haircut because he hailed from the Mahar community.4 All this is just a glimpse of the treacherous  discrimination that a six-year-old Dalit child had to go through.

Who would have thought then that this child, born on 14 April 1891 in the tiny military village of Mhow, would one day establish himself as one of the founding fathers of independent India? Ambedkar came from a financially stable family, which enabled him to have a primary school education. However, this access never could remove the ‘untouchable’ tag from his consciousness. The thought of being ‘untouchable’ plagued his mind, especially when he was denied the services of a barber or a

driver because of it.

During his primary-school days, he was treated differently and ridiculed solely because he was a Mahar. This left a huge impact on him. However, Babasaheb took the fight to the orthodoxy, and at no point did he give up. For it is these very incidents that made him realize that the fight for the dignity of Dalits had to begin and be a constant one, until his very last breath. He recorded the experiences of untouchability faced by him in the newspaper Janata, which he founded in 1929.5 Dhananjay Keer’s biography, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Life and Mission, published in 1954, also recounted all of Babasaheb’s experiences.6

While his journey to educate himself was excruciating, he was determined to venture into the unknown. His secondary education was funded by the Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III, the erstwhile ruler of Baroda (now Vadodara), and he studied at the Elphinstone High School in Bombay. Ambedkar’s quest to arm himself with education never ceased, be it when he was in Columbia University, the London School of Economics or Gray’s Inn, where he excelled in academics. The years spent in Europe and America made him feel the stark difference in the treatment he received there and the treatment meted out to him in India.

In 1942, when he founded the All India Scheduled Castes Federation (AISCF), which he later dissolved to found the Republican Party of India, he also initiated scholarships for Dalit

students to study abroad.7

Ambedkar was always a firm advocate of education. He believed that if this revolution for the marginalized was to be won, access to quality education was crucial. He was never violent in his methods. He knew that equipping oneself with education would ensure a battle of dignity for the Dalits that could be fought and won. It was only after education that he felt empowered, for he believed only power could defeat power. Ambedkar being elected to the Bombay Legislative Council in 1926 and him founding the Independent Labour Party in 1936 are testimony to how crucial political representation was for Dalits.8

This focus on education was inculcated in him by his teacher at Columbia University, Professor John Dewey. Ambedkar has often said that he owes his intellectual life to Dewey, who was an American philosopher and psychologist but, above all, a reformer of education. Dewey was also one of the central figures associated with functional psychology, philosophy and progressive education.9

Very few Indian leaders have been educated in America. Ambedkar studied with the best minds at Columbia University in the three years he spent there. When he enrolled, he took a number of courses, including railroad economics. He was keen to learn from the top-ranking professors at the university.

All his life, Ambedkar sought the complete eradication of caste, for only this, he believed, would lead to an honourable society. As Bhalchandra Mungekar writes in his introduction to The Essential Ambedkar, ‘Ambedkar’s basic arguments were against institutionalization of caste-based isolation and discrimination

prevalent in the Hindu mind.’10

~

Makers of Modern Dalit History is a essential read for anyone who wishes to understand the Indian experience in its totality.

‘Please, don’t. I am scared’ – The painful world of IVF clinics

Detailing the difficulty of undergoing infertility treatments, What’s a Lemon Squeezer Doing In My Vagina is a nuanced, heart-breaking and heart-warming work on the indignities of medical procedures, the precariousness of motherhood, and what this means to women. In this excerpt, Rohini Rajagopal talks about one of her Intrauterine insemination sessions.

~

I heard of ‘artificial insemination’ for the first time in a Malayalam movie when I was eight or nine years old. It was Malayalam cinema’s cult classic Dasharatham (1989), which was so ahead of its time that even now I am not sure if its time has come. A leading mainstream actor, Mohanlal, plays a rich, spoilt man-child who decides to act on a whim and have a child through surrogacy. He finds a desperate woman who needs money for her ailing footballer husband’s medical treatment and agrees to rent her womb. They draw up a contract, turn up for the procedure, and fifteen days later she is pregnant! No failed attempts, cancelled cycles or any other complications. With this movie lodged in my brain for reference, I thought fertility treatments were an easy-peasy lemon-squeezy affair. To be fair to the movie, it is not about infertility. It’s about a healthy, fertile couple who use artificial insemination for conception. It may well have happened that quickly and effortlessly in real life too. But the movie glosses over the unseemliness and hardships of the treatment. For those who have seen the movie, I hate to burst your bubble. Welcome to the world of ART.

Front cover What's A Lemon Squeezer Doing In My Vagina
What’s A Lemon Squeezer Doing In My Vagina||Rohini S. Rajagopal

I began our first IUI in July 2011 with the earnestness of a debutant, expecting early and prompt success… The procedure itself was relatively simple with only a few key steps. The first step was pills to stimulate my ovaries to release multiple eggs. The second was follicular study. Follicles are tiny fluid-filled balloons in the ovaries that function as the home of the egg. They may expand from the size of a sesame seed (2 millimetres) to the size of a large kidney bean (18 mm to 25 mm) during the course of the menstrual cycle, eventually bursting to push the egg out. The follicles are measured at regular intervals during a cycle to ascertain if they have matured and are ready to release the egg. This is done through a transvaginal ultrasound (TVS).

I was not a big fan of TVS. It involved insertion of a long, slim plastic probe into my vagina and twisting it around to get a close look at the uterus. Magnified images of the uterus appeared on a computer screen. I was appalled the first time when the doctor covered the transducer with a condom and dipped it in lubricating gel, indicating that it had to enter an orifice in my body. I thought that scans, by definition, were non-invasive. It caused some discomfort, but it was not very painful. Eventually, I learnt to relax my muscles and spread my legs far apart to make things easier. I wished I didn’t have to get a TVS, but if I had to then I could tolerate it.

The cycle got off on the wrong foot from the very beginning. The first ultrasound showed only one big-enough follicular blob (at 13 mm). The other four or five follicles were too small, indicating they might not reach maturity. This meant I might have only one egg despite taking drugs to stimulate the release of many.

…It was a busy day at the hospital for Dr Leela, who was swamped with several emergency C-sections. I sat alone in the deserted waiting hall of the IVF clinic, biding my time. Other patients had left after their ultrasounds in the morning. No one else was lined up for a procedure.

…Finally, at around one, Dr Leela came and apologized for the delay. I was taken to the operating room, asked to remove my leggings and empty my bladder. I lay down on the bed and pulled a sheet over my naked legs. A tray of surgical instrument kits was placed on a stand next to the bed. I kept my fingers crossed, hoping there would be no speculum.

Dr Leela began briskly tearing the kits open one by one and getting ready for action. When she pulled out the speculum, I lost my nerve. The thin mask of composure I was wearing until then crumbled. I sprang up and held back her hand desperately.

‘Please, don’t. I am scared.’

As soon as I said it, I regretted it. What was I thinking? It was a meaningless request. And Dr Leela had no patience for such trembling and dithering. She was not known to offer empty, placatory words, ‘It’s okay. Just relax. It will not hurt you.’ My protest was an annoying interruption and she reacted sternly.

‘Take your hand off. I don’t need it here.’
The room became tense.

…The ninety seconds it must have taken to fix the speculum and inject the semen were excruciating, and not just because of the physical hostility of the act. Not just because it felt raw or sore or I was bleeding. But because it was a breach of my already fragile self. It tore through the membranes of my defences, leaving me exposed and helpless.

In a few minutes, it was over and the doctor left. The stainless-steel tools were taken out by the nurses. The housekeeping staff cleaned the floor. The room became empty again. The pounding in my heart ceased. I rested in the metallic stillness of the operating room for thirty minutes, drove home, ate my lunch and went to sleep.

That IUI was an eye-and-mind-opener of the path ahead. An IVF clinic is a cold place to walk into. It doesn’t matter which IVF clinic you go to. There might be a difference in degree, but the air is still chilly and biting. You must shed your inhibitions, modesty and fears quickly because the most crucial part of fertility treatment involves lying on your back, knees bent, legs wide open, while probes, catheters and lemon squeezers are thrust inside your vagina by professionals whose day job this is. What you need is the stance of a warrior, not the long-suffering bearing of a patient.

~

Years later, I am just a few weeks away from going into labour. Ranjith’s mother and I are alone at home. We are having a woman-to-woman conversation about the trials and tribulations of bringing a human into this world. We discuss pregnancy scans and the improvements in technology since her time. She speaks about her own repulsion and discomfort during an internal examination, which was necessary in her days when ultrasounds were not as prevalent.

She asks casually, only half-asking, but mostly reconfirming, ‘You’ve never had an internal examination, alle?’

I gasp and mumble something to the effect of, ‘Yes, I have.’ But the truth is, there was no short answer to that question.

~

What’s a Lemon Squeezer Doing In My Vagina opens up a discussion that we are hardly willing to have, sensitising us to the physical and emotional toll that medical procedures and social scrutiny take on women.

 

 

‘The skeletons tumbled out of the cupboard’ – Furquan Moharkan

Furquan Moharkan, author of The Banker Who Crushed His Diamonds, told us about how he got started on this story, what drew him to the Yes Bank labyrinth, and the experience of writing a story where power dynamics are very much at play.

 

Take us through your story – how did you start reporting on Yes Bank, and what exactly did you uncover there? 

Front Cover The Banker Who Crushed His Diamonds
The Banker Who Crushed His Diamonds||Furquan Moharkan

FM: You know, the Yes Bank was always an intriguing thing for me. There was too much of glamour for the organisation for the industry it was. Financial services are usually denoted by trust and dependability. When Yes Bank’s much bigger rivals were playing low profile, it was punching way above its weight. Though, that doesn’t mean glamour and financial services can’t go hand in hand. Also, at times of risk averseness by Indian banks, Yes Bank’s loan book was growing at an astronomical rate – almost seven times the overall industry numbers. But nothing was coming out in the market, as Rana Kapoor has managed to keep a tight lid over his alleged misdeeds. But once he was out in 2019, the skeletons tumbled out of the cupboard – and they tumbled at rate which was probably faster than the loan growth under Rana.

Had it not been for that post-Yes Bank results market crash in April 2019, probably I would not have got the leads for uncovering the rot. But after that crash, many in the street lost their holdings in Yes Bank, and financial set-up was visibly upset with the bank, and things started to come to fore.

 

Was your experience of writing a book very different from your journalistic writing?

FM: It was quite different. In journalistic writing, due to the dearth of space and word limit constraints, you can’t build a narrative properly. If I have to drive an analogy, I would say, journalism is painting in a sketch book (develops your fundamentals), and writing a book is painting on canvas (helps you express yourself).

 

Could you tell us, briefly, what happened at Yes Bank?

 FM: The Bank under its founder and former CEO had lent recklessly in lieu of higher margins and with risk assessment sent for a toss. These loans were granted to stressed entities – the firms whose repayment capability was questionable. Once these companies started defaulting, the bank was evergreening their loans – granting new loans to repay older loans. But that wasn’t sustainable and bank had to write them off. For that they needed capital, which wasn’t coming their way. On the other hand depositors started withdrawing en masse. Both combined and it led to severe crunch of funds at the bank.

 

How do people like Rana Kapoor manage to get away (at least to a certain extent for a certain period of time) with orchestrated failures of this kind?

People like Rana Kapoor are blessed people. They are smart and intelligent, but they misuse their gift. They combine their analytical abilities with artistry to manipulate things completely. Such people are usually on an image management overdrive, which explains why Yes Bank, under him, was punching above its weight. What aid them are also connections at right places. So, in their good days, irrespective of political party, the powerful people like to side with them – for the reason they would themselves better know about. So, basically it’s a cocktail of things, that this ‘big brother club’ uses.

 

Are stories like these – malfeasance on the part of powerful people at the top – difficult to tell? Is it more difficult to say, get other people to talk or to access the depths of these disasters because of the clout of the people responsible?

Absolutely. They can go to any extend to keep their image clean – irrespective of how fragile its foundations are. They use money power, legal might, connections and what not, to stop the things that make them uncomfortable. Yes, they would be very good to you, but only till the moment you don’t make them uncomfortable.

~

The Banker Who Crushed His Diamonds is an exciting read, sure to keep you at the edge of your seats.

Did our universe… always exist??

It all started with a big cosmic blast. Or did it? Refresh your facts with this excerpt from Shruthi Rao’s How We Know What We Know  and immerse yourself in a world of fun facts about the world, its origins and all the awe-inspiring details of how everything works.

~

What is the Big Bang? The sound you hear when you burst a big balloon?

Umm, no. The Big Bang Theory is an attempt to explain what happened at the beginning of our universe.

Wait. Our universe had a beginning? Didn’t it always exist?

That’s what scientists thought too, till a few decades ago. But research and studies suggest that there was indeed a beginning. A point. Before that point, there was nothing. And after that point, the universe came into existence.

Scientists think that the universe came out of a singularity—an infinitely small, infinitely dense, infinitely hot point. What exactly is this, though? If the universe was born from this singularity, where did the singularity come from? Why did it appear?

We don’t know that. Yet.
But how do we know that this is what happened?
The story began about a 100 years ago, with Georges Lemaître of Belgium. Though he was an officer of the church, he was fascinated by physics and he studied Albert Einstein’s theories of space and time and gravitation. He concluded that if Einstein’s theories were right, it meant that the galaxies in the universe are moving away from each other. Lemaître said this proved that the universe is not just static and unmoving, as everybody previously thought. It was expanding.

cover How We Know What We Know
How We Know What We Know||Shruthi Rao

It was a theory, and though Lemaître had come up with it on the basis of an established theory, scientists needed other proof before they could accept it. But Lemaître didn’t have any data to support this idea.

Meanwhile, American astronomer Henrietta Leavitt came up with a way to calculate how far away stars are from Earth. Using her work, astronomer Edwin Hubble looked through his telescope and calculated the distances of various stars from Earth. He concluded that things in the universe were moving away from Earth. Not just that, things that were farther away from Earth were moving away faster than things close to Earth. This could only mean one thing. The universe is indeed expanding. Georges Lemaître was right.

Okay. The universe is expanding. But how does that prove there was a Big Bang?

If the universe is expanding, it must have expanded from some point. Think of the expanding universe as a movie. The galaxies are moving outwards, away from each other. Now run that movie backwards. You can imagine it as the galaxies rushing towards each other. So then, all the galaxies must meet at some point. At this point, all the matter of the universe must have been contained in a very small space, that is, the singularity.

The moment at which this singularity started expanding is the Big Bang.

But where was the proof?

Decades later, in 1965, two scientists, Arno Allan Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson, were trying to measure radio signals in the empty space between galaxies. They used a giant horn-shaped antenna, called the Holmdel Horn Antenna, in their observatory at Bell Labs in New Jersey, USA. But as they tried to take measurements, an annoying noise kept interfering, like static on a radio.

Where was this noise coming from?

They pointed the antenna towards New York City. No, it wasn’t city noise.

They took measurements of the noise all through the year. No, it didn’t change with the seasons.

Could the noise be from a nuclear test that had taken place a while ago? It couldn’t be. If it was, the noise should have decreased year by year.

Then what was it?

Perhaps it was just the pigeons roosting in the antenna? They chased away the pigeons, and scooped up and cleaned the droppings. But the noise still remained.

Then they learnt about the scientist Robert Dicke, a professor at Princeton University. Dicke had been thinking about the Big Bang. His opinion was that if the Big Bang was true, there should be some kind of matter remaining from the explosion. And most probably, he said, this would be a kind of low-level background radiation throughout the universe.

Dicke wanted to try and find it. But it turned out that it was exactly what Penzias and Wilson had already found! The hum they had encountered was this very radiation resulting from the Big Bang!

Penzias and Wilson got the Nobel Prize for this discovery, because it proved that the Big Bang Theory was true.

Researchers all over the world are still taking better measurements of this noise, and are finding more things to think about.

~

Exciting trivia awaits you in How We Know What We Know.

 

COVID-19 : The past and the future

Anirban Mahapatra’s COVID-19 is a meticulous dive into the pandemic that changed the 21st century world. In this excerpt, he delves into what the future could look like, and what kind of a situation we’re likely to have on our hands in the near future:

~

Envisioning what the future holds in store is like imagining what dry land is like while in a storm in the middle of the ocean. Even in the best of times, predicting the future is a risky enterprise. A devastating pandemic of this scale and severity imposes additional challenges because we have no reference point in the modern era for something like this. Off-the-cuff comments may be forgotten but writing tends to stick around and haunt the writer. If you’re too certain with your pronouncements, you’re almost certain to be wrong. If you’re too vague, no one will read what you have to say.

We are only coming to terms with the direct fallout of the pandemic, but what will be the ramifications for long-term health and planning? What will be the implications for travel, for immigration and for commerce? Will countries continue to look inward once the pandemic is over?

Certain aspects of human life and society have changed due to the immediate effects of the pandemic. It is possible, therefore, to make short-term predictions. What will happen five, ten, or fifteen years down the road because of the ongoing, cataclysmic event and our responses to it are more difficult to say.

Will there be more public interest in interest in infectious diseases and medicine? Will it become a field that attracts more of the brightest minds as engineering, information technology, finance and business management have in preceding decades? Will physicians take up more active roles in framing public policy? Will economists stress-test catastrophic economic events of this nature?

Human societies are designed to maximize connections. Over the course of a day, most of us have dozens of close interactions with other people. The design of cities, buildings, jobs, transportation and commerce keeps the human need for connection in mind more than the rare threat of a disease that spreads by human-to- human interaction.

Front cover COVID-19 Separating Fact from Fiction
COVID-19||Anirban Mahapatra

What can we say looking at the past? Based on a study of the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 1918, the historian Nancy Bristow writes, ‘If history is any guide, not much will change in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.’4 Yet, it is impossible to use history as guide, because the world has changed immensely in a century. In 1918, viruses had not been characterized. Colonial powers ruled the world and were in the middle of World War I. Commercial airline travel was non-existent. There was no Internet to allow the lay public to read research articles immediately and view daily statistics on illness and death.

… We can assume that the pandemic will irrevocably change some business practices. There will be more people working from home permanently and less business travel to meet clients and for conferences. Technological solutions that were embraced perhaps with a bit of trepidation during the pandemic will become wider habits.

Distancing is challenging in factories, warehouses, prisons, airplanes, dormitories and ships where space is maximized. Due to a premium being put on space in cities and the density of population, buildings have grown vertically. Property values have risen globally since the Great Recession. Gentrification had led to a return to economically disadvantaged areas. It is possible that there will be a reshaping of how urban spaces are used, with more people now moving outward instead of flocking to New York, Mumbai or London. But the experience of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tokyo in the first year of the pandemic has demonstrated that even within densely populated cities, measures can be taken to keep infections low. There may be a reshaping of urban societies, but it is still too early to tell. People tend to go where there are economic opportunities.

More broadly, will humans finally address the pressing problems of the day which the pandemic brought into stark relief?

Problems of inequality, poor access to healthcare and economic opportunities, and lack of equal rights are prevalent globally.

The pandemic allows humans to face difficult challenges that we have been ignoring, instead of denying or downplaying them. It gives us a chance to reframe priorities and reimagine society.

As humans we tend to focus on immediate problems. Our ancestors were good at hiding from tigers and other dangerous animals, finding caves to sleep in when it was raining, and building a fire when it was cold. Longer-term planning for problems does not come easily. This is applicable to both people individually and to us as a species.

… We keep asking ourselves, ‘When will the pandemic end?’ But we can’t mark the end as the date when it is over only for those of us who are privileged. We know that the biological pandemic will end one day. What we must also ensure is that there is an end to the social one.

~

COVID-19 is an excellent and insightful read. Anyone can read this book, and everyone should read this book.

 

Why are so many Indian women out of the labour force?

Promises of gender equality and justice have been made, repeatedly. They have failed repeatedly. The roots of misogyny form the foundations of our civil society, and the essays in Her Right to Equality raise crucial questions about the status of gender equality in our country. It scrutinizes institutions that are meant to safeguard the rights of women and minorities, and sheds light on the colossal amount of work that needs to be done. This is an excerpt from the volume:

 

A great deal of focus in this discussion is on the decline. However, an equally (if not more) important issue is the persistently low level of women’s LFPR in India, lower than our other South Asian neighbours, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. In joint work with Naila Kabeer, we explore factors that shape the low level. Our results are based on a large primary household survey in seven districts in West Bengal. We collect data on all the indicators included in the official surveys, and on additional variables that are usually not included in surveys. Since we wanted to focus on which specific internal constraints inhibit women from working, we asked specific questions on whether they were primarily responsible for childcare, for elderly care, for standard domestic chores (cooking, washing clothes, etc.), and if they covered their heads/faces always, sometimes, or never. The latter is taken as a proxy for cultural conservatism; indeed, internationally, the fact of women covering their faces in public spaces is often criticized as an oppressive practice. Of course, the context in the West is different in that covering heads/faces is associated with being Muslim. In India, the practice is followed by both Hindus and Muslims, and in recognition of that, we label it more broadly as ‘veiling’, and not as wearing a burqa or hijab. We implemented simple changes to the official survey questionnaires in order to get better estimates of women’s work that lie in the grey zone. Accordingly, our estimates are higher than official estimates, but even with improved measurement, a little over half (52 per cent) get counted as ‘working’. Which means that participation in work is low, even after work in the grey zone is included.

 

The Critical Role of Domestic Chores

front cover Her Right to Equality
Her Right to Equality||Nisha Agrawal

We then investigated the main constraints to women’s ability to work. Our main findings were that women being primarily responsible for routine domestic tasks such as cooking, cleaning and household maintenance, over and above the standard explanations in the literature (age, location, education, marriage and so on) as well as elderly care responsibilities, lowers their probability of working. If domestic chores emerge as an important determinant of women’s labour force participation, after controlling for the standard explanatory factors, the question that arises is this: to what extent do the low LFPRs found in India in particular, but in South Asia and MENA (Middle East and North Africa) countries more broadly, reflect international differences in women’s involvement in housework? There is some indicative evidence that indeed, in these regions, women spend more time on unpaid care work, broadly defined (including care of persons, housework or other voluntary care work), relative to a range of other developing and developed countries in the world. According to OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) data, in 2014, the female-to-male ratio of time devoted to unpaid care work was 10.25 and 9.83 in Pakistan and India respectively—the two countries with the lowest female LFPRs within South Asia—compared to 1.85 in the UK and 1.61 in the US. Factors traditionally viewed as cultural norms that constrain women’s participation in paid work, such as the practice of veiling or adherence to Islam, are insignificant in our analysis after the conventional variables have been accounted for. Given that the primary responsibility of domestic chores falls on the woman, we suggest that the conventional definition of cultural norms needs to be revised and shifted to focus on the real culprit, viz., the cultural norm that places the burden of domestic chores almost exclusively on women.

 

Is There an Unmet Demand for Work?

Do women really want to participate in paid work, or have they either internalized the male breadwinner model which relegates them to take care of the home and the family? What about the ‘income effect’, according to which women work only if necessary for economic reasons, and withdraw from work as soon as they don’t need to? What about the marriage penalty, that is, women dropping out of the labour force once they are married? Thus, women’s work might be a sign of economic compulsions of trying make two ends meet rather than an expression of their desire for economic independence. We explore the evidence for this in our survey. Married women are less likely to be working than unmarried women, but marriage in India is near universal (making marriage the most common career choice for women), and asking women to choose either marriage or paid work is not a fair or realistic choice. We asked women who were currently not working if they would accept paid work if it was made available at or near their homes; 73.5 per cent said ‘yes’. When questioned further, 18.7 per cent expressed a preference for regular full-time work, 7.8 per cent for regular part-time work; 67.8 per cent for occasional full-time work and 5.78 per cent for occasional parttime work. It would appear that there was indeed a major unmet demand for paid work, whether regular or occasional, full-time or part-time, as long as the work in question was compatible with their domestic responsibilities. Based on this, we suggest that being out of the labour force is less a matter of choice for large numbers of women, and more a reflection of the demands of unpaid domestic responsibilities.

~

Her Right to Equality is an urgent and meticulous study of how far we have come in terms of gender justice, and how far we need to go.

 

The dirty trail of money

While much has been read and said about Vijay Mallya and his constant hide-and-seek with government authorities, details remain either inaccessible or too obfuscated. Escaped is a deep dive into the deeds and misdemeanours of the magnate, and what lies beneath the scaffolding of a billionaire-gone-wrong. Here is an excerpt:

 

The more famous pad of the Mallyas is the palatial country house in Tewin village, Hertfordshire, 20 miles north of London. The quintessential English village dates back to the Anglo-Saxon times, boasts of a picturesque countryside rich in flora and fauna and has a population of barely 2000.

Mallya’s property Ladywalk was previously owned and occupied by Anthony Hamilton, father of F1 champion Lewis Hamilton, and hence has always been the cynosure of all eyes in the sleepy village.

Though not much is visible from the main entrance, a public footpath runs around the property, providing an unrestricted view of the enormous spread that includes the main house Ladywalk and a lodge called Bramble Lodge with plenty of land for Mallya’s five dogs — Bichon lapdogs Elsa and Daisy, golden retrievers Luna and Bella and a St Bernard called Spirit — to play chase.

Security at Ladywalk is a priority and several CCTV cameras are in operation 24×7 at various entry and exit points along the periphery of the extensive property. Guards, dressed in black and armed with iPads and binoculars, are ever vigilant, and more so for snoopy scribes.

The large modern house sits on 30 acres of land and boasts of swimming pools, tennis courts and several outhouses. The two-year renovation of the property saw a continuous flow of architects, landscape artists, builders and gardeners. But what the locals most look forward to is the plethora of supercars that take to the narrow roads leading to Queen Hoo Lane. A sure sign that the party king is at home!

Front cover Escaped
Escaped||Danish Khan, Ruhi Khan

The story begins on 11 June 2014. This property was already on the market through estate agents Savills and Knight Frank with at least one prospective buyer lined up. Mallya paid Hamilton a visit, instantly fell in love with the property and immediately made an offer. An offer that Anthony Hamilton could not refuse. So desperate was Mallya to make this his new home that a written agreement between the two was signed that day, thus sealing the fate of this property.

Interestingly, this agreement specified the ‘Buyer’ as: ‘Dr Vijay Mallya and/or, Miss Leena Vijay Mallya, Miss Tanya Vijay Mallya, Mr Siddhartha Vijay Mallya OR to his/their order’. Mallya’s Cornwall Terrace address in London was listed as the residential address. The deal was signed for a whopping £13 million and strangely no deposit was taken by Hamilton on that day.

On 11 June 2014, Anthony Hamilton signed as the ‘seller’, witnessed by Force India’s Deputy Head Robert Fernley, and Mallya signed the agreement under his own name as a ‘buyer’, witnessed by his chartered accountant Dr Lakshmi Kanthan.

The only signature on the preliminary agreement under the ‘buyer’ was that of Mallya.

None of his children had accompanied him to view the property and there is no evidence to suggest that they were aware that they were put as buyers then or had authorized Mallya to purchase the property on their behalf.

This property has all the hallmarks of being owned and occupied by Mallya. A fleet of supercars making their way down the drive, hordes of people descending to party all night long and a constant delivery of goods and services.

Yet when we dig deeper into the ownership, Vijay Mallya is a phantom lurking everywhere yet really nowhere.

Ladywalk is propped up on a complex structure of ownership that defines the existence of many such marquee properties in the UK.

Mallya has never disputed claims that he bought his new family home with the intention of securing it for his son and two daughters.

Though he has often nonchalantly challenged reporters to prove that the Ladywalk property was bought by him through ill-gotten money.

If one can lawfully hide the real ownership and flow of funds, why wouldn’t billionaires exercise the option and bask in the security this provides them?

~

Danish Khan and Ruhi Khan’s book is going to keep you at the very edge of your seats.

Jallianwala Bagh and the 102 years of its history

V.N. Datta’s book remains relevant and immediate to this day. While his research documents the events of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, its history, context and aftermath, it also reveals the failure of larger institutions of power and control. Here is an excerpt from the introduction to the 2021 edition:

 

In April 2019, 100 years after the massacre, the nation remembered Jallianwala Bagh as a major historical event in the long tale of Indian nationalism and independence. Jallianwala Bagh has become an integral part of the grand saga of the nation’s history. Yet, not all local memories match the prevailing narrative; and here Datta’s book reminds us not to be swayed by the nationalist frenzy.

As preparations were underway for the centenary commemoration, I walked into Jallianwala Bagh intending to unearth its hidden histories. I met a Sikh policeman at the gate who led me to the narrow ‘Historical Lane’ to the Bagh. He told me that Dyer had brought guns and troops through this constricted passage to shoot at the innocent crowd that had assembled in the Bagh on 13 April, the day of the Baisakhi mela, which is celebrated with much fanfare in Punjab. ‘There were no exit points,’ he says. ‘People in panic ran to the walls to escape. They jumped into the khoo [well].’

While in the Bagh, I was taken over by mixed feelings. It looked like an insignificant garden with some old trees abutting the residential buildings at the back. However, there was something eerie about the place. The very ordinariness of the site was almost shocking in view of the violence that occurred there. Of course, there are commemorative structures that are not ordinary. To the right is the amar jyoti, the eternal flame. The pedestal is inscribed with the words Vande Mataram, praise to the motherland. There is also an old samadhi with a dome. At the centre of the Bagh stands an impressive oblong-shaped cenotaph. And to its right is the deadly khoo. Further down is the passage to the Martyrs’ Gallery and a museum. The bullet-ridden wall represents the horror that occurred here. The gaping marks are a tragic testimony to Dyer’s savagery in the Bagh. They are all too visible. The plaque says,

The wall has its own historic significance as it has thirty-six bullet marks which can be easily seen at present and these were fired into the crowd by the order of General Dyer. Moreover, no warning was given to disperse before Dyer opened fire which [sic] was gathered here against the Rowlatt Act. One Thousand Six Hundred and Fifty Rounds were fired.

…The Bagh shapes a national memory and constructs a national past through a patchwork of myth and history, fact and fiction. As Madan Lal Vij, the city’s historian, told me, ‘After the kand [scandalous episode], Jallianwala Bagh became a historic garden and a national memorial.’ The city’s local tragedy is fashioned as a national crisis through the idea of shahadat, martyrdom. A white flame-like sculpture stands with faces of martyrs and all their names engraved below. The compound surrounding Jallianwala Bagh is today part of a larger heritage area that includes the Golden Temple and the old Town Hall. The Congress narrative, as shown on the plaque, forges a direct connection between the massacre and the Rowlatt Act.

Front cover Jallianwala Bagh
Jallianwala Bagh||V.N. Datta

The construction of a definitive history in Jallianwala Bagh obfuscates the complex truths of the massacre, which contain unresolved contradictions and ambiguities. One such ambiguity is the nationalist attempt to establish an unmediated relationship between the crowd in the Bagh and the anti-Rowlatt Act protests. However, the irony is that to present the crowd as agitators alone would authenticate the claims of Dyer and official histories and do an injustice to the plural memories and differentiated experiences of the victims. I asked the locals to share their memories. ‘It was a random crowd, some were playing cards, others had come to celebrate the Baisakhi mela,’ says the octogenarian Om Prakash Seth from Katra Ahluwalia. ‘It was not a political meeting,’ adds Trilok Chand, one of the oldest booksellers at Hall Bazaar. Udham Singh’s history in the Bagh presents yet another dilemma. It is doubtful whether he was ever present in the Bagh at the time of the massacre. Doubtless, Jallianwala Bagh is primarily dominated by the story of Gandhi’s satyagraha and Udham Singh’s martyrdom.

The tailored history of the Bagh tends to ignore the diverse echoes and voices. We know little about the people who were in the Bagh and what they were up to. Popular memories too are shifting. Dyer’s shooting is no longer central to their recollections. People feel excluded from the mainstream history of Jallianwala Bagh. The locals see themselves as victims of a state that has let them down consistently since 1919.

…My journey to Amritsar tracing the memories of Jallianwala Bagh was greatly enriched by Datta’s insights and revelations. Even after the 100th year of commemoration, his work becomes all the more immediate. As a historian writing in the 1960s, his crafting of an intricate narrative and analysis of 1919, uncomfortably entangled with local and national histories, is no mean feat. Recognized as a classic across the global community of scholars, V.N. Datta’s Jallianwala Bagh deserves a wider readership for generations to come.

Some books never cease to remain relevant. Jallianwala Bagh is one such.