Monday, December 28, 2009

How 2009 was for Me and for Us

As 2009 recedes into the past making way for 2010, it’s time to recollect the events that marked the outgoing year. I will take a look both at personal and general events because, although our lives are often touched and shaped by events around us, there are certain matters that remain within the contours of the personal, disconnected with the world in general; and when we look back on a slice of time to assess whether it was good or bad, it is these personal matters that define the essence of the time. And yet grand world affairs like terrorism, climate change, elections, floods and riots tell us that we can never be completely insular.

We started the year with the knowledge that 2009 wouldn't mark the end of recession. Companies and financial institutions kept going bankrupt. Some lost their employments and others feared that they might be the next to follow.

On the personal front, the year started on a sad note for my office team, as our favorite team leader left the company to join another one.

But as the year rolled into February, Americans popped the bubbly. The US got a new president in Barack Obama. The coming of Obama created history – Obama being the first black president of the US – and promised to change the future. His coming brought a sudden rush of hopes. He promised to bail out the US from the crippling effects of recession and set it back in its role of global leadership (whatever the leftists make of that). He also set himself the difficult task of improving the global image of the US by mending relations with the Islamic world and solving the Israel Palestine problem.

Although the recession has slightly loosened its grip on America, the olive branch Obama had extended to Iran was snubbed and the Israel Palestine crisis rages on. But it would be fair to assess his performance when he completes his one year as US president in February 2010.

For me, the year marked the loss of a dear friend and colleague, Avishek Basu. One day, after bathing, when I was venturing out for lunch, I got a call from Avishek’s wife informing me that Avishek had passed away early that morning. Benumbed, I paced back and forth trying to make sense of it; I had never heard of him being ill. It was a sudden heart attack the doctors said later.

A few months later, the air became thick with political slanging match and parties running helter skelter to stitch together political alliances for power sharing. It was time for general elections in India. The Congress came to power to serve its second term in a row. Dr. Manmohan Singh became the first Indian prime minister after Jawaharlal Nehru to serve two consecutive terms.

We started 2009 with the hang over of Mumbai terrorist attacks and heightened security, but lived through the year in relative peace. Occasional periods of peace notwithstanding, terrorism is beginning to establish a constant connect with our lives: either through direct blood spill or hyper security or a ‘when and where will it strike next’ fear.

As the year further moved on, through the chaos of economic doom, politics and terrorism emerged the relief of literature. Hillary Mantel won the Booker prize for Wolf Hall, a historical novel with Tudor England as its setting. (I have bought the book but haven’t read it yet.)

Wish you all a very happy 2010.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Tale of a Naturalist

Among other things, I am currently reading the Crest magazine, a weekly edition from the Times of India house. The Crest is published in a news paper format with articles that give perspectives on current affairs and matters of general interest.

Two editions ago, the Crest commissioned an article on Charles Darwin’s – the naturalist – connection with India to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the writing of Darwin’s famous book the Origin of Species. I found the article most blog worthy.

Though Darwin never visited India, it didn’t prevent him from benefiting from the rich biodiversity available in India – for his thesis on Origin of Species. Darwin never had to come to India to find access to India's natural wealth because there were many collaborators primed to supply the naturalist with information on India; India was a British colony then and Darwin was a British. One such collaborator was Edward Blyth.

Blyth’s story is interesting as it typifies the hurdles naturalists had to face then, especially the ones who were not born to wealth and privilege. They had to earn their livelihood and also pursue their study of nature – because being a naturalist wasn’t a well-paying profession and the professional establishments were so exclusive that they usually didn’t allow the entry of people outside the circle of scholars into the profession. And how, despite the hardships, driven by their abiding love for their work, the naturalists carried on undeterred.

However, unlike many of his ilk, Blyth, who was a self-trained zoologist, worked as a curator at the Asiatic Society.

Edward Blyth was from a poor family who managed to scrape together money for his schooling and educated himself by spending long hours in library.

Darwin who was from a wealthy family of Industrialists was quite the opposite: the Origin originator always had family wealth to fund his pursuit and never had to work to make ends meet.

Blyth found three references in the Origin book for information sent by him to Darwin on Indian cattle, on wild assess of Kutch and cross-breed geese. Darwin and Blyth exchanged correspondence but never met.

Although Darwin never met his India correspondent, he met Indians in Maurituis who were exiled by the British Government in India for various offences. About them Darwin said: “Before seeing the people I had no idea that the inhabitants of India were such noble looking figures.” Particularly struck by the contrast between their dark skin and white beard of older men, he observed, “this together with the fire of their expression gave them a most imposing aspect.”

Joseph Hooker, a botanist, was also among Darwin’s informers. Joseph travelled extensively in the Himalayas to gather his data and was among closest friends and supporters of Darwin’s.

But, as the article says, no one among his informants stands out like Edward Blyth. Blyth died a forgotten man in a mental asylum in 1873.

And, while the Asiatic Society commemorated the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species last month, Edward Blyth, the Origin’s chief contributor, remained a forgotten man.
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