A Planet of Wizards & Prophets

I was reading The Wizard & The Prophet by Charles E Mann on a crowded train one evening, and a pair of young girls shared the seat with me. The name of the book is a highly appealing one especially to little girls, and it piqued their interest too.

One of them was probably in the 1st or 2nd grade, and showed a precocious interest in my reading material. Her curly hair was made into numerous tiny plaits, and her eyes shone with a curiosity that would make her teacher’s heart sing. Her mother’s heart though, quailed. She said, “Now…now don’t bother the nice lady there, let her get on with it. “ I looked up at the mother, and told her that I love reading to children, and though this particular book sounds pedantic when read to children, I did it anyway. It taught me never to under-estimate children – the child soaked in everything, and asked the most engaging questions.


I saw a certain amount of editing would need to be done if I were to sustain the interest of a 6 year old. The book is a non-fiction tome going strong at 678 pages – pages richly adorned with facts and figures, and life histories of all the people involved. I had already been through about 300 pages, so I knew the interesting bits, I knew the bits where a child’s wonder can be kindled. For the rest of the hour, I told her about wheat strains, water tables, and climate change.

The Wizard & The Prophet is a marvelous title because it encapsulates the polarity of our thinking so beautifully, and in this sense, they are both required for us to thrive. The Wizard in the book is Norman Borlaug, who is credited with leading the way for GMO strains of wheat production that along with stalwarts in the field such as Dr M.S. Swaminathan saved billions of people from hunger and starvation. 

William Vogt is the Prophet, who during his study in the Mexican coastal areas observed how we are stretching our natural resources and the effects it has on things as far-flung as bird migratory patterns and climate. In many ways, he is the one who set up the first bells of Global warming and Climate Change. He is the Prophet.

Do you believe in Climate Change? asked the girl wide-eyed.

I told her I did not need to believe Climate Change at all, and the experiments were here to show me how we are changing the air around us, and I showed her the pages outlining the experiment where humanity managed to pin down Carbon Dioxide as the problem-maker in the first place. 

I cannot deny that global warming and climate change has always intrigued me. Carbon Dioxide only accounts for 0.03 % of the atmospheric gases, a remarkably small proportion for it to be causing global warming on such a scale as to change weather patters and cause severe climatic catastrophes, is it not? 

In The Wizard & The Prophet, the author outlines the experiments used in determining that it is indeed carbon dioxide that is the culprit and how our industries are directly contributing to its increase. The correlation between carbon-dioxide levels increasing and global warming followed. I found it a fascinating experiment and one that school laboratories can demonstrate I hope. 

By Scrippsnews [CC BY-SA 4.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

(During the spring, there are dips because the Arctic tundra sprouts plant life and plants absorb Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere. )

Looking at the worried expression in the child’s face, I asked her, Did she know what we can do to reduce the carbon dioxide?

Trees? she said, and I nodded yes.

I went on to tell her about the excellent example set forth for us by the Kenyans in The Green Belt movement, and how a person called Dr Wangari Maathai helped the Kenyans plant millions of trees over the past 30 years.

Planting the Trees of Kenya, by Claire A Nivola, The Story of Wangari Maathai

Planting the trees of Kenya - Wangari Maathai
Planting the trees of Kenya – Wangari Maathai

She glowed at the simple solution thought of by Dr Wangari Maathai, but her stop had come, and she stepped off the train with her mother who was now listening to her daughter talk to her about The Wizard & The Prophet.

As I reflected on the chat with her, I realized that the narrative around Climate change and Global warming is quite confusing.  It is no wonder that the child framed her question as – “Do you believe in Climate Change?” The prophets in this case are doing their job, but the question of : “How does one realize when an extreme storm or flood is part of a natural occurrence and when it is a direct result of our tampering with the delicate balance of the climate?” is a vexing one.  

The Prophets have sounded the alarm bell often enough, and the Wizards have yet to think of a sustainable solution to it. But there is hope: I am glad to read that China proposes to plant and nurture a forest the size of Ireland to reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality. 

China to create new forests covering area size of Ireland


Beauty in Diversity & Unity in Adversity

This article was published in India Currents & San Francisco Chronicle.

I am one of the thousands of people who ride BART regularly. One particularly cold morning, as two train loads of people tried to stuff ourselves into 1 train, I took to my favorite pastime on the train when not being able to read or write: people-watching. It was packed and constricted given the crowd. I mused on the different experiences that Bart has given me.

I look around me to see that people from different backgrounds, different religions, different ideologies, different skin tones, different economic levels are all there rubbing shoulders together. We all say our sorry’s and our don’t worry’s good-humoredly when the train pulls an unexpected stop and we all bump into each other.

Over time, the trains have provided opportunities for conversations with people traveling elsewhere. As they clamber on with suitcases and strollers, it is hard to not share their enthusiasm. When they get off, you give them a quiet smile and wish them a happy vacation, and they all smile back happily and go on their way. The experience of travel had already started as far as they are concerned. They already got to smile at strangers, already got to ask directions from people very different than themselves.


If you truly want to experience life, the public transit is a good place for it. Take for example, the con-man who asks for precise and exact amounts of money every few weeks. “Good morning all. I need 89$ and 27 cents to save my son – I would appreciate anything you can help with. Thank you, thank you, God bless you.”

“Didn’t you ask for $137 and 25 cents last time”, asks an exasperated regular, and the con-man does a bunk, trying his luck in the next compartment.

Then, there is the prattler who takes care of his business on the phone, the I-am-right-ler ensconced in his seat comfortably in the middle issuing moral dictums, the scornful-lookers who think the train is beneath them, the relentless hair combers who brush the shines away from their hair, the make-up doers, the readers, the coders, the writers all shake down together in a tiny space for that aspect of the day.


On these trains and platforms, I have been transported to small villages in Africa, felt sorry for people living in war-torn regions, listened to the lilting tones of foreign languages, seen and heard people share stories about Egyptian mummies, been wary of con-men, talked to erudite people who have shared a drop of their wisdom on the way.  I have also edged away discreetly from people who are stone drunk at 8 o’clock in the morning rearing for a fight, and seen people injecting themselves with drugs. I have seen policemen and policewomen go about their grim duties of ensuring a safe transit with a smile on their faces.


I have talked to people who are wondering whether they will be able to afford health care , laughed with pregnant mothers, and then congratulated them months later and be shown the baby’s pictures.

As a woman I have no country. As a woman my country is the whole world: Virginia Woolf

I have listened to loud music that I otherwise might not have listened to because some quirky character decided that what the world wanted that day was some music. I like the street musicians on the underground stations singing to a seemingly uninterested audience. But I have noticed a little spring in peoples’ steps as they near the musicians, and a slight smile even as they move away.

Anyone who doubts the advantages of diversity should get on public transit and immerse themselves in the experience. There is beauty in diversity.  

I may not know people’s names, I definitely do not remember every interaction, but as I started writing, I realize that there is so much that I have absorbed about life just by riding the public transit. Therefore, I was doubly pleased to see Bart tweet out in response to Donald Trump’s ban on immigration that everyone is welcome on Bart.

Screen Shot 2017-02-02 at 8.30.45 AM.png

Beauty in Diversity & Unity in Adversity, seems like a good slogan in these times.

Thank you Bart.

How The Train Chugged Memories

It has been a great pleasure to see that my article on the little blue train made it to The Hindu (a leading publication in India) The article also mentioned my email address as a contact and I received many messages from readers. I cannot make a sweeping statement for humanity based on the emails sent to me, since most of them were sent to me by retired and/or educated folk, but I have to admit the comments were overwhelmingly warm, sincere and helped me reaffirm my faith in the basic goodness of mankind.

Of course, there were a few meant to make me skip a heartbeat. Some insurance salesmen sent me devastating statistics on disease and dying and how it is imperative for all to buy a policy (from him) in order to survive.  Then, there was this furniture salesmen who extorted his wares and offered me free shipping from some place in Hyderabad, India to anywhere. I wonder whether I should have ordered some furniture and had them shipped to California.

But such emails were few. Very few. Or my spam filter was very good. Many readers mentioned their own train-related experiences, and I enjoyed reading most of the emails.

Train Tracks Through a Forest

One person wrote to me about the heart warming story of his train journey in the Gir forests of Gujarat. He himself was traveling there from an urban area. Apparently, the train made many unscheduled stops along the way – there was no station, no station master and no ticketing machine, but people clambered on in these unscheduled stops. This traveller thought something fishy was going on and asked folks what the deal was. It turns out that many rural stations were closed along the way due to lack of funds, but the people in these villages still needed to use the train for various activities, so a truce with the engine drivers was reached, and the train stopped at the erstwhile stations.

“What about the tickets?” asked the fiscally conscious urban dweller, and the train clamberers shook their heads at his ignorance and said they usually purchased their tickets with the engine driver up front before climbing on.

“But what if you don’t? People can cheat this way!” said the shocked traveler.

The train clamberers were indignant. The urban dweller was told that cheating their way out of a ticket is not something that appeals to the simple and honest rural folk in that area. Every one of them held up the ticket they bought. With dignity.

Many letters came from people who had lived in the Nilgiris, or do so now,  and they wrote of their own experiences with the train. One reader even helped me track down the engine drivers who served in the approximate timeframe of my writing and narrowed it down to one or two people. They may have actually been the ones who waved to my mother.

One thing is clear, I enjoyed the ride with the little blue train all over again simply by reading the reminiscences of these readers.  I am immensely grateful for that.

The Art of Soliloquizing

If ever you need to shake off your inhibitions and take a course in the art of bold self expression, I suggest taking the public transit, BART. Talking to Once-self is a free course that is offered to all riders. Also selective hearing.

Traveling on BART gives you a unique experience. One only has to close one’s nose at times and one’s eyes at others, and the rest is there for the taking.

Soliloquizing is often frowned upon: One never knows when one is talking like an onion to a donkey.


One time, I was listening to a man telling me about a music concert he’d been to.

One of the bizarre things about this particular individual was it looked like he was talking to me. I mean addressing me. Pardon me if I have told you this before, but if you need to find me on the train, you would do well to look for a sharp-ish nose buried in her writing or reading and keeping to herself, after the dramatic entry at the last minute of course.

So, I was mildly puzzled and looked up. Tell me, he said, thundering, what should the boy do? Shall I help him?

I mean. I don’t know. It depends on the boy does it not? I am usually not the one who has been asked to share advice. I was rattled. Only none of the words came out. What managed to come out was a shrug. I looked around me completely bewildered, only to be confronted by equally puzzled faces that all seemed to share the same vague feeling that this gentleman had never physically been to the concert  he was talking about, and better yet, the boy could have been the lead singer on the fictional band, or his young ward, it was hard to tie the story together. He however, had something that most marketing professionals and politicians would die for: he had the unique ability to make a train-car full of passengers feel like they were being addressed individually by him.

It was amusing and interesting.

But when folks shout at you and demand that you have a good new year and a merry christmas, it is hard to not smile. Even if you are scuttling away with a slightly alarmed expression on your face.


The Hippoceres Giving-It-Nicely Service

I deposited myself fluidly through the doors in the last second before closure. The trains in the USA insist on closing the doors, thereby denying folks like us to use the hang-on-by-a-strand-and-heave self onto train later technique. I can’t say I was in a frightfully enthusiastic mood as I plopped myself onto the only remaining seat. I turned and looked at the person sitting next to me and saw I had drawn the stiff corporate pant.

I had to drop some documents off at a government office and then face a regular day. I sat contemplating the task ahead while opening my book to read. Nothing that a good book can’t fix I told myself sternly and set to reading.

Minutes into the journey, he (the s-c-p, the stiff corporate pant I mean) whipped out his phone. A purposeful gleam emanated from his glassy eyes. I moaned. I think I can figure out when my quiet commute gets thrown out the window. He called his team in India, and far from having a how-are-things conversation, took a piece of mud and flung it with whim across the seven oceans. Ocean beds shuddered as they transmitted the bits from him to the unfortunate team on the other side. He shouted at them,  and then looked about impressively.  Nobody cared. I scowled. It made not the slightest difference to him. He talked on. He promised to call them all separately and ‘give them nicely’ for not running a report or some such thing.

He sounded like one of those folk who make mental lists of jumping on people, telling them in precise language how they failed as individuals, and how they would improve in life if only they were to listen to him and follow his instructions alone. I heard a goodish deal of his side, which meant that the stuffed mushroom thought nothing of hogging conversations.

“Hello Kavya?”

She probably said Hello, and that was about all she was allowed to say. If I knew her, I could have messaged her directly and told her to put down the phone and continue doing whatever else she was doing, with no loss. He started with the I’ll-show-you-who-is-in-control early enough. “What did you tell Gopal?” he bellowed.

I rummaged around for some cotton, fake-coughed a bit and stuffed my ears, but it did not help. What was required was one of those vacuum shower stoppers, not cotton. I could still hear every word:

“He said that you said that,” and on and on he went how about she was wasting her time. The passengers near me felt a bit sorry for Kavya, whoever she was. Luckily for her, she had no idea she was being publicly shelled like this. I mean, if you are whipping the air out of someone’s lungs, at least have the civility to do so in private, what? I threw him a dirty look. It simply evaporated like a droplet of water in the Saharan desert.

Soon, the bore lost the fun out of ripping Kavya and I tried to read again. He played on his phone for a few minutes. War horses need rest and restoration between battles. A minute later, he called Gopal and started by telling him what Divya told him and how he ‘gave her nicely’. The train was too full now for me to move away from this spot of misery, even if it meant standing on a one foot.

Say what you will about the steel glinted glass, he kept his promise. He made seven different calls and in between every call, he logged back into his game and riled himself up a bit more and got on with his ticking-off. He told every one of them again that he planned on calling every other member who had not delivered something, to ‘give them nicely’.  After throwing his weight about like a dancing hippo in the local discotheque frequented by rhinos, he disconnected the call, looked pleased with himself and treated himself to a long round of playing a game on his smart phone.


I almost cheered when his stop came and he went out with a triumphant stride. Clearly, the hippoceres thought his day started on a productive note.

I ruminated for a bit about the phrase ‘give one nicely’. A very Indian expression is it not, to give one nicely while doing the exact opposite? What a super-fatted-bore!

Maybe like Russell said:

Civilized life has grown altogether too tame, and, if it is to be stable, it must provide harmless outlets for the impulses which our remote ancestors satisfied in hunting.

If the s-f-bore had to fight off a few dogs and then run a mile before he leaped onto the train, and then was barely able to hang on, he might not have had the need to ‘give everyone nicely’.

It turned out that the document drop off at the Government office was an egg drop too. I was sitting there an hour after my appointment time, and fiddling my thumbs watching the videos of ‘Incredible India’ play over and over again. The guy at the counter before me was waving his hand impressively and making a lot of noisy gestures. I could not hear him of course(I preferred the music).  There is something hypnotizing about those videos like ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara’.

My stomach gave a threatening rumble before I finally washed up in front of the clerk (Are they still called that?). She looked peeved. Maybe the guy before me gave her nicely, I thought. She rummaged through my stack of documents for a minute and then said she could not help me because we required another form with notarized signatures of all players in the game. I gurgled and tried asking if my signature alone would do. She shook her head firmly – It was a no-go.

My stomach squeezed itself with hunger, and I thought to myself savagely that now is the time for all loud men and women to come to the party and ‘give everyone nicely’: I  wondered if Mr. Hippoceres would lend his services.

“Hello! May I speak to the Hippoceres Giving-It-Nicely Service please?”

“Yes Ma’am. Who would you like to give it nicely to today?”

Perception or Fact?

A few days ago, I had a conversation with someone who had a mop of shining silver hair, bushy eyebrows and the remnants of a luxurious mustache. His eyes creased as he smiled (I can remember all of this about him, but can’t really remember who it was.) Shelving my memory for a second, lets talk about traveling. He opined that traveling these days was more dangerous than a century or 150 years ago because there weren’t this many accidents then.

I pondered about what he said for a moment and disagreed on two counts. Firstly, travel was not that frequent over a century ago. I have stories handed down from my father as to how travel entailed the preparation of a life event  even though it was only a few villages away.  Mental note to self: I should write about it someday.

Secondly, there were probably as many accidents involving horse carriages and wagons slipping off roads, or bullock carts stuck in flooding river waters.

Without a news feed tirelessly collating incidents from around the World and television and the web feeding you non-stop images of the accident site, no one thought that way.

I said that, but the thought has been sown in my mind. Look at the number of large accidents in the past 3 weeks.

Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 crash landed in SFO


A few days later, we had this plane land nose-down in La Guardia Airport


Followed by this Boeing 737 that blew out its tires and crash landed in O’Hare Airport.


As if Ground Transportation wanted to prove a point and not let Aviation hog the limelight, a few days ago, two trains collided head on in Switzerland.


This comes soon after a train accident in Spain:


Are accidents more frequent or are we simply hearing of it more often after the Asiana Airlines crash landed in San Francisco airport?

PS: I don’t why I put up a morbid post today. It is the mood people, the mood 😦

%d bloggers like this: