Sunday, July 22, 2012

Fireflies, Honey, and Silk by Gilbert Waldbauer

Fireflies, Honey, and Silk by Gilbert Waldbauer is an entertaining and engrossing description of how insects have forever been of the utmost importance for human survival and progress. Ink, wax, honey, fibers, certain foods and medicines, colorants, music and jewelry are a few products that insects have provided us over the past fifty centuries or more. The author describes myriad ways in which we have used insects and products derived from their habitats. For example, honeycomb of a bee supplies both beeswax and honey. The gall made by wasps has forever been an ingredient of inks. Cocoons of silkworms have given us clothes that many poets have written about, many beauties have craved for.

Be it Indians of Americas or Asia, the natives of Africa or Australia, Chinese or Mayans, tribes -- ancient or contemporary --, all have depended upon insects for countless products. In nature too, most of the flowering plants need insects for pollination, and hence survival of their species and most ecosystems. The book provides a delightful journey into the historical, economic and cultural influences and transitions that have guided the rearing of silkworms for obtaining expensive clothing (successfully in China, less so in US), cochineals for scarlet red dye (big profits were made by the Spanish at the cost of South Americans), crickets for producing music (in China and Japan), bees for wax and honey (everywhere on earth), fireflies and jewel beetles as decorations (in India and South East Asia), termite chutney (in Africa), honeydew from ants (in Americas) and maggots of blow flies for cleaning festering wounds (sometimes works better than all antibiotics). The author writes with an enthusiasm and erudition that comes after a lifelong passionate pursuit of topics in etymology. The author writes with an inimitable joy and clarity that every every science writer must adopt and emulate, and if we do so, I am sure more readers will flock to the scientific literature.

Read and own this treasure trove for its fascinating chapters, informative illustrations, rich mixture of folklore, myths and current science, quotes from many texts, times and authors (yes, Pliny makes an appearance as does Mark Twain) and highly quotable information (be it sex habits of beetles, synchronous flashing of fireflies in South-East Asia, profits made in rearing bees, inventions and discoveries including paper making and degradable sutures attributed to watching insects). Highly recommended reading for everyone remotely interested in the world around us and in the science and study of insects.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Globalizing English by Indianizing English

When I sing or recite, follow only the melody.
My lyrics wear dresses foreign to your memory;
widows wear white, brides red. The saffron priests
praise the un-manifested or incarnate divinities. Beasts
feature in my dances and myths. Chants obey rhymes
where consonants alien to the West accent these lines.

Follow only the melody, for I decorate my lines
with mustard-oil lamps. My bamboo flute melody
recounts the deep-song of ancient cowherds, rhymes
farmers composed for harvest dances & a memory
of wheat-colored beauties and sacrosanct beasts.
Echoing hymns older than myths, like Brahmanical priests,

I invoke all deities before the fire god, Agni. Priests,
my ancestors from the Vedic times, composed such lines:
"Revere the alive and the dead, wind, water, fire, beasts,
ether, nether. Every being, thing is divine. Om is the melody
the hymn, the hum of the universe. Aatma is self, a memory
of Paramaatma, the Grand Self. We are a billion rhymes,

chimes of the Grand Self. Incoherent, unspoken half-rhymes
of the present / absent Self. Juvenile egos, minds. Our priests
are within, any knower is a Brahmin. Our harvest is a memory
grown by centuries of soul-farming". What is obscure in my lines
conceals a lyric beyond English. If you follow only the melody,
the Westernized you will notice that we are two thinking beasts,

divided only by our memory. After rebirth as ignorant beasts,
we are conditioned by our space-times, by accidental rhymes.
My wild hope, instinct, belief ever seeks to arrive at a melody
that shall bring joy and dance to every territory. All the priests
within me, with verses I forget or dread or echo in my lines
insist, all humans are blessed with a transcendental memory

enriched by soul-farming. In spite of our divergent memory,
drives, lusts, cravings and myths, we, logical, liberal beasts,
surpassing our space-times, can traverse beyond these lines,
beyond dresses alien to our memory, beyond babel rhymes,
to Ananda -- bliss and tranquility. To Moksha beyond priests,
beyond prejudices, in harmony with the universal melody.

Though I sing in English, I adorn my lines with an Indian memory.
If we focus only on the melody, we argumentative, rational beasts
could reach the locus of rhymes of our primordial verses and priests.

A version appeared in Muse India in 2012; this is a highly revised nth version.