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Window Seat: Butterflies

20/09/2020 at 7:00 AM

Butterflies conjure up images of sunshine, the warmth and colour of flowery meadows, and spring gardens teaming with life.There are many references to butterflies in literature, from thepuranas to the Bible through Shakespeare to modern day literature, and from poetry to musical lyrics.These colourful tiny creatures have been around for at least 50 million years and probably first evolved some 150 million years ago.

Butterflies and moths are a highly diverse group comprising over 250,000 species and make up around one quarter of all named species.Among the 17 mega-diverse countries of the world, India hosts nearly 1,400 species of butterflies.

Butterflies (and moths to a lesser extent) have immense scientific value. They are an extremely important group of ‘model’ organisms used, for centuries, to investigate many areas of biological research, including such diverse fields as navigation, pest control, embryology, mimicry, evolution, genetics, population dynamics and biodiversity conservation.

Butterflies have ecosystem value. These delicate creatures help in determining the health of the environment. Areas rich in butterflies and moths are rich in other invertebrates. These collectively provide a wide range of environmental benefits, including pollination and natural pest control.

Moths and butterflies are an important element of the food chain and are prey for birds, bats and other insectivorous animals.

Therefore, they need to be protected, more so as they are facing habitat loss with the march of urbanization and deforestation. 

Over 30 organisations in India, working in the field of biodiversity conservation, came together to host a national eventnamed ‘Big Butterfly Month: India 2020’ on various aspects related to butterflies. It began on September 5 and will continue till September 20. Various activities like online workshops on butterflies, photography and videography contests and butterfly count were held. Goa- based Foundation for Environment Research and Conservation (FERC), co-ordinated the programme.

(Photo: BN Neelima, Tirupati)

Woman of substance

As KanganaRanawat, Rhea Chakrabarty and of late Jaya Bachhan hog the headlines and prime-time television space and everybody and their uncle and aunty are discussing about them, as the social media is jammed with stand with one of the above mentioned three ladies- I came across the story of Muthulakshmi, who deserves to be known widely. 

Muthulakshmi Reddy was born in 1886 in the princely state of Pudukottai in the Madras presidency (now Tamil Nadu). Her father was NarayanswamiIyer. Her mother was a Devadasi who were women who were ostensibly “dedicated” to temple deities tasked with passing on the baton of the art of dance to the next generation. The grim reality was different.

They were often subjected to exploitation and were considered prostitutes by the British government. It was actually worse than prostitution- no one chose to be a devadasi. The prepubescent girl was initiated into the system by a religious ceremony which ensured her permanent status as a concubine. She would have a male patron, but no rights to his surname or inheritance. Devadasisneedn’t marry and were called, “Nityasumangali” – meaning immune to widowhood. It was a crass euphemism – after all, you can’t become a widow if you aren’t married.

Luckily for Muthulakshmi, her father was an academician and a school principal. He gave her the power of education. The class in which she studied had 40 boys and 3 girls – separated by a screen. Even then the parents of the boys objected, fearing their “innocent” sons would be ensnared by a prepubescent femme fatale.This may sound absurd, but this was a common trope in those days.One of the teachers resigned in protest. But her father stood with her and provided her a plank.

After attaining puberty, she was home schooled, as was the tradition in those days. She wanted to change not just her destiny, but also those of others. She asked the Maharaja of Pudukottai for funds to study medicine.The stunned Maharaja gave her a princely sum of Rs.150 which was the much needed escape velocity that changed her trajectory.

She became the first woman to enter Madras medical college. She was studious and bagged several medals. When she wanted to take obstetrics and become a surgeon, the professors were shocked. Surgery with its blood and gore, was considered a man thing then. Nevertheless, with characteristic persistence, she became an obstetrician. She started catering to the elite professionals first. However, a turning point happened soon.

Her sister developed rectal cancer and eventually died. Back then, cancer wasn’t known to the public as the emperor of maladies. Those who were unlucky enough to get it were considered doomed. No one wanted to spend on a lost cause. So DrMuthulakshmi took it upon herself to go to the UK and trained in Royal Marsden hospital to manage cancer patients. She had a rare combination of strong roots and powerful wings. She came back to Madras, but faced painful apathy about cancer.

She turned to Women’s India Association – which helped fund, the first cancer hospital in Madras – the Adyar cancer institute.

One day, three girls from Namakkal ran away from the Devadasi system and asked her , “Now what will happen of us? Where will we stay?”. She realized the dire problem and set about the long journey that would culminate in their emancipation.

She sheltered them, but not just them. She started the Avvai home. She met Sarojini Naidu and became a nationalist.

Realizing the importance of political power, she went on to become the first woman to join the legislative council in British India. She was also the first woman in the world, to become the deputy President of a legislative council.

She met and married Sundara Reddy, with the condition that they will be equals.

DrMuthulakshmiReddy,fought two battlessimultaneously: first-finding land and funding for the cancer hospital; and the second-liberation of the devadasis.

The cancer hospital, grew slowly but steadily. She asked everyone who would listen for funds, including King George V.Today it’s a world class institute, giving life to many. Her statue stands there, like a guardian angel of the cancer patients.

On December 5,1947, at long last, the Madras Presidency passed the bill preventing the dedication of young girls as devadasis.

The laurels followed. She was awarded Padma Bhushanin 1956.

Her story is the triumph of grit over fate. It’s a reminder that we can script our own destiny, regardless of where we start. Neither social ostracism, nor the strictures of colonial India could conquer her will.

She’s the hero that our daughters need to know about.

Tailpiece: 4 benefits of Green Tea

The richness reflects.
The cost of milk is saved
Don’t even have to give biscuits
And the guests don’t come again.

Tailpiece2: Not easy to be a Teacher

Teacher:Construct a sentence using the word “sugar”

Pupil: I drank tea this morning.’

Teacher: ‘Where is the word sugar?

Pupil: It is already in the tea..!!

Teacher:Our topic for today is Photosynthesis. 

Teacher:Class, what is photosynthesis?

Student: Photosynthesis is our topic today.

(Courtesy: Social Media)


Journalist turned media academician MrinalChatterjee lives in Dhenkanal, a Central Odisha town, writes fiction and translates Urdu and Hindi poetry into Odia.

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