Tag Archives: #saumyabalasubramanian

Nose In Books, Feet In Socks: On Dr. Seuss

Growing up in the misty mountain valleys of South India, I relished every moment spent with my nose in books and my feet in socks.  Nestled in the range of Nilgiri hills, in a place too small to merit a dot on the map, is a place I was lucky enough to call home when I was growing up. The rainy climes and lack of digital entertainment options meant that we read as many books as we could, and used our imagination to come up with innovative games and entertainment options.

Enid Blyton lifted all of us children into clouds above The Magic Faraway Tree or whisked us away on the Wishing Chair. Tinkle comics & Champak took us for a spin (I am trying to remember some of the characters without the aid of the Internet – a cheap thrill in the current times – Kalia the crow, Chamataka the fox, Doob-Doob the crocodile, Tantri the Mantri, Suppandi, Naseeruddin Hodja, Vikram & Betaal and of course, that vague huntsman who should be the mascot for gun control laws, Shikari Shambu).  

As we grew older though, we moved away from Children’s comics and fantasy books. As more serious fare gradually replaced this wonderful array, I never expected to revisit that wondrous feeling of picking up a children’s book where you know not what magical world opens up to you, and when. But that is exactly what happened when I had children here, and we journeyed into these marvelous worlds together. I had never read the Thomas Train series or the Curious George series or the Berenstain Bear series or any of the books by Dr. Seuss as a child and I got to experience all of this with them for the first time. Oh! The simple pleasures of reading a book like any of these for the first time are gift enough, but to be blessed to be able to read it for the first time as an adult is surreal. It was like growing up all over again. To that, I am eternally grateful.

One morning, the old body was off to a slow start, and I was yawning sleepily in the car. The elementary school-going son looked at me, shook his head with pity and said, “I know what will wake you up! Let’s listen to Horton Hatches The Egg” and we did. The son & I were soon cracking up with loud laughter in the car – sleep had flown, and the nonsensical plot had truly woken me up surer than caffeine could. It is a marvelous book and takes one through the hilarious plot of an elephant hatching an egg. 

I don’t think the little fellow knew about Dr Seuss’s quote on nonsense waking up the brain cells, but it worked like a charm:

“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living. It’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, And that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.”

Today, some of Dr. Seuss’s books are being pulled back to have a more inclusive perspective. We know the world changes, but the underlying sentiment he sought to share with the world is one of inclusivity, as he knew first-hand what it was to be ostracized. He knew what it meant to not feel welcomed, and most of his books encouraged us to open our minds and embrace the world. 

March 4, 2021 Article in the NYT.

The current news about the books makes for a great conversation starter on racism with children – for some of his books such as Sneetches examine racism, and how we are more alike than different in spite of our physical differences. I remember being shocked to learn Enid Blyton’s books came under similar criticism. When I was a child reading these books, all they did was transport me to a magical place. I was a brown-skinned girl growing up in South India, but that did not stop me from imagining the 90-ft Eucalyptus tree at the end of our street poked its topmost branches into the revolving worlds in the clouds. But when I re-read them now, I see the point: I must confess that this has led to many interesting discussions with the children.

As the world evolves, and we continue to grow as individuals, it also gives us an opportunity to look for places in the writing that were reflective of the times. For instance, what we identify as unacceptable today was considered acceptable 20-30 years ago. This, in my mind, is a hugely positive aspect of human-beings. Isn’t being able to stop, evaluate ourselves and become better versions of ourselves one of the greatest accomplishments of being human? 

I read Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel, by Judith & Neil Morgan, a biography of the beloved author, Dr. Seuss

Ted Geisel was born on March 2, 1904, in a well-off family. His father, after running the successful family business for several years, later worked for the public parks system with access to a zoo. He puts many of his influences down to the natural loafing around in the countryside with access to animals as a child. His mother had a knack for reading things in verse to him in a way that stuck in his brain. Over his brilliant career, he would combine both these influences in a charming manner to enable an entire generation to love reading.

Ted was a school-going child in Springtown, Massachusetts, when the First World War started. The Geisels were first-generation German Americans and though they were citizens at the time of war, the world around them did not treat them kindly. It is disheartening to read that young Ted Geisel was persecuted for his lineage. This boy went on to write books that are loved and adored by children of all races, religions, nationalities, and backgrounds. His books only ask for an open mind whether it was imagining an elephant gingerly climbing up a tree to hatch an egg or eating green eggs and ham. 

His college sweetheart, and later, wife, Helen Palmer, was the first person to suggest to Ted that he may be better off drawing and writing than pursuing an academic career at Cambridge. He says this was around the time he realized that writing and drawing were like the Yin and Yang to his work. 

Excerpt from the book:

One day she watched Ted undertake to illustrate Milton’s Paradise Lost; he drew the angel Uriel sliding down a sunbeam, oiling the beam as he went from a can that resembled a tuba.

“You’re crazy to be a professor. What you really want to do is draw.” she blurted out. She glanced at a cow he had drawn and said, “That is a beautiful cow!”

Praise from the one you love is truly lovely, and it set him on the course of his career.

I am truly grateful for Dr. Seuss’s books. He and so many authors gave me the gift of finding wonder and magic in an immigrant’s journey.  Read Across America Week was started during Dr. Seuss’s birthday week, and continues to enthrall children. In my son’s school, this year was the multicultural reading week. He told me about some excellent books they read in school this week:  Under the Hijab, The Roots of Rap, My Papi has a Motorcycle, etc, and I am looking forward to reading these myself.


Saumya Balasubramanian writes regularly at nourishncherish.wordpress.com. Some of her articles have been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Hindu, and India Currents. She lives with her family in the Bay Area where she lilts along savoring the ability to find humor in everyday life and finding joy in the little things.

A Planet of Wizards & Prophets

I was reading The Wizard & The Prophet by Charles E Mann on a crowded train one evening a few months ago and when a young girl sat down next to me. The name of the book is intriguing, and it piqued her interest too.

She was in first or second grade and her curly hair was made into numerous tiny plaits. Her eyes shone with a curiosity that would make any 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 was pedantic, I did it anyway. It quickly taught me never to under-estimate children – my student soaked in everything and asked the most engaging questions.

I saw a certain amount of editing would need to be done if the topic 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, figures, and life histories of all the people involved.  But, I knew the bits where a child’s wonder can be kindled. 

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. Mentioned alongside him are stalwarts like Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, who 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 in Climate Change at all because the experiments show me how humans are changing the air around. I showed her the pages outlining the experiment where scientists managed to pin down Carbon Dioxide as the source of our problems.

I cannot deny that global warming and climate change have always intrigued me. Carbon Dioxide only accounts for 0.04 % of the atmospheric gases after all. 

Scrippsnews from Wikimedia Commons

In The Wizard & The Prophet, the author outlines the experiments used to determine 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 is now proven beyond doubt. Known as the Keeling Curve, we measure the carbon dioxide in the air over many decades.

(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 on the child’s face, I asked her, “But not all is worrisome, did you know that we can reduce 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.

She glowed at the simple solution thought of by Dr. Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Prize. After a few minutes, my student’s stop had arrived 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 science and the proof for increasing carbon footprint caused by human activity have been around for decades now. We just need to take action. 

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. 

India was one of the first nations to increase its green cover by almost 15% in 2019.

We have one planet on which we can live. Let’s do all we can to take care of it.

Happy Earth Day! April 22, 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. A day meant to spur us into action meant to preserve and sustain Earth. 

Saumya Balasubramanian writes regularly at nourishncherish.wordpress.com. Some of her articles have been published in San Francisco Chronicle, The Hindu and India Currents. She lives with her family in the Bay Area where she lilts along savoring the ability to find humor in everyday life and finding joy in the little things.

Go Women Ninjas!

I stepped out for a walk with my elementary school son. He was telling me about a program that seems to be the craze among his friends: Lego, Ninjago.

Ninjaaaa—goooo!”, said the little fellow and spun around on the spot kicking his legs up in the air. “ I wonder why they need to say Ninjaaaa-gooo before doing spinjitzu, but they always do that.”

“Maybe it is a spell. Why do they spin so much anyway? Is it like ballet?”, I asked.

The horror of my ignorance made him open his eyes wide in disbelief. “Amma! It is not like ballet. It is spin-jit-zu.”

I often prance into these gaffes. It was clear that the Ninjago masters did not appreciate being called ballet dancers, even though their spinjitzu-s looked like ballerinas who had stubbed their toes.

Knowledge is the antidote to ignorance

He set about enlightening me after taking a deep breath. “They do spinjitzu to use their powers. Everyone has a power. Jai has?” he looked at me expectantly.

I knew the answer was somewhere. I had nodded along on several occasions when he explained the powers of Ninja masters. I took a sip of humility and came clean. “Oh! I can never remember these powers. Why don’t you tell me again, and I will do my best to remember them.”

Professors can rarely resist such a humble seeker of knowledge, and so my little Professor launched on his ‘Amazing Superpowers of the Ninjago Masters’ class.

A few minutes of Walk-Walk-Talk-Talk later, “Then, Lord Garmadon was bitten by the Evil sorcerer and Evil coursed through his veins.”

“Oh no! His parents must’ve been so sad!”, I said. “What did his mother do?”

The fellow stopped with a quizzical expression on his face. “Umm…he has no mother. I don’t know why, but he doesn’t.”

Women Ninja time?

It was as we continued toeing the Ninjago-Spinjitzu line that I asked him why there were no Women in the Ninjago world. His face crinkled with thought. “ Nya is there. Cole became a Ninja to save his sister Nya.”

I looked at his sincere face, and took a deep breath. I saw it was time for me to become a female Ninja.

I asked him what he thought of his sister. “Do you love her?”

A look of awe crept into his eyes. His older, taller, wiser sister?  She looks after him, plays with him, and tells him the most amazing Greek myths. “Of course I do!” he said, stung by such a blasphemous question.

“How about Amma? Do you like me?”

Affirmative.

I kicked it up a notch. I asked about his friends. There were a few girls in the list. I asked him about his teachers, grandmothers and aunts? Duh! He laughed and said that he liked them all.

“Now”, I said, “I want you to imagine how you will feel without any of these girls in your life! “

“What?! Why?”, he said.

“Because that is what those poor Ninjago master-fellows seem to be going through. Don’t you see? “

His face dawned, and then he gave a sheepish smile.

Gender Stereotypes

Research shows that our attitudes regarding genders are formed between the ages of 5 & 6. Maybe this is the time to look at all our entertainment choices with a critical eye. If Superman does everything by himself, why do we think our sons will discuss their problems with us? If in most shows Men save the world by going to War, how can we hope for future peace and diplomacy? Every evening, homes are flooded with soap operasthat glorify women who suffer at the hands of those who should be their intellectual partners and friends.

The effect spirals over time as well. If you look at the average amount of time spent in unpaid housework, women spend a significantly greater amount of time than men do. In some countries, they spend almost double the time doing unpaid housework as men.  

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recognizes the extent of the problem and has dedicated $1Billion in 2018 towards empowering Women. They recognize that every aspect of life (lower poverty rates, increased health care & life expectancy), improves when women are empowered. In the introductory chapter of the book, Moment of Lift, Melinda Gates writes: Sometimes all it takes to lift women up, is to stop pulling them down.” 

International Women’s Month is here and we will be celebrating all the great achievements of Women in Science, Literature, and Leadership; ​​instead of stopping and acknowledging the Women in our lives. The ones who make life what it is with their friendship, camaraderie and companionship.

Biases sneak in sometimes without our knowledge, and setting it right may start with the simple step of recognizing its existence.

 “Wait!”, said the little fellow. “Nya also became a Ninja later in the series. She is a girl-Ninja now.”

“Good!” I said, and peace was restored in our world.

Saumya Balasubramanian writes regularly at nourishncherish.wordpress.com. Some of her articles have been published in San Francisco Chronicle,  The Hindu and India Currents. She lives with her family in the Bay Area where she lilts along savoring the ability to find humor in everyday life and finding joy in the little things.