The story of an American icon

A Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Harper Lee gave us one of the finest pieces in English literature, “To Kill a Mockingbird". The novel which became a cult classic of modern American literature came out in 1960 during the Civil Rights Movement and is considered an exposé of racial prejudices that existed in the southern states of the U.S. Let's read up on the author whose birth anniversary falls in April.

"Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird," is an oft-quoted line straight out of Harper Lee's much-acclaimed novel 'To Kill a Mockingbird".

With Mockingbird, Lee gave us one of the finest pieces in English literature. The 1960 novel which became a cult classic of modern American literature came out during the civil rights movement and is considered an exposé of the racial prejudices that existed then in the southern states of the U.S.

This coming-of-age story is themed on social equality and is also a critique of the racist culture that was prevalent in America. The novel is narrated by a young girl, Jean Louise ("Scout') Finch. Finch is the daughter of white lawyer Atticus Finch. Set in the fictitious rural town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the early 1930s, the novel has Atticus Finch fighting for justice and representing a black man for a crime against a white woman. It addresses how racial prejudices come into play as the family of Attticus gets targeted. The book's message and the moral stance taken by Finch are relevant even today.

Let's go back to the powerful quote. The setting of the story is during Christmas when Atticus Finch gives air rifles as gifts to his children Jem and Scout In the book, this is the first time that the title is alluded to. He is sure that the children may not shoot at tin cans but might aim at birds. He requests them not to shoot at mockingbirds. That's because a mockingbird is a songbird and does no harm, it is said. It represents something pure and innocent that shouldn't be hurt or punished. This lends a symbolic meaning to book.

The idea resonates across the book as mockingbirds are used to allude to the two characters in the book viz. Boo Radley and Tom Robinson.

Early years

Known as Nelle, Harper Lee was born in the Alabama town of Monroeville. She was the youngest of four children born to Amasa Coleman Lee and his wife Frances Cunningham Finch Lee. Her father, who was a former newspaper editor, practised as a lawyer and served in the state legislature. Growing up, Lee was more of a tomboy and was close with her schoolmate and neighbour, the young Truman Capote, who would also grow up to be a writer.

After Lee graduated from high school in Monroeville, she enrolled at Huntingdon College and then pursued a law degree at the University of Alabama. Once here, she wrote for several student publications. She then went to Oxford University as an exchange student for a year.

On returning from Oxford, she realised that her career was in writing and not in law, and dropped out. Lee later moved to New York in 1950 and took up the job of a reservation clerk.

Lee as a writer

In the late 1950s, she devoted her time to writing. In fact, a Christmas present changed the trajectory of her life. In 1956, her friends gifted her a year’s salary as Christmas present with a note asking Lee to write whatever she pleased. Come 1959 and Lee had completed "To Kill a Mockingbird".

The novel was published in 1960 and instantly became a hit. The book also fetched her Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961 and still remains a bestseller. Lee was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007.

The book has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide. It was adapted to the screen, became a part of the educational curriculum, and was widely celebrated. But soon after its success, Lee retreated from public life and became a recluse. She turned down interviews and biographers. She moved from New York back to Monroeville, her hometown.

Always a mystery

Lee is also one of the most mysterious writers, with not much known about her personal or literary journeys. After her book made a giant splash on the literary scene, not much was known about her writing and it left people waiting for her second book. And when it was widely understood that she may not publish another, her first novel was considered a fluke.

There were even theories that the novel was written by her dear writer friend Truman Capote. But decades after "To Kill a Mockingbird" was published, a manuscript was found by her lawyer.

A sequel

"Go Set a Watchman" is considered either a sequel to 'To Kill a Mockingbird" or a rough draft of it. It chronicles the homecoming of Jean Louise Finch, to a place fraught with racial tension. The book gives a dark shade to Atticus.

The unedited manuscript of "Go Set a Watchman" was discovered in a safe deposit box by the author's lawyer and was released in 2015. However, the book was a let-down to some of the fans of Mockingbird, because it revealed the prejudices and weaknesses of Atticus.

Lee died in her sleep at the age of 89 in 2016.

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Unsung pioneers in the field of science

These are tales not just of perseverance and love for science, but also of discrimination and unfair treatment. Despite making groundbreaking discoveries, their names remain largely unknown, simply because they are women. Let's celebrate these women scientists and their contribution to the world....


Esther Miriam Zimmer Lederberg was an American microbiologist, who discovered bacterial virus Lambda phage and the bacterial fertility factor F (F plasmid). Like many woman scientists of her time, Esther Lederberg was not given credit for her scientific contribution because of her gender. While her husband, her mentor and another research partner won 1958 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering how genetic material is transferred between bacteria, Esther wasn't even mentioned in the citation, even though her work significantly contributed to the discovery.

Esther Miriam Lederberg was born in Bronx, New York, into a humble family. When studying masters in genetics at Stanford University, Esther struggled to make ends meet. As recollected by Esther in her interviews, she had sometimes eaten frogs’ legs leftover from laboratory dissections.

Esther met her future husband Joshua Lederberg at Stanford. They moved to the University of Wisconsin, where they would begin years of collaboration. Throughout the 1950s, they published papers together and apart, as both made discoveries about bacteria and genetics of bacteria.

Esther Lederberg's contributions to the field of microbiology were enormous. In 1950, she discovered the lambda phage, a type of bacterial virus, which replicates inside the DNA of bacteria. She developed an important technique known as replica plating, still used in microbiology labs all over the world. Along with her husband and other team members, she discovered the bacterial fertility factor.


Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was a British-born American astronomer who was the first to propose that stars are made of hydrogen and helium.

Cecilia Payne was born in 1900 in Buckinghamshire, England. In 1919, she got a scholarship to study at Newnham College, Cambridge University, where she initially studied botany, physics, and chemistry. Inspired by Arthur Eddington, an English astronomer, she dropped out to study astronomy.

Studying astronomy at Cambridge in the 1920s was a lonely prospect for a woman. Cecilia sat alone, as she was not allowed to occupy the same rows of seats as her male classmates. The ordeal did not end there. Because of her gender, Cecilia was not awarded a degree, despite fulfilling the requirements in 1923. (Cambridge did not grant degrees to women until 1948.)

Finding no future for a woman scientist in England, she headed to the United States, where she received a fellowship to study at Haward Observatory. In her PhD thesis, published as Stellar Atmospheres in 1925, Cecilia showed for the first time how to read the surface temperature of any star from its spectrum. She also proposed that stars are composed mostly of hydrogen and helium. In 1925, she became the first person to earn a PhD in astronomy. But she received the doctorate from Radcliffe College, since Harvard did not grant doctoral degrees to women then. She also became the first female professor in her faculty at Harvard in 1956.

Cecilia contributed widely to the physical understanding of the stars and was honoured with awards later in her lifetime.

CHIEN-SHIUNG WU (1912-1997)

Chien-Shiung Wu is a Chinese-American physicist who is known for the Wu Experiment that she carried out to disprove a quantum mechanics concept called the Law of Parity Conservation. But the Nobel Committee failed to recognise her contribution, when theoretical physicists Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang, who had worked on the project, were awarded the Prize in 1957.

Chien-Shiung Wu was born in a small town in Jiangsu province, China, in 1912. She studied physics at a university in Shanghai and went on to complete PhD from the University of California, Berkeley in 1940.

In 1944, during WWII, she joined the Manhattan Project at Columbia University, focussing on radiation detectors. After the war, Wu began investigating beta decay and made the first confirmation of Enrico Fermi's theory of beta decay. Her book "Beta Decay," published in 1965, is still a standard reference for nuclear physicists.

In 1956, theoretical physicists Tsung Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang approached Wu to devise an experiment to disprove the Law of Parity Conservation, according to which two physical systems, such as two atoms, are mirror images that behave in identical ways. Using cobalt-60, a radioactive form of the cobalt metal, Wu's experiment successfully disproved the law.

In 1958, her research helped answer important biological questions about blood and sickle cell anaemia. She is fondly remembered as the "First Lady of Physics", the "Chinese Madame Curie" and the "Queen of Nuclear Research”.

LISE MEITNER (1878-1968)

Lise Meitner was an Austrian-Swedish physicist, who was part of a team that discovered nuclear fission. But she was overlooked for the Nobel Prize and instead her research partner Otto Hahn was awarded for the discovery.

Lise Meitner was born on November 7, 1878, in Vienna. Austria had restrictions on women education, but Meitner managed to receive private tutoring in physics. She went on to receive her doctorate at the University of Vienna. Meitner later worked with Otto Hahn for around 30 years, during which time they discovered several isotopes including protactinium-231, studied nuclear isomerism and beta decay. In the 1930s, the duo was joined by Fritz Strassmann, and the team investigated the products of neutron bombardment of uranium.

In 1938, as Germany annexed Austria, Meitner, a Jew, fled to Sweden. She suggested that Hahn and Strassmann perform further tests on a uranium product, which later turned out to be barium. Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch explained the physical characteristics of this reaction and proposed the term 'fission' to refer to the process when an atom separates and creates energy. Meitner was offered a chance to work on the Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb. However, she turned down the offer.

JANAKI AMMAL (1897-1984)

Janaki Ammal was an Indian botanist, who has a flower- the pink-white Magnolia Kobus Janaki Ammal named after her.

She undertook an extraordinary journey from a small town in Kerala to the John Innes Horticultural Institute at London. She was born in Thalassery, Kerala, in 1897.

Her family encouraged her to engage in intellectual pursuit from a very young age. She graduated in Botany in Madras in 1921 and went to Michigan as the first Oriental Barbour Fellow where she obtained her DSc in 1931. She did face gender and caste discrimination in India, but found recognition for her work outside the country.

After a stint at the John Innes Horticultural Institute at London, she was invited to work at the Royal Horticulture Society at Wisley, close to the famous Kew Gardens. In 1945, she co-authored The Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants with biologist CD Darlington. Her major contribution came about at the Sugarcane Breeding Station at Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. Janaki's work helped in the discovery of hybrid varieties of high-yielding sugarcane. She also produced many hybrid eggplants (brinjal). She was awarded Padma Shri in 1977.

GERTY CORI (1896-1957)

Gerty Cori was an Austrian-American biochemist, known for her discovery of how the human body stores and utilises energy. In 1947, she became the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and the third woman to win a Nobel.

Gerty Theresa Cori was born in Prague in 1896. She received the Doctorate in Medicine from the German University of Prague in 1920 and got married to Carl Cori the same year.

Immigrating to the United States in 1922, the husband-wife duo joined the staff of the Institute for the Study of Malignant Disease, Bualo. N.Y. Working together on glucose metabolism in 1929, they discovered the 'Cori Cycle' the pathway of conversion of glycogen (stored form of sugar) to glucose (usable form of sugar). In 1936, they discovered the enzyme Phosphorylase, which breaks down muscle glycogen, and identified glucose 1-phosphate (or Cori ester) as the first intermediate in the reaction.

The Coris were consistently interested in the mechanism of action of hormones and they carried out several studies on the pituitary gland. In 1947, Gerty Cori, Carl Cori and Argentine physiologist Bernardo Houssay received the Nobel Prize in 1947 for their discovery of the course of the catalytic conversion of glycogen.

Although the Coris were equals in the lab, they were not treated as equals. Gerty faced gender discrimination throughout her career. Few institutions hired Gerty despite her accomplishments, and those that did hire, did not give her equal status or pay.

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Who was Elizabeth Fry?

Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) was an English prison reformer of the Victorian era. In 1812, she visited Newgate prison in London which housed men as well as women prisoners. The prisons were overcrowded and filthy, and Fry was shocked to see the conditions in which prisoners lived. She then committed the rest of her life to prison reform.

Fry gave practical solutions to improve the conditions of prisoners, such as bringing food and clean clothes for them. She spent nights in various prisons to understand what it was like to live there. Fry believed that it was important to encourage prisoners to develop a sense of self-respect, as this would help them to reform.

Fry founded the Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners in Newgate in 1817, which was one of the first nationwide women's organisations in Britain. (This association helped female prisoners to adapt to society after their release from jail.) She also started a night shelter for homeless people after she saw a young boy lying dead on the streets.

Fry's books include "Prisons in Scotland and the North of England" (1819) and "Observations on the Visiting, Superintendence and Government of Female Prisoners" (1827). The Home Office Minister of the time, Robert Peel, admired Fry's work and he passed the Gaol Act in 1823, which improved prison conditions in London to an extent.

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Who was Maria Montessori?

It was Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori who pioneered the Montessori method of teaching for children.

For over a hundred years, the Montessori Method has been a favoured way of shaping the first learning experiences of young children. And it is all because of the efforts of a pioneering Italian educator, Maria Montessori (1870-1952).

A bright student, Maria had wanted to study medicine but was rejected by the University of Rome because of her gender. It was only after she earned a degree in natural sciences and a recommendation from the Pope that she was grudgingly given admission. During the course, she was not allowed to attend the anatomy class with the other students as it was deemed inappropriate for a woman to see a naked body in the presence of men. So she had to practise her dissections of bodies alone, after class hours.

Nevertheless, she graduated with flying colours, becoming one of the earliest Italian women to receive a medical degree in 1896.

Maria began her career by working with children in mental asylums. She devised new educational methods for them, which were so successful that her students passed the examinations meant for normal children!

In 1907, she opened Casa dei Bambini (Children's House) in a slum in Rome, her first chance to see if her methods worked on normal children. She believed that children learned best through doing. She encouraged them to use their five senses to explore their surroundings while playing. She gave them special toys and lessons to develop their innate creativity and imagination.

Maria found that children learned to write before they learned to read. Once, in a class of children who had begun to write a little, she wrote on the blackboard. If you can read this, come up and give me a kiss and waited. Many days passed and then a little girl suddenly went up to her and said, "Here I am!" and kissed her. The children in her schools learnt to read and write by the time they were five years old.

Today Montessori education is followed in over 25,000 schools in more than 140 countries.

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Who was Maria Mitchell?

The astronomer is best known for her discovery of a comet, which later came to be known as 'Miss Mitchell's Comet.

Maria Mitchell was the first professional female astronomer in the United States. She is best known for her discovery of a comet, which later came to be known as 'Miss Mitchell's Comet

Maria Mitchell was born in 1818 in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Her father was a school principal and an amateur astronomer who helped her develop interest in science and astronomy at an early age. Maria would spend hours observing the night sky through a telescope and help her father in such calculations as predicting annual eclipses. Through her jobs as a teacher and later as a librarian, Maria Mitchell kept her passion for astronomy alive. Her success in establishing the orbit of a new comet in 1847 gained her international repute. She received a gold medal from the King of Denmark for this discovery.

Later, she took up a job as professor of astronomy at Vassar College in New York. Mitchell and her students continuously tracked and photographed sunspots. She was the first to find that sunspots were whirling vertical cavities and not clouds, as had been earlier believed. In 1882, she documented Venus traversing the sun-one of the rarest planetary alignments known to man.

Maria Mitchell was also a well-known proponent of equal rights-she fought relentlessly for women as well as for blacks. The school that she started admitted black children at a time when segregation was common in the US. At Vassar College, she demanded and got equal pay when she realised that her junior male colleagues were paid more.

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Who was Olga Owens Huckins?

A journalist and nature lover, Olga Owens Huckins wrote two letters - one of which was published in ‘The Boston Herald’ on January 29, 1958 - in quick succession expressing her dismay regarding the usage of DDT as a pesticide. One of these letters prompted American marine biologist, writer, and conservationist Rachel Carson to write Silent Spring, now considered a classic in the environmental sciences.

There is no doubting the fact that we, human beings, have been responsible for more' environmental degradation than any other living species. As we continue our search for longer lifespans and more comfortable living, we seem to be indiscriminately damaging the world around us.b

Despite the knowledge we possess and the awareness of the damage we are causing, there seems to be little collective will to lead to resolute actions on a consistent basis. That said, there have been a number of individuals through the course of history who've made change possible with their doggedness. Olga Owens Huckins and Rachel Carson were two such American women.

Birds drop dead

A journalist and nature lover, Huckins and her husband had created a little bird sanctuary on their property. When the Massachusetts' programme to control mosquitoes sprayed dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT, in their area, Huckins noticed birds and insects too dropping dead in her garden.

As there was little she could do herself about it, Huckins conveyed her anger through a letter that she sent to ‘The Boston Herald.’ This letter, titled 'Evidence of Havoc by DDT’, was published in the newspaper on January 29, 1958.

Seeking to reach out to people in power at Washington who might be able to stop the aerial spraying, Huckins shot off another powerful letter to her old friend Carson. A marine biologist, writer, and conservationist, Carson had spent much of her life studying, observing, and writing about nature. Having already heard about DDT since it was developed in the 1940s as the first of the modern synthetic insecticides, Carson decided to delve deeper into the subject.

Not a miracle substance

DDT was perceived as a miracle substance that could work wonders. It was used with great effect to combat insect-borne diseases such as malaria in many populations. It was sought after by farmers as they saw it as a boon in their fight against pests to save crops.

The more she read about DDT and other insecticides, however, the more convinced she was that the ongoing indiscriminate spraying was untenable. Unable to gain the interest of any magazine to write on the subject with what were then seen as controversial views, Carson decided to go ahead with a book with the wealth of research she possessed. "Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent," she said, and decided on the title for her book - Silent Spring.

In her book, which took her four years to complete and was first published in June 1962, Carson spoke about how DDT enters the food chain and gets accumulated in the fatty tissues of animals, including humans, causing cancer and even genetic damage. The success of the book meant that for the first time there was public concern surrounding the improper use of pesticides and the need for better controls around their usage.

Faces personal attack

Just as she had anticipated, there was a barrage of questions that followed, as she was targeted by the chemical industry and by some in the government, with many even attacking her personally. Her meticulous preparation and copious notes put her in good stead, and when she testified before Congress in 1963, she called for new governing policies that protected the health of both humans and the environment.

Even though Carson didn't live to see it (she died in 1964), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned the usage of DDT in 1972, based on its adverse environmental impact and potential risk to humans. Even though the dangers of its usage are by now well-established, DDT is still used in some countries, including India, to control mosquitoes that spread malaria. India, in fact, is one of the last countries that still manufactures DDT.

Carson once said that "The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth." Carson and Huckins definitely did that and also took it to the masses. If there is a lasting legacy of ‘Silent Spring’, it would be the fact that the vulnerability of nature to human intervention was laid bare. And yet, 60 years on, there are many out there who continue to disagree.

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Who was Emily Jane Bronte?

English novelist, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights was the author’s first and last novel. It is widely considered by many as one of the most incredible pieces of imaginative literature in the English canon. Let's find out what makes it a classic.

About the author

Emily Jane Bronte was born on July 30, 1818, in Thornton, Yorkshire, England. She was the fifth of six children, and the fourth daughter of Patrick Bronte and Marie Branwell. Her father was a remarkable man and a minister of the Anglican church. The author lost her mother at the tender age of three. This was the first great loss the family had to come to terms with. In 1825, Emily was sent to join her sisters Maria, Elizabeth, and Charlotte at school. Following the tuberculosis epidemic at the institution that claimed the life of her two elder sisters, Emily and Charlotte returned home. This incident is also mentioned in her sister Charlotte's magnum opus Jane Eyre. Emily spent the next 10 years of her life at home, where she played, read extensively, and wrote together with her siblings in an inventive creative workshop. During one of such playful workshops, the four participated in fictional world-making, which resulted in Charlotte and their brother Branwell teaming together to create a fictional land called Angria, and Emily with her sister Anne inventing the fictional Pacific Island of Gondol.

Emily was a meticulous reader. Charlotte in her Preface to the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights elucidated that her sister "always wrote from the impulse of nature". However, Professor Karen O'Brien from the University of Oxford says that Emily Bronte's lone novel is a testament to her extensive reading and understanding of the works of English poets and authors such as Sir Walter Scott, William Wordsworth, and Lord Byron. The first edition of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights was written under the pseudonym Ellis Bell and published in 1847.

Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights is a powerful and complex story of love, obsession, and revenge over two generations. It is narrated by housekeeper Nelly Dean and framed from the perspective of a visiting outsider Mr. Lockwood. This narrative revolves around an orphan named Heathcliff, who is taken in by Mr. Earnshaw and brought to live in Wuthering Heights. The story explores the close-knit bond he forms with his patron's daughter Catherine.

What makes it a classic?

A treatise on women Social conventions were extremely important at the time when Bronte wrote this novel. Italian writer and journalist Italo Calvino, in his book The Uses of Literature, said. "A classic is a classic book because it had never finished what it had to say", and Wuthering Heights stands true to this statement. One might think of it as just a love story. Well yes, but it's also a story of ghosts, obsession, and haunting. Where Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters predecessor, wrote about the purpose of romance and how it was intangibly linked to or ended in marriage, Emily Bronte's sole novel is a treatise on women and tries to explore what is important to her gender other than the pursuit of marriage.

Making a statement

Through Wuthering Heights Emily Bronte changed what was possible and acceptable for women to write, and how women and men can be portrayed in fiction. Her characters challenged the social expectation that one's emotions and how they are expressed or dealt with must be dictated by an individual's gender. It advocated that all the things.

that we as people feel are not so different just because one is a man or a woman. It broke away from the tradition that dictated that women must only write about acceptable things (such as love and marriage) and elements of the domestic sphere. It objected to the idea that men (especially heroes) are not capable of emoting grief and passion or being allowed to display any negative emotions such as vengeance. Wuthering Heights is not a moralising novel and calls the hypocrisy of the society that divides people on the basis of gender, turns a blind eye to the violence it inflicts in the name of religion, set unrealistic moral expectations, and is more concerned with respectability, than working towards creating an equal society.

Emily Bronte's exceptional imagination in Wuthering Heights, says English author Kate Mosse, "makes it clear that a woman who is an artist and a man who is an artist have the same mission-to write what we think is true and to write what we think matters, this makes her sole novel one for the ages."

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Who is the best-selling author of all time?

Agatha Christie is famed as the best-selling author of all time, However, she was not the most prolific writer of her family. Agatha grew up with two older siblings, out of them, her older sister Margaret (nicknamed Madge) also pursued writing and was considered to be the more promising writer.

By 1916, Madge had already written and published a few short stories, while Agatha had not published any. So when the latter shared the idea of writing a mystery novel with Madge, her sister was not as enthusiastic. She bet that Agatha would not be able to craft a compelling mystery and it certainly would not be something she could not solve. Taking up the challenge, the 26-year-old Agatha got to work and wrote, what would become her debut mystery novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Today, this novel stands alongside hundreds of mysteries Agatha crafted during her illustrious writing career.

Crafting a perfect mystery

Agatha Christie's stories are like a puzzle box full of clues, misdirection and drama. But what are the essential elements of crafting a perfect mystery?


One of the most important decisions while designing any story is choosing the setting. Whether it was a remote island or yacht or a snow-stalled train stall, the author would always favour eerie and isolated locations, a trend that most of her stories follow. By doing so she limited the movement of her characters and build tension by forcing these plausible suspects to stay put, with the killer lurking among them.

In some cases, she would heighten the drama by making the characters strangers, unsure of who they could trust.


As a keen observer of human behaviour, she would often use peculiar traits or habits of the people around her to create authentic characters. However, one of the most popular criticisms of her novels is her use of two-dimensional characters that would easily reflect the stereotypes of her time. Future writers are advised not to emulate this trait of hers.


It is a mystery writer's job to concoct stories that are complex and full of riddles and clues. Making it merely a balancing act between being clever and not confusing. The English author used simple, precise and accessible language to accomplish this task. The clarity of her language makes her stories palatable and engaging and can be credited with making her the 'Queen of mystery'.

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How Karthyayani Amma Nonagenarian sparks hope for millions of girls?

Inspired by Karthyayani Amma, who passed the literacy examination at the ripe old age of 96, chef Vikas Khanna has directed Barefoot Empress, a film tracing her journey. He also aims to help educate five million girls in India

In 2018, Karthyayani Amma hailing from Kerala wrote the Aksharalaksham literacy examination conducted by the Kerala State Literacy Mission Authority. She scored an impressive 98 out 100- bagging the first rank, and shot to national fame. What is so impressive about scoring 98 when students score 100 on 100 all the time, you ask? Karthyayani Amma was 96 years old when she took the test! A widow "who had never gone to school and used to work as a domestic help and cleaning staff, her determination and perseverance was duly acknowledged. On International Women's Day in 2020, she was awarded the Union government's Nari Shakti Puraskar.

And, to this day, she continues to inspire people. Among them is Michelin Star Chef Vikas Khanna. He has directed Barefoot Empress, a 15-minute short film, produced by Oscar-nominated Doug Roland. It chronicles her remarkable journey, displaying tremendous courage and resilience "when she joins a first grade class at the age of 96". The chef highlights that Barefoot Empress a "love letter to never giving up on your dreams" while also shining a light on the lack of educational opportunity for girls in certain parts of India. It has been garnering critical acclaim globally and won the Biogen Award for Best Short Film at Tokyo's prestigious Short Shorts Film Festival this year.

He's not stopping with just the film, though. Vikas Khanna is now focussed on setting in motion a movement that involves rehabilitating classrooms for better educational environment, improving nutrition by providing healthy meals, providing basic educational supplies in partnership with non-profit organisation Leap to Shine, and training girls in culinary skills to be financially independent. Inspired by Barefoot Empress, Leap to Shine has named Amma a global ambassador and pledged to educate five million girls in India.

For Khanna and his team, the "mission around Barefoot Empress is focussed around starting a movement to bring girls back to school while impacting education and livelihood skills. Our goal is to deliver this for five million girls". The movement to bring five million girls back to school in three years will include rehabilitating and renovating classrooms and creating an enabling learning environment. While 18 classrooms were renovated recently, the plan is to rehabilitate 25 classrooms in phase one. The movement also aims to focus on nutrition, the lack of which leads to school drop outs. Khanna's team estimates that it takes 10 dollars to support and provide meals to a girl child for one year and they plan to serve 1,00,000 meals. Under the initiative, school bags, pencils, books and tablets are being distributed to girls in marginalised schools to bridge the educational and digital divide.

He hopes that the one step that Amma took at the age of 96 towards a school will herald in hope and possibilities for millions of young girls in India and beyond to fulfil a similar dream that Amma nurtured for decades - that of a good education.

  • Barefoot Empress, a 15-minute short film, is a "love letter to never giving up on your dreams" while also shining a light on the lack of educational opportunity for girls in certain parts of India.
  • The "mission around Barefoot Empress is focussed around starting a movement to bring girls back to school while impacting education and livelihood skills. Our goal is to deliver this for five million girls", says Vikas Khaana.

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Bond with nature

In her debut children's novel "Searching for the Songbird", anthropologist Ravina Aggarwal pens a story about the curiosities of children, of young friendships, and of finding harmony with nature. The book details the exploits of Johnny Raut and his friends as they set out to find Kastura, the missing ‘songbird' and the prime suspect in a burglary in the Himalayan foothills. In this interview, the author speaks about her new book and why it's important for children to develop an intimacy with the songs and sounds of their environment. Excerpts....

What prompted the decision to write a children's book?

My love for books came through mysteries. As a child, the imagined world of clues and detection fascinated me. I had grown up imbibing the experiences of children in England through the works of English authors. The characters in these stories eat scones, live in cottages, and form secret societies in garden sheds. But growing up in India, in Mumbai, that wasn't quite my experience. So I wanted to write a mystery that is reflective of our Indian context.

"Searching for the Songbird" is set in the foothills of the Himalayas in Dehradun. Why did you choose this setting for your book?

My quest has always been to convey the geography and the experiences of the Himalayan region, which I have loved and studied through various genres of writing. The Himalayas are not static mountains. They are undergoing a lot of change and turmoil. I think cities such as Dehradun capture the complexities of balancing the environment with a desire for growth.

When Johnny arrives in Dehradun, he struggles to deal with his new surroundings as he knows almost nothing about the mountains. Like Johnny, children growing up in urban areas are often unaware about their local flora and fauna. Do you think it is necessary for children to interact with nature?

It is absolutely essential for the children of this generation, who are growing up with the looming cloud of climate change, to bond with nature. Children today are living with the negative consequences of unbridled human growth, and so it is important that our parenting and education systems reflect a relationship with nature. There has to be a curricular shift, along with experiential learning, creating opportunities for children to be with nature. We also need to think of exposing children to alternative, more sustainable lifestyles.

From the crimson sunbird to the slaty headed parakeet and the Indian paradise flycatcher, why are birds central to the story?

When you are in Dehradun, you can't help but notice different varieties of birds. The book is about listening to the songs and the sounds of the mountain; the birds are part of that soundscape. Unfortunately, we are at a time when there's a lot of human-wildlife conflict because natural habitats are disappearing.

Kastura, the missing 'songbird' is portrayed as a caste musician and the book highlights caste discrimination prevalent in India. Could you elaborate how difficult it was to weave such a complicated topic into a children's book?

For urban kids, understanding caste- in particular, the prejudices or stigmas that people in their peer group might be enduring- is important. In modern India, you need to know about caste and engage with its history. And how do children grapple with that? I think it's through social relationships. The protagonist Johnny, although he is from Mumbai and is living in the mountains, has to start understanding these differences to form social bonds and solve the mystery.

After solving the mystery of the missing 'songbird’, Johnny and his friends form the Himalayan Catchers Society. Can we expect more adventures from them?

Certainly! I intended this book to be part of a series and I hope to write the second part soon.

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Who is known as pepper queen of India?

Rani Chennabhairadevi is known as "The Pepper Queen' (Raina da Pimenta) of India. Her reign lasted 54 years, the longest by an Indian queen. She ruled from Gerusoppa, capital of the Saluva dynasty, between the 15th and 16th centuries. Her kingdom extended from Goa to Bhatkal and Karwar, up to Malabar. This belt was known as pepper country, as the spice grew in the virgin forests. Shiploads of pepper, betel nut, timber and sandalwood were traded with the Portuguese, British, Dutch and Africans in exchange for precious metals and stones. Most of the trade happened through Mirjan port in Uttara Kannada. The queen resided at and controlled the pepper trade from Mirjan Fort on River Aganashini. The Portuguese and the Keladi kings tried to capture Gerusoppa which Chennabhairadevi thwarted twice. The Keladi kings joined with the Bilagi chieftains to defeat her; she was imprisoned and died in captivity at Keladi.

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What kind of writer is Annie Ernaux?

Using social and personal history, Annie Ernaux explores emotions such as shame, guilt, and grief, and blends them to create literary marvels. The French writer was recently awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize for Literature.

She is one of the greatest chronicler of our times, weaving the social and personal history seamlessly and offering a space for collective memories and histories in literature..

Intimate, reflective, and brutally honest, Annie Ernaux's literary works are like personal histories as well as a collective history of her times.

The 82-year-old French writer explores emotions such as shame, guilt, and grief unabashedly. Ernaux has been writing for the past 50 years. Through her writings, she shares the collective experiences and memories of her generation. She has been awarded the Nobel prize for Literature recently.

Moving away from its tradition of awarding the prestigious Nobel prize in literature to novelists, playwrights and poets, this time, the Swedish Academy has chosen to acknowledge a writer of non-fiction, something the Academy has done only a few times. The merit of a memoirist has been acknowledged thus.

How it started

It all started in 1974 with 'Cleaned Out’, Emmaus first book. It was a fictionalised documentation about a personal trauma she had to go through. Over the course of her writings, she has tried to draw on her life experiences, and those of others around her.

Early years

Born in 1940 in Lillebonne Normandy, Ernaux and her parents moved to Yvetot where they ran a cafe. Her painful encounter with the shame of her working-class background during that period would have a profound influence on her writing years later.

Ernaux as a teacher

Ernaux taught literature at secondary school for many years. Later, she retired from teaching and focussed on writing. The Years' published in 2008 is an outstanding work which captures her life and times over a span of six decades. The English translation of this was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize International.


In one of her interviews with the Guardian, she had said that for years she thought that through writing she could 'avenge her whole people. few people in her family received formal education. Hence she strongly believed that she could highlight the social injustices through her writing.

Her bevy of literary works revolved around intimacy, social inequality, education as a change and so on. Her very personal experiences such as grieving, passion, classed shame, illness are also touched upon.

An ethnographer

She is often considered an ethnographer or sociologist, because her writings push the boundaries of literature, with the memoirs not just reflecting the self, but documenting the social realm from a neutral perspective as well.

Ernaux has published three autobiographical novels viz. 'Cleaned Out’, ‘What they say Goes’, and ‘The Frozen Woman'. She has brought in a new narrative form in ‘life writing'.

For instance, in the auto-socio-biographical texts, she explores her life whilst documenting the social milieu. I remain in Darkness' and ‘Getting Lost’ are diary extracts and in 'Diaries of the Outside, she explores her interaction with others in public spaces such as the metro or supermarket.

In ‘Where I belong' and 'Return to Yvetot she has woven the narrative around the important places she came across in her life.

The feminist in her feels that the women's revolution and the fight for equal rights are not over yet.

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What was Louisa May Alcott best known for? How Little Women became big?

Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is a semi-autobiographical American coming-of-age story about four sisters. A critique of the unrealistic perception of blissful female domesticity, this novel has never once been out of print since it was first published in 1868, and has even been adapted for the big screen seven times to date. Let's revisit the classic and look at what makes it relevant even today.

About the author

Louisa May Alcott was the second of four daughters born to Amos Bronson Alcott and Abigail May on November 29, 1839. Her father was an autodidact, which means he taught himself how to read and write. He eventually became a progressive educator and founded the temple school, where he introduced subjects such as art music nature studies, and physical education into the curriculum, in the hope of providing holistic education to the students. However, the school was shut down as most parents at the time were neither familiar nor happy with these subjects. Bronson Alcott's unconventional teaching methods were the reasons why he could never establish a steady source of income and brought his family to the verge of poverty.

Growing up, Louisa's way of thinking was not only shaped by her father’s teaching but also by close interactions with his friends, American authors Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, whom the family befriended upon moving to Concord.

Distressed by her family's financial status, 15-year-old Louisa wrote in her diary "I will do something by and by. Don't care what, teach, sew, act, write anything to help the family and I'll be rich and famous and happy before I die, see if I won't. And she was able to fulfil this, thanks to the massive success of her semi-autobiographical novel Little Women, which was initially published in two parts Little Women (1868) and The Good Wives (1869).

Fortunate accidents

Louisa May Alcott never wanted to write Little Women, as it went against all of her impulses to be taken seriously as a writer and an equal to her male contemporaries but ended up penning the iconic story as a consequence of a series of fortunate accidents.

She was 36 years old and had already published a few books under the pen name A.M. Barnard when her publisher Thomas Niles insisted that her next novel should be about the domestic sphere and cater to young women. Enticing her further, Niles suggested that he would willingly Mr Alcott's philosophy book too if Louisa agreed to this.

Just for the sake of her father, she agreed and wrote what would become her most celebrated book in a 10-week flurry, drawing from her own childhood experiences.

Little Women

The novel chronicles the lives of the Four March sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy as they grow up during the American Civil War, wrestling with the limitations placed on women in the 19th Century. It critiques how women are forced to make cruelly imposed compromises between self-fulfilment and economic and social necessity.

What makes it a classic?

The blueprint of a family

This work of children's fiction has a didactic tone that sets it apart from most of the literature that appeared before it. Louisa's realistic characters and sentimental themes explore how social reform must start at home. Little Women functions as a blueprint of what it takes to have a healthy relationship with your family. Although the story is set in the tumultuous background of the civil war and the scarlet fever outbreak, the connection that the flawed and vulnerable March sisters have and share with the people that surround them is what makes them more life-like, relatable, and relevant. The book celebrates their diverse takes on difficult situations, individual struggles with poverty, and different aspirations in life, highlighting how no two individuals can be the same even if they are raised under the same roof with the same resources.

The matriarch

Through the strong and self-reliant character of Marmee, the author challenges the prevailing assumptions of 19th Century society that saw women as domestic goddesses that were best kept indoors tending to every need of the family.

Marmee is a source of awe and inspiration to her children, who have witnessed her single-handedly manage the household and make a living while their father is away at war. Her unconventional way of thinking, which suggests self-respect, peace, and true love must hold more importance than money and even marriage, motivates her daughters to dream big and accomplish more in their lives.

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Who was Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay ?

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was the first woman in India to run for political office, when she competed for a seat in the Madras Legislative Assembly in 1926, losing by a mere 55 votes. A freedom fighter, actor, writer and social reformer, she was the driving force behind the renaissance of Indian theatre, handicrafts and handlooms in independent India. She is known as "Hathkargha Maa' for her work in the handloom sector to uplift the socio economic status of Indian women. Making it fashionable to wear handspun sarees and adorn homes with traditional handicrafts, the Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan awardee set up iconic institutions like the National School of Drama, Sangeet Natak Akademi, Central Cottage Industries Emporium and the Crafts Council of India.

Kamaladevi was also a key figure in the international socialist feminist movement. From the late 1920s to the 1940s and beyond, Kamaladevi became an emissary for Indian women and political independence. She also advocated transnational causes – such as racism and political and economic equity between nations. She also attended the International Alliance of Women in Berlin in 1929.

Born in a Saraswat Brahmin community of Mangalore, Kamaladevi was greatly inspired by Gandhian ideas and the concept of non-violence. Much of it can be attributed to her upbringing. Her parents were progressive thinkers and involved in the freedom struggle of the era. Her mother was chiefly responsible for her scholarly upbringing after Kamaladevi lost her father at an early age. Her grandmother was known to have challenged the limitations placed on widows and continued her pursuit of knowledge and independent living.

Her first chance with politics came at the home of her maternal uncle. A notable social reformer, his house was throged by eminent lawyers, political luminaries, and public figures, among them Gopalkrishna Gokhale, Srinivasa Sastri, Pandita Ramabai, and Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru. By 1923, Kamaladevi, following the footsteps of Gandhi, enrolled herself in the nationalist struggle as a member of the Congress party. Three years later, she had the unique distinction of being the first woman in India to run for political office. Kamaladevi competed for a seat in the Madras Legislative Assembly and lost by a mere 55 votes.

Even though she was a strong advocate of Salt Satyagraha, she differed with Gandhi’s decision to exclude women in the march. Though Kamaladevi was charged with violation of the salt laws and sentenced to a prison term, she captured the nation’s attention when, in a scuffle over the Congress flag, she clung to it tenaciously. At the same time, Kamaladevi was establishing political links outside India too. In 1926, she met the Irish-Indian suffragette Margaret Cousins, who founded the All India Women’s Conference and remained its president until Kamaladevi assumed that role in 1936. She was a great author too and her first writings on the rights of women in India date to 1929. One of her last books, Indian Women’s Battle for Freedom, was published in 1982.

An interesting fact that many are unaware of is the role Kamaladevi played in giving birth to present Faridabad. As the founding leader of the Indian Cooperative Union (ICU), she took upon the job to resettle nearly 50,000 Pathans from the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) in the wake of the post-Partition migrations. Apart from her contribution in handicrafts, she also set up the Indian National Theatre (INT) in 1944, what we today know as National School of Drama. It was a movement to recognise and celebrate indigenous modes of performance like dance, folklore, and mushairas and help the freedom struggle.

Credit : Indian express

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Toni Morrison was an acclaimed author whose literary works animated the experiences of black women wit power, humanity, humour, and poetry. Her compelling narratives and fresh vivid language transformed the world of countless readers and writers. Let’s look back at this academician’s 1993 acceptance speech for the nobel prize in literature.

In 1993, acclaimed African-American writer Toni Morrison created history by becoming the first black recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. She dedicated her life to crafting narratives that highlighted the experiences and realities of black women in America. The visionary force and poetic inputs that embellished her landmark speech on the occasion not only paid homage to her racial and cultural identity but also presented a critique of the use and misuse of language.

Fiction: educational or merely entertaining

Morisson began her speech by declaring that fiction is more than just entertainment. She expanded on her hypothesis by claiming that the oral traditions of storytelling bear evidence of the fact that narratives have always been a principal way we "acquire, hold and digest information". Recalling how the most memorable sentence of one's childhood is the phrase, 'once upon a time she narrated a fable of the black blind clairvoyant woman and the dead bird to elaborate on how all the citizens of a nation are collectively responsible for creating an equal world that does not use language to discriminate, oppress or violate the minorities.

The vitality of language

She believed that the vitality of language lies in its attempt to describe what is actual, imagined and possible in the lives of its speakers, readers and writers. Referring back to Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, she said " language can never live up to life once and for all. Nor should it. Language can never "pin down" slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it year for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable... unmolested language surges toward knowledge, not its destruction...Word-work is is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference - the way in which we are like no other life. We die. That may the meaning of life. But we do be language. That may be the measure of our lives." (excerpt from the speech)

Key takeaways from the speech

1. We acquire, hold and digest information via narrative.

2. It is our responsibility to wield language to create a more equal world.

3. Language is the measure of our lives


1. Toni Morisson was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford, but she changed it after she converted to catholicism.

2. Morisson was a college professor and an editor at Random House, before becoming a celebrated author.

3. Morisson was 39 years old when her debut novel The Bluest Eyes was published.

4. Morrison's 1987 novel Beloved won a Pulitzer Prize.

5. Morrison was honoured with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 by then-President Barack Obama.

6. The novelist's birthday February 18 is celebrated as Toni Morrison Day in her home-state Ohio.

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