Imagining Utopia – When Dawn Breaks in a Covid World


Utopia today is the reality of yesterday. As the world stands near- paralyzed by Covid-19, the common man’s life limited to basics, the givens no longer so, and the perennial now so transient, I find myself thinking of the days gone by. All that as the present was far from satisfying, today, in hindsight seems so beautiful – there was no fear, no restrictions, freedom to do everything and move about, travel, and not at any point be confined indoors. Today the home, appears to be the only safe haven, and all I can do is dream…of a utopian world.

Strange how concepts and our perspectives change. Utopia at one time meant something outlandish, far fetched and far removed from reality, with everything being picture perfect, and everyone in a happy state. Utopia is the unrealistic perfect world we yearn to see, but given the realities around us, we tend to accept the imperfections happily.  The way the wheels of life on planet earth have stopped, instilling fear and uncertainty ruling on all fronts, our wanting life to go back to its old tenor has become utopia for us.

Life has been too easy for us, earning, spending, splurging, running to accomplish multiple tasks but enjoying none, since the next task was waiting. It was items ticked off a list, accountable to whom, I wonder… the goal seemed important, the journey irrelevant. Humankind was unstoppable, scaling higher and higher in terms of wealth, power, prestige, and success. To travel across the globe, see new places, savor exotic foods from diverse cuisines, share experiences, and lead parallel lives, one in the real world, and another, for the world to see – through social media. Were we enjoying the moment, the present, or were we building memories to revisit later, or perhaps creating a better image of ourselves for the world to see? All this snatched away from us, or perhaps put on hold for an extended stretch of time, is our imagined utopia now.

A tiny invisible protein has put everything on hold, or perhaps stopped indefinitely, leaving us wondering if things will ever be the same again. The fear of a potentially fatal illness had locked us up and entire nations have had to live through lockdowns to control the spread and curtail the damage of this pandemic. The pandemic might end one day, but the coronavirus seems here to stay.

Is it all dismal and all bad? The loss of life is the worst irreplaceable truth that has shaken us all and forced even the most stubborn to stop being careless and nonchalant. It has also given us time to think and ponder, for which we never seemed to have the inclination or the time previously.

And as in all difficulties, we must start from rock bottom, gradually building our way up. Looking at the basics, we have a comfortable, if not luxurious roof over our heads, money in the bank, good food to eat, a job that provides sustenance for us and ours. Yes, work from home is a dent, productivity impacted and less to do, since the pace of operations, projects and collaborations has changed, but the employers understand. If we get to keep our jobs, it’s a tremendous relief. If we lose them and other opportunities appear, that is a relief too. We miss the outings, the socializing, evenings spent in the company of friends, and the freedom to step out at any time. In place of all this, is the peace and quiet of home, the domain that did not always get our complete attention this way ever before. We now find that the home is a bottomless well of potential activities, we just need to have the patience to find them and see them through.

Life will never resume the same pace and course we left it at, three months ago. It will be different and to that extent utopian, and the new dawn will have lesser friends, fewer outings, cautiously gloved hands and  masked faces, social distancing, lesser travel, and more virtual meets, virtual workspaces, and shopping binges limited to essentials.

 After two months of lockdowns, and a very gradual opening up, a resigned acceptance has set in already. A tiny light peeps at us as we have started stepping out a bit, meeting a single friend, a short solitary walk…even as we dream of getting back perhaps half of the life we had, the biggest need being, the ability to reach our loved ones.

Today the world may seem plunged in dullness, uncertain about what lies ahead.  But every dark spell ends with the first rays of light, and a dawn breaks…to new beginnings, new hopes and new challenges which we need to gear up to meet.

Information Hygiene – The Concept and Its Relevance

IFor many months now, a plaguing worry has been the flooding of information on the worldwide web, and social media, in particular. The abundance of content is awe-inspiring, but simultaneously worrying because most of the information is unverified, often incorrect and inaccurate, and many a time based on optimized keywords, and hence frivolous and irrelevant.

Long forwards fill whatsapp and viber lists on our smartphones each morning. Even a cursory glance through, by a refreshed mind, makes one absorb 20-50% of what is written. This is because we all have inculcated what is called, ‘continuous partial attention”, the process of paying close attention simultaneously to multiple information sources, but only very superficially

 In present pandemic times when the coronavirus has become the most dreaded infection, it heightens our fears substantially, makes us lose our objectivity, lean more towards doomsday predictions, and scout around for more information, similarly unverified. Often, credibility becomes difficult to doubt when names like “John Hopkins University” or Dr Naresh Trehan ( CMD Medanta Hospital, Gurgaon, India), are quoted… till rebuttals and misattributions appear after a few days, and we find that those we trust have been used, to spread incorrect information.

This leaves the common man wondering what to believe, is any of the information true at all?  

The problem arises when we start quoting from posts we have read, and it spreads – becoming a viral narrative. Somewhere the fake news becomes real news unless contradicted by scientific facts and figures.

It is April 2020 and the world is going through probably the most tumultuous time, that we millennials have seen in our lifetimes. Dependent entirely on media coverage of news and information as we practice social distancing and remain confined to our homes, working and studying online, it becomes imperative to question what we read and hear. Rational, and objective mental capabilities are important and the need to sift through the massive stockpile of information to find credible, reliable news is of utmost importance.

All this is what made me notice a seemingly new concept of ‘information hygiene’. The term is self-revealing and resonates with my thinking completely, and made me research and find out more, what people have to say about it, and if there is any scientific evidence to prove its absence and any statistics even vaguely related to the term.

 Hygiene simply means being clean, maintaining certain basics to ensure good health. Various cleaning processes are the route to good hygiene. Over time, hygiene has been used in connection with food as well, and the latest I have seen is linked to information-even though the meaning is very different. Clean with reference to information would mean true information and not fabricated, exaggerated, or false information, meant to pass off as the truth.

Data hygiene is a closely related concept which involves processes to make data error free and hence clean. Information hygiene similarly seems to indicate factual, true information not lacking in authenticity, stating reality not tarnished by the figment of individual imagination, hype, bias or exaggeration.

The need for information cleansing or scrubbing, just as it exists in the realm of data, is paramount at present, when the common man is inundated with information, but remains confused what and how much of it to believe.

Information can be of various kinds:

  1. Small truths blown out of proportion to create sensational news that is eye catching even though highly exaggerated.
  2. Convictions that take the form a news piece, without an iota of truth but potential of having a big impact.
  3. News just for kicks. Some people enjoy the impact of a piece of information they share.
  4. Harmless news about trivialities especially about celebrities which will appeal to a limited audience but not have any adverse impact-often read, and forgotten.
  5. Verified news, backed by research, beliefs of thinkers and experts in the field, or pieces of information shared by the most reliable and trusted intelligentsia .

Information hygiene becomes critical during times of crisis, as during this pandemic which has shaken the world, instilled so much fear, led to massive medical, economic and psychological costs, with public morale down and fears of the future causing unparalleled stress. The threat is to life itself, to survival, and the future seeming bleak, till a vaccine and a cure appears on the horizon. The need of the hour is to propagate facts, instill hope, share information that will reinstate optimism, and make people and their morale more upbeat, than what it has been for the last couple of months.

The information overload is weighing us down negatively, giving us talking points, something to share, however untrue but seemingly significant. Increased density of dataflow, abundance of ‘information noise’ makes the mind retain the irrelevant and often forget the significant.

It is here and now that responsible agencies, governments and organizations begin a concerted campaign to sift out fake news, ensure stating of factual information and rate news and websites on the basis of the credible information they provide.

Parenting Challenges in a RapidlyChanging Myanmar


Zu Zu put her hands up in despair yet again. She has not been able to understand, for the last couple of years, how to react to her teenaged daughter’s behavior. She doesn’t seem to relate to her children any more, and while, in public, she feels proud that they speak well and conduct themselves appropriately, and have become smart and confident, their conduct at home, seems less warm, and are always finding fault with her, the way they live and what they do  not have. She is just one of many parents feeling this way.

Sounds familiar? Yes, this is one of the outcomes of rapid changes in society, when external international influences impact traditional beliefs and practices. The contrasts become stark, with foreign ones holding more appeal, and domestic patterns and ways of living appear archaic and unappealing, especially to the younger population. Parents, however wish to cling to their system of values and ideals, balance the western and Asian influences, limit the penetration of practices that clash with their religious and personal beliefs, and keep their children rooted in the local systems.

As economies get globalized, multinationals and international organizations bring with them, modern influences on education, living styles, social interactions and have a deep impact on society, particularly the vulnerable youth, that is hungry for change. Global connectivity and access to the worldwide web gives a virtual view of life and liberal practices, often very different from Asian norms, and seem so easy to emulate.

The mushrooming of numerous international schools in big cities and an inadequate local education system has pushed parents to send their children to these elite institutions with the hope of providing the best education to their offspring.  The academic learning apart, international education encourages independent behavior, makes children responsible for their tasks, encourages to form opinions and inculcate the ability to discuss. This is somewhat in contrast to traditional Asian values, where children must listen and obey rather than argue, especially with elders, where family hierarchy is respected more than equal standing for all. The result is conflict and resentment that tends to build between generations. Parents are not able to enforce rules they previously did, children become secretive since they find parents non accepting, and literally lead dual lives, one in school with friends where they have many commonalities, and one at home that they wish to break free from, eventually.

Many well-travelled parents themselves exposed to western ways, are more accepting and give children sufficient leeway, while many more try to enforce discipline in the traditional manner, that causes distress and some children end up with psychological problems. Neither side is wrong, one generation wishes to practice age-old ways of socialization of their offspring, and the other that prefers the more appealing western contemporary attitudes and perspectives.

Conspicuous changes in youth

An individualistic mind set, and being self-absorbed, wanting make their own choices and take decisions, shake off parental control, and being less thrifty than the previous generation. The family unit is also changing especially in urban areas, joint extended families are being replaced by nuclear ones, the role of grandparents is reducing, but family bonds remain strong. The youth remain respectful with just less time to devote at home, since gadgets and devices keep them hooked to online games and social media.

  • Greater use of the English language
  • Discarding traditional attire
  • No longer have tanakha smeared faces
  • Hanging out in trendy shopping malls
  • Cafes have replaced tea shops, an intrinsic part of traditional Myanmar

Both generations are impacted by the new wave of consumerism, a more materialistic attitude simply because of the ever-increasing range of products available. What was once purchased on annual trips abroad is now easily available here. Disposable incomes have also increased with the emergence of a growing middle class in cities and towns. Veblen’s concept of conspicuous consumption, once apt for only the top 1% of Myanmar society, is trickling down to the next strata as well.

Parenting methods that must evolve

Open societies that see western influences creeping and merging into their age old practices, require some openness to changing internally. Perspectives need to broaden, dogmatic beliefs need to be shaken off, and being amenable to change on numerous fronts, seems to be necessary.

By no means can one say that the new age concepts are right and the older ones incorrect, both sides remain as warm, as devoted and committed to seeing children blossom, and neither can be seen as black and white. The well-defined domains, the dividing lines have both become less demarcated, and the thin veil between generations has lifted.

Parents can now be ‘friends’ with their children, must no longer ‘dictate’, set hard, non-negotiable rules, confine children to the home and limit their range of activities. The ‘my word is law’ days are on their way out now. The warmth and care needs to manifest itself in other ways, less with discipline, more with softness and visible warmth, the tone and use of language displaying tenderness. Like spending quality time as family, doing fun activities, eating meals together with engaging conversations that are stress relieving for all.

Listening to children from an early age has become important. Often, we ignore what our children are trying to bring to our notice, forgetting that there can be issues plaguing tender minds, there may be concerns that worry them, or they may even be victims of abuse. The channels of communication must work both ways, and children need to feel confident that their perspective will be heard sympathetically without a scolding. Once this channel is open it brings confidence, strengthens bonds, and children grow up feeling more secure. Explaining to children why we want them to do something makes them understand the rationale, and are then happier obeying.

The level of involvement of parents is never in doubt, but it must never become so intense that it cages the child, leaves him incapable of handling problems and managing on his own. This is the typical Asian way of ‘protecting’ them, but can also make them excessively dependent.

Parents are always the children’s first role models and if they lead by example, practice what they preach, then the young ones will follow happily. Children tend to get confused when they feel that the rules laid down for them are different from what they see their parents doing. For instance, children may be asked to restrict the time spent on devices, be it the mobile phone or watching television, but they see one or both parents constantly on their phones, even if it is for work. If parents can impose a ‘no phone time’ on themselves, it will prompt the child to do the same. This type of positive enforcement is far more effective.

The balancing act

Mature parenting involves balancing the western and Asian influences, preserving cultural traditions and adapting to prevailing changing norms, since there is wisdom in both, despite the contrasts. We can choose all the practices that fall along the middle path. The challenge lies in the sifting and not allowing the intergenerational conflict come to the fore. The Asian value system holds immense appeal, since we feel it is the path that leads to peace and contentment rather than having discontented materialistic lives. We come across thousands of people who are perennially unhappy, with something always missing from their lives, and some cravings always keeping them dissatisfied. To value what we have, to count our blessings and looking below us for the material, is one useful habit to inculcate in ourselves and our children. In contrast, for spiritual elevation, we need to look up at those who have scaled higher, and this will help us evolve and improve, and this pursuit does not create unhappiness.

The younger generation also seeks instant gratification, quick results, and immediate resolution, everything treated in the same way as the click of a button on their devices. This is something parents alone can change, by not agreeing to all the children’s demands, by playing the waiting game, and allowing a wee bit of a sense of deprivation come to the young ones, only so that they value what they receive, everything not being their right, but a favor. This reduces their sense of entitlement, and prepares them for times ahead, when everything they want is not within their parents ability to give, and external factors are involved.

For this, Myanmar has an advantage over other countries, because empathy, sharing with others begin early, the monastery experiences of children during vacations make them calm and content, and the tenets of Buddhism become deeply ingrained in this largely Buddhist nation.

Parenting is a lifelong challenge, and external influences make it tougher. But parental love, devotion and commitment is far stronger in Asia, and this helps both generations. The older ones need to display wisdom with open minds, patience and mature perspectives, and the younger ones need to reciprocate and never forget where they belong, even as they pursue international education and emulate Western ways.

Umami – The Fifth Taste

A journey to explore Myanmar cuisine is loaded with anticipation – an exploration of tastes, flavors, fragrances, and the wide array of dishes placed in front, hold so much in store for our taste buds. A unique blend of three, four, even five tastes makes Myanmar cuisine delectable and immensely satisfying. Similar to other Asian cuisines, with distinct Indian, Thai and Chinese influences, Myanmar has a vast variety of dishes, each unique in appearance, appeal, taste and flavor. A dash of fish sauce, a spoonful of shrimp or fish paste, sprinkling of MSG (monosodium glutamate) may be common additives, but the taste  of each dish is distinct and aromatic, the only commonality being a depth and intensity which makes us all relish each mouthful, and we end up clamoring for more.

Why is it that some cuisines and dishes, have this unique quality, something different from the four basic tastes we have known all our lives, with a clear preference for some if not all of these – sweet, sour, salty and bitter. The secret lies in the fifth taste, Umami, that not too many of us know about. We have all been experiencing it but never put a name to that taste or realized that Umami is actually a different taste altogether, with different taste receptors in the mouth. It has taken the world nearly a century to add it to the official list of tastes, even though it has been one that is savored more and lingers the longest, on the tongue and in our memory.

Umami, literally meaning ‘deliciousness’, gets its taste from mainly the glutamate content in foods. It is that deep, intense, savory flavor found in meats and broths, matured cheeses and vegetables like ripe tomatoes and mushrooms. Though more often identified with Asian cuisine, Umami has existed in all cuisines all over the world, even though it wasn’t blatantly detectable. What was evident was the fact that certain tastes lingered in the mouth for much longer, leaving a deep sense of satisfaction.

Umami the newest officially recognized taste

The human tongue has as many as ten thousand taste buds, which are able to segregate the five different tastes, and research has revealed that amino acids contained in certain foods naturally can intensify the flavor of foods, and by certain cooking methods. This intense taste is different from the four basic tastes, and there have been long debates about whether Umami is actually a different taste altogether which can be experienced singularly or is actually an amalgamation of multiple sensations caused simultaneously. It needs to be clarified that ‘taste’ is actually based on one, singular sensation, while flavor stems from a combination of multiple sensations. Being very subtle, umami was, for a long time, perceived as a taste enhancer of certain food elements and not so much as a distinct isolated taste.

Though first discovered in 1908, by a Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda, it got official recognition only 82 years later as the fifth taste in 1990, finally claiming its rightful place in the culinary world. Subsequently in 2006, neuroscientists at the University of Miami were finally able to locate the taste receptors for Umami, which proved to further validate its place in the list of tastes, and acknowledge one more taste that was felt and experienced but never distinctly defined. It has existed since time immemorial and unknowingly, products were used in kitchens in different parts of the world to enhance it, in the form of fermented barley sauces, fish sauce, soy sauce and tomato paste, to name just a few. Thus, these accentuated the taste of food laid out on tables in Rome, the Arab nations, England and China.

It has since, become much talked about, explored and advertised by food connoisseurs. Ikeda, a chemist, tried to isolate and replicate the intense taste found in kombu, an edible seaweed, eventually used his Umami discovery to create monosodium glutamate, MSG, the taste enhancer used extensively in Asian cuisines. MSG is what balances and enhances certain subtle tastes and flavors, leaving a pleasant, lingering savory taste.

Umami rich foods

Umami becomes evident in certain foods by the breakdown of their glutamate components which surface when these foods are ripened, aged, cured or fermented. The amino acid, glutamate, is found naturally in certain foods including meats, dairy, vegetables and fish. Glutamate breaks down when it perishes or ferments, typically upon cooking, as in meats, or in the ageing of cheese. Thus tomatoes ripening under the sun convert glutamate into L-glutamate, and this is what subtly improved its taste, which incidentally is different from the taste of tomatoes that ripen with chemicals in a cold storage.

Ikeda stated after his research that there is a similar, complex flavor to be found in meats, asparagus, tomatoes and cheese, with Parmesan having the highest concentration of Umami. Each of these foods, and many more, stimulate the back of the mouth, roof of our oral cavity and the throat, and the tongue senses a ‘furry’ feeling. The umami taste is protein based, mild, delicate and subtle, and even in highest concentration is does not become strong, all that it does, is harmonizes the other tastes and makes the end preparation delicious.

There are three main umami substances glutamate, inosinate and guanylate. Inosinate is used as a food additive to potato chips and other snacks, and while naturally procurable from bacterial fermentation of sugar, a lot of it is artificially produced. Guanlylate is also a food additive and flavoring agent, and most often, used in combination with glutamic acid.

Glutamate is an amino acid that exists in abundance in nature, in natural foods and is one of the twenty amino acids that help the human body. It is a significant protein component, playing an important role in the body metabolism, nutrition and signaling function. Glutamate produces the umami taste only when it is not bound by other amino acids, and when it interacts with specific taste cells on the tongue. Extensive research has revealed the clear profile of free amino acids, and how they influence the taste of foods.

Miso, seaweed, parmesan cheese, soya sauce, fish sauce, tomato paste, all contain a high level of the amino acid, glutamate. Amino acids are building blocks of protein, conversely, proteins are amino acids linked in chains. Umami is associated with soups and canned foods, perhaps because food manufacturers seek to enhance this taste to replace the sodium content and offering low sodium preserved foods.

Soy beans when fermented and processed develop a higher glutamate content and add to the umami taste of the food they are added to. Seaweeds (the edible varieties), are naturally high in glutamates, and when they form the base of Japanese soups, for example, add to the umami taste substantially. Kimchi, the Korean salad, is fermented and this adds to its taste.

Umami beyond Asia

Umami has become an acclaimed taste beyond Asian nations and its prevalence in cuisines of other countries is being recognized and appreciated.

Its place in our food and flavors repertoire is now well established, and awareness about it is spreading all over. There is now a big Umami information center, we hear about Umami lectures and workshops, an annual international symposium which has acclaimed chefs and taste scientists participating from the US, Japan, Denmark, Italy and other countries. Umami finds pride of place on magazine covers, restaurant names, and is a frequent topic of conversation.

In nature produce, tomato has been one plant extensively used in Western cultures with the highest Umami component, getting its rich meaty flavor from the high level of glutamates contained in it. The British savored it in walnuts and mushrooms as well.  Lotus root, potato, green tea leaves, seafood varieties, all fall in the umami rich food category.

The Italians found it in their mature varieties of cheese much more than the freshly prepared cheeses. Thus, parmesan scored over mozzarella, closely followed by cheddar, gouda, emmental and Roquefort varieties. It was discovered much later that as cheeses age, their protein content breaks down into free amino acids and this increases their level of glutamic acid.

Soups prepared in Japan and also in Western countries were found to have an equal, similar umami taste. This, despite the fact that entirely different ingredients and preparation methods were followed. In the west, soups are cooked on low heat for long periods till the depth of flavor is extracted from ingredients like meat and vegetables. The Japanese soup base dashi, uses kombu, the dried seaweed and dried bonito, the former being dried very slowly over a period of time, but when cooked, it releases its flavors very rapidly, and does not need to be cooked for long. The taste quotient of both is comparable on the umami scale.

Besides soy sauce, a big source of umami taste is MSG, or monosodium glutamate, a fine crystal powder that is a popular food additive and taste enhancer. MSG laced dishes are common in most of Asia, including Myanmar, where it is added while cooking and sprinkled on top. Statistics reported by the Japanese company Ajino Moto reveal that Myanmar people consume 52,000 tons of MSG per annum. MSG has been in the eye of the storm and subject to extensive criticism for its supposed side effects like skin rashes, migraines, and indigestion. However, the United States’ Food and Drug Administration has given it the clearance of ‘generally regarded as safe’. Local nutritionists advise an intake of less than 2 teaspoons per day. It is actually not the glutamate amino acid that is worrisome, but rather its combination with sodium that has the propensity to cause marginal side effects.

Even as culinary experiences get reinvented with variety and multiplicity, Umami is the taste that chefs are seeking to bring to the table in all parts of the world, creating what they call, ‘Umami bombs’ that are the ultimate gastronomic experience. These are dishes prepared out of multiple ingredients that contribute towards creating the umami taste, and the complex end result is delectable and long lasting. Umami is what is bringing variety, novelty in food experiences and excitement about food in general for a section of foodies who tire easily of usual traditional food preparations, always wanting something new.

The Plastic Menace – Aspiring for a Plastic Free Home

From the first object we pick up on opening our eyes every morning, to the last button we switch off at night, plastic is the material we touch and see all around us. Plastic as a material, has become an addiction. Yet there is increasing focus on the plastic menace, and the threat to life on planet earth.

It is not unusual for man to create things that eventually end up threatening his own survival. Starting out as a convenient, safe, easy to use, unbreakable though totally malleable, durable material, plastic was the big invention of the 19th century. A chemical compound, plastic is a polymeric material that can be shaped and molded by applying heat into myriad shapes and products, that are lightweight and yet not easy to break. Its plasticity apart, plastic is tough and transparent, with low density and low electric conductivity. Its usability extends from bags and bottles to machine parts, equipment and even textiles.

In simple terms plastics are chains of light molecules linked together. These chains are termed polymers, and come in forms like polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene and so on. Easy to manufacture at low costs, they are waterproof and not easily breakable, even being resistant to corrosion and chemicals.

The Plastic story – how it all began

The very first known plastics come from nature, in the form of rubber, which has all the properties that plastic is known for. Plastic is derived from natural materials like oil, natural gas, coal, plants and minerals. The first synthetic plastics ever made, though, were made from cellulose, a material found in trees and plants. When heated and mixed with certain chemicals, cellulose yielded a highly durable material that could be put to numerous uses. It was also easy to make plastic out of hydrocarbons, found in oil, natural gas and coal.

The first fully synthetic plastic was invented in 1907, and made without using any natural raw material, it was called bakelite. The onset of World War II saw plastic being used to make lightweight airplane parts and nylon parachutes. It facilitated preserving scarce natural resources, and plastic being easy to mass produce, became the preferred raw material whose production increased by 300%. Plastic became the winning material across the globe, replacing steel in cars, for lighter parts in machines and airplanes, wood for furniture and glass and paper for packaging.

Plastic is cheap, and from its earliest days, it was used to make things that we did not wish to keep for long. Soon it got the prefix, ‘disposable’, meaning use and throw. Thus, it helped overcome the limitations of glass, iron and wood, and helped revolutionize the medical sector. It helped save fuel costs as machines and aircrafts became lighter, preserve the freshness of food by providing a fine transparent wrap to over, create toys for children, film rolls and prints, help transport drinking water to remote corners of the earth, and spare wildlife that was poached for ivory and tortoise shells.

From boon to menace

Plastic was created for a good cause, a substitute for scarce natural resources, to facilitate life and activity, not disrupt and threaten it. It was a boon that should have stayed within limits, but its production was unstoppable and usage far beyond the need.

As plastic surrounded us in every possible shape and form, it gradually came to be perceived as a cheap, inferior material of poor quality. Its mass production also meant that its waste began to pile up and it first cropped up as an environmental issue in the 1960s when the first plastic waste was found in oceans.

Plastic seems so easy to dispose of, takes less space, and is lightweight. But the abundance of plastic has made its waste also reach alarming proportions. It is non-biodegradable and will last forever in the environment (it takes 500 years for plastic to degenerate), and will keep increasing, since very little can be recycled, most of it being single use plastic. The additives that go into making plastic are harmful for all life, and the toxic chemicals leeched out of plastic end up in the human blood stream and body tissue, causing disease.

The plastic bag touted as the big find of the 1970s, has become the biggest menace, with 1 trillion bags produced annually, and almost a million bags used per minute. The convenience of carrying disposable water bottles, Styrofoam cups, glasses and straws, have only added to the colossal plastic piles. We carelessly throw such bottles etc, little realizing how its adding up – some 15000 water bottles are discarded into bins every minute globally. This accumulation of plastic products that float in streams, cover vast areas of land, end up adversely affecting life and habitats on the planet and has come to be called plastic pollution.

Plastic pollution has impacted 40% of existing marine species. According to the National Geographic magazine, nearly 9 million tons of plastic flows into oceans annually from the coastal regions. In urban areas, overflowing drains clogged with plastic, heaps of garbage in which plastic is conspicuous, have become sights we have grown to ignore, little realizing our own contribution to the mess. Landfills are seen on the outskirts of cities, beaches have corners where the piles seem to be constantly rising, and sometimes when the tide rises higher, it sweeps away some of the plastic into the ocean, which then mistaken for food, gets consumed by marine creatures, causing them a painful death when their digestive tract gets blocked.

The growth of plastic in all forms has far outstripped the ability of the waste management industry to dispose it of, without harming the environment. This is particularly true in the rapidly growing Asian countries where waste management and awareness about problems posed by plastic is in its nascent stages and largely ignored.

Myanmar is also seeing increasing levels of plastic pollution, where an estimated 200 tons of waste enters waterways everyday. Attempts are being made by grassroots organizations to educate the people about minimizing plastic waste, and help people make small changes that will have a beneficiary long term impact.

The way forward – start small, keep plastic free homes

Plastic is here to stay, more for its practical uses, and for making things easier. Using it responsibly, is in our hands though. If bio-degrading solutions could be found, plastic would become similar to the organic waste, and focusing on recyclable plastic would help in limiting waste quantities, and prevent it from reaching oceans and water bodies, threatening marine life and even polluting the food chain.

Only 18% of plastic is recycled, and plastic bottles remain the most used. Recycling reduces the need for producing more quantities of plastic and the existing plastic gets used rather than going in to landfills and waterbodies. The first recycling mill accepted residential plastic in 1972, and since then plastics have been segregated and sent to such mills that are now seen in every part of the world. Ideally, the waste at one stage must become a resource for the next.

The toughest issue is finding alternate solutions to plastic. Till then, we can take a few small steps, by not buying more plastic, what is discarded must not be replaced with more plastic, and make conscious changes in our daily life, what we buy, how we use and how we throw. We must stop accepting plastic bags from super markets, instead carry our own reusable bags, made of paper or cloth; replace all our plastic containers with those of glass or steel, never get take-away single use plastic boxes, minimize the use of cling film and Ziploc bags, avoid microwaveable plastics, and use only glass bottles for water and for storing other things. A plastic free kitchen would actually be a dream, but one cannot change the plastic used to make some of the gadgets we use. It will also help if we buy natural, locally produced unpackaged soaps, buy shampoos in glass bottles and oil in tin containers. With none of these to throw, our trash cans will be lighter too.

We need to change our mindset towards plastic. In Myanmar, as early as 2013, it was heartening to see the famed Sharky’s Restaurant and Deli, pack foodstuff in carry bags made out of newspaper. Retailers are trying to do their bit to reduce the plastic bag menace. It is estimated that an average of 4 plastic bags per person per day get used in Myanmar. Citimart, the leading supermarket, marks the last day of the month as ‘no plastic bags day’. It is heartening to see some carry their own reusable bags to bring back their purchases. Paper bags are a good substitute but has its flipside too. While paper takes resources and time to generate, plastic takes a longer time to degenerate!

Plastic must not flood our planet and leave little place for living beings, and this needs every individual’s contribution.

The Private Tuition Culture in Myanmar

Kyaw Soe, an innocent six-year old, put his head down on his study table and fell asleep without eating any dinner at 8 pm, exhausted. His day begins at 7 am when he goes to school, and immediately after, he has sporting activities, followed by tuitions, two hours a day, 5 days a week. Phyu Phyu, an 11-year old student of grade 7, looks tired with puffy eyes and dark circles under them, as she enters school every morning. Her weekly schedule, besides school and weekend Chinese school lessons, includes 20 hours of private tuitions.

These are just two out of tens of thousands of young school-going children, burdened not just with the rigors of school learning, but additional private tuitions, most often at home, to add to school lessons and ‘prepare’ them for success. Success here simply implies good scores in the crucial matriculation or international board exams. High parental expectations are not being met by the network of government and private schools following the state-regulated education system.

Myanmar boasts of a very well-established private tutoring network which is growing and becoming more professionally run. A vast network of home tutors fills in the gaps in learning left by schools, and provide the practice needed for concepts learnt, and to bring the theoretical and the practical closer together. The tutoring industry has grown largely due to the existing schooling system having a gap in the teacher student ratio, lack of individual attention, insufficient facilities in government schools due to limited funds, and the highly competitive environment pushes parents to find all possible resources to ensure better grades for their children. Ideally, educated parents should be investing in their children’s learning, but it appears so much easier to find a teacher, who has the ‘skills’ and knows the ‘technique’ of teaching, and for the money he is paid, has higher patience levels.

Private tutoring is a global phenomenon now, found in every country, even with the best education systems. Countries like Singapore and Hong Kong also have thousands of private tutors and scores of tuition centers that children rush to, straight after school. However, there are always students who do cope on their own, with parental help and support, and may not use any private tutors throughout their school years.

The benefits of tutoring that make it a boon

It is indeed a boon for a student to gain access to a teacher who has the knowledge to answer his questions, clear his doubts and feed his inquisitive mind with the right information, and help him reach a higher plane of learning. It improves his self-confidence, makes him more comfortable in challenging environments, and at ease in his school classroom. Better grades make parents happy too, and the prospect of a bright future looms ahead.

The tutoring concept has presented a tremendous business opportunity to numerous budding entrepreneurs who are professionalizing this new industry, resolving issues and offering solutions for some of the problems faced by parents and students. Online tutoring services are a time saver, and so convenient for both tutor and student, both not having to waste time commuting and being able to focus in a comfortable environment. Tutoring agencies like, and are actually tutor-matching platforms, where student requirements are matched with the best possible tutor, at acceptable rates and convenient timings.

This makes tutoring a system of parallel schooling where what is left out by the school, is completed by private tutors. The industry provides a source of livelihood to all those who wish to have flexible work hours and operate from home. Weaker students learn better because the same concepts are taught twice, and the individual attention of the tutor leaves little room for doubt. The practice questions given are customized to the child’s level of understanding. The end result is better understanding, improved performance and a greater interest in learning.

The invisible damage

TheState Counsellor, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has been consistently critical of the tuition culture prevalent in Myanmar, and she is not alone. At a superficial level, it seems beneficial to have teaching assistance at your beck and call, that takes on the responsibility of helping children with their homework, filling in the gaps left out at school, making up for lack of attention in class, and reminding the child what he needs to know and what all he needs to complete. The tutor prepares a schedule, finds assignments, focusses on weak areas, pushes up the child’s grades, even if it means doing most of the work for the child. The grade at the end of the exam then, is that of the tutor, not the student. But few think this way, and both parents and students remain happy.

If we think about the impact of private tutoring, in one-on-one sessions or in groups, it dilutes the responsibility of school teachers and students alike. The classroom teacher will only go so deep, and only teach at a level understood by the average student, not fuel the thirst of the brilliant few. The same is true for students, they need not always be attentive in school, and can even waste classroom time, fully aware that a tutor is waiting at home to teach them the same topic in greater detail and in a manner he understands. School times then become fun times. The select few who do not have access to private tuitions, will be more attentive, listen carefully, ask questions to resolve doubts, because they have no one besides the school teacher to turn for clearing concepts, and these questions are not always well received, because some teachers feel they disrupt the pace of their teaching.

It is sad that grades remain the indicator of brilliance and hold the key to success. Talents for the arts or other activities beyond academics have little place in a child’s life. The purpose of education is to help children build all round personalities which have a balanced set of achievements based on their interests, and not what they are forced to learn and achieve. Many conscientious students seem to be studying to please their parents, to achieve the goals set by the family, and for this then, they need tutoring beyond school.

For all its benefits, it hurts to see education becoming commercialized, driven by the profit motive more than the commitment to imparting knowledge. Private tuitions may be doing the work of schools, to make up for lower quality of education no doubt, but it comes with its own baggage of damage. Neither the tutors nor the system encourages children to think, observe and analyze. It fosters a system of spoon feeding throughout school years, and even students in higher grades do not need to draft their learning schedules, search for additional resources, plan preparation for exams, or find ways to improve.

Deep thinking individuals notice that children no longer have the inclination or the time to sit and think, observe the world around them, ponder about what appeals and what seems incorrect to them, or find time to pursue passions. Of course, private tuitions and academic rigors cannot be blamed alone, the devices that define their existence, are also responsible.

Knowledge sharing begins at home

Companies and organizations now have a knowledge sharing culture for their employees, but the system of imparting what we know to our children, seems to be disappearing. Lesser number of parents invest the time and effort needed to share with their offspring all that they know. Reprimands and sermons apart, more time is spent on devices and social media than with children. Educational experts believe that 50% of learning and education must happen at home, the ideal and most conducive environment to absorb what there is to know. Unfortunately, parents feel that if they spend a substantial amount of school fees and hire tutors, they are absolved of the responsibility of teaching their kids anything at all. A parent who cares, is the best person to know what his child’s learning needs are, and if he can put aside his own ambitions and aspirations,  his unfilled dreams, he can see his child’s capability and potential and steer him towards excellence in the child’s preferred field.

Knowledge sharing has become an integral part of organizations and involves exchange and passing on skills, experiences and all that employees know, which in turn improves productivity. If only parents would remain committed to passing on everything they know, to their children, condensing their lifetime of learning into interesting stories, children would imbibe this wisdom. This would of course entail spending more family time, giving up on certain activities and being always engaged and involved in childrens’ learning – something not many parents seem to be doing now.

The way forward

The need to revamp the education system is not being ignored by the government, which is taking small steps to solve the big problem of capability building, the starting point being schools. Even as economic betterment sets in at the micro level and bigger budgetary allocations flow into the educational sector, the results will be evident in a few years. If teachers’ salaries increase to acceptable levels at par with other sectors, more qualified individuals will be tempted to join. Accountability of teachers and the knowledge they impart in classrooms will benefit the students directly. The government acknowledges the need to increase the number of teachers and recruit quality teaching personnel and feels that this would actually help cut down on the need for private tuitions.

Teachers deserve more since the future of a nation, that is, the millions of future citizens, come to them to learn and molding their personalities to bring out their best, is a gigantic task. This determines the level of peace and well-being, the crime-free and corruption-free culture of society.


Myanmar’s Jaggery – A Favorite Traditional Sweet

A walk in any local market in Myanmar presents interesting aromas and colorful displays of local fare, from fruits and local preparations to packets and open heaps of small bite sized pieces of jaggery. The pale gold semi-circular pieces are served as dessert after meals in restaurants, as snack in teashops, and as candy to fill in the long gaps between meals.  It is interesting to find this small piece leave a pleasant, lingering aftertaste, long after it has been digested. Unlike anything one may have tasted, jaggery is an unrefined sweet made out of palm toddy in Myanmar and other tropical countries.

Jaggery has caught the attention of nutritionists and health professionals who have seen the damage caused by refined white sugar. As an unrefined natural sweetener, that is a food in itself, jaggery retains all the vitamins and minerals found in the sap of palm trees called toddy. Its earthy, caramelized taste comes from the cooking of sap in iron utensils, till it thickens, after which it is poured into moulds and cooled. An estimated 80 million kilograms of jaggery is produced every season, and it finds its way into homes and cuisines all over the world.

Jaggery is also made out of sugarcane juice, that is squeezed out of the long bamboo like cane fruit with the aid of machines. It has to be similarly cooked to thicken and is then cooled and sold in bigger chunks. Countries like India have a rich harvest of sugarcane, which is divided between making jaggery and refined sugar. Cane jaggery is a deeper gold in color due to the darker color of the cane juice, unlike palm toddy which is white and translucent. Palm jaggery however, is healthier, richer in minerals and a better taste with a slight caramelized saltiness.

The jaggery making process

Jaggery making is one of the significant rural based cottage industries in Asian countries like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh. Requiring minimal capital investment without mechanization or expensive refining involved, it is labor intensive and hence a source of employment, which helps alleviate families out of poverty. Not without risks, the key skill required is tree climbing to collect sap and the returns in the form of earnings are dwindling, leading to a reduction in the number of tappers left in Myanmar.

Jaggery is made out of the sap collected from palm trees. Palms have been known to be the oldest flowering plants since the beginning of civilization, and tapped for centuries to intercept the sugar before it reaches the fruit and its non-edible parts. The palm family, Arecaceae, has many species that produce enough sap that can be converted into sugar and jaggery, though Palmyra palms, coconut and date palms are tapped the most. The sap is called sweet toddy due to its high sucrose content (between 10-20%), and the palm trees get to be called toddy palms.

Palm trees are found in central Myanmar which is also the dry zone. Large toddy farms spread over hundreds of acres in Mandalay’s  Kyautpadaung township and Magwe’s Yanangyaung, Chauk and Yesagyo townships. The trees grow in groves and are ready with rich sap after fifteen years of maturity. The tall trees produce so much sap that it can be collected twice a day, and the process has to continue on a daily basis or else the sap flow will diminish and eventually stop. The process then has to be started from scratch, which can take up to two weeks. To harvest the sap, bamboo ladders are tied to the palm tress that rise to be 25-30 meters high. The first step of tapping is to cut the leaves, make deep cuts on the tree trunk, and hang clay pots into which the sap collects over the day. Multiple pots are hung on each tree and these are collected and replaced at least twice a day. Collection time is generally around 5-6 am every morning and then around 3 pm in the afternoon. The harvesting season lasts for eight months in the year in Upper Myanmar, while central Myanmar trees can be tapped all year around albeit with a period of low productivity between November and June.

The quantity collected also depends on the agility and expertise of the worker. Typically workers are able to climb 25-50 trees in a day, and an average of 5 liters per tree is collected daily. Toddy sells for approximately 1000 kyat per viss (equivalent to 1.6 kg).

The clay pots are first lined with slacked lime to delay the fermentation process since the sap has a short shelf life. It can be preserved at room temperature for a maximum of 24 hours, or a bit more, if refrigerated. Tappers carry back multiple pots after climbing 25-50 trees per session, twice a day. At home, fireplaces are kept ready to The sap is then filtered and lime sedimentation removed before it is transferred to iron pots and placed on high heat. The fuel typically used in rural areas, close to the palm trees, is bean husk, cow dump and chipped palm leaves. Being rich in moisture, it has to be cooked for 3 hours to get rid of the water content, remove the frothy white scum that appears on top, and then allow it to thicken. Adding a bit of oil prevents crystallization and small round balls are made while it is still hot.

Palm jaggery can be used to make refined white sugar, which is higher in price, but this inferior in quality to cane sugar, and hence has low demand. Jaggery is a part of the common man’s diet while white sugar considered a luxury. Of late, the demand for organic palm jaggery is increasing in international markets. Companies like the 555 Shwe hintha Company, have been promoting their brand Royal Jaggery, and have begun their exports to Japan.

Myanmar’s palm jaggery

Some of the traditional Myanmar candies include round pieces of jaggery mixed with tamarind, coconut and jaggery candy and of course, lemon flavored jaggery candy.

Famous domestically as Myanmar’s chocolate, jaggery is an all day snack savoured by young and old alike. Than Nyat Khe, its Myanmar name, has become a craze of late even among the country’s expatriate community, thanks to the innovative efforts of a medical graduate, who decided to make bite sized pieces of jaggery to prevent wastage of chunks offered, which were always too sweet and too big to finish, and even added local organic ingredients like coconut, ginger, lemon, mint and yoghurt. Ma Cho Lei Aung, started her brand Tree Food in September 2015 to promote bite sized pieces of jaggery in artistically self- designed paper bags, and catch the eye of the youth all over again. Jaggery had in recent times, lost out to imported candies which are not even healthy options. The natural earthy goodness of jaggery delicately flavored, has, thanks to her efforts, become popular and gaining ground all over Myanmar, and is one of the top Myanmar specialties carried back home by tourists.  Today it is not only a great souvenir, it is back as an integral part of Myanmar’s identity.

Constraints in jaggery production

Palm tapping is considerably reduced and there are fears of it being a dying cottage industry. This is due to various constraints not entirely attributable to economic growth and development, offering alternative employment with higher earning potential even in rural areas. Families that were once content with their earnings of 10,000 kyat a day from selling 40-50 kilograms of jaggery per day, now prefer employment in hotels and restaurants in the vicinity which multiply the family earnings at least three times when three members go to work. Additionally, they have access to a cleaner safer life, without having to climb 25-30 trees a day, risking falls, injuries and sometimes even death. The end result has been a decline of 50% in the last five years, and an estimated 5 million trees are left today. The rest have been cut and sold for paltry sums, and in some cases, the land has been sold off as well.

Health benefits of palm jaggery

The current trends of high blood sugar levels and ensuing lifestyle diseases like diabetes, refined white sugar is best avoided from an early age. But that does not mean giving up on all sweets. Organic sweets like palm jaggery have a long list of health benefits. A low glycemic index, totally natural and high fiber and mineral content, palm jaggery aids digestion, has a cooling effect, clears the respiratory tract, and provides energy with its richness in iron, magnesium, calcium and phosphorus.

A general awareness about eating healthy has made the masses turn towards organic, natural foods and avoid processed ones. Products like jaggery fit into this category, providing energy and nutrients without any harmful side effects, not even weight gain, despite being sweet. At the macro level cottage industries like jaggery production offer a viable self employment route, a way out of poverty, a source of daily earning and an opportunity to a better life despite the risks. The Myanmar government is also stepping in to help improve the condition of the country’s toddy farmers, by providing loans and technical assistance, modern climbing equipment that reduces risk of injury and fatal falls. The farmers are also being offered expertise to grown new, healthier palm trees, and set up mechanized jaggery making processes for more hygienic products.

Myanmar’s Golden Pearls

A string of lustrous golden beads, perfect rounds that glisten and glitter, has become one of the most eye-catching pieces of jewelry today. It outshines pure gold necklaces, with the grace it adds complementing all types of attire for every occasion. The golden pearl once extremely rare, is now being increasingly cultivated in countries like Australia, Indonesia and our very own Myanmar.

The golden pearl is the newest addition to Myanmar’s vast repertoire of gems from rubies and sapphires to spinel and amethyst. Myanmar’s cultured South Sea golden pearls became popular after a single pearl was sold for USD 30,000 at a private auction in Hong Kong. Though Myanmar had been participating in international auctions and sales since the early 2000s, the first decade did not include high quality pearls, and were sold at lower prices. Gradually, the quality of pearls being cultured has improved phenomenally, and now Myanmar’s golden pearls participate every year in the Hong Kong jewelry show, besides local shows that attract international buyers.

Pearls – Natural and Cultured        

The pearl is one gemstone that is appropriate for every occasion, never ostentatious, always understated in elegance, at once adding grace and charm. From Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to Michelle Obama and Hilary Clinton, pearl strands adorn the neck of millions of women, at the work place and beyond.

Pearls are known by numerous names, as the queen of gems, the gem of the moon, drops from heaven and so on. White pearls have an astrological significance and are believed to bring peace to the wearer. The quality, value and beauty of pearls is determined by the color, luster, size, shape, nacre and surface. Pearls are sold in ‘parcels’ made by sorting similar pearls and vary in value accordingly.

The most common are white pearls, but increasingly now, pink, grey, golden, black and various other colored pearls have flooded the market. Natural or cultured, real pearls from saltwater or freshwater come in wide ranging price levels, from USD 50 – 50,000 and more.

Pearls are the only gemstone that can be called organic, produced by a living creature. They come in various shapes and sizes, different shades and lusters. The best pearls undoubtedly are the natural pearls, which are made up of nacre, right till their innermost core. The pearl is completely made of calcium carbonate. These are also the most expensive and scarce, since only one in 10,000 wild oysters yields a pearl, which again is seldom of the shape, size and color needed for it to qualify as a piece of jewelry. Natural pearls coming out of wild oysters are difficult to find since these pearl producing oysters were hunted decades ago, to near extinction.

Pearls are naturally formed in the shell of an oyster, when any irritant enters a mollusk. The oyster, in self defence secretes a substance called nacre, over the irritant. Layer after layer of nacre leads to the formation of the pearl. Pearls are now cultured and formed due to human intervention. Trained technicians (the Japanese being the best, with an 80% success rate, seeding 600 oysters a day) insert an irritant, a mother-of-pearl bead, or nucleus into the oyster, along with a small piece of mantle tissue. The mantle tissue is a piece of lining of the mollusk that will prevent injury by surrounding and protecting living creature in the shell. The tissue also contains the cells that induce production of nacre which will eventually cover the bead. It takes 4-6 years to harvest a pearl, and the same oyster can be seeded 2-3 times in its lifetime, before being left in wild waters, free from captivity.

The demand and beauty of the pearl has made it into a flourishing industry and human intervention into the natural process has helped to increase production of pearls, though these are cultured pearls.  Cultured pearls can Akoya, South Sea or Tahiti. Akoya pearls are cultivated mainly in large pearl farms in Japan and China, are white, cream or grey in color, and grow to a size of 2mm-10mm, over a period ranging from 8 months to 2 years.

The tropical waters of the Pacific Ocean around countries including Philippines, Australia, Indonesia and Myanmar, are ideal for cultivating the fine, larger South Sea pearls. These have a thicker coating of nacre and grow to a size of 10-15mm in shades of white, cream and yellow (this is the famed golden pearl).

Black Tahiti pearls are cultivated in French Polynesia, in a group of 5 island archipelagoes. While called black, they are in various shades of dark grey, with blue, green, violet and other color tones.

Freshwater pearls are found all over the world, but particularly in the US, Japan and China, in streams, rivers and lakes. The typical size of these pearls ranges from 4mm to 10mm. Freshwater pearls are different due to their thicker nacre, different shapes and colors, and take 2-6 years to be fully formed. Freshwater mussels interestingly, can produce more than one pearl at a time, unlike their saltwater counterparts.

Myanmar’s Own Golden Pearls

Myanmar’s golden pearls come with a unique pinkish, apricot hue, a thicker layer of nacre and large size, and are widely perceived as the best in the world.

Myanmar produced a total of 687,000 pearls in 2017-18, showing a 10% increase in number in three years. Pearls are sold loose in lots or parcels, and also as finished ornaments. The pearl industry is managed by the Myanmar Pearls Enterprise (MPE) that comes under the aegis of the Ministry of Mines. It is responsible for the sale of pearls through auctions and exhibitions, and participation in jewelry exhibitions in Hong Kong and other places., where they fetch high prices due to their quality. The industry is regulated and valued at over USD 100 million, even though it pales in comparison to the richer jade, ruby and other gems’ industries worth billions.

Golden pearls being in the limelight is a very recent phenomenon. While being famous in the 1800s for their natural golden hues collected by the nomadic locals called sea gypsies, pearl production fell for a few decades, before being revived again. Today, there are 9 domestic and international pearl culture companies, including a state-owned one, which together invested around one billion kyat to resume pearl cultivation. The Myanmar Pearl Law has also recently been amended to permit foreign direct investment. Within the country, the golden pearls can be purchased at various retail outlets in Yangon and Mandalay. The retail sector is flourishing, though it is not unusual to find dyed pearls to get better prices. The dyeing process does not indicate poor quality, but does differ from original shades of even cultured pearls.

Myanmar is one of the few countries whose pristine clean waters around the 800 islands of the Myeik Archipelago are the ideal cultivating place for South Sea pearls. Both white and golden pearls are produced by local water inhabitants, the Pinctada maxima oyster. The gold lipped oysters produce the golden colored pearls while the silver lipped ones produce white and silver pearls. Generally, a clean local environment produces the best quality pearls. It is therefore imperative to preserve this clean domain, despite the promotion of tourism in the area, while finding other ways to enhance and maintain the golden pearl quality.

Pearl cultivation in the Myeik Archipelago has been revived with the help of companies and expertise from Japan and Australia. Pinctada maxima oysters, both male and female are placed in water tanks, and the fertilization process takes place only between January and May.  Collector ropes are also placed in the water, to which the larvae get attached. These ropes are then left in an area of the ocean that’s been cordoned off from ships and fishermen. It takes two years for the oysters to grow sufficiently to be seeded. Japanese technicians have now trained Myanmar locals in seeding techniques ensuring similar success rates. The seeding process needs precision and speed, to open the shell to place a nucleus without injuring the living being inside. The oysters are then released back into the waters. It takes four years for the pearls to be ready for harvest. After four years, the golden pearls are cautiously removed by opening the shells again, and another nucleus implanted. In its lifetime, this process can be repeated at least three times for every oyster.

Golden pearls are among the rarest of pearls, and also amongst the largest in size, going up to 12-14 mm in diameter. The shades range from bright golden akin to 24 carat gold, to a soft champagne hue, which is lighter but no less regal. Myanmar is the ideal cultivation ground to reap a rich harvest of these golden beads, which will yield the much needed revenue to aid economic growth and development in the country.






Meditation for Happiness – Vipassana for the Common Man

Thousands of years ago, Gautama Buddha found that suffering is part and parcel of everyone’s life, albeit in different forms. For some suffering is physical, causing torturous pain. For others, it can be mental suffering manifesting itself in myriad ways.

This reality was termed ‘dukkha’, which means sorrow, misery or sadness by Buddha, an unalterable universal truth tormenting every living being, even though its root cause differs.

Is it necessary to surrender to this ‘dukkha’ and lead an unhappy life, or find solutions to be happy inspite of it?

One road in the pursuit of happiness leads to the famous Vipassana technique of meditation discovered by Gautam Buddha, and popularized in our generation by S N Goenka, an Indian who was born and brought up in Myanmar. He gained access to this centuries’ old technique of meditation from Sayagyi U Ba Khin, who belonged to a chain of Vipassana teachers, passing on the gift of this technique to a small group of people, who took it forward through successive generations. Vipassana though first discovered in India, got lost in its country of origin but continued in its pristine form, in the interiors of Myanmar, passed on from generation to generation, bringing benefit and transforming lives of thousands who followed this path, and from here, spread across the globe.

The Vipassana technique appeals due to its rational, scientific base, devoid of religious leanings, blind faith or iconic leaders wishing to be worshipped as gods themselves, and serves only to improve individuals at the root level, teaching them how to live in peace and harmony with their surroundings, accepting rather than reacting to people and situations, finding contentment all around. There is no cult to join, no push to belong, only a desire to improve the lives of people, and help them overcome their endless cravings and aversions.

It is this that Vipassana meditation seeks to teach us all – how to accept reality just the way it is. Meditation has been the recourse for calming the anxious, racing mind, plagued with thoughts that cause restlessness. There are numerous variations in techniques of meditation but the essence is the same, to build concentration and reach the deepest core of the mind,  constantly looking inwards.

How Vipassana helps

Vipassana helps on multiple fronts, during times of stress, illness, melancholy and helps one sail through difficulties, simply by observing our feelings and emotions, being aware and accepting them, and gradually watch them pass away. This stems from the reality of impermanence, since nothing lasts forever, whatever begins, comes to an end, whatever arises, passes away. What comes today will go away after a period of time, however short or long, and anything that is made, will perish one day. There is nothing like permanence, eternity, lasting forever, and this is true of the tangible and the intangible. It takes us very long to understand our existing state of mind that wants the good to last and the bad to end. But nature is not selective. Anything and everything that arises, also passes away after some time. We are the ones who have to learn to be equanimous, not reacting to either.

Entering the realm of vipassana meditation, is ethereal, and so different from the stressful world outside. The ambience is conducive to feeling a beautiful silence, and meditation brings stillness, establishing an inner calm and the mind begins to move towards clarity. This is partly due to the ability to renounce worldly ties and material comforts, albeit for a short period, abandoning negative thoughts and emotions and letting go of attachments while improving on defilements that plague our lives. The end result is the lightness of spirit and the realization that we actually need very little to survive, and have unnecessarily made our existence so complicated and burdensome. Even as we meditate we have to rise above the feeling of joy when we are able to concentrate or develop an aversion towards the inability to do so.

Vipassana meditation has become a significant topic of conversation, continuing to gain popularity as a meditative technique, and a step ahead of simple mindfulness. Its roots in the teachings of Buddha, help us all adopt Buddhist principles and follow them to lead a highly moral life, which can either be defined as Buddha’s eight-fold path, or as the path of goodness and morality with no room for hurt, harm, dishonesty or negative, devious behavior.

To the layman, Vipassana remains an enigma, often considered a fad, and a seemingly unsustainable way of life. Nothing can be farther from the truth, since Vipassana transforms lives, teaches us to look for solutions within, rather than blaming the world for the problems we face, gaining control over our sharp and overactive mind, and helps us understand the true meaning and purpose of life.

The Meditation Routine – Too Rigorous?

Often, in social conversations, one hears people ignorantly wondering how one survives without phones and laptops, television and internet, in silence for a seemingly long duration. It is ten days of peace, calm and quiet solitude, when survival is limited to our own frame, and not beyond, without aides and distractions, not even pen and paper. It is a time to rediscover the potential of the human mind that does not really need any of these addictive belongings that we become so dependent on. We can remember whatever we wish to, we do not need to stay connected and updated all the time, and we are dispensable, the world can continue without us. Hence, we can focus on purifying and cleansing the innermost folds of our mind, rid ourselves of the numerous defilements and overcome the urge to react, and create sensations in some part of the body at all times.

For the sceptics, and self-defined restless individuals, the answer to their query about the impossibility of surviving without books, laptops and phones, is that the course provides abundance of food for thought, unimaginable amount to learn and practice, that none of these would be missed. We walk in for the course not out of mere curiosity, but with complete preparedness that we wish to learn this highly scientific technique and would like to understand the complex mind. The challenge is the prospect of renouncing the world and our relationships for ten days, and adopting the life of a monk/nun for this period. There is no religious conversion, no questions about one’s faith or beliefs, beyond a request to devote these ten days to vipassana alone, and be completely devoted to this deep  operation of the mind focusing only on our breath and sensations in every part of the body. The ten days are tough but get easier with every passing day, and soon we step in to a haven of peace and tranquility, an ideal environment to begin the journey into the deepest recesses of our mind. Life becomes the simplest possible with minimal materials for rest and survival. Which brings us to the realization within the first couple of days, how little we need to survive. We learn to focus on our breath, for the first three days, the simple process of breathing in and breathing out, restricting our focus to a small triangle area between the nostrils and upper lip. And with each hour of breathing practice we are sharpening our mind, scraping off layer after layer of past memories, unpleasant thoughts and unnecessary notes kept in the diary of the mind.

Gradually we reach deep within and from here then we begin to build on mindful awareness to feel sensations however gross or subtle. This begins on the fourth day when the mind and awareness has sharpened and focus is enhanced. This is the Vipassana technique, which teaches us how to focus on sensations on every inch of our body, going deep to the core. There is pain, burning, tingling, sweating or anything else, the idea is to observe and focus on it. It appears like an x-ray of our system as we pass the observation lens over the body inch by inch. And as this happens, the mind gets purer and purer. We let go of negatives, piled up pain and misery, clear the baggage of the past that has burdened us, and layers of these get cleared from the mind, leaving a crystal clear, thinking, observing and pure mind, making us feel lighter, happier, and calmer.

One feels when the course ends, that purity has been achieved for life. Not really, since getting back into the real world means layer after layer of dust and deceit, impurity and negativity, begins to fog the mind all over again.

Meditation – For a mind at peace

The world today is a complicated place and the prospect of a peaceful, harmonious life appears tough and challenging. Our lives are laden with problems and ailments, and most of us remain disillusioned because things almost always, do not work out the way we would like them to. The normative, or what ought to be, seems to dominate and control our minds, more than the positive, that simply states, what is. In simple words, we all find unwanted things happening and we do not usually get what we want. This holds true for the entire human race, across religion, class and stature. Illnesses are more often the cause of a restless mind and all mental attitudes, which trigger disease-causing reactions inside the complex human system, and we watch helplessly as life wilts away.

The problem

But the mind is our own, it will think as we train it to. We overthink, over indulge, overanalyse, and overimagine. We attribute qualities, good or bad, to everything and every action, we pass value judgements as sermons, and often, a simple thought or deed, becomes a discord-causing phenomenon. The result – we seldom see reality as it is. The mind wanders, there is restlessness, anxiety, anger and all kinds of emotions surfacing multiple times in a day. Sometimes we are besides ourselves with anger, unable to control our fury, and at others, we want to cry out of misery, sorrow, displeasure. We are hurt by what others say, and often ourselves say horrible things to others. We raise our hands to hit, or often lash out with our tongues. And after a few minutes pass, we apologize and we are so ashamed of our actions-we had lost control, we weren’t thinking, and were driven by a manic desire to hurt. Such is human behaviour, that torments and upsets. And instead of looking for solutions within, what triggers such strong reactions, such manifestation of frustrations, we tend to blame the external environment, and attribute our outbursts to the outside world. Negatives also create sensations in our body, which appeal or repel, and even the blame game- being able to blame another, triggers an appealing sensation.

We never seem to realize that we cannot control every element beyond our physical frame, and we can only control our own reaction to situations, circumstances and incidents. Controlling reactions to the extent of becoming totally nonreactive to statements and situations is one of the toughest endeavours, requiring self-control, the ability to think and act rationally, and being mindful. This is a long journey and often takes years, since at every step, every minute of the day, things do not happen the way we want them to, and external forces act to create frenzy and anxiety. We expect wonderful things to happen, expect life to be smooth sailing, and nothing untoward happening. The culprit here, is expectation of the best and the easiest, without chaos, ripples or problems, a craving for the joyful, and an aversion for the unpleasant. Expectations reflect a mind set that is far removed from reality. Somehow the concepts of good and bad entrenched deeply, impact our thinking and make us expect. The words -I wish, I hope, I pray, I want…are all manifestations of our expectations which define our actions and activities, not to mention being “I” focused.

The end result is a turbulent mind, restless and searching for solutions to life’s problems, a search for peace, calm and contentment. The search lands people in religious pursuits, chanting and praying, visiting shrines, temples, mosques and churches, joining cults, following new age gurus, reading and finding intellectual explanations, in the real physical world that we exist. Dogmatic rituals, chanting of hymns, idol worship, are often instilled early in life and we tend to blindly follow them, without ever questioning their use, validity, need or purpose. Many have deep religious beliefs and others treat prayer and worship as an insurance policy that can be encashed. Perhaps we lack that faith in ourselves and feel the need to have some thread to hold on to, some faith that will tide us through difficult times, and are convinced that prayers help us achieve our goals. Despite all this, the majority is not able to find the elusive peace and contentment.

We go about the business of living, frantically running, ticking activities off a long list, and end up with physical exhaustion and are mentally drained. The mind is on what we call ‘a short fuse’, reacting strongly at the slightest provocation, switching off from the current task at hand, flitting from one issue to the next, and not managing to do justice to any, least of all to its own self.

The Goal

A mind at peace, not in turmoil, composure and calm demeanour at all times, unaffected by pain or suffering -is the ultimate human goal. But the trials and tribulations of daily life prevent us from achieving this and we find ourselves stressed and agitated, sleepless and restless, unable to focus, even as we invite lifestyle diseases to plague us internally.

Introspecting individuals while searching for solutions, and exploring avenues that will help them find peace and contentment, realize that the solution lies within not without. The journey inwards in the deepest folds of the mind is not easy and if scientifically pursued repeatedly and consistently, is bound to yield results. The starting point is a conscious effort to be aware, to be mindful, focussing on every action, and giving it full attention. This is even tougher in today’s world where multitasking is the norm, and starts at a young age. We allow our children to eat while watching television, study with music playing in the background, sleep as we sing or read to them. As parents we feel that the ends justify the means-the child must eat properly whether he or she likes it or not, studies and learns while his/her favourite song plays, and sleeps soon enough. In reality we are distracting him/her from the principal task, and he/she spends the rest of his/her life deviating from mindful actions and working with distractions.

To be aware, to live in the present, not adding weight of judgements, to actions and statements, is all important. We treat every simple statement as a loaded complaint coming with the baggage of the past. We are often told to address only a current issue and find a solution to the current problem. But we begin with the past history, which often changes the current picture. As in everything else, whatever arises, passes away. But somehow we never let the negatives pass away-we let them fester, and grow-negatives like anger, attitudes, and habits which are the outcome of repeated actions. As they say-whatever you practice, grows stronger.

The Path to the Goal

Shaking off the past, living in the present, being mindful and equanimous, all require a desire for self-improvement through introspection, looking within. This is where religion, faith, belief and following godmen begins. Millions are turning to some form of meditation, mindfulness practice, chanting, seeking refuge in dogmatic religious practices, or following of the hundreds of spiritual gurus who claim to offer solutions to problems and promise a happier life. Only a select few seek rational, scientific solutions through self observation that takes us on a journey to the very core of our being.

Meditation is a journey inwards, not along an external path, that takes us into the deepest folds of our minds, look at the defilements that plague us, the endless layers of negatives that torment our soul, and the baggage of the past that bow us down. As we sit in concentration, be it by focusing on our breath, or chant, or sing or pray, the purpose is the same. To break the chain of thought, focus on the present and veer the mind away from its state of turmoil, frenzy and anxiety.

Meditation is a technique, a skill that can be learnt and perfected to observe something that exists, be it the breath (the incoming breath and the outgoing breath), an external object (perhaps a deity), a point like a dot in the center of the forehead, a mantra or verse that is repeatedly chanted, and so on. The purpose is the same, to observe what exists, without judgment or emotion, and eventually being able to understand the reality better than before. The idea is to calm the mind, slow down the pace of racing thoughts, relax and eventually reach a state of ‘thoughtless awareness’. It signifies peace and quiet, sitting still and nearly motionless in a place so quiet, that one can hear one’s own rising and falling breath.

Skeptics would compare meditation to sleep, since both involve quiet, motionless stillness, except that while meditating one is totally, completely aware, alert, and focusing within rather than without, with a mental state that has no room for the past or the future. It does not make the mind a switch that can be turned off and on, it is something that the mind learns and perfects, and ever after, learns to be alert and aware, observes but does not always react, and tries to stay in the present moment.

Meditation helps us improve our focus, resolve our doubts, fears and insecurities, get rid of our stress and anxiety which impact our health, and helps us lead a better life, and also simultaneously improve the environment around us, since we learn to get rid of vices, bad habits and defilements.