Ted and Tigers

I was at a TED salon in Bangalore today. My own talk (about FreeSpeech) was completely underwhelming (even to me), but I did get to see some other very interesting talks.

The hit of the day was Mr Arunachalam Muruganathan from Coimbatore. As soon as he came on the stage, he mimed taking something out of his pocket and stuffing it into his mouth; “English,” he said. “I am swallowing some home-made English so that I can talk to you. I have stock of 200 words, I used up most of them during rehearsal.”

Muruganathan makes machines that make low-cost sanitary pads. His story was a complete burlesque comedy, starting from how he wanted to buy his ‘brand-new wife’ sanitary pads to impress her, but found they were too costly. So he decided to develop his own, with his wife as a reluctant test-victim for the first few experiments. After his wife put her foot down to testing his half-baked first ideas, he decided to enlist the help of some medical college students, only to have his wife threaten to walk out on him, accusing him of using the sanitary pad project as a smokescreen to consort with the women students.

Apparently the students were not very cooperative, either. And drastic measures had to be taken. Muruganathan said, “The first man to go to the moon – you know it is Neil Armstrong. And Hillary-Tenzing, first men on Mount Everest. I am first man who wore sanitary pad.”

Apparently, he put one on, and then filled a balloon with animal blood and put it pocket with a tube to the pad. He wore it for five days, squeezing the balloon every half an hour. “Now whenever I meet a woman, I put my hands together and bow down to her for going through this every month,” he said.

Muruganathan was a big hit at the conference – he got several rounds of standing applause, mostly because of his ‘punch dialogues’. I liked the way he ended – “There are three types of people, uneducated, less educated and surplus educated. I am less-educated school drop-out, studied till 8th standard, who has made a machine that is competing successfully with multinational companies for the last 7 years. What are the surplus educated people doing?” What indeed.

Also in the line-up were Aparajita Datta, a conservationist who did sterling work in Arunachal Pradesh saving hornbills from over-hunting, and Mansukhbhai Prajapati, who comes from a family of potters and has built (and demonstrated at the event) clay-made water filters, refrigerators, tawas and even a pressure cooker. I also met Danish Sheikh, a young and affable lawyer who spoke about his experiences ‘coming out’ as homosexual in Bangalore, and Ruma Roka, who runs an organization for the deaf in Noida and is a strong advocate of using sign language instead of oralist approaches to communication for the deaf.

The talk that made the biggest impact on me, though, was that of Emma Stokes, who works to conserve tigers. In almost a matter-of-fact way, as though presenting a scientific paper, she told of how she went to Cambodia in 1997 and saw there was an endangered, but modestly large, tiger population – about a thousand tigers.

In 2007, she went again. A few days before she arrived in that country, a photograph was taken of a tiger in a Cambodian forest.

That was the last tiger in Cambodia. Every year, poachers claimed a hundred tigers. And in one decade, there were no more tigers in the country.

Emma spoke with very little emotion and a lot of determination about tiger conservation. But even her voice broke a bit when she spoke about how she spent five years tramping India’s natural parks and wildlife sanctuaries teaching conservation without seeing a single tiger. (When I heard that, I thought to myself, sigh – four years and eleven months to go for me.) And after five years, the experience seeing her first tiger face to face – her one and only tiger sighting in the wild – and how, at that moment, she knew, whatever the cost, whatever the trade-off, she could not allow a world that did not have any more Royal Bengal tigers in it.

More power to her.

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