Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Fragrance of heritage: The fascinating history of the iconic Mysore Sandal soap

A soap that has held a special place in the hearts of Indians for more than a century, Mysore Sandal Soap’s legacy is intricately interwoven with Karnataka’s history and heritage.

There is something beautifully Indian about the fragrance of sandalwood. Sweet, warm, rich and woody, it is a scent that is deeply interwoven with the nation’s history and heritage. This is, perhaps, one of the many reasons why the Mysore Sandal Soap has held a special place in the hearts of Indians for more than a century.

Here’s the fascinating story behind India’s most-loved sandal soap.


One hundred and one years ago, in May 1916, Krishna Raja Wodiyar IV (the then Maharaja of Mysore) and Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya (the then Diwan of Mysore), set up the Government Sandalwood Oil factory at Mysore for sandalwood oil extraction.

The primary goal of the project was to utilise the excess stocks of the fragrant wood that had piled up after World War I halted the export of sandalwood from the kingdom of Mysore (the largest producer of sandalwood in the world at the time).

Two years later, the Maharaja was gifted a rare set of sandalwood oil soaps. This gave him the idea of producing similar soaps for the masses which he immediately shared with his bright Diwan. In total agreement about the need for industrial development in the state, the enterprising duo (who would go on to plan many projects whose benefits are still being reaped) immediately got to work.

The Sandal Oil Factory
A stickler for perfection, Visveswaraya wanted to produce a good quality soap that would also be affordable for the public. He invited technical experts from Bombay (now Mumbai) and made arrangements for soap making experiments on the premises of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). Interestingly, the IISc had been set up in 1911 due to the efforts of another legendary Diwan of Mysore, K Sheshadri Iyer!

From the talent involved in the research happening at IISc, he identified a bright, young industrial chemist called Sosale Garalapuri Shastry and sent him to England to fine tune his knowledge about making soap. Affectionately remembered by many as Soap Shastry, the hardworking scientist would go on to play a key role in making Visveswaraya’s dream a reality.

After acquiring the required knowledge, Shastry quickly returned to Mysore where the Maharaja and his Diwan were waiting anxiously. He standardized the procedure of incorporating pure sandalwood oil in soaps after which the government soap factory was established near K R Circle in Bengaluru.

The same year, another oil extraction factory was set up at Mysore to ensure a steady supply of sandalwood oil to the soap making unit. In 1944, another unit was established in Shivamoga. Once the soap hit the market, it quickly became popular with the public, not just within the princely state but across the country.

The Government Soap Factory
However, Shastry was not done yet. He also created a perfume from distilled sandalwood oil. Next, he decided to give the Mysore Sandal Soap a unique shape and innovative packaging. In those days, soaps would normally be rectangular in shape and packed in thin, glossy and brightly coloured paper. To help it stand out from the rest, he gave the soap an oval shape before working on a culturally significant packaging.

Cognizant of the Indian love of jewels, Shastry designed a rectangular box resembling a jewellery case— with floral prints and carefully chosen colours. At the centre of the design was the unusual logo he chose for the company, Sharaba (a mythical creature from local folklore with the head of an elephant and the body of a lion. A symbol of courage as well as wisdom, the scientist wanted it to symbolise the state’s rich heritage.

The message ‘Srigandhada Tavarininda’ (that translates to ‘from the maternal home of sandalwood’) was printed on every Mysore Sandal Soapbox. The aromatic soap itself was wrapped in delicate white paper, similar to the ones used by jewellery shops to pack jewels.
From Left: Nalwadi Krishna Raja Wodeyar IV, M Visveswaraya, SG Shastry
This was followed by a systematic and well-planned advertising campaign with cities across the country carrying vibrant signboards in neon colours. Pictures of the soapbox were noticeable everywhere, from tram tickets to matchboxes. Even a camel procession was held to advertise the soap in Karachi!

The out-of-the-box campaign led to rich results. The soap’s demand in India and abroad touched new heights, with even royal families of foreign nations ordering it for themselves. Another important turning point for the company was when, in 1980, it was merged with the oil extraction units (in Mysuru and Shivamoga) and incorporated into one company called Karnataka Soaps and Detergent Limited (KSDL).

However, in the early 1990s, the state-run firm did face a rough patch due to multinational competition, declining demand and lack of coordination between sales and production departments. As losses started rising, it was given a rehabilitation package by BIFR (Board for Industrial & Financial Reconstruction) and KSDL grabbed the lifeline with both hands.

The company streamlined its way of functioning and soon it had started showing profits again. Thanks to rising profits year after year, it had soon wiped out all its losses and repaid its entire debt to BIFR by 2003. The company also successfully diversified into other soaps, incense sticks, essential oils, hand washes, talcum powder etc.

Nonetheless, the Mysore Sandal Soap remains the company’s flagship product, the only soap in the world made from 100% pure sandalwood oil (along with other natural essential oils such as patchouli, vetiver, orange, geranium and palm rose). Due to tremendous brand recall and loyalty associated with the soap, it also bags a prized position on the shopping lists of visiting NRIs.
A 1928 advertisement for Mysore Sandal soap

In 2006, the iconic was awarded a Geographical Indicator (GI) tag — that means anyone can make and market a sandalwood soap but only KSDL can rightfully claim it to be a ‘Mysore Sandalwood’ soap.

Thanks to this near-monopolistic presence in the market for sandalwood bathing soaps, KSDL has also become one of Karnataka’s few public sector enterprises that turns consistent profits. In fact, the company registered its highest gross sales turnover (of ₹476 crore) in 2015-16.

Such is the legacy of sandalwood and this earthy, oval-shaped soap in the state that even Karnataka’s thriving film industry calls itself Sandalwood!

Today, there are a multitude of branded soaps in the market but Mysore Sandal Soap continues to hold a distinctive place among all of them. Its production figures continue to rise, even as the availability of sandalwood is on the decline.

To counter this, KSDL has been running a ‘Grow More Sandalwood’ programme for farmers, that provides affordable sandalwood saplings along with a buy-back guarantee.Working in partnership with the forest department, it is also working to ensure that for every sandalwood removed for extraction, a sandalwood sapling is planted to replace it.

The story of Mysore Sandal Soap and its enduring appeal is an inspiration not just for Indian PSUs but for the entire FMCG sector. Here’s hoping that its future is aromatic as its history!

(Source: The Better India)

Monday, 23 October 2017

Human trafficking survivor, raped 43,200 times, dedicates life to help sex slaves

Between the ages of 12 and 16, Karla Jacinto, was forced to have sex 43,200 times.

She was lured away from her dysfunctional family home, in a small town near Tenancingo, Mexico, and into the dangerous human trafficking ring by false promises, expensive gifts and kind words.
“I started at 10 am and finished at midnight,” Jacinto told CNN’s Freedom Project. “Some men would laugh at me because I was crying.”

“I had to close my eyes so that I wouldn’t see what they were doing to me, so that I wouldn’t feel anything.”

Now, at 24, Jacinto has dedicated her life to saving sex slaves from the trafficking industry, waiving her right to anonymity to help raise awareness about the “growing” issue.

“I never imagined that the girl who used to stand on the corner wearing high heels, who was considered a prostitute, would feel so strong,” she said, referring to the transformation she’s gone through. “Nowadays many people listen to me.”

Among them, Pope Francis.

Jacinto met with the Pope during a conference in July, to talk about the reality of modern day slavery. She also shared her story with the United States Congress in May, which was later used as evidence in support for H.R. 515, or Megan’s Law, which obliges US authorities to share any information relating to American child sex offenders when these convicts attempt to travel abroad.

Human trafficking has become a trade so lucrative that it knows no borders, linking small towns like Tenancingo with cities like Atlanta and New York.

Many of her clients, Jacinto shared in her testimony, were foreigners visiting her city “looking to have sexual interactions with minors.”

She revealed that in this dark underbelly of society, some of her worst abusers were even authority figures, including on-duty police officers.

“She had clients that were judges, priests, pastors, police,” Rosi Orozco, a former Mexican congresswoman who now fights human trafficking, said. “So she knew that she could not run away to go to the authorities.”


Each year, an estimated 800,000 women and children are trafficked across international borders, according to Soroptimist, a global volunteer organization working to improve the lives of women and girls. And that figure doesn’t include the amount of women and girls trafficked within their countries.
“If women experienced improved economic and social status, trafficking would in large part be eradicated,” the organization explained on its website.

In the years since she escaped with the help of a client during an anti-trafficking operation, Jacinto has gone from being a victim to a champion for women and girls who have suffered from the same fate.

“It is up to us, both governments and non government organizations to work together to prevent this crime, punish those who commit them, to look for and rescue those who are already caught in the web, and to provide the care necessary for their healing and reintegration to a healthy society,” she said. “Not one person can do it by himself or herself. We are all responsible, we are all affected, and we can all do something.”

(Source: Global Citizen)

The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft holds the secrets of a long tradition of magic

In the small town of Holmavik, located on the western coast of Iceland, there is a museum dedicated to preserving the world of magic and sorcery. The Strandagaldur, also known as the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft, started out as a small but enthusiastic project from its original curator, Sigurður Atlason, and ended up as a popular tourist attraction.

A caped skeleton reaches out while bursting through the stone floor, welcoming guests and setting the haunting tone of a past world filled with incomprehensible recipes for over-riding your troubles. So, if you are interested in making yourself invisible, obtaining an infinite source of money, or just getting really good at fishing, this place is right for you, offering spells for each of these fortunes.

The Strandagaldur gives a unique insight into an age dominated by superstition and magic. When the heritage of a polytheistic religion clashed with the notion of Christianity, the byproduct arose in the form of sorcery. It was present in everyday life, since it was an instrument by which a person could influence their destiny, foresee it, or perhaps even shape it.

Christianity became an official religion in Iceland in 1000 AD, but a developed pagan culture had already put down deep roots in Icelandic society. It was something of a bond with Iceland’s former motherland in Scandinavia.

The exterior of Strandagaldur, the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft, in Hólmavík.
Author: Bensisto CC BY-SA 4.0
Therefore, pagan sorcery accepted the authority of the Christian church and even attempted to “misuse” it for personal gain. For example, a spell for producing a tilberi includes stealing sanctified wine from three consecutive Sunday communions. A tilberi, for all those not acquainted with Icelandic folklore, is a demon summoned by a witch, with the sole purpose of stealing milk from neighbors.

Even though this type of witchcraft sounds almost harmless, there is a macabre twist in Icelandic sorcery. One of the main exhibits, which is a replica and is certainly the one that causes the most disgust, is the Nábrók. These can be translated as the “necropants,” trousers made of human skin meant to supply the wearer with an endless source of wealth and fortune.

Now, putting the gore aside, this does have a tempting promise. The spell includes a Stave, which is an Icelandic system of magical songs, permission from the person whose skin was used after his death, and a coin stolen from a poor widow.

Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft. Author: Jennifer Boyer CC BY2.0
In order for the person wearing the pants and exploiting the spell to avoid eternal punishment in the afterlife, he is required to give his Nábrók to someone else before he dies.

Even though there is not sufficient evidence of someone actually producing the necropants, this strange and dark piece of folklore is captivating, even more so since a very realistic replica was made for the purpose of the Museum.

Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft.  Author: Jennifer Boyer CC BY2.0
Other exhibits include occult books, scrolls, and records of witchcraft and magic, mostly dating from the 17th century, when a bulk of the Staves were first documented in various spell books, or grimoires, as they were called.

Decorated rather spookily, the Museum is somewhere between a horror show and a site of historic value. Perhaps that is why it is so popular among tourists who happen to visit the region of Westfjords.

Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft.  Author: Jennifer Boyer CC BY2.0
Opposition initially arose among the more conservative locals, as the scenery of the museum was considered to be too macabre for the community.

As the small coastal town began to experience the benefits of such an attraction, all opposition disappeared. The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft was opened in 2000, running consistently for 17 years, and it continues to draw the attention of visitors while exploring and demystifying the long and forgotten tradition of Icelandic sorcery.

(Source: The Vintage News)

We must look to the past, not Isis, for the true meaning of Islam

Emir Abdelkader was a Muslim, Sufi, sheikh, humanist, protector of his people against Western barbarism, protector of Christians against Muslim barbarism, so noble that Abe Lincoln sent him a pair of Colt pistols, writes Robert Fisk on the Independent. Read on: 

After the Manchester massacre… yes, and after Nice and Paris, Mosul and Abu Ghraib and 7/7 and the Haditha massacre – remember those 28 civilians, including children, killed by US Marines, four more than Manchester but no minute’s silence for them? And of course 9/11…

Counterbalancing cruelty is no response, of course. Just a reminder. As long as we bomb the Middle East instead of seeking justice there, we too will be attacked. But what we must concentrate upon, according to the monstrous Trump, is terror, terror, terror, terror, terror. And fear. And security. Which we will not have while we are promoting death in the Muslim world and selling weapons to its dictators. Believe in “terror” and Isis wins. Believe in justice and Isis is defeated.

So I suspect it’s time to raise the ghost of a man known as the Emir Abdelkader – Muslim, Sufi, sheikh, ferocious warrior, humanist, mystic, protector of his people against Western barbarism, protector of Christians against Muslim barbarism, so brave that the Algerian state insisted his bones were brought home from his beloved Damascus, so noble that Abe Lincoln sent him a pair of Colt pistols and the French gave him the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour. He loved education, he admired the Greek philosophers, he forbade his fighters to destroy books, he worshipped a religion which believed – so he thought – in human rights. But hands up all readers who know the name of Abdelkader.

We should think of him now more than ever. He was not a “moderate” because he fought back savagely against the French occupation of his land. He was not an extremist because, in his imprisonment at the Chateau d’Amboise, he talked of Christians and Muslims as brothers. He was supported by Victor Hugo and Lord Londonderry and earned the respect of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (later Napoleon III) and the French state paid him a pension of 100,000 francs. He deserved it.

Muslim historians claim Abdelkader saved 15,000 Christians, which may be a bit of an exaggeration. But here was a man for Muslims to emulate and Westerners to admire
When the French invaded Algeria, Abdelkader Ibn Muhiedin al-Juzairi (Abdelkader, son of Muhiedin, the Algerian,1808-1883, for those who like obituaries) embarked on a successful guerrilla war against one of the best equipped armies in the Western world – and won. He set up his own state in western Algeria – Muslim but employing Christian and Jewish advisors – and created separate departments (defence, education, etc), which stretched as far as the Moroccan border. It even had its own currency, the “muhamediya”. He made peace with the French – a truce which the French broke by invading his lands yet again. Abdelkader demanded a priest to minister for his French prisoners, even giving them back their freedom when he had no food for them. The French sacked the Algerian towns they captured, a hundred Hadithas to suppress Abdelkader’s resistance. When at last he was defeated, he surrendered in honour – handing over his horse as a warrior – on the promise of exile in Alexandria or Acre. Again the French betrayed him, packing him off to prison in Toulon and then to the interior of France.

Yet in his French exile, he preached peace and brotherhood and studied French and spoke of the wisdom of Plato and Socrates, Aristotle and Ptolemy and Averoes and later wrote a book, Call to the Intelligent, which should be available on every social media platform. He also, by the way, wrote a book on horses which proves he was ever an Arab in the saddle. But his courage was demonstrated yet again in Damascus in 1860 where he lived as an honoured exile. The Christian-Druze civil war in Lebanon had spread to Damascus where the Christian population found themselves surrounded by the Muslim Druze who arrived with Isis-like cruelty, brandishing swords and knives to slaughter their adversaries.

Abdelkader sent his Algerian Muslim guards – his personal militia – to bash their way through the mob and escort more than 10,000 Christians to his estate. And when the crowds with their knives arrived at his door, he greeted them with a speech which is still recited in the Middle East (though utterly ignored these days in the West). “You pitiful creatures!” he shouted. “Is this the way you honour the Prophet? God punish you! Shame on you, shame! The day will come when you will pay for this … I will not hand over a single Christian. They are my brothers. Get out of here or I’ll set my guards on you.”

Muslim historians claim Abdelkader saved 15,000 Christians, which may be a bit of an exaggeration. But here was a man for Muslims to emulate and Westerners to admire. His fury was expressed in words which would surely have been used today against the cult-like caliphate executioners of Isis. Of course, the “Christian” West would honour him at the time (although, interestingly, he received a letter of praise from the Muslim leader of wildly independent Chechnya). He was an “interfaith dialogue” man to please Pope Francis.


Abdelkader was invited to Paris. An American town was named after him – Elkader in Clayton County, Iowa, and it’s still there, population 1,273. Founded in the mid-19th century, it was natural to call your home after a man who was, was he not, honouring the Rights of Man of American Independence and the French Revolution? Abdelkader flirted with Freemasonry – most scholars believe he was not taken in – and loved science to such an extent that he accepted an invitation to the opening of the Suez Canal, which was surely an imperial rather than a primarily scientific project. Abdelkader met De Lesseps. He saw himself, one suspects, as Islam’s renaissance man, a man for all seasons, the Muslim for all people, an example rather than a saint, a philosopher rather than a priest.

But of course, Abdelkader’s native Algeria is a neighbour of Libya from where Salman Abedi’s family came, and Abdelkader died in Syria, whose assault by US aircraft – according to Abedi’s sister – was the reason he slaughtered the innocent of Manchester. And so geography contracts and history fades, and Abedi’s crime is, for now, more important than all of Abdelkader’s life and teaching and example. So for Mancunians, whether they tattoo bees onto themselves or merely buy flowers, why not pop into Manchester’s central library in St Peter’s Square and ask for Elsa Marsten’s The Compassionate Warrior or John Kiser’s Commander of the Faithful or, published just a few months ago, Mustapha Sherif’s L’Emir Abdelkader: Apotre de la fraternite?

They are no antidotes for sorrow or mourning. But they prove that Isis does not represent Islam and that a Muslim can earn the honour of the world.

How the Muslim world lost the freedom to choose

A brave new book describes how Pakistan unraveled — and provides a blueprint for understanding declining pluralism across the Middle East, writes  Kim Ghattas on Foreign Policy. Read on: 

When national security advisor H.R. McMaster wanted to convince U.S. President Donald Trump that Afghanistan was not hopeless, he whipped out a 1972 black-and-white picture of women in miniskirts on the streets of Kabul.

The point of this exercise was presumably to show that the country once embraced Western ideals and could do so again with America’s assistance. McMaster’s trick worked: Trump ultimately reversed his earlier skepticism about the war effort and decided to raise troop levels. But it also showed the continued limits of America’s understanding of the countries it has sought to remake in its image. The snapshot depicts Kabul’s urban elite — an elite that was unrepresentative, even back then, of the wider Afghan population. Not everyone was walking around in a skirt before the Taliban imposed the burqa.

The photograph, however, does capture something that has been lost not just in Afghanistan since the rise of the Taliban, but also across much of the Muslim world in recent decades: the freedom to choose.

Not every Afghan woman wore a miniskirt in the 1970s, but they could do so without fear of an acid attack or a flogging. Other pictures from that era depict the educational and professional opportunities available to Afghan women. But it’s always the clothes that get the most attention. Pictures of Saudi Arabia from the 1960s and 1970s are also making the rounds these days in the Middle East, showing men and women in bathing suits by the pool and on the jetty of a famous beach resort. Most of those in the pictures look like foreigners — some are airline staff on a break in Jeddah. But Saudis also patronized these beaches, and even if some shook their head with disapproval, the option to go to the beach without fear of violence was there.

Beyond skirts and beaches, the 1960s and 1970s were also a time of vigorous intellectual debate about the role of religion in society. Debates between leftists, secularists, capitalists, Marxists, and Islamists raged across the region, from Egypt to Pakistan. Militant Islamists will dismiss those decades of more progressive, diverse thought and culture as decadent Western imports — the lingering after-effects of colonial influence. But if some of it was certainly emulation, much of it was also indigenous. One of the Arab world’s most famous feminists of the early 20th century was Nazira Zain al-Dine, from Lebanon, who had no connection to the Western feminist movement of the time.

Yet over the course of the last few decades, the space for debate and freedom of choice has become increasingly narrow. Pakistan provides a stark and cautionary tale for other countries about how intolerance gets legitimized. It’s not only when a group like the Taliban seizes power violently that a country loses its more diverse, vibrant past. A slow erosion of progressive norms, a slow shift in beliefs can be just as devastating.

In Pakistan from 1927 to 1985, only 10 blasphemy cases were reportedly heard in court. Between 1985 and 2011, more than 4,000 cases were handled. Even worse, blasphemy, real or alleged, can get you killed in today’s Pakistan.Even worse, blasphemy, real or alleged, can get you killed in today’s Pakistan. In January 2011, Punjab governor Salman Taseer was killed by his bodyguard for coming to the aide of a young Christian woman who had been charged with blasphemy. Taseer’s killer was sentenced to death, but he was celebrated as a hero by tens of thousands who attended his funeral, and a mosque was built in his name in Islamabad.

The assassination of Taseer — as well as that of Pakistan’s first Christian federal minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, just two months later — shocked Farahnaz Ispahani, a friend of both men. Ispahani, a former journalist, was at the time a member of Pakistan’s parliament serving on the Human Rights Committee. Together, the small group had repeatedly tried to raise the issue of minority rights. In parliament, Ispahani had access to more information than the general public and was shocked about the extent of daily violence against minorities — and that none of her colleagues were willing to discuss the issue.
Women walk through Kabul in 1972. (Via Amnesty International UK)
The assassination of her two friends prompted Ispahani to write “Purifying the Land of the Pure.” The book, published last year, charts the slow death of minority rights and pluralism in Pakistan, and what it means for the future of democracy. The result is a sweeping but concise chronicle of how things unraveled. A minority herself, as a Shiite, Ispahani was careful to avoid polemic and opinion by delivering a thorough, methodically researched work. She and her husband, former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani, have both faced death threats for their work and live in self-imposed exile in Washington.

In her book, Ispahani tracks the unraveling to within a few years of the independence of Pakistan. The country’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah — a secular Shiite — envisioned a country where “you are free, you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship.” But Ispahani writes that “his hopeful declaration of religious pluralism” remains unfulfilled.

The trend toward making Islam a central tenet of life in Pakistan started soon after independence in 1947, a result of Muslim feelings of being victimized by both Hindus and British colonialism in India. By 1973, Islam was declared as the state religion of Pakistan. In 1974, under the ostensibly progressive Prime Minister Zulfiqar Bhutto, parliament declared Ahmadis as non-Muslims. A Muslim movement that started in the late 19th century, Ahmadis follow the teachings of the Quran and consider their founder to be a prophet, upsetting orthodox Muslims who believe Muhammad is the final prophet.

Bhutto found it hard to redefine Pakistani nationalism away from Islamic ideology. He was, Ispahani writes, unable to manage the “delicate balancing act of implementing liberal ideas and appeasing Islamist sentiments.”

By the mid-1980s, hate literature targeting Shiites was proliferating. It fanned the narrative that they were not Muslims, a dangerous charge in a Sunni-majority nation where Shiites made up around 15 percent of the population. Military dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq acquiesced to Sunni militant attacks on Shiites, paving the way for a systematic campaign to eliminate Shiite doctors, engineers, and teachers in Karachi and elsewhere. Today, Shiites and their mosques are still regular targets of deadly attacks: Since 2003, an estimated 2,558 Shiites have been killed in sectarian violence.

Ispahani identifies four stages in Pakistan’s loss of minority rights and growing intolerance. The first stage was the “Muslimization” of society, with transfer of non-Muslim populations out of Pakistan around the time of independence, followed by the rise of an Islamic identity with the loss of East Pakistan. Then came the Islamization of laws under Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s, and finally the rise of militant, organized violence.

While there was no sudden, overnight transformation, Ispahani nevertheless identifies Zia’s rule as the point of no return. The military ruler Islamized the laws of the country, introducing sharia courts and new Islamic laws known as hudood ordinances, which apply strict Sharia punishments for specific offenses. It was during his time that the blasphemy laws were strengthened, adding life sentences and the death penalty as punishment.

No aspect of culture was spared from the Islamization driveNo aspect of culture was spared from the Islamization drive, as movie theaters were shut from Karachi to Peshawar, artists were driven underground and school curricula redesigned to create a “monolithic image of Pakistan as an Islamic state and taught students to view only Muslims as Pakistani citizens.”

Zia’s legacy remains, entrenched in the system and people’s daily lives. Pakistanis under the age of 40 have never experienced any other lifestyle, while the older generations reminisce about a more diverse past — even as they also gloss over some of that past’s shortcomings. But however it came about, Pakistan’s growing intolerance has taken its toll on diversity: Between 1947 and today, minorities went from 25 percent of the population to 3 percent.

“Its about pluralism, that can only happen when there is room for many kinds of people,” Ispahani said. “You cannot have a pluralistic, democratic state when you believe in the purity of your religion.”

The picture that McMaster showed Trump is a good reminder of what once was, but it does not provide a strategy to restore the pluralism that was once an accepted part of life in Pakistan or other countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, or Egypt. Ispahani’s book serves as a reminder that something far more profound than miniskirts has been lost in these countries. Washington’s counterterrorism policies, which help curb groups like the Taliban, are a good start, but they often fail to go any further toward restoring basic norms like respect for diversity. That will ultimately depend on the efforts of the local population themselves.

Those efforts may be able to draw on the power of nostalgia. When people in Pakistan, Egypt, or Afghanistan rifle through the photo albums of their parents and grandparents and wonder what happened to their country, they see skirts or cleavage — but they desire diversity and freedom of choice.

Eight exquisite Mughal miniatures of the Ramayana commissioned by emperor Akbar

Akbar spent a fortune translating Sanskrit texts into Persian. The Ramayana is one of them, writes Mridula Chari on Scroll. Read on: 

In the late 16th century, Tulsidas began to compose the Ramcharitmanas in Awadhi, one of the earliest vernacular versions of the Ramayana. At around the same time, Mughal emperor Akbar embarked  on a similar project – on a rather more royal scale.

There are hundreds of written and oral versions of the Ramayana, all of which differ widely depending on who narrates the epic and which country you are in. But for centuries, the definitive Brahminical version of the epic was held to be the Valmiki Ramayana, with seven books and 24,000 verses in Sanskrit. It was composed approximately in the fifth or fourth century BCE. Over the years, only a few additions were made by enterprising authors.

However, Akbar decided to change this. In 1574, in an effort to standardise communication in a court that spoke multiple languages, the emperor started a translation office to render Sanskrit, Arabic and even Turkish texts into Persian.

The David Collection
Akbar’s Ramayana, completed in 1584, is a product of several layers of translation. Brahmins at the court first translated the verses from Sanskrit into Awadhi. Court translators then rendered their transliteration into Persian verse, and court painters added their interpretations of the various scenes.

Badayuni, a secretary at Akbar’s court  better known for his critical history of the Mughals, is credited with this translation.

The original translation of Akbar’s Ramayana is lost, but pages from subsequent editions are available in private collections.

Here is a selection of images from the book.

Vishwamitra brings Rama and Lakshmana to his hermitage. Photo credit: Museum 'Rietberg.
The death of King Dasharatha, the father of Rama. Photo credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Rama slays the demon Trishiras. Photo credit: Christies
Rama receives Sugriva and Jambavat, the Vanara kings.
Photo credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Sita shies away from Hanuman, believing he is Ravana in disguise.
Photo credit: The David Collection.
Vanaras help Rama build a bridge. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Mandodari approaches her husband, Ravana. Photo credit: Asian Art Museum.
Atikaya, a son of Ravana. Photo credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Firefighting goats devour fuel before it can burn

Ever thought goats can be firefighters? Yes, they can be, by eating. They can eat and help in "fuel reduction". Surprised? They eat the brush and shrubs and saplings and reduce the amount of vegetation there is to burn, writes Renee Lewis on Earther. Read on:  

After one of the worst fire seasons in recent memory in the Pacific Northwest this summer—with the unforgettable smoke-pocalypse that socked in the region with thick smoke for weeks—a new tool is being added fight against wildfires: goats.

“More and more, people are looking at goats as a tool for fire suppression,” said Craig Madsen of Healing Hooves, a company based in Edwall, Washington, that maintains a herd of about 250 goats that are used for natural vegetation management.

The goats bleated loudly and walked towards Madsen as we approached the plot of land where the herd was busy grazing.

“The goats are complaining because of the rain,” Madsen said, as a cool, fall shower began.

Madsen stood under the overhang of the trailer he uses to to transport the herd, across the road from the land where the goats were grazing. The guard dog, Gigi, sat under a tree keeping watch as the goats—bucks, does, and kids—worked together to devour everything within reach.

Every car that drove by stopped to look at the unusual sight, and many asked Madsen about what he was doing out there with all those goats.

 Goats not only eat the vegetation but in some cases sterilize the seeds in the digestive process,
ensuring the plants will come up less and less. Image: Renee Lewis
Healing Hooves was hired by Suncadia, a sprawling resort in a wooded area near Cle Elum, WA, for fire management. By munching on everything they can, the goats reduce the amount of fuel available to wildfires.

“Goats mimic a cool, late-season understory burn,” Madsen said. “They eat all the leaves from shrubs and seedlings, reducing the amount of regeneration so it’s not so dense in the future.”

A thick understory—or vegetation that grows between the forest canopy and forest floor—adds fuel to fires like the Jolly Mountain fire that occurred adjacent to Suncadia over the summer. It was one of dozens of wildfires that torched the Pacific Northwest this season.

“That’s kind of what I call the superpower of goats, they can eat an enormous amount of biomass.”
The Jolly Mountain fire began with lightning strikes on Aug. 11. By the end of September, the fire had burned some 30,000 acres and caused evacuations in Cle Elum and surrounding areas.

Firefighters were eventually able to contain the blaze before it overtook small towns in the forest outside Cle Elum. Hand-made signs thanking the firefighters filled the streets in the small towns of Roslyn and Ronald—which were also threatened by the wildfire.

At Suncadia, Madsen’s goats worked in acre-sized plots to reduce the risk of future fires on the property.

Craig Madsen of Healing Hooves showing off his goats. Image: Renee Lewis
Some stood up on two hind legs, eating leaves off of bushes and trees up to six feet high. Others worked on stripping bark from seedlings, while some chewed their cud or bedded down for a break.

The goats work day and night, resting as needed. Healing Hooves operates for about five months of the year, starting in the spring and ending around October. In the winter, the goats stay at the ranch in Edwall. Madsen breeds the does every year, which usually results in about 160 kids—many of which he sells.

The goats work in plots surrounded by a portable electronic fence powered by a solar panel. The fence is as much to keep the goats in as it is to keep any predators out. Working in wooded areas brings the risk of attack by bears, wolves, and even cougars, Madsen said, adding that he’s lost goats in the past to such attacks.

The goats had just started on the new plot at Suncadia, and it stood in stark contrast to the plot the goats had finished the day before. That plot looked like someone had gone in with a lawn mower—all the brush was gone. And every shrub and sapling had been stripped of every leaf.

“This is long-term fire suppression,” Madsen said. It’s not a one-time job either, he added. “You need to get the goats in there multiple times so that the understory doesn’t have a chance to recover.”

In some areas, machines would be quicker and cheaper, Madsen said. But goats are useful in areas machines can’t go—places that are steeper, or have soft ground, he said.

“Goats are a tool, you have to figure out how to use it best,” Madsen said.

“I have gotten more and more inquiries from eastern Washington for fire prevention jobs.”
Around Seattle, goats are used mainly for controlling thick and unruly blackberry bushes or other invasive plants and weeds, said Tammy Dunakin, owner of Rent-A-Ruminant—another company that uses goats for natural vegetation management in Washington state.

“But I have gotten more and more inquiries from eastern Washington for fire prevention jobs,” Dunakin said.

Madsen seconded that, saying he’s had to turn down jobs because there is so much work for goats in the state. Because of the overwhelming interest, Dunakin has even opened up her business to franchising.

Goats are useful in areas machines can’t go—places that are steeper, or have soft ground. Image: Renee Lewis

She started her business 14 years ago. After working in the trauma end of healthcare, she was burned out and looking for a new opportunity.

“I was living on Vashon Island (near Seattle) and I had some goats and I said outloud, ‘you guys look bored, you need a job,’” Dunakin said, explaining that it sparked the idea that she could start a goat vegetation management business.

At the time, around 2003, there weren’t many similar businesses in the region—although the idea had taken off in California with much larger-sized herds of thousands of goats being used for fire-wising, Dunakin said.

She realized the same thing could take off in Washington state.

“Goats for fire remediation are absolutely a no brainer,” Dunakin said, adding that they not only eat the vegetation but in some cases sterilize the seeds in the digestive process—ensuring the plants will come up less and less.

Also, the goats eat the vegetation so it doesn’t have to be hauled off or just left there, remaining a fire hazard.

“That’s kind of what I call the superpower of goats, they can eat an enormous amount of biomass—it’s amazing how much they consume,” Dunakin said.

Many of the jobs Dunakin gets on the wetter, west side of Washington are invasive species management, like removing Himalayan Blackberry bushes. Another common job is using the goats for crime prevention. She will bring in her goats to clear brush in an area where there was drug use or problematic homeless encampments, and they’ll get rid of any places to hide out.

Since she started Rent-A-Ruminant, Dunakin said she’s increasingly being called about jobs related to fire prevention too.

“I’m busier than I could ever hope to be,” Dunakin said, adding that reporters from Newsweek, ABC, and even the Colbert Show began giving her company press exposure. Once people started hearing about the idea, her phone began ringing off the hook.

Both Madsen and Dunakin said they hope more people get into the goat herding business—and see a real need for it, especially in the niche of wildfire prevention. Unfortunately, becoming a shepherd isn’t usually the career of choice for many young people.

“Not too many people want to be herders in the U.S.; to live a nomadic lifestyle,” Madsen said. “But millennials are starting to look back, some may want to get back to the land.”

Sunday, 22 October 2017

‘We gave you uranium, you repaid us by bombing Belgrade’: Putin slams US

Vladimir Putin has criticized the US for failing to keep their end of the bargain in a host of international disarmament agreements. He says Moscow will not exit any existing treaties, but promised an “instant, symmetrical response” if Washington decides to quit first.

‘US decided to do away with international law’
Speaking during a Q & A session at the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi, an annual meeting with international journalists and Russia experts, Putin began by recalling the Megatons to Megawatts program, which ran between 1993 and 2013, and saw Russia downblend enriched uranium from the equivalent of about 20,000 of its nuclear warheads into low-enriched uranium to be used as fuel by US power stations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin © Grigoriy Sisoev / Sputnik

Putin said that as part of what he called “one of the most effective disarmament efforts in history,” US officials made 170 visits to top secret Russian facilities, and “set up permanent workplaces in them adorned with American flags.

“From the Russian side unprecedented openness and trust were demonstrated,” said Putin, saying that through the 1990s, about 100 US officials were entitled to carry out surprise inspections of Russian nuclear facilities, as part of Gorbachev and Yeltsin-era agreements.

“What we got in return is well-known – a complete disregard for our national interests, support for separatism in the Caucasus, a circumvention of the UN Security Council, the bombing of Yugoslavia, the invasion of Iraq, and so on. The US must have seen the state of our nuclear weapons and economy and decided to do away with international law.”

A road-mobile Topol missile system © Alexandr Kryazhev / Sputnik

‘They have no money for disarmament, but we do?’
Putin said that Washington’s hostile policies “are returning the relationship between the two countries to the 1950s” though noted that at least during the Cold War “there was at least more mutual respect” between the two superpowers.

“We can’t actively participate in several international treaties, because the US is not doing anything itself. We can’t just do it unilaterally,” said Putin, citing the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, as an example of the US taking advantage.

Last month, Russia declared that all its chemical weapons stockpiles had been disposed of – news that Western media “decided to stay silent on,” according to Putin – while the US has persistently delayed its own destruction schedule, and now plans to complete the process in 2023 at the earliest.

“We destroyed everything, and then our American partners said – ‘Not yet, we don’t have money.’ So, they have a dollar printing press, yet they don’t have money. But we, on the other hand, do?” said Putin with heavy sarcasm.

US President Donald Trump is joined by (L-R) Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Vice President Mike Pence, senior advisor Steve Bannon, Communications Director Sean Spicer and National Security Advisor Michael Flynn as he speaks with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin January 28, 2017 © Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

‘We will fulfil our obligations’
Putin dated a key point in the breakdown of the post-Soviet world order to the US decision to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) in 2002, during George W. Bush’s first term in office, to pave the way for the construction of the missile defense shield, to which the Kremlin continues to object vehemently.

“This treaty was the cornerstone of the entire international security framework in the area of strategic weapons. But despite spending years trying to persuade our colleagues otherwise, we weren’t able to hold our partners inside the agreement,” said Putin.

US President Donald Trump has criticized another treaty between Russia and the US that is still in force – New START. Signed in 2011 through to 2021, it stipulates that both sides are allowed to have up to 1,550 active nuclear warheads. Trump called it out as poor Obama-era deal in his campaign, and reportedly was annoyed with the Russian president for bringing it up in a phone conversation earlier this year.

“We are hearing that the other side is also not pleased with New START,” Putin said. “We are not going to quit it. Maybe we are ourselves dissatisfied with certain aspects of it, but there is always an element of compromise. So, we are going to fulfil our obligations.”

US President Ronald Reagan (R) and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty at the White House, on December 8 1987 © Reuters

‘Instant and symmetrical response’
The treaty under the biggest threat is the INF, signed in 1987, which bans land-based missiles – both nuclear and conventional – with ranges between 500-5,500 km. The US has said that several of the latest Russian rockets violate the agreement.

Putin bemoaned that by not banning air-based and naval launchers the treaty allowed a loophole beneficial predominantly to NATO states, and said that it represented “another case of Russia making unilateral concessions.”

“Nonetheless, we are going to comply with its terms providing our partners do so,” Putin said. “If they decide to abandon it, however, our response will be instant and symmetrical.”

‘Others talk about nuclear disarmament when they develop newer weapons’
While Putin insisted that Russia “still wants and will pursue” new agreements with the US to achieve nuclear disarmament, these may be harder to negotiate in an era of more diverse weapons systems, being produced more states than ever before.

“Countries’ readiness to talk about getting rid of nuclear weapons is in direct proportion to their advances in other weapons systems,” said Putin, noting that both conventional and high-tech weapons delivered with modern targeting systems “offer almost as much damage, with far superior accuracy.”

“We are carefully monitoring what is happening around the world, just as our own country is acquiring these non-nuclear weapons system,” Putin said.

(Source: RT)

How China’s first ‘silk road’ came to life – on the seas

More than the overland trail, the maritime route can be seen as an early example of what might be termed proto-globalization, writes David Abulafia, Professor of Mediterranean History, University of Cambridge, on Asia Times. Read on: 

Few images are more enduring in the historical imagination than that of the train of two-humped Bactrian camels plodding across desert sands from west to east, or vice-versa, across the vast open spaces of Eurasia. Now that China is edging towards a modern incarnation of the “silk road” it is worth remembering how this emblem of the ancient world actually came into being.

There is no doubt that these overland trading routes existed in the early and late Middle Ages. There is also no doubt that these treks across deserts brought massively important cultural influences from the west to the east while carrying goods in the other direction.

Rowers at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing recreate the voyages of Chinese explorer Zheng He. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
But there is another side to this tale, and it is one which the Chinese government acknowledges with its huge Belt and Road transcontinental infrastructure project to link East Asia to the Middle East and Europe. Simply put, the story of the silk road, ancient or modern, is as much the story of the sea as the dunes.

The overland routes carried spices and gems and other non-bulky items as well as bolts of silk and packages of unwoven silk thread. They also helped to bring the ideas and art of both Islam and Buddhism to East Asia.

That is why Indian art, already impregnated by Greek influences since Alexander the Great, had so great an impact on the art of China and even Japan. It is curious indeed to see motifs in medieval sculptures of the Buddha that survive in Japan that can, ultimately, be traced back to the ancient Mediterranean.

In the eighth century there were merchants – many of whom were Jewish and known by the still unexplained title “Radhanites” – who set out from France and in some cases managed to reach China overland. But they were not the true pioneers, as they attached themselves to existing camel caravans. At this point, the route cannot seriously be seen as an example of proto-globalization. The effects on the economy of Western Europe from very small amounts of high-cost luxury goods were minimal.

People take pictures of the “Golden Bridge on Silk Road” installation by Chinese artist Shu Yong, set up ahead of May’s Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. Photo: Reuters, Thomas Peter
Routes right across Asia could only flourish when political conditions were right, and the 11th and 12th centuries were a relatively quiet period. However, with the rise of the Mongols, a new political order imposed peace from Russia to China and made long-distance travel easier. This was particularly the case when the Genoese and Venetians installed themselves in trading centers along the Black Sea, notably at Caffa (modern Feodosiya) in the Crimea, and Tana on the Sea of Azov.

The most famous European visitor to medieval China – Marco Polo – was not, if his account is to be believed, typical: he spent many years in the Mongol administration during the 13th century before returning to Venice by sea. But there were Genoese and Venetians who traveled out to Quanzhou on the coast of China and lived and died there. And there were certainly bolts of Chinese silk that found their way to Western Europe; at least one item in the ceremonial regalia of the Holy Roman Emperor was made from Chinese silk.

Primacy of the sea routes
As the Mongol Empire broke up in the 14th century, the primacy of the maritime route linking China to lands further west became more obvious, though in fact it had continued without a break for many centuries.

Indeed, there were already elements in place in the days of the Roman Empire, when Greek merchants from Egypt reached the Bay of Bengal and massive quantities of pepper reached the port of Rome at Ostia.

But in the days of the Roman Empire, maritime links to China were tenuous in the extreme, and Roman embassies to the rival great empire tended to be dismissed without much interest. Moreover, Chinese governments tended to look away from the sea, concentrating on the exploitation (and taxation) of the rich resources of their own country.


The great transformation occurred from the seventh century as the area now known as Malaysia and Indonesia was opened up to maritime trade. Under the Song dynasty, based in southern China around 1100, Chinese merchants were encouraged to head across the water. Trade in camphor out of the East Indies pointed in two directions: upwards to the coast of China, but also westwards into the Indian Ocean.

A trading network developed in the East Indies, under the auspices of the rulers of Sri Vijaya in Sumatra, which linked the world of the Chinese traders to that of the Malay and Indian traders.

A trade route was emerging that was worthy of the name. This was a “silk route of the sea”.

Gingerbread

Along the sea routes, increasing quantities of spices filtered westwards, passing India and flowing up the Red Sea, where they were moved on to Alexandria in Egypt, and collected by merchants from Genoa, Venice, Barcelona and other western ports. Sometimes they made their way across Europe by land, or eventually around Iberia by sea, and ended up in the gingerbread of Hanseatic burghers in Lübeck, Riga or Tallinn.

Ships also carried enormous amounts of Chinese porcelain, much in demand in the Islamic world, which keeps turning up in shipwrecks in and around the South China Sea. The Cirebon shipwreck found off Java carried half a million pieces of porcelain, part of a cargo weighing 300 tons.

Eventually, with the foundation of Melaka at the start of the 15th century the Chinese established a base on the edges of the Indian Ocean. This was the result of the short-lived period of vigorous maritime activity around 1420, when the Ming emperors sent large fleets out into the Indian Ocean under the command of Admiral Zheng He to show the Chinese flag and to collect information about the world beyond the Middle Kingdom.

These routes linking east and west long preceded the coming of the Portuguese, Spaniards and Dutch, who transformed the trade of the world after 1500. And it was the maritime (rather than the overland) silk route that can be seen as a very early case of what might be called proto-globalization. It is interesting to note that much the same applies today: the quantities of goods carried by train across Asia under the Belt and Road project cannot hope to match the enormous amount of containerized goods a revived Chinese merchant marine will be able to carry by sea.

The leftover embryo crisis

It's a difficult reproductive question faced by hundreds of thousands of people and pretty much nobody is talking about it. Elissa Strauss writes on Elle about the million frozen embryos in the US, the two that are hers, and why nearly everyone has so much trouble figuring out what to do with them. Read on: 

There are an estimated one million frozen embryos in the United States right now. If you're somebody who believes life begins at conception, you might see a potential tragedy. If you’re somebody who has long been struggling with infertility, you might wish that someone, somewhere, would send one your way. If you’re a clinic or storage facility, you might see a logistical struggle. And if you’re a former patient of IVF to whom one or more of those embryos belong, you might see indecision, an unyielding maybe that you can avoid dealing with for the not insignificant cost of approximately $750 per year.

Two of those million some embryos are mine, the byproduct of a successful course of treatment that resulted in the birth of a healthy child earlier this year. They’re currently residing in New York City, bundles of 120 cells suspended in cryoprotectant locked in a freezer set to negative 196 degrees celsius on the Upper East Side. We’re 3000 miles in our new home of Oakland CA, two parents, two kids, one dog. This was the plan, the dream even. Here we are.

What should we do with our two leftover embryos? The options, which include using them to try to have another child, donating them to research or another couple, or destroying them, are clear. Choosing one is not. Much of this struggle lies not so much in my indecisiveness, but my resentment about having to make this decision at all. Following a year of infertility treatments and another ten months of a highly monitored pregnancy, I’d prefer to retreat back to the illusion that creating life is more a matter of fate than human will. My son, the fullness of his thighs, the urgency of his coohs and cahs, affords me this fantasy. My embryos do not. Alive, but not quite, us, but not quite, they came into being by way a series of measured calculations designed to work as corrective to fate. Now we have to decide what’s next.

We are not unique in our ambivalence. A series of research projects led by Robert Nachtigall, a OB-Gyn at UC San Francisco, found that embryo disposition, the official term for getting rid of excess embryos, is rarely easy. A 2005 study called the decision “a significant and frequently unresolved issue for couples with stored frozen embryos,” one complicated by “their deeply personal conceptualizations of their embryos” which “contributes to their ambivalence, uncertainty, and difficulty in reaching a decision.” Another study found that “the majority of embryo-holding families choose to postpone ultimate decision-making about their embryos.” Some do this because they aren’t sure they are done having children, others because of an inability to make a decision, whether because of ambivalence or disagreement, and others because they lack the information and support to make a decision.

“This is one of the unintended consequences of IVF that doesn’t get a lot of attention,” said Barbara Collura, President and CEO of RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association. “But this is a huge challenge, and there is frankly not enough being done to help.”

Most reproductive health clinics, along with the patients they serve, operate with tunnel vision. They want to get you pregnant. When you are going through IVF, they require patients to sign a consent form about the fate of their potential extra embryos should a couple get divorced or someone dies. That tends to be it. Rarely does somebody sit you down and say, “you might end this process with excess embryos and here’s what you might do with them.” Even more rarely does somebody tell you that it might be hard. If they did, you might only laugh at the suggestion of such excessive fortune.

Outside the walls of the clinic it’s not much different. A byproduct of the ongoing fight for reproductive rights has been the self-censorship of stories that don’t follow the logic of either side of the debate. Regrets and mixed feelings about abortions, miscarriages and embryos can easily be interpreted as sympathy towards, or fodder for, the anti-abortion movement. So we hold back from talking about the messy middle in which embryos exist for many of us, compelled to contemplate their meaning and worth all on our own.

IF I DONATED MY EMBRYOS, I WORRIED I’D SPEND MY LIFE LOOKING FOR WHAT I STILL CONSIDERED MY CHILD.

The embryo disposition question surfaced about one month after my IVF baby was born. Having never received information about my options from my infertility clinic, I went searching for them on the internet. Google quickly directed me to RESOLVE’s website, where there is a list of seven options former IVF patients can choose from. Immediately, I ruled out four.

The easiest to dismiss was donating them to be used by someone else. This would involve giving the embryos to a clinic, or directly to a couple or individual who could implant it and, should it lead to a live birth, raise it. In order to create an embryo without any of their biological material, an infertile couple might have to pay for donor sperm and a donor egg, and then pay for a clinic to combine them and then transfer one or more resulting embryos to the womb, all of which can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars. While it is against the law to sell biological material, clinics are allowed to charge for the time and effort that goes into making sperm and eggs. Embryos, on the other hand, are generally a byproduct of a process done for another purpose and therefore can’t be assigned any monetary value. The cost of using a donated embryo includes only legal fees and the cost of transferring the embryo to the womb, which adds up to around $5000.

I could never donate my embryos because I’d be certain that I’d spend the rest of my life looking for what I would still consider my child. Most couples dealing with the disposition question feel the same. According to research done by Nachtigall and others, only a small number of couples—just 6% in one study—decide to donate their embryos.

However, some working in the industry say they see an uptick in couples being interested in donating their excess embryos, and a host of start-ups have arrived to help facilitate the process. One of these is Embryo Options, a new company that works with clinics to guide their patients through the whole embryo storage and disposition process, including donation. “We are like Match.com between embryo donors and recipients,” said co-founder Jim Knowles.

I WON’T OPT FOR THE SIMPLER, CHEAPER OPTION OF EMBRYO DESTRUCTION.

Knowles and his partner Andy Gairani said they started Embryo Options because they saw people trying to donate embryos by way of Facebook and determined they could use some help. Unlike many of the Christian groups helping facilitate embryo donation, or “adoption” as they often call it, Knowles and Gairani don’t put any moral premium on donation. “We just want to make sure [embryo disposition] is an educational process, and that there are tools out there to help place these embryos with recipients who want them.”

The rise in interest could be in part the effect of a federal program that spent tens of millions of dollars to raise awareness of embryo donation, or “snowflake adoption.” This began during the Bush administration, designed to protect what he considered “our society’s most vulnerable members,” and continued through the Obama years.

Even with the recent uptick, embryo donation as a large-scale answer to the excess embryo question has many skeptics. Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at New York University, says he doesn’t believe that this will ever take off. “This is a completely ideological, moralistically driven solution. Meanwhile the fate of all these frozen embryos lies in the hands of utility companies.”

“Most people won’t feel comfortable with this,” he continued. “Could you ever feel comfortable with this?” “Never,” I replied.


Another non-option for me is the compassionate transfer, a procedure which involves placing the embryo in a woman during a time of her cycle when it has little chance of surviving. Before I went through IVF I neatly filed this away in the slightly ridiculous yet forgivable category. I considered it a waste of resources, financial and medical, and a product of the kind of knotty logic that often emerges when religious ethics butt heads with reproductive medicine.

Now that I’m on the other side of this process, I’ve become more sensitive to its appeal. Here’s a ritual, almost pagan in its mix of physicality and near absurdity, that might help women navigate through the liminality of frozen embryo possession. There’s a poetic cyclicality to having the cells reabsorbed into the mother’s body; a sense that the science experiment is over everything is back where it should be.

I won’t do that, nor will I opt for the simpler, cheaper option of embryo destruction in which they are thawed and discarded in the lab, or destroyed in a disposal ceremony of my own devising, because embryos are useful. They can be donated to research, either to be used in the lab or, less commonly, for stem cell research project. When choosing this option, I cut off any chance my embryos have to become life, but I guarantee that they will contribute to life; a fitting end to their confounding alive-but-not-life status. Studies show this feeling is common.

When I first heard of the research option, I imagined that meant that our embryos would head off to a stem cell lab, where they might play a crucial role in curing Alzheimer's or the creation of new organs for transplants. This scenario, I’ve since learned, is highly unlikely. Most embryos donated to research are destined for a less heroic and headline grabbing fate: they are used to help the infertility clinic maintain quality control. They might be used to train a young embryologist, or ensure that a new equipment is up to par. This is still contributing to life—that embryologist might gain skills that help her help other couples have babies—but it’s not what I had imagined.

According to Susan Fisher, the director of the Human Embryonic Stem Cell Program at University of California, San Francisco, this is largely because of federal laws limiting stem cell research. “The bar is so high to be able to do this work. You must work in non-federal lab, with non-federal equipment and non-federal fund,” she said. “This is such a shame to me, because people want them used for greater good, but there are all kinds of obstacles.”


While Obama undid some of the the second Bush’s restrictions, the field is still largely underfunded. Today, most research is done on stem cells created from adults, which are less politically controversial, but also, according to Fisher, less effective. “Embryonic stem cells are still what we would call the gold standard” and would provide far more insights into how our bodies work. “If we take the 30,000 feet perspective, we know nothing about human development. And the reason for this because, for a very long time, the United States government has not supported this work. In many ways they have prevented this work,” she said.

There isn’t a central organization where patients can go look for studies looking for embryos, no single entity that can walk them through research projects and facilitate donation. Doing it on one’s own is possible, but it’s a cumbersome process that requires an in-depth knowledge about how academic institutions work as well as a deep well of patience to wade through all the red tape. Individuals might also be responsible for setting up the transfer of their embryo, which can be complicated in and of itself. The infertility clinic that we used allows us to donate our embryos to stem cell research, but I was told that they embryos with such a designation often sit in the freezer for a long time. Hang in there long enough, she explained, and there’s a decent chance they will be be destroyed.

There is another option here, the one that all choices must ultimately be measured against. We could use the embryo to try to have a child. Ruling this out should be easy. We don’t want another child. But our present selves and future selves are rarely the same people and what’s obvious today might be a source of regret later on. What do I owe to person I will become in the next half decade? Some days I think the answer is clear: as much opportunity as I can give her and her family. Other days, most days, I think differently. Betting on change is foolish. It will cost our family many thousands of dollars, and, worse, serve as invitation for self-examination, even self-scrutiny, over the years about what kind of person doesn’t want more children. Especially when they are already in the works.

Finally there’s the last choice, the popular choice, the no-choice choice, of storing them for some undetermined amount of time. I understand its appeal and might consider it if I wasn’t constitutionally incapable of taking this path. This is because I’m an overly decisive type, the sort who moves swiftly and confidently through matters large and small and rarely second guesses herself afterward, occasionally to a fault. I do this in part because I’m terrible at avoidance, and lack the facility to redirect big questions, or tiny embryos, to the dark corners of mind where they can hibernate until I’m ready. I think of those maybe babies, and all that went into making them, and long for closure.

According to Dr. Nachtigall the no-choice choice is the most common one, and accounts for around two-thirds the people he has studied. “In order for couples to engage with disposition decision, they must first undergo a shift in conceptualization of embryos [away from potential children]. This shift is required before they can let them go. I don’t think it is easy,” he said.

____

Making a decision about embryos is complicated largely because we lack consensus on what they actually are. Bioethicists struggle to define them, trying to find a middle-ground between human tissue and a child. “Even if you don’t believe they are a person, they have moral status. You can’t minimize that; the genetic connection makes it really challenging to do so,” said Lisa Campo-Engelstein, an associate professor at the Alden March Bioethics Institute at Albany Medical College.

She believes one solution to the excess embryo question is for clinics to stop making so many embryos in the first place. They could instead freeze eggs and sperm and create embryos as needed, a process that is far less likely to create lower live birth rates than it would have in the past. This would avoid psychological strife on behalf of the possessors of embryos as well as prevent the number of excess embryos in the country from continuing to grow.

Another way to reduce the number of embryos sitting in freezers would be to have laws limiting how long they can be frozen for, which exist in other countries. In the United Kingdom, for example, most regions only allow individuals or couples to store embryos for ten years. In addition to the obvious effect of reducing the embryo glut, this legal framework might also change the way we think about embryos. If it becomes the norm to dispose of them at some point, then people might become more comfortable with letting go of them—at any point. It would also give the clinic the permission to destroy abandoned embryos after a certain predetermined period of time. As it stands now, most clinics never destroy embryos, even if storage fees haven’t been paid for years, out of fear that they might be sued should their patients or clients return years later and demand them.

“There has to be some endpoint,” Campo-Engelstein said. “I heard about a couple who was planning on bequeathing their embryos to their children. There should be safeguards in place.”

NYU’s Caplan has another suggestion for tweaking how we view embryos: change their name. He prefers calling those that have yet to enter the womb “pre-embryos,” a term some of in the reproductive medicine field have already adopted. “Clinics are responsible [for some of the confusion surrounding embryos] because they treat them like babies,” Caplan said. “There is a lot of politics, and even a little business, in what you call an embryo in a dish or tank.” In this largely for-profit field, the closer you get to promising someone a baby, the more likely your patients will opt for more, and more expensive, treatments.

When Caplan said “pre-embryo,” my mind quickly pivoted away from burden and towards relief. I’d always seen them as potential life, as opposed to life, and bristled at infertility discussion groups where they are lovingly named “embies,” and often attached to a gender descriptor. But this semantic tweak further emphases their potentiality, and detracts from any cuddly associations. When I think of my potential embryos, or the other million potential embryos, I see them less as a burden, or potential scientific plot, and more as a byproduct of a medical procedure. So much easier to say goodbye.

The law offers little in the way of clarity as to the status of embryos. Most lawyers and judges frame them as property, but “deserving of special respect for their potential to become a person,” as one much referenced court case put it. “You treat it respectfully, but it’s not a person. It doesn’t have all the rights of a person,” said Margaret E. Swain, the director of the American Academy of Assisted Reproductive Technology Attorneys.

But this definition is not federal law. Different states have different rules on the legal standing of embryos, mostly regarding what can be done to them while they are alive and whether or not their fate should be determined by a contract or what’s in the best interest of their parents. One state, Louisiana, gives embryos judicial standing, which is the reason why Sofia Vergara’s ex-fiancée Nick Loeb, headed east to file a lawsuit on behalf of their embryos in an attempt to use them. (A federal judge in Louisiana ultimately dismissed the case because neither parent lived there, nor were the embryos created there.)

About the closest we have ever gotten to a federal definition of embryos is when President Obama was sued by Mary Scott Doe, a “frozen embryo symbolizing all existing frozen embryos,” after lifting part of the ban on stem cell research 2009. A federal appeals court ruled against little Mary, claiming that the case had no standing because embryos are an “amorphous” class and nobody could prove any actual harm.

Politically speaking, the few attempts to articulate what embryos are have mostly happened in the context of the pro-life movement. There was the aforementioned program to encourage embryo donations, which was bereft of any information on other disposition options. Also, efforts to make IVF widely available to wounded veterans have been stymied by those on the right who don’t want to be a party to the creation of excess embryos that might later be destroyed.

Overall, however, the anti-abortion movement has largely stayed away from this issue. One rarely sees protests outside IVF clinics, or laws limiting the number of eggs that can be fertilized. Most reproductive advocates believe this is because of the bad optics. These embryos are for family-building, for creating life; the narratives fueling the anti-abortion movement claiming carelessness and disdain for life don’t work here. However, should personhood laws ever pass, the informal armistice could very well end.

____

My husband and I are lucky. The excess embryo question can create a lot of friction between couples, but we’re generally in agreement. Still, this agreement does not reflect an equal sharing of the burden of making this decision. He is also a journalist. He did not decide to research and write a 3500 plus word article on embryo disposition.

The whys are fairly obvious. Most of the physical labor involved in creating those embryos was on me, as would be the act of gestating them. Most of the emotional labor of family planning is on me, because I’m a woman and long ago the world decided women need to worry about such things. He didn’t cast judgement on all my ruminating. He was never an active participant in it either. He wanted to hear where I landed, and when I told him he was in swift agreement.

According to Jake Anderson, co-founder of the Fertility IQ, a website that offers data on doctors, clinic, and treatments in the field of reproductive medicine, women and men tend to approach the embryo disposition question differently.

“We often see a breakdown along gender lines among heterosexual couples. The guy often thinks ‘we got what we wanted, let’s call it a day.’ And the woman thinks that she never wants to revisit the whole process of going through IVF, so she would rather hold onto them,” he said. “This can be a meaningful pain point.”

We decided that we want to put this all behind us. We are going to donate our embryos to stem cell research, but request that if they aren’t used in a couple of years, then they should be donated to the reproductive lab. We concluded that should our tides shift and we decide we want to have another kid, we will try to have another kid. Even if that means going through IVF. That might not work, but so might not these two embryos we are saying goodbye to, or just about anything and everything else we do in a lifetime. We will be submitting ourselves to chance, which will, in turn, allow us to better commit to who we are now. To the children in front of us, to all the life we’ve already created.