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Remembering The Man Who Wrote The First Dictionary Ever

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When we clicked on the Google icon on September 18, a book opened, and we saw a grumpy-faced man wearing a wig, wistfully flipping through the pages of a book. The man in the picture is Samuel Johnson, popularly known as Dr Johnson.

For people who care, Johnson is the creator of the first proper dictionary of the English language. Some might also be aware that he is one of the pioneering biographers in the modern sense of the term. Critics tell us that, he did not individually contribute to a specific aspect of literature and yet the period in which he wrote came to be called the ‘Age of Johnson’. For centuries, lines from Johnson remain(ed) the most quotable and anecdotes from his life have created at least 12 biographies, from the 18th century to the 21st century.

In India, Johnson was never the most loved author. He is praised but not deified like Shakespeare. Quoted, but not sung like Wordsworth. The enthusiasm over Johnson, as with many writers from the British canon, has cooled down over the years. But Johnson is an excellent specimen of the rare breed of public intellectuals and for reasons that (300 odd years after the writer’s birth), a former colony might find exciting.

The greatest contribution of Johnson might perhaps be acknowledged for the efforts he made to improve the ‘English tongue’. It was not just the dictionary but numerous other treatises in which Johnson laboured hard to rescue the language from obfuscation and pedantry and simplify it for the benefit of the reading public.

Be it politics, philosophy or history, Johnson’s opinions have become immortal primarily because of their clarity. One of the barriers that exist between the intellectuals and the masses is the opaqueness of language, and that is partly the reason why what is written hardly reaches out to those whose concerns are raised.

In India, there seems to be a widening of the gap between the academic and the public intellectual, largely due to the rigidity of language. We can think only of a few scholars who write to address the reading public and not just their students, colleagues or an imagined academic from the West.

For someone like Johnson, the cure for ignorance among the public did not equate with contempt for the masses but prompt action which ensured ‘general welfare’.

Of all the things, what might arouse our curiosity are Johnson’s political/polemical writings. Johnson’s “Patriotism Is The Last Refuge Of The Scoundrel” is a favourite among many thinkers, even in India. But, this was not the only instance where the English icon said something extremely controversial or unpopular.

Many did not see eye to eye with Johnson for his unconventional views on matters such as nationalism, colonisation and media. A pamphlet titled “The Patriot” was a trenchant critique of the government which had in the past criticised its adversaries for the lack of patriotism but was now failing on similar grounds.

In 1770 he had written another essay titled “The False Alarm” which was, in fact, a defence of an anti-war pamphlet drafted by a John Wilkes, whose nationalistic credentials had been questioned in the parliament. Despite being a Tory, Johnson was not the strongest advocate of colonialism or slavery; he, in fact, had the harshest of words for such practices.

In “Taxation No Tyranny”, he did not sympathise with the colonists who had voluntarily moved to America and pleaded for exemption from taxes they considered exploitative. Blasting such hypocrisy, he sharply reasoned that they should pay their taxes. Without mincing his words, Johnson said, “We are told, that the subjection of Americans may tend to the diminution of our own liberties; an event, which none but very perspicacious politicians are able to foresee. If slavery be thus fatally contagious, how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”

Despite his love for London or England at large, Johnson did not seem to romanticise its past or encourage its imperialist missions. In a biting satire called ‘Marmor Norfolciense’, Johnson remembers England’s violent past and predicts that future could be no better. In an age when media centres are treated like verbal war-zones, it might be relevant to recall Johnson’s admonishment of sensationalisation and media-trial (to use a contemporary idiom.)

In an incident involving a navy personnel Admiral Byng, who had been shot for his act of ‘cowardice’, Johnson heavily criticised the parliament, the press and the general public for their hostility towards Byng. When King George III met Johnson in 1767, in his library, he wished a biography of the country to be written; but Johnson never wrote one.

Years later, Johnson produced “Lives of the Poets” which clubbed together writers with diverse loyalties and allegiances but all committed to one cause – improving the English language. If not anything else, Johnson has one important message for us – that one’s love for one’s country can find expression in many ways; least of all through mere chest-thumping, and most of all by highlighting its blemishes and remedying them.

“Critical insiders” to use U.R. Ananthamurthy’s words, do not speak from a position of hate; they speak from a position of concern or if one might add – love.

Shaswat Panda teaches English at North Orissa University.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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