VSCO Cam

So I have been using Instagram a lot and my account is here so please ‘follow’ me if you like those images.

I like clicking photos and sharing them on Instagram and VSCO Cam. The two sites are somewhat different. Instagram is huge, and VSCO Cam is artsy. Clicking photos on my handy iPhone is a way of getting back to the visual side of things. It helps me observe as I walk around, and also has forced a problem in my mind.

I find that the people I follow have a subject; a topic. Most of the people I follow on Instagram are in fashion or the arts. They post on one topic. The British Museum and MOMA, both of whom I follow on Instagram, help me stay abreast of the goings-on in the art world. Fashion sites on Instagram are just visually beautiful and help me track designers who I like. This raises an interesting problem for me: what is my visual aesthetic? I’m still toying with the idea and don’t have an answer yet. On the one hand I like photographing humans; and on the other, trees and nature attract me as well. I love birds, but don’t have the camera expertise or equipment to photograph birds. The site that I troll late at night however, is India Nature Watch, a fantastic site if you are even remotely interested in mammals, birds, and reptiles. Posting on Instagram and VSCO Cam has forced me to figure out what I want to say visually.

Today, I received an email which pleased me inordinately. It is pasted below and is self-explanatory.  Funny to see that the photo which has been chosen is this one.  Does this mean that I should focus on temple photography? The interplay between what psychologists call “strokes” and creation make up the final voice of a writer or in this case an amateur photographer.

Begin forwarded message:
From: “VSCO” <support@vsco.co>
Date: February 21, 2015 at 2:10:06 AM GMT+5:30
Subject: Your image has been selected for the curated VSCO Grid
To: Shoba Narayan <shoba@shobanarayan.com>
Reply-To: support@vsco.co
Your image has been selected for the curated VSCO Grid
WITH HONOR
Shoba Narayan, your work has been chosen for the VSCO Grid™ — a curated gallery of original imagery.

Use this link to view and share your work within a selection of the finest images online:
Thank you for using VSCO Cam® and VSCO Grid. We are grateful for your support.
 
The VSCO Team

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Probably the only thing Jony Ive and I have in common

Is the cadences of speech.  Wish I had read this profile in the New Yorker before submitting mine– I would have led off by saying that I speak like Jony Ive.  I think the profile is right in that it is a desire to be “liked” that makes us speak this way.  But the benefit of middle age is that you can attempt to overcome this.  Shorter Ive profile takeaway here at The Awl.

Clunky headline notwithstanding, my piece for Mint Lounge below.

Which Verbal Personality type are you? 

What is your verbal tic? Do you say “like” or “means” more than two times in a sentence? Big data has discovered that men say “uh,” and women say “um,” according to The Atlantic Monthly. Perhaps yours is not so much a verbal tic as a tone that conveys the wrong impression. You are not a complainer but you have a whiny voice. You think you are flexible but your tone is clipped, giving the impression of rigidity.

I have a verbal tone that drives my husband nuts. It is needlessly tentative. “Why do your sentences trail off towards the end?” he will ask. “Why do you ask questions instead of just stating facts, especially since these are subjects that you know?”

I think I speak this way because…wait, scratch that. Let me be declarative and you will see why. I adopt this tone out of childhood habit. I was taught to speak a certain way so as to not appear arrogant.

Our speech patterns are deeply ingrained and most of us don’t know how or why we speak the way we do. Some of it is because we mimic the speech of those we admire. Some of it is because of our inner biases playing out in the cadence of our speech; and some of it has to do with assertiveness.

Do you declare (“This research paper is hogwash”) or do you hedge (“Seems to me and I could be wrong but this research paper doesn’t read quite right”)?

Do you speak forcefully (“India wants an answer”) or do you speak softly (Don’t mean to push but would you like to answer that?”)

Assertive people speak to claim attention. Reticent types speak to connect with each other. Speech patterns also have to do with whether you are comfortable with disagreement. Some of us hate confrontation. We don’t interrupt others and fall silent when we are interrupted. Arnab Goswami would render such people practically mute. Both men and women interrupt a woman four times more than they would interrupt a man.

The problem is when your speech doesn’t reflect who you are. You may be confident but you speech is tentative. You may second-guess yourself to be polite, but you appear unsure of your opinion (“I may be wrong but I think Rahul Gandhi has some issues”). Do you have speech patterns that you have fallen into; that it is time to outgrow? Do you qualify your statements and if so, why? To appear nice? (“You probably know this already, but everything is relative, isn’t it?”)

Assertive folks speak 2.5 times longer than shy retiring types: in classrooms, meetings and boardrooms. When someone interrupts them, they shut up; and take a while to speak up again. They are vulnerable to interruption, as the jargon goes.

This applies in social settings as well. During a debate or a discussion at a party or salon, a few people jump in assertively. They interrupt each other constantly. When things get heated, they have no problem out-shouting each other. They think fast on their feet and state opinions authoritatively, even if they end up being wrong.

The other group waits to be heard. They engage in “turn-taking” behavior. They don’t interrupt, and if they do, they aren’t loud enough. They wait to formulate perfect opinions before they open their mouths. They worry about being seen (and judged) as stupid or ill informed. Predictably, women speak far less in public than men. One-on-one, it is the opposite.

The next time you are in a lecture and the speaker invites people to ask questions, notice the ratio of men to women. Which gender asks more questions?

The question is what to do with this information. If you are running a meeting; or convening a business conclave where men outnumber women 3:1, as they usually do, what is your approach? If you want to make sure that the shy brainy folks contribute to the meeting, what is a good strategy?

One approach would be to simply pause. Take a moment before responding to what someone has said. Be aware of how you are responding to women versus men. Satya Nadella discovered that too late. Notice your biases and your body language. Are you choosing men to answer ‘impactful’ questions and tossing the women the lighter questions? The idea is to cultivate a memory for your behavior and biases so that your responses can be equitable.

Society lays the onus on women. Lean In, says Sheryl Sandberg. Break the glass ceiling. Speak up. Dance like a man. That is one way. If you are the boss, sure, you can tell your quiet colleagues to speak up. Or you can simply hire more women. As has been reported in the New York Times, Harvard Business Review, Inc. and The Atlantic, teams with more women outperformed teams with more men on a consistent basis. “The secret to smart groups: it’s women,” as a headline in The Atlantic said.

Shoba Narayan has never had assertiveness training. She could be wrong but she doesn’t think she needs it.

Valentine’s Day

Had fun writing this piece.

Are you a spouse whisperer?

Pity the newly-weds this Valentine’s Day. Flush with love and fresh with flowers, these men and women make heartfelt declarations of love, little realizing that what they need is not a card embossed with hearts, or an app that suggests new ways to regurgitate that tired old phrase, “I love you”, but a spouse whisperer.

What, you will ask, is a spouse whisperer?

Remember The Horse Whisperer, the movie in which Robert Redford makes a horse do things that it does not want to do? Spouse whisperers do the same thing to spouses.

There comes a time in every relationship when you realize a simple truth: Your spouse doesn’t listen to you. The harsher truth will follow: Your spouse listens to someone else who says the exact same thing that you’ve been repeating for days, months, sometimes years. That beloved man with a dimpled chin that you fell in love with is 100 times more likely to follow well-meaning advice and instructions when it comes from a dispassionate third party.
You could have been telling him to buy mutual funds for years. Suddenly, one day, he will return from his golf game or even his barber and announce: “You know, Billu barber is buying mutual funds. I think we should too.” Before you froth at the mouth, read on. If you are as smart as I think you are, you will immediately see the need to cultivate the barber, tailor, hairdresser, golf buddies, drinking buddies, and colleagues, who shall henceforth be referred to as spouse whisperers.

The common need for spouse whisperers became apparent to me after a night out with friends. We had a few drinks and pretty soon, we began talking—lovingly, of course—about our spouses. My husband, poor thing, works long hours; he should exercise more. She should shop less. He wakes up too early on weekends to head out to the golf course. She stays late at work. He needs to cultivate hobbies; I only have his best interests at heart. She should nag less. After our venting, we arrived at the same conclusion: Our spouses didn’t listen to us. They followed the advice of TV news anchors; articles in magazines; and even random strangers they had met at parties.

Sounds familiar? I thought so. In all these situations, who are you going to call? A spouse whisperer.

Take a simple example that is the source of much discussion in many households these days: the amount of time that your spouse spends on social media. As her well-meaning husband, you believe she is spending far too much time on Twitter and Facebook. It is not a belief; it is a fact.

Being the software engineer that you are, you have ingeniously set timers to detect when she logs in and out of Facebook and Twitter on all her devices. You have wads of proof that you have collected on your daughter’s graph paper—pencil marks that go up and down like an ECG, plotting the amount of time she is on social media on a minute-by-minute basis.

One evening, you begin a discussion about this, little realizing that it is a path to self-obliteration. Let’s figure this out rationally, you say. As you speak, there is a series of reactions in rapid succession. First, she doesn’t listen. Then she pretends she doesn’t understand what you are saying. Third, she says that you are wrong! Flat out. Without discussion. It is all in your head, she says.

That’s when you bring out your ammunition: those green graph papers that you clutch in your hands. Proof. Going back weeks. That’s when her eyes go cold. “Have you been spying on me?” she says in that deceptively quiet voice you have come to fear. That is when you realize that all your meticulous tracking of her time on social media, and rigorous collection of proof, was not just suboptimal; not just a waste of time. It was worse. It was like digging your grave, jumping inside it, and smearing yourself with dirt just to save your face.

The tone of the discussion changes entirely after that. Your spouse spiritedly argues with you about how you are wrong in your perception of her. She has the gall to call it “perception” when you were waving around scientific proof. Then she turns the tables on you. She isn’t the one spending too much time on Facebook, she says. You are the one who is constantly on the phone—checking messages, texting colleagues, giving the thumbs-up to lame jokes on all the superfluous alumni groups that you are part of on WhatsApp, all late at night, when you should be sleeping or doing better things, like cultivating your mind. You are the one with the addiction, not her, she says.

At the end of 4 hours, she doesn’t merely disagree with you or think you are wrong. She is furious, packing her bags to go to her mother’s house. The present scenario is so far removed from the image you had in your head that it makes you doubt how somebody in your office called you empathetic and insightful in your last performance review.
In your imagination, you show her the graph paper. She pores over the weeks of data you have collected and goes red with shame. She sees the validity and truth of your statements. She sees the fault of her ways. Her eyes fill with tears of gratitude. “Thank you for showing me the way,” she says. What follows is a night of merriment.
What has ensued is the exact opposite.

You know what the worst part is? It is not that she has packed and gone to her mother’s house. She will be back after two days. The house is in her name anyway; for tax reasons. If anything, you’ll be the one thrown out on the street should you guys split. The worst part isn’t the fight or its aftermath. It occurs during a casual dinner a couple of weeks later. As she sips soup, she says casually, “You know, there was an article posted on Surekha’s Facebook update about how women are addicted to social media. It causes our hormones to go entirely out of whack; and turns us into raging psychotic beasts. Do you know that the most aroused emotion when you are on social media is envy?”

“Didn’t I tell you? Didn’t I tell you?” you feel like shouting. But you hear the word “aroused” and stay silent.

Your lovely wife proceeds to blithely tell you that Surekha and she have made a pact to stay off social media for a week; to “detox”, as she calls it. You may wish to dump all those graph papers on Surekha’s head; you may wish to avoid her at all parties. But that would be a wrong approach. You need to cultivate Surekha so that she can deliver your messages to your wife. Silly Surekha, as you call her, is your spouse whisperer.

Spouse whisperers come in many guises. As a sneaky spouse, your job is to figure out who they are; and how you can get them to pass along your messages. If your wife reads a daily tarot card or an app that gives the day’s astrological predictions, you need to be able to get the astrologer to predict what you want: “Engage in loving habits with your husband and it will pay off handsomely this week. Don’t buy jewellery.”

If your husband is tight with his golf buddies, befriend them. Get them over for lunch or dinner. Then, have a quiet chat with the man your husband respects: “I think it is so great that you are strict with your children. You should mention that to Ravi (insert your spouse name). He spoils our kids and leaves me to be the bad guy.”

The last bit of advice I have for you is to cultivate a tag-team of spouse whisperers, because you never know when your spouse will wisen up to the fact that the driver is giving him suggestions for vacation destinations—particularly if those vacation destinations happen to be the ones you are pushing.

Always have a Plan B: in life and in terms of what you want whispered into your spouse’s ears.
Happy Valentine’s Day—to you, your spouse, and your team of whisperers.

Shoba Narayan has ruined all the whispering by revealing the concept to her spouse through this column. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Monsoon Diary

On a flight back from Bhopal, our friend, Manish said that I should put a Google alert on myself. A few weeks ago, I did, and have been getting a whole bunch of stuff about me that I wouldn’t have known or seen.

I am posting these two here because they have a nice blog design and great recipes.

The Hungry Ninja. Hmmm, I feel I should say something instead of baldly (mottayaa) posting the link. Maybe just do an excerpt? Here goes….

“HOW had I been cooking/eating/reading this long and not devoured Monsoon Diary, by Shoba Narayan? It seems unthinkable now that I have read it cover to cover in about a day (the 20 inches of snow outside helped me a little).

Her colorful, scrumptious prose prompted me to venture outside even in these Hoth-like conditions to go to the store and pick up a head of cabbage to make some tasty Bandh Gobhi Achar, or cabbage pickles. Even if the recipe itself isn’t one of the ones Narayan includes in her book, the flavors she mentions over and over: turmeric, coriander, mustard seed, fenugreek, and chiles were enough to make me salivate for some Indian cuisine. Plus, I needed something spicy to kick me out of these winter doldrums.” And then the recipe is posted.

And to the equally imaginative Thirsty Pig. Also an excerpt.
monsoon diary
By Shoba Narayan
A really personal look at growing up in India and what it means to be an outsider living and studying in the United Sates, this book gives its readers a comic but movingly accurate version of things we can all relate to and choices we all have to make. Narayan gives us mouth-watering glimpses of Indian food (and how to make it) as she tells her tale, imprinted so deeply with the spices, smells, textures, and tastes of Indian cooking. With each recipe, Narayan provides a myth that relates to and/or explains the dishes. She also explains how each spice, each topping, each method of cooking has a special use- some of them are to be used when pregnant, some are good for colds, each have their own occasion, and some are even used not only in cooking, but as face cream (and a cure for all ills)- all according to her very ambitious and often overpowering mother. In her memoir, Shoba wishes to study abroad, to the objection of her large family. They make a deal with her that, if she is able to prepare a complete satisfactory Indian meal for the entire family, her wish will be granted. She cooks the meal and off she goes. Within the story she weaves about herself, Narayan contemplates the good and the bad of both the Indian society she has lived in and the American one she moves to. This is a truly entertaining and worthwhile book to read.

No recipe but lots of book suggestions.
Thank you for the plug.

Wildlife Tiger Census

Indian forests are wonderful ecosystems. Teak and sal trees shed dew tears in the misty mornings. Babblers bable; Serpentine eagles soar; Rufus treepies shriek; and humans shiver in the morning cold. Jackals come out of the grasslands. Herds of deer graze under trees. Langurs swing from trees, which themselves whisper and sway towards each other. There is Indian gum, gooseberry, Arjuna, pipal, banyan, frankincense and countless other species. Picturesque as they are, these species are no match for that apex predator in terms of viewing pleasure: Panthera tigris

Tiger numbers are up. That is the good news. The latest tiger census reveals that we have 2226 tigers in our wildlife preserves, up from about 1400 in the last census. Among experts, there is a lot of sniping and critique about methodology and accuracy of camera traps. Odisha is miffed that its tiger counts are lower than expected and wants a recount. There are questions about whether shrinking habitats can sustain the rise in tiger population. For amateur wildlife enthusiasts, it is simply enough to know that India’s wildlife efforts are gaining traction and moving in the right direction. Experts such as Ullas Karanth have given detailed interviews in this paper about the various issues surrounding wildlife management. Karanth, like many in the field, is optimistic about India’s prospects. “Tiger conservation has been more successful in India than any other country,” he said. “We are doing it in a moree cost effective manner. But we have no goal. What is the objective for the year 2020? We are spending money, often too much money without any goal.”

That said, this piece is not so much about the how of conservation, but about why we should care?

When talking about nature, wildlife, or the ecosystem, humans often use the paternalistic and patronizing word, “fragile,” to describe it. We see ourselves, as custodians of this planet as well as its most deadly criminals. We conserve and exterminate. We use more resources than any other species and are the planet’s apex predator. This human-centric view is both understandable and wrong. The planet isn’t fragile. Life on earth existed long before humans got here, and will likely continue in spite of us. The engine of evolution will continue in spite of human intervention. This so-called fragile planet, in other words, isn’t waiting with bated breathe for humans to save it. It couldn’t care less.

Humans need wildlife, not because of some misconstrued sense of noblesse oblige, but because nature is central to our existence. The birds, bees and beasts that surround us weave a web that is far more complex than we can fathom; and far more necessary to our wellbeing than we have the knowledge or sense to admit. We need them more than they need us. At the very least, nature and wildlife are what differentiates us as a species.

The tiger exists to show us what is possible and what is not. It is a biological differentiator as well as a milestone in the evolutionary history of Homo sapiens, going back millennia. It is also, quite simply, a magnificent beast, inspiring awe and fear. S.H. Prater describes why in the “Book of Indian Animals,” published under the auspices of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) by Oxford University Press. “The characteristics that mark a perfect carnivore—claws especially adapted to strike and hold struggling prey, and teeth especially designed to bite into, cut up and tear flesh are most perfectly developed in the cat.”

This feline grace, strength and agility is reflected in every aspect of the tiger. It has the largest eyes in the Felidae family, able to see acutely at night. Its tracks or ‘spoor’ as they are called, reveal four toes and a pad with no sole. This is because cats are digitigrade: they walk on their toes, giving their bodies a forward thrust that makes them built for speed and stealth. When tigers track their prey, they place their hind legs in the exact same spot as their forelegs. They walk like bipeds as the “Book of Indian Animals,” says.

Project Tiger was Indira Gandhi’s gift to Indian wildlife. Since its inception in 1973, several stalwarts such as Fateh Singh Rathore, Raghu Chundawat, Belinda Wright, Billy Arjan Singh, K. Ullas Karanth, Valmik Thapar, H.S. Panwar, and M.K. Ranjitsinh, among many others, have all worked tirelessly to preserve our ecosystems and wildlife.

The connection between humans and forests is ancient and primal. Trees are where we came from; and returning to these wildlife sanctuaries calms us down and makes us feel alive and connected to our planet and ecosystem. Nature heals in mysterious ways. It gives us solace without saying a word. As Anne Frank said in her dairy, “The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside; somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature and God.”

Wild animals show us a way of being that is primitive, yet noble. Their way of life is both alien and yet rises above human constructs such as greed and materialism. We in India are lucky to have not just the world’s largest populations of tigers, but also the only surviving population of the Asiatic lion in Gir forest. We have snow leopards in Hemis national park; barasingha deer in Kanha; and two-thirds of the world’s one-horned rhinos in Kaziranga. We need them to show us another approach to living. Our natural world holds the greatest expression of life on earth. As ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin said, our forests hold answers to questions that we have yet to ask. At least till we figure out the questions, we need to hold on to our forests.

Shoba Narayan hopes, wishes, and dreams that she will go to Kaziranga National Forest in 2015.

Storytelling

Was in Masinagudi to run a module on “Storytelling in the corporate context: how to use narrative to enhance your pitch.”

It was for SAP Labs.  Thanks to Sunder Madakshira, Head of Marketing at SAP for the connect.

And thanks to Heemanshu Ashar for connecting me with Sunder.

It is always interesting for me to see how corporate teams work– their highs and lows; their deadlines and stresses; delivery and accountability.

Before the session, I went on a safari ride.  Saw some amazing birds: shrikes, Asian Koel, lots of peacocks, Brahminy starlings; hoopoes….but the highlight was…..a sighting of two Greater Coucals.  It was thrilling!!!

Sri Lanka

If there is a takeaway from the below piece, consider this.  Watch Mani Ratnam’s movie, Kannathil Muthamittal (She kissed my cheek).  Read Romesh Gunasekhara’s (spelling?) books.

Sri Lanka: fantasy island

There are some places that seem familiar even though you haven’t actually visited them. Paris is like that for Europeans and Sri Lanka is like that for me. Thanks to myth, movies, politics, geographical proximity, and a shared language, Sri Lanka was part of my mindset while growing up in Chennai in the 80s.

Lanka-puri was the golden land described in the Hindu epic, Ramayana, where the demon Ravana spirited away princess Sita. An army of monkeys built a stone bridge, waged a war, and rescued the princess. Some Hindus, my relatives amongst them, believe that the bridge still exists, submerged under the ocean. I can’t help looking for it from my winged chariot— Flight UL 122—but the water is as gray as a turtle’s back.

There was the Eelam depicted in the phenomenal 2002 Tamil movie, “Kannathil Muthamittal,” in which an Indian couple adopts a girl whose biological mother is a Tamil Tiger: a terrorist group. The family sets out to find the birth mother leading to a climactic scene where the mother chooses between her biological daughter and staying with her secessionist cause.

IMG_3565 IMG_3617 IMG_3555

A lush, tropical island shaped like a teardrop in the sea of time, this is a land of many musical names: Serendib, Taprobane, Ceylon, Eelam, and finally, the official Sri Lanka. Smaller than Tasmania, Sri Lanka is both fertile and prosperous. It’s per capita of $6531 is higher than neighboring India’s $4077. The flash of its gems, blue sapphire and moonstone are as well known as the flush of its teas. Also known are its internal conflicts. For 25 years since Black July 1983, Sri Lanka was caught in a civil war that took an estimated 100,000 lives. Since 2009, the country has been coming back to normalcy and tourism is on the verge of taking off.

Locals are optimistic. “Things have changed in the last five years,” says France-educated diplomat, Saroja Siresena. “While retaining old world values, we have modernized. Compared to Bangkok or Mumbai, our cities are liveable and cosmopolitan. Nobody stares at you if you dress differently.”

+++++

I am taking two children– my daughter, 12 and nephew, 13—on a trip to a land that I ‘know’ but have never visited. This is their first visit too; one that is unclouded by history and known only through cricket players like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardane, both of whom are partners in the popular Ministry of Crab restaurant. Its celebrity chef, Dharshan Munidasa, plans to open Kaemasutra, serving contemporary Sri Lankan cuisine in July (Kaema means food in Sinhalese). “We all grew up with the war. We didn’t know a different life,” he says when we visit him. “Now that we have peace, I worry less about sending my child to school. I take more risks.”

The trick with travelling with kids is to keep moving. This we do after checking into the aptly named Taj Samudra (meaning sea in Sanskrit), scarfing down the complimentary chocolates and a pasta-lunch.

Colombo, everyone says, is a business city, known for shopping but not much else. The kids have lists from friends back home and are quite chuffed about shopping. I take them to the Gangaramaya Buddhist temple instead. I want them to engage with a clean slate– unpolluted by Sri Lanka’s politics and bloody history, but I am not sure how to engineer it. We hire a hotel car. Our driver, Hussein shows us layers of Sri Lanka’s colonial history: the Dutch hospital; Cargill’s, an English department store, now leased by an Indian bank; Portuguese outcrops and the mosque where he worships along the way. He accompanies us into the temple, pointing out the Buddha’s mudras or hand gestures that depict various moods. He explains the murals on the ceiling. I grin at the serendipity of having a Muslim explaining Buddhism to us Hindus. This, I think, is the magic of Sri Lanka. We stand before an ancient Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa) and fold our hands. Finally, we go to the museum inside the temple: a kitschy assortment of watches, swords, combs, jewellery, and seemingly everything that the temple has received as a gift.

We visit a few other religious sites during our stay in Colombo: the Seema Malaka Buddhist temple, designed by acclaimed architect, Geoffrey Bawa; the Dutch-style St. Antony’s church; and the colorful Hindu temple across the street. The children like the Gangaramaya temple best, mostly because there is a lifelike elephant that they can hug, and a Buddha image painted in such a way that the eyes move to stare at you wherever you go. We spend a giddy ten minutes trying to escape Buddha’s eyes but to no avail. The golden Buddha’s eyes resolutely stare at us. We can run but we cannot hide.

Temples should always be alternated with chocolate. We go to Paradise Road café for coffee and a nut-filled chocolate cake. The well-proportioned space used to be Geoffrey Bawa’s office and is now where Colombo’s swish-set comes for sundowners or lunch. I eye the paintings by Sri Lankan artists along the walls; the children read Sumitha Publishers’ illustrated children’s books that retell Sinhalese myths in English. “The Great Flood and the Gourd,” is one title. Opposite is a store called Rithihi, which to my surprise, has a colourful selection of silk saris from all across India. We end the day with a swim at the hotel. Counterintuitive as it seems for a tropical country, Taj Samudra’s heated pool is heavenly and removes all the knots from my shoulders.

Breakfast is the usual sumptuous spread. I choose red string-hoppers with the famous trio of sambal powders: pol sambol which is mostly coconut, seeni sambol made of carmelized onions and katta sambol made of ground red chilies. I douse the fiery powders with a stew made of coconut milk. The children stick to pancakes and eggs. Where’s your sense of adventure, I chide. That was before my eyes start watering.

On day 2, we hire a tuk-tuk and go to Barefoot Gallery and Café (for me) where I buy a colorful cotton dresses; and A&M cupcakes across the street (for them); to Saskia Fernando Gallery (for me) and to Odel department store where they buy yellow sandals, muffins decorated with Spongebob icing; string necklaces and souvenirs. As the sun climbs, we duck into The National Museum and wander through 5th century Buddha images. The children protest at the sameness of the century-old statues, but are engaged by accounts of prehistoric Sri Lanka beginning with Balagoda Man. Wall plaques neatly describe how Prince Vijaya journeyed through the seas from North India in the 3rd century; married a local princess and founded Sri Lanka as it were. On the way back, we spot a procession of protesting monks, who want the freedom to pursue Buddhist education. So says Hussein, even though I don’t understand why ordained monks who have presumably had a Buddhist education would have that particular demand. Discontent, it seems, simmers under the island’s placid façade. Even though Buddhism is the majority religion, Sri Lankans are warriors by nature, says a veteran journalist who didn’t want to be named. “Look at their names. Simha means lion and Raja means kings.   This is a country with robust warrior-names.”

The next day goes by in a blur. I try to keep it action-packed and fast-paced. We ride tuk-tuks, chatting with the English-speaking locals. We go in and out of temples, “just for you,” as the kids say. We eat rice and curry like the locals. We try out the spare but charming local trains, less crowded than in India. We go to Pettah market and haggle for umbrellas. Soon it is time to go to Bentota, our next stop.

The best way to go from Colombo to Bentota and further down to Galle is by the train, which hugs the ocean all the way. Not having the foresight or knowledge to buy train tickets, we arrive at the Taj’s sister property, Vivanta by Taj by car.

The pleasures of Bentota are more rural. There are turtle hatcheries where Leatherback, Green, Loggerhead, Hawksbill, and Olive Ridley turtles are rescued and rehabilitated. Funded by donors, these hatcheries buy turtle eggs from fishermen, hatch them and release them back to sea, where they can mate and hopefully thrive. The children get to carry a 10 kg green turtle, which can live for 300 years, according to owner Amarasena Fernando of the Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery. In the evening, we join a boisterous game of cricket in the hotel’s grounds, followed by a swim in the sea under the watchful gaze of a lifeguard.

On Day 4, we drive to Galle, stopping at a mask factory and a moonstone mine along the way. The wares may be real but the ethos reek of tourist traps. Our boat ride through the mangroves is better. It costs Rs. 5000 (Sri Lankan Rupees) for two hours on the water. We spot giant squirrels, three monitor lizards swimming after prey and spend half an hour at a fish farm dipping our feet into a tank and enjoying the nip of hundreds of fish. We hold a baby crocodile, sea snake, and tap some river crabs. We walk through cinnamon trees on an island, where an elderly man shows us how to smell and cut fragrant cinnamon bark. It is 2 PM when we reach Galle. I am eager to explore Galle Fort, but the children want none of it. A bribe of limp French Fries at Rampart View Guest House (our driver insists on taking us there perhaps because drivers get free lunch) buys me some time to buy locally crocheted lace on Galle’s streets. It would have been charming were it not for the blazing heat.

The best is saved for our last day. We visit Sri Sunshine Divers, owned by a strapping windsurfing champion, Thusal Gunawardhane, who lavishes praise on current President Mahinda Rajyapaksha (named after Emperor Ashoka’s son, Mahinda, who brought Buddhism from India to Sri Lanka). We scream through a banana boat ride; and take waterskiing lessons—much harder than I thought.

After lunching on Sri Lankan wild mango curry and red rice, we leave for the airport. The children discuss high points (waterskiing, turtles, snakes, fish, crocodile) and low points (temples, museums, more temples). “But what about the war that everyone keeps talking about?” asks my 12-year-old daughter. “It’s like this,” replies her cousin. “The Tamils wanted a separate state from the Sinhalese. They kept fighting for years and finally the Sinhalese defeated the Tamils.” Seeing my raised eyebrows, he adds, “I read it in my history book.”

That’s all it is to them young ones: history.

END

Fact Box:

Etihaad flies everyday from Abu Dhabi to Colombo. Fares range from AED 720 to 830 outbound. AED 745 upwards inbound.

Taj Samudra in Colombo overlooks the beach and has the best no-frills hotel pool on the island. The hotel organizes day-trips to Kandy and the Pinnawala elephant orphanage. Doubles from AED 640 including taxes. www.tajhotels.com

Vivanta by Taj Bentota is halfway between Galle and Colombo, making it a central access point to the Northern part of the island. Doubles from AED 890 including taxes. http://www.vivantabytaj.com/bentota-sri-lanka/overview.html