My book talk at the Indian Institute of Science

This Friday, September 4th at 4 PM.  Copies of my book will be available for sale. Please come if you can.  Click below for the formal invite.

CCS-20150904-Narayan

The lecture will be held at the Centre for Contemporary Studies (CCS), IISc. It is located just next to the Health Centre of the institute. The “main gate” (opposite to BHEL office) near Prof. CNR Rao circle, on the CV Raman Road is the nearest entrance to CCS.  Please call the office (080-22932486/ 080-23606559) in case of difficulty in finding the venue.

Begin forwarded message:

From: Contemporary Studies IISc <ccs.iisc@gmail.com>

Subject: Invites you to a talk on “Storytelling: History, Techniques and Context”; 4 September 2015;4 pm

Date: August 31, 2015 at 10:09:08 AM GMT+5:30

To: Raghavendra Gadagkar <ragh@ces.iisc.ernet.in>

Dear All,

CENTRE FOR CONTEMPORARY STUDIES

Invites you to a talk on:

STORYTELLING: HISTORY, TECHNIQUES AND CONTEXT

————————————————————————————————————-

Speaker: Shoba Narayan

Day and Date: Friday 4 September 2015

Time: 4.00 pm

Venue: CCS Seminar Hall, IISc

Tea/Coffee will be served at 3.30 pm

All are cordially invited

————————————————————————————————————-

Abstract: Where do stories come from? What is their purpose? In this crazy busy world, is there a place for stories? Why tell stories? Is there a way that we can incorporate narrative into our current professional lives— whether we are in the sciences or the humanities; in a large corporation or a small start up; as entrepreneurs and individuals? Do stories have a place in our ecosystem? And how do you tell stories? Using words, gestures and objects, Shoba Narayan, will discuss the power of storytelling using her latest book, “Katha: tell a story; sell a dream,” as a broad template.

————————————————-

Centre for Contemporary Studies

Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore – 560012.

(Near Health Centre).

Phone: 91-80-2360 6559, 2293 2486

Chair: Prof. Raghavendra Gadagkar

email: ccs.iisc@gmail.com

URL: ces.iisc.ernet.in/hpg/ragh/ccs

Are you listening to Kodaikanal rap?

Trying to mix multiple streams in one column: millet, music, film extras and environmentalism.

Are you listening to the Kodaikanal rapster? 

Are-you-listening-to-the-Kodaikanal-rapper

The old woman in Palani—down the hill from Kodaikanal– was trying to recruit me to be a movie extra.  Muniamma looked like a rock star.  She was about 80, with weathered skin about the colour of a coffee bean.  She was clad in a soft white cotton sari sans blouse in the fashion of village women in Tamilnadu.  

Muniamma’s recruitment strategy was fool proof.  She would make me homemade “kuthirai-vaali kanji” for lunch if I would dance in a video that her grandson was making.  I said yes without asking any more questions.

Kuthirai vaali belongs to the Echinochloa family and is called barnyard millet; bhagar or varai in Maharashtra; jhangora in Hindi, and odalu in Telegu.  Kuthirai vaal means horse’s tail in Tamil and for a moment, I idly wondered if it would give me the strength of a horse, like Ashwagandha does in Ayurveda.  Muniamma gave a knowing smile and said that the effects of barnyard millet wasn’t mere strength; it was more like the effects of Moringa, widely touted as an aphrodisiac in Tamilnadu.  “Your husband will be very happy tonight,” she said, with a knowing, if sexist smirk.

Muniamma approached me as I stood outside the tonsure shed in Palani, contemplating whether I should shave my head: an action that I have often considered.  Even though I was wearing a sari, she had pegged me as a “jeans-pant Madam,” who were, apparently in short supply in the area: Dindigul district.  Her grandson wanted to make a video to protest the dumping of garbage in the Shanmukha lake in Palani.  He needed extras to dance behind him and fill up the screen. 

“Don’t worry, nobody will see you,” he said reassuringly if somewhat quixotically.  What was the point of dancing in a video if nobody would see me?

After filming, he would post it on Youtube “just like that Kodaikanal girl had done.” 

That was how I heard about Sofia Ashraf, the star musician of a viral Youtube video called “Kodaikanal Won’t.”  Smartly set to the tune of Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda, which earned the Indian video a tweet from its muse, Kodaikanal Won’t has garnered over 3 million views and some amount of action.   

Most environmental issues, unfortunately, involved a clichéd set of actors: Big Business who is usually the villain; and the Disenfranchised Poor, who are usually the victims.  So it was with Bhopal; so it was with the Uttarakhand and Kashmir floods where rampant real estate development led to an environmental collapse; and so it is with Kodaikanal’s case against Hindustan Unilever, where it alleges that the company’s now-closed thermometer factory caused mercury poisoning in 600 people; water pollution; widespread environmental problems; and 45 deaths.  Ashraf is the protagonist.  In a video interview, also posted on Youtube, she comes across as a spunky, funny, independent woman– the kind you’d hope your daughter would grow up to be.  She got involved, she says, because three NGO’s– Kodaikanal Worker’s Association, The Other Media, and Vetiver Collective—who have been fighting Unilever for years asked for her help.  They also roped in Bangalore-based Jhatkaa.org, which does online campaigns.  I enjoyed Jhatkaa.org’s website, flowing as it was with the milk of human idealism.  This isn’t a fly-by-night operation.  They have run campaigns to “Save the Western Ghats,” “Clean Ganga,” and fight moral policing, rape, censorship and sexism.

Once the video gained traction, Unilever CEO tweeted that he does “not accept” different standards of environmental compensation.  Then, he added, somewhat unnecessarily that he believed that “all humans are the same.”  In its website, Unilever refutes all allegations.  It says that that its former employees, and the environment, did not suffer any adverse effects because of its presence in Kodaikanal.  Each side has offered its version of “proof” to substantiate its statements.  The issue is being negotiated on an ongoing basis.

As an interested observer, I hope that the issue is seen through to conclusion.  Now that the spotlight has been cast, the aggrieved parties need a different cast of characters.  Rather than dancers and actors, they need environmental experts, lawyers and accountants to look through regulatory codes and mercury levels to figure out if and how much compensation would make sense. 

For people such as Paneer Selvam—Muniamma’s grandson and wannabe rapper—the video has inspired copycat ventures; and the hope that they can change things.  Citizen action is often a nebulous exercise. How many times have signed change.org petitions? I have signed countless online petitions, mostly because they came from friends and happen to align with causes I support.  The problem is that such online action doesn’t have good follow-up.  The petitions vanish into the Internet and the signers don’t really know what happened to the issue they supported.  I have friends who scoff at online petitions as “useless efforts” that don’t really move the needle in terms of the effect they generate.  I happen to be one of those idiotic idealists who believes the opposite: that each individual action, however small, can make a difference.  Perhaps the way forward is to mix creativity with causes. 

Petitions usually come with a nauseating amount of self-righteousness that says, “They are wrong.  We are right.”  They are serious and cause you to flip the channel or stop reading simply because you don’t want to be weighed down by the words at the end of a very long day.  They are stern and do the email version of the principal’s pointed finger.  In the future, perhaps such folks should do a Sofia Ashraf and lose the stern, self-righteous seriousness and use social media in ways that are both effective and fun. 

 Shoba Narayan didn’t make the cut to star in Paneer Selvam’s video.  Anyone interested in performing should contact Muniamma at Virupatchi Village, Oddanchathram Taluk, Dindigul District, Tamilnadu.

 

Cecil the Lion and the Art of Judgment

Do you have good judgment? How do you teach it?

Cecil the Lion and the Art of Good Judgment

 

My uncle Sivaramakrishnan called from Mumbai this morning stating that he wanted to ‘capture Twitter.’  

Sivaramakrishnan-mama is called SRK by neighbours in his largely Gujarati housing complex, a fact that he accepts with mixed feelings. “I can’t expect a Shah or a Patel with their one syllable names to wrap their tongue around Sivaramakrishnan,” he says philosophically.  “I don’t even tell them that my full name is Sivaramakrishna Sundaram.  They will stop sending theplas and your aunt is addicted to them.”

The other problem is that every time someone introduces him as “our dear SRK,” people expect Shah Rukh Khan, not a short, plump, balding bespectacled Sivaramakrishnan. 

SRK-Mama is an active Rotarian.  He has become interested in Twitter because he feels that it will increase his profile.  He harbours political ambitions and needs a platform.  The fact that he has to ask me for help shows how desperate he is.  I have some 500 followers and have no clue as to how to grow them.  

“Can’t I buy Twitter followers like how politicians buy votes?” asked SRK-Mama.

“Twitter is like catching a tiger by the tail,” I replied sagely.  “Look at how they are shaming that dentist who shot Cecil the Lion on social media.  He will go bankrupt.”

“There is no question of me shooting a lion.  After all, I am vegetarian.  If anything, I will let the lion eat me,” SRK-Mama said piously.

I chewed a “Bite Me” cupcake morosely.  SRK-Mama had caught me on a bad day.  I don’t know if you read Anita Raghavan’s excellent piece about Rajat Gupta serving jail time.  I did and it raised lots of questions about judgment and destiny.  Gupta, everyone will tell you—and many have—is a brilliant leader, thoughtful family man, and a large-hearted philanthropist.  He attributes his fall from grace to “destiny” in the article.  Mostly, it was bad judgment.  He made a series of small choices about friendships and notions of wealth that led to one catastrophic mistake.  But here is the nub and this is what got me to chew the cupcake morosely: such a scenario could happen to you or I. 

“Do you have good judgment, SRK Mama?” I asked.  

He paused chewing his murukku and breathed nasally over the phone line.  “You see, ma, people of my generation are not trained to have good judgment.  How can you learn good judgment if the biggest decision of your life—your life partner—is chosen for you in an arranged marriage? I didn’t even seen your aunt before I married her.  Where is the question of good judgment?”

The dictionary says that judgment is the ability to make “considered decisions.”  It also says that judgment is a “misfortune or calamity viewed as a divine punishment.”  The former leads to the latter, I guess.  

Judgment can also seem like a crapshoot.  Most people who make catastrophic mistakes rarely realize that they are doing so while in action: witness fashion designer John Galliano who was caught on video spewing anti-Semitic hate while under the influence of drugs and alcohol; witness Justine Sacco, the South African PR professional who blithely tweeted about Africans and AIDS and lost her job.  Or Rajat Gupta who thought he was taking a call in the middle of a board meeting, little realizing that it would take him to jail.  In this age when anything you do can be videotaped, shared, or tweeted, bad judgment calls can be magnified and amplified like never before. Worst of all, you are not allowed to lick your wounds in private.  And here was SRK-Mama, wanting to dive right in.

“Do you know people who have thousands of Twitter followers, and if so, how did they achieve it?” he asked, sounding like an engineering entrance exam.

I actually know several people who have over 35,000 Twitter followers.  Many of them are obsessing about how to double these followers, while simultaneously outraged that people who aren’t as good as them have more followers.  Meanwhile, their spouses complain that they are “addicted” to Twitter.   

The literature on how to develop good judgment is scarce and nebulous mostly because there is no fool-proof method of cultivating good judgment.  It isn’t as clean cut as tidying up a room using Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo’s rule of keeping only those objects that give you joy.  Judgment is messy; has little to do with intelligence; happens all the time, not as a rehearsal but as a live-stream; and can frequently go wrong at innocuous moments.  Then how do you cover yourself? How do you reduce the odds of bad judgment? Here is my list that is in progress.

1. Eliminate distractions.  Don’t multitask.  Bad judgments happen when you aren’t paying attention; when you are preoccupied with something else. 

2. Cultivate people you don’t like because they think differently from you.  This will force you to question your assumptions; and assumption, to quote the immortal lines of John Maclane in the movie, Die Hard, is the “mother of all f*^$ ups.”

3. Try your best to tame your ego.  A lot of bad judgment calls happen when you are feeling like the master of the universe; when your ego is so puffed up with pride that you cannot see the hurricane that is coming straight at you— to hit you in the face.

In view of all this, I tried to give SRK-Mama some advice.

“Don’t get on social media,” I said.  “You are a contented man.  Twitter will spoil your peace of mind.  You will start comparing yourself unnecessarily with people who have no relevance to your life.  And feel like a loser in the bargain.”

“How does Chandraayan the Lion sound?” he asked.  “I am a Leo.  A lion.  Instead of Cecil the Lion as my Twitter name, why not give it an Indian twist?”

I sighed.  There was no point protecting an octogenarian from the savage mores of the online universe.  It was a jungle out there and Chandraayan the Lion would have to learn to fend for himself. 

Oh, and if you happen to stumble upon the aforementioned Chandraayan the Lion, follow him, will you? Just don’t shoot him down.

 

Shoba Narayan is looking forward to reading the book that Rajat Gupta is purportedly writing in prison.  She hopes that it will talk about judgement calls.  Instagram @shobanarayan.  Twitter @shobanarayan

Katha Review

Thank you Vijaya Pushkarna, for the generous review.  I am supposed to have a Twitter conversation with you or The Week tomorrow, August 5th from 4 to 5. Have never done this before.  Nervous.

KATHA: TELL A STORY, SELL A DREAM

Tales pitch

A STORY for every occasion. Anyone with such a repertoire would be much more than the life of a party, attracting people with their eyes and ears wide open. But how does one come by such a treasure?

Shoba Narayan says it is no big deal, and goes on to show it is QED―quite easily done―in her book. The book is about how storytelling could transform business and management. And she does tell a whole lot of stories on how to generate or source stories, when to tell them and how and with what consequence.

From simple and upfront selling of a product or service and breaking the ice at workplace to breaking bad news or sharing good tidings and for a million other things, simple anecdotes or even sentences can work wonders. Take, for instance, this anecdote about a guy trying to sell software. He begins with a dramatic description of his poor grandfather who died a broken man because he had to sell his Udupi hotel. Before the clients could wonder why, he got them hooked on to the product by saying the software could have saved the hotel.

97BookTalk

Stories transmit mission statements and core values. They build teams and create a shared sense of purpose. There is also a chapter on eight ways to find stories in real life―get out, leave your cellphone and look around, cultivate skills and hobbies and read.

The book is a breezy story that even those who are not attempting to sell a dream or have anything to do with business would like to read. That is because Narayan makes you believe that storytelling is neither an art you have to be born with nor a craft difficult to learn.

Katha: Tell a Story, Sell a Dream

And, the best part―the book does not have a single word that a class five student will not know or that cannot be found in the Concise Oxford Dictionary. That, a former news editor would tell batch after batch of youth wanting to become journalists, is the hallmark of good storytelling. When that is married to the idea of selling dreams, making businesses grow and succeed, it is a book people will want to grab.

Katha: Tell a Story, Sell a Dream
By Shoba Narayan
Published by Maven Rupa
Pages 192; price Rs295

An ode to improv comedy

And I got to interview the legend: Keith Johnstone

Improv comedy classes make for a funny family holiday in London

When my brother’s family and I decide to go to London together for two weeks, things threaten to quickly spiral out of control. Like most families, we have little in common in terms of interest. So we make a rule: each member of the entourage will be allowed to choose one activity. Everyone else has to participate, whether they like it or not.

There’s eight of us: my brother’s family and mine; four teenagers and four adults. My niece, 17, chose to visit St Paul’s Cathedral. We struggle up hundreds of steps to the Whispering Gallery, then walk up some more for fantastic views of London from the rotunda on top of the cathedral.

My husband, a political junkie, wants to visit the Houses of Parliament; which, all of us agree, turns out to be a great experience. The audio tour leads us through the House of Lords and the House of Commons. We learn about kings and commoners; pomp and circumstance; and how laws are drawn up.

My brother, an erstwhile sailor, chooses to visit the National Maritime Museum; the rest of us go along for the ride. It’s interesting to observe sailing routes and ships through his eyes. It teaches us about Britain’s maritime ­history, but also reveals an aspect of my brother’s life that none of us knew.

My younger daughter, 14, wants to visit Stratford-upon-­Avon, since her class was studying Shakespeare. As the town is 160 kilometres away from London, it takes a day and results in us quibbling about how long each chosen activity could be.

My nephew, 15, the only boy amid three girls, wants to cap each activity at two hours, so he can get back to his beloved ­videogames. Instead of choosing an activity, he asks for a veto. He wants to reduce the number of activities; stay home, watch cricket on TV and play with his PlayStation 3. His request is ­denied by the adults. He chooses Hyde Park under duress, but says he doesn’t really care if we go or not.

My elder daughter, fresh from a brutal first year in engineering school in the United States, just wants to sleep. Also under duress, she chooses kayaking on the Thames, but we couldn’t fulfil this obligation – it rains on the day we schedule this activity. So we go to Harrods and Topshop, which is fine with the girls.

My sister-in-law wants to visit Wimbledon, where her ­family had lived for some years. It’s fun to take a trip down memory lane, visit their flat, now rented by South Africans, and wander in and out of the shops.

I choose comedy improvisational classes. Like it or not, I decide, we’re going to return from our holiday with the ability to make people laugh; or at least ourselves laugh. We’re going to be a funny family.

When you think of improvisational comedy, two locations come to mind: Chicago, where the famous Second City theatre troupe and teaching programme is based; and London, where Keith Johnstone, the father of improvisation and author of the seminal book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, began his career. Johnstone is still a legend in London, even though he now lives in Canada. Every improv teacher I encounter talks about him and wear lessons from him as a badge of honour. “Keith invented improvisational comedy as we know it,” says Jules Munns, our first teacher.

London is full of institutions offering drop-in classes – from singing to storytelling; dancing to DJing; improvisational comedy to acting lessons. My situation is complicated by the fact that we’re a group; and not all of us are passionate about improv. Dragging the whole gang to lessons all over London is simply unfeasible. I need a teacher who can come to us. To my surprise, I find several institutions that offer private lessons in improvisational comedy. Not all of them fit into my budget and I end up zoning in on two: The Nursery and City Academy.

Munns is the artistic director of The Nursery (www.thenurserytheatre.com), a nurturing environment where all kinds of funky classes, including the Feldenkrais Method, are taught. Its website is worth visiting. It has interesting podcasts and interviews with professionals, including Patti Stiles, another legend in this field.

I cold-email Munns asking if he will take a private class for us. He agrees because he thinks it’s “cool” to teach a large extended family. Munns typically charges £75-100 (Dh428-571) per hour for private lessons, but being his first “family” clients, gives us a discount.

We arrive at The Nursery on a cold, wet London morning. Situated near London Bridge on a busy street, this establishment hosts improvisation classes every week; and drop-in classes three times a week. Anyone with a passing interest in improv can take a class, pretty much at the last minute, if they’re passing through London.

We’re in a medium-size room with chairs. Another class is ­taking place in the next room, ­although most sessions happen at 7pm.

Like most comedians, Munns is preternaturally observant. Within minutes of arrival, he notices my gangly nephew likes to lean against the wall as a way of distracting attention from his height; that the girls don’t make eye contact; that I easily feel cold. We stand in a circle to ostensibly introduce ourselves, except with a twist. We have to point to a person and say our name instead of their name. Simple as it sounds, it’s difficult for the mind to process. After warming us up, Munns introduces us to one of the core ­concepts of improv: the “yes, and…” Along the way, he passes along life lessons and wisdom. Improv is somewhat like Buddhism, he says. You accept things as they come to you and build upon it; rather than rejecting what someone says.

This works in life as well as in corporate settings. When a colleague offers a suggestion, the natural inclination – one that we’re all trained to do through years of schooling where we’re taught to think critically – is to view each suggestion with scepticism. This critical eye can impinge on creativity – unless you’re a Picasso or Mozart. Improv, we discover, is all about silencing the voices in our head that tell us to view each environment with wariness. Instead, we’re forced to jump joyfully into each situation and celebrate it.

We’re paired into random couples. The instruction is simple: we each have to say something. No matter how nonsensical it sounds, the other person has to begin their sentence with: “Yes, and…” And build on it. After a few iterations, we loosen up enough to make up narratives that are silly and fantastic. One goes like this:

“Let us go to the mall today.”

“Yes, and let us buy the entire building.”

“Yes, and let us transport the building to Zimbabwe.”

“Yes, and let us buy some rhinos along the way.”

Munns tells us to “commit” to the statement; to say it with conviction. We try to stay in character, but all of us are laughing along the way. Munns wraps up each exercise by saying “scene” – theatre shorthand for “let’s close the scene”.

We try variations of this exercise. One is that we should speak only questions. Each person’s statement has to be a question; and each response has to be a question as well. Another variation is “yes, but…”, in which each response has to start with that phrase. We learn that questioning each other or doubting each other with a “yes, but…” makes the conversation fall apart within a few minutes. There’s no humour in that model. We end the lesson with improvisational sketches that each pair took part in while the rest watched. After each sketch, Munns offers us encouraging and instructional feedback.

This pattern continues with Kate Smurthwaite, our next teacher. A slim, smiling woman, Smurthwaite is an instructor at City Academy (www.city-academy.com), which offers a veritable feast of classes besides improv, including singing, dancing, writing and filmmaking, at a variety of locations. It offers short courses, as well as private lessons for groups. Charges vary depending on the instructor and location. Drop-ins are allowed with prior consent.

Smurthwaite is a bit of a celebrity in London, both for her comedy acts and political activism. She was on the panel at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and gives talks on improvisation at senior citizen centres, prisons and ­colleges.

In rapid succession, Smurthwaite runs us through a series of games. We stand in a circle and tell a story. Each person is allowed one word. This is both liberating and constraining, because each of us want the story to progress in a certain way, except the person next to us takes it in a whole new direction. Improvisation, I begin to understand, is all about giving up control. You can’t control the narrative; you have to build it together by staying loose and paying attention.

The more advanced lessons involve theatrical sketches. My favourite is called Interview. Two of us sit on a couch, while the rest act as interviewers. We’re “experts” on crazy, silly things, such as panda football or inkblot paintings. The two experts have to answer questions using the same format of a word per person. Smurthwaite begins proceedings.

“We want to welcome the two professors, who are experts in sunflower genocide, on the show,” she says. “Why do you think sunflowers are used for genocide, as opposed to other flowers?”

Off we go, the two of us sitting on the couch. “Sunflowers… are… flowers… with… yellow… petals… that… are… poisonous.”

A similar game is called Translator. Two people sit on the couch and speak a nonsensical language. Others interview them. The pair are experts on an esoteric subject such as Frankincense architecture or desert art. The expert answers in passionate mumbo-jumbo. The translator gives a spin to the answer. Each of us play a part in building humour: we try to ask crazy questions; the expert uses the limited mumbo-jumbo resources open to them by using their body in a more expressive way – to control the message and get their point across; the translator effectively sabotages the expert’s message by making it their own, translating it into whatever they want. By the end of the afternoon, we’re confident, curious, loose and full of laughter. Smurthwaite and I share a drink after, and she’s generous with her advice about how to attempt stand-up. “Try to pair opposites together,” she says.

When I return to Bangalore, I’m so inspired by the pleasures of improv that I call Keith Johnstone. He has retired to Canada. I find his email on his website (www.keithjohnstone.com) and write to him. A few emails later, I enjoy a Skype call with the legend. I’m tongue-tied at first; then describe my nascent interest in improv and ask him how I can jump-start it. Is there any advice he can give readers about how to become better at improv?

“Start with the fear,” says Johnstone. “You have to find situations where you are not afraid to go on stage – to warm yourself up. If you are trying to be funny, you will be afraid. You should go on stage not to be funny but to form relationships with the other performers. And, I suppose, the audience. If you walk on stage trying to be your best, you will fail. I think you should walk on stage trying to be average; then you will learn quicker.”

In other words, don’t be a perfectionist; don’t aim for the stars; don’t try to be funny. Instead, be yourself, be average and address your fears.

weekend@thenational.ae

Flora and Fauna in Sanskrit literature

For any nature-lover, this video interview with Naresh Keerthi, who is a doctoral student at NIAS (National Institute of Advanced Studies), Bangalore is a treat.  I loved his lecture on the same topic here and got in touch with him afterwards.  Thanks to Suhas Mahesh for the connect. Skanda of Shaale.com is the producer and Sampath is the cameraman/editor.

View my interview with Naresh here.  I mess up polymath/polyglot.

Memories are made of buttermilk

It is hot now in Bangalore, which, I guess, is what prompted this piece.

Memories are made of buttermilk

 buttermilk-kvaH--621x414@LiveMint

My first memory of buttermilk is warmth and darkness.  I must have been five or six years old.  Still confused by the mists of sleep, I walked into my grandmother’s kitchen, drawn by a comforting swishing sound.  My grandmother was sitting on the floor, her legs spread-eagled and resting on the wall.  Soft light filtered through the window in front of her.  In between her legs was a heavy mud pot that was held firmly in place by a coiled towel.  A tall wooden “mathu” or butter churner was inserted inside this pot.  Although I didn’t know it then, it was the older version of a blender. 

I stumbled inside the cool kitchen.  My grandmother turned.  Her diamond nostrils glinted in the shaft of light.  Her beautiful face crinkled into a smile but she didn’t say anything—she was engrossed in her task.  Her hands held the two ends of a rope that was coiled around the butter churner.  They moved back and forth rhythmically.  My grandmother sat like a yogi, alert but relaxed.  I had seen her in this position many times.

Unbidden, I slipped under her hands that were level with her shoulder.  I rested against the C-shaped curve of her body, my back against her soft, squishy belly; my legs spread-eagled like hers; my hands flush against hers.  Together, we pulled the rope, back and forth, coaxing the milk into giving up its butter.  It wasn’t milk really.  It was the thick yogurt that she had collected for a couple of days.

The wooden churner was a marvel of engineering.  It was held in place by two simple pulleys, facing opposite directions.  The first was a U-shaped coil of rope that was tied to the window-grill permanently.  When we began the butter-churning process, we slipped the wooden churner in between this coil.  Then came the second coil of rope that we pulled from the other side.  The churner couldn’t touch the bottom of the pot because that would generate friction when we churned.  Instead, my grandmother placed it expertly so that the churner was a few inches above the bottom of the pot, held aloft by the pressure of her churning.

I loved sitting within my grandmother’s body, matching my arms to hers as we pulled the rope together.  I could smell the buttermilk and feel my grandmother’s breath on my nape.  She didn’t say a word but it was the closest that I came to feeling utterly secure and comfortable.  Some minutes later, we could see the heavy butter lumps begin forming.  My grandmother poured cold water into the mud pot.  We continued churning.  Within minutes, butter lumps floated on top.  Then we stopped.  My grandmother collected all the lumps together in her hands and tossed them together into a round ball.  I sat still and expectant, waiting for the best part.  Once my grandmom put the big round ball into a vessel filled with water, where it floated like those white planets that we drew in our geography book.  Then, she collected the smaller lumps of butter that were still floating inside, made a small ball and glanced at me.  Obediently, I opened my mouth.  In went the freshly churned butter.  It tasted of the saltiness of my grandmother’s hand, the sweetness of cow’s milk and the slight sourness of the yogurt cream that we collected.

Fast forward, a decade and my grandmother still made buttermilk, except with her trusty Braun “mixie,” that my uncle gifted her from the U.S. It made her churning a lot easier. She put thick yogurt into the blender, added ice water from the fridge, and pressed a switch. Five minutes of spirited whirring and the yogurt would foam on top. The bubbles were my grandmom’s cue. She added a little ice water and pressed the switch once again. Soon, lumps of butter would form. After that, it was the same ritual. She would collect the large lumps and toss them expertly with her palm into a large round ball. The dregs of butter went into my mouth. They still tasted like buttery heaven.

Every part of India uses buttermilk. In Kerala, we simply water it down, toss in a few fresh curry leaves and drink it as sambaram. In Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, buttermilk is spiced with ground-up green chilies, ginger, curry leaves, some asafetida and salt, all of which are pounded and added to the buttermilk. We call this majjige or neer-mor. Much of North India uses roasted cumin and mint leaves to spice their buttermilk or chaas, as it is called.  A combination of roasted and ground cumin, some salt, a dash of lemon juice, and pounded pudina or mint leaves, are added to the buttermilk for flavor. This watery, delicious and light drink is excellent for digestion and cooling the body. Punjab, of course, has its famous lassis, made with thick buttermilk blended with fruits like mango. Mango lassi is available all over the world at Indian restaurants.  Bengal, I think, doesn’t have buttermilk.  They prefer their mishti dahi, not the watered down version.  

The beauty of buttermilk is its egalitarian nature. No matter how rich or poor, all of India consumes this drink. Down the road from where I live is a pushcart vendor. All she has on her cart is a red earthen pot filled with buttermilk that she sells to auto drivers, bicycle messengers, and anyone who needs a cool drink on a hot day.

As for me, I prefer buttermilk to yogurt just as I prefer light black coffee to thick cappuccino. If I had a choice, I would drink my grandmother’s buttermilk but she is dead now. I still have her wooden churner though. Every now and then, particularly on hot summer days, I think of bringing it out and setting it up with two coils of ropes, just as it was in my grandmother’s kitchen.

Shoba Narayan likes Amul Masti Dahi.