U. Chicago Magazine

Message from my dear friend Tommy (Tomas Haendler) who has known my eldest since she was born.

Hi Guys. Just came back from a week at the beach and among the reading stuff I take I reviewed the University of Chicago magazine article on Wendy Doniger’s writings on Hinduism, and surprise, surprise…. there she was.
Shoba’s comments all over it.

Link here

Very polarizing issue. I still get reader letters saying that I am wrong to defend Ms. Doniger. Below is a recent one.

——— Forwarded message ———-
From: ‘Nathu Ram Verma’ via Ideas QZ
Date: Tue, Jul 15, 2014 at 1:08 AM
Subject: doniger’s book Hindus: An Alternative history
To: “ideas@qz.com”

I read your column, Shoba, on the above. I could not digest it. I am also reading this book, now at page 252. I am not tired. I will finish the book. My objection is not about freedom of expression or thought, but the larger question of sensitivity of billions of people. Depiction of Rama and Sita in this book, to say the least, was obnoxious. From which version of Ramayan Wendy has taken details, I do not know. From her references, I gathered they were mostly Westerners. People have sensitivity, right or wrong. To violate it in such utter abundance is morally wrong. Do not tell me about scholarly/ academic / witty/ and what else approach. The story of Rama is venerated in many southeast Asian countries. In Thailand near the Buddha shrine, there is a Rama temple.
You call Wendy brilliant. Yes, but brilliance is to be tempered with wisdom.
I may be wrong. But I do not think Indians mock Christianity in the name of scholarship or otherwise, although there is a lot of bull… in it. To put it simply Jesus was a bastard. How Wendy will like it ?
Since you do not know me. I should tell I am not exactly illiterate and I dislike all organized religions. But Wendy is beyond me.
I do not know whether you reply to your readers’ comments. If you do, pl enlighten me with your wisdom at (REMOVED)

Kathak Maya Rao

I just loved attending this function.


How Kathak breached the north-south divide

At last week’s book release function of Maya Rao: A Lifetime In Choreography, held at the ITC Windsor, Bangalore, the stars were all in attendance. There was Vimala Rangachar, who headed the Crafts Council of Karnataka, in a rare shimmering Patola sari; Girish Karnad, who spoke about hiring Rao, or Maya Didi as she prefers to be known, to choreograph his film that ended up not getting made. In response, Rao playfully talked about watching Karnad dance while the music was being played. There was the Kannada movie star and politician, Anant Nag, who said amid much laughter that he had never danced in any of his movies but his daughter was a student of Rao’s. Three people read excerpts from the book: author Vikram Sampath, singer Tara Kini, and media professional Sandhya Mendonca. Madhu Nataraj, Rao’s daughter, choreographed the evening with precision and flair. Then there was Maya Rao, 86, resplendent in a red Kanjivaram sari (or was it a Molakalmuru silk picked out by Rangachar?), smiling.
The most touching part for Karnad, he said later while we ate green pea hummus outside, was watching Rao emote and sing a Hindustani sequence that had to do with how to open your ghungat, or veil, in a few short steps. Rao said that it was taught to her by her guru, Shambu Maharaj, and indeed her book opens with a quote by Maharaj in Hindi, “Saale, budhape se nahin bach sakte (Damn, you cannot escape old age).”
It was the sort of evening that was distinctively Bangalore, which stands at a crossroads of north and south in terms of culture and is generous and accepting of both. This is different from Chennai, where I grew up.
In Chennai, and I dare say, in many parts of north India, the music and dance that you listen to and watch are very specific. The milieu I grew up in was suffused with Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam. It was all we listened to or watched. We knew the idiom, the gestures, and the music. But there was no sense for, or desire to learn, the other Indian art forms that were out there. In that sense, my childhood was very parochial in terms of the arts. I didn’t have a clue about Hindustani music or Kathak, for instance, until very recently.
Not so in Bangalore. Here, people know and accept both streams. It isn’t the Dharwad-Hubli region, which is truly the place in Karnataka where Karnataka sangeetham meets Hindustani sangeet (difference in pronunciation intentional), but Bangalore is Dharwad-lite.


If you ask people why Maya Rao is great, they will tell you one line: She brought Kathak to south India. As her book describes, she was based in New Delhi until former Karnataka chief minister, Ramakrishna Hegde invited her to come and set up a dance school in Bangalore. The school was inaugurated by the great Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay in 1987 and renamed the Natya Institute of Kathak and Choreography. It is a beautiful building in the heart of Malleswaram.
I have visited it because my daughter is a student of a student of Maya Rao’s. Rao does not know me and would not recognize me from the throngs of other parents who videotape beginner Kathak performances at the ADA Rangamandira in Bangalore, where she usually sits in front and observes the proceedings. But she shows up to watch the six-year-olds dance, and this is the other reason why Maya Rao is viewed as a legend in dance circles—she has trained over 3,000 students. “To us, she is like God,” says Meghna Rao (no relation), who dances in the Stem Dance Kampni, a contemporary dance company founded and run by Madhu Nataraj.


Certain art forms are more connected with a country’s culture than others. To understand Russia, you have to know chess and ballet—the Mariinsky and Bolshoi styles, and names such as Vaslav Nijinsky, Svetlana Zakharova and, of course, Rudolf Nureyev. To appreciate England, you really need to know theatre—Shakespeare of course, but also West End. Fashion is a prism through which you can understand the French; rhythm the in-road into Africa. If you know and understand the tea ceremony and raku ceramics, you will understand the Japanese sensibility. The same applies for Dutch design, Italian opera, which opens up the soul of Italy to outsiders but only if you know the language, German automobiles, Catalan chefs, American start-ups, Chinese scale, and Korean pop. All these reflect an age and a culture.


Dance in my view is the route to India’s soul. It is the most effective way to immerse yourself in Indian culture; a shorthand kto the past. Dancers—whether they belong to the Kathak, Bharatanatyam or Odissi styles—inhabit a sacred space that is suffused with poetry, music, aesthetics, history, religion, and culture. To be a dancer, you need to know music, mudras or hand gestures, stories from the past, the distinctive Indian rhythms, theatre, aesthetics and jewellery, the Indian idea of beauty, our history, religion and therefore culture. At the very least, a young dancer will learn Urdu poetry and an appreciation for the animals, birds and nature that are depicted through gestures and poses.
What Maya Rao is known for is choreography. Once you get to a certain level, most dancers choreograph of course. But Rao was trained in Russia and systematized Kathak in a way that hadn’t been done before. Her institute offers a diploma in choreography. Her book is filled with characters who populated the vibrant artistic space that was India in the 1960s and 1970s: Siddheshwari Devi, Ravi Shankar, Anil Biswas, Inder Razdan, Kuvempu, Habib Tanvir and his wife Monica, Balasaraswati, Keshav Kothari, Rita Ganguly, and the doyenne, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay.

I hadn’t heard of Maya Rao till a few years ago and I don’t know enough Kathak to figure out her place in the pantheon of dance greats. But I feel that anyone who has engaged in the same art form for 86 years and trained legions of students counts for one element of what most of us would call the good life.

Shoba Narayan assumed, till recently, that only Bharatanatyam had abhinaya and Kathak only footwork. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Barcelona Travel

Ah Barcelona! If you are an architecture or design or sports buff, or a foodie, this is the city to go to.



Travelling with kids: When shopping abroad is a holiday
July 24, 2014 Updated: July 24, 2014 05:31 PM

A few months ago, we were in Barcelona, which, as shopping destinations go, is not my favourite city. I prefer the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, the souqs of Dubai or the bazaars of India. Barcelona offers the pleasures of Zara, H&M and Mango, but not much atmosphere as far as I was concerned.

My daughters, ages 18 and 12, were in heaven. My younger daughter, Malu, like me, can shop but it’s not her favourite thing to do. My elder daughter, Ranjini, on the other hand, finds pleasure in the looking and buying.

On this trip, I was determined to indulge Ranjini. Rather than make her feel guilty about shopping, I would use it as a way to find pleasure in her company. That was the plan anyway. Yet, something ­unexpected happened.

We entered an H&M store one afternoon. There were three floors of clothes, accessories, jewellery and shoes. Ranjini and I wandered through the aisles picking out sweaters, dresses and business coats for me. I was surprised at how much she knew about colour, proportion, cut and texture.

“That blue doesn’t suit you,” she said. “It makes your face look washed out.”

She sat outside the fitting room as I tried on blazer ­after dress suit after ­sweater, and had an appropriate comment for each. She helped me whittle down what seemed like a mountain of choices into a manageable one. Best of all, for the first time, shopping became a pleasurable activity for me.

“You know, you should be like one of those buyers for department stores,” I said. “When did you learn so much about clothes?”

Ranjini laughed. “I just like clothes, Ma,” she said. “It’s not like physics or anything.”

Two hours later, I was kitted out with the best business clothes I had ever owned. And they cost half of what I thought I would pay.

As for my daughter, she bought one skirt. And that too, under duress. It was my turn to feel guilty. “Why don’t you buy ­yourself something?” I asked.

Ranjini shrugged away my protests. She didn’t like what she saw, she said. “Shopping is not just about buying things, Ma. It’s also about looking and learning about trends. You see what’s new, see what’s in fashion, and figure out if the look will suit you. The pleasure is in the analysis, somewhat like what you do in museums,” she said – my daughter.

Indeed. Suitably chastised, I gazed at her, ­glowing with pride. I had dismissed shopping as a vain and frivolous exercise. It took an 18-year-old to show me that shopping was also a way of looking.

And so it came to be that over the course of four days, I learnt the tips and tricks of shopping from my daughter. Perhaps if we had been home, I wouldn’t have been so patient. At home, I had context and views on stores and stuff. “You certainly aren’t going to buy clothes from Soch, missy. Not with the annual sale just around the corner.” Or, “Why are you buying these designer clothes when you can get similar clothes at half price from Fab India?” Bereft of this perspective, I wandered around with my daughter. I had no views. I was out of my depth. And that, in retrospect, was the best thing that happened to us in Barcelona.

Clubs and dress code

It is a tough call to balance the gentility of wearing appropriate attire and tradition with moving with the times. I have been thrown out of country clubs in the US and in India for wearing wrong clothes–or rather for going with a man who was wearing wrong clothes. In particular, shorts. It’s probably why I don’t have a country club membership.

India’s clubs should move with the times and embrace different traditions

Shoba Narayan

July 22, 2014 Updated: July 22, 2014 06:10 PM

When Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister a new sense of national pride swept over the country. But the colonial mindset of old still pervades certain dark corners, specifically private clubs in various cities. All these clubs have a dress code that harks back to when the British ruled the land. They don’t favour Indian attire, particularly for men. Instead, men are forced to wear long trousers and shirts. Those who don’t, aren’t allowed in.
Recently, the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association refused entry to a High Court judge because he was wearing a dhoti, a loose sarong-like garment that is perfect for tropical India.
Dhotis, also called veshtis, have largely slipped out of fashion as more and more men turn to Western outfits such as tailored trousers, which they consider more comfortable and professional. The same Indian men wear dhotis at home or for religious ceremonies.
The issue gained heat when Jayalalithaa Jayaram, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, threatened to take away the licences of clubs that denied entry to men who wear Indian outfits. She called it “sartorial despotism” and an insult to local pride. Ms Jayalalithaa has vowed to introduce a new law that will prevent clubs from enforcing their existing dress codes.
The objects of the chief minister’s ire include the Madras Boat Club, Madras Gymkhana Club and the aforementioned Tamil Nadu Cricket Association, all of whom frown upon men entering their premises wearing Indian attire. Women aren’t accorded the same level of indignity. They can sail through wearing a sari or salwar kameez.
I think it is about time that all Indian clubs get out of this colonial mindset that views Western attire as somehow more superior and elegant than Indian clothes. To disbar members who wear Indian clothes from entering club premises reeks of an inferiority complex that should have disappeared when the British left India.
Officials at these clubs have generally clung to the belief that it wasn’t so easy to incorporate Indian attire into the rules that govern their institutions. They said that they would have to bring up the issue at the club’s annual meeting, so that members could vote on the topic. Nonsense, I say. A starched white dhoti that doesn’t hug the legs makes perfect sense for Chennai’s hot climate.
Clubs are private bodies with erratic, nonsensical rules. Augusta Golf Club, for example, did not allow women to enter its premises until two years ago, when the chief sponsor of their events, IBM, was headed by a woman. As a woman who doesn’t belong to any of these establishments, I think they need to be shamed into changing their policies.
But things are changing in India. Nowadays, male CEOs often confidently wear the kurta pyjama to their offices. These clothes are sleek, elegant – and appropriate for India.
There is no reason to wear a wool suit in steamy weather, simply because it is deemed to be more professional.
And what do clothes have to do with efficiency and effectiveness anyway?
Companies in Silicon Valley are renowned for allowing employees to work in shorts and a T-shirt. India’s private clubs don’t need to go quite that far, but at least they can take pride in their country’s national outfits.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

Day 6: July 20 2014

Here is the pattern so far. I wake up, listen to all the birds, wish I could identify them, and then tried to convince myself that I need to get up. India has so many birds and they are all very loud. I wish there was an app where you could record Birdsong, feed it in, and know the name. It would be so cool, for example, if I could say that I listened to a barbet, a warbler, a Kingfisher, and the kite in rapid succession. I have learned to recognize the sound of squirrels and the hoot of the kite, but nothing beyond that.

It was about 515 when I woke up. I started the meditation at 550, after checking email and stuff. at 554, I am ashamed to say, that I got up to remove the milk from the fridge. I always do this. I take out the milk and keep it outside so that it can warm up before I heated for coffee. I think I’m obsessed with energy efficiency. To my detriment. I came back, feeling bad, and decided that I would meditate for a little longer today.

Instead, I did pranayama. I began with kapalabhati because my neighbor said that he had lost a lot of weight because of doing that. Abhishek told me that the proper way to do kapalabhati was to slow down the breathing in the end to the point where you are sort of lost between inhalation and exhalation. It’s such a lovely image. I tried it but it didn’t work for me. I did 60 rounds, and then inhale and exhale slowly for five rounds and try to get lost between the inhalation exhalation. Then I increased the speed and I could only do 30 rounds. My heart rate went up as well.

I did brahmari after that, feeling weird as always to be making that humming sound. But I could feel my hair stand on edge as my body cool down. In Sanskrit, it is called Roma harsh or happy hair. This I suppose is how you develop intuition–by paying attention to the small things.

I did anulom vilom as well but somehow that doesn’t do much for me. I don’t know what I’m after and what I’m getting out of it. I’m not able to breathe in deeply as well. It’s very unsatisfactory, the whole thing.

I ended it with just sitting meditation. Again, a flood of thoughts came into my head–about the Blue Bloods episode I saw yesterday, about how freaky and weird Scandal was getting, and about all the things I needed to do today. I switched the channel, and boom, my thoughts slowed down. That seems to be a learning. If you want to slow down your thoughts, switch to a language that you’re not comfortable with.

That’s it. Here I am, on my wobble board, dictating this using my Dragon Dictate software.

Day 5: July 19 2014

Woke up to the sound of birds again. In India, it is a cacophony. In the darkness, I could hear three distinct birds. There was one that was rattling like a woodpecker; a second that was ululating somewhat; and a third that was whistling very sweetly.

I thought I would lie in my warm bed and meditate. Maybe that would count as my daily practice. When I woke up again, I decided that simply lying in bed and falling asleep again would not count for a meditation practice.

Today, I smartly decided to get rid of my meditation practice first thing in the morning. So I went to the puja room and sat before the diya. I decided to do trataka today, so I gazed at the candle flame and observed my thoughts. They kept coming, unsupressed, like a drowning man on top of the ocean waving his hands and legs madly. I decided to think in my mother tongue, Tamil, as an exercise. To my shock, the words stopped. I was thinking in English! Not my mother tongue.

I decided to do brahmari pranayama. It feels, felt weird to be humming like a bee early in the morning. I felt like that actor in The Goodbye Girl, a very funny movie that I watched in the 80s. “My body is my temple,” he says. Anyway, I did brahmari pranayama 11 times. That felt good.

One more day of meditation success. I’m feeling good about it today.

Living Will

This is a horrendously complicated topic. To get an idea, just imagine writing a living will yourself: when would you pull the plug on you? There needs to be a medical counselor to help with this sort of stuff.

The will to die with dignity


My father said something recently that freaked me out. He talked about icchha mrithyu, a phrase borrowed from the Hindu epic, Mahabharat, in which Bhishma has the ability to choose the moment of his death. My father is in the process of writing his will; and often, through stray phrases, he reveals to me that he is confronting his mortality. “Euthanasia (mercy killing) is not a bad thing,” he will say as he steps out of the door.
How do you want to die? Do you know how your parents or in-laws want to die? My mother-in-law, for instance, has told me that she wants all her organs to be donated. Through a friend, I learnt that this process would be a whole lot easier if she registers with a hospital. It is this type of detail that falls through the cracks when we think about ageing or dying.
There are 100 million elderly people in India today. The number could grow to 324 million by 2050. How our elders live; how we care for them; and how they die is something that all of us are going to confront in the coming years. It isn’t easy. It is terrifying. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as Dignity Foundation offer help with respect to counselling, mediation and writing a will. But that, as I’ve learnt, is only the tip of the iceberg.
One of the things I used to trot out when people asked about Indian culture and values is respect for the elderly. A new study conducted by the NGO HelpAge India suggests the opposite. Apparently, 50% of elders in India face abuse, primarily from their loved ones; and usually when they are too ill or frail to care for themselves or others.
Perhaps this finding doesn’t apply to you. Perhaps you can dismiss this as something that happens in resource-constrained families. Even so, there is a need for a very specific kind of discussion that each one of us needs to have with our parents (or children, depending on age). It is called Living Will and it is a set of instructions about how you would like to be treated when you are infirm in body and mind.
The first time I heard this term—Living Will—was from my brother-in-law, a physician in the US. He told me that in addition to a legal will, he had written a Living Will, detailing the medical treatments that he wanted—and more importantly, didn’t want—if he was ever terminally ill. It got me thinking. Maybe I ought to write a Living Will too.
As detailed in many documents, a Living Will answers the following question: “What kind of medical treatments would you like to have or not have if you are terminally ill, permanently unconscious or in a coma, or in the final stage of a fatal illness?”
That’s a very broad question, but God, as Mies van der Rohe said, is in the details. Do you want to be put on a ventilator? Do you want to be intubated, where a tube is stuck down your throat? How long do you want to prolong invasive procedures in case you are terminally ill? When do you want to forgo yet another surgery for palliative care that comforts but doesn’t treat? Which of your children do you want to nominate as your healthcare proxy—the one who makes your decisions when you are no longer able to? What do you want your children to do in case you go into a coma? How long should they hold on to you? What level of pain are you willing to take and tolerate? At what point do you want to pull the plug on medical care? Do you want to die in the hospital or at home?
The last question is the easiest, and should be your starting point. Nobody wants to die in a hospital, but what ends up happening once you get admitted to hospital is that a series of medical procedures are set in motion. Often, once you are in the throes of the intensive care unit, it is hard to decide when to pull back and which procedure to forgo. This is the type of decision that could be made well in advance, ideally by you rather than your spouse or children.
If you are a parent, think of it this way: It is very hard for a child to make these types of decisions on behalf of their parents. They will always want to keep on going—do another test, try another method, a different kind of surgery, to do everything possible to attack whatever illness is attacking you. They will do everything that the hospital has to offer rather than “give up”.
This means that your child will authorize procedure after procedure just in case something works. He or she will explore all the options in the hope that something will work and prolong your life. What your beloved child will not be thinking about is the quality of your life since he or she will be caught up in preserving it, come what may.
This column is about living an examined life. Do you think that leaving detailed instructions in the form of a Living Will—either written or through a candid conversation with a loved one—constitutes one element of a good life? Must we die with dignity and in a way we choose—ichha mrithyu—to have lived well?

Shoba Narayan has no answers to any of the questions posed in this column. She is struggling even to contemplate them. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Day 4: July 18 2014

I am so mad. I woke up at 3 AM and surfed the Internet for two hours, looking at Hermes and Louis Vuitton bags.
Fell asleep at 5 AM and woke up at 630 again.
I could’ve meditated but I didn’t.
Instead the day has gone.
I have just sat down from 330 to 345.
I can feel myself slipping back to my old mode again.
If it weren’t for this damn log, I doubt that I would be meditating even.
So what did I do today? I breathed in and out 45 times. My mind was swirling the entire time. I need to find an architect to get the quote for an article. I was thinking about deadlines. Was thinking about what I would write in the stupid log. Mostly, I was mad at myself.
I don’t even know why I’m doing this. I am really looking forward to the yoga class in an hour. At least there, I will be doing something.