Feasting and fasting

I am writing this as I face laddus, barfis, badam chocolates, and mixture. Oh, the irony.

Denial is good in principle, but is it better than an extra cup of coffee?
Shoba Narayan

October 19, 2014 Updated: October 19, 2014 05:38 PM

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The festive season is in full swing in India. It is a time for celebration, family and pain. People obsess over feasting and fasting. The eternal question that accompanies most happy events, whether they are weddings, parties or holidays, continues to be asked: how to enjoy the array of goodies that tempt the palate at every corner without putting on a few pounds?

It is this conundrum that I’m contemplating as I walk up the hill in Kashmir with a few fellow hikers. We have just finished a fantastic Wazwan, or Kashmiri feast, replete with delicacies: kebabs, a variety of roasted meats and vegetarian dishes for me. I follow a fairly standard routine in such situations. I eat, I replay the wonderful dishes that I had just finished eating in my imagination, following which I dream about the food that is to follow. It is this activity that I’m engaging in when my companion tells me about a concept that is completely alien to my disposition.

I listen, mouth agape, as SS Bijral, a retired inspector general of police in Kashmir, tells me about the “pleasures of denial.” In his red turban, Mr Bijral, 75, cuts a spry, energetic figure as we walk up the hill. The Dal Lake sprawls to one side in the far distance and the dense foliage hugs us on the other. I am doing the walking version of the “stomach-pulled-in” manoeuvre that men do when they pose for a photograph. My mouth is open to avoid huffing and puffing and I am trying not to show the dignified Mr Bijral that I can barely keep up with him.

There are a few benefits of getting old, but for the life of me, I cannot remember them. Losing your memory and becoming acquainted with pain are certainly two of the downsides to ageing. But being older also gives us the opportunity to impart wisdom to the next generation – and it is precisely this that Mr Bijral is doing. Finding pleasure in denial is a nifty concept, and one that he has been following for most of his adult life. The basic idea goes like this: whenever you find something in the food and drink area that is both tempting and avoidable, you have to figure out a way to deny yourself this temptation. As most of us know, temptation lurks in every corner. The dark chocolate that winks at you every time you open the fridge; the fifth cup of fantastic coffee that makes a case for the goodness of caffeine; the aromatic steak that is calling your name; or that street food that reminds you of home.

Each of these are wonderful and completely unnecessary. So, I asked my army companion how he is able to find pleasure in saying no to these delicacies. The trick, he says, is to fast forward into the future. You have to remember what happened the last time you drank that fifth cup of coffee. You have to remember the sleepless night that resulted. Every time you see a piece of luscious red meat, you have to imagine visiting the cardiologist and reading the results of your blood test. “I eat until 75 per cent of my stomach is full, and imagine how light I will feel later as I watch my companions continuing to eat even when they don’t need to,” says Mr Bijral sensibly. Put this way, it is an easy method to follow.

As Bangalore-based wellness expert Sujata Kelkar Shetty says, we eat for a variety of reasons and many of them don’t have anything to do with hunger. Sometimes we eat because we are bored, or because we are lonely, or because we are stressed out and tired, or because we long for those comfortable feelings that the food reminds us of. The trick is to figure out why we are reaching for that tub of ice cream. Is it because the ice cream reminds us of a happy childhood memory? If so, we would be better served by opening up the family album and looking at old photographs while sipping some water?

All of this sounds great but there is only one problem: no matter what we do to it, water will never taste as good as ice cream. Even so, I’m determined to figure out the pleasures of denial during this festive season if only because I don’t want to confront the bathroom scales on January 1, 2015.

Barcelona

The thing with travel writing is that it takes a long time between travel and the actual publication of the article. Depending on the publication.

Barcelona for Eat Stay Love

We picked Barcelona as a vacation destination for the same reason that many families do: great weather, design, architecture, the hub of the global food scene and a non-stop flight from India. Choosing the hotels was trickier. As a travel writer, I wanted to stay in some of the best hotels in the city. Being a vegetarian family, we needed to spend at least part of our stay in an apartment hotel with its own kitchen. And we wanted to be by the ocean for at least part of the time.

Hotel Arts, managed by the Ritz Carlton, fit the bill on all counts. We decided to stay in the apartments on the top floor because they came with a kitchen. We didn’t realize that the architecture and location would make for stunning rooms, or in our case apartment. Designed by the late great architect, David Graham for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics; and in the shadow of the famous “peix” or fish sculpture that Frank Gehry built for the same occasion, the Hotel Arts had aged well and was full of architectural surprises. We got to know the staff even before we got there. My husband wanted tickets to the Copa Del Ray or King’s Cup between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. We peppered the staff with questions about where to buy tickets and would they hold our tickets if it were couriered to them. They did.

What makes a great hotel? Sure, a lot of it is hardware. Nobody wants to come into a lobby with drooping flower arrangements or dodgy showers. Even though luxury hotels don’t like to admit it, small mistakes happen even in the best hotels. What redeems every hotel’s flaws is the way the staff treat the guest. The woman who responded to our emails, Melanie Dorange, was one such. She researched Valencia; held our football tickets; arranged for a rental car; and answered all our insistent, sometimes inconsequential questions. When she learned that my daughter wanted to be a chef, she took us on a guided tour through the kitchens and introduced her to the pastry chef. It is these gestures that make for memory.

Our apartment was fantastic. Spread over two floors, and overlooking the blue sea, it included a spacious living room, study, dining room, kitchen, and two bedrooms upstairs. Light filled the space and created angles and lines in the shadows. We had access to the club floor for sparkling cava or champagne along with snacks and sandwiches throughout the day. Breakfast was in the lawns under Gehry’s fish, with European children doing cartwheels or jumping into the pool.

We were reluctant to leave the Hotel Arts but we wanted to try out a real Barcelona apartment, to see how the locals lived. The Urban Suites came highly recommended on Tripadvisor: two bedrooms, bathrooms, living, kitchen, dining, and best of all, a spacious balcony. We had dinner there surrounded by flickering candles and read books on the lounger under the Catalan sun. The Urban Suites was located near Montjuic hill, where the Olympics were held. It was a great location for shopping, hiking and taking in museums such as the Joan Miro Fondacion. We walked to the local grocery store, manned by Indians (surprise or no surprise); bought manchego cheese, crusty bread, tomatoes, olives, onions and herbs for a great sandwich lunch. We sat in the sun and drank the famed rioja wine and sparkling cava. Round the corner was Barcelona’s most happening nightclub and one night, we joined a long line of teenagers to watch local bands perform. For a family that wants independence without the fuss of staff; that wants to live like the locals at stylish digs; that wants to live in a vibrant neighborhood with great access to public transport, malls, museums and restaurants, The Urban Suites is a good choice.

The Mercer Barcelona is rated amongst the best in the world. The hotel is a revived and refurbished Roman fort in the old Gothic quarter. The red brick fort walls are still visible in the back of the hotel. Our room, a junior suite on the top floor overlooked a beautiful courtyard with orange trees. The scent of orange blossoms delighted our night. At the rooftop terrace, we could sip Bellinis and look over the turrets and cathedrals that dotted this beautiful city. Best of all, we could walk out of the grand swinging door of The Mercer and merge into the narrow lanes and cobblestone streets of the ancient Roman city that has recently spawned the likes of uberchef Ferran Adria and his cohorts who are still cooking up a Catalan storm in the city they cherish.

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STAY – 80-82 Barcelona 2

Old age

What’s the best way to navigate your way through old age?
Shoba Narayan
October 15, 2014 Updated: October 15, 2014 06:31 PM

My mind has recently been full of sobering thoughts about death, taxes and ageing and the question of how to age gracefully?

The literature on ageing lists many activities that can help us as we get older. Exercise is an obvious one, as is developing a close and nurturing group of friends and family. There is one virtue, however, that is underplayed in many studies about ageing and that is cultivating a passion. This is difficult to do, mostly because we don’t realise its importance until we are too old.

Most adults attempt to live rich and fulfilling lives. Look around at your friends and colleagues. We all have jobs that are sometimes tedious but mostly engaging. We have hobbies. We play golf or tennis. We read a bit before sleeping. We follow a few television shows. We have social networks and we go to restaurants and maintain friendships. What many of us lack is a passion that we can turn to. Work doesn’t count unless it can be parlayed after retirement. If you are an art historian, for instance, you can still be engaged in art studies after retirement.

I know a few people who have this passion for a particular activity.

My brother-in-law in Florida is a physician with a busy private practice. His weekends, however, are devoted to his passion: epigraphy or the study of ancient inscriptions. He collects data on the Indus Valley civilisation and its scripts. He reads reams of literature, talks to scholars from all over the world via Skype, attends conferences and takes online courses. Sometimes an entire weekend will go by without him ever leaving his library.

But what about the rest of us? Perhaps the way to find a solution is to imbue the question with some urgency.

Think about it this way: who is going to hang out with you when you are 80 years old? No matter how affectionate our children are, there comes a point when they are too busy for us, and often, this point comes sooner than we want.

Ageing involves solitude whether you like it or not. Your world shrinks, your friends die and you have to figure out how to keep your mind occupied. Cheery thought, isn’t it?

Sailing through the choppy waters of advanced age involves figuring out an activity that will engage and energise you. Music, for instance, offers great potential for relaxation.

The way to convert this into a passion is to take music appreciation courses.

Similarly, playing chess does not require you to do heavy lifting. It can be played with any child that walks through the door.

If you happen to be spiritually inclined, this is the time to take a deep dive into your religion because, at the end of the day we all have to confront questions about our maker and our role in this world.

Ageing gracefully does not only means slathering on expensive creams and lotions. It can just as easily involve mental somersaults that will leave you refreshed and glad to be alive.

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

Brooms

The big brooming business

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An acquaintance of mine, Chantal, called from New York the other day with a request: she needed brooms; lots of them. Could I source them from India? Chantal is a gaunt French-Algerian chain smoker. She says merde (shit) a lot; wears Dior rouge lipstick, and lots of moody grey Chanel eyeshadow. She used to be a hand model but now specializes in department store windows. Her job, she says, is to make mannequins “look like models”.
Over Skype, Chantal explained her idea. She would decorate an entire department store with brooms. She had watched Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Madison Square Garden in New York, US. Her current boyfriend is Gujarati and had told her about the “Clean India” campaign. She had seen photos of Modi cleaning the streets. She didn’t care for the politicians but she wanted those brooms; at least a hundred of them. The mannequins could hold the brooms in various poses.
“Think about it,” said Chantal. “Flying Balenciaga clothes with brooms; Sacai on brooms; Givenchy’s Antigona bag surrounded by a chandelier of brooms; Celine in a forest of brooms; Christian’s nail polish (shoe designer Christian Louboutin) dripping red and purple on brooms. The possibilities are endless.”
I told Chantal that I would see what I could do. I knew a person who could deliver on this demand: Nagamma.
As a young girl, Nagamma had worked for my grandparents in Coimbatore. She was now a septuagenarian and had returned to the family business: broom making. She taught me many of the skills that have made me the woman I am today: stringing together a jasmine garland with a thread made from banana fibre; playing “five stones” and picking up three, four, five and even seven stones with one fist; drawing elaborate kolams or rangoli designs on festive days; and expertly parting hair with fingers and catching running lice.
I caught up with Nagamma at her village near Modakurichi, Tamil Nadu. We squatted under the swaying coconut trees with verdant paddy fields on all sides and engaged in an activity that she had taught me as a child. On one side were dried up coconut leaves. We had to squat on the ground and slit the leaves to pull out the spine. It was an activity that was as meditative as tying jasmine flowers or cleaning a lice-comb with a toothpick. For a while, Nagamma and I sat in companionable silence, ripping the coconut spine from its leaves. We both were chewing betel leaves and it was tough to talk over the red juice that was on the verge of drooling every time I opened my mouth. Finally, I tucked the leaf expertly in a corner of my mouth—another skill that Nagamma had taught me—and proceeded to lay out my proposal. I needed 100 brooms to export to the US, I said.
Nagamma leaned forward confidentially. “Kannu,” she said. The word means “eye” in Tamil but is used not as an “eye for an eye” type threat but an endearment. “Kannu, ever since the Aam Aadmi party, our bijiness has been very good. Every politican wants to wield a broom these days. How can I supply 100 brooms for your friend, Shanta?”
“Chantal,” I corrected absently but that wasn’t really the point.
Nagamma corrected my technique: slit in the middle, not the top, she said. That way I could pull the spine out on both sides. Quickly, she tied a bunch of coconut sticks, or eer-kuchi, as we called it, with a coir rope. A broom was done.
“You’ll get paid in euros, Nagamma,” I said.
She frowned. “Can I buy vethalai (betel leaves) with euros?”
I nodded vigorously. She could buy a barnyard full of betel leaves with euros.
That got her attention. Now I had to lay the problem at her feet. Chantal wanted the brooms to be tied with twine of multiple colours: neon, purple, candy pink, red, and turquoise. “We can’t put Chloé on traditional brooms,” she had said. “We need the brooms to have fashion also.”
Nagamma would have none of it. In the past, she said, they tied brooms with banana fibre. Tying it with coir was itself a compromise that she made for city-dwellers. Neon plastic twine was sacrilege. “In our country, we can eat our brooms, Kannu,” she said. “It comes from earth and it goes back to earth. How can I put all this false colours on the broom?”
I consulted Indologist Rekha Rao, who has written several terrific books on therapeutics in Indian sculptures and how they depict healing mudras and marma points (published by Aryan Books International but hard to find in bookstores). “There are objects that look like our brooms in Indus seals,” said Rao. “In fact, Narendra Modi looks like the male figure of Indus seals. With the same type of beard and facial features.”
Brooms in ancient India were used for saucha, said Rao. Cleaning the external space but also the inner negativities. Rao has analysed the sculptures of Rani Ki Vav in Patan, Gujarat. She said many of the sculptures there held brooms and their uses were somewhat similar to the shamanism that was practised in Tibet and Nepal— where the body was literally swept clean. “We use the chamara for fanning and similarly such brooms were used to sweep the body clean,” said Rao.
Rajiv Sethi, the painter and art curator, once showed me photos of brooms designed and held by tribal women, each of which was hand-tied and decorated in a fashion that was almost Japanese in its minimalism and subtlety.
So I did the only thing possible. I called Chantal and told her that I could provide Harry Potter’s flying brooms in a variety of colours if needed. But the humble Indian jhaadu was non negotiable: take it or leave it. She is still thinking about it.

Shoba Narayan knows how to make brooms. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

HumRaag

My friend, Chitra Srikrishna and I are doing this gig called “Classical Roots of Indian film songs.” Our Facebook page is here

If you “like” us, you can get updates of our gigs. No pressure!!

It has been great fun to do this project. Chitra and I get along. She is an amazing singer and so rehearsals are like sipping honey. Or wine!! We are both learning new things, not the least of which is “how to market our show.” We want to do a movie trailer using iMovie sometime. That explains the show.

We did two shows for ISB’s Executive Education events. One in Bangalore and one in Hyderabad. Photos here

If you know of a cultural space, corporate group, or event management company that would be interested in a music-storytelling-slide presentation, please point them to us. Email:chitrasrikrishna@gmail.com or me.

Here are some photos from the event.

Chitra and the accompanists below, with my slide presentation in the background
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Posing for photos with Heemanshu Ashar, the curator of the event, in Hyderabad
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Chitra created this nifty photo for our FB page
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With the director of the Center for Executive Education and the team
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Me doing my storytelling at the show
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Procrastination

I have learnt how to procrastinate with furious efficiency
Shoba Narayan

October 7, 2014 Updated: October 7, 2014 05:40 PM

It began innocently enough and took a fairly standard trajectory. Prodded by stray comments from the spouse, a sibling, a friend and a parent, I virtuously decided to make yet another effort to improve my life.

As always, I began with grandiose plans that had no chance of being implemented. I would not begin my day by checking email. I would instead hug a child, a spouse, or at least a stuffed animal.

I wouldn’t lie in a somnolent stupor in front of the television, scarfing down potato chips while promising myself that each chip would be the last one. I would ban potato chips from entering my household.

I wouldn’t enter the shower and then realise that every single plastic bottle that littered the shower stall was empty. I would stock each bathroom with a host of fragrant products that would satisfy every human need and then some.

I wouldn’t go to the grocery store for just one (forgotten) ingredient or item at the last minute, just before the guests arrived for dinner and the cake was in danger of collapsing. I would make a running list of grocery needs starting every Monday, tack it to the refrigerator and then shop on Sunday for the week’s needs with furious speed. I would begin by buying several magnets so that I could tack the aforementioned grocery list and every how-to and to-do note on the refrigerator.

And so it went, my messy life.

In desperation, I turned to mobile applications that would help me. “Efficiency apps,” I typed into my computer. Almost like magic, a whole host of websites, apps, and advice columns popped up.

There was one called Self Control that prevented me from mindlessly surfing the internet every time I was stuck for a word.

There was one called iProcrastinate that pretty much described my working process and helped me prevent it.

There were two apps called Pocket and Evernote that allowed me to clip anything I chose from websites for future reference and reading.

That was a vast improvement from my current system, which is to mindlessly scribble quotable quotes and flashes of insight onto the first available piece of paper and then go around the house in a state of permanent irritation, asking: “Has anyone seen that discarded envelope onto which I had written a line from Maya Angelou’s poem? It was a yellow piece of junk mail stating that I had won the lottery and I had written Phenomenal Woman in one corner. Anyone seen it?”

How do you manage the minutiae of your life and keep them from tipping over? Are you a clipper of articles, a list maker, or someone who uses an app like “Clear” or “Wunderlist”, to get things done?

My method has been fairly simple. I prioritise the things I need to keep track of: flashes of genius, irreplaceable insights and the phone number of the store that supplied school uniforms. Everything else just falls through the cracks.

I am in the market, if you will, for a personal assistant who will keep things in order. Failing that, I have resorted to reading advice columns from scarily efficient people like Martha Stewart – who devil their eggs, glaze their pudding, iron their underwear, and tuck the corners of their bed linen into severe straight lines.

They all begin with one piece of advice – actually two. The first thing to achieve household order is to actually believe it is possible; that a permanent state of chaos and searching for objects is an aberration, not the norm.

The second is to view such an outcome with admiration, not scorn. The latter seems to be my Waterloo. Cleanliness may be next to Godliness but not in my book. I think that if the universe began with chaos, it is good enough for me.

This attitude may make me feel superior to all those busy worker bees who tirelessly file, scrub, segregate and organise, but it doesn’t help in real life. I must emulate them rather than mock their ways.

I must join the bees instead of thinking myself above it all. Who am I – a queen bee? Even queen bees self-destruct without the colony.

As I write this, my desk is pristine; my newspapers are filed in an ornamental fashion, my fridge is full of magnets with important notes. Now if only I could find that piece of paper in which I wrote the time of the doctor’s appointment.

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

What is Chitra Kavya?

I don’t know about you, but I know precious little about Indian poetry. I have heard of Kalidasa but that’s pretty much it. As a matter of fact, I don’t know very much about poetry–let alone Indian poetry. In the last few months, I have embarked on this project to rectify that. Here is my first attempt.

The history of Indian poetics goes back to 200 B.C. when Bharatha Muni compiled the Natyashastra. Poetry was accorded a high status in India. Poets were understood, enjoyed and venerated. Bharateeya Kavyashastra as it is called is replete with poets, critics, and connoisseurs who understood and contributed to poetry.

Dr. Shankar Rajaraman is a psychiatrist, Sanskritist and poet. He dreams up a very specific and difficult type of poetry called Chitrakavya. Dr. Shankar is an Ashtavadhani and has translated Gangadevi’s poetry, Madhura Vijaya and Uddhana Kavi’s Kokila Sandesha.  Here, he talks about Chitrakavya, a particular type of poetry that uses word play a lot.

View the show in Youtube here

Train Diary 4

The last of my beloved train diaries. For now.

Train diary No.4: strangers and friends

There are two types of people who travel on Indian trains: extrovert and introvert
Shoba Narayan
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There are two types of people who travel on Indian trains: extrovert and introvert. Every compartment usually has both. There are the silent types who stare unblinkingly as you enter their compartment. There are others who smile and make room; and just when you are thinking of them as good prospects for sharing the night’s dinner, they ask you to exchange their upper berth for your lower one. That is when you look at the strong, silent type and wish you’d followed his example.

Indian train compartments are beautifully designed for the most part. There are hooks from which to hang the odd plastic bag filled with fermenting black bananas that are bursting with what seems like pus. There are electrical plugs to charge your mobile device; metal rods into which you chain your bag or suitcase in case midnight robbers make off with your belongings; and seats that fold out into sleeping berths.

Although we like to pretend otherwise, human beings are deeply attuned to pace and proportion. To go from Bombay to Britain in 8 hours is possible by plane, and we do this all the time. We get off feeling groggy and disoriented and attribute it to melatonin and jet lag. What we don’t talk about is the psyche and its adjustment—or lack thereof– to air travel. It is only when you travel by trains that you notice how their speed and size are suited for human beings: fast but not disorienting; cozy but not cramped, at least in the air-conditioned coaches. The one defect has to do with height: train berths are designed for dwarfs. Sit up and…well, you can’t sit up particularly in the upper berth. You have to scrunch in a foetal position, both when you sit and when you sleep. As a teenager, I scrunched so much that I fell off the top berth. True story. Apparently, I didn’t even wake up. From then on, my mother repeated this exploit as if it were an achievement. “She got 97% in her Unit Tests. And you know, she fell off the top berth and didn’t even wake up,” my Mom would say, flexing her muscles in a way that would give the Phogat sisters a run for their medals.

Sometimes the train stops, as mine does– at 9:15 on a dark night, in a field before Dharmapuri. After a few minutes, I walk to the door. There are a couple of men smoking cigarettes. It seems civilized to blow smoke-rings into the great wide open. In contrast, smoking booths in airports look like cages in a zoo. The smokers inside speak on the phone as they hold their lights, as if the phone conversation makes them look and feel less alone. Here, the two men speak desultorily about why the train has stopped. Something about “shunting,” and an inter-city train crossing ours.

Inky blackness envelops the sky. No homes; no lights save for those from the train, and no dwellings. I climb down the steps—the only woman amidst a few men. My family would have had a fit if they saw me alone in the middle of nowhere, with darkness all around, waiting outside a train with a couple of strangers sharing a fag; beside a train that could take off any minute. The thought is thrilling. The light turns green. We all climb back as the train pulls away. There is something about a running train (or bus) that makes climbing in an adventure. Perhaps it is matching your body to a moving object; Newton’s law of physics and what not.

The train picks up speed. The toddler in the next compartment is fussing. She walks down the corridor, anklets jingling, followed by a smiling, adoring Dad.

“She has a cold,” he explains to us.

We make clicking sympathetic voices. “The only thing that works is Waterbury’s Compound,” he says. He pulls out a tiny Johnny Walker bottle, opens the cap and pours the fluid down his toddler’s mouth. Nobody blinks. Instead, we fan ourselves with Maalai Murasu, Dinamalar, and Kalki, Tamil publications all.

At the next station, the gruff pharmaceutical executive who shares my compartment meets his family. They stand away from the crowd milling at the entrance of the compartment and catch up. I know what they are talking about because I have done this so many times with relatives while growing up. Some uncle or aunt would take the time to bring us food at random stations and we would have a few minutes of conversation. But what can you talk about really amidst the tension of a train that could leave any minute? Mostly you ask questions without waiting for answers? “How is Farida/Charles/Baby aunty? How is your health? Did Ahmed/Unni/Fatty write his exams? When are you coming to Delhi?” Connection through questions, as a way of saying thanks. Indians of yore didn’t say thanks. They viewed it as an insult almost. “You can put your thanks in a parcel and send it to Honolulu,” my Mami used to say loudly when we sputtered thanks, thanks to a convent school education. It was easy to imagine a line of thanks winging their way through the oceans to sunny Honolulu. It is these vignettes of life that make travelling on Indian trains a memorable experience. Minister Sadananda Gowda should capitalize on this collective affection that Indians have for train travel by making some improvements: cleaner toilets and stations that reflect and sell local food specialties would be a start. But first, he has to sort out the mess at home.

Shoba Narayan loves train travel.