Poetry Feedback

Funny how poetry evinces so much passion.  Did not realize.

Hi Shoba,

As a poetry junkie, loved your last column.  Would love to meet your father some day. Like your father,  I too “had to memorise” Abou Ben Adhem as a schoolboy! 

By the way,  if I am not mistaken, the correct verse is “An angel writing in a book of gold”  – and not “an angel writing in leaves of gold”.

Here’s the link to  a piece on Abou Ben Adhem and, incredibly, an obscure topic in the biological sciences.  It is by, who else, a South Indian Brahmin (Tam Brahm, perhaps) scientist based in the US!


I think you will like it. 

Best regards. Vivek

PS: Do let me know if the link does not open. 

Begin forwarded message:

From: Padi Moorthy <rangok@yahoo.co.in>

Subject: May the professor’s tribe increase

Date: November 16, 2015 at 9:15:13 PM GMT+5:30

To: Shoba Narayan <shoba@shobanarayan.com>, “shyam@peakalpha.com” <shyam@peakalpha.com>

My dear Shoba,

                         Read your piece on your father’s love for poetry

                         Well written.

                         You are lucky to have a father who remembers Abu Ben Adam.

                         He has the talent to remember lines and recite them

                         My memory is notorious

                         But of all poems I remember Casabianca !!

                        The boy stood on the burning deck whence all but he had fled

                        The flames that lit the battle wreck shone round him over the dead”                         

     In a school elocution competition I recited this poem with tears running down my cheek

    I got the first prize for CRYING

   When some one passes, I remember this dismal Tamil verse, not Kamban or Bharathi

Andandu thorum azuthu purandalum maandar varuvaro Manilatheer, Vendaam

Edu vazhiye naam pom alavum

Nammak Enna endru

Ittu, undu irrum.

Notice the emphasis on Ittu(Give first ,then eat and stay on)


PVK thatha

Poetry…India…Verse… Performance Poetry Festival. How to appreciate poetry?

The mysterious ways of poetic inspiration

Why do we like poetry? And how do they get into our lives?

T.S. Eliot. Photo: John Gay/Getty Images

T.S. Eliot. Photo: John Gay/Getty Images

“Why do you like poetry so much?” I asked my father again this morning.

He sighed. “Because we had to memorize poems like “Abou Ben Adhem, may his tribe increase,’”he replied.

It is a tangential answer; one that attempts to pry loose and give word to something tenuous, precious.

My father begins reciting the poem to deflect my tiresome questions. His voice is soft, and thanks to newly acquired dentures, a bit slurred. I strain to hear him. “….like a lily in bloom….an angel writing in leaves of gold….”

My mouth opens with another question. My father starts reciting again. “Abou Ben Adhem, may his tribe increase.”

The first time I heard the phrase, “May your tribe increase,” was about five years ago from my friend, K. Srikrishna. He included it in a thank-you note that he sent after a party. I liked the phrase and started including it in my thank-you notes. It seemed like a quintessentially Indian expression.

“In India, we don’t thank a person,” I told my husband grandly. “We offer blessings, and that too, not to the individual—to the group. We don’t take ownership of an action, or even our spouse. Objects and actions belong to the community. We say hum, not main; not my husband but the husband. We don’t say, I wish you well. We say, ‘May your tribe increase.’”

“And it has,” the husband replied drily. “To become the second most populous nation on earth.”

After my father recited the poem, I realized that the phrase I was making much of wasn’t Indian at all. It came from a poem written by Leigh Hunt, a 19th century English poet, who, it turns out, has written about grasshoppers and crickets, death
and fish.

My father walks down every day to visit my brother and I. We live in the same apartment complex. He may start at my brother’s house and end up at mine, or vice versa. He is a worry-wart. When my brother was commanding Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCCs), ships that plied the oceans, my dad worried that some drunk sailor would throw the captain—my brother—off the ship. Not about payment or promotions. My dad’s worries come from his magnificent imagination. Poetry gives him solace; turns his worries into structured chunks of very lovely words or verses. He is a quiet man, my dad. Doesn’t talk much, except on topics he cares about. And these days, what he likes to talk about is poetry. No matter what the topic, he can link it to poetry.

Appa, what shall I say about silence?” I asked before speaking at a panel discussion.

“You can use Shakespeare’s sonnets,” he replied and began reciting. “‘When to the sessions of sweet silent thought, I summon up remembrances of things past.”

Poetry has become a hook; a way to converse with my dad. He loves English poetry and knows a hell of a lot about it. Shakespeare is his favourite but he also loves the Romantic poets who lived in the Yorkshire Moors in close proximity to each other. He talks about Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and T.S. Eliot when I ask about poets who had an India connection. In his poem, The Waste Land, Eliot talked about “What the thunder said” and used the phrase, Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata (Give, Sympathize, Control).”

The Waste Land is a brilliant poem. There are strands of nonsensical phrases, lines in German, French, Italian and Sanskrit. It is a nightmare to memorize. But once it seeps in, I can imagine that it will change a person—which really is the purpose of all art: to change how you view the world.

As my father’s daughter, I wrestle with poetry. Prose seems more straightforward; less forced. Regional poetry in my native tongue, Tamil; or even translated Sanskrit, Spanish or Russian poetry sounds better to my novice ears. But perhaps I am approaching it all wrong. Poetry, like yoga, music, meditation or sport, is a practice; one that you get better at. Reading and memorizing poetry makes you see the world through a lens that is singular and distinctive. It shapes the way you see things and you may well be 80 years old—like my dad—before you relish its rewards.

Is poetry relevant in today’s world? The way to answer that question is to pick a poet, memorize her poems and see if they influence you. Do it often enough and these poems may give you endurance, courage and joy. Ancient India has a long tradition of poetry in every language. The ones I follow are Sanskrit poets. Bharatiya Kaavya Shastra, they called it, and the list of luminaries is long: Bharata, Dandin, Udbatha, Vamana, Rudrata, Anandavardhana, Abhinavagupta, Rajashekara, Kunthaka, Dhananjaya, Bhoja, Kshemendra, Mamatta, Vishwanatha, Jagannatha and Kalidasa. No women. Thankfully, my native tongue—Tamil—has fine women poets—Andal and Avvaiyar being the ones I am most familiar with.

Poetry is a child of leisure. It takes a while to appreciate phrases like the “wild braid of creation trembles”, in Stanley Kunitz’s masterpiece, The Snakes Of September. How then to access poetry beyond simply memorizing as much as you can? Thankfully, we have options. Mint Lounge publishes poetry, as do Muse India, Poetry India, ReadLeafPoetry, Kritya.in, The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective and the Enchanting Verses Literary Review, among others.

Delhi is the place to be. They have the Poets Corner group, Delhi Poetry Slam, and the Delhi Poetry Festival—from 18-20 December at Siri Fort Auditorium; mark your calendars. Performance poetry à la Sarah Kay may be the future; or tweeting poems à la Kaafiya—The Poetry Festival. I don’t know. I am not a poet, although I would like to be one.

Shoba Narayan is trying to memorize Abou Ben Adhem. She tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

On talking to elders

Start a conversation with the elderly

Shoba Narayan shares her conversation strategy with the elderly

Every elder has something worth sharing. Photo: iStockphoto

Every elder has something worth sharing. Photo: iStockphoto

What is your strategy when you meet elders; those uncles you encounter at weddings? You sit with them, chat desultorily about their prostate, how hot Mumbai has become, and maybe reminisce about the ancestral home or village. The conversation ends abruptly after 5 minutes; and then both parties, with relief, turn to their devices.

I am taking a different approach, perhaps because I am surrounded by octogenarians. I find that every elder has a secret switch; something that they love; something that is worth sharing; that I will enjoy learning. The trick is to find out what—and quickly. It could be particle physics or pranic healing; poetry or the parachute regiment. How to draw them out, if only to make the conversation interesting?

Their career is a good starting point. Questions in this area can be broken down four ways.

Comparison: “Uncle, how is the Indian Army different today from when you were commanding it?”

Prescription: “Auntie, if you could influence today’s attitude towards weavers and textiles, what would you do?”

Takeaways: “Uncle, what was your biggest takeaway from your career with RAW (Research and Analysis Wing, India’s primary foreign intelligence agency)?”

Rewriting history: “If you could do something different, what would it be?”

Such questions are uncomfortable to ask, and even more uncomfortable for them to confront. These are modest folks. They are not forthcoming and dislike talking about themselves. Often, you meet them in social settings—at parties or weddings—where pleasantries, even if boring, are the norm. They are not used to laser-like questions. As Roger Angell says in his essay, “This Old Man”, in The New Yorker, “…we elders have learned a thing or two, including invisibility.” Elders are used to being ignored; talked over. They expect politeness; genuine interest is new for them. In these circumstances, how do you cut to the chase?

It helps if you warm up to the topic. Start by saying that you have been reading about foreign intelligence, textiles, architecture, the behaviour of wasps, or whatever it is that uncle or auntie is an expert at. You have to give them four sentences at least as preamble before springing the question. You have to be prepared for uncomfortable laughter and non-answers. “Actually, there was no one takeaway as you call it. We were so busy filling the need of the hour that…well….” The voice trails away.

Women of that generation are trickier, particularly if they have been homemakers. They may ramble, go around in circles. They haven’t been exposed to management-speak and bullet points. Their wisdom is homespun; passed along through long anecdotes. They take time to get to the nub of things. You have to slow down and listen.

The question for many is, “Why bother?” Why bother hanging around old people? Sometimes, like when your parents live with you, near you, or come to visit, it isn’t a choice. They are around and you have to talk about something. Sometimes, it is a way of engaging with your relatives or friends’ parents. I could tell you that elders give you perspective, but that takes time. So really, it boils down to not getting bored; to figure out a way to engage your mind by engaging theirs.

Some months ago, at a memorial service for Anne Warrior, the educator who co-founded the Mallya Aditi School in Bengaluru, several people, including her grandson, spoke about Warrior’s love of poetry. My grandmother could make anyone love poetry, said her grandson, and I quote from memory. I used to meet her about once a month when both of us were members of The Bangalore Black Tie. We chit-chatted. Not once did we speak about poetry. Indeed, I didn’t know about her interest in this topic till her memorial service.

How do you pass along a passion? Often, it is simply through presence, conversation, and the passing remark. If some subject can give you pleasure in your 80s, would you study it—even if it is “useless” like classical music, dance or poetry? Is something worth learning, not for an immediate goal but for a gradual moulding of the mind?

Poetry is one of the last bastions of the cultured mind. Schoolchildren memorize poems, and then drop it once they hit college. I haven’t read poetry for decades. I didn’t know how to until very recently, when I experienced it through the eyes of Warrior and my father. He has unintentionally unpackaged this world in a way that I can access it. When I tell him about a forthcoming trip to Varanasi, he says Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a poem titled Brahma. So I read it. This then is how seepage happens—ideas and thoughts that migrate from one mind to another.

So the next time you meet an elder, ask them a question or two. You might be surprised at their opinions; you will be enriched by their knowledge. You will be in their shoes one day.

Shoba Narayan has been freaking out elders with her questions for some months now. She tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan.

Mirzapur and the Greater Coucal

Saw my first golden oriole of this season.  Flew in and perched on a Millingtonia tree.  We were in Mirzapur at the fabulous guesthouse of Obeetee Carpets.  A highlight was the sighting of two Greater Coucals, two Hornbills, one Rufous Treepie; and tons of other birds I had seen: drongos, bulbuls, peacocks, wagtail, etc.

How could I forget Ramassery idli?

The outrage over Manchurian ‘idli’

There are a hundred wonderful variations of this ancient, flawless dish. Why spoil it?

It was on board a Vistara Airlines flight that I first tasted the ghastly concoction called idli manchurian.

It was my first time on the airline. I was happy. The distinct airline smell was absent. You know the one I mean? The explosive combination of closed lavatories, chemical air freshener, deodorant, all overlaid by the scent of hot food stuffed into trolleys and crammed into a small space—like a gassy burp waiting to happen.

Then the food came. I should have paid more attention to the flight attendants as they listed out the menu. But I was stunned that we were actually getting something to eat rather than fancy-packed nuts at four times the normal cost a la Indigo.

Vistara’s cardboard containers looked smart with pencil art like the ones Chumbak and the Elephant Company have popularized. I took a bite and spat it out. Why, oh, why, were they messing with a recipe that reflected the scent of South India?

According to the late Kannada scholar, D. L. Narasimhachar, who has edited ancient treatises such as Kumaravyasa Bharata—a medical work; and Vaddaradhane, which talks about the life of a Jain muni called Bhadrabahu, the word “idli” has been in vogue– in Karnataka certainly– for over 1000 years. I learnt this from Shatavadhani Dr. R. Ganesh, a Sanskrit and Kannada scholar in Bangalore.

South Indians like me wake up to the scent of idlis. I may not be able to identify the scent of a Merlot but I can smell the “idli-vasanai” or “idli-smell” from across a playground. In Bangalore, scores of darshinis—open cafes where you stand and eat– serve jasmine-soft idlis to patrons before dawn. We scarf down three or four idlis with chutney and sambhar before walking briskly around lakes and gardens to sweat it off.

If you don’t like plain idlis, there are Kanchipuram idlis, steamed in baskets with carrots grated on top; thatte idlis, about the size of a plate; button idlis, also called bullet idlis that hit you with tiny dollops of round, white, goodness; sannas which are the Goan version of this bland, fermented base that accepts all flavours like a mother (except Manchurian); leaf-idlis or Mudde idlis, the Mangalore version, in which the batter is poured into a cone made with aromatic kewda or screw pine leaves; kotte idlis, also Mangalorean, where you use jackfruit leaves as cones; kuzhi paniyaaram of Tamilnadu, where you fry the idli batter that is spiced with the vagar or thalichu-kottal of black mustard seeds, urad dal, diced ginger, green chilies and curry leaves in tiny containers— savory muffins if you will. If all else fails, you can have rava idlis; podi idlis where the idli is cut up and mixed with a powder of milagai-podi or idli-chili-powder and sesame oil; or even the currently popular ragi idlis. With such a dizzying array of choices, why stray so far away from the dish that goes back to the 10th century if Shivakoti Acharya’s kannada treatise, Vaddaradhane, is to be believed? Food historian K.T. Achaya believes that the idli in its current form with Ponni broken rice mixed with the urad dal in a 4:1 proportion came from Indonesia. That may be, but it took us South Indians to perfect this painstakingly ground, flawlessly proportioned, fermented batter of urad dal and rice. Why add Chinese infusions to a dish that is already an Indonesian-Indian fusion dish in the first place?

“You see, Madame, North Indians don’t want to go for Southie dishes,” the flight attendant said. “If we mix some Chinese flavour with these idlis, then it will be palatable for North Indians as well.”

That riled me up. To call an idli unpalatable is like telling a Punjabi that his maa ki dal is wanting in taste; or telling a Bengali that her fish is flavourless; or telling a Hyderabadi that his biriyani is insipid.

“What about North Indian dishes that aren’t palatable to South Indians?” I asked silkily. My sarcasm was lost on the young woman who stared blankly at me. There is nothing worse that being sarcastic and not being understood. I decided to take the direct tack—or in my case, the direct attack.

“Do you make an undhiyo-manchurian as well?” I asked.

“Undhiyo isn’t North Indian,” she replied. “It is Gujarati.”

That wasn’t the point. The point was why the airline was tampering with only South Indian recipes.

“Manchurian is the flavor of the moment,” explained the flight attendant. “In Maharashtra, we have Manchurian chips, Manchurian chops and even chakli manchurian.”

“Oh you poor thing,” I murmured. “They’ve messed with your chaklis also.”

The Gujarati man sitting beside me shook his head. “What next?” he said. “They will make Manchuri dhokla.”

We all tittered politely.

“We should get together and protest like that Hardik Patel is doing,” someone said.

“Or they should use these foreign flavours to improve on dishes like undhiyo,” I said virtuously, with visions of an improved undhiyo in my mind. Wrong statement, I realized a moment later.

“Why? You don’t like undhiyo?” My Gujarati neighbour, who had until now, been an ally glared at me. No longer could I count on him to be a idli-supporter, I realized. He wouldn’t mobilize Hardik for the cause of idlis.

I tried to back-pedal. “I’ve never eaten an undhiyo I like,” I said.

“It is certainly better than your aviyal,” he replied.

“What’s wrong with an aviyal?” I asked. “Do you know that my friend who has brain cancer only eats aviyal because of its coconut oil content? Do you know that Gwyneth Paltrow drinks two spoons of virgin coconut oil every morning? Aviyal is a perfectly balanced dish.”

“Like our undhiyo,” he replied. We were at stalemate.

As dishes go idlis are like Mother Earth. You can throw any garbage on top of them and they will accept. Undhiyo and Aviyal on the other hand, are perfect in their own way but not crowd-pleasers. As for me, I don’t like undhiyo; then again, I don’t like aviyal either. Even to eat with adai, which is the way Tamilians eat it.

Shoba Narayan filled out the complaint form against the invasion of Manchurian in the idli department.

How to give

Loved writing this piece

How to give (or how to clear out your closet)

Give gifts, get things done. Shoba Narayan on essential barter


Last night, my 84-year-old father called me at 9:45 PM. The lateness of the call told me that he was mulling over something serious.

“I have reached a momentous decision,” he said. “I have decided to sell my NSS policy, which is worth about six lakhs.”

My father got his National Savings Scheme (NSS) policy from the post office about 20 years ago. I was the beneficiary. He wanted me to accompany him to the post office to “do the needful,” he said.

“Do you have one of your books to spare?” he asked meaningfully.

I nodded with a sigh.

Ten years ago, in a fit of authorly pride, I bought over 100 hardcover copies of my first book, “Monsoon Diary.” I regretted the decision within a year.

I began complaining to my parents– rashly in retrospect– about how these books were taking up space in my tiny storage area. I couldn’t keep extra provisions because boxes of books lined every available space.

My parents—as parents do– came to my rescue. Or so they thought. Every time somebody did them a favor, they decided to hand out one copy of my book as a reward, much like the princesses of yore handed out pearl necklaces; or Paari, a Tamil king giving up his chariot to a creeper that was struggling for a place to climb, so much so that he became known throughout Tamil Nadu as “Paari-Vallal” or “Generous Paari.” Well, my parents were going to be generous book-dispensers.

I first learned about their scheme in Chennai when we visited my father’s old haunt, Mercy Electronics, where he bought everything from a splitter to a slide rule. The proprietor was usually clad in a resplendent red shirt that stretched tightly over his paunch and a matching red cap.

One day, when I accompanied my Dad, the proprietor beamed at me genially. “Your father gave me a copy of your book…ummmm….Moore Market Dairies, isn’t it? I gave it to my granddaughter. She is trying to read English.”

“Moore Market burned down years ago, uncle,” I replied, glaring at my Dad. Why was he giving my book to a man who didn’t want to read?

My dad coughed apologetically. “He helped us so much when the toilet at home overflowed,” he said.

This became a pattern. Some months later, my parents’s ophthalmologist peered at me from behind his magnifying glass and said, “I was very happy to get your book, “Monsoon Wedding,” even though I am not much into cookbooks.”

I started to say that it wasn’t a cookbook and then kept my mouth shut.

“He helped us so much with my cataract removal,” said my dad.

When the local Chettiar store proprietor made an exception and home delivered all their provisions, my parents handed them a copy of my book as thanks.

A few weeks later, I discovered the book with my inscription to “Chettiar,”at Blossom Books, Bangalore’s famous secondhand bookstore.

I decided to put a moratorium on their habit. What was the point of giving away my books to people that didn’t appreciate them, I asked.

My parents point was simple. “Wherever we go, people put us old folks at the bottom of the pyramid. When somebody does us a favor or helps us, how else can we thank them without having them misunderstand it?” asked my dad.

Put that way, my books were doing more than their job. They were helping my parents get things done.

IMG_1639This time, I didn’t protest when my father told me to carry along a copy of my book to the post office. There was a pleasant young woman behind the metal desk. Behind her was a Godrej almirah with a pile of files inside. On the metal desk was a stapler with a string attached so that nobody would swipe it. Two calendars hung on the wall. One contained an image of Gandhi with the caption: “Truth Laboratories: India’s first independent forensic science laboratory.” The other was a calendar from the Nagamma Temple across the street. A man named Doddayya–literally Big Boss– now that’s a name– stood in attendance.

The procedure was actually painless even if it took two hours. The woman walked us through all the forms that we needed to fill and sign. My father had brought his PAN card and other documents in triplicate. Once the procedure was done; once the lady assured us that my dad’s money would be returned to his bank, it was time for the thank you gift.

“My daughter is an author,” my father began. He had told me in advance that he wanted me to do the deed; to offer the book. “Tell her that the book is Saraswati Kataksham: a gift from the goddess of learning,” he said.

“We would like you to have a copy of my book,” I said, handing it out.

“Thank you very much, Madame,” said the post office lady.

“We live down the road,” said my father. “If you pass by our house, why don’t you drop in? You have our address.”

Was this what my father was doing? Was he inviting strangers to his house simply because they had given him good service? We spent the rest of the time with me lecturing him about how old people were getting their throats slit by strangersand then feeling bad about the whole thing later.

While my dad’s arsenal of choice was books, my Mom preferred clothes. She handed her old saris to the fruit vendor, cobbler, knife-sharpener, garbage-cleaner, gardener, and the lady who sold fresh greens every morning. When she accompanied me to renew my driver’s license, one of the clerks was very kind and helpful to us (which by the way is not so uncommon as people think—the much maligned Indian bureaucracy works and people do go out of their way to help hapless strangers).

On the way back, after renewing my license, my mother asked, “Remember those free pajamas that you used to get in airlines? Why don’t we give them to the man who helped us? He is large and that large size one that is sitting around the house will fit him.”

“Ma, the job is done. The license is renewed. Why would you go all the way to Yeshwanthpura to give a clerk a pair of pyjamas?”

“You never know,” said my mother. “It is best to have a good relationship with everyone.”

This then is the long view of life. I view interactions as transactions. My parents view interactions as relationships. Post office personnel get invited home for festivals; and the man at the RTO gets new night-wear because he complained that his joints were aching in Bangalore’s cold weather. As for me, I have a lot of spare room in my storage closet these days.

Shoba Narayan has stopped complaining about her books occupying space in her house.

Can you smell and taste through cyberspace?

Technology has conquered two of the five senses: sound and sight. What about the other three?

How do you describe a wine in words?
Shoba Narayan suggests we reach into our own heritage: A Chenin blanc could be called “Insipid, like Aunty Maria’s pork vindaloo”

The killer app, at least in the fields of wine, perfume, cheese, or anything that relies on olfactory and gustatory sensations, will have nothing to do with curing male baldness. The killer app for wine and perfume will be the ability to transport scent and taste through cyberspace. If you could click on a wine bottle that is displayed on your computer and smell the aroma of the wine it contains, all the wine descriptions that we struggle to come up with will be rendered useless in an instant.

There are some things that words have trouble conveying. What Arthur Schopenhauer said about “the inexpressible depth of music, so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable”, could well apply to the scent and taste of an aged Pinot Noir; complex fragrances, be it from Roja Dove, Byredo or Dior; unpasteurized cheeses; or to come back to Schopenhauer’s quote, the sound of the children’s choir at an old church in Goa at dusk. These are things that have to be experienced in person. When you try to convey the experience to someone who wasn’t there, you grasp unsuccessfully at words.

As a species, we have gotten very good at describing what we see, but even after 100,000 years of practice, we haven’t come up with the proper way to communicate things that we experience through our other senses. Music-streaming apps have simplified the audio part of it. Nowadays, if we want to share with friends abroad the ecstasy of listening to Mukhtiyar Ali’s Sufi music, we simply send them a YouTube, SoundCloud or Spotify link. That hasn’t happened for taste and smell. How do you convey the vibrant masculinity of a Barolo? Even saying this sounds pretentious and sexist.

This, then, is the conundrum for wine lovers: How do you convey the taste of a favourite wine to a friend who lives far away? For now, words, feeble as they are, will have to do. And they aren’t doing their job well at all; witness the finger-pointing and controversy over wine terms.

The problem gets worse because words frame and manipulate the wine-drinking experience, as Baba Shiv, a professor of marketing at Stanford University’s graduate school of business in the US, knows very well. Prof. Shiv has conducted numerous studies on how descriptions affect our experience of the wine. In one famous study, he hooked up subjects to an MRI machine and gave them some wine to drink (now that’s a study I would like to participate in). When he told them that the wine was expensive, the pleasure receptors of the brain lit up. The subjects didn’t merely think that they enjoyed the expensive wine more; their bodies and brains behaved as if they did. To quote the paper, “Our results show that increasing the price of a wine increases subjective reports of flavor pleasantness as well as blood-oxygen-level-dependent activity in medial orbitofrontal cortex, an area that is widely thought to encode for experienced pleasantness during experiential tasks.” The next time you pour a friend a glass of red wine, tell her that it is a Château Margaux. The simple statement will enhance her pleasure at having it.

How then to describe wine? Two columnists have come up with solutions and written books in the process. The Wall Street Journal’s Lettie Teague, known for her no-nonsense approach to wine, says you need but five words to describe all wines: acidity, aroma, balance, structure and texture. Wine Spectator columnist Matt Kramer says something similar but uses seven words: insight, harmony, texture, layers, finesse, surprise, and nuance. While I love Teague’s light-hearted columns, her words don’t help me very much. Neither do Kramer’s. They are far too broad to be useful.

//platform.instagram.com/en_US/embeds.jsI have a few terms that I use to jog my scent and taste memory with respect to wines. Herbaceous (like Indian gooseberry, or amla), jammy (best described by a Tamil phrase, kozha-kozha) and minerally (like drinking water from a copper pot), among others.

But minerally too is a description that has come under attack. In an article published in the Australian Journal Of Grape And Wine Research in June 2013, titled “Exploring Minerality Of Burgundy Chardonnay Wines”, three scientists from the Université de Bourgogne in Dijon, France, studied how “wine experts conceptualize minerality and to explore whether they can judge wine minerality in a consensual way.” They concluded, “Wine experts showed strong disagreement in their minerality judgements…”

So if nobody agrees on anything, what are we to do? Are words superfluous in the wine universe? How can we convey the pleasures of a particular bottle of wine?

One sommelier quoted in Bianca Bosker’s 29 June article in The New Yorker, “Is There A Better Way To Talk About Wine?”, describes a Barolo as tasting like a “male ballet dancer”; a “Baryshnikov in a glass”, as the writer says.

If you open this door, India has oodles of poetic descriptions to fit our wines. The proverbial Elizabeth aunty, whose home-made wines are famous all over Kottayam, could describe a Malbec as having the “balance and spikiness of very good Navara (or, more correctly, Njavara rice”. Debashish babu of Kolkata could describe a particular Cabernet Sauvignon as “flabby—like the Brahmaputra in spate”. Or you could sip a Chenin blanc and say, “Insipid, like Aunty Maria’s pork vindaloo.”

We Indians have tasted wines for over 5,000 years. According to K.T. Achaya’s Indian Food: A Historical Companion, Sita promised to pour 1,000 jars of wine into the river Ganga in the hope of safe passage back when their exile ended. When they returned, Ram gave her maireya, a spiced wine (a ghastly concoction according to me). Their entire city was reeling with drunken orgies. Presumably, a few of the citizens described the wines that they tasted to their neighbours.

We need to reach into our history, heritage and local vocabulary to describe wines in a way that resonates and makes sense to us. Goa, with its prodigious practice in the art of living, would be a good place to start.

This is the second in a two-part series on wine tasting. Shoba Narayan didn’t know that Kinvah, a local wine brand, was named after a festive drink in the Mauryan era. She tweets at @shobanarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com