Had a fantastic bird watching morning today. I saw a red-whiskered bulbul, sweetly sing for ten minutes. Saw another pair. Can’t tell if they are spotted doves or Asian Koel. Saw tons of parrot like birds– have to spot the parakeets. Saw very tiny birds. But cannot identify them yet. They were flying around a tree like crazy. That yellow tree with tamarind like pods.


There are times when churning out a column a week is torture; when you just want to throw in the towel and switch to an accounting job or something.  This column was written under such circumstance.  Very bad, as my young friend, Idanth would say.

The rare pleasures of serendipity


It was at Atta Galatta that I discovered the pleasures of serendipity. Atta Galatta is Bangalore’s best bookstore, not because of the number and variety of books it sells—Blossom Book House on Church Street has more, but because of the ethos it creates.

The best among independent book stores foster an atmosphere that attracts book lovers and nurtures them in an environment that is civilized and urbane. Atta Galatta is one such place. The books here are chosen with a point of view—with an emphasis on vernacular and children’s books; independent and literary authors. I walked in one day and discovered naturalist M. Krishnan’s book, Of Birds And Birdsong.

How do you find books that you didn’t know you wanted? How do you find objects that you didn’t know you wanted? Online stores spend crores of rupees trying to solve this problem. They suggest objects based on your last purchases; they suggest books based on the “people who bought this book also bought” hypothesis. But no online retailer can match the serendipity that brick-and-mortar book stores engender.

The word serendipity comes from Serendip, or Sarandip, the Persian name for Sri Lanka; which itself came from Tamil (Cheran-theevu or Cheran-island); or Sanskrit (Sinhala-dvipa, or the island where the lions dwell). Horace Walpole, an English politician, came up with the word serendipity after listening to a Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes Of Serendip, based on Amir Khusro’s poem, Hasht Bihisht. It is a wonderful old-fashioned mystery in which the three princes solve the theft of a missing camel through a variety of clues that they happen upon. These heroes, in other words, were making discoveries, “by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of”, according to the Oxford English dictionary.

As a concept, serendipity, or the notion of finding things that you aren’t looking for, is hugely seductive. Entire movie scripts hinge upon this idea of happenstance; chance; tumbling into love; finding a soulmate. It is as if the universe is conspiring to hand you something that you aren’t looking for; that you didn’t But is there a way you can engineer serendipity? I would even know you wanted. suggest that visiting a particular type of café or book store is one: where you meet people or find objects that will give you pleasure you aren’t searching for.

When I walked into Atta Galatta last week, I was looking for children’s books. It was amid a group of picture books that somebody had piled up on the counter that I found this book on birds. Although I’m interested in nature I rarely go into the naturalist section of any book store. In other words, I wouldn’t have found Krishnan’s marvellous book except for the serendipity of its presence atop a counter full of children’s books. It is this sort of thing that makes a compelling case for the presence and patronage of independent book stores.

When I visited, there were a group of Tamil poets arguing heatedly about the merits of Kalki Krishnamurthy’s books. At the next table were a group of artsy types (going by their attire), discussing a project while looking at slides on a laptop. Coffee and brownies appeared on order. Upstairs, a children’s book was being released. A short while later, a storytelling and poetry reading session commenced. Local poets gathered and spoke about their craft.

In shrinking urban spaces, there are a few locations that bring together intellectuals and ideas on a daily basis. In Bangalore, Koshy’s, the much loved coffee shop, is one such location. Cobalt Blue, a new shared-office space, aspires to be another. Part of the reason you visit these spaces is because you don’t know whom you will meet or what you will encounter. Of course, some of these encounters can be unnerving—the classic one being when you run into your ex at a location that was special to you. In such situations, the only thing to do is to fake amnesia or duck into the bathroom. The worst thing is that in most such locations that foster serendipity, the bathroom is usually “For Staff Only”, and needs to be accessed with a key.

I know someone who carries a bar of chocolate for what she calls “serendipitous encounters which have the potential of going horribly wrong”.` She simply hands a bar of chocolate and ends all conversation with that one gesture. “Fancy seeing you here,” she drawls. “Here, have some Ghirardelli chocolate. It’s their new line. Very artisanal.” And so on.


Shoba Narayan is reading M. Krishnan’s Of Birds And Birdsong, with a big box of Ghirardelli chocolates by her side. She cannot tell which is better. Write to her at the



OCD Diary Day 2

Feel a little silly doing this. Then again, that’s not a new emotion for me. And maybe I will warm to this dare– from a friend of mine. Keep a timer, he said, and write in your blog everyday for five minutes.

615 PM. Had Kusmi green tea with my friend. Went to Caravan Craft store in Whitefield.
Going to a dance recital in the evening. Who reads these daily diaries? What is the purpose? How do they write Haikus?

There’s got to be a better way to discipline myself to write everyday.

Okay then. Looking for something of value to readers.
1. Read Roger Angell’s piece in the New Yorker. Long. A bit self indulgent. But the man is 94 years old. Some parts were lovely.

2. Need to write a column for Mint by tomorrow morning and have absolutely no idea what I am going to write. Want to write about intangible heritage. Make a list of some sort. You know, in order for diaries of this sort to work, there has to be lots of photos and some fairly vulnerable stuff– the kind Brene Brown talks about in her amazing TED talk.

3. A pariah kite landed on my balcony this morning. It was beautiful. Here is a photo.2014-02-17 07.04.58

Obsessive Compulsive Dairy Day 1

How we spend our days is of course, how we spend our lives.

Today was depressing. My guru, RK Srikantan, died at 94. Read it in the papers. Thought about going to his house. Felt ashamed for dropping out.

Didn’t do much. Wandered about the house in a funk wondering if I was exhibiting early signs of dementia.

My mind is going. I can feel it. So I played Lumosity and Duolingo back to back. Just to prove that I could remember sequences.

It is a tough thing when desire and ambition are bigger than capacity. Ask me. I know.

So why am I doing this? I find that the blogs and comedians I am attracted to– Louis CK for instance– have a healthy (or what I would deem unhealthy amount of navel gazing and minute details.

Navel, here I come.

New Year resolutions.

As an optimist who believes in the power of change, I always make new year resolutions. This year was no different. Here’s what I’m doing.

1. I got off Facebook. I didn’t go often into the site anyway, but I found that whenever I was stuck on the computer and couldn’t write or couldn’t concentrate, I would go surfing on Facebook, sometimes for a few minutes and sometimes for an hour. This Jan 1st, I told my kid to change my password and not tell me the change. So I can’t enter the site. For now. I hope to continue this for a few months, and if it works, for this year. Funny thing is that I don’t miss it. Nowadays, when I am stuck at the computer, I pace. Or I read. Which brings me to….what am I reading.

2. I am reading “The Power of Habit,” also in an eternal quest to figure out how to be disciplined about….well, everything. I also have Diana Eck’s book on my bedside. And have started reading it.

That’s it.

Poetry reading.

If any of you are in Bangalore tomorrow, I am moderating a poetry reading by Athena Kashyap. Please come.

Invite dt. 29-11-2013

I am fascinated by poetry: the musicality of it; how to make words sing; how to condense thought. So I thought I would engage Athena in a discussion about the whys and how of poetry writing. I will begin by having Athena talk about her book and read a short excerpt. And then, I will widen the scope to poetry in general.

In preparation, I went to the site that I always turn to: The Paris Review Interviews. This time with poets.

Over the course of two delicious hours of readings, I chose a few poets who spoke to me and noted down their questions.
Art of Poetry interviews here.

Based on reading these, I thought I would ask Athena these questions.

1. Why poetry? Why is poetry important to society? My favorite reason is what Paz said below, but I’d like to see what she says.

Octavio Paz
“If a society without social justice is not a good society, a society without poetry is a society without dreams, without words . . . and without that bridge between one person and another that poetry is. If society abolishes poetry it commits spiritual suicide.”

2. Why did you choose poetry? As opposed to novels or non fiction?

3. Does it come easy to you? What is the process by which you write poetry?

Yves Bonnefoy, an amazing French poet answered it thus here. Beautiful, non?
So I jot down these sentences. I listen to them. I see them making signs to each other, and thanks to them I begin to understand needs, memories, fantasies which are within me. This is the beginning of the poem, which will eventually become a whole book, since it will concern all that I am. I have always started in this way, in the middle of the unknown, only to discover later that I was speaking from the point that would have been the simple observation of my daily actions and thoughts. This is a labor that requires a great deal of time, years perhaps. Often the title comes at the end, like a retroactive statement.

4. What times of day do you write? By longhand or computer? Where do you sit? What is your muse? Process please?

Maya Angelou described it here. I’d like to hear Athena’s process.


You once told me that you write lying on a made-up bed with a bottle of sherry, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray, and a Bible. What’s the function of the Bible?


The language of all the interpretations, the translations, of the Judaic Bible and the Christian Bible, is musical, just wonderful. I read the Bible to myself; I’ll take any translation, any edition, and read it aloud, just to hear the language, hear the rhythm, and remind myself how beautiful English is. Though I do manage to mumble around in about seven or eight languages, English remains the most beautiful of languages. It will do anything.


Do you read it to get inspired to pick up your own pen?


For melody. For content also. I’m working at trying to be a Christian and that’s serious business. It’s like trying to be a good Jew, a good Muslim, a good Buddhist, a good Shintoist, a good Zoroastrian, a good friend, a good lover, a good mother, a good buddy—it’s serious business. It’s not something where you think, Oh, I’ve got it done. I did it all day, hotdiggety. The truth is, all day long you try to do it, try to be it, and then in the evening if you’re honest and have a little courage you look at yourself and say, Hmm. I only blew it eighty-six times. Not bad. I’m trying to be a Christian and the Bible helps me to remind myself what I’m about.


Do you transfer that melody to your own prose? Do you think your prose has that particular ring that one associates with the King James version?


I want to hear how English sounds; how Edna St. Vincent Millay heard English. I want to hear it, so I read it aloud. It is not so that I can then imitate it. It is to remind me what a glorious language it is. Then, I try to be particular and even original. It’s a little like reading Gerard Manley Hopkins or Paul Laurence Dunbar or James Weldon Johnson.


And is the bottle of sherry for the end of the day or to fuel the imagination?


I might have it at six-fifteen a.m. just as soon as I get in, but usually it’s about eleven o’clock when I’ll have a glass of sherry.


When you are refreshed by the Bible and the sherry, how do you start a day’s work?


I have kept a hotel room in every town I’ve ever lived in. I rent a hotel room for a few months, leave my home at six, and try to be at work by six-thirty. To write, I lie across the bed, so that this elbow is absolutely encrusted at the end, just so rough with callouses. I never allow the hotel people to change the bed, because I never sleep there. I stay until twelve-thirty or one-thirty in the afternoon, and then I go home and try to breathe; I look at the work around five; I have an orderly dinner—proper, quiet, lovely dinner; and then I go back to work the next morning. Sometimes in hotels I’ll go into the room and there’ll be a note on the floor which says, Dear Miss Angelou, let us change the sheets. We think they are moldy. But I only allow them to come in and empty wastebaskets. I insist that all things are taken off the walls. I don’t want anything in there. I go into the room and I feel as if all my beliefs are suspended. Nothing holds me to anything. No milkmaids, no flowers, nothing. I just want to feel and then when I start to work I’ll remember. I’ll read something, maybe the Psalms, maybe, again, something from Mr. Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson. And I’ll remember how beautiful, how pliable the language is, how it will lend itself. If you pull it, it says, OK.” I remember that and I start to write. Nathaniel Hawthorne says, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” I try to pull the language in to such a sharpness that it jumps off the page. It must look easy, but it takes me forever to get it to look so easy. Of course, there are those critics—New York critics as a rule—who say, Well, Maya Angelou has a new book out and of course it’s good but then she’s a natural writer. Those are the ones I want to grab by the throat and wrestle to the floor because it takes me forever to get it to sing. I work at the language. On an evening like this, looking out at the auditorium, if I had to write this evening from my point of view, I’d see the rust-red used worn velvet seats and the lightness where people’s backs have rubbed against the back of the seat so that it’s a light orange, then the beautiful colors of the people’s faces, the white, pink-white, beige-white, light beige and brown and tan—I would have to look at all that, at all those faces and the way they sit on top of their necks. When I would end up writing after four hours or five hours in my room, it might sound like, It was a rat that sat on a mat. That’s that. Not a cat. But I would continue to play with it and pull at it and say, I love you. Come to me. I love you. It might take me two or three weeks just to describe what I’m seeing now.

Athena: what poets do you like? What are your influences.

Seamus Heaney said it thus and you can see how familiar he is with these poets. Wish I could have such knowledgeable reactions about poets but I don’t. I am looking forward to what Athena says.


Is Yeats a political poet?


Yeats is a public poet. Or a political poet in the way that Sophocles is a political dramatist. Both of them are interested in the polis. Yeats isn’t a factional political poet, even if he does represent a definite sector of Irish society and culture and has been castigated by Marxists for having that reactionary, aristocratic prejudice to his imagining. But the whole effort of the imagining is towards inclusiveness. Prefiguring a future. So yes, of course, he is a poet of immense political significance, but I think of him as visionary rather than political. I would say Pablo Neruda is political.


What about W.H. Auden?


Is it too sophisticated to say Auden is a civic poet rather than a political poet?


I remember your saying in an essay that Auden introduced to English writing of his era a regard of contemporary events, which had been neglected.


There are poets who jolt the thing alive by seeming to lift the reader’s hand and put it on the bare wire of the present. It’s a matter of cadence and diction quite often. But Auden did set himself up for a while very deliberately as a political poet. Certainly up until the early 1940s. And then he becomes, if you like, a meditative poet. A bit like Wordsworth. At first a political poet with a disposition that is revolutionary. And then come the second thoughts. But as Joseph Brodsky said to me once upon a time, intensity isn’t everything. I believe Joseph was thinking then of Auden, the later Auden. The early Auden is intense, there’s a hectic staccato artesian kind of thing going on, there’s immense excitement between the words and in the rhythms. There’s the pressure of something forcing through. And then that disappears. In the 1950s and 1960s you have the feeling that things are being inspected from above. I suppose the transition comes when he writes those sonnet sequences at the end of the 1930s, marvelous, head-clearing sequences like “In Time of War” and “The Quest,” all vitality and perspective and intellectual shimmer. There is that sense of experience being invigilated and abstracted from a great height, but what is still there in that middle period is the under-energy of the language. Then finally that just disappears. And a kind of lexical burble begins to take over.

The Sylvia Plath section of Ted Hughes’ interview interested me.

I also loved Octavio Paz’ interview here, especially the excerpt below.


Do you have to be in any specific place in order to write?


A novelist needs his typewriter, but you can write poetry any time, anywhere. Sometimes I mentally compose a poem on a bus or walking down the street. The rhythm of walking helps me fix the verses. Then when I get home, I write it all down. For a long time when I was younger, I wrote at night. It’s quieter, more tranquil. But writing at night also magnifies the writer’s solitude. Nowadays I write during the late morning and into the afternoon. It’s a pleasure to finish a page when night falls.


Your work never distracted you from your writing?


No, but let me give you an example. Once I had a totally infernal job in the National Banking Commission (how I got it, I can’t guess), which consisted in counting packets of old banknotes already sealed and ready to be burned. I had to make sure each packet contained the requisite three thousand pesos. I almost always had one banknote too many or too few—they were always fives—so I decided to give up counting them and to use those long hours to compose a series of sonnets in my head. Rhyme helped me retain the verses in my memory, but not having paper and pencil made my task much more difficult. I’ve always admired Milton for dictating long passages from Paradise Lost to his daughters. Unrhymed passages at that!


Is it the same when you write prose?


Prose is another matter. You have to write it in a quiet, isolated place, even if that happens to be the bathroom. But above all to write it’s essential to have one or two dictionaries at hand. The telephone is the writer’s devil, the dictionary his guardian angel. I used to type, but now I write everything in longhand. If it’s prose, I write it out one, two, or three times, and then dictate it into a tape recorder. My secretary types it out, and I correct it. Poetry I write and rewrite constantly.


What is the inspiration or starting point for a poem? Can you give an example of how the process works?


Each poem is different. Often the first line is a gift, I don’t know if from the gods or from that mysterious faculty called inspiration. Let me use Sun Stone as an example: I wrote the first thirty verses as if someone were silently dictating them to me. I was surprised at the fluidity with which those hendecasyllabic lines appeared one after another. They came from far off and from nearby, from within my own chest. Suddenly the current stopped flowing. I read what I’d written—I didn’t have to change a thing. But it was only a beginning, and I had no idea where those lines were going. A few days later, I tried to get started again, not in a passive way but trying to orient and direct the flow of verses. I wrote another thirty or forty lines. I stopped. I went back to it a few days later, and little by little, I began to discover the theme of the poem and where it was all heading.


A figure began to appear in the carpet?


It was a kind of review of my life, a resurrection of my experiences, my concerns, my failures, my obsessions. I realized I was living the end of my youth and that the poem was simultaneously an end and a new beginning. When I reached a certain point, the verbal current stopped, and all I could do was repeat the first verses. That is the source of the poem’s circular form. There was nothing arbitrary about it. Sun Stone is the last poem in the book that gathers together the first period of my poetry: Freedom on Parole. Even though I didn’t know what I would write after that, I was sure that one period of my life and my poetry had ended, and another was beginning.

What will Athena Kashyap, the poet and teacher say? Come tomorrow evening at 6:30 to find out.

Self Control

I have been using this great app called “Self Control.” It lets you put sites that distract on a “black list.” So every morning, after I check my Facebook for ten minutes, I turn on Self Control for 24 hours. My blacklist includes my blog, Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube. No matter what I do, I cannot access these sites. It is a free version of the “Freedom” app that writers use.

Bangalore Literature Festival

Is this weekend. Please attend if you are in Bangalore. I am in a panel on Sunday afternoon (the 29th) from 1 to 2 pm. It is about rewriting the rules of romance and reminiscence. In bold below. But the entire day’s schedule also below.


Literature for Children
10:00 – 11.00 Thoughts that Breathe, Words that Burn: A morning of poetry

Ashok Vajpeyi, K. Satchidanandan and Nabanita Dev Sen
Moderator: Mamta Sagar Launch of Tilman Rammstedt’s ‘The Emperor of China – Der Kaiser von China’

International Ink: Getting published in Europe

Ian Jack, Tilman Rammstedt and Aurélia Lassaque
Moderator: Karthika V. K. Write Better

Workshop for Young Writers with Vivek Krishnaswamy (Ages 9 to 15)
11.00 – 12.00 Mera kuchh saman, tumhare paas pada hai

Gulzar in conversation with Bhawana Somaaya The Big Bada Bang with a really LOOooOONGGG Book by Pratham Books
12.00 – 1:00 Naadhadha Nadiyondhu naDedhaanga: Kavi Samaya

Celebrating Kannada poetry

K. Nisar Ahmed, H. S. Venkatesh Murthy and Siddalingaiah
Moderator: Asha Devi Playwrights at Work

Dharmakirti Sumant, Vibha Rani, Swar Thounaojam and Christopher Kloebel
Moderator: Evan Hastings Get buzzy with a ghostly performance on stage! by Pratham Books
1:00 – 2:00 Kannada mooladha maruvyaakhyaana: The history & antiquity of Kannada

Dr. Venkatachala Shastry, Dr. M. M. Kalburgi and Dr. Padekal Vishnu Bhat
Moderator: Dr. Shrinivas Murthy

1:00 to 2pm. Rewriting the Rules of Romance and Reminiscence
Satyajit Sarna, Nighat Gandhi, Nilanjan Choudhury and Shoba Narayan
Moderator: Nandita Bose

2:00 – 3:00 India from the Outside
Ian Jack in conversation with Sunil Sethi The First Book Club

Varun Agarwal, Aditya Mukherjee, Lavanya Sankaran, Preeti Shenoy
Moderator: Vani Mahesh Amar Chitra Katha presents

Brave Superheroes and Frightening Monsters
3:00 – 4:00 Voices of India: Young Literateurs of Bhasha

Arindam Borkataki, Dharmakirti Sumant, Vempalli Gangadhara and Farooq Shaheen
Moderator: Jayanth Kodkani

A Central Sahitya Akademi Presentation Launch of Ravi Subramanian’s ‘Bankerupt’

Edge of Darkness: On Thrillers and Chillers

Aroon Raman, Ravi Subramanian and Piyush Jha
Moderator: Eshwar Sundaresan Amar Chitra Katha presents

Brave Superheroes and Frightening Monsters
4:00 – 5:00 World in Verse: A celebration of life through Performance Poetry

Bas Böttcher, Vibha Rani and Mamta Sagar 69 Shades of Grey: Scripting Erotica

Sheba Karim, Ashok Ferry and Minal Hajratwala
Moderator: Harish Bijoor An Evening with The Storywallahs
5:00 – 6:00 Punjab: A History from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten

Rajmohan Gandhi in conversation with Sunil Sethi In the shadow of the gun: Literature from conflict zones

Farooq Shaheen, Babar Ayaz, Arindam Borkataki and Jahnavi Barua
Moderator: Amandeep Sandhu An Evening with The Storywallahs
6:00 – 6:45 All this Longing: Songs and Poetry

Shabnam Virmani & Vipul Rikhi
NOTE: Session participants and timing could be subject to last minute changes.

Culture and Specificity

Nice response to the piece below in Livemint website. I wish The Skeptarian, whoever she or he is had said some more. I don’t agree with her or his notions about culture as talking to sweeper. That’s my milklady version.

The Skeptarian • 7 hours ago −
This article just re-articulates a certain sameness in our thinking, a tired view of culture that equates it with the arts. Culture is not that at all. In its truest sense, culture is about a certain catholicity in one’s sensibility. It is the ability to let go of one’s identity; in fact, it is the disposition to rise above one’s human identity. It gets reflected in such things as the ability to notice an ant struggling to hoist its grain across a small crevice in the floor. It is not surely about nursing a single malt, it is more about being able to muse about the origins of our universe when drinking a glass of water. Walter Susman wrote that the decline of American culture began in the early 20th century with the shift of emphasis from Character to Charisma. Culture is the ability to reject charisma, it is that of appearing less erudite than one actually is….where, it is the reverse that is mostly true today. Culture is about rejecting the notion of power in its entirety. It is about being able to live life on the razor’s edge always….therefore, it is surely not about reclining in a cane chair listening to Mozart’s clarinet concerto, it is more about going out into the street and watching the municipal worker sweeping the road and conversing with him or her. Culture is what you will not find most of India’s middle class and rich.

Why you may not be as cultured as you think
Being cultured denotes more than just having the expertise. It’s who you are
Shoba Narayan
First Published: Sat, Sep 21 2013. 12 31 AM IST

Vocalist Girija Devi performing at the ITC ‘sangeet sammelan’ in Delhi. Photo: Pradeep Bhatia/Hindustan Times
It’s something that most of us grew up with; part of the Indian zeitgeist, seen in Satyajit Ray movies and stories passed down the generations. It involves characters such as the proverbial Uncle (Moti chachu or Goli mamu, call him what you will). He is in his 50s or early 60s; clad in a soft white dhoti and a loose white baniyan; lounging in the early evening as he usually does on one of those cane “easy chairs” with two sticks that swing out like wings. There are dark pillars and a cool mosaic floor. Light streams in through the window, producing a shimmering golden glow—like a butterfly’s wing—often seen in old havelis or Chettinad homes.
There is music. Have your pick, depending on the region. If it was Kolkata, it could be Rabindrasangeet or opera. If it was Mumbai, it could be Vishnu Digambar Paluskar singing Raga Durga or Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. If it was Delhi, it could be Allauddin Khan playing Raga Jaijaiwanti on his sarod, or Urdu couplets. If it was Goa, it could be Gonzaga Coutinho singing Tambde Rosa, or C. Alvares and Rita Lobo singing Molbavello Dhou, or jazz. If it was Chennai, the uncle would be listening to Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar singing Bantureeti in Hamsanadham ragam, or Rudram chants, both of which he would know by heart.
These are stereotypes of course, and they aren’t the real point of this story. The point of painting these scenes is this. As this uncle sits reading his newspaper, his two nieces are arguing over the particular raga that is playing. They can’t decide whether it is Bhairav or Bhoopali. “It is neither,” says the uncle, still behind the newspaper. “It is Maand”.
I don’t know about you, but I grew up surrounded by such uncles and aunties. They knew stuff about Indian history and culture; they were soaked in music, art, literature and dance. They could spot mistakes in the mudras (hand gestures) at a performance. They could compare the khayal singing styles of Girija Devi and Kumar Gandharva and deliver detailed expositions about why one was superior to the other. They could nurse their single malt and hum Vivaldi’s Four Seasons under their breath and break into an Omar Khayyám couplet in the next instance. They could make comparisons between Kalidasa and Shakespeare. They were—and I don’t know a better way to describe it—cultured. They were also simple and fairly specific with respect to attire, food and lifestyle. They wore the same clothes that their neighbours did and ate their regional food, whether it was Goan fish curry or meen moilee or mutton biryani. They were unpretentious. There is a great line in one of my favourite movies, The Birdcage. In it, Robin Williams, who is gay, confronts his son who wishes him to pretend to be straight for the sake of his visiting girlfriend. Williams refuses with the line that goes something like this, “But I know who I am, Al. It has taken me 20 years to come to it.”
These cultured uncles and aunties knew who they were. Their knowledge of the arts was both exquisitely local and profoundly global. Travel writers do this for a living. They plumb the local for granular details to illustrate the global. My point is a version of Gandhi’s motto of simple living and high thinking. In times past, it was specific and regional living that led to a depth of culture and heritage. Today, it is global living and what writer and journalist Aatish Taseer calls, “deracinated” culture.
In an interview with The New York Times magazine, conductor James Levine once described the difference between opera recordings from the past and current performers in this way: “At whatever level of expertise or inexperience, the performance (in the past) demonstrates a digestion, a confidence, an attitude, an absorption that is lacking today”.
Notice that he doesn’t use the word expertise. Rather, he calls it “digestion”, and “absorption”, which are words describing a milieu.
Are you cultured? What does that word mean to you? The word connotes expertise, but it is much more than that. What it really means is immersion: In what you read, wear, sing, listen to, talk about, offer advice about, and dream about. Culture is who you are.
Hindustani and Carnatic music today are replete with superb singers. They have melodious voices; they take their riyaz seriously and spend hours everyday practising. Their voice exhibits perfect sur (note) or shruti (tone). They have laya or rhythm. Their voice can transcend the three saptak or octaves easily. They research the compositions that they sing; learn Urdu, Hindi, Sanskrit or Telugu to understand the meaning of the words; they learn music history and occasionally create books, articles or nowadays, podcasts about past masters. Technically, it is hard if not impossible to fault them. Yet, today’s musicians lack that “digestion” and “absorption” that Levine is referring to. This is not about accomplishment or artistry because today’s musicians have that in spades. What they lack is the ethos and all-consuming identity that came naturally to musicians in the past. This is because, today’s musicians, dancers and artistes try to be all things to all people; changing their identity and art according to audience or collector. The art suffers as a result. Paluskar or Chembai weren’t musicians by professions; they were musicians by identity. It infused everything they did. It was who they were.
Are you cultured? If you think you are, you may want to dig deep—and specific. Conjure up an aesthetic and identity that is close to your heritage and who you are.

Shoba Narayan is listening to Ghana Shyama Sundara and Avicii’s Wake me up. How to get specific with this bandwidth? Write to Shoba at


Andy Deemer, transplanted American, who makes a mean guacamole, invited me to be part of this fun event. It is called Pechakucha and its format is simple:20 slides. Speak on each slide for 20 seconds. Adding up to a six-minute talk. Approximately.

Details of the event are listed in Facebook here

Please spread the word. And come attend if you are in town.