Travelling with Kids New Zealand

Great headline. The Mecca of cross-country driving vacations is of course, America. Growing up in India, we can go on too many driving trips. Our childhood memories were built around train travel.

Solving being driven to distraction

A driving vacation in New Zealand taught us that being cooped up in a car for hours at a stretch wasn’t all that bad.

Within the first hour of picking up our rental car in Auckland, New Zealand, both my daughters puked. We were at the beginning of a 10-day vacation in New Zealand. The plan was to drive to Christchurch and then Queenstown before looping back up to Auckland. Except that the car was smelling to high heaven. We stopped off at a grocery store and bought cleaning supplies, wondering if we were doing the right thing by driving so many miles with two active young children. Then came the first surprise. “We’ll help you clean up,” said my elder daughter, Ranju. After steadying ourselves, we decided to take up her offer. And so it began, this bonding trip that took us so far from home.

A driving vacation requires proper planning. We had to make sure that there were tasty snacks and drinks, particularly in those long sections where there was no rest area for miles. We brought along games and listened to audiobooks. What was surprising was how much we discovered about each other. There’s something about a moving vehicle and beautiful scenery that brings out the poet and philosopher in travelers. So it was with our family. Our younger daughter, Malu, had always been interested in geography. The vast expanses of New Zealand gave full play to her imagination. Except with a twist. Rather than asking questions as children do, we discovered that Malu ended up answering questions. She had studied quite a lot about the land and its geology. She could point out specific rocks, and tell us about the age of the continent. For any parent, discovering the depth of your child’s knowledge is a particular pleasure. It often doesn’t happen at home, when one is caught up in the routine of homework and extracurricular activities. It took a country at the tip of the earth and driving for hours at a stretch to bring out the teacher in 10-year-old Malu.

It was a little different with our elder daughter, Ranju, 15. She was a practical sort and helped her father deal with changing automobile oil, filling up gas, and examining the spare tire. Ever the diplomat, she even mediated a quarrel between my husband and I while our younger one slept. We were shocked and mortified to discover that not only had we failed in our resolve never to fight in front of the kids but that our child was mature enough to mediate our petty quarrel and that she was good at it. We had little choice, we told ourselves later. How long could one bottle up simmering resentments while cooped up in a vehicle?

Ten days later, ww returned the car to the rental agency, hoping that it still didn’t smell. We giggled and chuckled amongst ourselves as we stood in line to hand over the papers. We had explored a beautiful land and had wonderful experiences. Best of all, we had gotten to know each other in a way that we wouldn’t have at home. That alone made the vacation worth it.

Day 4: July 18 2014

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


Today was the worst day. I walked around searching for my glasses with them on my head. That does it. I need to start a “meditation project.” Everyday. Ten minutes. At least.


My inability to meditate properly is really stressing me out
Shoba Narayan
July 14, 2014 Updated: July 14, 2014 05:26 PM

In his book, Focus: The Hidden Ingredient of Excellence, author Daniel Goleman talks about the different kinds of attention. The most obvious kind of focus, he says, is concentration where the mind is rooted to a task until a solution is reached. This type of focus is best suited to analytical work.
Creative insights, on the other hand, occur when the mind is loose, open, and aware. There is a reason why psychologists like to put their subjects on the couch. When you are lying down and daydreaming, you reach into your psyche and touch upon aspects that are not normally on the surface. This is the site of insight and intuition.
There are a few ways to trigger the pathways that open intuition, insight and imagination.
The easiest way is to go to sleep. There is a reason why we wake up and discover that the knotty problem that we have been wrestling with has been solved overnight. Another way is to meditate. Meditating, or accepting thoughts as they come and sending them on their way, allows the mind to relax. It expands and opens the brain and primes its receptors to the sort of ideas and insights that leap across boundaries.
I am a failed meditator. I have tried sitting cross-legged and attempted to “watch my thoughts,” as it were. Sadly, they were all over the place. They did not make sense and worst of all they were mundane, tacking the kind of trivia that is traditionally the realm of children and old women: “Should I have acted differently at the party? Did I pay the right amount for those dozen apples or did I overpay?” my mind wandered. “Did I forget to turn the gas off before ducking out of the door?” The idle mind, they say, is a devil’s workshop. My idle mind was a fool’s paradise, focusing on personal issues and unresolved business of the most idiotic nature. Sometimes, I daydreamed of holidays. Mostly, I fell asleep sitting up. Meditation wasn’t helping me with focus. It was helping me combat insomnia.
Meditation is among the hardest things to do, particularly in this world that values action over stillness and doing over being.
I have tried meditating for years and I have failed. I find sitting still terrifying. I feel guilty for not doing anything. It seems like such a waste of time to just sit there.
The problem with such practices is that their benefits are not immediately obvious. You can read the literature. You can fully buy into the Dalai Lama’s assurance that meditation is the path to rewiring your brain. You can listen to Steve jobs talk about opening the channels of intuition and imagination. You can take online courses on mindfulness and focusing attention, all of which are essential for leaders. It still doesn’t make the actual task easy.
I have tried novel approaches. I have pretended to be a Tibetan monk while sitting cross legged and trying to control my thoughts. It made me feel good. It put me in a good mood and gave me a beatific smile. But as for controlling my impulses, the chocolate cravings only grew stronger.
Then I decided that sitting still was not for me. I would do walking meditation – like Steve Jobs who walked while holding meetings because nature triggers positive neural impulses.
The only problem was that nobody wanted to walk with me. I told my husband that I was going to be Joan of Arc and meditate on a horse. His gaze didn’t alter.
In desperation, I have come to you, dear reader.
Here is a challenge: both for you and for me. Let us meditate for 20 minutes every day. Announcing something like this helps sustain action, according to social psychology. So this in a sense, is my last ditch effort to get on the path to mental nirvana. I will keep you posted as to whether it works.

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


Leap before you think

Before he began Apple, Steve Jobs spent seven months in India, something that is described in his biography by Walter Isaacson. In it, Jobs talks poetically about the difference between intellect and intuition. “The people in the Indian countryside do not use their intellect like we do,” he said. “They use their intuition instead, and their intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world. Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect in my opinion.”
Jobs was not a fan of India. If he identified intuition as the one Indian thing that he wanted to emulate, that is worth considering. There are a few Sanskrit words for intuition: pratibha being the most common one. Developing intuition, discernment (or viveka) and wisdom (vijnana) have been Indian preoccupations for centuries.
Different cultures are obsessed with different things at different stages in their evolution. Japan, for instance, is obsessed with refinement and perfectionism. Singapore is obsessed with systems. China, with scale. The US, with innovation. Ancient Indians were obsessed with self-cultivation; to figure out “how God thinks”, as Albert Einstein said.
In a quote attributed to Einstein, he said: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Notice that this scientist used the word sacred—proving that the rational and the intuitive are not as disconnected as we make them out to be.
Intuition is something that every religion knew about. Jesus, as the story of Lazarus (and the fish which had a four-drachma coin in its mouth) illustrates, was a man of intuition. As was Mohammed the Prophet. In today’s world, we call these intuitive thinkers visionaries. Religion teaches us that the way to develop intuition is through prayer and meditation. As Jobs says: “If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is. If you try to comment, it will only make it worse. But over time, it does calm down, and when it does, there is room to hear more subtle things—that is when your intuition starts to blossom.”
Typically, flashes of insight that are the result of intuition occur at dawn. This is the time when the free-flowing, loose, flexible stillness of the mind gives rise to solutions that are fully formed. During the day, the mind is a wandering beast. Typically, when you try to sit still and meditate, the mind wanders to knotty problems that need to be solved: who said what to whom and how to resolve unfinished business. But if you can still your mind and keep it loose, you increase the chances of insight; of the muse sitting on your shoulder and allowing your imagination to flourish.
Focusing on the moment is the gift that prayer and meditation afford. There are many things that civilizations use to centre their mind. Tibetans use bells. In Aldous Huxley’s novel, Island, which recreates a utopian land, parrots fly over people screeching, “Here and now, boys. Here and now.” They were reminding the islanders to focus on the present; to live for the here and now. The anklets that Indian women wear serve a similar purpose. Try it. The rhythmic jingle of these anklets when you walk serves to bring your mind back to the musical sound; to the here and now.
The ability to voluntarily bring back a wandering mind again and again and again is what we call meditation. American psychologist William James said that this ability to focus was the root of judgement, character and will. The wandering mind is also the root of imagination and creativity.
Paradoxically, it is the controlled kind of wondering that elicits the best results. Think of a kite—rooted to the earth and yet bobbing in the sky. That is the kind of mind-wandering that we need to create. In a famous Time magazine cover that appeared decades ago, Hollywood director Steven Spielberg said, “I dream for a living.” Daydreaming creates the kind of associations that lead to blockbuster movies—and companies, I might add. The trick then is to allow the mind to fly and figure out how to rein it in. Indians have numerous tools for this. We have anklets, for example.
Neuroscientists ask people to close their eyes to see how much the mind flits around. When the eyes move behind closed lids, so does the mind. Bharatanatyam has a famous saying that is taught to every new dancer. It is from the Abhinaya Darpana (Mirror Of Gesture), by the redoubtable Nandikeshvara, often spoken of as a rival to Bharata Muni, who composed the Natya Shastra, the foundation of dance and other arts. In Sutra 36-37 of Abhinaya Darpana, the author talks about how to focus the mind and create rasa or emotion. This famous verse goes: “Yatho hastha thatho drishti. Yatho drishti thatho manah. (Where the hands go, there the eyes will follow. Where the eyes go, there the mind will follow)”.
You want to meditate? Hold your hands in a certain position (mudra, according to Buddhists), and focus your eyes on an object.

Shoba Narayan’s favourite mudra is “bhoomi sparsha mudra” or “caressing the earth mudra”. Write to her at

Martial Arts

I have been listening to a fascinating podcast called “the military history podcast.” I am not a military buff but this one is interesting because it links military things and objects to other aspects of life.

When it comes to the martial arts, it is best to let experts take the fall.

Given the civilised, urban environments that most of us live in, you would think that martial arts would be redundant. After all, it is not as if we walk on the streets deflecting attacks everyday. And yet, the world is obsessed with martial arts. They are thriving, with new ones being created every year. The latest craze in India is krav maga, created for the Israeli defence forces. Krav maga uses everything available at hand, including vessels, nails, sticks and the odd piece of furniture, for self-defence. It is stunning to watch.
Like most people, I lie back on the couch and watch martial arts movies. The irony is not lost on me. There I am, feasting on potato chips, watching nimble, lithe men run up walls, somersault and punch their way out of trouble. It is as if the intensity of their activities balances out the horizontal reality of my inactivity.
I prefer watching martial arts movies to fashion shows. Somehow, the heroes of martial arts seem accessible – unlike the long-limbed supermodels, with their sunken cheeks and sultry eyes. One is genetic; the other is skill, which can be learnt. Or so I’d like to think.
When watching Jackie Chan, I can almost deceive myself into believing that, with enough practice, I can be like him. Of course, that is not true, as my frequent yet chastening encounters with martial arts prove.
On a trip to Japan, I enrolled in martial arts classes. Aikido is impossibly elegant. In Kyoto, there is a sensei named Yoko Okamoto who does amazing things. She throws around men who are twice her size; whirls and twirls her way through multiple incoming attackers and emerges successful. I became interested in aikido because it seemed to offer the benefits of exercise and meditation. It had the grace of dance and the added benefit of self-preservation.
Aikido is suited to women because it involves taking the force and momentum of the attacker and turning it back on them. It is not like samurai wrestling, where you have to lift a 90-kilogram man over your head and throw him on the ground. It is not even like boxing, where you use your muscular strength to punch your opponent senseless. It doesn’t require tools like sticks and swords. All aikido requires is a nimble body and a centred mind.
Most martial arts classes begin with stretches, and so did mine. It was the tumbling that was difficult. Although you may think that a martial art is about fighting, it also is about falling – or, rather, learning to take a fall. As I tumbled and fell, I realised several things: how unfit I was, that falling is difficult and that falling without getting hurt is almost impossible.
It was galling when the instructor said: “Enjoy the pain.” I felt like slapping him. He must’ve read my thoughts in my murderous eyes because he said, “Go on; do it.” I rose to punch him only to find myself whirled into a somersault and flat on the floor: a cushioned floor, thank goodness.
As someone who is mildly obsessed with martial arts, I spent my free hours watching practitioners of parkour, aikido, judo, krav maga and other forms. Although most people associate the martial arts with Asia, the etymology of the word hints at its European origins. Martial arts come from Mars, the God of war in Greek mythology. Europeans quickly devised instruments like swords and shields that would help them attack. Asians, on the other hand, became masters at close-range combat and using the pressure points of the body to maim and kill.
I don’t maim and kill. I’d like to think that it is because I don’t have the killer instinct, but that’s not really true. Most martial arts are not about killing. Aikido, for example has the lofty, compassionate goal of self-protection without injuring the attacker. One master said that the goal was to make your attacker your friend. But, I asked, what if you wanted to attack your friends? His shining, wise eyes looked puzzled. “I have never encountered this question,” he replied.
I love the philosophies of the martial arts. This is good because it is likely that I will never be a good martial artist. I can fake the moves all right, but when it comes right down to it, the thing that I’m best at is one I practice every day: lie down on the couch after dinner, pop open some popcorn, and flip on an Asian martial arts movie.

Shoba Narayan is the author of -Return to India: a Memoir

Temperament versus efficiency

After a nice few weeks of vacation, back to writing the column.

The tug-of-war between ‘nice’ and ‘competent’

My grandparents had four sons and one daughter: my mother. My grandmother’s favourite son was her eldest. He had a sweet word for everyone; sent my grandmother photos from faraway England with lines of Tamil poetry as captions; and was ever-smiling. Her third son lived in the same town as she did. He was the one she called when she needed to go to the doctor, have a piece of furniture moved, or speak to her tenants about rent increases. He was her SOS and showed up when he was needed.
He was not, however, her favourite. Perhaps this was because they dealt with each other too much, but mostly it had to do with his volatile temperament. “He will do everything but with one shouted angry word, he will spoil the whole effect,” my grandmother would say.
Temperament and competence have often been framed as a dichotomy—in life and work. The nice guys aren’t competent and the screamers climb up the corporate ladder. It is a stretch, I know.
The latest display of this dichotomy is the ouster of Jill Abramson from the top job at The New York Times. Here too, the issue has been framed as a tug-of-war between competence and temperament, with overtones of gender disparity. Abramson has been described as “mercurial” and “unapproachable”. Male bosses who are this way, including her predecessors, didn’t have to take a fall as she did. This is where gender disparity comes in.
Competence is a given in most top jobs. To climb up the ranks and run a newspaper or a company requires certain characteristics: perfectionism, efficiency, vision, creativity and courage. Women in top roles must have all these qualities. What brings them down, however, is temperament, according to the many articles on the subject.
I can see the double standard. And yet I have to wonder: What is the takeaway here—for all those women who are entering college, a new career, or the 16th Lok Sabha? Do you tell them to be as good or as bad as any man; to seek equality and justice at all times during their professional career? Or do you tell them to play up the strengths that anthropologist Helen Fisher describes in her book, The First Sex: The Natural Talents Of Women And How They Are Changing The World.
According to Fisher, women have the ability to build consensus, empathize, and nurture relationships. Not all women are this way and these qualities aren’t the sole prerogative of women. Still, as stereotypes go, these ones hold water and, I might add, cause problems.
Because we expect women to cooperate, we find the ones that are pushy jarring. Because we expect empathy from women, we can’t stand the ones that are abrupt. This tautology doesn’t help the future. How do we go forward from here? Many companies—Google is one—insist that their employees undergo gender-sensitivity training. Words are flashed rapidly on a computer screen and you have to pick whether they are “male” or “female” qualities. The results are shocking. A man who asks for a raise is viewed as ambitious; a woman who does the same thing is viewed as pushy.
What’s the way forward? While I see the merit in pushing for justice and equality—hiring a lawyer and questioning a boss as to why she was paid less—I’m not sure that it has taken women far enough to break the glass ceiling. So why not approach this thorny issue tangentially? Instead of playing by the same rules, why not change the rules; change the paradigm? Why not win over the workplace through kindness and courtesy—heretical and silly as that might sound? Again, I know that these traits aren’t exclusive to women, but it is also true that men are far more comfortable being obnoxious. There is a reason we usually think of men when we use the term “jerk”.
There are two ways to win a battle. So far we women have assumed that the only way is to enter a man’s world and essentially become like them: to imitate. When I was in Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, US, the older women enrolled in the Frances Perkins programme, who returned to college in their 50s to get a degree, would get angry when I talked about how women in my family ruled the roost with an iron fist in a velvet glove. “Why should women have to pretend to be softer or to be nice?” was the typical response. But for many women, these are not pretences, but part of personality.
Younger women hopefully will have the confidence to bring in new adjectives that the world can associate with leadership: compassionate, consensus-seeking, kind, great listener, enabler, supporter, and oh yes, she’s a tough boss. You don’t have to be a jerk in order to be competent; and simply saying that men can afford to be that way doesn’t help most women.
In aikido, a martial art that I am interested in, students are taught to use the force and momentum of the attacker for self-defence. When someone punches, you draw in the punch through whirls and circles and flip it back on them. The attacker’s force is used against him. Several Asian martial arts talk about being flexible like a blade of grass rather than breaking like a twig.
Aikido masters talk about making the enemy your friend; to defend yourself without injuring your opponent. Such altruism and niceness cannot be dismissed as idealism in today’s world. In reality, it may be the most practical way forward—for both men and women.

Shoba Narayan wonders where the new government falls in the temperament-competence continuum. Write to Shobha at