Eudaemonia, Rahul and Kejriwal

Rahul Gandhi, Kejriwal and eudaemonia

Rahul Gandhi could take a lesson from St Augustine of Hippo. Wait, before you roll your eyes, let me finish. St Augustine of Hippo was a remarkable man. Born a Berber, this Algerian-Roman philosopher began life as a pagan. His mother Monica, ordained a Catholic saint, entreated him to lead a life of virtue. In his youth, Augustine was anything but. He wined and dined, had a rollicking time, wavered between hobbies and passions, and had relationships with a series of women.

As he says in his book, Confessions, Augustine’s early life consisted of “being seduced and seducing, being deceived and deceiving”. There is something comforting about a saint who sinned as spectacularly as Augustine. There is hope for the rest of us.

When he turned 32, Augustine—in somewhat Bollywood fashion that involved his mother’s death and chance meetings—reformed himself. He turned to celibacy and priesthood as a way to reach God. This continued throughout his life and he was ordained the patron saint of printers, theologians and, appropriately, brewers. In philosophy, St Augustine is known for his deeply personal account of the Western philosophic concept of “eudaemonia”, or the good life.

Gandhi junior, back after a two-month break, has taken up his role again stridently. The question is whether his reformation is for real—this time; or whether he will waffle, yet again.

Years ago, Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, entreated people to “follow their bliss”. Greek philosophers, including Socrates, Plato and, most importantly, Aristotle, called it eudaemonia. It is often misrepresented as happiness—but has more to do with practising virtues in daily life.

Eudaemonia is about doing the right thing at the right time in the right way, about having the wisdom to resolve conflicts, something that Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal could learn. It is a robust, action-oriented philosophy that is somewhat akin to the Hindu notion of dharma. Eudaemonia marries the idea of dharma, or doing the right thing, with the tantric notion of sahaja, or spontaneous ease, as poet Kabir called it, in which the mind is returned to its own primal ecstasy without the help of external substances.

I like eudaemonia because I think an action-oriented philosophy shouldn’t be plodding and diligent and entirely about duty and morality. What is Gandhi’s duty? Quit the party? Bear the burden? Take on the mantle? What is Kejriwal afraid of? Why does he win an election and then self-combust?

Much of philosophy, both in the East and West, focuses on duty and morality. The problem with this approach is that it excludes ownership, passion and enjoyment. To have power, and to take pleasure from wielding it, should be part of the composite as well.

Eudaemonia celebrates happiness, and all those daily activities that lead to happiness. It wasn’t popular among philosophers, by the way. Immanuel Kant vociferously opposed it, and although he is a giant in Western philosophy, let me adopt the immortal words of Bertie Wooster and say that with respect to eudaemonia, Kant “was an ass”. Later philosophers—the existentialists, for example—also viewed eudaemonia as a shallow fantasy put forth by medieval philosophers and theologians who had no idea about the harsh realities of everyday moralities.

The same could be said of eudaemonia’s counterpart in India: tantric philosophy. Mention tantra, and the average person usually thinks of the Kama Sutra. Well, it is that; but it is also about beauty, colour and bliss. There is a lovely passage in Sudhir Kakar’s book, Shamans, Mystics And Doctors, that explains this. “The true tantrik is always in a state of non-suppression and enjoyment. The purpose of every moment of life is to experience ananda. Ananda is active enjoyment of everything that comes your way.” No quarrel there.

How can one experience ananda, or enjoyment? Or eudaemonia, or happiness? Well, the reason those Kantian moralists were against eudaemonia is because they believed that humans needed external objects in order to experience happiness. Well, that’s true. Hand me a bottle of Ruinart and I’ll be one happy person right now. People like Kant would belittle this approach, and so would a vast number of anti-consumerists. Kant believed that true happiness or contentment comes from performing virtuous actions for their own sake. You do the right thing and you are happy. If not, you are guilt-ridden and have to drown your sorrows in wine, women (or men) and song.

But what if you could adapt your desires to suit the situation? Bear with me here. Again, to quote Kakar: “A tantrik has only those desires which the environment is ready, willing and in a position to satisfy. This is not because he denies any of his wishes or rationalizes them later, but because he has developed his capacity for attention and is intensely aware of where he is and what he is doing at every single moment of time.”

Read the previous sentence. Twice. Insert your name. “Rahul/Arvind/Rishad (or female counterpart thereof) has only those desires which the environment is ready, willing and in a position to satisfy.” That makes sense to me. Essentially, it says that since you cannot control what the world throws at you, you control your reaction to the external stimuli. You prime yourself to be receptive to the world and learn how to enjoy each experience.

Let’s say that you are going to a really boring party. Instead of flagellating yourself for accepting that invitation, what if you become “intensely aware” of where you are, and figure out ways of having some fun, given the circumstances. Maybe you decide not to make small talk; maybe you dress differently; maybe you decide to sing. The point is to extend your bandwidth; increase your surface area with respect to what gives you pleasure.

The ancients called it eudaemonia, or sahaja. Kejriwal and Gandhi should try it—Kejriwal for the sake of Delhi; Gandhi for the sake of the Congress party; and for the sake of the people that walked before them and fought to get them where they are today.

Shoba Narayan alternates between Kantian guilt and eudaemonia. Write to her at thegoodlife @livemint.com

New book, not by me: The Udipi Kitchen

Geetha Rao is someone I got to know through Stanley Pinto’s The Bangalore Black Tie.  She always wears gorgeous saris and is now President of the Karnataka Crafts Council.  I have written about her sari collection for Mint– search for Kodali Karuppur sari and Geetha Rao.  Now, Geetha has a new book out, co-written with her mother.  She was kind enough to invite me to be part of the launch.  K. Jairaj will release the book.  I am to speak on Food as part of culture.  Priya Bala will converse with the authors as they give a demonstration.

Incidentally, Geetha’s husband Surendra L. Rao is a renowned economist and a mentor for many.  Rama Bijapurkar has praised him in her first book.  Please buy Geetha’s book.

The UDUPI KITCHEN invite

Monsoon Diary

On a flight back from Bhopal, our friend, Manish said that I should put a Google alert on myself. A few weeks ago, I did, and have been getting a whole bunch of stuff about me that I wouldn’t have known or seen.

I am posting these two here because they have a nice blog design and great recipes.

The Hungry Ninja. Hmmm, I feel I should say something instead of baldly (mottayaa) posting the link. Maybe just do an excerpt? Here goes….

“HOW had I been cooking/eating/reading this long and not devoured Monsoon Diary, by Shoba Narayan? It seems unthinkable now that I have read it cover to cover in about a day (the 20 inches of snow outside helped me a little).

Her colorful, scrumptious prose prompted me to venture outside even in these Hoth-like conditions to go to the store and pick up a head of cabbage to make some tasty Bandh Gobhi Achar, or cabbage pickles. Even if the recipe itself isn’t one of the ones Narayan includes in her book, the flavors she mentions over and over: turmeric, coriander, mustard seed, fenugreek, and chiles were enough to make me salivate for some Indian cuisine. Plus, I needed something spicy to kick me out of these winter doldrums.” And then the recipe is posted.

And to the equally imaginative Thirsty Pig. Also an excerpt.
monsoon diary
By Shoba Narayan
A really personal look at growing up in India and what it means to be an outsider living and studying in the United Sates, this book gives its readers a comic but movingly accurate version of things we can all relate to and choices we all have to make. Narayan gives us mouth-watering glimpses of Indian food (and how to make it) as she tells her tale, imprinted so deeply with the spices, smells, textures, and tastes of Indian cooking. With each recipe, Narayan provides a myth that relates to and/or explains the dishes. She also explains how each spice, each topping, each method of cooking has a special use- some of them are to be used when pregnant, some are good for colds, each have their own occasion, and some are even used not only in cooking, but as face cream (and a cure for all ills)- all according to her very ambitious and often overpowering mother. In her memoir, Shoba wishes to study abroad, to the objection of her large family. They make a deal with her that, if she is able to prepare a complete satisfactory Indian meal for the entire family, her wish will be granted. She cooks the meal and off she goes. Within the story she weaves about herself, Narayan contemplates the good and the bad of both the Indian society she has lived in and the American one she moves to. This is a truly entertaining and worthwhile book to read.

No recipe but lots of book suggestions.
Thank you for the plug.

Storytelling

Was in Masinagudi to run a module on “Storytelling in the corporate context: how to use narrative to enhance your pitch.”

It was for SAP Labs.  Thanks to Sunder Madakshira, Head of Marketing at SAP for the connect.

And thanks to Heemanshu Ashar for connecting me with Sunder.

It is always interesting for me to see how corporate teams work– their highs and lows; their deadlines and stresses; delivery and accountability.

Before the session, I went on a safari ride.  Saw some amazing birds: shrikes, Asian Koel, lots of peacocks, Brahminy starlings; hoopoes….but the highlight was…..a sighting of two Greater Coucals.  It was thrilling!!!

Gifts 2014

This could have easily been a photo feature.

FIRST PUBLISHED: SAT, DEC 20 2014. 12 46 AM ISTHOME» LEISURE» THE GOOD LIFE
The best gifting ideas from 2014

A list of objects that you could consider buying for your near and dear for Christmas
Shoba Narayan

It is just before Christmas. You are probably in the throes of figuring out what to buy for family, friends and co-workers. Here is a list of objects that you could consider buying for your near and dear. The logic of choosing these objects was simply this: I saw them during the course of this past year and they stuck in my head—because they are unique, innovatively designed, and beautiful.

Perrin Paris: Glove Clutch Eiffel How many of us wrap our hands around a clutch? Now imagine if we could slip our hands into a glove-clutch. I saw this on Instagram and wanted it instantly. The Perrin Paris glove clutch has turned the hand into an ornament. Prices start at $1,850 (around Rs.1.17 lakh). http://www.perrinparis.com/en
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The Perrin Paris glove clutch;

Sophie Hulme box tote in raspberry Because it has cute animal eyes on it. At $700 a bag, it is reasonably priced compared to what you have to shell out for, say, Dior’s stunning Be Dior Flap bag, which costs about $4,400; or LVMH’s Capucines bag, without the littered logo thankfully, that costs $5,600. http://www.sophiehulme.com

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Dibbern China, Black Forest pattern, designed by Bodo Sperlein Dibbern China by Bodo Sperlein I saw this collection at the home of a woman who is part of my book club. It has haunted me since. Of course, at €28 (around Rs.2,200) a teacup, it is likely to remain in my dreams. But what a collection! German precision mixed with Japanese minimalism and a bit of Fornasetti’s whimsy. http://www.bodosperlein.com

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Lee Broom’s light bulbs Cut lead crystal bulbs by Lee Broom I saw these light bulbs in a magazine and loved them. They are made of cut lead crystal and the beauty is that you can do away with those ugly lamp shades that we use to hide incandescent bulbs at homes. These are perfect for India because all you need to clean is just the bulb itself. I thought they were made by designer Tom Dixon, but they are not. I discovered the name of the designer by typing in “crystal light bulbs” on the Internet. Lee Broom, take a bow. They are priced at £109 (around Rs.10,900) each. http://www.leebroom.com

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Akris I don’t own anything by Akris. I don’t know anyone who wears Akris. Actually, not true. I know of a Baltimore, US, based CEO of an Indian pharma company who wears Akris. But I wish I lived in colder climes so I could wear their winter coats. Their summer line doesn’t bust my cockles, but fittingly for a Swiss company, they know their wool. Just buy one of their wool coats and you can very well wear rags inside. You won’t take off the coat and nobody will have eyes for anything else. http://www.akris.ch/en

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Fountain pens I love fountain pens. I own a Ratnam pen, a Lamy and a Parker Sonnet, all gifts. Were I to buy one, I would buy the Monteverde, because it is black, sleek and costs Rs.5,600 at William Penn—a far cry from the Rs.100 Camlin pen I used to write with but cheaper than the cult retractable Pilot fountain pen which retails at around Rs.12,000 on eBay.in. http://www.williampenn.net

Champ de Rêves pinot noir 2011 A bottle of Champ de Reves pinot noir 2011 I bought this at a wine store in Washington, DC because the winemaker had signed it. At $45 for a bottle, it is a luscious aromatic wine, particularly if you are one of those who was charmed by that famous monologue in the film, Sideways, about the “haunting” primitive beauty of a good pinot. This winery makes only one type of wine—pinot noir—and they make it well. Eric Johannsen, I have a bottle signed by you and it’s a keeper. http://www.champderevesvineyards.com

F Pettinaroli, Milano If I lived in Europe I would be writing these words on Pettinaroli’s papers. I tried ordering their Mignon organizers online and had a devil of a time. I satisfied myself with a Moleskine and our own Rubberband Paint Box series notebooks instead. http://www.fpettinaroli.it/ and http://www.rubberbandproducts.com

Javadhu-scented powder I bought this powder at the Khadi Gramodyog Bhavan in Kumbakonam. It is made in a small town called Mukkudal in Tamil Nadu. It retails in colourfully packaged 5g bottles for the magnificent sum of Rs.55 each. If you are done with khus, vetiver and rose, try javadhu. http://www.theammashop.org

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Coloured gems and jewellery The Bulgari Sapphire Flower ring Bulgari, Graff, Van Cleef & Arpels, you name it. They are selling jewellery that would match the jewel tones of our Kanjeevarams and Banarasi weaves nicely. Maybe start with a Bulgari Sapphire Flower ring. http://en.bulgari.com

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Happy shopping!

Shoba Narayan plans to buy a lovely teapot this Christmas season. Suggestions are welcome. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Bangalore Club

A simple email I got some time ago.

On Oct 13, 2014, at 10:22 PM, Vikram Rajaram wrote:
Dear Shobha,
We have, in the past, been in touch re the possibility of getting you to speak at the Bangalore Club. Your father-in-law was unwell then and I did not feel it was opportune to push it.
Can we pick up the threads again?
Would a slot in the third week of November work for you?
Please let me know.
With kind regards,
Vikram Rajaram

So Vikram and I went back and forth. It ended in a talk
If you are in town and a member of the Bangalore Club, please come.
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Train Diary 3

Man, I love trains!!

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Making memories

Why do so few people talk to their fellow travellers on planes and why do some many talk to their neighbours on trains? I think it is because we view planes as mobile offices while train travel is time away from work; more like a vacation; a time to exhale and take stock; a time for diffused thought rather than focus; a time to relax.  Planes produce the opposite effect.  With no interruptions from colleagues or relatives, we pull out our computers and phones and get work done.  Why is this? What is it about trains that promote community and conversation and what is it about planes that doesn’t?

I think it is the physical space and its design.  Seats face each other on trains, engendering conversation.  In planes, we are crammed like in a school bus, all facing the stewardesses in front, who point their hands left and right to demonstrate what could well be theorems or equations. Train compartments are ecosystems that force you to engage with your neighbours.  Babies—and bananas– get passed around.  Health tips are freely dispensed along with roti-sabzi or idli-chutney.  Information and opinions are shared.  People get drawn into conversation.  Here’s how it happens.

I am returning from Kumbakonam to Bangalore– tapping away at my computer and listening desultorily to the conversation around me.  The elderly gent sitting beside me is chatting with the elderly couple across us.  The lady has a round face and a pleasant smile.  Her husband is aquiline and thoughtful. They carry a blue Estee Lauder canvas bag that their niece has brought “from foreign.”  The man beside me is travelling alone to visit grandchildren in Bangalore. They have been talking for an hour.  I hear random phrases as I type.

“I had an angiogram last year.  Lost 10 kgs.”  Trains are like group therapy.  You offer details of your life to perfect strangers with impunity.  You take comfort from the knowledge that you’ll never see them again.  Until you do and become friends.

Some time later: “What is the point of building canals if there is no water? No wonder farmers are committing suicide.”

Mostly, the two men talk.  The woman smiles and nods.  She looks maternal and comforting.  The toddler with jingling anklets gravitates towards her.  She is wearing a pink sari and has flowers in her hair but no bindi.  She reminds me of my childhood doctor, Almas Rasheed, who had “white skin and black, black hair,” as my grandmother said.  Indian women of the previous generation exude a certain contentment; a lack of bitterness certainly; an acceptance of life.  They have their priorities right.  They may not comment on world affairs but they know how to make a toddler smile.

The irony, I think.  Here I am writing about community and conversation, and behaving exactly as I would in a plane.  I am retreating behind a computer screen.

Suddenly the gent beside me asks, “What is the purpose of cursive, Madam?”  He looks to be about sixty.  “My grandson is in first standard and they are torturing him with cursive.”

“Heh?” I blink.  The elderly couple sitting opposite us smile gently.  They have been exchanging notes about grandchildren and await my answer.  “Cursive?” I repeat stupidly.

“In my day, there was capital letters and small letters,” continues the man who asked the question.  “Nowadays, the school says to write in cursive.  What is cursive?” He knows what cursive writing is, of course.  His fingers draw cursive letters in the air.  His question is rhetorical so I don’t answer it.

“I know,” I agree.  “Too much homework for little kids these days.  Too much competition.”

“Tooooo much competition,” he agrees, drawing out the “ooo” for emphasis.

We complain congenially about how difficult schools are these days; and how many books children have to carry; and how their grandchildren have to go from tuition to tuition; and how there is no time for play.  We close the topic with no resolution because more immediate concerns take over: specifically, our stomachs.  It is 7:30 and dinner is discussed.  They have both brought their dinner.

“I bought it from Ganesh Bhavan in Thanjavur station,” says the man beside me.

“That has become very expensive.  You should stick to Krishna Bhavan,” says the man opposite us.  “Our son is bringing us dinner at Trichy station.  Call Rukhsana and tell her the train is running late,” he instructs his wife.

She calls her daughter-in-law.  They advise me to buy biriyani packets in Trichy.  The train stops.  We all get out.  Rukhsana is wearing a red salwar kameez. There is hugging and smiles. This time, it is the mother-in-law who talks, leaning forward animatedly.  Devoid of discussions about world affairs, her husband stands there smiling and nodding—just as she had done in the train.

The family spots me staring at them from the door of the compartment.  They wave.  I wave back and return to my seat.  Soon, the grandfather comes in with his grandsons.  One is called Aatish and is at “Alpha School in Class 2 Section B.”  His elder brother is Ahmed.  They stare with frank curiosity at my vegetable biriyani.  I offer some.  They shake their head.  They offer me idlis and garlic chutney, neatly packed by the daughter-in-law in a stainless steel tiffin box.  I accept the chutney, which smells of mint and garlic.  The horn sounds.  They all rush out of the train.  The grandparents peer out of the window, smiling and waving.  The train gains speed.  Half an hour passes.

Memories of train journeys are made through granular interactions such as this.  Spend 36 hours on a train with someone as you travel from Kanyakumari to Kathgodam and you might as well marry into their family.  After all, you have broken bread together; met their relatives at various stations; and have displayed the products and goods that make up your home—that have now been transformed into water bottles, food containers, and paan-daanis or paan holders.  What else do good relationships need?

Shoba Narayan carries saunf (fennel) in sample-sized containers of Crème de la Mer.