College Bound

Thanks to all the advice-givers of this piece.

University is a time for discovery, exploration … and even purple hair
Shoba Narayan

August 4, 2014 Updated: August 4, 2014 04:20 PM
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‘Parting is such sweet sorrow,” said Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. In the next few weeks, hundreds of thousands of 18-year-olds from all over the world will make the long trek to join universities in America. They will be basketball players and artists; maths wizards and chess geeks; athletes and musicians. They will be both excited and terrified, for this is the beginning of a new phase of their lives; and one that, arguably, will effect them more than anything they have done before.
A group of us have been in the privileged position of giving advice to a bunch of 18-year-olds who are going off to college. Some of the advice has been interesting and funny: “Colour your hair purple – every-one should do that once in their lives.” Much of it is thoughtful and has to do with regrets: “I wish I had known when I was 18 how much time management and structuring my day would matter.”
Here, then, are a few themes for every college-going student to consider as they embark on their adventure.
Figure out if you want to sample or dig deep. This depends on if you have a passion already. Perhaps you are bent on being an engineer. It is something that you have always wanted to do. The question then is: do you just take courses that further your engineering goals (digging deep) or do you take courses in art history, music and other liberal arts?
We live in a world that rewards specialisation but college seems too early to specialise, particularly at the undergraduate stage.
This is the time of life when you can view the academic offerings as a buffet and sample everything. There is the famous story about Steve Jobs taking calligraphy courses, which seemed to have no earthly use, at least at that time in his life. He sampled.
Try to take courses or activities that make you uncomfortable. If you ask adults what they regret, many of them will say that they regret not taking enough risks when they were young.
In many ways, growth happens when you are uncomfortable. If you don’t think you’re artistically inclined, force yourself to take a course in drawing. Put yourself in the way of discomfort. If you don’t think you have a way with numbers, take a calculus course – the beginners’ one, of course. If you think you cannot dance, take a group dance course.
College is the time when you can make a fool of yourself without too much compunction; when the risk is low. Take advantage of these four years when you are allowed to – indeed, encouraged to – fail.
Prioritise what happens outside the class as much as you do the classroom. Of course you will be busy submitting tests, doing homework and poring over library books for a project. Realise, though, that some of the best friends you will make in your life are the people around you. Nurture these relationships, because they will be the friends you will fall back on in times of crisis.
Join every club that interests you. Increase the surface area of relationships that will enter your life. “Only after you kiss many frogs will you discover the prince,” as a friend said.
Team sports are an underappreciated way to grow. Research suggests that playing a team sport is a great way to cultivate confidence, competence and a number of physical skills. This is particularly true for girls.
Being part of a college team, regardless of whether it is rowing, basketball or lacrosse is a great way to learn those physical and social skills that will see you through for the rest of your life.
Finally, no matter what, have fun. And be safe.

U. Chicago Magazine

Message from my dear friend Tommy (Tomas Haendler) who has known my eldest since she was born.

Hi Guys. Just came back from a week at the beach and among the reading stuff I take I reviewed the University of Chicago magazine article on Wendy Doniger’s writings on Hinduism, and surprise, surprise…. there she was.
Shoba’s comments all over it.

Link here

Very polarizing issue. I still get reader letters saying that I am wrong to defend Ms. Doniger. Below is a recent one.

——— Forwarded message ———-
From: ‘Nathu Ram Verma’ via Ideas QZ
Date: Tue, Jul 15, 2014 at 1:08 AM
Subject: doniger’s book Hindus: An Alternative history
To: “ideas@qz.com”

I read your column, Shoba, on the above. I could not digest it. I am also reading this book, now at page 252. I am not tired. I will finish the book. My objection is not about freedom of expression or thought, but the larger question of sensitivity of billions of people. Depiction of Rama and Sita in this book, to say the least, was obnoxious. From which version of Ramayan Wendy has taken details, I do not know. From her references, I gathered they were mostly Westerners. People have sensitivity, right or wrong. To violate it in such utter abundance is morally wrong. Do not tell me about scholarly/ academic / witty/ and what else approach. The story of Rama is venerated in many southeast Asian countries. In Thailand near the Buddha shrine, there is a Rama temple.
You call Wendy brilliant. Yes, but brilliance is to be tempered with wisdom.
I may be wrong. But I do not think Indians mock Christianity in the name of scholarship or otherwise, although there is a lot of bull… in it. To put it simply Jesus was a bastard. How Wendy will like it ?
Since you do not know me. I should tell I am not exactly illiterate and I dislike all organized religions. But Wendy is beyond me.
I do not know whether you reply to your readers’ comments. If you do, pl enlighten me with your wisdom at (REMOVED)

Choose Pleasure

Something that I’ve been debating about with very productive friends

Choose pleasure over productivity

There is a virtual explosion of “productivity” lists on the Internet. You know the kind: 10 ways to make your life more productive; nine habits to ditch if you want to squeeze the most from the first hour of the day; 12 mistakes that losers who don’t get things done are making; how to be the top performer at work in 10 days or less; and the final straw, 36 things to do if you want to get away from making to-do lists. I mean, is the irony not lost on these people?
Such lists are proliferating like turtle eggs. Some headlines are straightforward, and follow the military dictum of saying it quickly and concisely: “End email addiction now” or “Throw away that time-wasting device”. Others do it more artfully by suggesting the opposite, as if they know the thoughts in your head: “When your mind says, ‘I can’t’, know that you can” is a typical headline that is best faced after a double shot of caffeine which, as it happens, is good for you according to the latest research.
The problem with such lists and apps is that they treat life as if it were work. The workplace is about productivity. Life is about messiness and being in the moment. Work is about efficiency; life is about experiences and emotions. Work is about incentivizing and motivating yourself to Get Things Done, as author David Allen says. Life is about improvising and coping. Work is about action. Life is about people. Work is about planning. Life is about spontaneity. Work is about compartmentalizing time into conference calls and meetings. Life is about flexible time.
How then to achieve work-life balance? The current approach is through lists, apps and reminders: using the tools of work to tackle the vagaries and pleasures of life. That is wrong, in my view. Sure, you need boundaries to differentiate between work and life. In the past, it used to be through time, 9-5, and place, office and home. Now that everything has merged and we are available and “on” all the time, the trick is not how to be more productive. It is how to live better. As a species, we are working more than ever. We are producing; we are effective; we are ticking things off our to-do lists. What we have become “inefficient” at is life; those moments and hours in between work.
How then do all of us who value productivity integrate it into our lives? One way is to prioritize life the same way that you prioritize work, but using a different methodology. Unlike work, which involves chalking out chunks of time for tasks—brainstorming, memo writing or business plan discussions—prioritizing life requires a different skill set: waiting, alertness, openness, saying Yes, saying No, improvising, being spontaneous.
To capture and savour life, you have to be alert and in the right frame of mind. Do you hear the songbird call for rain? Do you walk out into your balcony and try to spot this bird that seems to be going hoarse? Can you feel the wind on your nape? Is it moist or dry? Can you hear the squirrel scurry up the trees? Where is it? Are you able to see what’s ahead of you or are you preoccupied with your thoughts? That is life.
Life is about waiting. It is about being open and receptive to a child’s question when it happens instead of when you carve out time for it. It is the ability to pause in the middle of a task to see the hurt in a loved one’s eyes. It is about listening to sighs and silences; about inferring their meaning and responding to it. It is about alertness and waiting.
Life is about putting yourself in the way of joy and pleasure. It is about saying Yes when a neighbour calls you for water polo or a hike; saying No when a colleague asks for a conference call (again) at night simply because that is the most convenient time in the UK, US or Germany. It is about rescheduling overflow meetings for a later date and leaving your desk with the same discipline that you use while coming to your desk. It is about unplugging your phone or mobile device for an hour a day, if possible.
Life is about choosing pleasure when possible. About massaging yourself with essential oils or expensive lotion; about refusing to answer your work-mobile phone while you are indulging in quiet time; about figuring out what you love to do and making sure that you do it; about sipping a single malt and reading a book. Or playing golf. Life is about cultivating hobbies that can see you through retirement. About imitating children; about frittering away time in meaningless but absorbing activities.
I have tried productivity. I have read essays and lists with gusto. They gave me a halo effect for some time and made me feel that I could actually implement the suggestions. It took several months and nearly 20,000 such forwards before I realized that I was diligently reading and deleting everything without doing a darn thing. I wasn’t changing a single behaviour or even a thought process. I was merely feeling that I was in the throes of change, thanks to all those lists. It was like continuing to eat ice cream while watching aerobic exercises on TV. You felt fit without doing the work.
Life is more than productivity. I will go further. Productivity is overrated. Choose pleasure. Stop and smell the jasmine, tuberose and Oriental lilies wherever and whenever you feel like it. Stop scheduling everything. Remember, the Lord gave us Sunday for leisure and contemplation, not scheduling. Sometimes, life is not about analysing or achieving. It is about going off the script and off the schedule.

Shoba Narayan is choosing pleasure by slurping on rasmalai as she writes this. Her life-script does not include the weighing scale tomorrow. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Nagging

The best way to make advice stick? Nag incessantly
Shoba Narayan

April 22, 2014 Updated: April 22, 2014 18:18:00

One of the perks of being a parent is that you get to offer advice to your children. One of the problems of being a parent is that you forget how little advice you took from your own parents. This inherent paradox is being played out in countless living rooms and dens in this, one of the peak seasons for parenting advice.

In many parts of the world, students are applying to go to colleges abroad. The prospect of losing their children to the world produces a great deal of anxiety amongst parents. This is certainly true of me. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson, my children make me want to be a better human being. Even better, they lull me into thinking that I am one.

When I nag my children to study hard, stay focused and stop fooling around with the iPad, I can almost believe that I did not indulge in any distractions at their age. Children are great that way. Give them an old-fashioned scolding and you are guaranteed to feel good.

My time is running out though. In a few weeks, my kids will be in the full throes of summer holidays. They will be swimming, cycling and practically teleporting themselves to friends’ homes. I, meanwhile, will chase after them with important life lessons running on auto-loop. Seize the day, I scream. Opportunities are abundant, I extort. Don’t miss the wood for the trees. None of these pithy dictums are particularly relevant, but they make me feel useful.

The self-help section of any library is full of books by people who have figured things out. Why they call it self-help when it is usually other people trying to help you is beyond me. Shouldn’t self-help books be written by the self? A diary or a journal in other words? Instead, we have websites like Lifehacker and 99U devoted entirely to self-improvement. Recently, I read a book called, What I wish I knew when I was 20, written by Tina Seelig, a Stanford University professor. In it, the author lists out insights that would benefit any 20-year-old. Things like “don’t burn your bridges,” and “ask the right questions.” The only problem is that such insights have to be realised after painful failure in order for them to stick.

How do you give advice to your children, and how do you make it stick? It is a dilemma that has been faced by generations of parents, made somehow more poignant by memories of childhoods past; or rather the realisation that you don’t have memories of parental advice given in childhoods past. Except those all-inclusive ones like “Eat your vegetables,” and “Dot your i’s and cross your t’s.” Beyond that, it is probably one happy blur, both for you and for me.

My method of making advice stick is to nag – to keep repeating the same phrase over and over again. This has a rather unfortunate side effect. They stop hearing me after a while. However there is one method that works: self-flagellation. When they see me fail and fall down, my children learn the lessons inherent in that failure. It is like me getting the halo effect when I chastise them.

Last week, I discovered a tear in my coat just as I was rushing out to an important meeting. As I ran around the house, muttering and stitching the tear with a needle and thread, as best as I could, my two daughters who were silently witnessing the scene chorused the girl scout motto that I had been trying to drill into them all summer: “Ma, don’t you know: be prepared.”

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

Planet Earth: vast and humbling

My rant about how large Planet Earth is; and about the hubris of our species. Sometimes, humans have no clue.
Wrote it last night. Out today. The pleasure of web-zines is their immediacy.

Reads better in QZ.com here

LESSON FROM MALAYSIAN AIRLINES
Superstition about travel may be gone—but our respect of it shouldn’t

By Shoba Narayan 11 hours ago
Shoba Narayan is a writer in Bangalore. She is the author of “Return to India” and “Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes.”
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We truly only know a small portion of our planet. AP Photo/Andy Wong

Mortality is not something we associate with air travel these days. Unlike our ancestors, we aren’t superstitious about planes falling from the sky—until they do. We buy and cancel tickets—even international ones—with a few clicks. We call them trips, not voyages or even journeys. Travel has become a job; a chore; a ‘red-eye’ that you catch; miles that you rack up; frequent flyer numbers that you proffer, punch or swipe; abbreviations that you remember—LAX, JFK, MUM—as a badge of honor. For most of us, air travel is an activity as mundane as our kids catching a schoolbus. You wake up at dawn, send them off and catch a taxi to the airport.
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Every once in a while, a horrific incident happens that jolts our insouciance and takes us back to the time when travel was viewed with trepidation and respect, not merely a matter of routine. And then we must decide what to make of it.
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For the relatives of the 370 passengers who are presumed dead, it is a time of gnawing anguish coupled with a yearning for answers about what happened to the Malaysian Airlines flight. What caused this massive Boeing 777 to veer so far off-course and then plunge into the cold depths of the Indian Ocean?
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For the rest of us who have watched this unfolding tragedy from afar, it is a time of empathy and compassion for those who have lost loved ones. It is also a time to take stock and pay heed to the vastness of this planet that we inhabit. It is humbling to realize that in this age when humans have travelled to distant galaxies and seem to have mapped every location on earth, there are still spots where a jet plane can get lost; and cannot be found—not for 17 long days.
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Scale is hard to comprehend. The jet is supposed to be 3600 m below the ocean—a number that means little to us. As is beautifully illustrated in this article in Australia’s news.com, that is about the depth of 10 Empire State buildings. To say that the oceans are vast is to state the obvious. It is something that we find hard to understand. It is only when a large jetliner disappears for 17 days in spite of best efforts by multiple governments that we can intuit the standing of our species in this bafflingly big planet that we are privileged to inhabit. It is only when we realize that a special submarine may be called to action, simply to spot the thing that we realize how deep our oceans are. Our hubristic parochial approach towards Planet Earth prevents us from fathoming that a jetliner can be swallowed by the ocean; that the human footprint doesn’t reach everywhere; that there are still secrets that nature can hold, even when the whole world is searching. Our natural world is massive; we inhabit a small portion of it.
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Disasters, whether they are natural or man-made, bring with them a new set of learnings. This one has brought forth a fresh set of theories from experts on everything from how to make airline transponders automatic to recalibrating methods of searching for a missing plane. For those of us who are mere travelers, this baffling tragedy has brought forth questions about destiny, fate, and renewed questions about the safety of air travel.
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Travellers of yore were superstitious. They knocked on wood; returned home when a black cat crossed the street; and stayed away from the number 13. It was an acknowledgement of the unknown dangers that travel presented. Russians sat on their luggage before leaving home. The Chinese didn’t inhabit seats or rooms with the number 4, considered unlucky. Indians didn’t travel south on certain days. The Senegalese would not inform friends before they travelled anywhere because they worried about the evil eye. Our grandparents had a healthy respect for the unknown dangers of travel. Superstitions were a way to keep fear at bay; to exert a measure of control over what was then a journey in the truest sense of the term: to traverse the unknown.
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We may not be superstitious about travel any more; we may seek to control errors, both mechanical and human; but every now and then, an incident occurs that is beyond human reckoning. It lends perspective. It demands respect. It requires that we pay heed and recalibrate how we function.
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Follow Shoba on Twitter @ShobaNarayan. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.
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Satya Nadella

Wrote this right after Nadella became CEO. It was published yesterday

Suddenly, all Indians seem to know Microsoft’s new CEO
Shoba Narayan

March 11, 2014 Updated: March 11, 2014 19:33:00

Now that India-born Satya Nadella is the new CEO of Microsoft, the number of Indians who know him, are related to him, have studied with him in school, college or kindergarten or claim kinship in some loose form has skyrocketed.

“He must belong to the Nathella Sampath Chetty jeweller group in Chennai,” said my father, who began his teaching career in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, the state where Nadella is from. “Nadella must be the Anglicised version of Nathella.”

“No jeweller connection, Dad,” I replied. “His father was an IAS officer.”

Reports are rampant on Facebook, Twitter and other social media about Mr Nadella’s character and humility. A former colleague has stated that although Mr Nadella didn’t attend his book launch, he went to great pains and emailed his regrets. Other versions include the family wedding, baby shower and sweet 16 parties. The Indian diaspora is giddy with memories of encounters with this man, who until last year was a virtual unknown. How a CEO post can change a life!

If all else fails, Indians resort to the old faithful: they claim kinship with his family. My parents knew his parents because they were in the Indian Administrative Service together, said someone I know. I studied in the same school where Mr Nadella did, chimed in another. I speak Telugu, his mother tongue, said a third. Well, I am losing hair, just like Mr Nadella, said I. Does that count?

I am not surprised by this need to connect to the man who has risen to the top of one of the world’s iconic companies. Claiming kinship with “one of our own” is a natural human trait, and India, perhaps more than any other country, operates this way. The first thing that my father does when he is introduced to a stranger is figure out a way – either through language, location, family name, career or at the very least gesture and mannerisms – to connect with the other person. This is not in the simple and straightforward “nice to meet you” way that typifies my western-educated friends and generation. Indians of my father’s generation are much more specific yet circuitous, oxymoronic as that sounds.

Take a typical introduction to a perfect stranger. “Oh, you are from Lucknow,” my Dad will say. Mulling thoughtfully, you can hear the wheels turning in his head. “My father’s first cousin’s brother-in-law used to teach at the university there between 1967-70. Perhaps you know him? His name is Venkat Ramalingam.”

This is a connection forged through a link to the past, something that is very real to the people of a nation that is hurtling towards the future. The word that is often used in this context is “antecedents”. When relatives are asked to check up on whether a boy is suitable to be married to a daughter or niece, they are asked to check on his antecedents: where he lived, who he was, with whom he had a relationship and how he lived his life. Ditto for his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, going back seven generations if possible.

Indians approach relationships in this same circular way too. Before we do business; before we break bread or exchange marriage garlands, we establish kinship. If Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer had used the Indian approach to their search, they would have visited Bukkapuram village in Anantpur District, Andhra Pradesh, where Nadella’s family “hails” from, and talked to the relatives and neighbours. I tease of course. Indian companies are built on meritocracy and resumes, just like everywhere in the world. Our search firms find and place the best in the world.

Scratch the surface, however, and you will find that deep longing for a shared past that can somehow be translated into a connected future. This is why we are thrilled about Microsoft’s new CEO – not because of his new title but because of his old country, because he is somehow related to us.

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

In support of arguing

My friend said something about fighting couples ages ago that served as the seed for this article. We were talking about elderly couples who balk at doing stuff for each other– particularly women. Caring for husbands during illness, that sort of thing. He said that a couple should fight all the way and iron out differences so that by the time you reach seventy or whatever, your angst about each others’ flaws is ironed out. Been thinking about this and this is a tangential take.

He who shouts loudest is just a teen trying to make his point
Shoba Narayan

Sep 24, 2013 Updated: Sep 24, 2013 09:24:00
Save this article

There are 15 teenagers in the building community that I live in. Every now and then, us parents of these teenagers will get together for what we euphemistically term “tea” but what is really therapy.

We talk about exams, SAT scores and the race to get into the right colleges. And then we talk about arguments and how our households seem rife with them.

“I didn’t grow up like this,” a mother will say. “I listened to my parents; didn’t argue so much about everything.”

“Times have changed,” we will admit ruefully. “The world has changed.”

“Sometimes it seems like my son argues just for the sake of it,” a parent will confess.

“No matter what I say, he takes the opposite view to the point where I have now started to instruct him on the opposite of what I want. But he is smart. He has guessed my game and is beating me at it.”

“It gets my blood pressure up,” a father will mutter. “When will it end?”

At our last meetings, someone shared two heartening studies. One was conducted by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.

In it, researchers used a sample of 1,842 adults between the ages of 33 to 84. Over the course of eight days, these researchers asked the subjects whether they encountered situations where they might have argued and what was their reaction to such situations. The subjects also had to give saliva samples.

Sixty two per cent of the subjects reported that when they encountered a tense situation, they did not argue; instead they walked away or kept their thoughts to themselves. The remaining subjects argued. They had it out with their opponent as it were.

Researchers discovered that while all their subjects had feelings of disquiet about the tense environment, only those that did not argue experienced elevated levels of cortisol – the stress hormone – for one extra day. Those that argued felt unpleasant and uneasy, but these symptoms were erased from their bodies through the argument as it were. Those that stewed in their thoughts and kept quiet had cortisol coursing through their blood the following day.

Household arguments are unnerving and enervating. But they do serve a biological purpose, it seems. They get rid of the accumulated stress that caused the argument in the first place.

The second study was recently conducted by the University of Virginia and it supports what numerous other studies have said.

Teenagers argue not merely to rebel or to prove a point. They argue for a deeper developmental reason. Arguing is a way for them to “separate” from their nest; from their parents.

It is his way of cutting off the umbilical cord and venturing forth into a brave, new and often terrifying world.

The good news is this: teenagers who argue at home often turn out to be well-adjusted adults in college. They eschew risky behaviours and turn down objectionable substances.

Arguing at home helps them formulate their own point of view about the values that they will take with them. It builds up their brain muscles and allows them to put choices in perspective.

While they may mock a parent for refusing to allow them to attend parties, such arguments also help crystallise the parental point of view to them.

My grandmother used to say that those kids who are rash while young will turn out to be model citizens in adulthood. She said that to comfort my mother while I was growing up. She insisted that the continual arguments that I had with my parents was a sign of respect.

At least your daughter is “engaging” with you, she would say. At least she is not deceitful and closed. The same could be said of today’s teenagers who have verbal battles with their parents, but will hopefully become model citizens of the future.

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

Museums

I’ve been visiting a lot of museums lately. And getting irritated by them. We charge so little as entrance fee. I would happily pay 300 Rupees for the Raja Ravi Varma museum in Trivandrum housed in an old mansion; or for the NGMA in Bangalore. But I don’t need to. When I go in, there is so few people. This column is a rant really.

Want the arts to flourish? Get educated
Along with constructing foundations and museums, consider audience participation
Shoba Narayan
First Published: Sat, Aug 24 2013. 12 05 AM IST

When was the last time you visited a museum or gallery? And what did you do there? Art exhibition openings don’t qualify: they are social, not artistic events. I visited a museum last to see the interesting Homelands exhibit organized by the British Council; and the exhibit of Tagore’s paintings and drawings at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bangalore, which begged the question: Would the art have interested viewers if the artist had not been Rabindranath Tagore?

I’ve been thinking about funding for the arts and have come to a rather sobering conclusion. We are doing it all wrong. The good news? It is fixable.

The arts are at a crossroads in India. The big name artists have checked out. They create for a global, mostly Western audience. The upcoming artists pander to international tastes as well; walking the tightrope between making their work accessible while remaining “authentically” Indian. Indian collectors such as the Poddars, Nadars, Goenkas, are figuring out what to do with their collections. I have a suggestion for them: along with constructing foundations and museums, consider audience participation.
Starting in early 2001, the non-profit global policy think tank Rand Corporation released a series of fascinating reports on the arts in the US, which should be required reading for anyone operating in the visual and performing arts space. One of these reports, A New Framework for Building Participation in the Arts, begins with the following sentences. “Many arts institutions are re-examining their missions and their roles in what has become an increasingly complex arts environment. Concurrently, arts policy appears to be shifting its focus from influencing the supply and quality of the arts to increasing the public access to and experience with the arts.”

What was true in 2001 in the US is true in the India of today. The visual arts are fuelled by a stunningly small ecosystem of artists, collectors, gallerists, writers and historians, many of who treat art as a function of the economy rather than an endeavour that is embedded in a society. Because contemporary visual art is so specialized, it is in danger of being irrelevant to Indian lives. Rather than being stakeholders, the general public is disengaged with the arts. They couldn’t care less what happens to the painters and sculptors who are supposed to be visual representatives of our times.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Let us begin with museums. They are in danger of becoming redundant. A terribly small percentage of the Indian population enters its portals and those that do, don’t understand what’s inside. This is because museums function like zoos. They contain art in a closed space and expect that the abundance of art will give people a chance to appreciate them. This may work in modern Western societies, which are prone to compartmentalization and specialization, but it doesn’t for us. The Indian aesthetic—like that of Bali, Vietnam and the East—is intertwined with life and rooted in serendipity. You go about your business at a temple and suddenly come upon a sculpture that speaks to you. My bicycle repair man has an altar decorated with tiny photos of Christ, compiled into a collage and decorated with yellow paper flowers. Amid the punctured bicycle tyres and metal elements, it provides as much solace as good art.

We mix work and play; families and friends. We eschew boundaries. Yet, our museums and galleries have steadfastly followed the Western model of cordoning artwork instead of coming up with a new model; a new paradigm of displaying art: one that is both appropriate for our culture and does justice to the work.

India doesn’t need more art spaces. It needs arts education. It needs to bring the general public up to speed with what’s going on in the contemporary art world. As the Rand Corporation reports say, three things are needed for an aesthetic experience: supply (which we have in abundance); access; and the capacity for individual viewers to engage in and enjoy the work (demand). Indian art institutions have failed abysmally to cultivate demand. Cultivating demand isn’t about marketing campaigns and public outreach. It is much more systemic and embedded in society. Corporate houses can sponsor art appreciation workshops that will help put art in context. Knowing the jargon of art will help viewers discuss it with each other. Art will never become cricket; but the way that the game has changed to suit audience needs is a good model about adapting to demand.

Assume that the planet Mars is colonized; that humans have found a way to sustain life there. Who would we need to get society going? First on the list of people that we would put on the spaceship out to Mars would be the builders and architects of our spaces: city planners, sanitation engineers and urban developers. Next would be the professionals who provide important services: doctors, nurses, fire fighters, school and college teachers, bus and taxi drivers, and retail workers. With each successive spaceship, a new set of professionals would make their way to Mars, imbuing that society with efficiency, order and communication. The final spaceship would carry those people who would give this brave new world on Mars its soul: dancers, musicians, artists, poets, philosophers, thinkers and writers—people who have no obvious “use” in a society but are the bedrock of a civilized world. For many of us, living in a world without the arts is unthinkable. Listening to music helps us connect with our souls; watching and participating in dance gives joy to our spirit; good theatre holds up a mirror to our lives and thoughts; and the visual arts provoke our psyche while quieting it at the same time. Yet, how many Indians are engaged with the arts in a meaningful way? Very few. I reckon that if you ask the average Indian walking on the street whether Mars needs artists, he will scratch his head and say, “not really”. That is the fallacy that those passionate about the arts have to change.

Shoba Narayan believes that the arts should be brought amid the people since getting the people into arts spaces doesn’t seem to be working. Ergo, think like Carl Hagenbeck who changed the paradigm for zoos.

Tagore and Return to India

A Tagore quote prompted this piece. The quote is included in the piece published in The National here and pasted below.

The National Conversation
After a return to India, life has become more interrupted
Shoba Narayan
Aug 14, 2013

Ever since my family and I moved back to India after nearly 20 years in the US, people often ask me what it is like to be back in my native country. My answer is always the same. As the movie title says, “It’s Complicated.”
If I could describe the difference between my life in New York City and my life here in Bangalore using one phrase, it would be this: friends versus family.
When you are an immigrant in a faraway land, you set down roots and make friends.
You choose people you like and nurture these relationships. They broaden your horizons and teach you new things.
I was raised a Hindu. In New York, I made friends with Jews, Christians and Muslims. My lunch partner was an orthodox Jewish woman who catered kosher meals. My PTA partner was a Muslim woman named Ameena. She grew up in London, wore a hijab and made the best guacamole ever. Her daughter Ayesha and mine were friends. Ameena’s husband, Mohammed, was a banker like mine. Over time, the men grew friendly towards each other.
We belonged to minority cultures and faiths and this brought us closer, particularly after the September 11 attacks.
Most of our neighbours were Christian and we celebrated Christmas with them – organising parties for the building staff and going to midnight mass at a church on Park Avenue.
Here in India, a web of family surrounds, envelops, and occasionally suffocates me.
My parents, brother, cousins, and assorted uncles and aunts all live nearby. They will drop everything to come at my behest at a moment’s notice. The trouble is that they expect the same from me. There are weddings to plan, family functions to attend, gifts to buy, and relationships to keep track of.
My life in India is fraught with interruptions, both delightful and frustrating. Cousins often drop in to see me and give me things. These are objects of love: a samosa that they made, delivered piping hot from their kitchen to mine; or mere objects: vessels that are returned; borrowed saris that are given back.
My relatives know what is going on in my life on a daily basis and I know what is going on in theirs.
When my uncle complains of a chest ache, I worry about it. I call the doctor. We talk for hours. He tells me about astrology: a passion of his. This never happened when I lived in New York.
During weekly phone calls to my parents, I would get news of the extended family. But it rarely touched or bothered me.
Sometimes I wish for the anonymity that I had in spades when I was an immigrant in a foreign land.
I don’t want to account for my choices to all these relatives who care deeply about me and therefore have a view as to whether what I choose to do is right or wrong.
I wish for the friends who knew what to say and when to say it. Friends are a choice. Family isn’t. It comes bundled with birth.
These bonds of blood are tight and embracing, but intrusive as well. On the flip side, families have a history that is hard to replicate.
Your cousin can push your buttons like no friend can. He can irritate you into exhibiting emotions that you didn’t believe existed. My brother and I speak in a shorthand that only we know. A look between us can cause us to collapse into giggles in the midst of a family wedding.
Since I cannot escape my family, I have decided to come to terms with it.
I want to find joy with my new life here in India – not resent the intrusions and opinions.
A line I read recently will help me in this quest. It comes from Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel laureate poet of India.
He said, “Deliverance is not for me in renunciation. I feel the embrace of freedom in a thousand bonds of delight.”
That is exactly what I want to feel.

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

Memory Improvement

Memory improvement is an obsession of mine. Here is my latest exercise/attempt to improve it.

The National Conversation

When I turned to the internet to improve my poor memory
Shoba Narayan
Jul 26, 2013

“Thanks to your mother, I am drinking hot water these days,” I told the visiting boy. “Like her, I too believe that the hot water will melt the fat globules in my body and I will become slim, indeed svelte.”

I was chuffing with pride at adding one more trick to my arsenal of “how to lose weight without doing exercise”, when my daughter spoke up.
“Ma, you’ve said the same thing four times in the last 24 hours. Don’t you remember? I am getting worried about you.”
She didn’t exactly call me senile but the sympathetic looks in the faces of the five children sitting around the dining table implied it.
The kids were wrong, not about my memory, which is fallible, but about the reason for the repetition. I repeat myself endlessly, not because I am senile but because I haven’t been heard.
On an average day, I give about 100 instructions to my kids. Not a lot, I know, but I try to keep things simple in my household. I believe in giving my family freedom of choice so that they don’t become completely dependent on me for everything. That said, I remain mildly shocked when I return from a trip and find that the house hasn’t collapsed.
Every morning, I wake up and spell out instructions about bathing, dressing and homework. In response, I get a burp.
How do school teachers do it? How do they make sure that an entire class room of kids has heard what they said?
The last time I got a burp in response, I discovered that it wasn’t even a burp. It was a word masquerading as a burp. It turned out that the latest response to sweep the United States – somewhat like “duh” before it – is “word”. That’s right. When someone says something, you say “word” in response; if possible, in a low macho kind of voice.
“Make sure you are back home before dark.”
“Word.”
“Don’t run out on the road even if you hit the ball out of the building.”
“Word.”
No wonder I thought the kids were burping at me.
There was an essential – if disheartening – truth in what my daughter said. My memory is failing. I don’t think it is an age thing. My friend, Ayesha, is younger than me and she claims that she can’t remember anything. I think it has to do with neuroplasticity and no, I didn’t write this sentence just so I could use that word.
There are many ways to improve memory. The Mentalist, a television show I used to be addicted to, talked about cultivating a “memory palace”, something that the book Moonwalking with Einstein explains. Paying attention to your surroundings is important. The ancient yogic practice of tratak, or candle gazing, improves concentration.
Mindfulness practices and meditation centre the mind and improve memory. Being at a much more advanced stage of neurosis, I needed something more doable than “sit still and empty your mind of all thoughts.” An empty mind is a normal state of being for me. As for sitting still, if I could do that I would have – paradoxically – conquered the world. I needed to feel like I was “doing something” to improve my memory, not just sitting around doing nothing. So I looked for help in the internet.
There is one application that helps to improve working memory. It is called “n back 2″ and it is a game that you have to play 20 times a day. Studies show that it improves your working memory. There are many iPhone applications that cater to “n back 2″. The one I like is called “IQ boost”, and it is a game of squares that progressively become more difficult.
I have played this game for a week and can confidently say that it has improved my working memory. Now where did I leave my spectacles?

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