Male Perfume

I thought male perfume was a bit of musk, wood, leather, and all those usual suspect-ingredients. Who would have thought about oudh, orange blossom and the like? These new male perfumers are changing the paradigm. I pitched the story to my editor, Ted, based on Byredo. The perfumer is half-Indian which is how I heard about it. I also sniffed the perfume at a shop in Paris. Bloomberg Pursuits gave me the other names. My Parisienne friend, Elisabeth helped me a lot with this piece. Sourcing contacts and the like. Here it is finally.

14P1_Perfume_REVISE1_RFP 2

The magazine is here.
BloombergPursuits-Spring2014

Mahmoud Darwish

Whose writing I adore. A niche brand of perfume called Carlos Huber makes a scent based on a boutonniere

Delhi’s fetid desire, Mumbai’s petrol fumes
PEP_0040[1]--621x414
Can you smell the ‘garam masala’ and greed in Delhi? Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

The best writing on scent comes from the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who writes, not about the “scent of a woman” or a man, but about cities. It is so evocative that I am compelled to quote it: “Cities are smells: Acre is the smell of iodine and spices. Haifa is the smell of pine and wrinkled sheets. Moscow is the smell of vodka on ice. Cairo is the smell of mango and ginger. Beirut is the smell of the sun, sea, smoke, and lemons. Paris is the smell of fresh bread, cheese, and derivations of enchantment. Damascus is the smell of jasmine and dried fruit. Tunis is the smell of night musk and salt. Rabat is the smell of henna, incense, and honey. A city that cannot be known by its smell is unreliable.”
I disagree with Darwish even if I love his writing. Damascus is the scent of luscious roses, not jasmine. The best jasmine comes from Tamil Nadu in my view: there is Madurai jasmine, mogra, and Ambur mullai, each of which smell different and can be layered by stringing them together on wet hair. This is what Tamil women do on wedding days. But “cities are smells”, as Darwish says.
Delhi is the smell of garam masala, wealth and fetid desire. Bangalore is the smell of red earth and falling rain. Mumbai is the smell of speed (not the drug but the verb), sea, and petrol fumes. Pune is the smell of goda masala and tanpuras. Kolkata is the smell of fish, addas, and maverick sweat. Jaipur is the scent of wafting veils, pearls, chiffon, and kachori. Amritsar is the scent of langar, water, and service. Vadodara is the smell of banyan, baithaks, and artist’s oil paint. I will stop now. I cannot match Darwish. I don’t know Indian cities well enough. But I do know scents and given this party season, I have been thinking about them.
A man without a scent is not to be trusted. Not the scent that comes from a bottle but one that comes from the skin through pores and sweat; mingled with spices and cigar smoke; occasionally unpleasant but certainly unmistakable. A man’s scent is his signature; his calling card. Along with touch, the scent of a man is what stays with a woman: like a breeze long gone but not forgotten. Scents evoke a sigh, sometimes wistful. Sometimes, they evoke a quick inhalation of surprise and desire.
Not all men understand the potency of smell; not all men know how to play with it; make it their own. They don’t layer scents like the Arabs do; or make it sacred like the early Christians did by sprinkling blessed orange blossom water on virgin brides. Often, men reduce scent to spritzing cologne—what a waste.
Given that we are laden with tropical, fragrant flowers, Indian men don’t use the Boutonnière, or buttonhole flower, nearly enough. Imagine clasping a lilac, gardenia or a string of jasmine to your buttonhole. It will make your lady swoon. Selecting the flower is like selecting a tie: It depends on the mood or moment.
To a date, you would take a restrained orchid: beautiful to look at but without laying all its scented cards on the table. To an evening with a woman you hope to win over, you would go all out and wear a tuberose on your lapel, and hope that she will fall for its heavy, luscious charms. To an evening with your bride, you would wear a gardenia, often called “opera flower” because it goes so well with black-tie attire. Gardenias can make a bride bloom. When you go out with your wife, you wear a rose, with all its trite, romantic connotations that you—much like your wife—take for granted. To an evening with a forbidden lover, you would wear unscented lilies and hope that it will restrain your amour or desire.
The glory of a flower lies in its fragility, its ethereality; the fact that it is here today, gone tomorrow. Flowers on a buttonhole can add depth to the scent a man wears. Most male scents rely on bergamot, musk, oud or frankincense and citrus for their “notes” or layers. Adding a live flower to the mix will enhance and compound every layer.
A male friend told me about his (and perhaps others’) male fantasy. He wears a scent so potent that when he is walking on the street, a strange, but beautiful, woman comes and licks his neck. Iconic scents like Dior’s Fahrenheit, Jean Paul Gaultier’s Le Male, Obsession, Aramis, Escape, Fracas (recently recreated), and Chanel No.5 have the power to inspire such reactions.
The International Fragrance Association—an institution that maverick perfumers hate—tries to make fragrance, if not egalitarian, at least mass market, by forcing niche perfumers to test and change their scents based on allergic reactions. Like unpasteurized cheese, ultra-high heels and tight clothes, often the best scents don’t worry about the reactions on a person’s skin. They exist for themselves.
What is the scent of your woman? What is the scent of your man? Even if you cannot vocalize it, a funny thing will happen on the way to the boardroom. You will roll down your BMW car’s windows, smell something from far away and think of the woman that got away. A scent is a memory. Sometimes it reminds us of the people we love and sometimes, of the ones that got away.
Shoba Narayan wears a whole bouquet of scents: kewda, jasmine, rose, musk and citrus.
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

Coming of Age

My colleague, Shefalee Vasudev, who has a wonderful sense of Indian fashion, wrote this piece in which she included me. Shefalee knows Indian fashion well. Her aesthetic veers towards handmade, handwoven, quirky and local. I like the photos they have included with the piece as well.

I have another friend, Shruthi, who is a curator of content for an extended group of readers. But she mostly sends articles from US publications. Wonder why Indian publications have not hit her eagle eye and eclectic taste? Is it because they are not as good? Or because we are so bombarded with media and stimuli in India that we prefer to subscribe to our NYT online or The Atlantic online (both of which I do) and forget the India Today, Open, Caravan, Outlook, etc. etc. magazines?

Vintage cars

Have to write another article on inheriting collections. Don’t think I gave a satisfactory answer to this very interesting question: are you doing your kids a favor by passing on your collection to them?

Driven by a passion for possession
Can you love a collection that you inherit, particularly one that is not easy to maintain?
Shoba Narayan
First Published: Sat, Sep 14 2013. 12 03 AM IST
_HMB5293[1]--621x414
The vintage rally in Bangalore was part of a campaign for a cleaner city. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
A few weeks ago, on a beautiful Sunday morning, a few hundred enthusiasts gathered at the ITC Windsor, Bangalore, for a vintage car rally that lasted all morning. I went to answer a question that had been puzzling me for years: Can you love a collection that you inherit, particularly one that is not easy to maintain?
Collecting, I get: hunt, find, own. Cars, I get: the petrol fumes and orgasmic “vroom”. I understand the seduction of owning old things, which have stories to tell and previous lives to reveal: antiques, heritage, vintage, call it what you will. Vintage cars have all three. Is inheriting such a collection a privilege or a pain?
Rupali Ravi Prakash, 24, makes it sound like a privilege. A slim girl clad in a simple jeans and T-shirt, she stands to inherit 180 vintage cars, collected by her father, a cardiothoracic surgeon, Dr Ravi Prakash. A Bangalore girl who attended the liberal Valley School, she addresses people politely with a “sir” or “ma’am”. She develops board games for a living, and markets vintage car memorabilia through her own brand called Roadster. If you passed her on the street, you would not guess that this girl rode a 1907 Locomobile at age 2.
Rupali is passionate about vintage cars. She grew up around them. Her father, called “Doc” by the vintage car world, began with a Sunbeam-Talbot 1937, willed to him by (father and daughter repeat this frequently to the press) General Mahadevan of Chennai. Since then, Prakash has amassed 180 cars, housed in “Kala Farm”, outside Bangalore. Their collection, says Rupali, includes cars from “every era—Edwardian, Veteran, Vintage as well as Classic cars, right from an 1886 Benz Patent-Motorwagen (the first gasoline-powered automobile), to Jaguars, Rolls-Royces, Mustangs, Delages, Mercedes and so on”.
This must mean something to some of you vintage car buffs, but I was only trying to figure out if all these cars were awe-inspiring or ache-producing. Well, her father is a doctor so he’s got that covered, I guess. Fifteen men work full-time on these cars—tinkering, repairing and sourcing parts from all over the world. On weekends, and this is the best part, they get to take these vintage cars out for joyrides along country roads. Riding in these beautifully detailed automobiles is a thrill. They make you feel like Grace Kelly, or Gayatri Devi. “There is only one reason to do this: passion,” says Rupali.
Her father, a genial, smiling man clad in a cowboy hat and black pants, organized the rally, which ended with lunch at the ITC Gardenia. The large banquet hall was filled with men wearing shirts with cars designs on them and cowboy hats. Both Rupali and Dr Prakash list their invitation to the Concours d’ Elegance, a vintage car rally at Pebble Beach in California, US, in 2012 as one of their proudest moments. Another vintage car enthusiast at the event estimated the cost of transporting two vintage cars from Bangalore to Pebble Beach to be about Rs.50 lakh, maybe more. I didn’t want to ask the owners. It’s like the old saying: If you have to ask the price, you just don’t get it. Asking a vintage car collector the cost of transportation is like asking a Bordeaux wine collector about the cost of cork: a bit tasteless.
At Pebble Beach, Prakash drove a 1930 Delage and Rupali, a 1907 Locomobile. “To be the only Indians with two car entries was a proud moment for us and a lifelong dream for my father,” says Rupali.
Across the country, in Delhi, I visited another inheritor of vintage cars. Anubhav Nath, 35, who is the director of Ojas Art gallery and a co-founder of Ramchander Nath Foundation, a think tank with a focus on the arts. He has a lovely property at Mehrauli in the shadow of the Qutub Minar. Nath, who prefers not to put a number on his collection, has a 1912 Silver Ghost Rolls-Royce, a 1916 Buick, a 1936 Maybach from the Maharaja of Patiala, a rare 1930 Delage, a 1955 Chrysler Imperial that was gifted by King Al Saud of Saudi Arabia to Jawaharlal Nehru during his state visit to India and later acquired by Nath’s grandfather, in his shed. Nath’s favourite is a 1926 Rolls-Royce Phantom I, “as I remember playing taxi-taxi in it all the time,” he says.
Childhood memories: that must be it. Happy memories of grandfather working on the car while grandson plays in the car. That must be why these heirs care for the cars and the collection (once you take out commercial reasons, that is). It is the same with Rupali. She probably associates the cars with family, laughter, and nature.
“People ask me if I have added to the collection,” says Nath. “My reply is, “If I can just maintain the collection in the same condition that I inherited it, I would have done a good job. For me, it is my grandfather’s legacy that I am trying to preserve as best as I can. Yes, it is a lot of work, but at the same time, it is like a part of him continues to live with me.”
Poignant, isn’t it?
Shoba Narayan is happy to ride in vintage cars—that she doesn’t own. Then again, she might feel different if she were mechanically inclined.
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns
First Published: Sat, Sep 14 2013. 12 03 AM IST

Sari Warrior

A piece on my favorite subject.

The National Conversation

The sari is neatly woven into my country’s social fabric
Shoba Narayan
Aug 28, 2013

Different people have differing relationships with their country’s traditional clothes. The Japanese, for instance, have eschewed the kimono and adapted western attire. So too the Chinese. In Arab nations, women still wear traditional clothes. So too in Vietnam and India, where women switch between western and traditional wear depending upon mood and circumstance.
IMG_2137
In the last few months, I have started to wear Indian clothes, specifically saris, more often. It didn’t start out this way. During the 18 years when I lived in the US, I rarely wore saris. Vintage Christian Dior suits for formal occasions and shorts when the weather turned warm was more my style. They were comfortable and functional; and got me where I wanted to go.
After returning to India six years ago, I began to look for a style that suited a new life in a new land. Since I work from home, I had to dress for the people I dealt with on a daily basis: the plumbers and carpenters who came to fix my home and hang my paintings; the two women who helped cook and clean; and assorted home-delivery people such as the dry cleaner and tailor.
Gradually, I discovered they took me more seriously if I wore traditional clothes. The sari gave me gravitas. It allowed me to wield authority like my mother instead of appearing like a little girl clad in shorts and a shirt.
The sari also drew me into a life that I didn’t know existed.
IMG_2158
The sari, to put it simply, is six yards of unstitched cloth that is woven and draped by women all over the Indian subcontinent. For women of my mother’s generation, the sari has a huge resonance. It is a dress that they know, love and understand. It conveys purity, unsullied by needle and thread. So much so that most women don’t even stitch the edges of the woven fabric, preferring to tie it into knots to prevent it from fraying. No stitches, no pins, no cutting, just long swathes of beautiful textile that they drape over themselves like the ancient Greeks. This is the sari.
IMG_2121
If you ask Indian women, they will tell you that the sari is supremely graceful. It is also, to the modern woman, cumbersome, because it relies on drapery rather than tailoring to give it shape. When I began wearing the sari, I could barely move. The sari, in that sense, is a luxury garment, because it demands a certain leisure and grace that is reminiscent of the past. But looks can be deceiving. My housekeeper, for example, wears a sari to clean my bathrooms. My cook goes through the day – bending, chopping and lifting, all clad in a sari. It is, like haute couture, all a matter of practice.
IMG_2139
With practice, wearing a sari got easier. I realised that it was all a matter of how I draped the fabric and where I tucked it. Soon, I could sprint across the road clad in a sari. It suited the climate of India perfectly, airing out heat from the open midriff and covering the appropriate shoulder when the weather got cold. It made me feel at home. It also made me feel like an anomaly.
You see, the sari, for better or worse, has become a garment that the young and fashionable will not wear, unless it is a special occasion. The young women who populate my book club often prefer to wear skirts and dresses from Banana Republic and Nanette Lepore instead of a sari. They associate the sari with their mothers; with being old fashioned and traditional; with orthodoxy; with being an anomaly. Often, at parties, I am the only one clad in a sari. It makes me feel weird and not “with it” as my teenage daughter says.
IMG_2159
The sari disarms people though. When I go into a gathering populated by the Indian elite, clad in a sari, everyone in the room visibly softens, probably because I remind them of a time when all the women they loved wore saris. Just as the red oxide in my floor prompts Indians to say, “Oh, this floor reminds me of my grandmother’s house,” the sari is an icon that evokes nostalgia. So I disarm the audience in my sari and then slowly reveal the feminist underneath. What was it that they said about iron hand in a velvet glove?

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

Jimmy Choos

Today morning, the first thing I did was to go out, pick up all the newspapers and hide Mint Lounge. My parents are temporarily staying with me and I didn’t want my father to read my column today mainly because of the use of the swear word– “Fuck me shoes.”

I lead many lives– some for my readers and some as the good daughter/daughter in law. Sometimes these worlds collide much to my dismay. So the Lounge is hidden. Problem is that my Dad has just gone to my brother’s house and I am sweating bricks and hoping that he will not find or read the Lounge issue there.

I loved writing this piece. I felt bad about using my daughter as a humor tool. What is it about storytellers? We are so selfish about ‘using’ the people around us for the sake of a good story? All my favorite humor writers– Tina Fey, Joel Stein, V. Gangadhar, and David Sedaris ‘use’ their loved ones to enhance the story. In Lounge, Natasha Badhwar writes a wonderful column where she uses her family for personal insights. It is not humor– the genre I obsess about, but it is lyrical and intimate. I am not there yet. Anyway, here is the piece.

Sat, Jul 20 2013. 12 04 AM IST

How Nirupa Roy scores over Jimmy Choo
What is it about women and stilettos?

jimmy--621x414
Would you give your first salary to your mother, like all the heroes did in Nirupa Roy movies, or spend it on something you have been dying to buy? Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
With my first salary, I will buy a pair of Jimmy Choos,” said the teenager.
I stared at her crestfallen. “What happened to giving your first salary to your mother?” I asked. “It is a great Indian tradition. Watch any Nirupa Roy movie.”
“Who is Nirupa Roy?” she asked. This then is what is called the generation gap.
With her question, my daughter had effectively removed one of the perks of motherhood: the bit where I stand tall, suppressing tears, staring at the sky with a sideways tilt of the head, while my offspring falls at my feet and hands me an envelope full of cash.
“Arre..re,” I will say, and do that accept-reject gesture perfected by elders in Hindi movies. It is like reaching for chocolate when you know you have to eat ragi (finger-millet) biscuits. You want the object but don’t want to appear gluttonous. Your arm, as a result, appears epileptic.
Nirupa Roy. Photo: Hindustan Times
Nirupa Roy always hands back the envelope, but with a self-righteous sniff that says: “It is mine. I am only giving it back to you because my director said so.”
I am more straightforward. I would like to keep my offspring’s first salary as my due—for all those diaper changes and sleepless nights. But this is not to be, because my daughter wants to buy Jimmy Choos. As a modern mother, I can hardly blackmail her emotionally into doing what I want. Well, I can—and do; only more covertly than Nirupa Roy.
“Why Jimmy Choos?” I asked. “Why not Manolo Blahniks or Christian Louboutins?”
And thus began my interrogation, which ended with my daughter telling me to keep the bloody salary and storming out of the room.
I watched her receding back, both smug and dismayed. Yes, I told myself. I can still inflict neuroses on my child? But why did I judge her desire to buy stilettos? Was it because I never wore them?
I was a tall girl till—like a rocket that went phus—I stopped growing and became of average height. As a result, I never wore high heels while growing up. I wasn’t allowed to. With every centimetre that I grew, my grandmother said, the pool of Palghat Iyer boys became smaller. She made it sound like it was my fault. She stopped giving me Complan and Chyawanprash, while heaping teaspoons-full on my brother. To this day, I resent the differentiation, even though I hated those decoctions. If they could do an Indian version of Chinese foot-binding to keep me short, my folks would have done it. They tried making me balance heavy encyclopaedias on my head. They said it was to make me walk gracefully but I think it was to make me short. Asking for high heels in this environment was like giving the Mafioso a gun.
I considered wearing heels only recently. I got tired of listening to friends say that they were addicted to shoes. How can you be addicted to something that doesn’t sustain you in some deep intoxicating way—like ganja, not that I am advocating it?
I am shrinking these days and not in waist size. My waist is balancing out the shrinkage in other parts. So last week, I took out the two pairs of high heels that I bought in a rash shopping spree in the US last year. One is black and the other red.
They are not Jimmy Choos, although they could have been for I like Choo’s shoes, and not just because the phrase “Choo’s shoes” rhymes. I also like Christian Louboutin’s fire-engine red heels because they look distinctive. My favourite shoes—the ones I considered actually wearing fairly continuously—were Prada‘s flame shoes. They look like fire is coming out of your heels. I also loved Yves Saint Laurent’s gladiator shoes. I think it is because I have a gladiator fantasy. I imagine the earth trembling as I walk on these flame-gladiator shoes. Now, that would be memorable, which, along with subversive, are two adjectives I like. I almost bought a pair of Salvatore Ferragamo chappals at Singapore duty-free because they were subversive; also on sale, which helped.
What is it about women and stilettos? Feminist Germaine Greer called them “fuck-me” shoes because you could wear them to bed but not to walk. Only a feminist could make that statement and get away with it, even if it is an exaggeration. What is interesting about her statement is that shoes—more than clothes, watches, or belts—are tied up with female self-esteem? Women say that they wear high heels to feel sexy. I think that we wear heels to have men at our feet, quite literally: Our Louboutins, our Jimmy Choos and our Manolo Blahniks envelop and caress our soles. Feet, I think, are a completely underrated sex organ, witness that Netherlands woman who had a foot orgasm. Any man who wants to score with a woman ought to massage her feet.
Men have their sensible flats; their custom-made Cleverleys; but they certainly don’t use shoes for sex appeal. Perhaps they should. Tamil film actors certainly did—after a fashion. Kamal Haasan used to wear shoes with concealed heels; so the wags in Kodambakkam said. But even so, it wasn’t overt. Shoes are to women what watches are to men: a sex object masquerading as a functional one. Who needs watches these days anyway, what with people checking their phones or BlackBerrys every second? Watches, along with fountain pens, are feel-good items. My brother gave me a Montblanc, but the darn thing dries up because I use it so seldom. I should simply buy those Reynolds pens that my children use for school. At `5 a pop, they work every time, which cannot be said of the stilettos that Greer was alluding to.

Shoba Narayan uses her fountain pen for “show” but finds that she goes searching for a ball-pen to sign cheques.
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

Ted, me and Moynat

I have known Ted Moncreiff for 15 years. He first assigned a bargaining story to me when he was an editor at Condenast Traveler way back in 1996. He continued assigning longer and longer pieces as Executive editor of Traveler. And sent me to places far and near: Laos (Vientiane and Luang Prabang), Cambodia (Siem Reap and Phnom Penh), Yunnan China (Kunming, Lijiang, Dali and Shangri-la), Japan (Tokyo and Kyoto), Singapore, Malaysia, and much. He assigned me 6000 word stories on Mumbai, Goa and Bangalore.

Then Ted left to join Newsweek as Executive editor. When Newsweek was bought, Ted joined W as Executive editor and assigned me a profile of Indian artists Subodh Gupta and Bharti Kher. I spent a couple of days with them, interviewing them and writing up the profile. Got paid but the piece didn’t run. Perhaps Ted leaving the magazine had something to do with it.

Now Ted is the editor-in-chief of Bloomberg Pursuits, the luxury lifestyle magazine affiliated with the Bloomberg empire. He calls me every now and then and we shoot the breeze. It ain’t the lunches he treated me to at Balthazar or DB Bistro Moderne, but it is something. People ask me what I miss about my life in the States. Well, I miss lunching with my editors for one.

When Ted called a few weeks ago, I told him about this brand, Moynat, that I had written about for FT’s Vanessa Friedman. I heard about it because the creative director, Ramesh Nair, is Indian and had previously worked at Hermes. I paid attention to it because its Pauline bags are amazing, and it is one of the few brands founded by a woman: Pauline Moynat. When I was in Paris, I had dinner with Ramesh and his lovely wife, Rachna.

When Ted asked for ideas for short, front-of-book pieces for Pursuits, I thought of Moynat. Here it is below. If any of you know an interesting maverick man in his 30s-40s who has reinvented himself, done interesting things, and is obviously hugely successful, please let me know. I’d like to see if he can be profiled for Bloomberg Pursuits.

Moynat for Bloomberg

Sensual India

This is one of my favorite pieces and it took a while to write.
It appears in a magazine called Eat Stay Love that is the in house magazine of Aman, Four Seasons, and other luxury hotels in India.
Some time ago, a lady from a custom publishing group contacted me. They do the magazines for the Oberoi and Taj group. This was for the foreign brands, she said. Would I write a column for them? This article is the result.

I am happy with it for several reasons. Defining the Indian aesthetic has become a pastime/obsession for me (and countless others from the sound of it). It allowed me to “name-drop” all my favorite brands without having to appear pseudo. Once I registered that the people reading this piece would be primarily foreigners and I had to “unlock” India for them using the brands they were familiar with, it became easy.

Thank you, Radhika Misra for introducing the group to me. Click the link below and it is pasted below without the photos

122-123 LOVE – Shobha Narayan

For Eat, Stay, Love

How do you define a nation’s aesthetic or style in one word? Some are obvious. Japan’s minimalism as epitomized by Tadao Ando’s architecture, or the tea ceremony. Dutch avante garde product design, witness Maarten Baas’ smoked furniture or Marcel Wanders’ crochet chair. German perfection, as seen in Jil Sander’s clothes, Dieter Ram’s products, or automobiles such as the BMW. Swiss precision as in Akris’ dresses, Jaeger LeCoultre’s complications, and Patek Phillippe watches. French insouciance– think of Jane Birkin mixing a Dior suit with a casual cashmere scarf, or Catherine Deneuve’s je ne sais quoi. America’s sporty casual chic epitomized by J.Crew clothes, Ralph Lauren suits and Michelle Obama’s sleeveless dresses. Korea’s street style, also known as Gangnam style. Latin sexiness as seen in Salma Hayek and Javier Bardem’s brooding looks. Italian flamboyance, Chinese economic clout, Australia’s easygoing nature, and the Middle East’s wealth. These are instant associations that we make with a culture and country.

What about India? How to describe India’s style credo in one word? The Indian government tried it with its successful “Incredible India” campaign, which encapsulates the varied marvels of this land. But it didn’t delve deep into the Indian aesthetic; its notion of style and luxury. All this requires a much more specific moniker. After months of pondering, I believe I have come up with one: sensual. India is supremely sensual. Put another way, India’s sensuous aesthetic, as reflected in its people, places, ways of life and behavior is unparalleled and hard to find anywhere else in the world, save perhaps Bali (and Bali’s sensuality comes from a Hindu root that came from India). Isn’t this what we call culture?

Let me elaborate. Sure, India is colorful, chaotic, a study in contrasts, expressive, emotional , spiritual. But if there is one stylistic statement that unites us as a nation, it is our sensuality. A Gujarati banker may wear bespoke Zegna suits to meetings in Mumbai or New York. Come Dussehra, he will dance the sinuous dandia under a moonlit sky in Baroda or Amdavad. A Tamilian executive may wear Jimmy Choo heels and Prada pants to client meetings; but she will also walk barefoot on Chennai’s dewy grass wearing Kanjivaram silks, and braid mogra jasmine into her curly hair. A Sindhi entrepreneur may entertain using Baccarat, Reidel and Versace, but when at home, he will eat Sai Bhaji on a simple stainless steel plate that Subodh Gupta used to make million-dollar sculptures. A Kashmiri shopkeeper may sell pashmina shawls and handwoven carpets with brisk efficiency to tourists; but he will slowly savor fragrant Kahwa tea with slivered almonds and saffron during his break. The Delhi socialite may carry her Hermes Kelly bag to garden parties but she will lounge at home in soft diaphonous muslin while getting a sandalwood oil massage. The Rajasthani prince may have turned his palace into a hotel but he sees nothing wrong in wearing inherited Cartier necklaces with giant emeralds while greeting guests. India is over-the-top; supremely sensuous; and the opposite of the less-is-more Bauhaus or minimalist aesthetic. As others have noted, India is about more-is-more. Regardless of region or social class; regardless of state or stature, Indians are extremely fond of and comfortable with sensuality. Indeed they seek in in daily life.

It is this exuberant sensuality that dazzles tourists when they visit India; and it is what a discerning traveler should seek in this land. Enjoy your body being turned to pulp with an ayurvedic massage beside the beach under rustling coconut palms in Kerala. Dine on a Petrus paired with freshly caught fish after. Listen to the plaintive strains of the Manganiyar singers while sipping a pepper mojito. Drape yourself in a Sabyasachi woven sari from his flagship store in Kolkata. Visit the boutique stores of Bombay where contemporary chic meets Indian aesthetic. Go gallery hopping in Lado Sarai, Delhi and buy the young artists on their way to becoming superstars. These are the pleasures of India. They can be uber-expensive, or they can, like a paan, be had for pennies.

One way to access this sensuality is through products that you buy: a small vial of pure sandalwood oil that costs about US$150 at Cauvery emporium on MG Road, Bangalore. I mix it with almond oil imported from the States and use it like a moisturizer. Another way to take home a piece of sensual India is through its handwoven textiles, each in beautiful jewel tones with evocative names: blushing rose, eggplant flower purple, tender leaf green and other. Saris symbolize India and you can take home a traditional Benares silk sari that feels like heaven and costs a few thousand dollars. What comes across in all these purchases is India’s astounding regional variations. We may speak in English but we sing in Telegu, recite sonnets in Urdu, serenade in Hindi and argue in Bengali. The expressiveness of our tongue epitomizes a very particular aesthetic. Through our language, we convey our spirit.

Sensuality is an Indian art form, perfected since the age of the kama sutra. It is what India lives and dies for; and it is what, you can– if you are lucky– seek and experience.

Shoba Narayan is the author of “Monsoon Diary” and “Return to India.”