Living Will

This is a horrendously complicated topic. To get an idea, just imagine writing a living will yourself: when would you pull the plug on you? There needs to be a medical counselor to help with this sort of stuff.

The will to die with dignity


My father said something recently that freaked me out. He talked about icchha mrithyu, a phrase borrowed from the Hindu epic, Mahabharat, in which Bhishma has the ability to choose the moment of his death. My father is in the process of writing his will; and often, through stray phrases, he reveals to me that he is confronting his mortality. “Euthanasia (mercy killing) is not a bad thing,” he will say as he steps out of the door.
How do you want to die? Do you know how your parents or in-laws want to die? My mother-in-law, for instance, has told me that she wants all her organs to be donated. Through a friend, I learnt that this process would be a whole lot easier if she registers with a hospital. It is this type of detail that falls through the cracks when we think about ageing or dying.
There are 100 million elderly people in India today. The number could grow to 324 million by 2050. How our elders live; how we care for them; and how they die is something that all of us are going to confront in the coming years. It isn’t easy. It is terrifying. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as Dignity Foundation offer help with respect to counselling, mediation and writing a will. But that, as I’ve learnt, is only the tip of the iceberg.
One of the things I used to trot out when people asked about Indian culture and values is respect for the elderly. A new study conducted by the NGO HelpAge India suggests the opposite. Apparently, 50% of elders in India face abuse, primarily from their loved ones; and usually when they are too ill or frail to care for themselves or others.
Perhaps this finding doesn’t apply to you. Perhaps you can dismiss this as something that happens in resource-constrained families. Even so, there is a need for a very specific kind of discussion that each one of us needs to have with our parents (or children, depending on age). It is called Living Will and it is a set of instructions about how you would like to be treated when you are infirm in body and mind.
The first time I heard this term—Living Will—was from my brother-in-law, a physician in the US. He told me that in addition to a legal will, he had written a Living Will, detailing the medical treatments that he wanted—and more importantly, didn’t want—if he was ever terminally ill. It got me thinking. Maybe I ought to write a Living Will too.
As detailed in many documents, a Living Will answers the following question: “What kind of medical treatments would you like to have or not have if you are terminally ill, permanently unconscious or in a coma, or in the final stage of a fatal illness?”
That’s a very broad question, but God, as Mies van der Rohe said, is in the details. Do you want to be put on a ventilator? Do you want to be intubated, where a tube is stuck down your throat? How long do you want to prolong invasive procedures in case you are terminally ill? When do you want to forgo yet another surgery for palliative care that comforts but doesn’t treat? Which of your children do you want to nominate as your healthcare proxy—the one who makes your decisions when you are no longer able to? What do you want your children to do in case you go into a coma? How long should they hold on to you? What level of pain are you willing to take and tolerate? At what point do you want to pull the plug on medical care? Do you want to die in the hospital or at home?
The last question is the easiest, and should be your starting point. Nobody wants to die in a hospital, but what ends up happening once you get admitted to hospital is that a series of medical procedures are set in motion. Often, once you are in the throes of the intensive care unit, it is hard to decide when to pull back and which procedure to forgo. This is the type of decision that could be made well in advance, ideally by you rather than your spouse or children.
If you are a parent, think of it this way: It is very hard for a child to make these types of decisions on behalf of their parents. They will always want to keep on going—do another test, try another method, a different kind of surgery, to do everything possible to attack whatever illness is attacking you. They will do everything that the hospital has to offer rather than “give up”.
This means that your child will authorize procedure after procedure just in case something works. He or she will explore all the options in the hope that something will work and prolong your life. What your beloved child will not be thinking about is the quality of your life since he or she will be caught up in preserving it, come what may.
This column is about living an examined life. Do you think that leaving detailed instructions in the form of a Living Will—either written or through a candid conversation with a loved one—constitutes one element of a good life? Must we die with dignity and in a way we choose—ichha mrithyu—to have lived well?

Shoba Narayan has no answers to any of the questions posed in this column. She is struggling even to contemplate them. Write to her at


To be obsessed with meditation seems like defeating the purpose. My problem is that I still haven’t conquered this. How to sit “simply” and stare into space aka unfocus your eyes? How didn’t all those rishis that I read about in the Amar Chitra Katha books do it? To the point where anthills grew over them? Crazy stuff.

Reading and loving Haruki Murakami’s “What I think about when I think about Running.” Sejal Gulati, if you see this post, that book is for you.
Reading Sunil Menon’s translation of Mahabharata. Matsyabhangi– now that’s a name.

Mindful wanderers
When we think of meditation, the image that often comes to mind is that of the Buddha, or ministers with their eyes closed in the Lok Sabha. A Western spin on this is to use the word “mindfulness” as a way of approaching this practice. Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer says that mindfulness is to make a concerted effort to notice something new in every situation. When you go back home and meet your spouse, she says, try to actually see five new things in them. That is a brave goal. What if you don’t want to see new things in your spouse?
We Indians have a far more laid-back approach. The yoga sutras instruct you to sit with your back straight and allow your mind to focus on one point. The Sanskrit word for this is dharana or concentration, which leads to dhyana or deep meditation. Of late, Western researchers have used meditation techniques to improve the performance of not just monks and mere mortals, but also soldiers and athletes. Take psychologist Amishi Jha of the University of Miami psychology department and director of contemplative neuroscience for the UMindfulness Research and Practice Initiative (yes, you can study these things in American colleges).
Born in Sabarmati to a Hindu family, Jha grew up watching her mother chant and pray. She studies attention, working memory and how to improve resilience in high-stress situations. She has received funding from the US department of defence and the US army to figure out how mindfulness training can help army troops improve their resilience and reactions to high-stress situations; to develop a mental armour as it were.
Her lab gives soldiers training in mindfulness so that they can cultivate discernment; so that they know when to NOT pull the trigger, as Jha calls it, instead of mindlessly turning a machine gun on perceived targets. Mindfulness trains soldiers to be present and take control of the moment so that their actions don’t result in “psychological injury” to themselves or others.
Children could potentially be the last frontier in terms of meditation. On the one hand, it is easy to argue that meditation techniques will help them focus and calm down. Certainly, several schools have tried this, with mixed results. Often, what happens is that a teacher walks around teaching the children to keep their eyes closed and breathe deeply. The minute her back is turned, a child opens his eyes and starts shooting paper rockets at his current arch-enemy.
One exercise, however, is easier on children than others. It is called trataka or trataka yoga kriya. A simple way of saying it is “candle gazing”, although this phrase does not do it justice. Trataka is about focusing your eyes on a particular object. It could be a candle or it could be your shoulder.
There are four types of tratakas. Dakshina jatru trataka is when your head remains straight and your eyes focus on your right shoulder. Try it. The effect is that of a a dancer who looks to the right. Vama jatru trataka is the same practice, except that the eyes are focused on the tip of the left shoulder. Namikagra trataka is when the eyes are focused on the tip of the nose.
Bhrumadhya trataka is when the eyes are focused on the spot between the two eyebrows. Another method is when you sit at arm’s length from a candle that is placed in a spot where the flame does not flicker. The goal is to stare at the tip of the candle without blinking your eyes. What happens typically is that your eyes begin watering after a few minutes. Then you shut your eyes and relax. You bring your closed-eye gaze to the spot between the eyebrows.
Trataka is an especially good practice if you have a young daughter who has not achieved puberty. This practice delays the onset of puberty, according to yoga practitioners. This is because trataka nurtures the pineal gland, which René Descartes called “the seat of the soul”. In yogic philosophy, the pineal gland is located in the ajna chakra or the “third eye”. When the pineal gland weakens, it stimulates the sexual hormones leading to puberty. This is my broad and rather non-expert interpretation. There are many essays on this topic.
Making your daughter do trataka is an easy way of improving her concentration and delaying the onset of puberty. A simple approach is to keep a candle by the bedside. Ask your child to lie on her side and gaze at the candle just before she goes to sleep. This will get her into the habit and knock her out in a few minutes. Even Western medical doctors concede that the endocrine system responds to mind-body practices such as yoga and meditation. Hormones have powerful effects on the body, and they can be managed through ancient techniques such as modulating the breath and focusing the eye. This can also open the seat of the soul, leading to soul-stirring ideas.
Ancient India was known for its approach to spirituality and the self. Today’s India is known for its software companies, analytical skills, and business process outsourcing (BPOs). One way to merge the ancient and the modern is through these yogic practices. The West, particularly the US, has become the seat of innovation.
India can jumpstart its innovation by focusing on creativity and imagination among its workforce—by allowing the mind to wander mindfully; to see the world in a little boy’s open mouth; to activate the third eye; to sit still and follow the mind on all its various tangents and trajectories; to “sniff the winds” like Apple’s Steve Jobs did, and sense what lies ahead.

Shoba Narayan is shooting paper rockets at the pigeons on her balcony while trying to meditate. Write to her at


Leap before you think

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

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

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

Yoga and Willpower

I restarted yoga lessons. My teacher is very good, but very very busy!!! Hope his timings and mine can work out long term.
Inspired by my lessons…..


Can yoga improve your willpower?

In an ideal world, stilettos would have massager-inserts in them; French fries would remove the toxins from your body and make your waistline shrink; and everyone would have the willpower to do whatever they wanted to accomplish. But reality, sadly, is a little different. Social psychology points to four characteristics that lead to success: resilience, willpower, focus and imagination. In an outlandish and somewhat brilliant twist, all four of these characteristics can be cultivated by a practice that is at least as ancient as Indian corruption. I speak, of course, of the global juggernaut that we call yoga.
As someone who learnt yoga as a child, I am a little unnerved by the sight of blonde women with long Scandinavian bodies chanting Sanskrit mantras and doing the downward dog with far more flexibility than I ever could. I suppose I should feel proud rather than resentful. After all, it takes a special kind of inventiveness to look at how scorpions, dogs, crows and locusts move and come up with asanas that manage to enlighten or humiliate, depending on what level you’re at.
Like many Indian children, I was sent off to the local playground to learn yoga from a man who looked like a military commander. My teacher made us contort our bodies into bends, stretches and lunges. No theory was given. Raps on the knuckles were a favoured mode of punishment, along with “Stand up on the bench”, except that there was no bench on the field, so it was modified to “Stand up on the branch”, which was equally humiliating because we stood there swaying on a guava branch that was permanently at risk of breaking.
I have remained interested in yoga. I do the asanas or poses every now and then, sometimes consistently and sometimes sporadically. Looking back, it seems like I turned to yoga at transition points in my life. As a newly wed, my husband would walk into the house and find me engaged in a headstand—an unnerving experience for him, particularly after a flaming row. When things got rough in graduate school, I would find myself waking up in the morning and doing the Trikonasana, or the triangle pose, bending down as if I was surrendering to a higher power—or in my case, my thesis adviser. After the birth of my children, my gynaecologist recommended stretches. Although I couldn’t see how more stretching could remove stretch marks, I turned to yoga.
There are many schools of yoga now, and those of us who have learnt yoga since childhood have a view on them. I, for example, don’t subscribe to Bikram Yoga, in which practitioners do the asanas in a room heated to 40 degrees Celsius, with high humidity to boot. It’s like a combination of sauna and steam shower, except that people are not naked and are doing poses. Power yoga was invented in the US as a way of combining fitness with yoga. As someone who is reflexively against fusion—be it in food or anything else—I have trouble with this too. I find the Bihar School of Yoga (BSY) to be authentic; as is Ashtanga, Sivananda and Iyengar yoga.
My current teacher follows these four schools and often, we have discussions. A Sanskrit quote he recently taught me goes like this: “Sthiram sukham asanam”. It comes from the “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”. The literal meaning is “stability comfort is asana”. If you find a pose where you are able to stay still for a long time, it is like doing an asana. Indian mythology supports this. In every mythical story, it seems, there is a saint (or rishi) who sits in Padmasana, or the lotus pose, for centuries in order to obtain immortality, the company of beautiful women, or eternal youth.
Why obtain immortality if you are going to use it to sit still for centuries is beyond me but that was what the stories said. My goals are more modest. I would like to have more willpower so that I can resist any number of things: stop eating potato chips late at night; stop throwing things at the television when a particular news anchor comes on; and stop hankering for increased willpower to engage in all these goals.
Roy F. Baumeister, a psychologist and author of Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength, has a few pithy points. He says that willpower is a muscle. It can be developed; at the same time, it gets tired with overuse. So if you want to stop eating chocolates at the end of the day, reduce the number of decisions you make at the beginning of the day.
A simple way to do this is to wear the same suit to work every day. Schools call it uniform. The logic is simple. Choices involve decisions which reduce willpower. One of the activities that Baumeister suggests is to sit still in one position. He says that postural discipline leads to mental discipline.
This then is the way to merge yoga with modern social psychology. To use an asana to develop focus and willpower. Try sitting in one position without moving. It could be in front of the computer or while you are conversing with somebody. The whole point is to find a position where you are able to stay still and do just that: Stay still. According to Baumeister, this stillness increases willpower over time. “Sthiram sukham asanam.”

Shoba Narayan can definitely stay still for at least 3 hours—as long as
there is an action-packed Jackie Chan movie on TV. Write to her at thegoodlife@

Lunar Calendar

Calendars (Chinese, Lunar, Gregorian) are fascinating in how they tell time. I am reading about this, and hence wrote this piece.

The Indian mind and the lunar calendar

Familiarizing yourself with the Indian lunar calendar is one of the ways by which one can access India’s heritage and mindset
Shoba Narayan

This is the winter season in the Indian calendar. We call it Shishir Ritu (mid-January to mid-March) or leaf-letting season in Tamil. Fat, golden, tired leaves are tumbling from the trees, creating miniature typhoons.
Temperatures rise and fall. In Indian towns, people sit on charpoys on the terrace, guzzling hot kebabs and parathas (or lemon rice and mango pickles in the case of south India), learning to fly kites and waxing the strings with ground glass, as we all did as children.

A few weeks ago, we celebrated Basant Panchami, a seasonal festival that marks the march of time from winter to windy days and cool nights. Traditionally, this was celebrated by flying kites and hanging swings from trees. It wasn’t necessarily a religious festival; more of a seasonal one. As the book, The Partitions of Memory: The Afterlife of the Division of India, points out: “The festival was not particularly identified with Hinduism. Lahoris did not celebrate Basant as Hindus or Muslims, because Basant was simply a seasonal celebration. It marked the end of the cold weather.”
This is the season of mustard and marigold; the season in which young girls with long dark braids and colourful clothes sit on swings and burst into giggles as their companions push them higher and higher towards the sky; when eager young eyes turn towards the sky to see kites fly. This is the season that has been immortalized in numerous miniature paintings and murals. It is also a season that the average urban Indian knows nothing about.
There are many benefits of globalization and technology. There are many benefits of living in cosmopolitan communities with neighbours from different parts of India and the world. However, one of the casualties of this experience is the sense of place and time. Our parents had a very specific sense of who they were with respect to the place they were from and the time they lived in, which those of us who are immigrants—either within India or abroad—don’t have. In the case of the previous generation, if you were a Rajput in Manvar, you ate certain foods during certain seasons and sang specific songs. Distinct geographies give rise to very particular festivals that spring from the flora and fauna of that place, such as the bull-running festival in interior Tamil Nadu.
But this is not a lament for the glory days of yore, nor is it a Luddite rant against the sterile egalitarianism of technology. It is about cultural preservation of a very particular sort: through the calendar. It is part of a larger question: Is there an easy way by which one can access India’s heritage and mindset?

As far as I can tell, one way is by familiarizing yourself with the Indian calendar.

When I meet elders of the previous generation, I see a few similarities among them, whether they live in the north or south, east or west. One is a love for music, be it bhajan or gospel. There is always music playing in the house. The other is a discomfort with formality. Please and thank you are Western constructs for this generation, used as they are to the casual give-and-take that marked life in villages, whether in Goa or in Gurgaon. The third thing is marking time through the lunar calendar; through the waxing and waning of the moon.

I have been thinking about the notion of intangible heritage; of things that are lost without our even knowing it. Some traditions of putting cow dung in the courtyard and placing a yellow flower atop it, deserve to be lost. Who has a courtyard these days, let alone cow-dung? But what about telling time using a “daily tear-off” calendar? Is there any merit in doing this?

My calendar has nothing to do with the season. It has to do with school holidays, work appointments and field trips. It has nothing, in other words, that links me to the land and time zone that I inhabit. The reason I find this fascinating is because the lunar calendar is both tantalizingly out of reach and yet within grasp of many of us urban Indians.

Down the road from my home is a vegetable market that sells particular greens on particular days. Recently, garlands made of purple Calotropis flowers appeared. Apparently, it was a festival that celebrated the sun god’s transit through a festival called Ratha Saptami. The arka-patra, or leaves of the Calotropis, are offered to the sun god on this day. The fruit, vegetable and flower vendors of our markets, be they Christian, Hindu or Muslim, know these festivals because they bring seasonal fruits and vegetables on those specific days. The question for us is whether there is any merit in learning these ways?

Two states interest me in this regard: Kerala and Goa. In Kerala, all religions celebrate Onam and slow down during the monsoon Karkataka month to get Ayurvedic massages. Goa is gearing up for its Shigmo, or spring, festival but Goa celebrates it with parades and floats.

Most of us celebrate festivals to a greater or lesser degree. But here is an exercise that is not impossible to do, even in our busy urban lives. Pay attention to how your parents and grandparents talk. Pay attention to how they calculate time, on a daily, monthly and annual basis. Pay attention to the fruits that appear—not in supermarkets—but on vending carts. Right now, for instance, if you know where to look, you can find the bilva (bael) fruit that ripens at this time of year.

We all know when the mango season starts, but also notice the less glorious, more indigenous and rather shy fruits like the jamun. When does the jamun appear? What does it say about the season and the land? What about the festivals that coincide with the occurrence of the bilva, jamun and mango? What about bird calls during that time?
It is very easy to ignore the time and space we live in, caught up as we are in the cocoon of our laptops. But by viewing market produce and grandparents’ talking points, we can glimpse a past that is very distinctly and particularly Indian. It belongs to us should we want it.

Shoba Narayan tried bilva pulp from the roadside vendor. It is an acquired taste. Write to her at


Don’t understand Mint’s headline for this piece. What does will o wisps mean? Maybe from a poem.
But I find this notion of ancient humans communing with the heavens through wisps of smoke very touching.
Scents are fascinating.

Fragrance, will-o’-the-wisps and prayer
How do you scent your home? Do you use oriental lilies and tuberose? The best scents create memories for residents and visitors

Mutrah Souq in Muscat, Oman, is not as large as Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, nor is it as visually interesting. Most of the bigger shops that sell frankincense, spices, nuts and attar are run by Indians. At one emporium, a delicately featured bearded, grey haired man who speaks Arabic, Urdu and Hindi is explaining the concept of bukhoor or incense that most Omanis burn in their homes to ward off the smell of fish after cooking and also to make the home smell fragrant.
Omanis use bukhoor in a far more delicate fashion than we do in India. At the home of Shawqi Sultan, a bon vivant businessman who belongs to one of Oman’s oldest families, you can barely see wisps of smoke, yet there is a lingering implacable scent. Scent and smoke are etymologically linked. The word perfume comes from the Latin word per fumus, which means, “through smoke”. Ancient cultures burned perfumed wood and resins as a sacred offering to the gods. Coptic, Greek and other orthodox churches used scented smoke created from frankincense and myrrh, which along with gold were the gifts of the Magi when they came to see Jesus Christ. The Jewish Talmud has a specific recipe for formulating the incense that would burn in Jewish temples.
Before we had vials of sandalwood and jasmine essential oils; before we had customized perfumes in coloured crystal bottles that were lined up on our mothers’ dressing tables; before we had fragrance “noses”, which is the term the perfume industry uses to describe those men and women who mix and match commercial perfumes that end up on the floors of Colette Paris, Harrods in London, Barneys New York and DLF Galleria; before we had branded perfumes with seductive names such as Angel by Thierry Mugler—one of the perfume world’s iconic scents; before we had champaka and oudh and other exotic ingredients; the way humans communed with god and comforted themselves was through perfumes or sacred, scented smoke.
Indians still burn scented smoke in their homes, by throwing a few sprinkles of benzoin resin into glowing coals. North Indians call this loban and south Indians call this sambrani. The word loban comes from the Arabic word luban, which is what the vendors at Mutrah Souq call it. The best luban, they say, comes from Salalah, where frankincense resin is harvested from bruised trees that create this resin as a defensive reaction.
It is interesting that most religions use fragrant smoke from incense and other sources to commune with God. Seeing these curling wisps of smoke go upwards to the clouds gave early worshippers the feeling that their thoughts and desires were carried up to the heavens. The other reason must have to do with what today’s nightclubs call ambience: creating the mood for religious communion. Darkness punctuated by glowing light helps this, witness the beautiful stained glass windows in churches. Temples and mosques too are designed to filter light into the prayer area. Some sort of intermediary in the form of priests helped translate human desires and wishes into the language of the Gods, be it Hebrew, Sanskrit or Latin. Elements like water and fire were used as tools to touch the sacred.
Omani bukhoor, Indian loban or sambrani are a way to return scent to its sacred roots. French perfumer Philippe di Meo does this with his new, extremely niche line called Les Liquides Imaginaires. The first trilogy is heavy with religious imagery. Sancti has bergamot and mandarin and alludes to the protective holy water that is sprinkled in churches. Forti with amber, oudh, guaiac and saffron refers to fortitude. Tumultu is sensual, according to the fragrance notes and has coconut milk, grapefruit and cedar wood. I haven’t smelled these fragrances but like the notion of returning perfume to its sacred roots. One easy way to do this is to burn sambrani or loban or bukhoor.
How do you scent your home? Do you use oriental lilies and tuberose? Or do you buy essential oils from Fragonard that smell of vanilla and lavender? Do you smoke it with sambrani once a week? The best scents create memories for residents and visitors. The Taj and Oberoi group of hotels do this. Both the The Oberoi, Bangalore and The Taj West End have a signature scent that hangs in their lobby. Smelling it elsewhere can conjure up images of these hotels. The same thing happens at home. A homesick child can smell nutmeg several continents away and be reminded of home. Scent can comfort by teasing out memories.
Omani bukhoor is expensive because it is mixed with dried rose petals, wood chips that are dipped in essential oils, and resins. The trick is to sprinkle the bukhoor with restraint, something that I have learned to do with my sambrani as well. To sit in a silent room in the early hours of the morning, and watch a wisp of smoke climb up is to experience the divine. Of course, it also happens that in India, when you are in the midst of your meditation in the early hours, aided by fragrant incense, you will hear the hungover drunk on the street give a loud, stirring, and off-key rendition of Yeh Jo Mohabbat Hai, which, too, can be divine.

The Vaishnavi Flora incense in Shoba Narayan’s home is now associated with Rajesh Khanna thanks to a song sung at one moment.

Parsi gara

The sari I liked cost about 100,000 Rupees so I didn’t buy any from this line.

The grace and movement of ‘gara’
Our handcrafted products may be unusual, original, colourful, and wildly creative. But they lack finish
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Ashdeen Lilaowala creates ‘gara’ saris

It is fashionable amongst engineers and systemic solution experts to talk about India’s last mile problem. It applies to roads, power plants, and pretty much any type of construction, they will say. Indian workmen will work diligently and dutifully through the project. At the last mile, when things are to be smoothened and polished, they will lose interest, almost like a baby who suddenly gets tired. Fashion designers have another word for this: finish. Our handcrafted products may be unusual, original, colourful, and wildly creative. But they lack finish. Arguably, this same tenor of work ethics applies to the Aam Aadmi Party too, given as they are, with a penchant for histrionics without worrying too much about follow through. But this is not a column on politics. Rather it is about products, society and contradictions.
Products reflect society. Stands to reason, right? When you think of the cold perfection of a Mercedes or BMW, it stands to reason that they come from Germany. The perfect imperfection of a Japanese raku pot reflects the wabi-sabi aesthetic that the country is known for. India is a colourful, imperfect society and our products reflect that. Except in some areas: textiles for instance. Even among textiles, there are shades of imperfection.
Our woven fabrics are approximations. The peacocks, rudraksh beads and mango motifs that are woven into a Kanjeevaram or a Banarasi are not exactly alike. The trained eye can spot imperfections in the warp and weft of the weave. Often there are threads sticking out. The same applies to block-printing and often, it is these imperfections that are touted as a badge of honour.
But most Indian embroidery traditions are built on meticulousness. One among them being the Parsi gara embroidery, which originated in China but the motifs of which have been localized. To be confronted with a room full of Parsi gara saris is to experience what an obsessive eye can do to a garment. New Delhi-based textile designer, Peter D’Ascoli, is all admiration as he walks through the numerous gara saris that were exhibited last month at Cinnamon, a boutique in Bangalore. “Look at the different types of stitches used just to depict the petal,” he points out. “Look at how expertly they have depicted movement—through the curve of the flower.”
D’Ascoli makes stunning throws which incorporate printed fabric bordered by gara embroidery. Most of his textiles are exported but he showcases a few locally. Like cultural impresario Rajiv Sethi (a tired, overused term, I know, but there is no other way to describe Sethi), D’Ascoli is passionate about India’s intangible heritage: traditions like storytelling, singing, particular type of weaves and embroidery that are disappearing with the urbanization of India. “You have to link the garas to the notion of intangible heritage,” he urges. The Unesco Parzor project attempts to preserve tangible and intangible heritage, including these “threads of continuity”, among other things. These garas were once patronized by a wide swathe of society. They have now become saris used for special occasions.
Ashdeen Lilaowala is a textile researcher, and author of Threads of Continuity, under the aegis of the Parzor project. His New Delhi-based atelier also creates gara saris and Western style clothes. His partial solution to the problem of the disappearing gara sari is to tailor blouses, tops, long dresses and sheaths embellished with gara embroidery. The black cheongsam embroidered with white egrets that is hung at the entrance of Cinnamon is stunning; as are his blouses with butterflies flying all over it. “The multicolour butterflies used to be made with leftover thread,” he says. “That’s why they have many colours.”
Garas reflect an aesthetic and an ethos. They won’t resonate with south Indians who have grown up with Kanjeevarams and Chettinad cottons. We may appreciate the aesthetic of the garas but they won’t remind us of the Parsi ethos: they won’t remind us of attending Parsi weddings and seeing aunties and grandmothers clad in beautiful purple garas (the most significant colour). Objects of beauty become so for many reasons: for the memories they evoke and the intrinsic craftsmanship that is their signature. Even for those who live south of the Vindhyas, it is easy to marvel at the craftsmanship of these saris. As the Parzor website says, the gara saris reflect a confluence of four cultures: Persian, Indian, Chinese and European.
The gara embroidery originated in China when Parsi merchants lived and worked there. The embroidered Chinese silk was adapted to Indian conditions when they brought it “home” to Mumbai. Gone were the dragons, koi fish, and other Chinese icons. They were replaced with Indian flowers such as lotuses. Some Chinese symbols such as the egret and the up-curved pagoda roofs were kept. European floral motifs were adapted from French embroidering traditions. The design and placement of the embroidery was adapted to the drape of the sari with the maximum embellishment at the pallu.
For someone who isn’t Parsi and hasn’t been exposed to its oeuvre, the beauty of a gara sari lies in the precision of its embroidery. Unlike the other great embroidery traditions of India in Kutch, Lucknow and Kashmir, the beauty of the gara embroidery lies in the suggestion of movement. This isn’t a statically graceful paisley or a geometrically refined chikankari. To see the egret taking off from the folds of your sari; or to observe a heavy lotus flower bend gracefully towards your border is to imagine craftsmen bending over the garment you are wearing everyday for months on end, fastidiously embroidering these motifs so that not a thread is out of place.

Shoba Narayan doesn’t—yet—own a gara sari. She is just beginning to learn about the art.

Drama Therapy

Experiencing the power of theatre as therapy
A drama therapy workshop which lets the author dip her feet into the field of psychology without having her family write her off as a nutcase
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Therapy as the road to self-improvement? Photo: Thinkstock
We are sitting in a circle on the floor: 10 women and two men. It is the morning of the second day of the two-day drama therapy workshop I am attending. By now, we are all quite comfortable with each other. We have been introduced, played games that felt silly at first, acted out roles, and shared areas of discomfort. One 25-year-old woman has issues with her father; another feels that she has not lived up to her potential. I want to get rid of gnawing feelings of guilt; and a man wants to become a better parent.
We have just finished a role-playing exercise in which we each acted out roles that were given to us on a slip of paper: angry whiner, mediator, avoider, playful child, controlling parent. My team includes an attention seeker, angry whiner, and the mediator (me). We now sit in a circle with a phone in the middle. It is a prop with no connection to the outside world. Our instructor has told us to speak to someone about something that has been bothering us.
One of the women at the workshop picks up the phone. Like many in the group, she is in the social sciences. She practises transactional analysis and NLP, or Neuro-Linguistic Programming, at a clinic in Bangalore. “Hi Vidya,” she begins tentatively. “I’m not sure why I called. I guess I just wanted you to know that I am very upset with what has happened to our relationship. We have been friends for 17 years. But now, you have found a new group of friends and no longer hang out with me. What really hurts me is that you don’t even seem to care.” She speaks in this vein for some more time and hangs up the phone. The instructor asks her to move to the centre of the circle and pretend to be her friend. She has just informed her friend “Vidya” about her hurt and betrayal. What would the friend say?
She switches places and becomes her erstwhile friend. “Vidya” says that she’s intimidated by her friend’s success. She has a husband, children, and a clinical practice, while she is still stuck in the same old rut. Then “Vidya” moves back to her old position and continues talking. What do children and career have to do with their friendship? After a few times moving back and forth, the woman who picked up the phone to call “Vidya” is in tears. She buries her head into her arms. The rest of us move forward instinctively. We touch her shoulders and wait for her to recover. The workshop continues.
There are two types of people in the world: One group equates the word therapy with voodoo, psychobabble, and a complete waste of time. The other group sees therapy as a path to self-improvement. Perhaps because I majored in psychology as an undergraduate, I belong to the latter group. I am used to defending psychology and therapy, even within my own family. All my friends and editors in the US are seeing therapists, I tell my mom. She looks at me quizzically, as if wondering where she went wrong. It’s a good way to get all the angst out in the open, I tell my dad. What angst, he asks.
Life hurts people. Each of us carries within us unarticulated miseries, unresolved issues and suppressed anger. We try to stay functional in an unforgiving world. We smile when we feel like punching the person in front of us. What we don’t do is seek help. Yet every Indian city and town has a subculture of professionals involved in psychotherapy. There are many kinds.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) attempts to change dysfunctional behaviour without going deep into the psyche and childhood like Sigmund Freud did. Emotional freedom technique (EFT) involves tapping and repeating powerful lines that follow a specific format. Transactional analysis is a method by which the therapist finds out what your issues are, and attempts to rewrite the “life scripts” in your head. There is drama, music, art and dance therapy. I believe that everyone should try therapy. Most people around me don’t understand why. This drama therapy workshop is a compromise. It is a way for me to dip my feet into the field I studied without having my family write me off as a nutcase.
It is my turn. I want to talk about guilt, I say. They want to know more. When I buy new clothes, I hide them for months so that the women who help me don’t see them and feel bad that they can’t afford to buy new stuff. Nobody laughs. This is what therapists do. Even when you say something that you think is totally idiotic, they take you seriously. I rush through my explanation, somewhat embarrassed. I wonder if they think it’s trivial. I tell them all the things that I hear in my head, and not just the echoes.
The facilitator breaks it down. She assigns dialogues to every person and makes me stand in the middle of the circle. One by one, they come at me, saying the things that so far I have been telling myself. “You are so selfish to enjoy all the nice things that you have.” “How come you aren’t doing more to help other people?” “You don’t deserve all this stuff. You didn’t work hard enough for them.” “Give them to me. I need them more than you.” The facilitator asks each person to put their hands on my shoulders or arms and press me down till I am on the ground, crushed by the voices as it were.
Then, they each give me a dialogue as a reply, which I am to repeat back to them. “I am not selfish.” “I do help other people.” “I deserve these clothes. I worked for them.” Slowly the mountain of hands and bodies above me moves away, as if my words are arrows.
At the end of the workshop, the facilitator asks each of us to come up with a personal mantra. In a joyous ceremony, we each walk and skip down the room, while our fellow participants cheer us on. The mantras are varied: Express yourself, I am enough, yes you can, just do it. It is my turn to get teary.
Just to freak out her family, Shoba Narayan is considering proper therapy next.
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

Carnatic Music vs. Harry Potter

Great archival photos of two music greats accompanying this piece.

Carnatic music versus Harry Potter
How do you teach Carnatic music to a child whose idea of ‘bhakti’ is watching Harry Potter reruns ad nauseam?
Shoba Narayan
When Bhimsen Joshi or M.S. Subbulakshmi (centre) sang, the ‘bhakti rasa’ was evident. Photo: Hindustan Times

There is one phrase that leaves me wonderstruck these days. It is, “I learnt juggling from my father/mother.” Or “I am teaching my son how to play the piano.” Or “I am teaching my daughter how to play tennis.”
Insert your choice of interest or skill.
How do you teach your child something that you are passionate about without—forgive me— pissing them off? Lots of parents have figured this out, but I am abysmal at it. Carnatic music, which is what my daughter (reluctantly) and I are currently engaged in, is replete with musicians who began learning from their parents and then went on to concert-level careers. How did it happen?

Are you, dear reader, teaching your child something that you care about? Are you good at it? What do you do? Is it patience? How do you stop yourself from criticizing your children to the point where they walk away? How will they get better at it if you don’t criticize? Does it have to do with sensitivity, both yours and the child’s? Can you learn to be dispassionate about something you are passionate about? Because you need this detachment in order to be a good teacher. These are some of the questions I am grappling with.

Twice a week, I force my daughter to sit on our jhoola (swing) and learn Carnatic music from me. Much of what we sing today was codified in the 15th century by Purandara Dasa, a composer who created the pedagogy of Carnatic music. He deemed that the basic voice-training exercises would be in one particular raga called Mayamalavagowla. Dasa created the gradually more complicated exercises that allow the voice to rapidly rise from one octave to another, and create a string of notes, somewhat like a jazz trumpet. This is voice culture and it is what Carnatic music students do for hours every day—for years. At the end of it, your voice should be your slave, my teacher would say. It should move up and down three octaves with the ease and grace of a slithering snake, only faster. I tell my daughter all this during our lesson. She turns to look at the clock and says, “You said only half an hour today.” I search for an analogy that she can relate to: something modern, something more like the music she listens to.

Carnatic music is like jazz in a lot of ways, I say, even though she listens to little jazz. Emotion counts when you sing or play. A good musician can elevate a composition and bring tears to the eyes of the audience. When the iconic M.S. Subbulakshmi sang, “Kurai ondrum illai”, the entire auditorium wept. So said my grandmother anyway. The Tamil word kurai means grievance but alludes to worry in this context, as in, “I have no worries/grievances, Krishna, O lord of wisdom.”
Bhimsen Joshi. Photo: Girish Srivastava/Hindustan Times
I sing the tune, “kurai ondrum illai,” and my daughter sings along, having heard this song many times. It sounds odd, these words, coming from a 12-year-old. Most of our music is steeped in bhakti, or piety; or romance. One of the songs I love, “Jai Durge Durgati Parihaarini,” which Bhimsen Joshi has rendered in a stirring, spine-tingling manner, cannot be sung well without that bhakti rasa. How do you teach it to a child whose idea of bhakti is watching Harry Potter reruns ad nauseam?

Another song I am learning is from Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda. It begins on a rather cheery note: Pralaya payodi jale (The world is ending). To imbue this feeling into the song when you know for a fact that the world isn’t ending is a challenge faced by singers of
our music.

Like jazz, Carnatic music allows for a lot of improvisation. Most concerts begin with improvisation. We call it alapana. And like jazz riffs, you can traverse the musical universe with your imaginative singing and then return to the base, in time with the beat, of course. It is this bit that I cannot do. I can learn and render countless straightforward compositions, but I don’t have the imagination and confidence for improvisation. My foundation isn’t strong enough. I am worried that I will falter. I will sing one note off-key. That, I couldn’t stand. I would hate myself for getting it wrong. So I don’t even try.

My daughter tries though. She is able to sing imaginatively even if it is off-key. I crunch my hands, quite literally, and hold myself back from yelling at her. My face changes even though I channel an inner botoxed look into it. My daughter watches me turn from an easy-going mom to a tyrant. She is spooked by it. My obsessiveness comes through when I teach, which is why my children hate to learn from me.

I am as hard on myself as I am with you, I tell her when she is in tears, trying to make her understand; and forgive; and return to me to learn. My daughter approves of this self-flagellation. She watches my face get stricken when I get a note wrong. She smiles.

With music I get time out not only from the world but also from myself. So I turn on GarageBand, switch on my Snowflake mike, connect it to my SoundCloud account, download the tanpura from YouTube, feed it into my iPod which is streamed through my Bose docking station.
Surrounded and supported by these pillars of technology, I take a deep breath and search for the eternal: mokshamu galada (God grant me salvation). My daughter rolls her eyes and wishes for something similar—time out from her mother’s music.

Shoba Narayan is teaching her daughter geethams , and is trying to learn Jai Durge from Bhimsen Joshi’s CDs. Write to her at