Love after fifty

Fifty by heart

Love after 50 is a complex dance; it is also just habit

Elizabeth Taylor and husband Richard Burton at Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, 1963. Photo: SSPL/Getty Images

Elizabeth Taylor and husband Richard Burton at Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, 1963. Photo: SSPL/Getty Images

Love after 50 is a loaded phrase: one that is full of possibilities. Does it mean that it is possible to love after 50? What kind of love? The same spousal love that has now degenerated to arguing over TV channels? Or a new sort? With whom? For how long?

Is love after 50 a hopeful or a hopeless phrase? I ask Rooney, my neighbour’s dog.

We are sitting in the corridor outside our apartments. Rooney is waiting to go for a walk. And I? Well, I am in the doghouse. Self-imposed doghouse, I might add. Because these days, all my relationships are predicated on two simple things: to be out of earshot when the husband, child or parent is asking or accusing. And to eat enough fibre.

You might say, dear reader, that if my life has boiled down to whether or not I am eating enough Isabgol, I deserve to be in the doghouse. So there I am, sitting cross-legged on the cold granite floor, stroking Rooney, who has eyes only for the elevator. Rooney is 50 years old in dog years—which, if 60 is the new 30, and 50 is the new 20, makes him a newborn puppy in the doggie calendar.

“Do you think you will fall in love, Rooney?” I whisper. “With someone else?” I clarify, for I know that Rooney loves me, and not in the egalitarian unbridled fashion of dogs who love mistress, master, milkman, dog walker, and anyone else with a bone. Rooney and I have something special. We are about the same age, give or take; that makes us great potential partners.

Even if you are happily married, turning 50 imbues you with hope. Mathematicians probably have a reason for it. Maybe because 50 and 60 are round numbers. No one says fit after 47, or sex after 63. If I were 47 or 63—the numbers, that is—I would be mighty upset that only numbers that end with a zero are used for self-reflection by humans.

The reason that 50 imbues us with hope is because of the conceit, which is an advertising term for an idea that could, but need not, be true. It sounds true, which is really all that an adman needs to create reality. This conceit of “love after 50” is best epitomized by that movie Bridges Of Madison County, in which Clint Eastwood plays a rugged photographer (why do women find photographers sexy? Is it because we want to be photographed all the time?). Anyway, Clint Eastwood shows up at Meryl Streep’s home. She is married, but in one of those tired relationships where you go for date night once a week and want to kill yourself because you are so bored. Clint and Meryl fall madly in love. That is the hope that turning 50 offers: The possibility of experiencing the crazy stupid love that you felt in the first years of your relationship.

So what do you do? You reinvent yourself. A man whose life revolves around the Sunday Jain thali at Thaker Thali in Borivali shows up with a tattoo and a Harley-Davidson. Midlife crisis, he says ruefully, but really—he is waiting for actor Sunny Leone to sweep him off his feet.

Women take it out on their bodies. They aspire to become like Queenie Singh or Gauri Khan, never mind that there is enough research to show that men actually like fully formed, voluptuous women of the kind that Botticelli and Peter Paul Rubens painted.

“Have you considered Botox?” I ask Rooney.

He licks my nose.

I want my lips to be fuller, I tell him, like actors Priyanka Chopra, the late Silk Smitha and Seema, the Malayalam actor of yore who caused scores of young girls to pull out their lips and tape the lower one to their chins.

I am trying bee venom. To get bee-stung lips. I actually have access to live bees because of the giant beehives in my balcony. I have even tried bottling a bee, and opening the bottle right near my face in the hope that the agitated insect will aim for my lips. The stupid thing just flies away like it has a bullet in its bottom.

If you are single at 50, you have the hope that you will meet someone special.

The big fantasy for married folks, I would wager, has to do with change. Even those who are happily married ache to fall in love again, not with someone else—that would be too much work—but with the new and improved version of their spouse. For women, it could be a husband who picks up his clothes from the floor; who knows salsa or ballroom dance and can literally sweep her off her feet; who likes to cuddle for hours; has no problem listening to her and responding like a shrink might; and who is comfortable wearing clothes that are two sizes too small. For men after 50, the fantasy could be a woman who gives them the gift of silence after a long, tough day—she who doesn’t talk, let alone nag. She who is comfortable wearing (or not wearing) clothes that are two sizes too small; she who will cause heartburn in other men when she is on his arm; and she who can talk dirty after tucking the children to bed with sweet, wholesome maternal words. There is a reason why these are called fantasies.

Relationships have a rhythm. That is their charm and comfort; but also the reason they need resuscitation. The best part about being in love with the person you know very well is that you can take him or her for granted. That is also the worst part.

Love after 50 is about taking the long view of life. People change, circumstances change, old enmities dissolve; heck, you change. The gift of middle age, whether it is at 37, 46, 54, or 63, is that you hit your stride. You are comfortable in your skin, even if the skin is beginning to sag. Being secure in yourself lets you forgive; give others—whether they are spouses, colleagues, lovers, parents, siblings, children or friends—a wide pass. Summoning up anger or even outrage becomes harder as you gain perspective and, hopefully, humility. Sure, you yell. I yell. But I have learnt emotional efficiency: when to yell and when to merely raise an eyebrow; when to shrug and walk away, and when to hug and hover; when to swallow and stay silent, and when to let my vocal chords rip.

Love after 50 is a complex dance. It is the connection that comes from offering a sip of fine wine or single malt to your loved one, simply because you cannot enjoy it on your own. It is holding the hand of the woman who has loved, hurt, taunted, cheered and nagged you into becoming who you are, warts and all—the one you call Mom, by the way. It is staring at the man who has shrunk a little but who still manages to surprise, inspire and, yes, irritate you—yes, Dad. Love is glancing at your sibling at a party and suppressing a smile because some silly situation takes you back to your childhood and an inside joke that only the two of you understand. Love is learning to stay silent when you are seething with rage because you are the parent and the irritating ball of teenage contradiction, angst and rebellion that you were staring at is your child. “For the greater good,” you mutter when you want to slap the child.

The best cinematic depiction of maternal love that I have seen is in the Tamil film, Kannathil Muthamittal by Mani Ratnam. Simran splendidly plays the mother whose nine-year-old daughter runs away from the house when she discovers that she has been adopted. The parents—superbly acted by Simran and Madhavan—scour the streets and finally find the child at a railway station. The combination of anger, love, protection and betrayal that Simran portrays without saying a word is haunting.

Love after 50 is laughter. It is learning how to fight and forgive. It is identifying people that you want to be with for the long haul: friends who can sense your fears; call your bluff; soothe and comfort; and mostly, show up at the right moment.

Love after 50, in the end, is a habit. It is a practice: one that you hopefully have practised in the last five decades. Now, it is time to perform; to play; or cash in the chips you have collected.

Shoba Narayan often runs off with Rooney.

Gauri Diwakar, Aditi Mangaldas, GR Iranna, Sudarshan Shetty, Matt Ridley and the art of collaboration

22 January 2016 | E-Paper

What rehearsals tell you about an artist

Rehearsals are a vicarious pleasure; a way of accessing the genius of performers without the pressure of a performance

G.R. Iranna with his sculptures at the NGMA, Bengaluru. Photo: Shoba Narayan

G.R. Iranna with his sculptures at the NGMA, Bengaluru. Photo: Shoba Narayan


“The arts have become unidimensional, and we live in a multidimensional world,” says the petite Kathak maestro, Aditi Mangaldas. We are in the basement of the Kamani Auditorium in New Delhi. Mangaldas and her foremost disciple, Gauri Diwakar, are rehearsing a new work, titled Hari Ho…Gati Meri: Muslim Poets In Love Of Lord Krishna. They will present it the following day.

Rehearsals are a vicarious pleasure; a way of accessing the genius of performers without the pressure of a performance. A few arts institutions—the Lincoln Center in New York, for instance—accord the privilege of watching a rehearsal for a price. I am at Kamani at the behest of Minaakshi Dass, whose venture, India Heritage Desk, aims to discover the next Aditi Mangaldas or Malavika Sarukkai. Gauri Diwakar may be one candidate.

In one virtuoso display, Diwakar—clad in yoga pants and a top—mouthes a series of bols, or syllables of beats, that sound exactly like a tabla would. To watch her interact with the tabla player, the harmonium player and the singer, is like watching jazz musicians jamming. A young boy—the tabla master’s son—sits in the middle, absorbing it all. This, I think, is how the next generation of musicians is fostered.

“One beat is off,” says Diwakar. They go over the sound of beats again. Her tongue does gymnastics. The tabla sounds like the beats coming out of her mouth. They are immersed in the complex rhythm. At the end, Mangaldas says, “It is still off.” And off they go again.

During a rehearsal, you learn many things. I learnt that Kathak dancers arch their feet like ballet dancers. That pure dance, called nritya in Kathak, can take your breath away. To hear Diwakar beat her feet to the immersive sound of the tabla master is to watch two bodies performing to the same beat, each one goading and celebrating the other. It is what the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “flow”. As I watch the group, I am envious. Diwakar dances joyfully, sweat running down her forehead; Mangaldas watches the dance she has choreographed come to life—with unwavering eyes and a slight smile. The singer plays the harmonium and sings. The tabla and mridangam players nod their heads, their eyes on the dancer’s feet. All of them are in unison; in another world. Dass and I are interlopers.

More than other art forms, dance is a synthesis—of music, song, lyrics, and costume. If Mangaldas believes that it is unidimensional, what does that say about the rest of the arts?

I think about this as I walk through Sudarshan Shetty’s new sculptural installation at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi. Haunting and intimate, the space he has created reminds me of the Chidambaram temple in Tamil Nadu, which, as it happens, is where sculpture and dance came together during the Chola dynasty. What would happen, I wonder, if Mangaldas and Diwakar were to dance between the pillars that Shetty has erected in this vast space? Would it enhance the sculpture or detract from it? Shetty, more than other artists, would understand and appreciate this fusion of dance, space and sculpture. His wife is a dancer and his father was a yakshagana artiste.

Artists collaborate, of course. But as they become bigger—in fame, and perhaps, ego—the urge to merge with other arts falls short. When you are a Jitish Kallat or a Priyadarsini Govind, why would you want to inhabit another space, particularly after you have slaved away at technique, research and expertise in isolation? To collaborate, you have to leave ego at the door; and that, I guess, is what Mangaldas means when she says that most art these days is unidimensional. It does not mimic the richness and messiness of life.

Govind was felicitated last Saturday at the Dhrishti National Dance Festival in Bengaluru. I read about it in the Deccan Herald, my hometown’s paper. I have never seen Chowdiah Memorial Hall so full. Every seat was taken. Children sat on their parents’ laps. People crammed every aisle. It was among the best performances I have seen in recent times. Anuradha Vikranth and her dance ensemble presented the navarasas (nine emotions) of Durga. Ten beautiful dancers enacted scenes about the goddess. To choreograph two dancers is a feat. To choreograph 10 of them is like herding planets. Four male dancers—two in the Kuchipudi style and two in the Bharatanatyam style—followed; a treat to watch. Dass should keep an eye on Vikranth’s dance ensemble for the next rung of talent.

Which brings us to the question: How does succession planning work in the art world? How does the public access the artists, dancers and musicians in the rung below the top layer? G.R. Iranna is an example. He has had a mid-career retrospective of his work at the NGMA in Bengaluru, but isn’t well known outside the closed confines of the art world.

The NGMA, Bengaluru was buzzing the day before the show opened on 16 January. A museum group from the US was chatting with Iranna. The usually dour museum guards accorded him the deference given to a native Kannada speaker. “He learnt shilpakala (sculpture) in Bijapur,” one guard told me when I asked him if he liked the show. I loved Iranna’s sculptures, which spoke of brave, rebellious politics. Made of white fibreglass, they are visually striking. I could imagine ayakshagana performance amid them. Or Akka Mahadevi’s poetry being read out by Ramya the actor—dressed in a white sari to match the white sculptures. Two different worlds colliding with each other. As they should. For, as Matt Ridley said in his TED talk, we live in a multidimensional world where ideas should meet and “have sex”.

Shoba Narayan loves watching artistic rehearsals. She tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at

Breakfast in Varanasi

01 January 2016 | E-Paper

A hallucinatory breakfast in Varanasi

Is there a more beautiful sound in the world than the sizzle of frying jalebis early in the morning?

Forget about cholesterol if you happen to be in Varanasi. Photo: Alamy

Forget about cholesterol if you happen to be in Varanasi. Photo: Alamy

South Indians, or should I say Tamilians, can be cantankerous purists. No mixing tastes. No adding sugar to dal like the Gujaratis do; or adding jaggery to rasam like the Kannadigas do. Only one vegetable per sambhar; be it okra, brinjal or small onions. If you mix multiple vegetables, you are a caterer who is trying to palm off all the cheap vegetables available into one pot. These Tamilians ought to taste the pleasures of breakfast in Varanasi. It might change their minds.

I am standing at Vishwanath Mishthan Bhandar in Vishweshwar Ganj. It is 8am and I have just done yoga and pranayamwith a hundred strangers on the banks of the Ganga, led by a female teacher who shouted, scolded and coaxed us into stretches, bends and submission. Just show up at Assi ghat at 6am if you would like to join in. Suitably lubricated, my body is ready for its next round of lubrication.

At the Vishwanath Bhandar, four men sit outside, frying stuff. Have you heard the sizzle of a jalebi early in the morning? It is the most beautiful sound in the world. Chopin’s Nocturnes have nothing on the twin sounds of jalebi and kachorisizzling in oil right next to each other. I stand with the milling crowd. It is my turn. I hold out Rs.10 and get two leaf bowls. An impassive man ladles aloo sabzi into one leaf bowl; and the kachori in another. Now comes the dilemma. How to stand, balance these two bowls in one hand and eat with the other? The others around me are doing just fine; they’ve had years of practice, darn them. If I could be born again, I would come back as a Kashi vasi (Kashi resident), not necessarily for the good karma but for the terrific kachoris. I have had kachoris in Jaipur, Haridwar, Delhi and Bengaluru. So far, the ones in Kashi are the best. They are fluffy, not brittle. They hold their round shape and have a respectable amount of dal. They collapse like a bubble when you tear them open. The best part is the aloo sabzi: a trite tangy, just enough spicy, and piping hot.

The only way to make a kachori better is to mix it with jalebi. It is like adding a pinch of salt to hot chocolate. The shot of pure sugar makes the shot of pure cholesterol better. Best if you don’t think in those terms and use the term that teenagers these days use to explain everything: YOLO (You Only Live Once). Ergo, eat kachori-jalebi for breakfast; if possible, every day.

Once breakfast is done, I go temple hopping. At the Sankat Mochan Hanuman temple, hot laal pedas (red pedas) are brought out. Devotees buy boxes of them to take to the Hindu god Hanuman and then distribute to those gathered. I stand in line, awaiting my share. A lady in a purple sari hands me one; then, seeing my face, she gives me another with a smile. “Jai Hanuman,” I say and pop one into my mouth. She looks pleased.

“My daughter conceived after eating 10 of these pedas,” she says. “They are a fertility tonic.”

I stop half-bite. Is this why India is overpopulated? Too late. The peda is “too good”, as my nephew, Harsha, says. The trick to a good peda, and I speak as someone who has never made a peda in her life, is the consistency. It has to melt in the mouth but you should be able to chew the last bits. You should make those popping sounds that babies make when they relish food. In Tamil, we call this naaka chappi kotti, which is like saying, “making clicking and clapping sounds with your tongue”. A good peda should make your tongue clap.

At the Annapurna temple across town, someone is serving sesame rice, perhaps because it is Saturday. Karnataka, where I live, is home to several “rice varieties”, or “chithra-anna”, as we call it: coconut rice, lemon rice, tamarind rice, curd rice, and, best of all, bise bele bhaath, which literally means hot lentil-rice mixture. Sesame rice is not often made or served. It is a delicacy and an acquired taste. I acquired it in Kashi. The recipe is simple: roasted and ground black sesame seeds, red chillies, curry leaves, some urad dal, and a good helping of asafoetida. Grind it all up and mix with hot rice. Here too, the leaf bowls make their appearance. If you like the depth and girth of good sesame oil, you will love sesame rice. It is great for vegans because it contains a ton of calcium.

At the Kashi Vishalakshi Temple, this wide-eyed goddess is served some ghee-dripping sheera as prasadam. The sponsor of this prasadam ladles out a spoon to a line of devotees, including me.

All this eating has made me thirsty. The great thing is that you can get thandai with bhang in Varanasi on an average day. You don’t have to wait for Holi to indulge. Lord Shiva, the ascetic, loved his bhang, made from the leaves of the cannabis plant. At a government bhang shop, I nervously watch the vendor pour a respectable amount of this green concoction, before adding chilled milk laced with crushed nuts, sugar and saffron. The resulting drink is slightly bitter. It is supposed to be hallucinatory. It makes people giggle and wake up with what seems like a hangover.

The other dish that is a signature of the city is not as potent. Banarasi paan is a digestive. I grow betel leaves in my garden. How different can this be, I think, as I stand in front of a tiny shop and ask for a paan.

“With zarda or without?” asks the vendor.

Zarda comes from tobacco. It is addictive; gives a high. How bad can it be? With lightning fingers, the vendor smooths open a bright green betel leaf. He throws in several items: betel nuts, lime paste, fennel seeds, a pinch of zarda, rose petal jam or gulkand, and what looks like tutti-frutti. He folds it into a triangle, sticks a clove to hold it together, and hands it over to me. I have eaten paan before, but this one has oomph. As I chew, I can feel myself becoming light-headed. The juices flow down my throat, inducing a pleasant sensation of relaxation. I smile beatifically and thank the vendor.

“Careful,” he says as I stumble out. “Sambhaalke.”

I wave my hand and keep walking. It is a beautiful day.

I don’t remember very much of what happened after that; except that I, much like a Hindi film heroine, woke up in bed.

Shoba Narayan loves a good Bengaluru bisi bele bhaath followed by a Banarasi paan. Write to her at

The delights of wearing a sari

This is going to be my year of regional styles of donning this garment.  Just saw and loved Baji Rao Mastani.

Nanditha Lakshmanan, Shilpa Sharma, Sudha Kanago, Deepa Krishnan, Ally Mathan, Jo Pattabhiraman, Chandra Jain, Geetha Rao, and all you casual and effortless sari wearers, this one is for you.


25 December 2015 | E-Paper

The delights of wearing a sari

For many of this generation, donning a sari is both a moral and an aesthetic choice

Dress is not a moral question. It is an aesthetic question,” pronounces Rta Kapur Chishti. For her, maybe. But for many 30- and 40-something women who are used to the “comfort” of wearing pants, the sari can seem constraining. So why bother with this garment? Why bother with six or nine yards of unstitched cloth that is, along with curry, cricket, bindis and bling, an instantly recognizable icon of India?

For some, like Ally Matthan and Anju Maudgal Kadam, who co-founded the 100 Saree Pact, the sari has become a crusade; a movement; a sisterhood. It is a way to preserve and relish a garment that is ours for the taking.

For others, like Shilpa Sharma, a co-founder of Jaypore, the online retailer, the sari is a work of art and a way to access Indian culture. Sharma organizes “textile trails” through the different states, introducing participants to weavers, techniques and experts like Chishti. Jaypore has brought Chishti to Bengaluru to run “The Sari School” workshop, in which she demonstrates some of the many regional styles she has learnt from all over India. I am one of the giddy participants.

Wearing a sari, for me, is both an aesthetic and a moral question. Do I sleep in a sari like my mother? No. Do I wear it throughout the day and travel to global conferences in a sari like my mother-in-law? No. Is the sari a second skin for me, as it is for Chishti? No. Then why am I wearing this garment? I certainly don’t reflexively reach for it every morning like countless women of the previous generation did. When invited to a party where I know most women will be dressed in designer Western clothes, the choice of a sari isn’t merely aesthetic. It is a blend of loyalty, even patriotism towards a garment that you believe is endangered and deserves to be saved, preserved and handed over to the next generation. It is a way of asserting an identity at the risk of standing out, something that many women dislike. It is a statement: “See, if I can wear a sari, maybe you will too.” It is—many times—uncomfortable to go to a party, be the only one in a sari and risk being stereotyped as old-fashioned.

Wearing a sari, for people of this generation, is an act of principle; a conscious choice. Having said that, I discovered a delightful consequence. The sari disarms. You walk into a room full of stylish, svelte women in bandage dresses and think, “Oh God! I am the only one in a sari.” But then they gravitate towards you, these men and women. They talk about Mangalore tiles; red-oxide floors; and grandparents. “I love your sari,” she says. “I wanted to wear one.” They associate your garment and you with comfort, nostalgia and family. That is the effect of this garment. It disarms the viewer and connects you with your past.

Chishti and Saumya Nagar, who works with her, demonstrated several regional styles, none of which required a petticoat. “Once you get hooked on to the feel of a sari around your body, you can never go back to the restrictions of a petticoat.”

The regional styles, many of which involve a kache, or drape between the legs, are like pyjamas; they are more comfortable than the way we wear a sari now, because they free up the legs to move.

That said, would you wear such a drape to a party? It requires conscious choice; the risk of standing out and being labelled “strange”, and the confidence to “own” a style that is Indian and ours for the taking. It is, in other words, the next and natural step for someone who chooses to wear a sari, not only for its aesthetic but also for what it represents.

Shoba Narayan is wearing regional-style sari variations to parties these days. Write to her at

Also read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns here .

Paris and Luxury

Should brands take a stand is the question I try to analyze in this piece. Normally, no.  But now?  Thanks to Elisabeth Cadoche-Guez for setting me up with luxury brand executives in Paris.  Elisabeth is the author of a wonderful book on Arthur Rimbaud.

27 November 2015 | E-Paper

Luxury in the time of great tragedy

France’s great luxury brands haven’t done much in this time of tragedy, and they ought to repair that

Imagine if you were the head of Dior, Lanvin, Chanel, Yves St. Laurent, or Hermes. You are sitting in your corner office in Paris– your beloved Paris- which is in a state of emergency, and will be for the next three months.  What are you going to do? Do luxury brands have a role to play in times of crisis?

The simplest and easiest approach is to say nothing; to stay away from any political statement because no matter what you do, it could be misconstrued.  LVMH and Kering, the two big conglomerates in French luxury, declared a holiday on the day after the Paris terrorist attacks.  Some brands like Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Carven and others posted solidarity messages on the House Instagram account. But beyond that, the French luxury community (if there is one) mourned in private.  Is this the right approach? You could argue it both ways, and I—at least this time—am arguing that it is time that French luxury brands speak up.  Why? Because this is Paris—the home and heart of the luxury business.  The place where storied brands like Cartier, Moynat, Boucheron and Balenciaga began their story. This is the city that has nurtured many of the iconic brands of the world; where they have flowered and thrived. Why go silent at a time when their city needs them most?

There are a few good reasons. The biggest is the fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. Facebook–a baby brand, relative to these guys, reacted to the Paris terror attacks and got both bouquets and brickbats. Its “safety check” feature in the wake of the Paris and Nigeria terror attacks was hugely useful. At the same time, the company was criticized for allowing users to change their profile picture to match the French national flag but not doing the same for the Beirut bombings that happened a day earlier. Mark Zuckerberg, the 31-year-old CEO of Facebook, made things worse, when he said that the company couldn’t respond to every crisis because “unfortunately, these kinds of events are all too common.”  What Zuckerberg said unfortunately happens to be true.  Brands are a commercial business and not in the business of messaging, condemning, criticizing or reacting to every global event.  But critics were miffed.  Why this selective outrage, they screamed. No wonder luxury brands want to stay out of controversy. They have seen more wars and calamities before Zuckerberg was even born.  Which one do they react to?

The second reason for staying quiet is the belief that it is not their place to react. Luxury brands are in the business of curation and selection.  They are arbiters of style, beauty and sensitivity. The reason for their existence–they believe–has to do with “an incessant quest for quality, innovation, and creativity.”  How to deploy these brand values in a time of war? To come up with a message that is appropriate, sensitive, and in character with what their brand stands for?  John Galliano tried with his “Dior not War,” T-shirts in 2005, but it was at best, an insipid response.

The default mode is do things quietly; to donate a portion of profits to the victims of the attacks; to set up foundations; or simply donate to relief agencies like the Red Cross, French Secours Populaire, or the Friends of Fondation de France Inc.  Brands do this during natural disasters.

The luxury business gains over 40 percent of revenues from travellers, says Luca Solca, head of luxury goods at Exane BNP Paribas.  Anything that disrupts global travel – primarily epidemics or terrorist attacks – would be a major negative for luxury goods.  The terrorist attacks on Paris, says Solca, “are a clear negative on what was already a difficult market for luxury goods.”

The luxury business is also a victim of that fickle variable called “mood of the customer.”  One executive wondered aloud if customers would buy a €2000 handbag in times of terror attacks. The wise approach was to hunker down and soldier on, he said.  And yet…..  Could a business case be made for doing the opposite? Would it make commercial sense for a brand to take a stance against global terrorism? Certainly, such a contrarian approach would be a clear differentiator; help the brand to stand out in the minds of customers. It could even broaden the customer base– and make fence-sitting customers buy that €2000 handbag as a symbol of the fight against terrorism.

When I asked Solca what French luxury houses could do at a time like this, he was cautious.  “I believe everyone is shaken and feeling close to the victims, their families and their friends – in Paris, in France and the world over. The luxury goods industry – so important in Paris and so central in defining French culture and attitudes – is no exception,” he said.

Agreed, but what can a brand actually do?  “Beauty, sensitivity, care and wisdom will be vital to balance the horror we have witnessed,” said Solca. “This is the role the industry can fulfill.

Tough call, and a daunting list, for sure. How does one meld “sensitivity” and “wisdom” into an anti-terror message? Then again, the vast marketing and PR tools that are available to these brands could be deployed to craft just such a message.

What about a more public role, even if it is a symbolic gesture—somewhat akin to lowering the flag to half-mast in times of mourning? Is there some gesture that a brand can make to show solidarity towards the city that has nurtured it?

Even if I manage to convince top luxury executives that that they should craft an explicitly political message, what would it be? A Singapore-based CEO suggested a “unity in diversity” type message.  “When a French designer, Algerian leather processor, Tunisian embroiderer, Albanian supply chain manager, English merchandiser and Chinese store manager work together to deliver a great hand bag to its customer, we send a message that integration creates beauty. And it should be that way in every walk of life— we need to reject messages of intolerance and promote integration,” he said.  Unity in diversity, or in this case, unity in adversity.

Another choice could be a variation of the French proverb: “Mieux vaut prévenir que guérir,” which means, “It is better to prevent than to heal.” In such a time, it is better to prevent and to heal. Or what Mahatma Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.”

Would you buy such a message if it were crafted into a Stella McCartney handbag? Or an Hermes scarf? Or a Celine dress? Statements like this may help a waffling customer rationalize her spend on a luxury product. Love in the time of cholera— or terror in this case, to paraphrase Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book.   One reason to buy something beautiful and unique during difficult times is if it is a message that helps the greater good; if you can view it as a retaliation to the fear and horror that has been wreaked by the terrorists. There are endless options for what the message can be for there is the will to commit; to take a stance.

Crafting such a message, either by one brand or a coalition of all the French luxury brands, is explicit, no doubt.  Brands may think it uncomfortable and out of character.  but the results, both in terms of goodwill towards the brand and commercially in terms of customers buying your product or remembering your brand could be tremendous. Coming up with a common message is hard to do but would reduce single-brand risk. It would be somewhat akin to musicians coming together to sing, “We are the world,” still remembered after all these years.

Perhaps it is time for the top French luxury brands to stop playing ostrich. Perhaps it is time for them to speak out in unison against the carnage that global terrorism has wreaked on their home ground. Perhaps it is time to stop worrying about the risks of saying the wrong thing and speak from the heart: authentically, emotionally and fearlessly. Why? Because it is Paris. Because it is the way forward. Because, “Qui n’avance pas, recule”


Shoba Narayan agrees with Arthur Rimbaud that Paris has “shed more tears than God could ever have required.”

Poetry Feedback

Funny how poetry evinces so much passion.  Did not realize.

Hi Shoba,

As a poetry junkie, loved your last column.  Would love to meet your father some day. Like your father,  I too “had to memorise” Abou Ben Adhem as a schoolboy! 

By the way,  if I am not mistaken, the correct verse is “An angel writing in a book of gold”  – and not “an angel writing in leaves of gold”.

Here’s the link to  a piece on Abou Ben Adhem and, incredibly, an obscure topic in the biological sciences.  It is by, who else, a South Indian Brahmin (Tam Brahm, perhaps) scientist based in the US!

I think you will like it. 

Best regards. Vivek

PS: Do let me know if the link does not open. 

Begin forwarded message:

From: Padi Moorthy <>

Subject: May the professor’s tribe increase

Date: November 16, 2015 at 9:15:13 PM GMT+5:30

To: Shoba Narayan <>, “” <>

My dear Shoba,

                         Read your piece on your father’s love for poetry

                         Well written.

                         You are lucky to have a father who remembers Abu Ben Adam.

                         He has the talent to remember lines and recite them

                         My memory is notorious

                         But of all poems I remember Casabianca !!

                        The boy stood on the burning deck whence all but he had fled

                        The flames that lit the battle wreck shone round him over the dead”                         

     In a school elocution competition I recited this poem with tears running down my cheek

    I got the first prize for CRYING

   When some one passes, I remember this dismal Tamil verse, not Kamban or Bharathi

Andandu thorum azuthu purandalum maandar varuvaro Manilatheer, Vendaam

Edu vazhiye naam pom alavum

Nammak Enna endru

Ittu, undu irrum.

Notice the emphasis on Ittu(Give first ,then eat and stay on)


PVK thatha

Poetry…India…Verse… Performance Poetry Festival. How to appreciate poetry?

The mysterious ways of poetic inspiration

Why do we like poetry? And how do they get into our lives?

T.S. Eliot. Photo: John Gay/Getty Images

T.S. Eliot. Photo: John Gay/Getty Images

“Why do you like poetry so much?” I asked my father again this morning.

He sighed. “Because we had to memorize poems like “Abou Ben Adhem, may his tribe increase,’”he replied.

It is a tangential answer; one that attempts to pry loose and give word to something tenuous, precious.

My father begins reciting the poem to deflect my tiresome questions. His voice is soft, and thanks to newly acquired dentures, a bit slurred. I strain to hear him. “….like a lily in bloom….an angel writing in leaves of gold….”

My mouth opens with another question. My father starts reciting again. “Abou Ben Adhem, may his tribe increase.”

The first time I heard the phrase, “May your tribe increase,” was about five years ago from my friend, K. Srikrishna. He included it in a thank-you note that he sent after a party. I liked the phrase and started including it in my thank-you notes. It seemed like a quintessentially Indian expression.

“In India, we don’t thank a person,” I told my husband grandly. “We offer blessings, and that too, not to the individual—to the group. We don’t take ownership of an action, or even our spouse. Objects and actions belong to the community. We say hum, not main; not my husband but the husband. We don’t say, I wish you well. We say, ‘May your tribe increase.’”

“And it has,” the husband replied drily. “To become the second most populous nation on earth.”

After my father recited the poem, I realized that the phrase I was making much of wasn’t Indian at all. It came from a poem written by Leigh Hunt, a 19th century English poet, who, it turns out, has written about grasshoppers and crickets, death
and fish.

My father walks down every day to visit my brother and I. We live in the same apartment complex. He may start at my brother’s house and end up at mine, or vice versa. He is a worry-wart. When my brother was commanding Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCCs), ships that plied the oceans, my dad worried that some drunk sailor would throw the captain—my brother—off the ship. Not about payment or promotions. My dad’s worries come from his magnificent imagination. Poetry gives him solace; turns his worries into structured chunks of very lovely words or verses. He is a quiet man, my dad. Doesn’t talk much, except on topics he cares about. And these days, what he likes to talk about is poetry. No matter what the topic, he can link it to poetry.

Appa, what shall I say about silence?” I asked before speaking at a panel discussion.

“You can use Shakespeare’s sonnets,” he replied and began reciting. “‘When to the sessions of sweet silent thought, I summon up remembrances of things past.”

Poetry has become a hook; a way to converse with my dad. He loves English poetry and knows a hell of a lot about it. Shakespeare is his favourite but he also loves the Romantic poets who lived in the Yorkshire Moors in close proximity to each other. He talks about Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and T.S. Eliot when I ask about poets who had an India connection. In his poem, The Waste Land, Eliot talked about “What the thunder said” and used the phrase, Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata (Give, Sympathize, Control).”

The Waste Land is a brilliant poem. There are strands of nonsensical phrases, lines in German, French, Italian and Sanskrit. It is a nightmare to memorize. But once it seeps in, I can imagine that it will change a person—which really is the purpose of all art: to change how you view the world.

As my father’s daughter, I wrestle with poetry. Prose seems more straightforward; less forced. Regional poetry in my native tongue, Tamil; or even translated Sanskrit, Spanish or Russian poetry sounds better to my novice ears. But perhaps I am approaching it all wrong. Poetry, like yoga, music, meditation or sport, is a practice; one that you get better at. Reading and memorizing poetry makes you see the world through a lens that is singular and distinctive. It shapes the way you see things and you may well be 80 years old—like my dad—before you relish its rewards.

Is poetry relevant in today’s world? The way to answer that question is to pick a poet, memorize her poems and see if they influence you. Do it often enough and these poems may give you endurance, courage and joy. Ancient India has a long tradition of poetry in every language. The ones I follow are Sanskrit poets. Bharatiya Kaavya Shastra, they called it, and the list of luminaries is long: Bharata, Dandin, Udbatha, Vamana, Rudrata, Anandavardhana, Abhinavagupta, Rajashekara, Kunthaka, Dhananjaya, Bhoja, Kshemendra, Mamatta, Vishwanatha, Jagannatha and Kalidasa. No women. Thankfully, my native tongue—Tamil—has fine women poets—Andal and Avvaiyar being the ones I am most familiar with.

Poetry is a child of leisure. It takes a while to appreciate phrases like the “wild braid of creation trembles”, in Stanley Kunitz’s masterpiece, The Snakes Of September. How then to access poetry beyond simply memorizing as much as you can? Thankfully, we have options. Mint Lounge publishes poetry, as do Muse India, Poetry India, ReadLeafPoetry,, The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective and the Enchanting Verses Literary Review, among others.

Delhi is the place to be. They have the Poets Corner group, Delhi Poetry Slam, and the Delhi Poetry Festival—from 18-20 December at Siri Fort Auditorium; mark your calendars. Performance poetry à la Sarah Kay may be the future; or tweeting poems à la Kaafiya—The Poetry Festival. I don’t know. I am not a poet, although I would like to be one.

Shoba Narayan is trying to memorize Abou Ben Adhem. She tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at

On talking to elders

Start a conversation with the elderly

Shoba Narayan shares her conversation strategy with the elderly

Every elder has something worth sharing. Photo: iStockphoto

Every elder has something worth sharing. Photo: iStockphoto

What is your strategy when you meet elders; those uncles you encounter at weddings? You sit with them, chat desultorily about their prostate, how hot Mumbai has become, and maybe reminisce about the ancestral home or village. The conversation ends abruptly after 5 minutes; and then both parties, with relief, turn to their devices.

I am taking a different approach, perhaps because I am surrounded by octogenarians. I find that every elder has a secret switch; something that they love; something that is worth sharing; that I will enjoy learning. The trick is to find out what—and quickly. It could be particle physics or pranic healing; poetry or the parachute regiment. How to draw them out, if only to make the conversation interesting?

Their career is a good starting point. Questions in this area can be broken down four ways.

Comparison: “Uncle, how is the Indian Army different today from when you were commanding it?”

Prescription: “Auntie, if you could influence today’s attitude towards weavers and textiles, what would you do?”

Takeaways: “Uncle, what was your biggest takeaway from your career with RAW (Research and Analysis Wing, India’s primary foreign intelligence agency)?”

Rewriting history: “If you could do something different, what would it be?”

Such questions are uncomfortable to ask, and even more uncomfortable for them to confront. These are modest folks. They are not forthcoming and dislike talking about themselves. Often, you meet them in social settings—at parties or weddings—where pleasantries, even if boring, are the norm. They are not used to laser-like questions. As Roger Angell says in his essay, “This Old Man”, in The New Yorker, “…we elders have learned a thing or two, including invisibility.” Elders are used to being ignored; talked over. They expect politeness; genuine interest is new for them. In these circumstances, how do you cut to the chase?

It helps if you warm up to the topic. Start by saying that you have been reading about foreign intelligence, textiles, architecture, the behaviour of wasps, or whatever it is that uncle or auntie is an expert at. You have to give them four sentences at least as preamble before springing the question. You have to be prepared for uncomfortable laughter and non-answers. “Actually, there was no one takeaway as you call it. We were so busy filling the need of the hour that…well….” The voice trails away.

Women of that generation are trickier, particularly if they have been homemakers. They may ramble, go around in circles. They haven’t been exposed to management-speak and bullet points. Their wisdom is homespun; passed along through long anecdotes. They take time to get to the nub of things. You have to slow down and listen.

The question for many is, “Why bother?” Why bother hanging around old people? Sometimes, like when your parents live with you, near you, or come to visit, it isn’t a choice. They are around and you have to talk about something. Sometimes, it is a way of engaging with your relatives or friends’ parents. I could tell you that elders give you perspective, but that takes time. So really, it boils down to not getting bored; to figure out a way to engage your mind by engaging theirs.

Some months ago, at a memorial service for Anne Warrior, the educator who co-founded the Mallya Aditi School in Bengaluru, several people, including her grandson, spoke about Warrior’s love of poetry. My grandmother could make anyone love poetry, said her grandson, and I quote from memory. I used to meet her about once a month when both of us were members of The Bangalore Black Tie. We chit-chatted. Not once did we speak about poetry. Indeed, I didn’t know about her interest in this topic till her memorial service.

How do you pass along a passion? Often, it is simply through presence, conversation, and the passing remark. If some subject can give you pleasure in your 80s, would you study it—even if it is “useless” like classical music, dance or poetry? Is something worth learning, not for an immediate goal but for a gradual moulding of the mind?

Poetry is one of the last bastions of the cultured mind. Schoolchildren memorize poems, and then drop it once they hit college. I haven’t read poetry for decades. I didn’t know how to until very recently, when I experienced it through the eyes of Warrior and my father. He has unintentionally unpackaged this world in a way that I can access it. When I tell him about a forthcoming trip to Varanasi, he says Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a poem titled Brahma. So I read it. This then is how seepage happens—ideas and thoughts that migrate from one mind to another.

So the next time you meet an elder, ask them a question or two. You might be surprised at their opinions; you will be enriched by their knowledge. You will be in their shoes one day.

Shoba Narayan has been freaking out elders with her questions for some months now. She tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan.

How could I forget Ramassery idli?

The outrage over Manchurian ‘idli’

There are a hundred wonderful variations of this ancient, flawless dish. Why spoil it?

It was on board a Vistara Airlines flight that I first tasted the ghastly concoction called idli manchurian.

It was my first time on the airline. I was happy. The distinct airline smell was absent. You know the one I mean? The explosive combination of closed lavatories, chemical air freshener, deodorant, all overlaid by the scent of hot food stuffed into trolleys and crammed into a small space—like a gassy burp waiting to happen.

Then the food came. I should have paid more attention to the flight attendants as they listed out the menu. But I was stunned that we were actually getting something to eat rather than fancy-packed nuts at four times the normal cost a la Indigo.

Vistara’s cardboard containers looked smart with pencil art like the ones Chumbak and the Elephant Company have popularized. I took a bite and spat it out. Why, oh, why, were they messing with a recipe that reflected the scent of South India?

According to the late Kannada scholar, D. L. Narasimhachar, who has edited ancient treatises such as Kumaravyasa Bharata—a medical work; and Vaddaradhane, which talks about the life of a Jain muni called Bhadrabahu, the word “idli” has been in vogue– in Karnataka certainly– for over 1000 years. I learnt this from Shatavadhani Dr. R. Ganesh, a Sanskrit and Kannada scholar in Bangalore.

South Indians like me wake up to the scent of idlis. I may not be able to identify the scent of a Merlot but I can smell the “idli-vasanai” or “idli-smell” from across a playground. In Bangalore, scores of darshinis—open cafes where you stand and eat– serve jasmine-soft idlis to patrons before dawn. We scarf down three or four idlis with chutney and sambhar before walking briskly around lakes and gardens to sweat it off.

If you don’t like plain idlis, there are Kanchipuram idlis, steamed in baskets with carrots grated on top; thatte idlis, about the size of a plate; button idlis, also called bullet idlis that hit you with tiny dollops of round, white, goodness; sannas which are the Goan version of this bland, fermented base that accepts all flavours like a mother (except Manchurian); leaf-idlis or Mudde idlis, the Mangalore version, in which the batter is poured into a cone made with aromatic kewda or screw pine leaves; kotte idlis, also Mangalorean, where you use jackfruit leaves as cones; kuzhi paniyaaram of Tamilnadu, where you fry the idli batter that is spiced with the vagar or thalichu-kottal of black mustard seeds, urad dal, diced ginger, green chilies and curry leaves in tiny containers— savory muffins if you will. If all else fails, you can have rava idlis; podi idlis where the idli is cut up and mixed with a powder of milagai-podi or idli-chili-powder and sesame oil; or even the currently popular ragi idlis. With such a dizzying array of choices, why stray so far away from the dish that goes back to the 10th century if Shivakoti Acharya’s kannada treatise, Vaddaradhane, is to be believed? Food historian K.T. Achaya believes that the idli in its current form with Ponni broken rice mixed with the urad dal in a 4:1 proportion came from Indonesia. That may be, but it took us South Indians to perfect this painstakingly ground, flawlessly proportioned, fermented batter of urad dal and rice. Why add Chinese infusions to a dish that is already an Indonesian-Indian fusion dish in the first place?

“You see, Madame, North Indians don’t want to go for Southie dishes,” the flight attendant said. “If we mix some Chinese flavour with these idlis, then it will be palatable for North Indians as well.”

That riled me up. To call an idli unpalatable is like telling a Punjabi that his maa ki dal is wanting in taste; or telling a Bengali that her fish is flavourless; or telling a Hyderabadi that his biriyani is insipid.

“What about North Indian dishes that aren’t palatable to South Indians?” I asked silkily. My sarcasm was lost on the young woman who stared blankly at me. There is nothing worse that being sarcastic and not being understood. I decided to take the direct tack—or in my case, the direct attack.

“Do you make an undhiyo-manchurian as well?” I asked.

“Undhiyo isn’t North Indian,” she replied. “It is Gujarati.”

That wasn’t the point. The point was why the airline was tampering with only South Indian recipes.

“Manchurian is the flavor of the moment,” explained the flight attendant. “In Maharashtra, we have Manchurian chips, Manchurian chops and even chakli manchurian.”

“Oh you poor thing,” I murmured. “They’ve messed with your chaklis also.”

The Gujarati man sitting beside me shook his head. “What next?” he said. “They will make Manchuri dhokla.”

We all tittered politely.

“We should get together and protest like that Hardik Patel is doing,” someone said.

“Or they should use these foreign flavours to improve on dishes like undhiyo,” I said virtuously, with visions of an improved undhiyo in my mind. Wrong statement, I realized a moment later.

“Why? You don’t like undhiyo?” My Gujarati neighbour, who had until now, been an ally glared at me. No longer could I count on him to be a idli-supporter, I realized. He wouldn’t mobilize Hardik for the cause of idlis.

I tried to back-pedal. “I’ve never eaten an undhiyo I like,” I said.

“It is certainly better than your aviyal,” he replied.

“What’s wrong with an aviyal?” I asked. “Do you know that my friend who has brain cancer only eats aviyal because of its coconut oil content? Do you know that Gwyneth Paltrow drinks two spoons of virgin coconut oil every morning? Aviyal is a perfectly balanced dish.”

“Like our undhiyo,” he replied. We were at stalemate.

As dishes go idlis are like Mother Earth. You can throw any garbage on top of them and they will accept. Undhiyo and Aviyal on the other hand, are perfect in their own way but not crowd-pleasers. As for me, I don’t like undhiyo; then again, I don’t like aviyal either. Even to eat with adai, which is the way Tamilians eat it.

Shoba Narayan filled out the complaint form against the invasion of Manchurian in the idli department.