Are you listening to Kodaikanal rap?

Trying to mix multiple streams in one column: millet, music, film extras and environmentalism.

Are you listening to the Kodaikanal rapster? 


The old woman in Palani—down the hill from Kodaikanal– was trying to recruit me to be a movie extra.  Muniamma looked like a rock star.  She was about 80, with weathered skin about the colour of a coffee bean.  She was clad in a soft white cotton sari sans blouse in the fashion of village women in Tamilnadu.  

Muniamma’s recruitment strategy was fool proof.  She would make me homemade “kuthirai-vaali kanji” for lunch if I would dance in a video that her grandson was making.  I said yes without asking any more questions.

Kuthirai vaali belongs to the Echinochloa family and is called barnyard millet; bhagar or varai in Maharashtra; jhangora in Hindi, and odalu in Telegu.  Kuthirai vaal means horse’s tail in Tamil and for a moment, I idly wondered if it would give me the strength of a horse, like Ashwagandha does in Ayurveda.  Muniamma gave a knowing smile and said that the effects of barnyard millet wasn’t mere strength; it was more like the effects of Moringa, widely touted as an aphrodisiac in Tamilnadu.  “Your husband will be very happy tonight,” she said, with a knowing, if sexist smirk.

Muniamma approached me as I stood outside the tonsure shed in Palani, contemplating whether I should shave my head: an action that I have often considered.  Even though I was wearing a sari, she had pegged me as a “jeans-pant Madam,” who were, apparently in short supply in the area: Dindigul district.  Her grandson wanted to make a video to protest the dumping of garbage in the Shanmukha lake in Palani.  He needed extras to dance behind him and fill up the screen. 

“Don’t worry, nobody will see you,” he said reassuringly if somewhat quixotically.  What was the point of dancing in a video if nobody would see me?

After filming, he would post it on Youtube “just like that Kodaikanal girl had done.” 

That was how I heard about Sofia Ashraf, the star musician of a viral Youtube video called “Kodaikanal Won’t.”  Smartly set to the tune of Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda, which earned the Indian video a tweet from its muse, Kodaikanal Won’t has garnered over 3 million views and some amount of action.   

Most environmental issues, unfortunately, involved a clichéd set of actors: Big Business who is usually the villain; and the Disenfranchised Poor, who are usually the victims.  So it was with Bhopal; so it was with the Uttarakhand and Kashmir floods where rampant real estate development led to an environmental collapse; and so it is with Kodaikanal’s case against Hindustan Unilever, where it alleges that the company’s now-closed thermometer factory caused mercury poisoning in 600 people; water pollution; widespread environmental problems; and 45 deaths.  Ashraf is the protagonist.  In a video interview, also posted on Youtube, she comes across as a spunky, funny, independent woman– the kind you’d hope your daughter would grow up to be.  She got involved, she says, because three NGO’s– Kodaikanal Worker’s Association, The Other Media, and Vetiver Collective—who have been fighting Unilever for years asked for her help.  They also roped in Bangalore-based, which does online campaigns.  I enjoyed’s website, flowing as it was with the milk of human idealism.  This isn’t a fly-by-night operation.  They have run campaigns to “Save the Western Ghats,” “Clean Ganga,” and fight moral policing, rape, censorship and sexism.

Once the video gained traction, Unilever CEO tweeted that he does “not accept” different standards of environmental compensation.  Then, he added, somewhat unnecessarily that he believed that “all humans are the same.”  In its website, Unilever refutes all allegations.  It says that that its former employees, and the environment, did not suffer any adverse effects because of its presence in Kodaikanal.  Each side has offered its version of “proof” to substantiate its statements.  The issue is being negotiated on an ongoing basis.

As an interested observer, I hope that the issue is seen through to conclusion.  Now that the spotlight has been cast, the aggrieved parties need a different cast of characters.  Rather than dancers and actors, they need environmental experts, lawyers and accountants to look through regulatory codes and mercury levels to figure out if and how much compensation would make sense. 

For people such as Paneer Selvam—Muniamma’s grandson and wannabe rapper—the video has inspired copycat ventures; and the hope that they can change things.  Citizen action is often a nebulous exercise. How many times have signed petitions? I have signed countless online petitions, mostly because they came from friends and happen to align with causes I support.  The problem is that such online action doesn’t have good follow-up.  The petitions vanish into the Internet and the signers don’t really know what happened to the issue they supported.  I have friends who scoff at online petitions as “useless efforts” that don’t really move the needle in terms of the effect they generate.  I happen to be one of those idiotic idealists who believes the opposite: that each individual action, however small, can make a difference.  Perhaps the way forward is to mix creativity with causes. 

Petitions usually come with a nauseating amount of self-righteousness that says, “They are wrong.  We are right.”  They are serious and cause you to flip the channel or stop reading simply because you don’t want to be weighed down by the words at the end of a very long day.  They are stern and do the email version of the principal’s pointed finger.  In the future, perhaps such folks should do a Sofia Ashraf and lose the stern, self-righteous seriousness and use social media in ways that are both effective and fun. 

 Shoba Narayan didn’t make the cut to star in Paneer Selvam’s video.  Anyone interested in performing should contact Muniamma at Virupatchi Village, Oddanchathram Taluk, Dindigul District, Tamilnadu.


Cecil the Lion and the Art of Judgment

Do you have good judgment? How do you teach it?

Cecil the Lion and the Art of Good Judgment


My uncle Sivaramakrishnan called from Mumbai this morning stating that he wanted to ‘capture Twitter.’  

Sivaramakrishnan-mama is called SRK by neighbours in his largely Gujarati housing complex, a fact that he accepts with mixed feelings. “I can’t expect a Shah or a Patel with their one syllable names to wrap their tongue around Sivaramakrishnan,” he says philosophically.  “I don’t even tell them that my full name is Sivaramakrishna Sundaram.  They will stop sending theplas and your aunt is addicted to them.”

The other problem is that every time someone introduces him as “our dear SRK,” people expect Shah Rukh Khan, not a short, plump, balding bespectacled Sivaramakrishnan. 

SRK-Mama is an active Rotarian.  He has become interested in Twitter because he feels that it will increase his profile.  He harbours political ambitions and needs a platform.  The fact that he has to ask me for help shows how desperate he is.  I have some 500 followers and have no clue as to how to grow them.  

“Can’t I buy Twitter followers like how politicians buy votes?” asked SRK-Mama.

“Twitter is like catching a tiger by the tail,” I replied sagely.  “Look at how they are shaming that dentist who shot Cecil the Lion on social media.  He will go bankrupt.”

“There is no question of me shooting a lion.  After all, I am vegetarian.  If anything, I will let the lion eat me,” SRK-Mama said piously.

I chewed a “Bite Me” cupcake morosely.  SRK-Mama had caught me on a bad day.  I don’t know if you read Anita Raghavan’s excellent piece about Rajat Gupta serving jail time.  I did and it raised lots of questions about judgment and destiny.  Gupta, everyone will tell you—and many have—is a brilliant leader, thoughtful family man, and a large-hearted philanthropist.  He attributes his fall from grace to “destiny” in the article.  Mostly, it was bad judgment.  He made a series of small choices about friendships and notions of wealth that led to one catastrophic mistake.  But here is the nub and this is what got me to chew the cupcake morosely: such a scenario could happen to you or I. 

“Do you have good judgment, SRK Mama?” I asked.  

He paused chewing his murukku and breathed nasally over the phone line.  “You see, ma, people of my generation are not trained to have good judgment.  How can you learn good judgment if the biggest decision of your life—your life partner—is chosen for you in an arranged marriage? I didn’t even seen your aunt before I married her.  Where is the question of good judgment?”

The dictionary says that judgment is the ability to make “considered decisions.”  It also says that judgment is a “misfortune or calamity viewed as a divine punishment.”  The former leads to the latter, I guess.  

Judgment can also seem like a crapshoot.  Most people who make catastrophic mistakes rarely realize that they are doing so while in action: witness fashion designer John Galliano who was caught on video spewing anti-Semitic hate while under the influence of drugs and alcohol; witness Justine Sacco, the South African PR professional who blithely tweeted about Africans and AIDS and lost her job.  Or Rajat Gupta who thought he was taking a call in the middle of a board meeting, little realizing that it would take him to jail.  In this age when anything you do can be videotaped, shared, or tweeted, bad judgment calls can be magnified and amplified like never before. Worst of all, you are not allowed to lick your wounds in private.  And here was SRK-Mama, wanting to dive right in.

“Do you know people who have thousands of Twitter followers, and if so, how did they achieve it?” he asked, sounding like an engineering entrance exam.

I actually know several people who have over 35,000 Twitter followers.  Many of them are obsessing about how to double these followers, while simultaneously outraged that people who aren’t as good as them have more followers.  Meanwhile, their spouses complain that they are “addicted” to Twitter.   

The literature on how to develop good judgment is scarce and nebulous mostly because there is no fool-proof method of cultivating good judgment.  It isn’t as clean cut as tidying up a room using Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo’s rule of keeping only those objects that give you joy.  Judgment is messy; has little to do with intelligence; happens all the time, not as a rehearsal but as a live-stream; and can frequently go wrong at innocuous moments.  Then how do you cover yourself? How do you reduce the odds of bad judgment? Here is my list that is in progress.

1. Eliminate distractions.  Don’t multitask.  Bad judgments happen when you aren’t paying attention; when you are preoccupied with something else. 

2. Cultivate people you don’t like because they think differently from you.  This will force you to question your assumptions; and assumption, to quote the immortal lines of John Maclane in the movie, Die Hard, is the “mother of all f*^$ ups.”

3. Try your best to tame your ego.  A lot of bad judgment calls happen when you are feeling like the master of the universe; when your ego is so puffed up with pride that you cannot see the hurricane that is coming straight at you— to hit you in the face.

In view of all this, I tried to give SRK-Mama some advice.

“Don’t get on social media,” I said.  “You are a contented man.  Twitter will spoil your peace of mind.  You will start comparing yourself unnecessarily with people who have no relevance to your life.  And feel like a loser in the bargain.”

“How does Chandraayan the Lion sound?” he asked.  “I am a Leo.  A lion.  Instead of Cecil the Lion as my Twitter name, why not give it an Indian twist?”

I sighed.  There was no point protecting an octogenarian from the savage mores of the online universe.  It was a jungle out there and Chandraayan the Lion would have to learn to fend for himself. 

Oh, and if you happen to stumble upon the aforementioned Chandraayan the Lion, follow him, will you? Just don’t shoot him down.


Shoba Narayan is looking forward to reading the book that Rajat Gupta is purportedly writing in prison.  She hopes that it will talk about judgement calls.  Instagram @shobanarayan.  Twitter @shobanarayan

Memories are made of buttermilk

It is hot now in Bangalore, which, I guess, is what prompted this piece.

Memories are made of buttermilk


My first memory of buttermilk is warmth and darkness.  I must have been five or six years old.  Still confused by the mists of sleep, I walked into my grandmother’s kitchen, drawn by a comforting swishing sound.  My grandmother was sitting on the floor, her legs spread-eagled and resting on the wall.  Soft light filtered through the window in front of her.  In between her legs was a heavy mud pot that was held firmly in place by a coiled towel.  A tall wooden “mathu” or butter churner was inserted inside this pot.  Although I didn’t know it then, it was the older version of a blender. 

I stumbled inside the cool kitchen.  My grandmother turned.  Her diamond nostrils glinted in the shaft of light.  Her beautiful face crinkled into a smile but she didn’t say anything—she was engrossed in her task.  Her hands held the two ends of a rope that was coiled around the butter churner.  They moved back and forth rhythmically.  My grandmother sat like a yogi, alert but relaxed.  I had seen her in this position many times.

Unbidden, I slipped under her hands that were level with her shoulder.  I rested against the C-shaped curve of her body, my back against her soft, squishy belly; my legs spread-eagled like hers; my hands flush against hers.  Together, we pulled the rope, back and forth, coaxing the milk into giving up its butter.  It wasn’t milk really.  It was the thick yogurt that she had collected for a couple of days.

The wooden churner was a marvel of engineering.  It was held in place by two simple pulleys, facing opposite directions.  The first was a U-shaped coil of rope that was tied to the window-grill permanently.  When we began the butter-churning process, we slipped the wooden churner in between this coil.  Then came the second coil of rope that we pulled from the other side.  The churner couldn’t touch the bottom of the pot because that would generate friction when we churned.  Instead, my grandmother placed it expertly so that the churner was a few inches above the bottom of the pot, held aloft by the pressure of her churning.

I loved sitting within my grandmother’s body, matching my arms to hers as we pulled the rope together.  I could smell the buttermilk and feel my grandmother’s breath on my nape.  She didn’t say a word but it was the closest that I came to feeling utterly secure and comfortable.  Some minutes later, we could see the heavy butter lumps begin forming.  My grandmother poured cold water into the mud pot.  We continued churning.  Within minutes, butter lumps floated on top.  Then we stopped.  My grandmother collected all the lumps together in her hands and tossed them together into a round ball.  I sat still and expectant, waiting for the best part.  Once my grandmom put the big round ball into a vessel filled with water, where it floated like those white planets that we drew in our geography book.  Then, she collected the smaller lumps of butter that were still floating inside, made a small ball and glanced at me.  Obediently, I opened my mouth.  In went the freshly churned butter.  It tasted of the saltiness of my grandmother’s hand, the sweetness of cow’s milk and the slight sourness of the yogurt cream that we collected.

Fast forward, a decade and my grandmother still made buttermilk, except with her trusty Braun “mixie,” that my uncle gifted her from the U.S. It made her churning a lot easier. She put thick yogurt into the blender, added ice water from the fridge, and pressed a switch. Five minutes of spirited whirring and the yogurt would foam on top. The bubbles were my grandmom’s cue. She added a little ice water and pressed the switch once again. Soon, lumps of butter would form. After that, it was the same ritual. She would collect the large lumps and toss them expertly with her palm into a large round ball. The dregs of butter went into my mouth. They still tasted like buttery heaven.

Every part of India uses buttermilk. In Kerala, we simply water it down, toss in a few fresh curry leaves and drink it as sambaram. In Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, buttermilk is spiced with ground-up green chilies, ginger, curry leaves, some asafetida and salt, all of which are pounded and added to the buttermilk. We call this majjige or neer-mor. Much of North India uses roasted cumin and mint leaves to spice their buttermilk or chaas, as it is called.  A combination of roasted and ground cumin, some salt, a dash of lemon juice, and pounded pudina or mint leaves, are added to the buttermilk for flavor. This watery, delicious and light drink is excellent for digestion and cooling the body. Punjab, of course, has its famous lassis, made with thick buttermilk blended with fruits like mango. Mango lassi is available all over the world at Indian restaurants.  Bengal, I think, doesn’t have buttermilk.  They prefer their mishti dahi, not the watered down version.  

The beauty of buttermilk is its egalitarian nature. No matter how rich or poor, all of India consumes this drink. Down the road from where I live is a pushcart vendor. All she has on her cart is a red earthen pot filled with buttermilk that she sells to auto drivers, bicycle messengers, and anyone who needs a cool drink on a hot day.

As for me, I prefer buttermilk to yogurt just as I prefer light black coffee to thick cappuccino. If I had a choice, I would drink my grandmother’s buttermilk but she is dead now. I still have her wooden churner though. Every now and then, particularly on hot summer days, I think of bringing it out and setting it up with two coils of ropes, just as it was in my grandmother’s kitchen.

Shoba Narayan likes Amul Masti Dahi. 

Ajmer Dargah

Mint has been sending me on trips to various spots to write on “sacred food.” This week, it is Ajmer Dargah. What a sensual experience. I respond to scents and sounds. The enveloping scent of roses was amazing. You have to read it at the site for the full photo cum words experiences. Oh, I am taking photos for these pieces myself.

For Mint on Sunday here

Photos here

I am standing outside the main shrine of the Ajmer Dargah listening to a spirited group of qawwali singers perform. They voices are entreating; their eyes sincere, rising up to search for the divine. They sit cross-legged and pray, using their hands to express the strength of their feeling. They aspire towards rapture; to forget the self. They seek oneness with God– a quest worth undertaking; the only quest worth undertaking for some people. Non-believers though, have to begin with the rather somber question that crashes debates from the realm of the divine down to earth: what is God?

When you think about it, God is such an abstract concept, which is probably why humans gave labels and names when they began the discussion: Mohammed, Jesus, Mary, Kali, Hanuman, Durga, Buddha or Zarathustra. Only Hinduism has female Goddesses; the rest are men, most of who began as prophets and teachers before being converted into and worshipped as Gods. Are Sri Sri Ravishankar and Mata Amritanandamayi going to be the Gods of tomorrow? An uncomfortable thought.

Religion—all religions were an effort by early humans to wrap their head around this nebulous idea of the cosmic controller. He—or she– who has created this web of life that we all inhabit. When early humans confronted events that shocked, awe and confused them, they had to explain it somehow. A child gets hit in a road accident and dies. Why? Who can explain the timing of it? Why now? Why to this particular child? Religion, I am guessing, was the answer that early humans came up with when they got hit by the proverbial truck or the Paleolithic version thereof. Why did the lion kill my son—of all people? When he was such a great warrior? Why now, when he was making off with that eligible Homo sapien beauty in the neighbouring hunter-gatherer group? Questions that have no answer. Ergo, religion. Religion was—is—the human search for answers; a quest for truth; a way of explaining the happenings of the world, much like scientists do today– except now science is looking for alien life and cloning genomes; and religion has climbed down from its pioneering expedition into the soul and became an ‘opium for the people,’ to quote Karl Marx.

Most religions began with mysticism. One man goes into a cave or sits under a tree. He meditates; and gets visions that answer fundamental questions. He spreads these ideas to his followers. Over time, they get codified and formalized as a faith. One man’s interpretation of the answers that sprung from his subconscious resonates with countless people. They affiliate themselves with this idea and give it a name. Behold religion.

Music, dance and rituals are tools that most religions use to disseminate ideas to the masses. The acts of praying, singing and dancing help devotees connect with a higher power. Religious music, whether it is gospel or bhajan, springs from the same place and has the same goal: to connect with the divine. Sufi music does it better than most. The qawwali is one manifestation; the Mevlevi order is another. You may have heard of the Mevlevis. They are also called whirling dervishes; and they are unforgettable. A Japanese sensei told me that whirling was a way to center yourself and sync your soul with the universe. Try it. One hand reaches for the heavens; another reaches for the earth in a diagonal. And then you whirl—round and round—for several minutes or more. It is that easy; or that difficult. I once watched whirling dervishes in Konya, Turkey. It was among the most moving things I have ever seen. A line of men, clad in white robes, circling for a long time– time that extended out like their hands. They were in a trance and put us in one too. Although I didn’t know it then, there was a connection between the whirling dance I watched and the poetry of Rumi that I loved.

“The minute I heard my first love story,
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.
Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere.
They’re in each other all along.”


Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī is perhaps Sufism’s most famous poet, thanks to numerous translations and Turkish writer, Elif Safak’s novel, The Forty Rules of Love. The novel tells the story of how Rumi became the student of Shams Tabrizi, a Persian Sufi dervish. When Rumi died, his son, Sultan Walad founded the splendid Mevlevi order. They have been dancing ever since.

“Dance, when you’re broken open.

Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off.

Dance in the middle of the fighting.

Dance in your blood.

Dance when you’re perfectly free.”


Like the bhakti cult, the philosophy behind Sufism is the idea of tawhid, a complex Persian word that symbolizes the primal root; the foundation from which we all spring from. Sufism believes that we have become cut off from this primal connection to God. All human action—the whirling, the singing, the poetry— is an expression for the devotee’s longing to return to this root; to restore the connection. This is why the annual Urs, officially the death anniversary of a Sufi saint, is celebrated joyfully as a wedding anniversary. The logic is that death reconnected the saint’s soul with its primal root, with God.

The word Urs, comes from the Arabic word ‘uroos’ and it means ‘wedding.’ When a saint dies, as Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti did in Ajmer, he has achieved wisaal or the ultimate union with the beloved. Realize that they don’t say “union with God.” Instead, they view God as their beloved. This intimate, all-encompassing lover-like connection is what differentiates Sufism from its parent religion, Islam. William Chittick, a leading translator of Islamic texts who studied at the University of Tehran has described Sufism as the “interiorization and intensification of Islamic faith and practice.”

For a Hindu, it is easy to understand and access Sufism through its music and its tolerant, enveloping tenets. Indeed, millions of Hindus visit this shrine every year, clad in colourful saris and bright red bindis. “It is a Ganga Jamuna sanskriti here,” said a Hindu devotee, the Ganga referring to Hinduism and the Jamuna to Islam.

This then, is the distinctive beauty of this dargah. It is not just open to people of all faiths; it welcomes them. If you have a wish or mannat that you want fulfilled; a prayer that must reach God; an offering of thanks that you want to give, you are welcome here. And people do. They come from the four corners of the world, carrying baskets heavy with flowers–a ring of roses interspersed with marigolds— an aesthetic that is distinct to Indian places of worship. Multicolored flowers put together in an artistic way. The heavy scent of red roses fills the air.

Devotees bring nuts and fruits. They carry blankets and shawls to place on top of the tombstone. They tie strings with objects on a stick that extends across the empty cauldrons where food is cooked. The hanging objects offer clues to human frailties and wishes. There is a metal house, a cradle, a hand, a comb–each symbolizing a desire for a job, marriage, children, or wealth. People throw in money and rice grains into the empty cauldron. At the side of the cauldrons are metal containers filled with sacred food that has been cooked early this morning. The kesariabhat, as it is called, is orange and follows the usual recipe of broken wheat, sugar, ghee, and dried fruit, all stirred together for hours before distributing to the faithful. It is vegetarian, although legend has it that Emperor Shah Jahan mixed the meat of a Nilgai-deer that he had shot while hunting with the vegetarian food.

The dargah’s link with the Mogul emperors is close and traverses generations. It was Emperor Akbar, who ordered the first giant cauldron built. It is called Badi Degh (or Big Cauldron) and can cook a whopping amount of food. Akbar pledged to come to Ajmer on foot if he won the battle of Chittorgarh. When he won, he kept his promise and distributed food from the big cauldron. Some say that the big cauldron cooks 125 ‘mounds’ of rice, a number that is hard to fathom. Let’s just say that food from the big cauldron can feed about 15,000 people.

Not to be outdone, Akbar’s son, Jahangir ordered the construction of the smaller cauldron, called Choti Degh.   He ordered that this food be distributed to 5000 people, taking the first offering himself, after which his queen, Noor Jahan and the other women of his harem followed suit. This kind of largesse was typical of the empire building Mughals. Today, moguls of a different sort, from hedge fund managers to business magnates pay money to the Dargah to have food cooked and distributed. Typically, this happens during the Urs every day or to mark a special occasion.

Every place of worship, be it a church, mosque or temple, has a rhythm. It is both universal and distinctive. The ethos of a religious place emphasizes simplicity and purity when you approach the shrine. You wear your best silks when you approach the shrine, or you go as a simple person clad in white with minimal clothes. There is water so that you can wash up after your long pilgrimage. There are offerings that you can buy. At Ajmer, it is red roses, attar, nuts, and most importantly, the chaadar or blanket that you can lay on top of the tombstone as a mark of respect. Through these utilitarian tools, you access the divine. Every year, various world leaders send a chaadar during the Urs as a mark of respect. This year, it was Barack Obama’s turn and he sent an embroidered red chaadar via the US Embassy.

Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, the saint who is enshrined in this dargah was born in the Sistan region of Iran. His life followed the fairly standard trajectory of most great spiritual leaders. Pious family? Check. Interested in spirituality from a young age? Check. As a boy, he prayed and meditated instead of picking fruit from the famous Iranian orchards. Makes you wonder about future saints who are born in this era. If any child in our age has a spiritual calling, are they heeding it? Or are they playing Play Station 3 and other video games? The world might be losing the next Buddha or Khwaja to Candy Crush saga. Sad, isn’t it?

Moinuddin’s next experience is something I would have liked to have. While working in his orchard– which itself, is an experience not to be sniffed at, given the legendary quality of the melons of Iran— Moinuddin had a visitor. Being a well brought up child, he greeted the dervaish (spiritual man) properly by kissing his hands and gave him fruit. The dervaish, whose name was Sheikh Ibrahim Qandozi, was impressed by the pious nature of the boy. He took out some khul from his pocket. This is described as the dregs of sesame seeds after the oil is extracted. Some historians say that this was bread. Anyway, the dervaish put this piece into his mouth, chewed it a bit and then put it in Moinuddin’s mouth. The boy lost all connection with the current world and went into a mystical trance. This event caused the scales to fall from Moinuddin’s eyes, to paraphrase Bertie Wooster. He went into the divine realm and realized the true nature of things. I would have like to eat this sesame patty too.

After this experience, there was no turning back. Moinuddin left for Bukhara, then a great center of learning, where he finished his education. After that, it was onward to Samarkand to study philosophy, theology, and grammar. In Baghdad, he met a great Sufi Dervaish who became his guide and teacher for 20 years. It was here that Khwaja Moinuddin Chishty received the instruction to go to Hindustan or India.

Ajmer at the time was a great amalgam of many faiths. It was the pleasure resort of emperor Shah Jahan–a far cry from the dusty and gray town that it has become today. Khwaja Moinuddin Chishty set up his spiritual order using Ajmer as base. He became known as Garib Nawaz for the compassion with which he treated poor people. He spread Sufism throughout North India, gained many disciples and most importantly, established the Chishti order that continues to this day. His real achievement was to make his faith accessible to all.

Religions evolve through a somewhat contradictory impulse: by defining and differentiating themselves. It is one of the things that bother me about faith; any faith. You’d think that prayer or connection to the divine would make you see the world as one. Most religions advocate this notion of treating everyone as your brother or sister. Except that the deeper people go into religion, the more they seem to define themselves through ever-narrowing parameters, be it Sri Vaishnavism or Seventh Day Adventist. Religion doesn’t expand the self even though every great text advocates it. It causes a narrowing of boundaries in a sense so that you begin affiliating yourself with a Pentacostal order or a specific guru. You call yourself Sufi or Mahayana or Orthodox. You view other orders, even if they belong to the same religion with some amount of suspicion. “All religions are the same,” you say piously, while hobnobbing with other acolytes of the same order.

The relationship between what some call “mainstream Islam” and Sufism reflects this trend and is fraught in this way. Sufi practitioners emphasize that Sufism originated in Islam; that early Sufi thought was directly drawn from the Koran, except that it was internalized. Internalization is a word that comes up often in Sufism to explain its tolerance to all faiths and the use of song and dance in worship. The 12th century Muslim theologian Al Ghazali has a wonderful passage in his treatise, “The Alchemy of Happiness,” in a chapter titled ‘The use of dance and music as aids to religious life.” The fact he has to defend music and dance speaks to his desire to make Islam and Sufism compatible with one another, which leads to the conclusion that they were diverging, even as early as the 12th century.

In the chapter, Al Ghazali says, “The effect of music and dancing…fan into a flame whatever love is already dormant in the heart, whether it be earthly and sensual, or divine and spiritual.” Made me want to go out and dance. There is more that Al Ghazali defends. “As regards the erotic poetry which is recited in Sufi gatherings, and to which people sometimes make objection, we must remember that, when in such poetry mention is made of separation from or union with the beloved, the Sufi, who is an adept in the love of God, applies such expressions to separation from or union with Him.”

I am sorry to say this again and again but when and why did religions become so prudish? A few centuries ago, erotic sculpture and poetry was acceptable on the path towards God. What happened? When did we decide that God required seriousness? What happened to joy?

There is a lot of joy in the singing at the dargah. People sway in ecstasy; some, with tears rolling down their eyes. The whole atmosphere combines sensual bliss—the scent of flowers—with spiritual elevation. It is as faith should be, mixing the everyday with the elevated; the mundane with the divine; the senses and the soul.

I didn’t taste the kesaria bhat though. It was Ramzan when I went. Nobody was eating anything during the day. It seemed inappropriate for me to do so, even though there were several enticing containers full of them.

I was disappointed not to taste the food. It was a sign, I told myself. The women in my family use this word when they contemplate visits to temples. The God or Goddess has to “call” you, they will say. Or call me back, in this case, I thought– to taste the food during Urs.

A surprising twist emerged as I exited the dargah. My guide was waiting outside. He wanted to know if he could hitch a ride to Jaipur with me. His reason epitomized the Indian web of relationships. “My daughter-in-law’s brother’s wedding happened a few days ago and my sammdhi (the inlaws) have invited me for food after a puja. You like dal, bhaati, churma, don’t you?” he offered as explanation.

Two hours later, we drove up to a small flat on the outskirts of Jaipur. Inside were about 20 people, all colorfully dressed in saris. In quick order, plates were produced. We were the last two eat. They gave us a stainless steel plate filled with spiced dal; the bhaati, which was a round ball of cooked wheat dough; and churma, a sweet mixture. There was a piquant pickle and some water. We ate quietly. Men came up with additional food to serve. This is what I have noticed in traditional Indian homes. People accord the food the girth and seriousness that it is due. In my ancestral village in Palghat, you’d sit on the floor and eat from banana leaves, pretty much in silence. The focus was on the food; and in the eating. The servers would watch and add dishes quietly. This was how we ate the dish in Jaipur. It was delicious, although my driver told me later that he had eaten better versions of the dish. “You need to cook it on a slow fire, using firewood and cow-dung patties,” he said. “The scent of smoke gets infused into the dish. That is when the flavours bloom and take on a smoky hue.”

At the home, our hosts entertained us with questions about me and answers about them. After a few minutes of whispering, they asked a simple question: “What caste are you?”

I paused mid-mouth. Why were they asking me this question? Was it because I was dressed, all in black? Being South Indian, I didn’t have any context about the Ajmer Dargah, except what I had read. In my attempt to blend in, I had decided to wear all black to the Dargah. It was only after I arrived that I realized how unnecessary this self-imposed dress code was. I could have worn my bright red Kanjivaram wedding sari and still not have stood out.

Once I got that misunderstanding out of the way, I considered options. Call me naïve, but I think India should move beyond the caste conversation. But this was not the time for pseudo-intellectual if well-thought-out principles. So I answered my hosts. They were delighted because they belonged to the same caste too, they said. “We are Pandas,” they said. “We are the caste that does all the rituals at the Jagannath Puri temple.”

I concentrated on the food. It was delicious.

After the meal, my host took me through all the rooms were many women were engaged in rocking babies to sleep, chatting with each other, or combing hair. I asked them if they would pose for photographs. It might get published, I warned. They weren’t fazed. They came to see me off at the gate and stood in line for a photo that reflected the glorious colors of the land.

As for the dal, bhaati, churma, I felt like asking them to pack me some but I didn’t. I would just have to go back. For the kesariabhat and good old fashioned dal, bhaati, churma, made in the village with cow-dung patties and smoke.


Love Chennai. Had fun writing this piece.

FRI, JUL 10 2015. 03 44 PM

Anger management at a Chennai cinema

How Shoba Narayan queued up to watch the latest Tamil indie and dished out multi-coloured combs to aunties


I tried my anger management technique when I was standing in line for tickets to “Kaaka Muttai,” the new Tamil film.

Kaaka Muttai is a must-watch, even for those who don’t understand Tamil. The story is simple: two slum boys want to taste pizza. How they achieve this goal forms the core of this heartwarming debut. Director Manikandan, who lists Iranian films ‘A Separation’ and ‘Children of Heaven’ as his influences, and Nandita Das as the actress he’d like to direct, keeps the story moving with assured restraint. No over-the-top Sivaji-esque histrionics that mark Tamil films of yore; and truth be told, I kinda miss those. Kaaka Muttai—the phrase means ‘crow’s eggs’ and refers to the crow’s eggs that the two boys steal and eat– has already won several international awards. Hopefully, it will become a sleeper hit along the lines of “Queen.”

For a transplanted Tamil speaker, Kaaka Muttai offers several pleasures. There is the sly Tamil humour— both hurtful and humorous. There is the effortless Tamil slang that fills the film and filled me with remorse. When was the last time I used the word “peela” here in Bangalore, I thought, and how to convey the punch it carried to my genteel Bangalorean neighbours? “Peela” is slang for lying, and it was precisely what the grandmother behind me was doing.

We were standing in a long line outside Thyagaraja theatre in Chennai. I grew up in Adayar, at a time when theatres were named with panache. There was Jayanthi and Thyagaraja theatres battling it out beside each other. You went to Jayanthi for the night shows and Thyagaraja (with better fans) for the hot and torried matinees. You went to Ganapathy Ram down the road if friends dragged you to so-so movies because you could nap in the oversize seats. Eros was for English movies. Each theatre had a distinct character (different from ambience), not like today’s soul-less, identical multiplexes.

Thyagaraja has become swanky but still attracts conniving Chennai mamis (aunties). This one, with her gray hair and starched Chettinad cotton was angling to jump the queue all the way to the front for tickets. She professed faintness at first. “I am diabetic, you see,” said she. We were unmoved. Then, she upped the ante. Said that her husband was a kidney patient and she needed to see the movie and get back in time for his dialysis. That story was so patently false on so many levels– none of us knew where to poke holes in it. Shameless, I tell you, the depths these people fall to. It was like a story I heard about the French Laundry in Yountville, California, during the time when it was impossible to get reservations there. People would apparently fax letters to the reservation desk stating that it was their child’s dying wish that they should dine at the French Laundry. I mean, seriously? You are going put your child to death to get a restaurant reservation? Or invent a non-existant child and then kill her for a meal? Mind-boggling, I say.

Finally, one of my fellow queue mates took the bull, or in this case, Ambujam-mami—for that was her name, she said on the phone—by the horns.

“Dei, maami peela vidaraa-da,” he said. As in, “Hey, aunty is fibbing,” but this is a ridiculously poor translation.

This being Chennai, tempers got heated. Everyone started yelling in Tamil about how old people were jumping the queue and how slow the ticket office was. That’s when I pulled out my trusty combs (not comb in singular but combs in plural). I had bought them on South Mada street in the street-shops surrounding the Mylapore tank. You see, I am trying a social experiment in anger management.

Whenever there is a scuffle around me, whether it is at the RTO or the movies, I calmly pull out combs in orange, yellow, green, and purple and pass them around. First, it forces the people to pause in bemusement, wondering what the heck I am doing. This pause is all I need. “Why don’t you comb your hair?” I say. “But use your non-dominant hand.”

I have to explain what non-dominant hand is—which is quite tiresome. It is the opposite of the hand you normally use. If you are a rightie, it is your left hand and vice versa.

Eighty percent of the world is right-handed. Scientific–and wild–theories exist as to why this is so. Some say that people are right or left-handed based on the position of their liver, or how they were positioned in the womb. If the right side faced outside, it received at the most stimulation, turning you into a left-handed person. That’s the theory anyway. One consensus is that the right and left brain control the opposite side of the body. The right hand therefore, is connected to the left brain, which is the seat of language, analysis, intellect, and reasoning. The left hand is connected to the right brain, which is the source of creativity, insight, spontaneity, and feeling. Several celebrities and leaders including Narendra Modi, Ratan Tata, Amitabh Bachchan and U.S. President Barack Obama are purportedly left-handed.

Most of us go through life, unconsciously using the hand that we are comfortable with. Using your non-dominant hand however, has fascinating repercussions, according to recent research. It improves your willpower and self-control. It controls your anger against queue jumpers like Ambujam-mami. The effort involved in using your non-dominant hand equalizes the brain hemispheres and evens out your temperament.

“Why this kolaveri di?” said someone.

“Enda saavu-cracki. Vettila sollittu vandhirukaya?” I replied. (Saavu cracki is untranslateable. The next line means, “Have you told your folks at home?” That you are not coming back is the unstated threat.)

Thank God this is an English paper and I can swear in Tamil. After letting loose a spirited string of Tamil expletives, I proceeded to calmly comb my hair.

Try it. If you fly off into a rage, try using your non-dominant hand throughout the day. It may help calm you down. It could be simple things: stirring a cup of tea with your non-dominant hand, opening the car door, or brushing your teeth.

As for Ambujam-mami, she combed her hair all the way to the top of the queue. As for me, thanks to letting the mami pass ahead of me, I didn’t get a ticket to Kaaka Muttai and ended up going to Ganapathy Ram to watch Papanasam, another new and quite wonderful Tamil movie. Remade from the original and superb Malayalam movie, Drishyam, also forthcoming in Hindi, Papanasam features Kamal Haasan and Gowthami. It’s raining good Tamil movies. Just make sure you take some combs when you go to the movies—for anger management. PS: I watched Kaaka Muttai the following day.

Shoba Narayan favorite hair tool is a Mason Pearson nylon (not the boar bristle) brush.

Birds in culture– the last of the four part series that I hugely enjoyed writing.

I pontificate on the pleasures of bird watching in this audio podcast here

Like Arabs and falcons; like Indians and peacocks; like Americans and their eagles, like the French and their…..I don’t know which bird sparks the French imagination…. birds and animals are the stuff of our dreams and subconscious.

The eagle, the ‘hamsa’ and other bird myths

Birdwatching led me to delve into poetry and mythology; from Urdu children’s ditties to Maya Angelou
In which the author loops in some history and fables and talks about her habitat.

Birds are the stuff of myth and legend in every culture. Some of the most beautiful poetic images come from birds. My father, an English professor, loved the Romantic poets: Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth, who lived in the Yorkshire moors in close proximity to nature and wrote lyrical poems about what they saw. John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” is one of his favorites. I have read the poem, but I don’t really understand it. What speaks to me is Maya Angelou’s “I know why the caged bird sings.”

The eagle is a singular image in Allama Iqbal’s poetry. Iqbal reveres the eagle because it proudly disdains eating dead prey or anything other than what it has caught. As Mustansir Mir says in the website,, this description might apply to a hawk rather than an eagle. Iqbal gets a number of bird facts wrong, but as this website points out, the eagle, for him, is a poetic construct. My favorite Urdu poem is a children’s song sung by Nuzhat Abbas: “Bulbul ka bacchha. Khatha tha khichdi.” I used to listen to this ad nauseam years ago, and was delighted to discover it on YouTube recently.

Sanskrit literature’s most resonant bird image has to do with the Hamsa, which can separate milk and water that are mixed together in a bowl. The Hamsa is used as a reference in poetry for anyone that has the discrimination (or judgement) to simply suck up the milk and leave out the water.

Then there was the practice of divination based on the movement of birds that was common to most primitive cultures. When the crows caw, my grandmother used to say, you will have unexpected guests: divining arrivals from the sound of a crow’s caw. As K.N.Dave’s magisterial (and sadly, posthumously published) book, “Birds in Sanskrit Literature,” says, superstition surrounds the magpie, not only in India, but also in Europe and England. My tangential interest with respect to bird-watching has been to delve into poetry, but it could be something else for another birdwatcher. This ripple effect is a perk that comes from any deep dive into a hobby or passion; and clearly, I am pushing bird watching as an option.

I have seen many beautiful birds: a greater coucal, collared dove, pied kingfisher, and hoopoes in Masinagudi; racquet-tailed drongoes, shrikes, hornbills, and rufus treepies in Kanha; nightjars, spotted owlet and serpentine eagles in Pench; and several other birds at game park. But I get the greatest pleasure in my backyard. While it is good to tick off the birds that I have seen, learning to see birds in the trees around my building offer the pleasures of a deepening relationship. I know the moods of the birds in my neighbourhood if that makes sense. I know which trees they like to go when it is cloudy and the ones they favor with the first rays of the sun. The golden orioles that were here a few months ago are gone now, I know not where. I am hoping they will return when the weather becomes cooler. And I know the trees. The silk cotton tree next to my home is growing tiny leaves now—Tamil has a nice word, “thulir,” for these tender light-green shoots. It was bare just a few weeks ago and redolent with red flowers and fruits a few months before that. These last few weeks, it has been bare and has offered great sightings.

Just today, I watch two black kites huddle in a silk-cotton branch and peck at their nest. They had built a nest in the dense foliage that existed some months ago. I could barely see the nest. As the leaves fell, I saw how large it was. I never saw the chicks though. These days, the two black kites come at 8:30 in the morning to remove the nest. They peck at each twig and pull it out of the nest, throw it on the ground. Why are they taking apart a nest instead of letting it rot and die? What ancient instinct is forcing them to come every morning and remove this nest? The silk cotton tree is a good place because the birds have used twigs, earth and cotton to weave their nest. Every now and then a strange bird will come by as I peer at the kites. Today, a brilliant songbird came into view. It had yellow undersides (chest), green wings and a different coloured head. It flew away quickly so I am not sure what it is.

Kites are easy birds to watch because they are large and don’t flit around too much. Songbirds cannot stand still, and usually are a pain to catch on the binoculars. Kingfishers, rollers, cuckoos, and drongos stay still for it is long enough to observe through binoculars. Karnataka’s state bird is a roller, which has the beautiful kannada name, Neela-kanthi (or blue throat). This bird: Coracia benghalensis is the state bird for Odisha, Telengana, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. West Bengal’s is white-breasted kingfisher; Rajasthan’s is naturally the Great Indian bustard. It would be a good project to go from state to state and see each of these birds. But like I said, I am content for now with my ecosystem.

Everyone says that bird-watching requires patience. I don’t think so. I think that the pleasure of bird watching comes from the questions you ask. You can watch a crow and try to figure out why it is cawing at that moment. You can listen to the variety of calls that a common mynah makes and try to see if there is a pattern. I watch the birds come and go in the trees in front of my home and see if there is a reason or pattern that they follow when they sit down and take off. I watch the way the parakeets spread their tail feathers just before landing and see the different shades of green. Most interesting of all are the birds that are sitting still. What are they doing? What are they thinking? Does their call predict something? Is the wind changing? Does that define when they take off and land?

Bird watching for me is an engrossing and pleasurable hobby. It gives me great aesthetic joy to watch these most beautiful of God’s creations. Then again, I see a butterfly and think it beautiful too. Oh, but there is the dragonfly with its transparent wings; and the honeybee that gives up its life for its colony. All waiting to connect with us.

Shoba Narayan is looking forward to seeing an Asian paradise flycatcher this year. This is the last part of a four-part series on bird watching. Write to her at


So of course I had to write about yoga

Actually, my editor suggested that I write about yoga on yoga day.

It is here and below


It is a little disconcerting, but ask yourself this question: what unites India?
I have tried asking this question in various forums. It is hard to agree on three or four things that form the value system of this country. It cannot be religion because we are secular. It cannot be language because that changes every few hundred kilometres. It cannot be clothing style because even that varies from region to region. We listen to different music in the north and in the south. We observe different festivals and we pray to different gods. We have no national paper and listen to radio or television in our own regional language. Sure, English is the lingua franca, but the number of people it touches is relatively small.
My submission—and I know that this sounds shallow—is that there are three things that unite India: Bollywood, cricket and spicy food. Can we add yoga to this list?
If you look back on your childhood, most of us grew up with yoga. We either did it at schools; or watched our relatives do it; or were taught it by parents and grandparents. Yoga, like the cawing of crows and the hiss of the pressure cooker, is part of the drumbeat of an Indian childhood. We took it for granted. That may be changing.
Yoga has now been co-opted by the West. There are computer tablets called Yoga; there is Yogi tea that promotes calmness; and there is a yoga butt that we all aspire to. Yoga has come a long way from the pithy instructions compiled by Patanjali in 196 sutras, or short verses. The yoga sutras of Patanjali form the foundation of many schools of yoga. Their beauty is in their brevity.
Consider one verse: Sthiram Sukham Asanam. The concept ofsthiram has made its way into many Indian languages. My grandmother used it in Malayalam; and my grandfather used it in Tamil. It meant repose, stability, relaxation, sitting in one place without moving. Roy Baumeister makes the same claim in his book,Willpower. In it, he says that holding your posture without moving enhances willpower. Indian yogis knew that in 400 CE.
The big news, of course, is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has urged the world to adopt 21 June as the International Day of Yoga. The ministry of external affairs’ website lists a number of countries, including Australia, Norway, Spain, Seychelles and Vietnam, which are hosting mega-events to mark this first International Day of Yoga. If it works, it would be a great thing because it would be a way for India to claim—or reclaim—a practice that has now become a global juggernaut.
Many Americans practise yoga without so much as a nod to its country of origin. There is Christian yoga, power yoga, energy yoga and aerobic yoga. All are misnomers. All go against the fundamental tenets of yoga as a spiritual, healing practice that promotes balance and mental stability.
The goal of yoga, or at least the intended goal of yoga, was equanimity or samatvam. It was moderation. It was balance. It was achieving a higher mental state. Yoga used the physical to get to the sublime. The way it is practised now, most people have ignored the sublime and reduced yoga to a mere weight-loss practice. That does this deep and profound spiritual practice a grave injustice.
It is time for India to take ownership of its gift to the world. It is time for India to embrace the practice that has now been adopted by people far from its shores. It is time for us to get our “Om” back.
Easy to say; hard to do.
Sure, we want to take yoga back. But what should its path be in India? Should it go back to its origins? To its first principles? To the yoga sutras? But they are unabashedly Hindu in origin. How do we square that with a secular country? Should we make yoga secular? Should we strip yoga of its Hindu tenets and revamp it to reflect the Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Jain, Parsi and Jewish citizens of India? How do we do this?
My view, and I know that this may not be a popular view, is that yoga has to become pure. Its practitioners have to accept and reflect the fact that it is Hindu in origin. This is not a bad thing. Just as it would be almost impossible to enjoy Sufi music without acknowledging its Islamic heritage, it would be impossible to fold yoga into India’s fabric without linking it to the yoga sutras—which were its starting point anyway.
The role of Sanskrit in yoga has to be acknowledged. The fact that yoga is more about lifestyle and less about exercise has to be emphasized, particularly to global practitioners. The philosophical tenets of yoga have to be brought out. They cannot simply be whitewashed away. Most important of all, Indians have to take pride in yoga. Like nature, yoga broadens the mind. It takes the scientific approach to inquiry of the mind-body system. It does not exclude people based on “narrow domestic walls”, to quote Rabindranath Tagore.
To practise yoga without understanding its Hindu origins would be like stripping Bordeaux wine of its French terroir. You may get the formula right but you will lose its soul.

Birding: seeing versus hearing

This season is hard for birding.  The trees are lush with leaves.  Small birds are chirping and I can’t see them.  Drives me nuts.

How to identify birds just by seeing them


Ayurveda divides us into three phenotypes: vata, pitta and kapha. Vatas have acute hearing and enjoy the sense of touch—if my memory serves right. Pittas have acute vision and enjoy the sense of smell. Kaphas have acute taste and enjoy listening to good music or sounds.

As a classic vata, I have acute hearing, as a result of which I’m very sensitive to the sound of birds. As I write this, I hear three birds: a wagtail, a bulbul, and a parakeet. This can become a curse when I hear the sound of a bird that I cannot identify. I obsess about it and go to an app called Bird Calls, that is loaded on my phone to try to figure it out.

Some visually sensitive birdwatchers can identify birds as they fly past; as they sit in a distant tree; from a mere one-second sighting. I am not like that. I work hard at identifying birds. I have to focus on them for a while before I can see all the markings and figure it out. I make frequent mistakes, even with birds that I know. Is it a grey heron or a pond heron? Is it a painted stork or not? The bird flies away. I am not sure.

It all has to do with a way of seeing that is cultivable but not necessarily common. I use the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website ( to build seeing skills. The trick to quick identification is differentiating or sorting birds based on size and shape, colour patterns, behaviour and habitat, according to this website. They even have a Merlin Bird ID app but I find that it is heavily North America focused and therefore not useful to me.

I have still not cultivated this way of seeing yet. Mostly I stare at a tree where the bird calls emanate from and wait for movement. I cannot drive by birds on telephone poles and quickly identify them. Where I score is with the sound. Once I hear and identify a bird by its call, I never forget it. Even now, I can wake up and listen to the trill of a Kingfisher calling at a distance and know that it is in my neighbourhood. I know the Rosy Starlings that have migrated from Tajikistan by their excited cheep-cheeps; the bulbul, by its sweet piercing whistle that echoes around my building; and the crow by its caw.

My birdwatching happens through the day. Usually, when I’m bored or have nothing to do, I pick up my binoculars and look out. Usually I see something. There was the time when it was raining. I trained my binoculars on a Ficus tree, and found a golden oriole perched on top. It did the most amazing thing. It circled and went upside down on the branch, almost as if it wanted the rain to wet its underside. It had been a terribly hot day. As I stood and watched the oriole enjoy the water drops, I felt like doing the same. On another branch, a Black Drongo (Dicurus macrocercus) sat still, enduring the rain that was pouring on its black head.

In the beginning, with pig-headed ambition, I decided that I would memorize the Latin names for all the bird species that I saw. I have given up that endeavour now. It is complicated enough to keep track of the markings and learn the common names. This then is the other learning that will occur: spotting minor differences between birds that belong to the same species: White-cheeked Barbet, Grey-headed Barbet, Coppersmith barbet, Blue-throated Barbet, you get the picture. They all belong to the Megalaima species.

The bird that is easiest to observe is the kite. They sit still for long periods of time on a high branch or electric pole and watch their surroundings. Suddenly, they lift off to catch a wind current that takes them high in the sky. They circle around for a long time—up to 20 minutes—before coming down for a break. The only time I have seen a kite attacked by a smaller bird was when I was walking near Ulsoor Lake in Bengaluru. I can recognize the keening sound that the kite makes, but for the first time I heard it shriek—and unceasingly. I stopped in my tracks and looked up. There was a crow attacking a kite’s nest. The kite would try to nip the crow, which would fly away to the nearest branch, and then return. The kite would shriek, peck the crow, would fly away and then back. This scenario continued for 15 minutes. Neither bird gave up; but I did. None of the people passing by noticed anything. I wouldn’t have either, had I not been a birdwatcher. Once you peer into the kaleidoscope of nature, she opens your eyes to the magic all around.

I use several websites to figure out what I’m seeing. India Nature Watch is great for just identifying birds. Indiabirds, The Internet Bird Collection, and Oriental Bird Images are good for learning about the various genus and species. Facebook has Birding Friends, where wonderful images come up on my feed. Although I am not a nature photographer, I follow several friends who are bird photographers. Their close-up images of birds help me with future identification. It doesn’t come easy to me but I struggle at it anyways. Slowly and surely, like a tortoise, I’m climbing up the hill of taxonomy and nature watching.

Shoba Narayan’s bookmark folder is filled with bird sites.

This is the third in a four-part series on birdwatching. Write to her at

Trees and birds

In London, it was the sweet song of the thrush.  In India, it is the kooo of the Asian koel that I am listening to right now.

Birdwatching is also about the trees

The rhythms of nature are evident in the patterns of the bird movement

In which the author connects birds and bees with flora and foliage

Like most things that require identification, be it wine, textiles, or art, identifying birds is figuring out patterns; like recognizing an artistic or musical signature, or the terroir of wine. It is about seeing patterns, not just on the birds but also on the trees that they inhabit. Nature is both generous and opportunistic. Trees attract birds during certain seasons; and then allow other trees to get that opportunity. The red silk cotton tree beside my house was agog with birds when it flowered a few months ago. Today, it stands bereft, with its flowers and leaves gone. The silk cotton pods have opened out and released their cotton puffs. Now the tree has become a playground for squirrels. Meanwhile, the gul mohar tree across the street is in full bloom; and attracting wagtails, rose-ringed parakeets, bulbuls, and barbets in droves—like the sirens of yore.

Trees are nifty that way. They know when to attract and when to repel. In his book, “What a Plant Knows: a field guide to the senses,” biologist Daniel Chamovitz talks about how willow trees that are being attacked by insects release specific pheromones that can be “smelled” by neighboring trees. Suitably warned, the neighboring willow trees produce higher levels of toxic chemicals, thus making their leaves unpalatable for caterpillars and other insects. I can see this happening before my eyes. The mango trees are in full bloom now. They are attracting the birds who have abandoned the neighboring millingtonia, bauhinia, and cassia trees. Instead, they perch on the mango branches, nipping at the green fruits and spreading the seeds.

This symbiotic ecosystem was invisible to me before I began watching birds. Now I see the dance of birds, butterflies and bees as they move across trees: mango to jacaranda to cassia to bauhinia to ficus to silk cotton, depending on the warp and weft of seasons; and indeed, the time of day. The male Asian koel calls when it is cloudy; the female Asian koel like to shriek in the middle of the day; the black kite calls throughout the day; the crows are loudest early in the morning.

The rhythms of nature–the waves of flowering, fruiting, and shedding of leaves that a tree goes through–are evident in the patterns of bird movement. Indeed, our ancients could divine an approaching storm just by the way the birds flew sideways, buffeted by invisible wind currents. Seasonal and daily differences in temperature and weather are reflected in the behavior of birds.

Some birds prefer certain trees; and some birds like certain locations in trees. Spotted doves and Asian koels, for instance are secretive birds that like to sit within the green foliage rather than look at the view from top like an eagle does. You should see how they nestle with the tree? Like a tree hugger. The male koel is black like a crow with red eyes and a curved gray beak. I had a devil of a time discovering it. It would coo loudly from within a tree and I couldn’t see it at all. It is only now—in this season– when the koels come to rest on the bare silk cotton tree that I am able to view them. Koels, once you are able to see them through your binoculars are easy birds to watch because they are of medium-size and don’t move around too much. The female bird is spotted and gray. The male bird is more beautiful–as is common in nature. It is only in our species, Homo sapiens, where the females preen and primp and take the trouble to look beautiful. Birds and animals have the opposite equation.

Hobbies and passions change people. They give you a prism through which to view the world. Religion and spirituality change people, sometimes for the better and sometimes, I would argue, for the worse. When you begin seeing the world through religious boundaries— who is faithful and who is an infidel– you close yourself in. Bird watching in this respect is unique because it gives you depth of perspective without impacting your political, moral or religious values and principles. It can become political but it doesn’t have to. You can watch birds without becoming strident about climate change and the environment. As hobbies go, bird watching like gardening or anything to do with nature allows tolerance and expansion, rather than jingoism and contraction of lifestyles and values.

The best thing that is happened to me as a result of this year-long journey is the cliché: I feel connected with the universe. Let me be clear. I don’t think you wake up one morning and suddenly feel at one with the cosmos. It is a gradual process of shedding layers of armor that you have built around yourself. The way it happened for me, and I am by no means there yet, has to do with connecting multiple species and seeing a greater whole. Once I started paying attention to birds, I began noticing the butterflies that flitted around. I began identifying them. Then I noticed the carpenter bees with their shiny backs that are just big enough to be able to fly. I began to take kindly to lizards and even became somewhat benign towards the cockroaches I once hated.

As I stand in the balcony every morning, gazing through my binoculars, feeling the warmth of the sun on my back and the wind on my skin, watching the dance of birds and the wave of leaves, I sniff the air and smile. This precious, fragile planet that we are privileged to occupy has wondrous beings that are right in front for eyes if only we care to look.

Shoba Narayan has joined a butterfly group on Facebook. She had the privilege of observing a Dakhan Dark Blue Tiger at close quarters. This is the second part of a four-part series on birds. Write to her at